We Waddle But We Don’t Fall Down

I unwittingly exposed Emmy, and by extension Jon and myself, to the existential nightmare that is Happy Feet.

My intentions were good, I swear it. One cold Saturday morning earlier this year I took Emmy to be tested for the NYC Department of Education Gifted and Talented program (itself a gnawing abyss of parental self-recrimination), and after her test we went out for donuts and then wandered in the CVS. Awash in relief to have the test over and brimming with optimism for her future, I bought her everything she asked for, including the Happy Feet DVD. What did I know? It won Oscars! Hugh Jackman! Tap dancing! Hugh Jackman! Baby penguins! Hugh Jackman!

Suffice to say I should have read the reviews, and was hard pressed to explain the 2001: A Space Odyssey homage. And the tracking device implanted in Mumble. And his grief-driven psychotic break and hallucinations. Oh, and global warming, overfishing, and the menace of human encroachment.

Because Emmy is 4-years-old, we never watch a movie just once. On repeat viewings, I’ve become more impressed with Savion Glover‘s outrageous talent and more horrified by the film’s darker undertones, but Emmy has clearly been meditating on something else.

For the uninitiated, the movie opens with a colony of Emperor penguins ritually courting, and then the mother penguins go off to sea to forage for food, while the father penguins stay behind to huddle in the bone-splintering cold and incubate the eggs.

During a recent screening, Emmy turned to me and patted me on the arm. “The mommy penguins go to work,” she said.

“Yes,” I answered.

“The daddy penguins stay home and take care of the babies.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

She nodded. “We’re a penguin family,” she said, patting her chest, and turned back to the screen.

I opened my mouth to say something, and then closed it. She’s right, of course. I work full time, and Jon stays home, and while we know we made the right choice for our family, we both struggle with the decision at times. He with the cultural stigma of not being a breadwinner, and the isolation of being a stay-at-home-dad in a landscape populated mostly by moms and female caregivers. Me with the stress of being our sole source of support, my lengthy commute, and with being away from her.

But in this new light, from Emmy’s perspective, it all feels lighter. And it all makes sense. We’re not off-beat or progressive or rule-breakers or modern or brave (all things we have been called by various “supporters” of our arrangement).

We’re just penguins.

Other People’s Writing

I’m playing midwife for my friend Terry’s book.

Months ago, Terry and I were out to dinner, and she was bemoaning her ongoing unemployment. To try and cheer her up, I started telling tales of awful jobs I’ve had. The third-rate cable channel with the passive-aggressive manager who used to sneak up behind me and announce herself by pretending to knock on the air next to my head. (“KNOCK! KNOCK!”) My stint in PR, with the lunatic boss who clattered around in Dr. Scholl’s and screamed all the time, and who made me get her fresh-squeezed orange juice which was never right (too bitter! too much pulp! not enough pulp! too sweet!) so I had to bring it back and try again three times. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The lawyer who threw a cell phone at me. The off-Broadway theater where I had to fetch iced coffee and cookies every day at 4pm, in the bone-clattering deep freeze of winter and the ass-stench depths of August.

Oh yeah? Terry said. None of that compares to the years I worked as a stand-up comic. I could write a book!

And that’s how I became head cheerleader and editor of someone else’s book.

For months now, I’ve been organizing assignments for her, setting deadlines, collecting her essays and collating them. And she did it. She wrote a book, a whole freaking book, about being a woman in comedy. And its funny and juicy and revealing, and right now I’m in the process of making notes on it so she can take it back and do a rewrite.

I’m flummoxed.

For years now, I have been saying I want to write a book, and people who know me have been asking when I’m going to write a book, and it’s been lots of talk talk talk about a book book book that I’m not really writing. I have many reasons why I’m not writing a book. For one thing, I don’t know how to write a book. I don’t have time to write a book. I’m scared to write a book. My laptop is old.

But there’s no arguing with the fact that, despite not knowing how, I helped Terry organize her thoughts and write 17 chapters. 17 chapters!  I’ve made the time to read her work and give notes on it. And I pushed her to hard to go to the scary places, the dark places. I held her hand while she sweated it out.

If I can do it for her, why can’t I do it for myself?

It’s about more than writing a book, of course. Cheerful Helper is something I’m good at, but it always leads me to the same place — lonely, angry, frustrated. And safe as houses. Safe with the good-enough. Safe with the could-be. Safe with the never-tried.

And here’s the real thing. I’ve been shutting up for a long time. And it’s time to put up.