How we named this blog speaks a lot to why we get along as co-parents so much better than we do as spouses. As you can tell from her suggestions, Moxie prefers a very blunt, no-nonsense approach to things. This is why her site has been such a success, and why, when our 10-year-old asks what a clitoris is, she can describe it as impassively as if she were listing instructions for building an IKEA bookshelf.
My writing, conversely, is more narrative and painstakingly agonized over crafted. And yes, I like obscure cultural references. I like bands with names like BR 549 and Toad the Wet Sprocket. I like puns and turns of phrase and other yes-nonsense that she usually just shrugs off. This may shed light on why she remembers my suggestion as “Pooping in the Enameled Tub,” because if something I say doesn’t register immediately, she mentally files it under Crap.
My favorite name was actually “Dogs in the Bathtub,” which I thought of while we were estranged but still living together in our not-large Manhattan apartment. If you’ve ever washed a small, easily vexed dog, you know how they can tend to get agitated and leap out, but their claws’ complete lack of traction against the porcelain makes the whole effort futile. Imagine two in the same tub, threatened by each other and yapping at each other’s tails, running around in clumsy ovals and ultimately getting nowhere. That was us.
I like “When The Flames Go Up” very much (and not just because the band spends most of the video performing perilously close to the edge of a cliff). The song’s title and anthemic melody have always felt life-affirming. And as she said, I got it as soon as she suggested it.
That little spark of commonality is a nice allegory for the blog itself, a little stronghold in the ever-shrinking overlap of our personalities’ Venn diagram.
That’s the best chance we have to make this bathtub confinement as pleasant as possible, especially for the pups.
We realized the other day that we never talked about why we named this blog “When The Flames Go Up,” and that you might be interested in that. So here’s the story:
We decided to write a blog together with a lot of trepidation. We’d written into our separation agreement that neither of us was allowed to talk about the other in any public forum. Which was, in hindsight, a little paranoid, but there had been a rash of divorcing couples who had done things like post each others’ match.com profiles online and make fun of them, and all kinds of stuff that was the online equivalent of taking a Louisville slugger to both headlights.
The problem, of course, is that I write an advice blog, and the whole focus of it is to give data points so people know a) they’re normal, and b) they could try something someone else has done and see if it works for them. So I’d been getting a lot of questions about things ranging from “How did you know?” to “How does your custody arrangement work?” to “Tell me our kids won’t be fucked up forever.” And not being able to give any of my own data points was killing me, because I felt like I was not being loyal to my readers when they needed me.
And it was beginning to feel like people thought something Really Bad had happened that we were hiding on purpose, and we didn’t want to have to keep assuring people that we weren’t trying to kill each other and they could still be friends with both of us.
So we decided to do the blog. And kind of circled around each other warily. We agreed that we’d alternate posts. And that we’d each show the other our posts before we posted them. (No absolute veto power, but we were trying to balance honesty with taking the high road.) And that if we got media requests we’d only do them together. And then we had to come up with a name.
It was all so predictable. I suggested things like “A Blog About Co-Parenting” and “It Could Suck More.” LOD suggested things like “Pooping In The Enameled Tub” and “An Obscure Reference No One Will Get.” We each rolled our eyes and thought about how glad we were not to be married to each other anymore and how in the hell was this blog going to work?
And then “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds rolled through my Pandora station. The whole song is about having it all and then having it all go away, and what do you do?
What you gonna do when things go wrong?
What you gonna do when it all cracks up?
What you gonna do when the love burns down?
What you gonna do when the flames go up?
And I realized that LOD and I were living the worst case scenario. We were married and we were a family, and then things went wrong. It all cracked up, and the love burned down.
And the blog was about what we were doing about that, living here in the worst-case scenario.
So I suggested “When The Flames Go Up” to LOD, and he got it immediately.
And that was the last time writing this blog was easy. But it’s worth it. Because who else gets to a) realize they’re living the worst-case scenario, and b) make something out of that that’s greater than the scenario suggests? I feel lucky in a lot of ways, but especially in being able to write about this together but separately. Thanks for reading.
Last week was LOD’s birthday, which was a little weird because he was traveling for work almost the entire week, including his actual birthday, and was only in town the night before his birthday. So I had the kids all week, except for the night before his birthday, when they were having a special birthday dinner.
The boys talked about making him something, but then the older one said there was something he wanted to give his dad, and the younger signed on to that, so we got it: a crock pot. (Apparently my crock pot efforts over the last year have been good enough for them to think their dad needed one, too.) It was a biggish kind of box, so they decided not to wrap it, but just to give it to him as is. We wrote some of our favorite recipes on file cards to give to him with the crock pot. I was feeling good that the kids were going to be able to give their dad what they wanted to give him and see him the next night when he was home for the birthday dinner.
And then my older son walked out from his room after he’d gone to bed and asked me, “Mom, will you make a birthday cake for Dad tomorrow since I can’t ’cause I’ll be at school all day?”
I would have been completely ok with going to Kroger and buying LOD a cake. But there’s something personal about making a cake. And LOD and I aren’t personal.
But my son wanted me to.
It just didn’t feel right. It seemed a little creepy, even, to make a birthday cake for an ex. Like something I wouldn’t tell anyone else about, because how could I explain it?
But what kind of jerk doesn’t let their kid give their father a birthday cake? So I said I would.
And then I remembered: LOD’s favorite cake is not a baked cake at all, but a Zebra Cake, which is concocted of Famous Chocolate Wafers, whipped cream, and time in the refrigerator to set. So I didn’t have to bake anything, and I only needed two ingredients, and as long I got it done first thing in the morning it would be done and ready by afternoon.
I’m not sure why putting together an icebox cake seemed ok where baking a cake seemed too far over a border. But the Zebra Cake resolved my internal conflict, and I put it together and even put it on my favorite platter (pristine turquoise melmac obtained at a garage sale, which somehow seems perfect for an icebox cake).
The kids were thrilled with the Zebra Cake. LOD was shocked, by the cake and the gift. I still think it was probably too a little too much closeness, but I’m glad the kids got to give their dad a cake and I decided not to be a jerk just because I was uncomfortable.
When Moxie and I split up, I was the one who moved out. (Eventually.) I can’t describe the heartbreak I felt as I packed up, nor can I ever forget it. As I was working through it, two specific pieces of advice sustained me:
- Make sure your kids know that even though you’re moving out, you’re not going anywhere.
- Tell your kids what’s going to happen, then make sure it happens. It’s the only way you’ll rebuild their trust.
As a result, over the years I’ve built a habit that started from an abiding neurosis. Every time I leave the kids, I say when I’ll see them again. I’d like to think I’m doing this on purpose, to show the boys that their parents have this planned out, that we’ve put together a semblance of structure amid the chaos. But the truth is, it’s become instinctive. It’s pure muscle memory, like reaching down for the toilet handle after I zip up.
Over the weekend, as I was driving the kids home from the 7-year-old’s soccer game, I was laying out the schedule for the next day or so. Mom’s coming by tomorrow morning to take you to church, then we’re all having lunch together, and I’ll pick you up for Scouts on Monday afternoon.
And out of nowhere, the 10-year-old said, “You know, Dad, we can still love you even if we don’t see you every day.”
I responded with something glib—like “That goes for me, too”—but I felt his words in my chest. I never doubted that the kids felt this way, but it had always been a tacit understanding. It surprised me how good it felt to hear it expressed so tangibly and simply.
We were silent in the car for a minute or two as I savored the moment. And when it inevitably dissolved into backseat squabbling over elbow room, I hardly noticed.
For maybe half a year now, LOD and I have been meeting every other week or so to talk about the kids’ schedules and any concerns or logistics of the kids. It started out as kind of tense meetings in which we’d debate which calendar format to use. Then we figured out that if we added coffee to the chat it got more friendly, and we didn’t get so territorial about calendars, so it turned into Get Coffee and Talk About the Kids. Now by the end of the summer we’ve settled into a bi-weekly-ish Get Coffee, Talk About The Kids, and Bitch About Construction All Over Ann Arbor session.
In the past it’s been all business (including the bitching about construction), but school started here last week and I think both of us were just so happy we each got the kids there on time and with their shoes on and with all the forms filled out on our respective days with the kids, and that our older one seems to be having a much better year so far even after only three days, so we were kind of unfocused when we had our meeting last Friday.
These were the highlights of our meeting:
- I introduced LOD to the manager of the coffee place (my local) and the manager seemed to be a bit confused about why ex-spouses were there together and not hostile to each other.
- LOD received an email Groupon for concealed carry lessons for handguns. This is funny for a lot of reasons.
- Somehow the topic of the Robin Byrd show came up. Robin Byrd is this freaky lady who does a show every night on public access TV in NYC during which she interviews strippers and porn stars and lets them promote their upcoming gigs and then shows pretaped stripteases. It’s hard to imagine until you’ve seen it. Anyway, it is never not going to be funny. Ever.
- We confirmed the kids’ school and soccer schedules.
- We exhaled about the kids’ new teachers.
- We bitched about construction.
Then we adjourned.
Dear Guy At The Bar Downtown Two Fridays Ago:
I am not going to be more attracted to you if you tell me how horrible your ex-wife is and how you hate sharing custody with her and how much you hate having to deal with her, five minutes after starting talking to me.
It doesn’t make me think anything about her. After all, I only have your side of things.
It does, however, make me think *you* might be horrible and that I might hate having to deal with you. If not now, then at some point.
All you needed to say was, “I have two kids. I share custody with their mom.” That’s enough to let me know you’re an involved dad and a decent person.
The Girl Who Told You Her Name Was Julie And That She Was Just In Town Visiting Friends
Me: “Bon Jovi!”
Him: “There’s way too much Bon Jovi on this station.”
Me: “There’s no such thing as too much Bon Jovi.”
This is how conversation on almost every topic goes with LOD. He and I are from different eras, different points of view. If one of us likes it, chances are the other thinks it’s stupid. But we really, really try to find some common ground. And that’s why we were in LOD’s car together with the kids, listening to satellite radio as we drove to Lansing to see the fireworks.
Ann Arbor, the super-duper-all-American small city we live in, does not have fireworks. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t. LOD had heard that there were fireworks in Lansing, the state capital, which is just a little over an hour away. So we decided to go, all together.
LOD drove in his new car with the fancy radio, and I navigated, since I’d been to East Lansing, which abuts Lansing. I was a little worried about the drive, because LOD and I are better when we don’t have to spend an hour plus making small talk. Ten-minute scheduling conversation, fine. 20-minute parent-teacher conference, aces. Five-minute “you’re busted” conversation with one of the kids, plus one. But all that time in the front seat of the car together (not to mention the ride back) and I was a little apprehensive.
But my fears were unfounded. We talked about 80s and 90s music with the kids the whole way there, found the fireworks area with an hour to spare, and decided to find someplace to eat. I navigated us to the restaurant I’d been to with a friend, and we ordered burgers and fries. And then realized we’d have to eat fast if we wanted to get back to where we could see the fireworks. And then we got caught in a traffic jam and thought we were going to miss it all. But in the end we got a great spot and got to see five separate fireworks shows.
Yes, five shows! Lansing is serious about its fireworks. Before the city fireworks there’s a private fireworks show at the Lansing Lugnuts baseball stadium. And then everyone turns around to watch the city fireworks, which last for 45 minutes. And a separate one a few miles away and below the city show. And while those are happening there was some other show a few miles away that we could see, too. And then we saw another one on our way out of town. It was the most explosively patriotic Independence Day night ever. See?
The people parked around us started leaving before the city fireworks were over, so by the time they were done we had no problems getting out, made it to the highway easily, and drove home with no traffic jams. The boys fell asleep in the back seat. LOD and I spent the return trip talking about Pat Benatar and the choreography to “Love is a Battlefield.” He dropped the kids and me off at my house and carried our sleeping younger son into his room and put him in bed.
As we were driving home LOD said, “I think that was worth the trip.” And it was.