Dear Kids

by Paul Ford

cheesus christ

I went digging around tonight to find a quote from the preface to a Barbara Tuchman book. I tried to step gingerly around the apartment–you guys are three years old now, and you’re asleep and both have colds–but I kept knocking books off the shelves, because there are too many books, photos, toys, miscellany.

“Why,” asked my wife, who was sitting up in bed with her phone, and also has a cold, “are you knocking books off the shelves?”

“I need something with a red spine,” I said.

The quote was not in The Proud Tower after all (the spine was burgundy, my wife pointed out) or The March of Folly. But by excluding them I was able to boil down the semantics until I found what I was looking for on the Web, in the preface to Tuchman’s book Practicing History. This is the quote:

On June 18, 1940, the day Hitler entered Paris, I was married to Dr. Lester R. Tuchman, a physician of New York, who not unreasonably felt at that time that the world was too unpromising to bring children into. Sensible for once, I argued that if we waited for the outlook to improve, we might wait forever, and that if we wanted a child at all we should have it now, regardless of Hitler. The tyranny of men not being quite as total as today’s feminists would have us believe, our first daughter was born nine months later.

You have to consider that era. Here’s an old radio news show, The March of Time, from January 1st, 1942–seventy-three years ago. The title of this episode is “Every Continent on Earth Lay on the Scales of Destiny!”

Purple, yes. But this was not an ironic or overstated title. Every continent on earth, at that time, lay on the scales of destiny. That was a reasonable statement.

As I was poking through the shelves I found this other book, The Doomsday Dictionary, one of my favorites. No one knows about this thing; it’s one of those used-book shop finds that you make when you’re sixteen that makes an impression. It’s a dictionary of terrible things, written by a psychiatrist and a poet, published in 1963. I.e.:

Mushroom Cloud

The hallmark of a nuclear burst. Truly a cloud: it is wet, cool and sometimes capped with crystals of ice. The fireball (q.v.) has expanded so rapidly that its temperature falls to a point where the water vapor in the air that has been updrafted condenses into droplets. These droplets are too misty to create rain, but they are large enough to reflect the white light of the sun. The mushroom shape has been formed by the initial column of material sucked up between the bust and the material’s outward swirling once within the fireball. The shape is fixed momentarily against the surrounding shock front. The cloud, now a billowy cumulus, passes upward through the subfreezing temperatures of the tropopause, being blown slowly shapeless by the winds. An amorphous mass, it reaches into the stratosphere. The heavy particles of the burst are far below, falling in the vicinity of ground zero. The cloud now contains the radioactive microdusts and gases of subsequent global fallout (q.v.). (194)

Note also 1963 was the year the March on Washington happened. Jean Shepherd (best known today as writer and narrator of A Christmas Story) went down on an old rickety bus and attended.

It’s like you are suddenly with a million old friends…a strange feeling…and there wasn’t one moment that was phony at all…one of the great moments, we walked through the grove of trees…You sure can’t tell who it’s going to be who’s going to come across.

So you’ve got mushroom clouds and Jim Crow segregation laws in action in the South, and the kids who are marching, the young ones, white and black, are the ones born around the time that Hitler was conquering Europe. And they were right. The March on Washington is the sweetest revenge the world could have taken upon Hitler.

The idea that there is anything especially bad about 2014 is temporal narcissism. We just live in an age of countless opinions. We are just starting to get used to it, this idea that we can document everything. We can document it but we can’t begin to interpret or understand it.

You are two sweet, small people with oval faces. How do I prepare you for what’s coming? This week: An angry, mentally unstable man shot two policemen in their cars in a kind of retaliation for the strangulation of a man by police many months before. Some people blame the Mayor, who worries that his black son will be injured by policemen. We’ll put cameras on cops now. That feels like it will fix everything but it will probably just introduce a new class of ambiguities.

And next week: something else.

I’m worried about those things but more worried about getting you out of bed and dressed in the morning. I’m worried about looking out the window one day and seeing a column of fire but more worried about teaching you to be sad when I could be teaching you to be happy. I’m worried about the college teacher writing for the New York Times who also works as a waiter. I want you to have careers and cats; I want you to have apartments without roommates in your thirties.

It upsets me when we are talking and playing that sometimes one of you will run, unprompted, and get my phone and bring it to me, because you want me to be happy. Here’s your phone, Daddy. As if I was looking lost without it.

It feels strange to say this, but I was your year. Along with your mother, the ladies who run the daycare, and the people at the supermarket on Cortelyou Road. I made your year with grilled cheese sandwiches and putting on shoes. I made it pushing around a stroller, going to coffee, tweeting nonsense, doing freelance work. So for 2015 it will be…more. No matter how nice it would be to squirm out of it, to point and pontificate, I am someone else’s 2015, and have a lot of work to do.

Photo by Jason Permenter

Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.