The Yabba Dabba Dad Dilemma

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 16, 2006

As a working father, I feel constant conflict between my duties at the office and my strong, instinctive desire to be at home, watching sports on TV. Or doing other guy stuff, like playing with power tools, or napping, or thinking about the upcoming NFL draft, or wandering off to see if any of my friends want to smoke cigars. And the tension of these dual roles -- breadwinner and loafer -- isn't relieved by the knowledge that all working fathers are similarly expected to be superdads.

Look at our "to do" list:

1. Hold paying job.

2. Take car to shop if it makes strange noises.

3. Mastermind lawn maintenance strategy.

4. Handle any crisis involving beer, wine, chips, dip.

5. Be prepared to discuss, on Monday morning, previous night's episode of "The Sopranos."

And it's not women who insist that we meet these impossible standards. It's other men. They make little comments that sound friendly enough, but that contain a subtle dig. They just love to make a guy feel guilty for failing to spend enough time with his tools, his sporting goods and all the other things that fall under the rubric of "gear."

The other day my "friend" Don, who is always trying to lord his own perfectly balanced work/loafing life over everyone else, said, "How's your golf game?" -- which I knew was his way of saying, "When was the last time you had the gonads to tell your wife you were going to play 36 holes?" Don is a man who would gladly golf with his buddies on his 25th wedding anniversary. He's what you might call a Neanderthal's Neanderthal.

So anyway, I made some excuse about hurting my shoulder (or more precisely, my "rotator cuff," which sounds more masculine), but that night I raced home and went straight to the golf bag in the basement. I spent some quality time with the clubs in the back yard. You tell yourself that these are the moments your clubs will cherish forever -- but you know there will come a day of reckoning, of countless bogeys, when you'll collapse with guilt at the thought of those workdays when you could have been, at minimum, practicing your putting.

My boss, a working mom, is wonderfully sympathetic, and many times when I'm working late, she'll say, "Why don't you knock off and go to the driving range." When I get home later that evening I'll announce that Daddy needs some "me time" to sit in his chair and read his favorite magazines. Once in a while one of my daughters will ask for help with homework, and I'll spend a minute jotting down all the correct answers before sending her off to the kitchen to get ice cream for us both. It's rewarding being a father!

Sometimes a bunch of the guys will meet for lunch to share our working-Dad sob stories. We'll pick a manfood place with dark wood paneling, cushioned booths, a martini menu, 48-ounce steaks and baked potatoes the size of dachshunds. There's a kind of script that we all subconsciously follow. There's the usual polite small talk -- "How's the work going?" and, "I see your Dodgers are in second place" and, "Did you see that special Home Depot has on roto-tillers?" At some point someone will launch into a major squawk about what a terrible time he's had trying to find a trustworthy car mechanic. That leads invariably to Don saying -- as though this is an original remark! -- "Don't even get me started on how hard it is to hire a caddy."

Usually one person at lunch will have a little too much to drink, and will insist that we talk about the Best Stripper Names. Informally we've agreed that the correct answer is "Bazoombarella."

The other day after one of these lunches, a major social disaster took place. We were paid up, saying our goodbyes on the sidewalk, and Don, the biggest idiot ever, said to our friend Bill, "Wife and kids okay?" Like, we were home free, you know? Game clock had hit zero already. And Bill said, "We split, actually." So we're all sort of stuck there like flies on a Shell No-Pest Strip, unable to move, because what do you say in a situation like that? I did the decent thing. "That's too bad, Bill," I said. "I always liked Betty."

"Debbie," he said.

Thank God, he didn't linger. That night when I got home I headed straight for the favorite chair to dig into the sports section. I spent extra time on the agate listings -- on-base averages, slugging percentages, strikeouts as a ratio to bases on balls. The little details.

Because if you start taking stuff for granted, one day you'll wake up and you won't even know who's in first.

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