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Peanut

How About Those Knicks? (January)

Your child’s tastes—for a particular brand of peanut butter, or milk, or religion—are up for grabs once she’s out of the womb. But what happens if she turns into a Knicks freak, Mr. No-Sports-Knowledge-Whatsoever? More notes on our writer’s long nine months.

PL’s stomach is bulging. We buy a book with pictures of fetuses living in wombs. By now the Peanut has developed eyelids and shut them. It also has 20 little fingers and toes. It can smile. When PL pulls her stomach in, it doesn’t go in. It is hard, not rippling, six-pack abs hard but skull hard, Samsonite suitcase hard. It just sticks out a couple of inches and you wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it. Something’s living in there.

I ask Patti if she would feel differently if she knew whether the Peanut was a boy or a girl and she says it doesn’t matter, either way she’ll feel the same. I feel differently. Not better or worse, one way or the other, but differently. I picture a little boy in my head. Then, a little girl. I just have different feelings toward the imaginary children. I think that a little boy would feel stranger to me; I’m less sure how to feel. I think it comes down to this: I understand more about what the world of girls is about somehow or at least, if I didn’t, it would be OK because I’m a male. My incompetence would be excusable. But there are so many things about what the world expects from men and expects men to be that I just don’t get.

Sports, for example, are just a mystery to me. In so many buddy-buddy male situations, sports become a handicap for me. They are the universal male icebreaker but I am completely ignorant. During a job interview, my potential boss says, “So how about that game this weekend?” All I can think was that PL had severely beaten me at gin rummy. At a client’s golf outing, I am partnered with the head of sales, a hale fellow well met. As we climb into the cart and I worry about how to hold my rented golf clubs, he says, “So you’re from New York, huh? How about those Knicks?” I fall silent for a minute or two, wrestling with a response (Are the Knicks good? Bad? What sport do they play, again?) and thoroughly spook the poor guy.

I can’t tell him the truth: “Say, look, I know nothing about the Knicks, or football or hockey or whatever it is. When I was a kid, I didn’t have Little League or Pee Wee football. I went to 20 schools on four continents and each had a different favorite sport.

“I played cricket with the servants’ children in a bullock paddock. My favorite sporting events were tent-pegging contests, where men in turbans thundered around horses and plucked wooden stakes out of the ground with 10-foot lances. At eight, I played Australian rules rugby till my best friend had all his front teeth knocked out. I had paramilitary training in Israel when I was 12; on night patrol we would disarm people with knives and dive into a ditch when cars passed by. I know you think I’m a freak, can’t imagine why I have no opinion about the Knicks, I’m sorry. Now, how many holes are there on this golf course?”

If being an American Dad means knowing anything at all about sports, I can only assume the NFL commissioner will show up at the maternity ward and take custody of the baby in the interest of national security.

I want to be able to give the Peanut anything it wants and that includes my help, knowledge, and enthusiasm but what if he, growing up as I didn’t, as a little American boy, becomes this person who is all into fishing and football and the like that I know nothing about? Will it be like the times I would sit next to Mike Kahan watching a baseball game on TV, peppering him with questions so he would think I was interested, encouraging him to give another of his long didactic lectures and show off all he knew while I pretended to be entranced as a first date? Would I end up creating a creature that would force me back into that scenario only in reverse, nodding and smiling at things I neither knew nor cared about? I won’t have that problem if the Peanut turns out to be a girl, a species I know far more about.

PL and I talk about what values we’ll teach the Peanut. We’d like to give it a strong sense of self-sufficiency and independence, so it doesn’t need to look to others for confirmation and self-worth, being able to find it inside, understanding the value of earning something for oneself, knowing how one can be right without making the rest of the world wrong. I’m pretty sure these sorts of principles will make the Peanut have a happier life but I’m not sure how to instill them. Maybe there’s a book on self-sufficiency and how to think independently.

 

I’ve been offered a new job and I’m not sure how to react. I’ve been feeling pretty fragile, what with the Peanut coming and all, and I’m convinced I should keep all distractions and changes to a minimum.

After realizing how dainty I’m becoming, I vow to toughen up. I never want to just be a father. I want to be an exciting, excited, creative, vivacious person who is also a father (and therefore a better one). I don’t want my life to stall any more than I want Patti to become an apron-bound housewife. I think that having children should make our lives more important, that we should seek out even more experiences and adventures so that we can all learn as a family, drink deeply from the cup, have a full life together. Inertia is the last thing any of us need. I can hardly wait to be part of our pack, taking on the world.

 

It’s a freezing day, 30 below with the wind chill, and we go to see our baby for the first time.

A special technician performs the sonogram. She slathers on some chilly belly jelly then unfurls some sort of device that looks like something they’d use in Wal-Mart to scan your purchases. The instant she applies it to PL’s abdomen, a little person appears on the screen in black and white. We watch it thrash around, waving tiny hands and two tiny white feet. Its head is big and at first the face seems lizard-like. From the front, it is quite alien and scary looking, and then it turns and becomes a little baby with a tubby tummy and big round eyes.

We watch it open its mouth and do a shot of amniotic fluid, see its heart flutter at about twice PL’s pulse rate, even see a little stomach. It’s too early to tell if it’s a boy Peanut or a girl one, but it appears to be human.

The lady checks to see if PL’s uterus is properly snapped shut, if the Peanut has the requisite number of limbs, if the skull is properly formed, takes various measurements and then declares the wee critter very healthy and reasonably cute. The Peanut waves at us one final time, and we stagger back out into the freezing cold, clutching some little printouts, our first baby pictures. I spend the rest of the day thinking about that tiny thing. In a flash, the whole thing has gone from being a pregnancy to being a baby, though only 76 millimeters—2.992125984 inches—long from the top of its unknitted skull to the base of its sardine spine, the size of something you could put on a keychain. It was shocking to see that it’s really in there. That there’s only one, that it’s fine, that it’s moving of its own accord, that it’s really a baby, and that it’s ours.

 

I don’t think I’m a terribly careful person. I tend to do things impulsively and bore easily, and I really rather doubt that I can change this essential characteristic. It’s sort of who I am. Now that I’m going to be a dad, I realize what a lousy trait that carelessness is going to be. Here’s this baby, soft clay, and I’ll just be coming along and whimsically driving my thumbs into it. Things I do without thinking will be permanent scars on the little person. I’ll teach him things that aren’t really right, and he’ll grow up misinformed and deformed because I shot from the hip at something or other. And it’s not just the things I set out to teach him. It’ll also be the lousy example of my ways.

It’s so easy to inadvertently form associations between things you feel strongly about and just random shit that happens to be in the same orbit. I don’t actually need to see Mike Kahan waddling across our lobby, surveying the young nubiles, to have him creep into my thoughts. I can just notice a middle-aged black nurse outside St. Vincent’s holding a pack of Marlboro 100s with her long purple nails and I’ll see that same gold pack, empty and crumpled carelessly in the corner of my bedroom, a sign from Mike Kahan that he had been there, rummaging around while I was at school. How many times have I spontaneously disliked someone because he was wearing a light blue, acrylic blend, button-down Oxford shirt? Or because their nostrils had that particular snubbed angle or their upper lip was beaded with sweat the way his gets? Without knowing it, or caring probably, Mike Kahan has managed to leave a trail of reminders for me, incidental things that will always appear to haunt me.

Am I going to create the same trail for my child by the way I brush my teeth or blow my nose?

Apropos, and because it’s bizarre, consider my Uncle Ian’s parrot. Ian liked to tell visitors that parrots can live for 100 years, that he would have to own this one till he died. He and the parrot and my aunt and a half dozen of my cousins lived in a cottage in the countryside of southern England. The parrot was a mimic. It learned to reproduce the sound of the doorbell, the metallic sound as the button was depressed and then the springy metallic ding as it was released. Throughout the day, he would have people rushing for the door only to return, glaring at the parrot who was in the corner of his cage, innocently rubbing his beak on a piece of cuttlebone. When they moved to a new cottage, the parrot continued to imitate the old bell, never knowing he was confounded.

Ian’s pottery shed was at the bottom of the garden. When the phone rang or a meal was ready, my aunt would step to the back door and call him up to the house. She would call several times to break through his reverie as he sat at the wheel or stacked the kiln.

“EEEEE-an … Eeeeean … Ian!”

The parrot began to imitate my aunt. In between doorbell rings, it would shout “EEEEE-an … Eeeeean … Ian!” until my uncle ran up to the house, thoroughly irritated at being interrupted.

One day, my aunt left Ian and never came back. Ian, the children and the parrot remained in the cottage. Even after Ian hooked up with another woman, his ex-wife’s voice would summon him from the kitchen.

“EEEEE-an … Eeeeean … Ian!”

As with the doorbell, the bird couldn’t unlearn the trick. Just by being a little too observant, the poor, annoying parrot will make an ass of himself for the next 100 years.

“EEEEE-an … Eeeeean … Ian!”

 

Patti won’t drink milk. When she was very small, she developed an idea about milk that had such tenacity it now threatens the developing bones of our unborn fetus, tiny frail bones like those of a chicken, bones that could bend like a wishbone soaked in vinegar or snap like pretzel rods, completely overcome by this idea about most things dairy. Patti is growing a weeny skeleton, a rib cage like a strawberry box, knuckles like baguette crumbs, ulnae like toothpicks, a skull the size and delicacy of a Christmas ornament, a half-pint-sized Christmas ornament with teeth buds buried in its gums. Each meal she has, each scoop of well-disguised cottage cheese, or schmear of cream cheese, each ice cream cone, each yogurt cup, each Tums tablet, can spread another thin veneer of calcium goodness onto the Peanut’s brittle shell. But not milk. Bring a bubbly, icy, frosted glass near her, and she starts gagging and even retching. Her father, who gave up coffee when he was seven, goes through a half gallon a day, so I know she grew up with the stuff.

She explains. When she was little and got three cents a day to buy a half-pint bottle at school, her class took a field trip to the local dairy. The farmer bent down and grabbed the cow’s teat, squeezing out a pale blue stream, and the little Patti formed her conclusion on the spot: The cow was peeing. Milk was cow’s piss. White, gross piss. The farmer, the teacher, her classmates, her parents, they all explained otherwise. Patti was firm. It was cow’s pee-pee, and she’d never touch a drop.

I keep trying to fight it, showing up with exotic alternatives. “Look, sweetie, banana milk!

“Does it have milk in it? From cows?”
“Maybe not, maybe they milk bananas.”
“Forget it.”

“Hey, babe, try this.”
“What is it?”
“Goat’s milk.”
“Ecch.”
“Just try it.”
“I can’t.”
“You love goat cheese. This is just fresher.”
“Have you ever smelled a goat?”

Suddenly I was infected by the idea, too, and started picturing a wizened old goat with square pupils and a fibrous beard, hunched over a urinal in a fetid, goaty subway bathroom.

“You’re right. I’ll try something else.”
“Honey, I’m fine, the baby’s fine. I can’t drink milk.”

“OK. Sheep are cuddly and wooly. Little baby lambs drink sheep’s milk.”
“No.”
“How about powdered milk…Soy milk! It doesn’t even come from an animal.”
“No.”
“Come on, soybeans don’t even pee.”
“No. No. Stop it. Leave me alone. No.”

I’d just have to get used to the idea of a baby Peanut with brittle bones, stunted limbs, dented skull, and mini peg teeth. I’ll make sure he loves milk. Maybe they’ll serve it to him in the circus.

 

Poor Patti has been sick all weekend with a cold, coughing and sneezing. She can’t take any sort of medicine and has had to resort to inhaling steam, sucking salt water up one nostril at a time, and drinking herbal tea and orange juice. I feel sorry for her, but she refuses to be pitied or treated like an invalid.

“It’s not a disease, you know.”
“Of course it is, the flu or a cold or something.”
“I’m just pregnant.”

I have no idea what it must be like to be pregnant (obviously) but I do admire her very much for how she’s handled the ordeal so far. She says that the vague feelings of nausea she’d had on and off are pretty much off now. They drove her to tolerate only two things: chicken noodle Cup-a-Soup and candy canes. Otherwise, her usual sweet tooth has receded, but she is still an early sleeper. She rarely makes it past 10:30 before dropping off on the couch or curling up with Houndy. Her pregnancy remains a professional secret, a particularly ironic one now that she is working on a new assignment, to shoot maternity fashions for Parents magazine.

 

Further thoughts on my potential new job: The assignment would mean a fair amount of international travel, which sounds quite exciting. I’d be making American Express commercials around the world with a team of smart and talented people, but I’m ambivalent.

Ironically, Pipsi is the first one to broach the subject, asking me if I’ll really feel comfortable traveling around and not being with my wife and child. Of course, I agree. Particularly after seeing those grainy pictures of the baby on the ultrasound, I don’t want to miss a day of what could be the most important and novel experience of my life. If I can stare for hours at a little black and white printout of a shadowy figure of the Peanut, how can I agree to miss any time with the little person in the flesh? I think about it living in Patti’s stomach and I know I’ll regret it if I miss even a moment. I never wanted to be one of those people whose jobs define their lives, and this seems like a particularly inappropriate time to change my opinion. Not to say that I don’t want to be an adventurous person gulping down life by the brimming flagonful. But what sense would it make for me to be off having a life and missing the one I had helped create?

 

Today we fiddled around with a new piece of child-raising software called “Ready, Set, Grow.” It’s the second one I’ve bought this week. The first was very crude and all the pictures of fetal development were of obviously dead little babies and so I returned it. This new program calculates the exact number of minutes until our due date, keeps medical records, provides various databases of health info and has a diary. For some reason I get a little choked up when PL makes her first entry in the diary: “I love my Danny, and I love my Peanut, and my hound too.”

Something about it just gets to me. I dunno why.

 

Some friends invite us to a dinner party. One of the other couples is at the same stage of pregnancy as we are; another just had a baby six weeks ago. We exchange information and war stories. The couple who’d actually graduated from the program were fairly reassuring and the first people we’d met who had actually made it to the finish line. We find them a little hard to relate to otherwise—they seem sort of JAPpy and overconfident about the whole thing and make me feel like Woody Allen. When it awakes from its coma, they wheel out their offspring in a thousand-dollar stroller and everyone oohs and ahhs. I hang back, a little repelled by the wrinkled little beast.

To be honest, I’m excited about our baby, not the idea of babies in general. Still, everyone at the party seems to want me to be all paternal and envious, and all of the the expectant parents are forced to hold the baby, a sort of test drive. I squeeze out a smile and hurriedly pass it onto the next victim. Patti shares my feeling, though she marvels at the smallness of its feet. Mercifully, the baby quickly conks out again, goes back into its packing crate and the party resumes.

Patti emerges from the dinner with one vital piece of advice from the other moms: She can drink a glass of wine on occasion. Bottoms up.

 

I have been thinking a fair amount about what I’ll tell the Peanut about things. Religion seems to be a biggie. What religion will the kid even be? Patti’s parents check the Catholic box but they never go to church. Keir is, if anything, Church of England, and Pipsi is a Jew. For PL, Christianity is a tradition, not a faith. You have Easter eggs and Christmas trees and leave Jesus in the manger. But I have more ambivalent feelings about Judaism, about religion, about what parents’ responsibilities to their kids really are in these matters.

First off, a kid with just two pints of Jew blood shouldn’t have to think of himself as such. Only Hitler and Gran are that strict in their interpretation. But what is life without religion? Potentially, it’s a life without connection to heritage, to family, and to values. I think that we will have no problem providing all three without getting God all tangled up in things. I have also been thinking about God, after a rather sophomoric conversation I had with Gran a couple of months ago. He was being very unequivocal in asserting that God must exist because something had to be responsible for Creation. I have no problem at all in believing that the evolution of our species is just a fluke, that we are the outcome of a series of slim probabilities, a notion substantiated by the fact that life is so rare on any planet but this one. The probabilities didn’t add up anywhere else, that’s all.

I also feel that believing in God robs too many people of faith in themselves, of a recognition that goodness, justice, strength, character, and good fortune come only from within and must be cultivated and sought therein. Looking to the heavens for support means you are neglecting the true source of all that matters in your life. Religion has been overused as an excuse for people to push other people around, from the mullahs and their jihads, the Zionists and their settlements, the missionaries and their culture-crushing churches, to the organized religions of this country that make children and gay people feel belittled, controlled, and restrained.

God and his henchmen are a bunch of bullies and I’m not interested in signing anybody else up for their team. But that’s not what I’ll tell the Peanut. I don’t want to constrain her to my weirdo biases either. I think I’ll probably tell the kid about the broad variety of religious experiences that people have, the range of explanations that there are for how the universe works, and leave it at that. If she decides to become a believer in something offbeat like Christianity or Judaism, I’ll probably just envy her for actually being able to acquire faith, something that has evaded me despite years of study and trial.

Religion isn’t the kind of thing that comes up much in my circle these days, but of course having a baby will make everyone around ask questions about it, wanting to make sure the kid has picked sides.

This is just the beginning. We are going to have to come up with explanations for all sorts of things that we take for granted, from the color of the sky to our chosen brand of peanut butter, just so that we can download our worldly experiences into a new skull.

 

We have just signed a new lease on our apartment and committed to being here for at least another year. Nonetheless, we have to do something to turn this groovy young couple’s pad into a family home. Our apartment is a duplex and we will be surrendering our spacious bedroom to the Peanut and moving our gear to the loft space upstairs. It’ll be a little cramped but we can seal the baby in the bedroom at night so we can carouse and smoke crack without waking him.

We spend a day visiting furniture stores and see much god-awful stuff, finally deciding on some wall units from Workbench that will fit along the wall and look clean and simple. As we shop, I can hear Ninny spinning in her grave. Her most ardent piece of advice, one she started giving me before my testicles had descended, was borne out of the experience of a woman in her village. This woman, the wife of the richest man around, conceived when she was fairly on in years. The couple was so thrilled at finally being with child that they built a big addition onto their house for the baby, lavishly furnished, the walls covered with elaborate murals. As soon as the room was completed, the woman went into labor, the baby was stillborn and the couple was left with an expensive and macabre souvenir.

“Now,” Ninny would say to me, “When I became pregnant with your mother, all we did was prepare a clean blanket. She could have slept in a drawer if necessary but we waited until she was here and healthy before we made any other investments.”

We, however, have no empty drawers at all and I’ll be damned if I’ll toss out some of my sweaters just because some baby has shown up without any luggage.

 

We visit the Garber again, waiting so long in the waiting room it seems the baby might be born here among the wrinkled copies of McCall’s. The doc feels PL’s tum, talks a bit about farting, and suggests that we consider genetic counseling and an amnio soon. The highlight of the visit is when we get to hear the baby’s heartbeat through a special gizmo. It sounds like the pinging noise that submarines make in the movies but is very reassuring music to our ears.

It’s all every uneventful, Dr. G. reassures us, because everything is going so well. The Peanut is safe in there, apparently riding in a U-boat.

biopic

TMN Contributing Illustrator Danny Gregory first learned to swim in the canal behind the Lahore American School, to kill ticks at Canberra Grammar School, to snap bras at the Kibbutz Givat Brenner, to light a match with one hand at Princeton University, and to mount sheep at the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. He is the author of several books and the obligatory blog and lives in Greenwich Village (with his first wife and son), where he does not attend NYU. More by Danny Gregory