February 5, 2010

USA: The Virtues of a Slow-Moving Dad

. NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Fashion & Style / February 4, 2010 Generation B The Virtues of a Slow-Moving Dad By Michael Winerip WHEN a man has a child late in life, it helps to have thick skin. “People come right out and say, ‘Why’d you wait so long, you’re too old,’ ” said Rob Vichnis, 54, whose son Sergei is 7. “People say, ‘You’re his grandfather?’ ” said Ron Fliegelman, 65, whose son, Isaac, is 5. They ask if the boy’s name was inspired by the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah, blessed by God in their old age with a son, Isaac. “No, we just liked the name,” Mr. Fliegelman says. Richard Chalfin, 58, father of Harper, 7, finds himself at school events at P.S. 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with parents half his age. “I made a reference to Woodstock. They say, ‘Oh, my God, you were really at Woodstock? I wasn’t born then.’ ” Even their own children pile on. A few years back, Manuel Macarrulla, 57, was trying to get his son, Diego, then 7, out of the house, but the boy was dawdling. “Finally, I said, ‘Diego, while we’re still young,’ and he said, ‘While one of us is young.’ ” This being the age of listservs and blogs, no one need experience anything alone anymore, and about five years ago, a few men in Brooklyn began posting for an older fathers’ group they called Over 50, Under 5. After a couple of false starts, a core of six came together, and they’ve been meeting monthly for dinner for four years now. “We seek comfort in other dads in the same situation,” said Stig Albinus, 59, who has a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. That, however, makes the group sound a little weepier than it actually is. In truth, they count themselves quite lucky to have young children at a time of life when they are not building careers, not seeking fame and fortune, when they are able to put their young sons and daughters at the center of their lives. Three have adult children from previous relationships, and three just had children late. At their last meeting, at Cafe Steinhof in Park Slope, over sauerbraten, cabbage and beer, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and Diet Pepsi, Mr. Fliegelman discussed taking away the car from his 89-year-old mother, as well as the risks of ice skating at age 65 with a 5-year-old son; Mr. Chalfin asked what if anything he could do about making Harper less timid at baseball; and everyone wanted movie suggestions for the long winter nights. “We rented ‘Curious George’ — scared the crap out of Sergei,” Mr. Vichnis said. “There’s a doorman — he could smell animals in the building.” “Yeah, he appears with a really nasty face on,” Mr. Macarrulla said. “Sergei called the doorman a monster,” Mr. Vichnis said. “I said, I’ll fast forward. he said, ‘No, turn it off!’ ” “Isaac likes ‘Mary Poppins,’ ” Mr. Fliegelman said. “Yeah, my son likes ‘Mary Poppins,’ too,” Mr. Vichnis said. As entrees disappeared and desserts and decaf espressos arrived, it became clear that despite all the obvious drawbacks of having a child enter college when (and if) they reach their 70s, the bonus the Over 50s enjoy is an ability to control their time in a way they never could as young men. Mr. Albinus had time to cook the turkey for Ashley’s and Oliver’s Thanksgiving parties at school. And Mr. Fliegelman had time to go on Isaac’s kindergarten skating trip last week. And Mr. Chalfin and Mr. Macarrulla had time to help coach Harper’s and Diego’s baseball teams. And even though Mr. Vichnis complained about missing the good old days when children grew up playing in the streets, he has time for Sergei’s play dates. “I was bad about this the first time,” said Mr. Albinus, who has a daughter, 37, and a son, 28, by two different women in his native Denmark. In his 20s he was building a career as a political reporter covering Parliament. “I had to be there long hours,” he said. On days he was supposed to pick up his son from child care, he often couldn’t. He would call his wife, who was also working full time, and they’d argue about how he never did his share. “I’d get to day care late, my son was crying, it was terrible,” Mr. Albinus said. These things leave scars; at one point, the grown son, now a film director in Denmark, stopped speaking to him for a year. This time around, Mr. Albinus is in public relations. “I don’t have the same ambitions,” he said. He makes enough so his wife can work half time and anchor the household. If his children have a play or birthday party at school, he takes time off and works at home after they’re in bed. “For my little son, I’m always there,” he said. “For my older son, I missed too many birthdays.” This time, Mr. Fliegelman, whose wife, Josephine, 50, is a speech therapist, is anchoring the household. When his first child, Bessie, now 33, was born, he was literally coming up from the underground, from a life on the edge as a radical activist with the Weathermen. He was a single father sharing custody of Bessie, working at a private school and studying nights to become certified to teach in the public schools. “A struggle,” Mr. Fliegelman said. “A very harried life.” Three years ago, when Isaac was 2, Mr. Fliegelman retired, after 25 years as a New York City special education teacher. “The thing that’s most amazing to me this time,” he said, “there are days I can think about Isaac and nothing else. I mean, I think about making dinner, but I can give him an enormous amount of undivided attention.” Mr. Vichnis, a sculptor by training, has enough seniority as a social worker so he can work a four-day week, and spend the fifth day with Sergei. As a younger man, Mr. Chalfin read “On the Road” and hitchhiked cross-country; trained to be a dancer until he injured his leg; worked as a stand-up comic, but never could make more than $20,000 a year. By the time he married and, at 51, when Harper was born, he had created a stable antiquarian book business. Asked if he missed the stand-up life, he said, “I had my son and he laughed at my jokes and I found my audience.” That’s the nub of it: At an advanced age, they’ve found their audience and have time to work the room. They move slower. Sergei wants to play tag all the way to school, but Mr. Vichnis can’t keep up. Rodney Ripps, 59 — a visual artist now selling real estate for Halstead — doesn’t get down to play on the floor with 5-year-old Ezra the way he did 20 years ago with his adult son Ryder. They know the math is not in their favor. “When he’s 30, I’ll be 80,” Mr. Chalfin said. “Twenty years from now, Isaac will be 25,” Mr. Fliegelman said. “You wish you could be around longer, but you do what you can.” While here, they’re working on being present. Which is why come 10 p.m., the former artist, former comedian, former reporter and former Weatherman were shifting in their seats and calling for the check. “I have to be at the food co-op at 6 a.m.,” Mr. Chalfin said. “School tomorrow,” Mr. Fliegelman said. The next morning Mr. Vichnis woke Sergei at 7, then jumped back into bed with him, and read him a story before they got ready for school. Mr. Ripps made Ezra homemade organic pancakes before taking him to school. Mr. Fliegelman went out at 6:30 and bought Isaac a fresh bagel along with a black coffee for his wife. He drove his son to school and waited on the playground, until Isaac’s teacher came down to get the kindergartners. Then Isaac gave him a kiss on the lips, and because Mr. Fliegelman had nothing else better to do in the world, he watched until the last child had disappeared inside. [rc] E-mail: generationb@nytimes.com Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company