ReelThoughts: November 12, 2010

"Michael at Six (Months)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It has been six months since I returned from a screening of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood to be greeted by the news that my wife had gone into labor. ("I think I'm having contractions," she calmly announced.) This was something of a surprise since she was due to have a C-section the next day. One sleepless night (for me, not her) later, I was presented with a squirming baby boy. For the most part, I do not remember May 11, but nearly every moment of May 12 is seared into my memory. It was not the "best" day of my life, nor the "happiest." But it was easily among the most monumental. The best was yet to come.

We human beings have an irrational need to compartmentalize time. In the end, it's foolish. We live and die and, when it's over, no one cares whether our time on Earth has been measured in minutes, hours, years, decades, or centuries. Time is a fluid concept that gets complicated in relativistic situations. Still, as many realize, one doesn't have to be approaching an Event Horizon to experience the seeming inconstancy of time.

A period of six months should be a constant. In purely mathematical terms, it is. 184 days. 4416 hours. 264,960 minutes. 15,897,600 seconds. That's how long Michael has been alive, give or take. Yet those 184 days haven't passed at the same rate for me as they have for him.

When you're a child, the future stretches in front of you in an endless, unbroken plain. Death of old age is a difficult concept to grasp. Adulthood, whether represented by 18, 21, or some other age, is impossibly distant. Summers - those 10 weeks of freedom from school - last forever. Days pass slowly. Waits for anticipated events drag on interminably. Children have an impatience with time. They want it to speed up - get to the good things faster, get past the bad things more quickly. They eagerly await the teenage years, then the 20s, thinking they will never come.

Then, somewhere along the way, it all changes. Time does not move more quickly, but our perception of it does. I graduated from high school 25 years ago. When I stop to think about it, it doesn't seem real. 25 years? So many of those memories are vivid - too vivid to be so far in the past. (Subtract 25 years from the date of my high school graduation, and JFK had not yet been elected.) Tracie, my college girlfriend, died 22 years ago. She stopped living at 21 - forever young. More time has passed since her death than during her life. The '80s, '90s, and '00s are gone, fading into the past with a blinding rapidity. A quarter of a century passing in the blink of an eye. One more blink and I'll be pushing 70. Another blink, and I'll likely be gone, perhaps remembered only by Michael and a few others.

Photographs don't lie - at least if they haven't been manipulated - and they tell me that Michael does not look the same as he did when the doctor first held him up for me to see. His weight has doubled. He has outgrown some of his infant clothing and his increased mobility means I can no longer safely leave him on a blanket in another room. He talks, although I confess to understanding nothing of what he says, which undoubtedly causes him great frustration. Most of the non-milestone changes come gradually. He doesn't look any different to me today than he did yesterday. But all those yesterdays add up and, when I compare a photograph of Michael at six months to that of Michael at six hours, it's hard to believe they are the same person.

Many of those reading this will chuckle knowingly at the next paragraph. "I told you so," will fall from more than few lips. My great aspirations for how I would manage my film viewing and review writing with fatherhood have turned out to be... somewhat overzealous. My plan had called for five new pieces per week - two or three new reviews, one or two ReelThoughts, and one review of an older film. Reality has made those expectations unattainable. I have met my goal (and perhaps exceeded it a little) with respect to new movies, but the ReelThoughts have come at about a quarter of the expected rate and the older reviews have trickled to a slow drip. My catalog of Best Picture Oscar winners, originally planned to conclude late this year, may take until the end of next year to finish. My less ambitious goal is to have it done by Oscar night 2012. That's about one review every two weeks. I think it's feasible.

ReelViews as a whole will continue, but my one-time goal of transforming it into a business venture is unrealistic. Revenue is dropping faster than traffic. It's tough to maintain a stable readership base, not to mention grow it, when there's no time for marketing. These are unfortunate realities; ReelViews must therefore be relegated to the status of a hobby, and I must hope that the money generated by the ads continues to pay for bandwidth, web space, and costs associated with traveling to and seeing movies. Truth be told, maybe ReelViews has never been anything more than an avocation (no matter how much I dreamed it might be more), and perhaps it's better that way. The need to generate revenue brings with it pressure. Now I can relax and simply write about movies and life. My audience may be half of what it was when ReelViews was at its peak, and I may be generating only a third of the money I did at that time, but Michael has changed the game. The need to be a big, popular critic no longer drives me; the need to be the best father I can be does. (Having said that, I have no plans to stop ReelViews - reviewing movies is ingrained in who I am.)

The impediment to quality writing when caring for an infant isn't so much the time he demands as the effort involved in providing the care. Exhaustion is the enemy of creative thought. Now, however, things are changing. Michael still jealously requires periods of time throughout the day - he must be fed, changed, and played with. His only payment for these things are smiles and laughs, but those are enough. His naps - one in the late morning and one in the mid-afternoon - are sufficient to allow me to keep up with my day job. Now that his bedtime has retrograded from 11 pm to 8:30, my evenings have opened up. I have rediscovered my DVD player. I no longer gaze at it longingly as an artifact of times past.

Michael is too young to see movies, but I look forward to the day when I can begin to introduce them to him. He's fascinated by color, light, and sound, so if I put on a film that contains those qualities, his attention may be captured momentarily. Still, I try to avoid watching anything containing what I deem to be "inappropriate content" while he's in the room. Better to form the habit now. It will be a few years before he's ready for basic Disney. And I don't want to rush things like Star Wars. When he sits down to watch those movies, I want him to be old enough to understand what he's seeing.

In most ways, parenthood has not surprised me. I have five nieces and nephews, so I have experienced the joys and difficulties of raising a child vicariously. Still, it is different when it's your child. You can't give him back at the end of the day. Now I'm on the receiving end, with someone giving him back to me. As I write this, he's rolling around on the floor behind me, making the usual baby noises and sticking his thumb in his mouth. He is clean and well-fed; that breeds contentment. In the years to come, he will not remember this day. I will.

I was born in 1967. I can count on one hand the number of memories I have from the '60s. I can't say with any certainty what my earliest memory is, but there are a few from when I was two or three. They become more coherent and consistent beginning at age four. For example, I can recall the day my youngest sister was born - and not only the day of her birth, but the days that followed. I was not yet five years old at the time. I also remember my first night going trick-or-treating and many Christmas mornings. But little or nothing before my second birthday. So Michael is making memories now, but not for himself.

For Michael, at six months old, time is a meaningless concept. The passage of minutes and hours means nothing to him - only that when he is hungry, he is provided with food and when he is tired, he is placed in a safe, dark place where he can sleep. When his diaper is dirty, it is changed. And when he has awakened, someone is there to remove him from his crib and put him in a more interesting place. He is aware of people and objects, but not of things evolving and changing. For me, however, the days pass by alarmingly fast. If it's true that having an offspring allows one to re-live childhood secondhand, then there's a curious wrinkle to it. Not only does a parent view things from "the other side," but in fast-forward. Nothing is more sobering with respect to recognizing one's mortality than having a baby. For that gift, bittersweet though it may be, and many others, I thank my son on the day of his half-year birthday.


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