Bill and Ryan both reacted to my post from yesterday. I wrote the end of it -- "On the other hand, I think I'm a better dad than my young self expected I would be" -- because the rest seemed kind of a downer, even though I don't feel it should.
We're all born with near-infinite potential, and over our lives that steadily declines, replaced by something far better: what we've really done. Twenty years ago I imagined I might be a famous novelist, or a scientist. More recently I thought perhaps a famous musician or magazine writer. The common thread was famous, which is something I no longer expect.
Or maybe I just enjoy fame in a more limited way. I was somewhat famous between 1984 and 1994, when I wrote "Dik Miller, Private Eye," a series of silly stories in a series of student newspapers. (One of these years, I'll put the archives online here. They're still pretty funny.) Today, I'm surprised at the diversity of people who read this weblog, even if their numbers are small. More than one of them even claims to have it as their home page -- something neither I nor any of my family members do.
I've also done things I never dreamed of. I went to Russia at the beginning of glasnost and felt the paranoia and suspicion in the air, before the socialist-realism statues and rooftop slogans were toppled to make room for the same stores and billboards I see in Vancouver. I played drums in a 40-degree February heat wave before a crowd of thousands on an Australian beach. I rode a mountain bike down a trail on the west side of Howe Sound, looking into the startled eyes of a deer who was running beside me, wondering how I could keep up.
I drove a big ugly station wagon 6000 miles through the western U.S. one summer with two friends (one of whom I haven't seen in person since), visiting caves, canyons, extinct volcanoes, motels, and Las Vegas. I jumped out of a plane and, after a brief free fall, saw clouds beneath my feet as my opening parachute kicked me up into the sky. A sea lion cruised by me as I breathed compressed air ten metres under the surface of the sea near Victoria. I felt skin-cracking cold in a tent near Whistler and on a bridge in Leningrad, and sauna-like heat in Melbourne, Australia and Philo, California.
I discovered that I liked differential calculus well enough, but not the integral kind. I had to find out how to measure my blood glucose and dose myself with insulin. I learned to write better than most. I became an expert at some things, but almost by accident, because they are things I find fun. I fell in love more than once. On two successive perfect San Diego summer nights, I rode a roller coaster between Mission Bay and the ocean, and ate fresh-bagged pistachios on the sand near the Hotel del Coronado, both with the woman to whom I'd said my wedding vows near the shore of Deer Lake in Burnaby, and meant every word.
Bill wrote that "if all that remained was being a parent I can't think of anything else more worthy of being great at," while Ryan wondered "Is being a good father a great thing in itself, and worth the trade?" Neither Bill nor Ryan has any kids yet, so I could give them the platitude answer, which would be of course, it's the greatest thing in the world, my kids are everything blah de blah.
It's messier than that, however. Being a parent is noble and difficult, rewarding and frustrating, and far more complicated than it's possible to understand before you are. When I was a kid, my parents did things that, at the time, made no sense, and I resolved never to do them. Now I've forgotten what most of those things were, but I'm sure I'm doing them. (Except one: no matter how dirty my kids' faces get, I have still resisted using my spit to clean them.)
Sometimes I think nostalgically of our earlier life, when we could go to bed or wake up, watch TV (or not), read, bathe, go for a walk or ride or drive, stay out late, or take a spontaneous trip pretty much when and where we wanted. When we could leave a candle safely on the coffee table. When each trip to the grocery store didn't require picking up six jugs of milk. But if I still lived that life, it might be pretty dull by now.
I do lots of things besides the parenting that takes up most of my days. I write, I edit, I play drums, I sing, I ride my bike, I read, I tinker with computers, I take photos. My wife and I try to squeeze time in there for each other too. We have to or we'd go crazy, and I think it's an unacknowledged truth for most parents that kids, despite how desperately we love them, will drain the life out of you if you let them.
Yet they are amazing -- little people, becoming bigger, with distinct personalities, ideas, and habits, who would still not exist without me.
Here are some other things I didn't expect to do: I saw both my children born, stupefied by the effort it took my wife to bring them out. Then I helped them learn to crawl, walk, talk, fly kites, write letters, swim, use the phone, double-click icons, and make up excuses for why they should get another piece of chocolate. The oldest isn't even five yet, and I'm still young too.
The infinite potential is theirs now. That's why they're "worth the trade," though I doubt a trade is what it is. Because now we all -- my family -- make our remaining potentials real together.