The Great Dictator WithinThomas Beller
Sacha Baron Cohen showed up in New Orleans this spring. His kid goes to the same school as mine. There he was a the spring festival, roaming the bouncy castles, having fun at the miniature golf stand. Low key, friendly, easy going all around. A week later I saw the clip of him at the Oscar’s, in his Dictator costume, spilling Kim Jung-il’s ashes onto Ryan Seacrest’s tuxedo. (“If someone asks what you are wearing, you must say, Kim Jung-il!”)
What a great idea for a character, I thought. I don’t know if being the parent of a little kid had something to do with his having the idea. but there is a resonance. With the exception of a few incredibly calm souls, and a few incredibly calm kids, I think every parent devolves into a towering fit of exasperation now and then, a blustering dictator issuing ultimatums along the lines of, “You must obey my command!” It’s absurd and real, funny and ugly, in turns and all at once. Like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Dictator” character, it’s laughable and absurd. Except when it’s your reality, in which case, it’s not.
If you played a word association game with parents today and said, “Attention,” they would probably respond with, “deficit disorder.”
But attention attention is conduit for and a sign of both love and respect. Children demand it. Parents demand it. An infantile tantrum lurks just beneath just beneath the surface of these demands, regardless of who is making them. To demand attention – which has within it the demand for respect, for obedience, or, with kids, for a fair hearing of their grievance or their argument – is to put yourself in the position of an outraged dictator. Attention is a word whose connotations are both romantic and military. It’s root is: to stretch. You can stretch things to a breaking point.
2. The Old Neighborhood
Josh Gilbert, who was for years my across-the-street neighbor in the West Village, Skyped me this morning. We chatted while I played with the baby. He kept panning the camera from his face to the view outside his window. There sat my old building and the three windows behind which a good chunk of my life transpired. He panned up the street and down the street. “Tartine is open,” he said. I realized he was taunting me in his compulsive way, stirring the pot. I peered at the landscape—it seemed remarkably arid compared with the current lushness and outrageous effusions of New Orleans.
My wife came in to see his face hovering in the corner of the room. She greeted him with a casual warmth as though he was a neighbor who has dropped by, which he was, in a virtual sense. I made him pan across the street again to show her the place. She lived in that apartment for a while. Her eyebrows went up, but she was cool. Show her a picture of her old window on Gramercy Park and you might get a rise.
Somehow we concocted the crazy idea that Josh should come to visit us for Passover. He countered with the even more crazy idea that we should go to his parent’s place for Passover— they live in LA.
“How’s all that going?” I asked. There had been problems with the parents.
“Great. You know what got me past all the difficulties?” he said. “I stopped paying attention. It’s made everything much better.” We laughed.
He filled us in on local gossip: One of the tycoons in our immediate proximity is going through a divorce. He has moved out of his place and rented a brownstone down the block. He is in his early fifties. His wife is at least ten years younger than him, and the woman he left her for is older than him. An interesting reversal. His soon to be ex-wife, Josh tells me, now has a boyfriend and she makes a point of walking by the husband’s new place in the mornings with the boyfriend. Where the kids are in all this I don’t know. I guess their parents at least live on the same block.
After a while we got off Skype and I was again the only neurotic Jew in the house. I was struck by the incredibly familiarity of 11th street. I felt as though someone had sent me a video of an ex-girlfriend going about her business, laughing or working. But not a just video—streaming footage of right now. I hadn’t asked for it. I hadn’t been thinking about her. But there she was, her life unfolding in parallel time to mine. And now I was seeing her.
It’s strange to turn a street into the equivalent of an ex-girlfriend, but that is how my mind works, apparently. You can’t go home again. But someone can Skype you from across the street from where you once lived and show you the current ticking now of your old life. You can wonder who lives where you once did. Those same windows. The same shutters. Finally the retinal burn of that bright New York City Streetscape gave way to the memory of Josh’s voice and what he said about his parents. A grown man and still working it out. Aren’t we all? And forever?
“I stopped paying attention.” My wife and I had laughed when he said it. But I started to think.
3. The Outburst.
Sunday—the first day of daylight saving’s time. We are home and are going upstairs for a bath. A terrific day. A long day. I’m tired. The baby is on my hip. My wife is preparing dinner. I hold my daughter’s hand. She hangs back. I lead her like a prisoner. We are on the stairway landing when she announces that she is thirsty. The water cooler is a flight down. The bath is a flight up. If the young child is thirsty, give her water. What could be simpler?
And yet I respond like a court room lawyer whose opponent has just used a infuriating procedural technique to slow down the inevitable. Except I am lawyer, judge, and jury. Request for water is denied. The defendant tries to flee the scene. I grab her wrist.
“You’re not listening,” I say. I tightened my grip.
Attention is what I mean but the word I use is “listening.”
“You’re not listening to me!” she replied. “I’m thirsty!”
Maddeningly persuasive, but the paradox of having a skillfully argumentative kid is that it becomes difficult to separate the feeling of pride at her logic from the underlying falsehood of their statement. Each “I’m thirsty!” truth does not counter the larger truth: a bath must be taken and it’s almost time for bed.
She pulls away. I do something physically violent–not hitting, never that, but a kind of very hard grab of the wrist, a yank. I so wish to be free of a temper, and yet I can be temperamental. It is harsh. Her face goes red. I feel the whiplash of regret.
The tears, which should have made my heart open in a simple act of remorse and apology, make it more complicated. Their very hotness and profusion raises the question of whether they are real. But of course they are real! They are falling down her cheeks and onto the steps like raindrops! But she knows they have an effect on me. Is she playing them up? And within their realness, are the tears because I hurt her? Or are they tears more existential? I am supposed to protect and love and help her, not hurt her. But I was rough, and this is confusing.
I hope it’s just physical pain, and a little manipulation thrown in. The idea that there is some deep confusion about my role in her life is really upsetting. But of course I try not to show this because then I am encouraging further manipulation.
My wife appears at the foot of the stairs and calls out, “What’s going on?” This is one of those tense moments where the substance of whatever is happening is suddenly infused with the meta-issue of parental unity.
Three of us on the stairs – one crying, one seething, one watching – while my wife stands at the bottom of the stairs pointing out that it is reasonable for the kid to have a drink of water before her bath.
The daughter is released to get her water. I go up with the baby and sit quietly for a moment to gather myself. Amazing what a minute of silence with yourself will do. Though I am not alone. I am with the baby. But even a gigantic ten month old boy with two bottom teeth, a top tooth, and a brand new, poking out, second top tooth, whose breaths are loud enough to hear when you are in a quiet room, and who is carefully inspecting your face with alert eyes, his eyebrows solemn and discerning, is still, somehow, in his pre-language state, not yet an individual. He is part of you.
Now the kid is in the bathroom. Her mother is giving her a bath. I walk in. “I apologized for yelling like that and being rough,” I say. “But…” I stop. Thankfully. But has not place in an apology.
I sit down next to the bath. The four of us again. The kid gets out. The baby gets in. Now she is in my lap wrapped in a towel. She makes faces at him. Plays with him. Makes him laugh. All of us are laughing again.
It had been a divine day. We’d played pick up basketball – the peewee and baby version – at the court on Magazine and Napoleon until the library opened. After the library we ran around Whole Foods shopping and scarfing free samples of things. And on and on. There had been ice cream at dusk–four of us crammed into the front seat of the car. We had forgone the Creole Creamery in favor of a new place across the street– Yogurt land. I objected. But the baby could eat yogurt but not ice cream, I was told, which seemed reason enough this one time. The cold sweet mush went into his mouth. He gummed it suspiciously. At first he looked displeased, then alarmed. Would he cry? We all watched him. The coldness gave way to sweetness. His eyebrows shot up. Then he smiled. Then he did that giddy-up body motion on my knee that meant he wanted more. We all laughed. It was divine. “We’re a family!” I yelled. I was ecstatic. We all were. In writing it down I can hold the moment, cherish it, make it into a verbal snapshot. But time cascades. You can’t control it. Half an hour later we were on the stairway landing.
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