Monday, November 30, 2009

No Stopping Sam: or, why very few babies are Hollywood scriptwriters

As baby Sam closes in on four months, I’ve given up on movies. Evening chores mean less time for entertainment. It used to be a question of just rocking, but now there’s bathing, massaging, feeding and burping, and that’s just my wife. By the time Sam’s sleeping, Fitzsimmons and I are too tired to commit to a 90-minute movie. Romances are out, obviously, and comedy disappeared some time ago. Which leaves domestic drama as our preferred genre.

So now instead of watching films, I invent my own. There’s some borrowing from Hollywood, because after all, making up stuff for a living is hard work. Last Thursday, as I walked with Sam on Van Ness Avenue at six in the morning, I thought up a twist on Speed, the 1994 thriller in which a bomb on a bus is primed to blow if the vehicle drops below 50mph. After fifteen blocks of steady metronomic footfalls, Sam had finally fallen asleep in his sling. Then I realised that not only was I a mile from home, but if I stopped moving, he’d wake up.

‘Halt and the baby explodes’ ran through my head as I jiggled uncomfortably while waiting for the Jackson Street traffic lights. I wondered whether a better tagline would include bombs, given the ticking detonator strapped to my chest, but I wasn’t sure I could sneak it past the censors. Americans are notoriously po-faced about combining nitroglycerine with babies. Plus it’d be tough to keep everything PG.

At Vallejo Street, Sam started to wake up and I had to get a move on before he began yelling. Unlike most British cities, San Francisco seems to have no highway regulations for the use of horn or police sirens before 7am, but given Sam’s Richter-like capabilities I’m pretty sure they’d say something. Walking downhill was handy for picking up speed – we were up to about 4mph. It doesn’t sound much compared to Sandra Bullock’s breakneck bus-driving, until you remember the extra fifteen pounds bouncing on my ribcage. For those of you who don’t have children, try to imagine all-you-can-eat pizza followed by a steeplechase.

We caught green lights at both Union and Greenwich, but I knew the real danger lay ahead. Lombard Street. Six lanes of commuter traffic sweeping in from Highway 101. The odds were against us. Even if we were lucky enough to catch the lights and Sam didn’t wake up, the exhaust fumes would probably kill us. It would be like snipping the blue wire only to find out that instead of defusing the bomb, you’ve started the countdown.

The lights were red. I cursed American streets, their rigid blocks and ridiculous jaywalking laws. Sam snuffled. We’d been walking now for nearly forty minutes. My shoulders throbbed. If he woke up, I might have to do the whole thing again. I looked west, towards the green treeline of the Presidio; there were no cars or cops on Lombard Street for three hundred yards. We could still make it. I leapt off the foot-high curb…

Later, after I’d defused the baby and put him to sleep, I wondered whether waking Sam was really what I feared. Crossing Lombard was like parenting, a little leap of faith. Stopping represented doubt, that anxiousness innate in every parent. Are we doing this the right way? Will he ever be this cute again? What comes next? In the tiny thrillers of our own lives, dread drives our blind pursuit of infant development: the first tooth, the first step, the first word. And out beyond our fear of stopping, lies our need for speed.

Simon Hodgson

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