Living with the Low Boil
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
A wildly inappropriate simmering rage that, to my shame, lives beneath even typical Saturdays
Last weekend, Kori and I took our kids to an event, a fundraiser for the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters: BIG BOUNCE. We thought it sounded like fun.
We paid $10 per kid, took off their shoes, and were then supposed to let them loose in a gymnasium filled with inflated structures. Moon bounces. Bouncy castles. (A website I've discovered uses the acronym CITs, for "closed inflatable trampolines.") There was a legitimately awesome 95-foot obstacle course with slides. Everything was inflated. Everything was bouncy.
All to say, this was an extremely padded environment. In terms of bodily injury: low risk.
There were probably a hundred kids in the Maryville Community Center gymnasium. Older kids were doing complicated things with harnesses. (One attraction had kids tethered to an inflated obelisk, which they were running away from; or, more likely, the kids were tethered to each other, with the obelisk as some sort of mediating mechanism: a sprinting version of tug-of-war on a bouncy, elevated runway.) Some of them were jousting on elevated pedestals, à la American Gladiators. Some were trying to bounce each other out of a circle while wearing inflatable Sumo suits.
Kids of all ages were playing in the CITs, which is what my kids—Teddy, 4, and Alice, 2 —were most interested in.
The other kids were bouncing around, which is exactly what the event was designed for. The joy, the unalloyed joy, of all that air-cushioned plastic. Explorations. Experiments. Of the body and its capabilities.
At BIG BOUNCE, you can take some risks, with the body. You probably should. Heave yourself in ways that might not otherwise be prudent. Crash through the obstacle course. Be a little reckless. Dive headfirst over the smaller obstacles. Why not.
None was being overtly hostile.
I really hold no ill will toward any of these children. Nor their parents. Nor the organizers, who were raising money for a legitimately good cause.
And everyone, as far as I can tell, was having fun.
Just not my kids.
They were giving me the look. Can we leave? Is it time yet to go? Are we done yet? They could see the fun that they should be having. But they weren't having it. Neither of them was crying, but they also weren't smiling.
For them, BIG BOUNCE meant getting knocked down. A lot. Like every couple of seconds.
For me, BIG BOUNCE meant once again spending part of an afternoon at low boil.
The low boil started early in my fathering. If I had to pinpoint it, I'd guess the burner got turned on, more or less permanently, about the fifth day of Teddy's life.
We were staying at the Ronald McDonald House then.
We were walking to the hospital every morning and walking back in the evenings. Our walk wound through hospital grounds, part of which were used for a small playground. Days the playground seemed that bizarre children’s hospital admixture: trying so hard not to be scary that the note struck is cheerful dissonance. Eerie was the wind-chimey cadence of some in-ground piano keys and, under foot, the squishy rubber padding around the playground equipment.
At night, the playground’s shadows and recesses loomed. The distance from street to playground seemed newly significant. The children's hospital's in a city I’ve lived within driving distance of for most of my life, and so I’ve watched a lot of its local news. I’m attuned to its murder rate.
One night Kori and I were discussing staying later than usual at the hospital, maybe until midnight. We wondered about safety. We’d have to walk through the spooky playground.
“If anyone tries to mug us on our walk,” I said to my wife, “I’ll just try to kill him.”
I didn't feel much when I said it. I didn't think it was funny. (We weren't telling many jokes those days.)
I was, well, making a plan.
Weeks before, before our child’s birth, before all the medical trauma and confusion, someone tries to hurt me or my wife, I might be indecisive. I might try to bargain. Most likely, I hand over my wallet and keys and hope it all ends soon. Most likely, I do the right thing, the reasonable thing, the thing that doesn’t get anyone killed, that allows us all to live another day.
But living in the Ronald McDonald House, not seeing my dog every day, spending 15 hours a day at the NICU bedside, or maybe just moving over that threshold from not having any children to having one, what I discover is: I don’t value the life of a hypothetical mugger.
If you try to mug me, my only thought is that I will not stop doing whatever my body can do to you, until you are dead. Or I am dead.
I don’t think I’m an immortal or a superhero. I just believe, now, only now, only now that I’m a father, only now that my mind is consumed with the thousand paradoxes that seem the sum of fathering a hospitalized newborn, I will fight, until death occurs and stops the fighting. I know I might be the one to die.
Only much, much later will I understand this is an uncivilized, and definitely not okay, way to think.
Only much, much later will I be afraid of this version of myself.
But realizing it's a fearful and uncivilized way to think doesn't stop me from thinking it.
One day in the fall of 2015, when Teddy is one, I have a meeting. I need to go to campus for a few hours. Grandpa’s going to babysit.
My dad arrives about a half hour before my meeting, and I get him settled with Teddy. Maybe I’ll have time to stop at the coffee shop before going to work. As I’m pulling from the driveway, I see a man standing on the corner. He's tall and thick, bearded, wearing bright blue cowboy boots. He’s looking at our house. He’s looking at me as I back out of the driveway.
He's unsteady. He’s wobbling. I’m about a hundred feet from him, but I can see that his face is cycling through expressions.
As I put the car into drive and start down the street, I look in the rearview mirror and see this blue-booted cowboy moving fast toward my house, diagonally across my yard.
He’s going to the front door.
I circle the block, and, as I get back to the front of my house, I see the big man on my porch. He’s sitting with his boots up. He looks supremely comfortable. Neighbors might think he’s me.
I park in front of the house and watch him for a few minutes. His face continues to cycle through the full range of human emotions. He’s not talking to himself, but his expressions would make more sense if he were.
I call the landline phone. No answer. I call Grandpa’s cell phone. “Dad,” I say. “Dad, there’s a guy on the porch. Doesn’t look all right. Seems off.”
My father says, “Yeah, I’ve noticed him. I wonder if he’s drunk. Maybe drugs?”
“Will you lock the doors?”
After a minute or so at BIG BOUNCE I felt myself getting agitated in a way that's become, over the past four and a half years, quite familiar.
I kept having to remind myself of the rules of society. Don't call that little meathead a little meathead. Or: These are children. Don't threaten to smack the snot out of them if they knock over someone you love again.
I found myself becoming gloriously annoyed. At all the corn-fed boys racing around—and over—my four-year-old son, who was approaching each obstacle carefully, with an air of intellectual curiosity, like a scientist. I kept swallowing the sentences, even the more reasonable-sounding, I-have-in-fact-interacted-with-the-public-before sentences, before they could emerge: "Give him some space. Give the undersized kid some room, and some time, to make his way!"
Instead, I just talked to Teddy. Tried to talk him through the challenges. Tried to give him some encouragement. Tried to talk about the virtues of getting back up again, without sounding too much like a father in a bad movie.
I found myself becoming gloriously perturbed. At all the seven-year-old waifs who were probably just anxious to get to the slide and were likely not intending to topple my two-year-old daughter as she tried to figure out how to jump in the bouncy castle.
I could go to my meeting, allow grandpa to be in charge. He’s an emergency room nurse. He’s handled lots of mentally ill people, lots of drunks and addicts. He’s got experience.
But he also needs to watch a toddler.
And the blue-booted cowboy is really just sitting on my porch, not doing anything that seems to warrant me running out of the car, screaming. On the other hand, he’s sitting on my porch, and there’s a one-year-old inside.
Best, perhaps, would be to approach the blue-booted cowboy affably, to ask him who he is, how he’s doing, and why he’s sitting on the porch. Maybe he would, if asked politely, move on and bother someone else. (Honestly I only thought about this last option months later, while writing about this incident.)
As I’m mulling my options, I look up and see he’s not on the porch anymore. I drive from the front of my house and turn down the side street, where our driveway is. The man is crouched near our basement door. He stares at me as I drive by.
I drive fast around the block. When I get back to the front of the house, I see he’s back at the front door. He’s standing on the porch again.
I call 911.
I tell the dispatcher that the man seems to have an interest in my house, that there’s only a grandpa and a baby inside, and that I want the man in the blue cowboy boots to leave us alone. The dispatcher asks for a description of my car, and tells me to stay on the line. I overhear her talking to the police officers that are, it seems, nearby.
I circle the block one more time, and, right before I pull up to my house, a police cruiser arrives. I roll down my window and tell the police officer I was the one who called. She looks down the street and points. “Is that him? Is that him, walking?”
In the distance, a block over, a man is walking.
“Maybe?” I say.
She speeds off, talking on her radio. Another police vehicle, an SUV, appears and pulls behind the first car; they’re pursuing the man a block away. I follow in my car.
As I pass my house, I see the blue-booted cowboy. He’s moving from his crouching spot near the basement door to the front porch.
I drive to where the police are, two hundred yards away, where they’re accosting one of my neighbors, out for a walk. “That’s not him,” I yell. “He’s at my house. He’s at my house, right now, on the porch.”
I gesture maniacally.
I say it’s the blue one. I say it’s on the corner. I say it’s right over there. The man they’re after is right over there.
I whip around the block. I arrive at my house a few seconds before the two police cars arrive. I arrive a few seconds before one of the police officers, the one from the SUV, talks to me through my open car window about what’s happened so far, about what I’ve seen. I arrive a few seconds before the police officers—four of them, two that I’ve seen and two that have just shown up—confront the blue-booted cowboy in their professional, careful way. I arrive a few seconds before they pat him down and talk to him in my front yard. Before they chat with him while he wanders back and forth, agitated; the blue-booted cowboy alternates: standing as if readying himself to run, standing as if settling in for a casual chat about whatever’s on the neighborly police officers’ minds. Before they stand in that way of police—giving him space but keeping hands at belt level, just in case. Before one of the police officers comes over and tells me that the blue-booted cowboy is intoxicated, lost, and thinks that this house, my house, our house, is where a friend of his lives. It’s only a few seconds. Maybe twenty or thirty seconds when I’m sitting alone in my car, in front of my house, willing. Exercising my will.
In these seconds, the blue-booted cowboy is pushing and pulling like mad on the front-door handle. In these seconds, he is trying to get in the house where my one-year-old child lives.
The other kids were knocking them over. Because being a little reckless with the physical self is what BIG BOUNCE is about. And I knew that, next year or the next or the next, my two pint-sized children might not be so pint-sized anymore. In the 2020s, Teddy and Alice might be the ones that some other dad is a little peeved at, for knocking over his kid.
So, I managed to keep the boil beneath the surface. I didn't say mean things to all the beautiful, fun-loving, rambunctious children at BIG BOUNCE. I was an all-right neighbor. I kept my cool.
But, God, it was tough. I'm ashamed to admit it, of course. I really wanted to yell at those meatheads. I really wanted to make some of those waifs cry.
But I didn't.
Because, in small-town midwestern living, only in Hypothetical World is it all right to talk to children who aren't yours. Even for a second.
Even if you're only gently nudging them in the direction of not toppling your two-year-old daughter, it's hard to imagine saying anything. It's hard to imagine saying anything that doesn't sound cloying or nuts.
The only thing I could think of that might sound non-crazy out loud was: Hey guys, do you mind just knocking each other over and sort of give a wide berth to the tiny blonde?
Or maybe: Watch out for that little fella, the one you keep knocking over. He has a contagious skin condition that will delay your puberty . . . indefinitely.
Yet, even if I did manage to say something jokey or avuncular, at best I'd be winning minor battles, not the war. Meatheads are a dime a dozen around here. Someone new and unscolded would arrive inside the minute to knock down my thirty-pound child.
I could tell Teddy and Alice weren't having any fun, and I started to doubt whether some formative, grit-inspiring lesson about picking oneself up after a fall was likely to stick . . . if the fallers-who'd-picked-themselves-up weren't rewarded and affirmed with a little fun.
Twenty seconds. His hand on the door handle. My blood moving so quickly and forcefully through me I believe I can hear it. A faint whooshing emanating from the base of my skull.
The relative stability of my life now, the somewhat dependable calm that I occasionally exude in our house, whatever lessons I've managed, for better and for worse, to impart to our children, everything really, strangely enough, depends on this: I was frozen in these twenty seconds.
Frozen and ineffectual, I watch. As the blue-booted cowboy climbs back onto my front porch. As he opens the screen door. As he starts tugging at the door handle.
He wants in. He’s pulling at the door handle, yanking it. He’s frustrated. What he wants, really wants, he can’t get.
And I know what I want.
What he’s doing has closed off responses, if I’m the one to confront him. Earlier—two minutes, three?—if I’d jumped out of the car, when I first saw him, I might have been able to say, “Hey, friend, how can I help you?”
Now, I may not be able to speak. I know what I want. If the police don’t arrive now, or now, or now, or now, or now, or now, I know I won’t be able to pull off some folksy move that diffuses the situation. I am feeling only a rising boil, the unreasoning need.
I know what I want.
Stop trying to open my door.
Get away from that door.
Later, I’ll be able to conjure reasonable responses, thoughts, rationalizations: an innocent vagrant, who never hurt anyone, who doesn’t deserve anyone’s wrath. Perhaps he’s mentally ill. Maybe he’s had a bad day.
Later this night, this very same night, I’ll read Hop on Pop to Teddy.
Dad is sad.
Very, very sad.
He’s had a bad day.
What a day Dad’s had.
But in that moment I knew what I wanted.
I’m so glad I couldn’t move.
Briefly and deeply, while I waited for the police, I wanted only to choke the blue-booted cowboy until he was dead.
My kids bounced a bit, here and there, between being toppled. They almost had fun, I'd say.
And then they started giving me the look. Over and over, after climbing out of this moon bounce and that bouncy castle, they gave me the look. This was becoming a chore. This "fun" was becoming a slog.
We'd been at BIG BOUNCE for twenty minutes, maybe. We'd paid for the whole afternoon.
"Do you kids mind if we head home?" I said. "I've had almost as much fun as I can bear. I've had so much fun here, like, it's almost inconceivable how much fun I've had, but I'm wondering if too much fun in one day might just be, you know, pushing our luck."
They gave me a new look, the one that meant they could tell I was acting.
But they also seemed pleased to be going home. They skipped to the car. They sang "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
It's a good lesson: getting up after a fall. Developing some resiliency. I also like the one about rolling with the punches. Adapting.
But I also like the one about knowing when to say, "Maybe this sucks? Maybe it's time to move on?"
Or maybe the lesson of BIG BOUNCE wasn't for the children. Maybe the lesson was mine. Maybe it's about how calling a meathead a meathead, or screaming at a kindergartner who is bouncing your daughter off her feet, might be sort of like trying to talk the lions out of being lions.
Maybe it's about recognizing that we might be the sort of family that, more often than not, chooses to creep slowly from the den, stifling our screams.
Which means living with the low boil. And singing on our way to the car.
Richard Sonnenmoser writes about fatherhood, politics, culture, books, and music. He's published fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction in Harvard Review, Crab Orchard Review, West Branch, MAYDAY Magazine, and others.