Stick with me here, because I want to plug Charlie Custer’s work-in-progress documentary, Living with Dead Hearts, but before I do I need to go into some history.
It’s clear in hindsight that I was never really meant to be a manly-man, in the strict sense of the word. When future archeologists sift through the remains of our era, no one’s going to confuse my jawbone for, say, Ryan Reynolds’. But I’m trim, reasonably athletic and spend some time in the gym.
Still, peer into the history and it’s not hard to spot the aura of geekdom. When I went out for baseball in late elementary school (an everyone-gets-to-play phase of interscholastic sports) I was promptly exiled to right field, which is where you send the kid with headgear that you want to keep out of harm’s way. In my few innings in play there was exactly one fly popped my way. It dropped behind me while I squinted anxiously at the heavens. In high school, having come to terms with my identity, I ran comfortably with the Dungeons & Dragons crowd rather than the jocks. I actually wore an anorak and a full-length Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf through my sophomore year. Needless to day, I wasn’t known as a ladies’ man.
But whatever else, I wasn’t a crier. Until, that is, my son, Zachary, was born.
By the time that happened I was a good twenty years into my masculine rehabilitation, having graduated to rock bands in college and demanding technical scuba diving and physical fitness later in life. The actual geekiness was still there, but I came of age in an era and a place – Silicon Valley – where intellectual geekiness is socially acceptable, especially if it’s wrapped in a semi-presentable package rather than, say, an anorak.
So there I was, secure and comfortable in early middle-age respectable geek masculinity, when Zach came along in 2008. Fatherhood rewires you in many subtle ways. For instance, I no longer feel compelled to ask the stewardesses to open the bomb-bay doors when there’s a child shrieking in the same airplane cabin as me. I’ve gained a masterful, scholarly command of the Thomas the Tank Engine, Chuggington and Dinosaur Train canons. And I’ve developed a level of easy comfort with other people’s bodily functions that I thought was the sole preserve of intensive-care nurses, night-soil collectors and coprophiliacs.
But I’ve also become a crier. As near as I can figure there is some kind of hormonal recalibration that goes on in fathers, probably to help ensure you empathize with your child in order to reduce the chances of, say, clubbing him to death with an antelope thigh bone when he does any of the zillions of things that really annoy you. But a side effect of that sensible evolutionary step is this emotional trigger that makes me choke up at completely inappropriate times.
I’m serious. I mean, forget all the Old Yeller bullshit. We all cried then. I get damp cheeks for nothing these days. Street musicians, public service announcements, that moment in Star Wars when Threepio abandons R2D2 in the desert, bus shelter advertisements, whatever. Any cheap emotional trick and I’ve suddenly, you know, got something in my eye. I misted up watching Transformers 3 because I thought the compositing was good.
This is why I’m a little alarmed at the prospect of watching Charlie Custer’s upcoming documentary, Living With Dead Hearts. If Michael Bay’s effects shots can leave me honking into my tissue in a Chinese movie theater, god only knows what a heartbreaking documentary about actual kidnapped children in China will do. That empathic circuit that fatherhood gave me makes it impossible for me to watch that kind thing without imagining the same thing happening to my own little boy. And Zach missing is absolutely the worst thing that I can possibly imagine. If Zach was missing I know I would spend every single waking second wondering if he were OK? Hungry? Afraid? Injured? Crying somewhere? Just thinking about it now is making my sinuses swell, which is inconvenient since I’m sitting in Aseana economy class while I write this.
But that empathy is also why I made a modest (and I do mean modest) donation into Charlie’s Kickstarter fund for the project when he first started out, a few months ago. Charlie is a longtime China resident, fellow Sinica podcast contributor, Penn-Olson China editor, and author of the excellent Chinageeks blog. I think Living With Dead Hearts is a great project, and Charlie’s doing it on a shoestring. He recently posted a trailer and appeal for more donations to fund completion, and I’m happy to re-post it here. I encourage you to watch and share it with anyone else you think might be interested either in supporting the project, or just seeing it when it’s done.
But if you’re a parent, keep a hanky handy.
Lost Laowai blog’s interview with Charlie Custer.