Ice on a Hot Stove

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An article about what one local dad learned from popular and literary culture - from Homer Simpson to Atticus Finch



I smile when I hear people who don’t have kids talk about the kind of parents they’ll be once they do. I used to do that, too—I’m sure we all did. In my case, a foundation of Atticus Finch-like integrity would be overlaid with a spirit of creativity and fun that made every day an adventure of discovery for my kids. Constant affirmation would build their confidence, patient instruction and moral guidance would help them learn and grow, and a powerful current of love would give them the security to overcome any doubt or adversity. Like my own parents have for me, I’d fill their days and hearts with inspiration.


As it played out, I’ve learned what kind of parent I actually am: closer to Homer Simpson than to any character Gregory Peck ever played, desperately overmatched by tasks from swaddling to lunch-packing, flummoxed by the simplest-seeming questions (“Why can’t more than two people get married to each other?”), cranky and impatient for long stretches of the day, as often a source of comic relief as anything like wisdom. My only saving grace is that the kids seem to realize that my heart is in the right place, and that anyway, we’re all in this together. Kind of like my own parents, come to think of it.


This first big revelation is mirrored by a second: the contrast between your notion of your child in those tender early months, and the person they turn out to be once they’re old enough for their real personality to emerge. I’m always struck by this when I look at photos of Bobby as an infant and toddler, remembering how we saw him then. We were right about some things, in general terms—his thoughtful, introspective nature; his curiosity about how things work; his ability to sleep through anything—but so much more of it was simply projected on him by the two of us. Only over time was that crude caricature replaced by a more nuanced image: his irrepressible and quirky sense of humor, his compassion for the underdog, his love of heavy metal. You assume your child is the child you always figured you’d have, until he’s old enough to show you otherwise—and then, hold on tight.


What brought this to mind recently is an email my dad sent me in which he quoted Robert Frost, as he often does (my own stubborn lack of engagement with poetry is another way in which my adult self has confounded my youthful expectations, though I always enjoy, appreciate, and learn from it when it’s shoved in front of my nose). On this occasion, Dad referred to Frost’s line on the nature of composition, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” As apt as this was in its original context, it also seemed to perfectly sum up the emergence of ourselves as parents, of our kids as individuals, and of the relationships between us. We can’t spell these things out beforehand, or even anticipate anything more than the vaguest outlines; we can try to control or guide them, but their course will always be their own.


It’s not always quite as smooth as Frost’s lovely image, of course—he’s talking about the way a poem should be written, not about the way it ends up happening much of the time. In Dad’s email, he talks about writing a paper in which “Every sentence inched out beyond its precipice and over a chasm of potential nonsense, like a Bailey bridge, threatening to collapse by its own weight, and just barely reaching the other precipice as it came to its period. Not one sentence seemed to come naturally after the one before, nor to generate or even suggest its sequel.” This also seems like a pretty good way to describe parenthood, on those days when it’s not flowing. (The fact that the paper turned out to be a great success should give us hope).


Still, flowing or not, on bad days as much as on good ones, this unpredictability is one of the most exciting parts of parenthood. You could even say it’s the essence of it: being surprised by your kids with jokes you never told them, insights they picked up on their own, the emerging character of an independent person as unique and unexpected as every other who ever walked the earth. As Frost said about a truly original poem, “Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.”

Dan Janzen

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