The day starts well enough: no hangover, no fighting before bedtime, no crying from the nursery, no staring through the darkness at indeterminate hours wondering in what direction, if any, my life is headed.
Coffee at 6:30, then playtime: books, rattles, games without rules. His favorite is Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks, which he likes to hear three pages at a time followed by a palate cleanser of dialing 777777 in my phone.
After that, breakfast: scrambled eggs and fresh juice. I feel good about acclimating a baby to so many vegetables and always know he’s done with the egg because he starts sprinkling pieces of it on the floor very delicately, like an aristocrat disposing of a déclassé gift.
This is usually when I break for a run. As a kid, I felt most alive when surrounded by friends; at 33, married with children, I spend an unprecedented amount of time in the shower. The auto mechanic at the bend near the train tracks nods at me like he sees something he actually might recognize: two guys swimming upriver and making it look natural.
Later, doing dishes, I hear it coming from the nursery: Raffi. Canadian singer-songwriter and burglar of children’s hearts worldwide. “Baby Beluga,” “The More We Sing Together” and “The Corner Grocery Store.”
Parenting is a minefield of déjà vu, sensations too vague to call memory but too specific to call empathy. I’ve never stood on my tiptoes at the window of an old craftsman house in Tucson, Ariz., listening to Raffi while my dad poured coffee for my mom, but I know I have stood on my tiptoes, and I know I have listened to Raffi, and I know there was at least a little while that my parents stood together in the same room and loved each other, and the confluence is enough to make me feel like I have fallen backward through my own life, somehow my son and my dad at the same time. I ask that we change the music. As it is, I find it a little annoying, and I’m not sure he cares one way or the other.
I wonder: how many people born between 1975 and 1985 thought Raffi was dead before they had children of their own? Has there only ever been one Raffi, or is “Raffi” just a role played by a steady stream of Canadian robots? Is it really possible that my son’s Raffi was my Raffi once, too? I quote Nietzsche to my wife, who says it must be pretty tiring to be me.
In folktales, animals can be tricksters and fiends; in Raffi, they’re just a sign that the party is about to start. “Baby Beluga.” “Five Little Frogs.” “Six Little Ducks.” “Ducks Like Rain.” The moose-kissing goose in “Down by the Bay.” “Spider on the Floor.” “Five Little Ducks.” “Robin in the Rain,” which I like because the Robin wears yellow “socks” and I wear yellow socks, too.
The new Raffi album, which came out a few months ago, is called Owl Singalong. On it, “The Hokey Pokey” becomes “The Lion Pokey,” and “The Wheels on the Bus” becomes “The Dog on the Bus.” The bus also carries a horse, bunny, owl, and another duck.
Studies that try and figure out why kids love animals so much are stupefyingly opaque. One explanation that comes up is biophilia, meaning a general predisposition for life. I liked that one until I realized the implication that biophilia wanes over time.
And either way, it doesn’t explain why animals in Raffi songs are always talking, especially when my son has no idea what they’re talking about. Recently, we took him to the zoo, where he stared at a camel for so long I thought there actually might be some invisible cable connecting their brains, something we’re born with intact but that erodes over time. When our cat comes around to visit, my son sneaks up behind him with a huge smile and rips out as much fur as his little fists can handle.
The more we get together, together, together / The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.
This isn’t true. A friend’s parents tell us this: when their kids were young, they’d occasionally go on vacation without them. Not long ones, but weekends, nights. The kids would always cry and tug at their legs and beg them to stay. They never did.
The important thing, my friend’s dad told me, is that he and his wife came back happy, and the kids saw that. This is a man who once said my bedbug bites were just a mild skin irritation. Then again, I don’t know why I asked him for advice on my skin rash—he’s a dentist, not a doctor. But he’s been married 40 years, and my parents didn’t make it 10.
He offers this advice—the vacation advice—on Christmas Eve. Later that night we all get extraordinarily drunk and watch a 7-year-old named Ulysses recite the entirety of Raffi’s “Must Be Santa” at least twice, the verses in haphazard order.
Next November, my dad mails me some money for my birthday with the explicit instructions to go do something alone with my wife. We go to dinner and get drunk and fawn over pictures of our son.
One thing about having kids is that everyone asks you about parenthood, either because they really want to know or they just feel like they have to ask. After six months of saying everything was great, I started telling the truth. Parenting is not an Owl Singalong. I think of a friend who, on the first vacation he’d taken away from his wife and two young sons, drunkenly told me that fatherhood was 75 percent drudgery and 15 percent transcendent wonder. When I asked about the other 10 percent, he stared off into the distance and said, okay, 25 percent transcendent wonder.
Another friend brings up this conversation often and with total delight. The dad makes no adjustments to his ratio but objects to the suggestion that he got his math wrong.
This was a few years ago. Now, the friend who ribbed the dad about his bad math is trying to have kids of his own. I meet him at Mardi Gras, a solo vacation granted by my wife. At a party in an old church, he asks what the worst part is. I tell him the worst part is losing your identity. Surely that can’t be true, he insists. It is, I say.
Suddenly I see an iPhone under an ottoman. “Oh, man,” our friend Casey says, “go give that to that woman in the white dress and she’ll give you some MDMA.” This isn’t entirely true, either: First, she gives me a hug. She’s been looking for the phone for hours.
It’s mine but you can have some, with you I’d like to share it / ’Cause if I share it with you, you’ll have some too!
In place of myself, I’ve found some other, better people to be. Super Dad is one, Hamburger Tosser is another. (He throws stuffed hamburgers.) When I come at him with the plush heart, I become Heart Attack; when I hold puppet shows with the creepy old dolls my wife grew up with, I become a pair of British milkmaids smothering him in toothless kisses.
But my favorite, and his, at least for a while, was Hedgehog. Hedgehog is brown and white and about the size of a sneaker. Sometimes he nudges the door open and says hello. Sometimes he scoots up the side of his dressing table, chanting mimimimimimimimi. When my son throws Hedgehog out of his crib, Hedgehog cries noooooo in the narcotic monotone of a lesser Kardashian, then scoots up the side of the crib again, ready for love.
Recently I’ve noticed that Hedgehog has lost some of his pull. A few months ago, just the tip of his nose peeking through a crack in the door would send my son into fits of laughter. Now my son smiles with calm, spousal familiarity and looks up at me as though to say that I don’t have to try so hard. Now Hedgehog spends most of the day in the Moses basket, somewhere between the cuckoo bird and my baseball hat and the remote control for the overhead fan, not saying anything, and when he does come out, I have noticed that his demeanor is a little bit more mischievous and his kisses are just a little bit harder.
One thing is true: parenting makes you a liar. I lie about wanting to play, I lie that this slurry of potato and broccoli tastes good, I lie that hedgehogs can talk and Mom is always the best and that you’re really excited to play. And like a lot of lies, they have an aspirational aspect: telling them is the first step to making them true.
I drafted this on March 7th, 2016. Tomorrow is my son’s first birthday. Has it been a hard year? It’s hard to say. I can only ever measure my own problems by the size of other peoples’, namely: the hypothetical Africans my mother guilted me about every time I didn’t finish my dinner, the microcephalic infants of Brazil whose mothers’ wombs were poisoned by Zika virus, the Zika-ridden mothers weeping over the graves of their microcephalic babies, and the woman waiting for the Suntran bus on Pima Street near Wilmot when a car jumped the median and crushed her against a guard rail before rolling into a drainage ditch. She was 22, a single mom. I think about her a lot, but I think about her son more. I wonder if I’m growing. That’s a Raffi song, in case you didn’t know.
So: When will I have to explain that Baby Beluga and Hedgehog and the rest of this stuff isn’t real? Will I have to explain it at all, or will I let life take its course naturally? Will he leave home for the bay, where the watermelons grow, and dare not come home for fear of us asking, “Did you ever see a goose, kissing a moose?” because he doesn’t want to have to disappoint us by saying that he didn’t?
If so, I hope to find the guts to hold him and tell him it’s okay, you should’ve known better, but for a little while we just wouldn’t let you.
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Ariz. He has written for Pitchfork, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the LA Review of Books, and other places.