b Papa Dog's Blog: We All Start Out As Grifters

Papa Dog's Blog

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

We All Start Out As Grifters

I can tell you the exact moment when my sense of myself as a father changed from the abstract to the concrete. For a man, a birth in the offing is (to state the obvious) not the same experience it is for a woman. A woman has the better part of a year to grow accustomed to the life growing within her. Except in the odd case you read about in the seedy inner pages of a respectable newspaper or in banner headlines on a tabloid, where some (usually) obese and (often) not very bright and (always) young woman pops out a pup she didn’t know she was carrying, a woman can’t help but know in a definitive way about the incipient dependent in the womb. In contrast, it’s my observation that a lot of men who are otherwise very realistic and grounded and committed to an upcoming parenthood still manage on some level to view their partner’s pregnancy as the sort of thing that could possibly one day when they get around to it result in a baby that might require a bit of attention (but that’s a thought they can deal with later). It’s a weird bit of double-think; you know the baby’s coming, you’re looking forward to the baby coming, you’re making plans for when the baby’s coming – but somehow you’re not quite entirely convinced that there really is a baby coming. In this respect, I was not that much unlike the other guys.

I finally turned that corner – probably much like a lot of the other guys – while I was cooling my heels outside the OR, waiting for the surgical team to assemble. Mama Dog was inside being prepped, and I wasn’t allowed in yet. I had nothing to do but sit on a chair in a hallway and think about what was happening, and that’s when it struck me – “Oh! This is the baby arrival part of the pregnancy process!” I jumped to my feet and actually paced, like an expectant father in a 1940s screwball comedy.

When Baby Dog was born, the nurse called me over to the sink, where she was washing the blood and goo off our new little girl. I was left alone for a moment with the child while the nurse went to assist in stitching up the mother. I wasn’t sure what to do. This is so weird to imagine now, but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch my daughter. She was crying, and I didn’t know what to do. I leaned down and said the words I’d been whispering to Mama Dog’s belly for months: “Hi, Baby Dog,* it’s Daddy.”

Later, in the recovery room, we introduced Gran to her new grandchild. I went into the hall to call various friends and relatives. I was halfway across the ward, partway through my third or fourth phone call, when I realised that the persistent, incredibly loud screaming I kept hearing was coming from my daughter. Alta Bates is a veritable baby factory – I don’t remember how many pop out of there per day, but it’s a bunch. Of all those screaming newborns, my little girl was the absolute loudest. She could be heard from one end of the hospital to the other. “Listen,” I said to whichever relative I was talking to, “that’s her. She’s got some lungs.”

I hurried back to the recovery room, feeling weird little jump cuts in my perception, kind of like I’d been on a bender rather than a birthin’. Somebody put Baby Dog in my arms. I’d been kind of nervous about this moment because it had been a good twenty years since I’d held a baby anywhere close to that small, but it turned out I remembered how to do it. Baby Dog screamed and screamed and screamed. I rocked her in my arms and made soothing noises at her. She screamed…and then she yawned and went to sleep. I looked up, wide-eyed and grinning like a volunteer from the audience surprised to find he’d performed a magic trick. That was the moment I knew for certain that I was a father.

There’s a certain type of pet enthusiast – maybe you know one or are one yourself – who will make the argument that dogs and cats are actually smarter than people because it’s the people who serve the animals. We feed them, we clean up after them, we take care of their medical needs, and in return we get to have our furniture scratched and covered with hair. Good deal! I don’t buy this argument because, frankly, no matter how much unpaid labour it may get from me I’m still smarter than anything that licks its own asshole. But still…a similar argument can be made for a newborn. Who’s working for whom in that arrangement?

There’s a wonderful bit in David Mamet’s House of Games where the character played by Joe Mantegna explains the significance of the term “con man.” That’s short for “confidence man.” That’s not because you put your confidence in them, Mantegna’s character says, it’s because they put their confidence in you. He illustrates with a quick con where he pretends to be in some sort of financial distress at Western Union. As part of the con, he gives what appears to be all his money to his mark; this act of faith, this placing of confidence, convinces the mark that Mantegna can be trusted, and at that point the mark might as well say goodbye to all of his own money. It's human nature. We'll do anything for somebody who puts their trust in us.

That first day of Baby Dog’s life, when she fell asleep in my arms, trusting me completely with her brand-new life and however unconsciously investing me with all the confidence it’s possible for one human being to have in another, my little girl conned me for life. Up until then, I’d been a theoretical father. She snoozed in certain safety and comfort, and forever after I would be a Daddy.
*Actually, I said her name, which we’d known for months.


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