The Shermans Take Manhattan

*So I could probably spend two more days writing and rewriting and refocusing what I want to actually write about in this post, but then it’ll never get done, and it’ll be a bottleneck for everything else I want to write. This isn’t my best, but not posting anything would’ve been my worst…

What’s the old saying… “There’s nothing travelers enjoy more than flying with babies on board?” Except for maybe getting forcibly re-accommodated from your United flight. No, everyone hates babies on planes, because they can be annoying when they are, well…being babies. I’ve been one of those people irrationally upset with babies on planes. They go right up there with people who bring hot food into the plane, people who try to talk to me, and people who lean their seat all the way back into my lap.

So why would my wife and I, the seasoned travelers that we are, take our 10-week-old son on his first trip from Wisconsin to Manhattan? I mean, I have a box of coconut water in my fridge that’s older than he is. Because we pride ourselves on our travel acumen. We wear security-efficient clothing: no belts, loose fitting shoes, reduced layers, and so on. We check-in early and rarely pack more than will fit in a weekender bag. We’re George Clooney in Up in the Air, but without all the emptiness inside.

We decided to do this about two or three weeks after we had the boy, back when we still thought things wouldn’t really change all that much. Any doubt was deafened by the dull hum of sleep deprivation. It couldn’t be that hard, right? March was not January, therefore it was far away. By the time March comes around, the kid will probably be walking anyway.  Once a few hours of sleep sobered us up, we better processed what we got ourselves into. We hid it from each other initially, but both had anxiety the closer we came to check-in.

My son gave me no reason to think he’d be a bad traveler. He’s calm and happy. He has his mother’s looks and his father’s temperament. He eats, sleeps, pees, poops, smiles, and repeats. But I was worried about my son’s sinuses buckling under cabin pressure. Which makes me wonder why I didn’t have more empathy for those other children on past flights who were probably just screaming because their head hurt?

Well, my son handled travel like a goddamn champ. Must be biological. He smiled at passers-by as we waited to board, fed well, and kept his bum in check. His pacifier kept him pacified and his ears popped when they needed to. He feel asleep to the dull roar of airplane engines. We even got through security checks so efficiently that the Madison TSA agent said we were doing a better job than most people she’s seen with kids. We lived the “early boarding for parents with small children” lifestyle for three flights and it was a dream. Plus the little guy flew for free.

Now that my son has proven (at least on this flight) that he’s a perfectly suitable traveler we can discuss New York. Manhattan was incredible, and if you haven’t been there, you should try it. But I’m not going to waste your time talking about New York. I’m going to waste your time talking about the way people in New York treated me.

We were treated extremely well by hotel staff, who went extra lengths to ensure we had everything we needed with an infant in arms. Restaurant staff accommodated us, by sticking us in areas where we wouldn’t affect other patrons if the lil guy woke up. It didn’t feel disrespectful, it just felt like a shift to a new normal. We’re a different customer demographic now, even if I feel the same. It got us a table next to the entrance of a sushi restaurant one night, and an early table at Bengal Tiger for Indian food on another night.

On our last afternoon, I met up with my wife in the basement of the Lincoln Center. There’s a huge Whole Foods there, complete with a ramen bar/alcohol bar. When we were placing an order, a stylish black man in his 40s glanced over and asked about our son. He ended up talking to us for ten minutes about how amazing children are and said a blessing to our son after he asked if we believed in god. I pretended not to hear the question so my wife would answer.

New York parents have ultra-strollers. We were Laserbeak navigating through a thousand Megatrons. The strollers had thick all-terrain tires in the front and back. Some of them had shock absorbers. The larger ones had built-in sleeping bag covers for kids to travel in low temperatures or wind. Some had thick rain covers to avoid disgusting ice dripping from skyscrapers and construction scaffolding. I had to treat the curbs and crosswalks like an obstacle course. It was kind of fun, but I would’ve really liked to spend the weekend with those Cadillac strollers.

Few people used the on-the-body baby carriers. When I walked out of the Essex House lobby to explore Central Park, I got quite a few looks with a baby strapped to my chest in the ErgoBaby carrier. People seemed to think it was cute, if not out of place. Which brings me to my other insight: the idea of a father alone with his child gets you a lot of affection and attention. From the hotel lobby and pedestrians to tourists at the Central Park ice rink, people thought we were just the cutest thing, me carrying my baby around like a marsupial. I kept hearing, “oh that’s/he’s so cute” as they’d peak at my son sleeping against my chest. Yet they couldn’t even see him because he was buried in my chest sleeping. I could’ve had a cabbage patch doll in this carrier and I would’ve gotten the same reaction.

All in all, traveling with a new child wasn’t that big of a deal. I was actually the biggest complainer at the end of the trip, when our flight was canceled and I had to miss my first day of work because a travel issue. I’m just going to wrap this post up because it’s not really going anywhere. They can’t all be winners, you guys. Sometimes you just gotta get something out.

I. In the beginning, we knew nothing.

October 29, 2015
The sun is high and bright in the South African sky. The clocks say 7 a.m., but I don’t believe it. It’s got to be noon already. It’s our last morning in Cape Town and my wife doesn’t feel well. Struggling to sleep through the all-night house party a floor above us, she’s felt nauseous all morning. This must be it. She’s pregnant. We been trying since our August anniversary and two months has felt like forever. While she hugs the toilet, I’m standing on our small balcony taking in the views one last time. Our street leads up to Signal Hill; a hill much bigger than any mountain in Wisconsin. In the other direction the street descends into a maze of residential roads. Past the neighborhood’s trees sits a vacant Cape Town Stadium.

Black socks, black shirts, and denim shorts lay on the balcony’s built-in drying racks. Stiff and crisp underwear are spread across the patio table. As I fold our clothes to pack for our next stop, my wife is now peeing on a stick. A brilliant idea pops in my head. I start recording a video diary on the balcony. When she walks out of the bathroom, I’ll turn to her and we’ll have documented the moment our family math added up to three. After about twenty seconds I run out of things to say and sights to film, so I stop the video and wait for her to come out. She stays in there for about ten more minutes. Wow, morning sickness must be really getting her.

When she finally comes out, I’m onto new things. “It was negative,” she says, defeated. Damn. “Maybe the hormones just aren’t elevated enough this early in the morning. We’ll try again later today.* Let’s pack up and get coffee and head to the botanical gardens.”

After a walk to Shift Espresso I take us on an anxiety-inducing car ride to Kirstenbosch Gardens. Driving on the left side of the road from the right side of a car is about as intuitive as wiping my ass with my foot.^ The gardens are breathtaking and I feel like I’m prancing through Jurassic Park. It’s way more amazing than I expected, yet my ghost-of-a-wife is barely keeping up. I’m taking it personally. “You’re not pregnant yet, and we’re on vacation in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Can’t you just suck it up?”

That I am this disconnected from my wife’s needs reveals a much deeper imbalance with my stress and self-happiness. I am ready to quit a job that just a year ago had been very meaningful to me. This sabbatical is my company’s way of thanking me for five years of work, but it’s my way of escaping and spending their money to do it, with two emphatic middle fingers pointed towards Wisconsin. I deserve this, dammit. Now we’re at the edge of the world, and my wife isn’t feeling well. It’s not fair. (Later that day she’ll spend six hours sweating off a really nasty sickness, and I get the honor of staring out at the ocean alone and reflecting on how much of an asshole I have been.)

We sputter to Kalk Bay for a three night stay at a Nordic-inspired guesthouse. My wife goes up to our room — the Impala room, to pass out. I’m still pissy about the gardens. Self-rationalizing that I can’t help her anyway, I make my way down Norman Road to the Main Road shops. I practically sprint into a bookstore, appropriately named Kalk Bay Books, and imagine owning a book store similar to this one. From the bar of the newly reopened Kalk Bay Café I stare out at the ocean, drink white wine and Savannah cider, and write (the drafts of which you’re reading right now) in my travel journal. I chat with the owners about showing the rugby world cup finals tonight on their newly installed flat screen. Springboks vs. All Blacks. They’ll keep the café open if people will come, they say. I never found out if they showed the match or not.

With a little drunken strut in my step I stagger up Norman Road back to the Impala room. The ten-foot-high linen drapes breathe in and out with the ocean breeze. The crisp cool bedding holds me like a cloud coffin. My wife’s fever breaks like a levy while I’m watching the rugby final from bed. She wakes up in a small ocean of sweat. It finally clicks in my big dumb brain that she’s actually just flat out sick.

I mistook the symptoms for something grander.

*We confirmed again when she took another pregnancy test at London’s Heathrow airport during our layover to Dublin. We were incredibly naive about a lot of things, from symptoms to realistic timelines to get pregnant. Also, why did we keep peeing on sticks? Like it was going to magically change the results from two hours ago? The only thing I thought I was sure of was how to make the babies. But even that took a while to get right. More on that next time.
^I have been writing a lot about ass-wiping, and I think it’s directly correlated to what I have going on in my life right now. It shouldn’t be an ongoing theme. But it may.