As my daughter tottered through the dimly lit maze of plastic tunnels and absorbent floor material that made up the McDonald’s PlayPlace, I realized that I’d become “that guy.”
I’m “that guy” who chews his food like cud and keeps an eye on the child whose motion seems less guided as it is compelled by forces she doesn’t understand. I’m “that guy” who utters slowly progressing warnings when his daughter is grabbing on to another child: “Evvvveeeeeyyy? Evvvvey?? No. Let that kid goooo. I meaaaannn it.” I’m “that guy” whose Friday night wardrobe has devolved into a sweatshirt and “comfy jeans” – you know, the “relaxed fit” ones your previous self would have never admitted to owning?
While I always knew I would be a father someday, I never knew what this actually meant. I never thought that I would ever have to fight for time to iron a shirt. I never thought that my ears could train themselves to recognize the particular frequency of my child’s cry and be able to pick it out of a crowd. I never EVER gave any thought to the idea that I’d ever be one of the anonymous balding fathers whose benevolence contributes to make the carefree experience of childhood possible.
It struck me there that my own happy childhood was no accident. It was created and nurtured not only through my parents, but also through the other adults involved in my young life. Now 30 years old, I have moved from taking advantage of this protective cocoon to doing my best to create one for my own offspring. It’s a powerful feeling – and one I am just beginning to understand.
That was my Friday night. I’ve determined that life is divided into distinct modes of operation. In this case, it’s “pursuit” and “maintenance.” Friday nights used to be spent in pursuit of a significant other. Now, those nights are spent maintaining and developing what that significant other and I have created, be it a massive pile of laundry or giving my daughter a trip through a Play Place.
I used to work at this same McDonald’s location when I was 16, sweeping floors and mopping up accidents of the last decade’s children. At the time, I cursed the parents who let their kids made ketchup messes, let them run around with sticky hands, and just seemed so detached from the experience, like they were so stone on Valium that they could care less. Now, I realize that these parents were probably exhausted and, like me many days now, craving a minute or two of what passes for tranquility.
I also realize now the awesome marketing firepower that McDonald’s aims at children and parents. For children, it promises a cheap toy, the luxury of fast food, and a trip to a wonderful place to play. For adults, it offers a trip to relive those same times, all while being able to eat a meal in relative peace as their children run through a plastic maze of diminished responsibility. For every minute my daughter spends in a plastic tube, that’s one more minute that I can eat my French fries and stare blankly into space.