Sunday, September 27, 2009
Fatherhood and the Anxiety of Freeway Interchanges
Certain places in the city disorient me. They are passages where multiple layers of traffic converge in space, passing over trestles, across bridges, up and down ramps, at grade and at elevation, in different directions and at different velocities.
I experience a moment of anxiety at the wheel of my car, focus on the lane lines on the road, and in a few seconds I am through the vortex and in the clear. No particular bravery is required to do this; hundreds of thousands of people do every day. It's the system that does most of the work, I just hold the wheel. The elements hold together, and its contents circulate safely through their channels.
My son's pre-school is nothing like the web of ramps and tunnels that I navigate every few weeks. It's a quiet, calm place, where everyone comes together in one harmonious room and stays there. We arrive at the same time and depart together. But on the first fall day, sitting around the snack table with its bowl of animal crackers and all the toddlers silently chewing their over-full mouths, I feel the same flash of anxiety, as if I were entering the expressway chute, merging into freight traffic with locomotives rolling above me.
What could possibly connect the two situations? None of the kids that Spot played with last spring are here. Older than him, they've gone on to the half-day program. The new set of kids is younger. But this is only temporary. In three months Spot will join the older kids for the half-day program. It will be familiar to him but new to me, because for the first time in three years, I'll be taking him somewhere each morning and leaving him there. These are small, gradual changes, like the turning of the seasons.
But they remind me of bigger changes, the ones my wife and I talk about after Spot is asleep, chronicled across time zones in phone conversations that go later than we'd like. Grandma is in a state of lingering emergency. Mother-in-law is struggling against a terminal condition. The prospect of one day fathering my son without a father of my own rouses me from whatever sleep I managed to win earlier in the evening. And when not observing our son, who is channeling the cosmos as it gathers inward for a burst of youthful transcendence, I study my own face, an ancient piece of furniture, tracing the spread of cracks in the varnish that seals the wood.
A family is a group of people traveling at different velocities, some of them accelerating and some of them slowing down, some departing for a while to other time zones, but all of them usually circling back. For stretches of time, our family has been a uniform frame of reference, something against which I gauged the movement of other things. Yet lately is feels more like the expressway chute, a frame of reference that appears to be decomposing, pulled in the directions of all the different people passing away from and beyond it.
Spot is often in the backseat when I go through the chute, strapped in and protected by a steel cage as the trains go over and the barges float under us. With Spot in the backseat it's the rest of the world that is moving, not my own. It's a favor he grants me, letting me share the optimism that a small force of attraction can counter life's scattering impulsions. Thanks to our smallest and most needy family member, no one of us can go very far. I don't care where the semis and boxcars and minivans wind up. For now, even in the chute, I have my privileged and uniform place of rest.
In the outer lanes, it's true, I see the pieces breaking off, veering down ramps and disappearing through tunnels that may not circle back. I can only keep my hands on the wheel, focus on the lane lines ahead of me, and get into the clear. No bravery is required to do this; it just means picking up my son in a few moments, rolling his soccer ball out the door, and stepping into the September sunshine.