We agreed ahead of time, via text message, that it would be an early night. He had to put a bow on a key report before catching a train to Washington, D.C., early the next morning and I had to put the finishing touches on a piece I was writing that was due in a matter of hours.
Only scraps of grilled onion and the too-crunchy pale green ends of iceberg lettuce remained when the oversized white bowls were finally cleared from the table. And that was a while ago, when the check was settled and our waiter checked out. Glasses sat nearly empty in front of us, nothing left but small beds of ice melting slowly in the crisp air of early autumn. We could just about see the breath we weren’t holding for refills of my water and his Diet Coke.
As we talked late into that night, later than either of us intended, but as late as we usually go, we realized together, simultaneously as if of one mind, that we were engaged in a conversation men of previous generations rarely could and therefore rarely did have. We didn’t gaze at or make mention of the cute hostess who shivered in a sundress she hadn’t yet moved down to the side of her closet reserved for out of season attire as she begrudgingly sat us outside at our request. We were dressed for the weather. The weekend’s slate of football games never came up during the three-hour chat. Neither of us could have told you, or cared an ounce about, who’d won and who’d lost. And our respective work was only tangentially a topic used to tell larger stories, to frame more nuanced points.
Instead of women and sports, we shared openly our failings as fathers and encouraged each other by recognizing that we’re each self-aware enough to see those shortcomings in ourselves and discuss them candidly with a desire to improve. We talked about the challenges, benefits, and privilege of raising girls, about the series of tiny unplanned moments that can shape-shift a life, about embracing the risk and glory lurking in the unknown, and about the inherent value in ‘giving a shit’ and how such a simple personality trait immediately sets one apart from a large percentage of the general population. We commiserated about striving to be present and in the moment with our kids but admitted, each of us, that we are often 100 moves ahead and therefore not always fixated on the here and now. We talked of our fathers and their fathers before them, how they struggled to accept the possibility of evolving their philosophies and how much damage being so rigid can cause to the relationships no one ever intends to let falter.
Yeah, we talked some heavy shit.
Sure, it was a single three-hour conversation over gumbo and salad, dinner rolls and too much sweet cream butter, but small yet impressionable dots on our timelines, dots made by such discussions and the sharing of new ideas and personal stories, move us a tick this way or a dash that way. Everything matters when you are open to being moved along your path towards the beautiful unknown. We also talked about how we might impress such a nebulous concept onto our children. That’s a toughie. We don’t boast of having all or any of the answers, but the questions are being asked and ideas pondered. And that matters, too. We’re fixers by nature but we know now that fatherhood is not always solution-based. Sometimes, what matters most is the existence of honest, open-ended dialogue between people who give a shit.
We are modern dads who met for dinner and while we were alone on the outdoor patio of a suburban restaurant on a chilly September evening, we were not alone at all. The conversations about and by dads is evolving, just as we continue to evolve, and are happening everywhere online and in person over bowls of salad and gumbo, with cold butter melting into the sweet embrace of warm rolls. We were happy to serve as a fresh blot of ink in a larger script about fatherhood being written and rewritten every single day.