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Author | Journalist | Speaker

  • Ken Ilgunas

The other day I asked my wife, “If I could read all your thoughts, would I think of you differently?” We were having a picnic on a Scottish beach, eating bread and cheese during an unseasonably warm March afternoon. I’d been thinking thoughts and analyzing those thoughts, and I couldn’t help but conclude: If she knew what I was thinking, she’d think I’m such a simpleton. I wasn’t thinking smart thoughts about the geology of the sea cliffs, or sentimental thoughts about our family picnic. I was only thinking about hockey: old hockey games, future hockey games, roster lineups, stats… A half a year ago, I’d seen a Facebook ad listed by the Edinburgh Ogres—a ragtag and unfit floor hockey team (the Brits call it “ball hockey”). The Ogres are one of eight teams in the Scottish Conference, part of the broader British BHUK ball hockey league. I joined the team, as did a bunch of new players. I’d played ice and street hockey throughout my youth, so I thought I’d perform well against the Scots, who come from a country that produces no NHL players and whose only noteworthy athletic accomplishment involves throwing heavy rocks and logs. But halfway through my first practice (“training”) I felt outrun by these Scots. I was dizzy and nauseous. I wore old hiking shoes and I constantly slipped and fell. Unsurprisingly, they put me on the third forward line. Between the nausea and wounded pride of being a “third liner,” I had good cause to get in better shape. Imagine a mellower, less-disciplined Rocky workout montage: me running for five minutes along the River Tyne before doubling over gasping for breath; me lifting weights in the garage to a “Where Shall We Begin?” podcast; me stretching to a “Yoga with Adriene” YouTube video. It had been almost five years since I held a hockey stick, and I was a good fifteen years away from my hockey heyday—when I played ice hockey for my high school team. I found that not only had I lost 10 mph from my once fearsome slap shot, but I had no control over the shot’s direction. I’d either trebuchet my shots high over the glass or ricochet them against my teammate’s jaw. On the team’s Facebook chat group, someone nicknamed me “Sniper,” which I originally interpreted as a gesture of acceptance until I realized the moniker was assigned in irony. At our first preseason tournament, despite my jogging and weightlifting, I felt as if I had the cardiovascular system of a sluggish, diabetic Labrador. Even some of the obese guys we played against seemed less gassed than me after a short shift. I wasn’t entirely incompetent, though: I remembered how to pass the ball and where to position myself on the floor. My decades of hockey experience, in this way, gave me an edge. I saw limited action, but I scored two garbage goals and one beauty that I roofed under the crossbar. I was reminded of how I liked to dramatically slide to block shots and to sacrifice my shins in front of my teammates. I enjoyed the grinding ball battles along the boards and coming out victorious. It felt good to get beaten up and to give a little beating. It felt good to get scraped up and to bleed a little. And I had newfound respect for British athleticism. You never have to scream “hustle!” to a Scot because, regardless of his size, he’s always running pell mell across the rink or roughly trying to jostle into position in front of the net. The Scots play with British self-sacrifice, a battleground berserkian intensity. They run into corners as if they’re running down a Highland munro with club in hand, wearing half-painted and full-crazed faces. I asked one teammate what it is about the culture that manufactures such raw athletic intensity. He thought for a moment and said, “We’re Scottish. We need to compensate.” This ungentlemanly spiritedness contrasts with their polite and well-behaved manner in normal life. In my village, everyone nods hello and makes a polite comment about my daughter. Yet on the adjacent soccer ball field, two amateur teams are ferociously battling and heedlessly head-butting balls, as if their country’s independence is at stake. I was the only onlooker. No matter the sport, teammates are constantly screaming and swearing at one another. And no one takes offense. It’s a savage camaraderie—typical here, but rarer in North America, where sports teams are generally taught to be positive and supportive. I will always favor gentlemanly sportsmanship, but I admire this spiritedness. I felt reassured knowing that my daughter won’t be growing up around a bunch of softies. And hockey is not a game for softies. It’s is a primitive game mostly played by primitive people. I’ve always been the quiet, seemingly gentle one in locker rooms, surrounded by a bunch of foul-mouthed apes. I’ve been exposed to almost twenty year’s worth of locker room banter and I’ve never once heard anything that could be construed to be noble, meaningful, or intelligent. In high school, I felt ashamed to be socially associated with my teammates, who’d pee on and laugh at each other in the communal shower after games. A bunch of them casually nicknamed an Italian player (who was good and well liked) the N-word because he had dark skin. I remember how, on my JV team, one older and bigger player bullied the rest of us into reserved submission. On the rink, you took slap shots to the toe and got mauled in the corners. The locker room was little better: full of juvenile cruelty, Mad Max hierarchical posturing, a Darwinian struggle for survival, red in tooth and claw. Some of my first character-defining moments happened in hockey locker rooms. Once, when I was eleven and on a new team, an older player in the locker room sneeringly stared at me, repeating the word “douche.” I pretended not to notice and never looked up. My little brother was lacing up his skates next to me and I later wondered if my faux-ignorance and face-saving(?) pacifism set the right example, or if I should have just coyly walked up to my new teammate and smashed his face. As a young boy, I remember how once, while standing in line in a corner for a drill, one player, from behind, stuck his stick between my legs and sneeringly tapped my cup with the tip of his stick blade. I remember doing nothing. Throughout my adolescence, my survival strategy amounted to keeping my head down in the locker room. After a few weeks, my silence would help me achieve a cloak of invisibility. On the ice, I earned respect for being gritty and relentless. But that wasn’t always enough. Once a fellow teammate on a new team tested me by brazenly hooking his stick around my waist in skating drills, as if I was a mule to do his skating for him. I’d been in these situations often enough to know that inaction was unthinkable. I turned around, holding my stick high, as if wielding a two-handed sword, and half swung it down toward his neck. He winced in fear. The takeaway wisdom from these experiences is that sometimes intimidation must to be met with violence, or the threat of violence. Sometimes the quiet guys (for their unpredictability) can be just as scary as the loud. Sometimes you need to be an ogre. I saw some of this brute masculinity at my first Ogres tournament, in which one of the players, in between games, drank beers until he was drunk by the end of the tournament. At the end of our first game, which we justifiably lost, one of our teammates screamed, “FAGGOT,” at the other team. We constantly blamed our woes on the ref and there were countless and unnecessary skirmishes. I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d return. But I got in better shape and moved from the third line to the second. The drinker left the team, there’ve been no more homophobic epithets, and I’ve gotten to know my team outside of the locker room. On a team trip down to England, I had a heart-to-heart with my teammate Gregor, who was contemplating major life changes. I put my hand on Mark’s shoulder when I expressed sympathy over news of his dog dying. I’ve learned of hardships that have befallen some of our younger players. The Ogres no longer seemed so ogreish. But that’s not to say there’s something wrong with having — or expressing — your inner ogre. That’s one of the great things about a sport like hockey: it gives you a (mostly) safe and (mostly) controlled environment to relieve tension, to exhaust inner demons, to press the release valve and get out a bit of the anger, brutality, and violence that must be carefully bottled in normal life. And then there’s the emotions that these games evoke that you forget you even have. If you fall deeply into a routine-spiral of any sort (for me: nappy changes, meal making, and garden maintenance) you’re liable to lose a few big slices from the emotional pie. After a game, I felt like the snow-covered emotions of nervousness, excitement, and fraternal warmth had been polished to a Zamboni sheen. As a father to a young child, one must abandon old hobbies, old traits, and a bit of your old self. But for a few hours a week, hockey helps to bring out a bit of my old self. Suddenly I have a reason to self-improve, an outlet for my megalomaniacal drive, and a narrative of operatic drama that I could be the center of. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing the Dundee Ducks to a crowd of three spouses; the emotions feel as powerful and real as if we were competing for Olympic gold. Sports isn’t just an opportunity for glory, camaraderie, and physical exhilaration. Sports can be a much-needed reminder of your competence as a human being. Last summer, the captain for my co-ed, slow-pitch softball team (The Haar Hitters) resigned and announced that the team was officially folding. Our captain was gone; our roster was depleted. But I had spare time, so I decided to help salvage the team, taking on the role as captain. My first step was to recruit new players on the American-Edinburgh ex-pat Facebook group, with the hope of finding players with baseball experience. I took advantage of the team's implosion. It was the best thing that could have happened, as I now had carte blanche to aggressively overhaul and upgrade the roster. Over the course of the summer, I designed trainings, obsessed over lineups and batting orders, managed team morale, tried to cultivate team chemistry, and sent flattering emails to good ball players I’d later try to recruit. And I played some pretty good short stop. We went from a dead team to winning the division 10-2, boosting us up to the premier league. In my normal everyday life, I was weighed down by the task of full-time parenting and defeated by a series of career frustrations. Every job application I sent out was rejected. All of my magazine story pitches were turned down. I applied for one of eight seasonal countryside ranger jobs and I was devastated to learn I didn’t get one of them. I’ve been a landscaper and gardener for most of my life, yet I couldn’t even get a landscaping job that I had no trouble getting when I was an inexperienced 17 year old. I’m reminded of a quote from the character, Pam, in “The Office,” in an episode when Jim is excitedly choreographing the “office olympics”: The thing about Jim is when he's excited about something, like the Office Olympics, he gets really into it and he does a really great job. But the problem with Jim is that he works here, so that hardly ever happens. It’s the same with me: Softball and hockey remind me of the best of myself — driven, intense, focused, analytical, ambitious, physically capable — at a time when I feel unfit for and undesired by “the real world.” Maybe I can't find gainful employment or career satisfaction, or meet society's typical measures of "success," but at least I know I can accomplish something hard.

Anyway, back to hockey and being an ogre… In my last game-day, I scored 8 points in the first game against Glasgow Phoenix, vaulting me from 18th in league scoring to 3rd. The Ogres were 4-2 and I was on the top line. The key to our success was a new young player from Pittsburgh, Colton, with whom I had immediate chemistry. Our newly reformed and now pretty good Ogres team was set to play an old bully—The Kirkcaldy (“Kirkcoddy”) Knights, who we'd never been able to beat. Colton scored the third goal and I scored the fourth, putting us on top with a few minutes left. Colton stabbed at the ball in front of the net, accidentally hitting the goalie’s thumb. The goalie retaliated by delivering a vicious uppercut slash to the groin of Colton, who immediately crumpled to the floor in pain. There’s a thin line separating the sportsman from the savage, the gentleman from the goon, the knight from the ogre. In sports, and in life, sometimes the most gentlemanly thing you can do is not to “calmly express your feelings” or “verbally resolve problems”; it’s to pull your fist back and pop someone in the mouth. With my new line mate on the ground holding his crotch, I knew this was my chance to live out my operatic drama, to exercise physical bravery, to stick up for a fallen teammate, and to feel like a worthy and competent human being. I knew I had no choice.

[This is from my newsletter. Get these newsletters in your inbox by signing up on this website.]

I’d hoped to knock out two of these a month, but who has the time?

So much of my time gets devoted to childcare. Perhaps my most onerous parenting duty is letting my daughter tug my ear. Every day and every night she asks for it, using her mother’s German.

“I want daddy’s ohren” is the mantra.

She’s been tugging my ears for almost the whole of her 2.5 years. I don’t mind the daytime “comfort” tugs so much. It's the nighttime marathons — that can go on for hours — that I resent. She’s never been able to fall asleep without tugging on someone’s ear.

We shouldn’t have let it go on this long. But when you have a clingy, crying baby, and when you know there’s a way to get her to fall asleep, it never seems like a sensible strategy to deprive her of her favorite comfort or impose a hard rule. No, you’re just grabbing whatever tool you have in the parenting toolbox.

There are many ways she handles my ear. She pulls, she tugs, she grasps, she rubs. Sometimes she harshly grabs the cartilage of my outer helix and folds the ear down on top of itself. Sometimes she yanks the lobe upward as if she wants to tear the ear off. And sometimes it’s a reverential caress or a gentle tickle or a series of silly lobe flicks.

The only boundary I’ve managed to set — and which she has surprisingly accepted — is that her little fingers are not allowed to embark on expeditions into the caverns of my inner ear. Those I swat away, and she’ll, without a word of protest, venture back onto her usual paths.

As she falls asleep, her ferocious tugs turn into soft finger flicks, until her hand droops onto the bed and goes to sleep with her, though sometimes her fingers continue to restlessly tremble.

A few months ago we gave her a toddler-sized bed. I can no longer lie alongside her as she goes to sleep, so, to give her my ear, my body must remain seated on the floor, while my back contorts and neck stretches so that my head can rest on her pillow. It is an uncomfortable position for my body to be in for a full hour, but the ordeal is actually less painful than it was in the past.

When my daughter was a baby, it felt as if she was trying to literally saw through the webbing of my ear with her nails — her little shards of glass — perhaps to once and for all have my floppy lobe and hard folds of cartilage to herself. I’ve thought about finding her an authentic-seeming rubber ear mold, but I know it won’t work: she needs the head on which the ear is attached as much as she needs the ear.

The violence of her tugs vary depending on her state of mind. If there are little lightning storms zapping in her agitated brain, she frantically and aggressively pulls, squeezes, and slices. With her eyes closed, she’ll insolently push my cheek and turn my head in order to grab the other ear. I must give her free reign of my body above the neck, or she’ll begin to gradually shift toward dreaded wakefulness.

Imagine doing this for an hour a night, every night. Imagine doing it at nap time, too. Sometimes it’s two hours a night! Last night, I tried putting her to bed at 6 PM, and she didn’t go down till 11 PM. That’s five hours of sleep drama! Those are hours I could have been working, cleaning, or, hell, enjoying leisure. Instead, my ears get pulled as I wait, wait, wait for her to finally fall asleep.

Eventually she’ll transition into a new arc of the sleep cycle, when her breathing becomes heavier, more swinish, and I can softly make my exit.

But, whoops! I stepped on a creaky floorboard and my daughter commands, “Go back to bed, daddy.” The threat is implicit: if I don’t shove my ear back into her palm, she will wail until I give into her demands.

My only way of managing my emotions — and not yell at her to go to sleep and stop destroying my ear — is to enter into a dissociative state, in which I pretend I am not human. I try to not think about all the things I’d rather be doing. Instead, I think of myself as a sort of servant-automaton, existing only to serve this baby. But it’s never a true dissociative state. Behind my robotic frame is a heart thumping the beat of frustration, irritation, dismay.

Is it fair to call the ear tugging torture? No, probably not. But, then again, have I reached the point where the novelty of the Chinese water drop seems preferable?

Some rough math…

I’d say, on average, I spend about forty-five minutes a day engaged in my daughter’s sleep-time routines. (This number factors in brushing teeth, reading books, having my ear pulled, waking up in the middle of the night to put her back to bed, plus the fact that my wife shares half these duties.)

My daughter has lived in the open air for 987 days. That means that I’ve spent 44,415 minutes, or 740 hours, or 31 days, in a state of bedtime tedium, with my neck stretched in painful angles. That’s a whole month!

And that’s only the bedtime routine. Add in all the other parenting-related duties: cleaning, cooking, playing, supervising. I might be able to take more pleasure in the tedium of the everyday task if I didn’t also have to worry about functioning as an economic unit: I must make x amount of money, per year, to pay the mortgage, bills, and for the necessities of life.

For the child-less readers… Imagine that your childcare duties finally end at 11 PM, giving you a one-hour workday, if you can indeed bring yourself to work at that late hour. Writing a newsletter and polishing my brand on social media are among the most obvious pleasure-chores to be cut out of my life. Sometimes I wonder how any parent is able to fulfill all of their prime responsibilities.

Barack Obama once wrote, “If you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one.” He made this claim by citing positive worldwide shifts in education, health, and economic mobility.

I get the argument, but would I feel so stressed as a parent if I lived in an Iroquois longhouse, alongside twenty families who no doubt shared parenting duties and formed informal nurseries? Where I wouldn’t have to worry about an absurd monthly mortgage bill? Or the fact that I have no retirement plan?

I shouldn’t assume or romanticize… One only need look at child mortality rates from bygone eras to appreciate how now is indeed better. Yet, can’t we have the polio vaccine and age-old family structures? Can't we live in novel communities — or find their policy equivalent — to support families better? Perhaps a modern-day “longhouse policy” is Belgium giving free daycare to kids under three, or Estonia offering paid leave to mothers (84 weeks), or Germany issuing generous payments to families ($240 per child, per month).

Here’s another idea… Sometimes we progressives imagine uniting our peoples and building back our country by requiring a year of mandatory public service, either in the military, in education, or in conservation. I’ll add a “nanny corps” to that wishlist.

When my daughter turns three, the Scottish government will provide us with thirty hours of free childcare a week. I am very grateful for that, but government support is not enough. That still means my wife and I will be responsible for my child for 138 of the week’s 168 hours.

It’s easy to blame governments. But let’s also blame the social and economic shifts that compelled Western civilization to select the nuclear family as the predominate family structure. My wife and I used our freedoms to romantically cross seas to a new land, leaving behind our extended families, whose help would be dearly cherished. We have a growing network of friends, but most of them are dealing with their own nuclear meltdowns.

This is a lot of ungrateful complaining. I should show compassion to those couples who struggle to make the baby who they wish would tug their ears to death. But I can be both grateful that I have a child and resentful that I have to be a parent. Nothing is more obvious to me than the fact that parents aren’t meant to be full-time caretakers. And babies aren’t meant to grow up with just a mommy, daddy, and an occasional childminder. There should be aunts, uncles, grannies, and community members — a village — to help raise every child.

I feel like I have a few worthwhile things I can offer this world. Maybe a few of these newsletters? Another book? An article? A video about gardening? But instead my head is literally being held against its will for hours every day. It feels like I was meant for something more — something the evokes what I do best — than twisting my torso so a body part can be relentlessly tugged. I was once an author. Now I do work a coma patient can do.

You might argue that I’ll look back on it all fondly someday. It is true how our memories edit and sift and simplify. Who knows, maybe I will forget the hours of tedium and remember the nice cuddles, the rhythmic suction of her dummy, or the random and adorable exclamations that come from the depths of her half-awake and always-developing mind: “When I get bigger, I go to school.” “I’m a family, daddy’s a family, mommy’s a family.” Maybe I won’t have, and will therefore miss, human touch someday. Maybe I’ll miss the time when someone so desperately needed me.

You might argue that this process — this pain — is all good for me. But let’s say I got the memo about selflessness and patience long ago.

My life is full of tedium and chores, duties and anxiety. There is little time for career development or pleasure writing. But life is unquestionably full—not “full” as in senselessly busy. No, there’s something about having a family — like a sound wave we can feel but can’t hear — that makes us feel something behind all that noise. Family annoys us, but fills us. Children nourish us unawares.

I should say that I do not actively perceive my life’s newfound enrichment. I only know it’s enriched because I never perceive or am pestered by fullness’s antithesis: existential emptiness. And existential emptiness is a sensation I’m plenty familiar with, and I don’t mourn its absence one bit.

In my pre-parenting days, I enjoyed steady career accomplishments and was enlivened by travel. My life should have felt full, but unless I was right in the middle of some life-consuming goal, it felt troublingly empty. Now, my life is mostly mindless tasks and endless chores, but it’s weirdly enriched. There is no easy way to explain it, but parenting can, at the same time, make you less happy and more enriched. My best explanation is that we need to be needed more than we need our needs fulfilled.

Don’t let me end this too rosily. I’d love to benefit from an Estonian law, an Iroquoian longhouse, or a member of the Nanny Corps to help me balance being an individual and a family man. I wish I could write this newsletter more, kickstart my career, and enjoy one of my hobbies without feeling guilt.

For forty-five minutes every day, when being held against my will, I only think about what else I could be doing, sometimes in a state of barely-managed rage. If I was a better man, I might view the ear tugging sessions as opportunities — if I may end this too rosily — to finally notice that this life is tedious, but full. And to notice that, to everyone else, I may be irrelevant, but to this one little person I am needed. And that seems to matter more.