During the presidential campaign I kept a list of questions for the candidates. "Are you wearing underwear?" was not on it. But this was the question I yelled into the street as my 8-year-old daughter vaulted into the car before the drive to school. The election was over and I was on assignment. As part of Slate’s Reader Takeover, I asked readers which of the things that I’d neglected during my 16 months on the campaign trail I should return to, and write about. Slate readers, wise creatures, told me to reconnect with my children.
Of course, I was planning to do this anyway. My wife carried the load while I was out on the trail and I wanted to rebalance things. But I thought there might be advantages to making a formal assignment out of it. A campaign gives you focus. You wake up to a different hotel alarm clock every day, but you know your mission. When the campaign ends and you are home, the alarm clock is the same, but you don't know where to start after it goes off: expense reports, new stories, the crusted paint cans that have to go to the hazardous-waste disposal site, the wiper blade on the Honda that has gone droopy. You lose yourself in the to-do list and never tackle those big things you promised you would when the campaign came to an end.
And so I returned to my kids with new focus. The campaign shrinks the physical time you spend with your family and limits its depth. If you're in town, you're at the office. If you are in the house you’ve interrupted dinner to talk to a source. You huddle as a family in dashes. (We once had a group hug in a US Airways lounge when we were in the same airport between flights.) When you block out longer time with your family between trips it’s like you’re on shore leave. Everyone is having candy without eating their vegetables and the shoes are always untied.
Now we’re back to regular order and Why are you standing on the living room couch, and I’m not going to write this assignment for you, and Don’t leave your shoes in the middle of the room and No, I don’t know where your shoes are. While I’m trying to find the new normal with my kids, I’m also disciplining and pushing them or letting them struggle through the necessary failures that help them develop into functioning humans. I can’t escape back into work and they can’t wait me out. This puts noise and chaos into the project.
Before we had kids, I would notice the time that had passed during a campaign in little ways. “Let’s have the Alberts over for dinner,” I’d suggest. We had such a nice time with them that night before I left for the Iowa straw poll. (You make resolutions during campaigns the way you do during long vacations. We’re going to entertain more! I’m going to read more poetry. I love poetry!) Then I’d learn that the Alberts have divorced, Mr. Albert has remarried and he has taken to wearing a fedora. Oh. After one campaign, I went to the market to buy orange juice and discovered 86 new varieties. After this election, my children had undergone a similar change—but without the helpful labeling. Now with more attitude. Fortified with introspection!
One way to measure the length of my recent absence is in underwear time. When I left, the regular wearing of it was an issue. Now my 10-year-old son wears his jeans low in order to show his underwear. A stiff wind could de-pants him.
My daughter’s superpower is reading, so I measure her changes in the size and number of the little towers of books that mark her reading outposts in the house. Library books return with crumbs in the pages because she doesn’t let her afternoon snack interrupt her. If it were possible to read another book between the sentences of the one she’s reading she would find a way. The vocabulary I return to is too big for her age. She says the impossibly arch things sitcom writers have children say. I ask, “Where did you learn that expression? “I read books, Dad.”
Formerly my son wore only Under Armour clothing. Now he apparently goes to dances, so he wants me to pick out a tie that matches his shirt. This is the new baseline interaction in our life. I tie the ties, or dash out to buy a glue gun. I do a lot of home IT. Dad, the Wi-Fi isn't working. When the kids were young, they just wanted to be around us. We were units of comfort and support. As they get older, we work the turnstile, helping the exasperated customer pass whatever temporary obstacle is keeping them from their next exciting thing. Now we’re the ones who just like having them in the room.
During my absence, I left express instructions that my son was not to approach puberty, but as I tie his tie I am met by his deodorant. He's wearing something called Axe. They use it to repel rioting crowds, I believe. Once this gets up your nose, it’s like having a Billy Joel song stuck in your head. You can’t get it out. Working too hard can give you a heart-attack-ack-ack-ack.
My son also now has a "walk," the careful way the preadolescent boy carries himself to look like he doesn't give a damn. His variation is somewhere between shuffling to arraignment and the bob you see from middle-aged men grooving to Billy Joel while stopped at a traffic light.
These are the stylistic changes that signal important activity going on in the deep shale. My son is trying to figure out who he is, shaping his identity for the first time. I remember the urgency and confusion of this period. Most of it he’ll have to figure out for himself, but we can help him do that the right way or at least be there to catch him when he stumbles. And hopefully he and his sister will have lots of stumbles because I want them to be braver than I was.
But you’ve got to get into position to play this role, which means catching up to these new people I’ve come home to discover. There is no fast way to do this. You can't sit the kids down for an interview. (I tried; the Romney campaign was more talkative.) The kids can't tell you what you've missed because they were just living their lives. "Dad, today I realized that I've started using sarcasm to help me handle failure." Kids don't talk like this.
The kids are getting more interesting and less talkative. This is irritating for a reporter, but not unfamiliar to anyone who has had a source take a job at the White House. They simultaneously get newsy and mute.
I know the special irritation of being interrogated by a parent just off the campaign trail. I am also the son of a campaign reporter, the late Nancy Dickerson. In efforts to close the distance of her absence, my mom would overreact to one of my games or some project I was involved in. I should know how to avoid this, right? Nope. Before my daughter showed me a story she'd written she said, "Don't be too excitable about it or you'll freak me out."
OK, one carton of orange juice at a time.