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Bourbon and Milk: Here Is the Essay, Now Where Is the Child?

Bourbon and Milk is an ongoing series that dives into the perplexing spaces parenting sometimes pushes us and explores the unexpected ways writers may grow in them. If you’re interested in joining the conversation or contributing a Bourbon and Milk post, query Giuseppe Taurino at giuseppe@americanshortfiction.org. [1]

Salesses [2]“Where do you get so much energy?” I asked my daughter recently, the age-old parenting question.

She was running around like on any other day while I sprawled supine on the floor. Not because I had any unusual reason to be tired. I was tired because that is the state I have been in for the last four years.

“From my heart,” she said, twirling her silver wand and turning things into frogs.

This was good enough to tweet. I rolled myself off the floor and decided to tweet it.

“And I ate a lot,” she added after some thought. She took my hand and led me to her dollhouse. “You’re just lying on the floor and doing your iPhone,” she said.

As we play-acted with her little rabbit figurines, reconstructing her regular life in plastic rabbit form, I thought about whether to tweet her second answer too. The father rabbit lay on the floor of the dollhouse with a stomachache. The daughter rabbit ate carrot after carrot.

In the end I was too tired to tweet that day. I got to it the next day.

 *

I get asked this question a lot by colleagues, friends, enemies: “How do you do so much and still write?” I never have a good answer. My answers are: What needs to get done gets done and I need the money. Those are real answers, but maybe my daughter’s is the best. I get the energy from my heart, and I eat a lot.

In elementary school, middle school, high school, college, I was known as the lazy kid. I don’t think I deserved that label at any point, but that was the label I got. I read a lot of books instead of expending as much energy physically. Many people did call that behavior “smart,” but just as often they called it “lazy.” I put my brain to work over my body. I thought of myself (still do) as efficient. If I can get every bag of groceries into the house in one trip, no matter the effort, why would I split those trips up? The sooner I can collapse on the couch with a book or get back to my desk, the better.

As I get older, though, I like less and less to do the “smart” things I used to do in my free time/whenever I didn’t have to move my body. Couch-things, I mean. Entertainment. Smartness has become a mysterious tool to make money. My out-of-body time, what little I get, has become arguably dumber. Maybe it’s a change every parent goes through: giving up intellectual entertainment for the kind of emotional entertainment that keeps you awake and hungry. Like romantic comedies.

I’m never going to read Infinite Jest, is what I’m saying. I’d rather watch a K-drama and eat a bar of chocolate.

The change has made its way into my fiction, too, when I think about parents reading my little novels. Which is to say, I have fallen out of love with philosophy and fallen in love with plot. Do I want someone to spend what little time they have while their kid naps reading my book? I like violence. I like love triangles. I like magic. I would like a helicopter explosion if I could figure out why any of my characters would need to ride a helicopter.

*

Four years ago, almost immediately after my daughter was born, I started drinking caffeine again after years without. In college I gave up coffee and soda completely, and I was never really a tea drinker. As a parent I was in need. My body was disintegrating and it made me snappy to watch myself disappear.

You can’t parent without caffeine—keep it to yourself if you can. My best purchase in the last ten years is a DeLonghi espresso machine. I tell everyone. It cost me $100 to save my life every morning.

Caffeine, of course, is an upper. On some level I am self-medicating. I tend to be a downer, I suppose. I used to think I wrote better when I was down. I used to read only books that made my brain tired. I used to want to make other people’s brains tired. I used to revel in being down when I could afford to. Now I have a kid around to complain that no one is playing with her. A complaint that in the right mood can break you.

The hope now is to write something that comes with a cookie and catharsis. Something you would read after a double espresso and playtime. I tell myself that this is why I need a double espresso before I write anything.

 *

The energy in my heart is of limited supply, in other words, and I write to make more energy. If having a kid has made me see anything as a writer, it’s how limited any parent’s energy is for hearts other than their kid’s heart. Why should you care about my little, invented characters? Maybe because their helicopter just exploded and they fell in love with each other in their parachutes.

The thing about books and children: A kid is like a backward machine of emotion. You put in food and love and the most amazing hunger comes out.

“When I’m five,” my daughter says, “we’ll get married. I’ll go to school underwater. My friends will be nicer. No one will yell at me. I’ll have ice powers like Elsa. I’ll meet God.

“Tomorrow,” she says. “That’s like ten sleeps.”

When sleep is a lie, the energy in your heart is the only energy. The only thing worth writing about, because it’s the only energy generated to be eaten.

But excuse me. I need to go kiss my kid goodnight and re-caffeinate.

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Matthew Salesses [3] is the author, most recently, of The Hundred-Year Flood [4]. He has written for NPR, The New York TimesSalon, The Toast, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, PEN/Guernica, and others. He is an editor at The Offing and Gulf Coast and is the graduate assistant to Glass Mountain. His previous books include Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity [5] (essays) and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying [6] (a novel).