“Love is a late-night cheese sandwich” – Story Sessions – 02.16.14

A couple quick bits of housekeeping:
* In case you missed it, I talked with WGN Radio host James VanOsdol about the Sun-Times comments decision and that US Airways tweet-disaster. You can listen to it here.
* My next reading is at The Paper Machete on Saturday, May 17th. It’s one of the best live performance events in the city so please come to the Green Mill at 3pm that day or any other Saturday.

Here is the piece I read at Story Sessions back in February. Writing this was more of a grind than usual perhaps because I was writing to a specific theme (“Love Is…”) for a reading series I’d never performed at before. The other folks on the bill were incredibly talented storytelling vets so it was an honor to be in their number.

Story Sessions is a great series and I think I did fine, but there are two things about this show that I will always remember that had nothing to do with what happened onstage. But it’s best to talk about those after you read or listen to the piece so scroll down after you’re through.

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We’re up here tonight to talk about love. So I’m going to tell you about my daughter.

Now there are two reactions happening in the heads of those around you. Those without kids are thinking “Come on man, I just came here tonight to hear some stories and drink some wine, I don’t need some jag getting up there and telling me some crap about his kid. This isn’t Facebook.”

Those with kids are thinking “Come on man, I just came here tonight to hear some stories and drink some wine, I don’t need some jag getting up there and telling me some crap about his kid. I paid a 15 year old forty bucks to sit in my house just to be able to walk in the door of this place. Give me a break from myself for a couple hours.”

Let me reassure you this is not the sort of piece where some pompous gasbag tries to tell you that no matter what sort of romantic entanglements you may have found yourself in, you will never truly know love until you know the love a parent has for his or her child. Or even that love is the daily sacrifices of parenting that come from giving yourself fully to a small, vulnerable person who is responsible for 99% of the times you’ve been hit in the face or genitals.

No, this piece is about how – just when you think you have figured out that love is English, not math – something happens and you take another trip through the looking glass that is love. Love: the complete upending of your sense of self that forces you to grapple with the truth that you understand nothing about what you want or what you need out of the world whether you are in love with the person you think you’ve been searching for your whole life, in love with the a person who is so wrong for you that you hate them and yourself for it or in love with a very small person who routinely poops in her own pants and expects you to take care of the problem.

See, what I didn’t truly understand about being a parent, until I became one, was that it is not the crushing, external responsibility of raising a healthy and decent human being that drives you but rather an inexplicable, intrinsic force that compels you to care more about the needs and wants of someone else than your own. And I’m not talking about basic human needs like food, shelter and Al Green albums. I’m talking about that person’s happiness and joy.

And that’s pretty much a description of love, too. Here’s when I made that connection.

I discovered what love was while standing in my kitchen, making a cheese sandwich at 330 in the morning.

I think that’s a line from a song by The Hold Steady. But if it’s not, it should be.

Our daughter Abigail was in the midst of one of her wintertime set-your-watch-by-it monthly bouts of fever/ear infection/cough things and, as is typical of her, was waking up in the middle of the night. There are a whole host of things people who are parents don’t tell you about becoming a parent because if they did no one would ever become a parent. One of those things is though your child will, at a certain point, learn to sleep through the night, once you get used to a full night’s sleep again your child will, at unpredictable times, wake up around 2 or 3 or 4 and demand of you varying kinds of goods and services.

And so it is that at three-thirty one night/morning our daughter is calling for her parents to come get her. Now, Abigail tends to call for her mom in these instances. Despite our best efforts to avoid stereotypical gender roles in our house, Abigail wants her mom when she needs comforting. I usually get the call if she wants to be flown around the house like Superman, desires to hear her stuffed animals talk in funny voices or needs a cave built out of pillows. We all have our gifts.

I walk into Abigail’s bedroom and instead of being merely sleepy and uncomfortable she is, unlike everyone else in our time zone, wide awake. I sit down on the bed.

“Dad, I need some water.”

When you buy a house, you look at a number of factors: neighborhood, size of your down payment, age of the home, proximity to transit. One of the things I wish I had thought to consider when we bought our traditional Chicago bungalow was “What will it be like to descend these fourteen stairs set at approximately a 60 degree angle at 330 in the morning when I am half asleep and being yelled at by a two year old.”

I trudge downstairs, fill one of those cups with a lid and a straw with water, trek back up the stairs and give it to Abigail. She takes a couple sips.

“Dad, I have an idea.”

She’s using words and a tone I used to hear from my friends when we were in our 20s and it usually meant I was going to suffer a loss of both dignity and approximately $150.

“Dad, let’s go get a cheese sandwich.”

It may go without saying here but, just in case, let me make sure everyone here understands that at 330 in the morning our child – despite whatever ailment she may have been dealing with at the time – was not in any real need of a cheese sandwich. Zero doctors have ever recommended a cheese sandwich as a remedy for a sick toddler. No, we had, at this point, entered a kind of bargaining phase between two parties whose needs are in opposition: I would like her to go to sleep and she would like anything but. We are both aware of this. What she also understands, on some level, is that I love her very much and wish to assuage her discomfort using all reasonable means. She also knows – perhaps not on a conscious level because she is, after all, two, but, at the very least, derives it from the instinctual manipulative abilities all toddlers possess – that I am interested in going back to bed as soon as is humanly possible. She has decided to trade on my interests, both loving and selfish, in order to acquire a cheese sandwich.

And so that’s how I came to be shivering in my kitchen at 330 in the morning with a foil-covered triangle of Laughing Cow cheese in one hand and a butter knife in the other while standing over a Phineas and Ferb plate upon which rested the loneliest piece of Brownberry multi-grain bread you have ever seen. #YOLO.

The cheese spread goes on, I fold the slice of bread over on itself and then cut it in half. I walk into the dining room where Abigail is seated, her arm wrapped around her Pooh Bear blanket. I put the Phineas and Ferb plate down in front of her and slump down in the chair next to her, propping my head up on my hands in an effort to stay awake for the five to possibly thirty minutes it will take my daughter to eat her middle-of-the-night snack. She looks at the sandwich, looks up at me with her sweet, sleepy-eyed, sickly face and just says:

“How about some blueberries?”

Love, like parenting, is a form of inertia. It propels you forward in ways you are unable to counteract or perhaps even comprehend.

The truth is I am never not going to make my daughter a cheese sandwich when she wakes up in the middle of the night and decides that’s what going to make her fever a little more tolerable. Even though it defies the logic of the situation. And I am a person, more often than not, who is driven by common sense. A cheese sandwich did not make sense at 330 in the morning and and yet it made her happy so a cheese sandwich it was.

What I thought I wanted that night was an uninterrupted six or seven hours of unconsciousness so as not to spend most of the next day asking myself “How much more coffee can I consume without having to take it intravenously?” But instead of trying to figure out a way to get Abigail back to sleep as quickly as possible, there were both were, sitting at a table, spending an unexpected half hour together, just the two of us, feeling loved.

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Here are the two things that stood out for me about the night I read this piece.

First, there was a painter there named Erik Sosa-Kibby who creating works on the fly during the show. I didn’t know this as I was reading, but he was using our pieces as inspiration. At right is what he painted during my reading. It’s a scene of blueberries in the night sky with streaks of red to complement the love theme of that evening. When I saw it, I got a little dizzy. It was bizarre to see a painting inspired by something I wrote and to have such a personal story of mine reflected in someone else’s art. I bought it from him and took it home that night. It now hangs in our dining room. I showed it to Abigail and she knows it’s of blueberries. I’m looking forward to telling her more about it when she’s older.

The second thing that was weird about that night is I was spinning around the radio dial and flipped on the Kids satellite radio station and “Make Your Own Kind of Music” by Cass Elliot was playing. I listened to the end of it and then it repeated. And then it repeated again. And again. And again. It played eight times in a row by the time I got home. I was in my garage listening to it, waiting for it to end, wondering what the explanation was. On repeat number 10, Erin told me to come in the house and stop being weird. I have no idea why they were playing it on repeat. I tweeted at the radio station and they have no idea how it happened either (they use automation so it’s not like a human made that decision). Just a happy accident, I guess.

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