PATERNAL BRIEFING
Wrinkles in Time

Jan. 10 - I did something last week that women have been doing since the dawn of our species: I took care of my child.

My "shifts" were only eight or nine hours a day and I was relieved of my duties for a couple of hours on a couple of days by my mother-in-law, but my days generally followed the time-honored pattern of our ancestral foremothers: wake-up, have coffee, make list of things to accomplish for the day, see spouse off to work, begin caring for infant, watch day disintegrate into series of low-grade crises, greet spouse home from work, have dinner, lie catatonic on couch while spouse plays with demon child and tells me how much she wishes she could have been home with her all day, glance dolefully at pristine condition of untouched to-do list, crumble into bed and pass out.

Any "stay-at-home-mom" will read that paragraph and nod—and probably think of a few things I've missed. Anyone else will read that paragraph and nod because from what they've heard it sounds accurate enough—and yet they have no idea what I'm talking about.

I'm a reasonably enlightened man: I gave up sexism as soon as I realized it could be an obstacle to getting chicks. Long before I even considered having a child of my own, I was capable of acknowledging the difficulty of caring for children. After all, my entire generation was taught from a very early age, through both school and popular culture, that "homemaking" is a brutal but vital bit of work that deserves enormous respect. Acknowledging that it's difficult to care for an infant at home, however, is different from experiencing that difficulty firsthand—in much the same way that acknowledging that "war is hell" is different from having your best friend's head blown off his shoulders beside you while you stagger through a killing haze of mustard gas.

A baby is a quantum physics phenomenon. Babies exert a special gravity that warps time and space. Einstein chronicled this. If you were to synchronize two watches, for example, and leave one with the baby while carrying the other with you, the baby would eat the watch.

On Friday afternoon I took Molli for a long stroll through Frederiksberg Garden with a friend—an American guy of about my own age caring for his son, a boy just a few months older than Molli. This guy and I had originally bonded on football even though he's a Cowboys fan. (A couple of recent New England championships have made me a more forgiving sports fan.)

Early in this NFL season we met at a bar to watch a game and drink some beer. We drank and talked about the kinds of things you'd expect: football, beer, American potato chips, and so on. Our kids came up for discussion once or twice, but could hardly compete with more important issues, like potential sleeper running backs for fantasy football.

Friday was different, and not just because the regular season was over. On Friday we talked about the best sleeping arrangements for 6- to 9-month-olds. We talked about teething. We talking about the difference between vælling, grød, and formula, and where to get velcro bibs. We talked about cribs and highchairs and playpens. We talked about the various exciting consistencies of babyshit. We wondered whether pacifiers were good or bad things and compared pediatric notes on the subject. After strolling the park for an hour or so, we wheeled our babies down to a bar. The two of us ordered pints of beer and sipped them while feeding our babies and talking still more about them.

We weren't obliviousness to the weirdness of our situation: two thirty-something American men pushing baby strollers around Copenhagen (and Frederiksberg). It doesn't seem weird, I suppose, if you buy into the whole "New Man" myth that began in the 60s or 70s, but trust me: no American man pushes a baby stroller through a foreign park without his wife without feeling a little off. As we'd strolled through Frederiksberg Garden in the foggy gray misery of a drizzly January day, I couldn't shake the feeling that Ingmar Bergman was lurking in some nearby copse of trees, filming us in black and white. I said as much. My friend agreed.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all to see a guy in a black robe with a scythe up ahead," he observed.

One of the things we discussed was our surprise at just how difficult it was to stay at home with a baby, even though neither of us had anticipated that it would be easy. We marvelled at the insanity of our wives for wishing they could have that honor instead of escaping to work for eight to ten hours every day. We both acknowledged that as much as we loved our babies—and I think it's safe to say we're a couple of fiercely proud and loving fathers—we also had to admit we'd chew our own hands off to trade places with our wives. It's a downside to freelancing you rarely hear about: in couples with one freelancer (or telecommuter) and one office worker, guess who's going to win the mind-the-baby derby?

I've actually got to take Molli to a business meeting on Wednesday. I really do. The great thing about being a writer, any kind of a writer, is that strange or awkward experiences aren't as intimidating because you can always tell yourself, "this ought to give me some great material." (I'll let you know if I still feel that way on Thursday.)

There is no question that taking care of Molli is the absolute hardest thing I've ever done. You can tell me how much I'll treasure these memories someday, or how beautiful it is that a father and daughter have so much bonding time, but I won't even listen to such tripe unless you're actually parenting an infant right this moment. And then I'll just assume you're a little delirious, or that your baby, like mine, is finally taking a long overdue nap.

It's going to be like this, as I think I've mentioned, until March, at which point we've got Molli enrolled, I think, in some kind of daycare program. Either that or we qualify for a state-subsidized nanny or something. (No, not because we're poor, but because everyone in Denmark qualifies for all kinds of state assistance with their children.)

I don't say this to solicit sympathy. I say it as a warning. If the Almanac begins filling up with talk of diapers, porridge, teething cures, and the like, by all means let me know.

* * *

I get a lot of email from Americans either moving to or visiting Denmark, or considering one or the other, asking for advice. I try to help out when I can, and have often found myself rewriting paragraphs I've already written and looking up links I've already looked up.

I'm therefore developing an online resource for Americans visiting or moving to Denmark, so that future inquiries can simply be referred to it. I hope to have it up by the end of the week. If you have any suggestions for unusual or little-known links or bits of information to include, please drop me a line.

Stormy Weather

Yes, there were hurricane-force winds in Scandinavia on Saturday night. Yes, the Danish media-meteorology complex went completely over the top. There isn't much more to say about it. Windy night. Life goes on.

In Praise of Bad Politics

According to Section 2 of the Constitution, the president "shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for. . ."

We're going to hear a lot about Advice and Consent in the coming weeks and months—probably more advice than consent. Try not to get worked up. Our founding fathers were geniuses not because they set up a smooth-running machine, but because they established one of the most awkward and contradictory governments ever to have bumbled across the face of the earth.

One of the important restrictions they built into our government is that nothing can be done by fiat. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who's owned an Italian sports car.) Checks and balances abound, and the executive nomination process is full to choking on them.

In 1789, the Senate rejected President Washington's appointment of Benjamin Fishbourn, of Georgia, primarily because Georgia's Senator James Gunn thought he was a pain in the ass. The Senate's willingness to cut a nominee off at the knees on the whim of his or her home state's Senator came to be known as "senatorial courtesy." It is now a venerable tradition.

In more than 200 years of advice, consent, dissent, libel, slander, character assassination, and other senatorial courtesies, countless nominees have had their sanity questioned, their private lives dissected, their families scrutinized, and their honeymoon videotapes broadcast as one group or another sought to torpedo their nominations.

It's an ugly, gruelling, unfair, and extremely entertaining process, but, like everything else in this best of all possible worlds, it's all for the best and couldn't possibly be any better. By giving nominees this test of fire, the stupidest, weakest, and most dangerously demented of them are weeded out, and only the cleverest and most deceitful bastards are granted senatorial consent. We certainly need clever and deceitful bastards in the Executive and Judicial Branches if they're going to have any hope of holding their own against the nutjobs we elect into the Legislative branch.

Nominees for federal posts in the executive branch are given fair warning. The US Office of Government Ethics has a list of "Fourteen Principles of Ethical Conduct for Federal Employees (Executive Order 12674)," and the importance of these principles is certainly impressed upon potential nominees. Those principles are irresponsibly paraphrased below:

1. Employees should be good Americans.
2. Employees shouldn't have outside interests confictling with their jobs.
3. Employees shouldn't use private government information to get rich.
4. Employees shouldn't take bribes.
5. Employees should try real hard always to do their best.
6. Employees shouldn't deliberately commit the government to hare-brained schemes.
7. Employees shouldn't use public office to get rich.
8. Employees should act impartially.
9. Employees shouldn't use Federal property in ways for which its use was not intended.
10. Employees shouldn't go job-hunting on the government's dime.
11. Employees should rat each other out.
12. Employees should pay their taxes, obey the law, etc.
13. Employees shouldn't judge people based on their color, sex, age, gods, etc.
14. Employees shouldn't just be good, they should also look good.

In case these general principles are too complicated, the government provides helpful examples like the following: "Ralph may bring a jar of macadamia nuts to his boss when he returns from his vacation to Hawaii." (Useful as these examples may be, they leave some important questions unanswered. For instance, how the hell did a low-level clerk like Ralph get the money for a trip to Hawaii? And what if his boss is allergic?)

The brilliant thing about these standards is that they rule out the entire human race. The Senate has access to plenty of fine ethical points on which to impale virtually any nominee. Given such power, they aren't shy about using it. They use it to grandstand. They use it to avenge themselves. They use it to make political points. They use it for no discernible earthly purpose. Their constituents love it.

Meanwhile, the nominating executive and his cronies get to mutter, fume, and shake their fists. Their consituents love it.

Someone once said good politics was government, and they've never been corrected. Take a moment to give thanks for bad politics—for the ugly, knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred poltical slugfest that is our country's executive nomination process.

* * *

Today is the birthday of Pat Benatar (1953), George Foreman (1949), Rod Stewart (1945), Sal Mineo (1939), and Ray Bolger (1904).

© 2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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