By Jeff Wenker
As a devout believer in doubt, I question everything, myself most. I’ve started this essay fourteen different times. I thought I could scribble a quick pithy bit about being a stay-at-home dad. Instead, existential angst hovers overhead, like a chopper in Abbottabad, except, you know, different.
I’m a bad stay-at-home dad. My five-year-old is upstairs taking a bath, screaming for help shampooing as I type. They say Osama bin Laden had been holed up with his kids in that moldy mansion for years. Worst Stay-at-Home Dad Ever. I’m off the hook. Perhaps. Who knows, he may have taken breaks from plotting terror to properly bathe his children. Bake cookies.
I’m an odd guy to write about work—I haven’t had a job in almost three years. They say every story has an arc like every life has a path. Except we never know when we’ve entered Act II or if we’re lost, stumbling along the wrong fucking path. Maybe we’re in sitcoms doomed to be canceled after a bad pilot, or worse picked up and put in syndication. Maybe we’re in never-ending soap operas, one drama after another with no resolution. They cancelled One Life to Live. All My Children, too.
I have two boys. And a wife. She works from home. So, technically, I’m not a true stay-at-home dad. I got backup. Traditional spheres of influence have gone out the window. The US has military bases in former Soviet Republics and dads do laundry. In our house we use the new spheres. They look more like a Venn diagram. Or an eclipse.
I used to be kind of important. I failed my way to the middle, had a million dollar budget, a team, traveled the world on someone else’s dime. Now I’m a beached white whale trying to teach two little mammals to swim on their own one day. I tell myself this is enough. Some days I’m more persuasive than others.
I don’t know how I ever assumed a role of corporate responsibility in the first place. It seemed someone made a mistake, like the producers hired an amateurish understudy based on one good audition and when the star skedaddled to Hollywood they couldn’t be fussed with hiring a professional to fill the role, figuring the play was doomed to failure anyway.
I specialize in short runs.
I can’t stop myself from saying shit like this even though it might keep me from getting such a sweet gig again. No matter. I never wanted to be doing what I had been doing in the first place. No one grows up wanting to be a PR flak. I grew up wanting to be a writer. I was a dreamer, but a problem arose. I became addicted to passive voice. And simple sentences. Fragments.
I wrote a novel and gave it to a real writer, an author, with an agent and book deals and everything. He said it had good parts. I told him, upon reflection, after I’d distanced myself from the work, that I didn’t think it was very good. He told me never to tell anyone that. He has confidence. I envy him.
Envy’s a sin. A deadly one, they say. Bertrand Russell said envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. They say happiness is a sure cure to envy. I know this because I googled “venial sins” and stole that line from some religious website.
It’s hard to be happy when you’re paralyzed by self-doubt. And you’re lazy. Being happy seems like an awful lot of work.
I went to a tradeshow once and a guest speaker (hired, apparently, as a reprieve from the relentless tedium of technology talk) spoke about training your mind to be a positive force in improving your life. Train your mind with what, I thought. Your mind? What if your mind wasn’t the kind of mind that could train itself to be positive? Could you train your mind to be the kind of mind that could train your mind to be positive?
I didn’t mind the speaker. It was, after all, intended to be a break. I spent the time writing a poem. It wasn’t a very good poem, but I’m a better bad poet than lackluster corporate shill. Again, it does me no good to say so. It’s not like I’m suddenly going to strike it rich on the bad poetry circuit so I’ll never have to beg to do unfulfilling, albeit paying, work for the rest of my life.
My son just got himself out of the bath, clothed himself and came downstairs. I’m so proud. My neglect has made him self-sufficient. He interrupted me with his reading of a Magic Treehouse book, you know, the Jack and Annie ones, the ones for third and fourth graders. Did I mention he’s five. Either he’s really frickin’ smart or I’m a great frickin’ parent. Better than Osama bin Laden, at least.
I got fired from my first PR job on a Monday. A Monday! Would it have killed them to can me on Friday so I could have enjoyed the weekend? The boss called me into his office once and said, “This sentence has five verbs in it.” Like that was a bad thing. A co-worker there claimed our job was not PR (even though PR was in the agency’s name). He said it was a “writer’s shop.” We wrote case studies for Apple and Sun. (The companies). He went on to become a real writer, working at a tech trade magazine. I sent him emails, pitches, but he never replied.
After the second PR job I got fired from, I got fired from a third. I got hired for a fourth because this was the dotcom boom and any flak with a pulse could get a job. I quit that one and joined a startup that busted in the bust six months later. Around this time I was having dinner with one of my sisters and she told me, “You have no right to be miserable.” I scrawled the words on a slip of paper, folded it, and put it in my wallet. I take it out sometimes and sometimes I smile. This is the same sister for whom I cut up some junk mail from a credit card company and made her an “Anti-Depress” card. She gave it back to me and now it’s in a box in my basement. One of these days I’m going to clean out my basement.
Sometimes I stop and wonder what the heck I’m doing here. You know, here here. There. Examples: drunk in a roomful of marketing folk wearing a nametag that read My Name Is Fred (networking inebriated is best done under an alias); or on my back under a house pulling fiberglass insulation, face to face with a dead rat; or in a boardroom on the eve of a multi-billion dollar merger correcting the press release grammar of executives and attorneys; or wandering the floor of an air conditioning factory in Tyler, Texas; or coordinating interviews during a press junket at a resort in Indonesia; or wiping someone else’s ass.
It’s all happened for a reason. Perhaps. I envy people of faith, their ability to believe with absolute certainty in something unprovable, the strength it gives them. Me, I’m agnostic. I think.
Not having a job for three years can bum a guy out. I get lugubrious. Then I say lugubrious. Lugubrious. Loo-goo-bree-uhss. It’s hard to be lugubrious when you’re saying lugubrious. Try it, I’ll wait.
So, we muddle on. Dreaming we still believe in our dreams, wondering what act this is. Maybe my generation won’t get air time, like all the TV shows that were never made because there were only three networks. I relate best with people who recognize lines from The Brady Bunch.
Pork chops and apple sauce.
We’re in the middle, between the Greatest Generation and something else, between the Baby Boomers and something else, between Generation X and something else. All this generation crap is a bunch of malarkey. Maybe it’s just me. It’s always just me. Well, you. Us. You know what I mean.
Sometimes I feel like somewhere in the last decade or so the world broke. 9/11. Iraq. The Great Recession. In the midst of it all, I blinked and went from under-qualified to over-qualified, my profession changed and no one needed me anymore. Except my son. Who needs a ride to school. This is what I do, this is my life, doing my best to raise two good boys while questioning if that’s enough.
Photo provided by Jeff Wenker.