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The Chaos Machine

by Charles and Daniel Baxter
Illustrations by Tony Millionaire

The Chaos Machine

Charles and Daniel Baxter
14 Snaps

Late spring in southern Minnesota, 1998: the days build from deceptively clear mornings to damp, overheated afternoons. I have driven from Michigan to pick up my son at college and to take him home for summer break. As I enter Northfield, Minnesota—a sign announces the town, modestly boasting of its “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment”—I open the window and smell the faint receding scent of farm fields and the stronger cardboardish odor of the Malt-O-Meal plant just inside the city limits.

A strange mix, a pleasantly naïve Midwestern smell. Our minivan, emptied of its benches and rear seat, should accommodate all my son’s college paraphernalia, but the van, too, has an aroma—of Tasha, the family dog, a keeshond, and of the coffee I have been drinking mile after mile to stay awake. In fact, the van smells of all the Baxters. In Michigan the previous day I witnessed an accident near Albion, a woman driving suicidally into a bridge abutment; as a result, today I am shaky and still unnerved, and I am giving off a bad odor myself.

Daniel meets me in his dorm room. My spirit lifts when I see him. We hug. He is smiling but preoccupied and quiet, as he often is. Typical college kid? How would I know? He’s the only son—the only child—I have. We arrange to go out to dinner at some air-conditioned Northfield bistro. Later, eating his pasta, a fa­vorite food, he tells me that, yes, he will help me load up the van tomorrow, but, well, uh, he also needs to work with his friend Alex on a physics project the two of them have cooked up and have almost finished, a “Chaos Machine,” as he calls it. He tries to explain to me what the Chaos Machine is, and I manage to figure out that it’s some sort of computer randomizer. Much of the time when he explains anything technical to me—he has a brilliant mind for physics and engineering—I am simply baffled. I try to disguise my ignorance by nodding sagely and keeping my mouth shut. One’s dignity should ideally stay intact in front of one’s adult children.

So, OK, I will load the van tomorrow myself.1

I drop him off at his dorm and go back to the motel to get a night’s sleep. All night—I suffer from insomnia, and the motel’s pillow seems to be made out of recycled Styrofoam—I smell the production odors from the Malt-O-Meal plant, the smell of the hot cereal that I was served every winter when I myself was disguised as a child.

My own father died of a heart attack when I was eighteen months old. I remember nothing of him, this smiling mythical figure, this insurance salesman, my dad (a word I have never been able to speak in its correct context to anyone). Said to have a great sense of humor, grace, and charm, John Baxter, who­ever he was, withdrew his model of fatherhood from me be­fore I could get at it. It’s not his fault, but there’s a hole in me where he might have been. There’s much that I don’t know and have never known about parenthood and other male qualifiers, such as the handyman thing. I once tried to assemble a lawn mower by my­self, and on its maiden voyage across the lawn, it sprayed screws and nuts and bolts in every direction, an entertaining spectacle for the onlookers, my wife and son.

Lying in the Northfield ­Coun­try Inn, wide awake, I wonder if my father would have driven to my own college to help me move myself back home. Maybe yes. But somehow I doubt it. Growing up, I did not live in a universe in which such things ever happened.

In college, I was vaguely afraid of parenthood myself, as many young men are. Indeed, fatherhood, that form of parenthood specific to my gender, and which should be avoided at all costs, according to Donald Barthelme in The Dead Father, rose up before me during the early years of my marriage as a cloud of unknowing. What, past the conception stage, do fathers actually do? How should they behave? No usable models had presented themselves to me, though I had been given a good nonmodel, an intermittently generous, Yale-educated, martini-drink­ing, Shakespeare-quoting step­­father, a successful attorney, gardener, and quietly raucous anti-Semite who had loved me and taken care of me in a distant Victorian way. Stepfathering, however, is not identical to fathering, at least in my stepfather’s case; for him, it was largely a peripheral occupation. It gave him the right to make pronouncements, his favorite being “Life is hard.”

Recently, reading an account of Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, I note that he believes that a father’s duty is to teach his sons to fight and to hunt. I haven’t done either, nor will I. I am a traitor, it seems, to my gender. Once my wife said, “All you’re teaching Daniel is irony.”

Martha, my wife, always ap­peared to have a clear idea of what motherhood required right from the start and set to it with determination and alacrity. Women don’t need the manual, I thought irritably at the time; they just know how to do these things. Me, I needed the man­ual. But the manual cannot be found in a book. So I was an ­ironic parent, a Chaos Machine myself.

Rules to live by:

1. When the server brings the bill, always grab it before anyone else does.

2. Life isn’t particularly serious until it becomes so.

3. Try to be kind to people. Be generous.

4. A god named Larry is the god of parking. Don’t ask me how I know this. Pray to Larry for parking spaces when you need one, and you will be rewarded.

The next day, Daniel and I have breakfast together. Then I begin loading the van. It’s getting hot. Daniel’s room is cluttered with clothes (a tropical-colored shirt2 for his performances in his cult rock band, Grätüïtöüs Ümläüt,3 for which he plays keyboards), amplifiers, CDs, books, including Moby-Dick, a VHS copy of Repo Man. Easy things first: I’ll start with the blankets.

My son had a fearsomely difficult infancy. In those days, he had a different name: Nathaniel. He came out of the womb jaundiced and stayed jaundiced for longer than is usual. He could not breastfeed and lost weight following his birth. “Failure to thrive,” the doctor said, ­darkly. When he was finally able to nurse, he proved, in time, to be colicky and irritable. The doctor prescribed phenobarbital, which helped, briefly. Then the house was filled, morning until night, with the sound of desperate crying from the nursery. This production of noise from babies is not unusual, and many parents get used to it. Martha did. I didn’t. I would take Nathaniel outside under the crabapple tree, which sometimes calmed him down, but I was criticized for not letting him cry himself out.4 We took Nathaniel off milk and supplemented his breastfeeding with soy, in the hopes that he would find it more digestible, then from soy to a manufactured protein called Nutra­migen. Often when I hugged him, he bent backward away from me, as if in pain.

As Nathaniel lies in his crib, I watch him. I am afraid of him. I am afraid to pick him up; he looks so breakable. What if I drop him? What should I do, as his dad? On one occasion, I try to cut his baby fingernails and make a mistake, cutting into a bit of skin, and he begins to howl, and I am besieged with guilt over my carelessness. Martha comes upstairs. “What happened? What did you do?” she asks me, distraught.

On another occasion, I am feeding him with a baby bottle full of Nutramigen, and Martha comes upon me and is completely overcome with jealousy; she tries to talk it through but cannot defeat this emotion. She will feed Nathaniel from now on, she says. She cannot bear to see me feeding him. It does not occur to me to fight over this.

Heavier things now: I pack up Daniel’s keyboard. One of his keyboards. He has several. Now his cello. The cello rests inside an enormous protective black case, lined inside with what looks like velvet.

More rules to live by:

1. Music makes life easier and often just plain bearable.

2. Most good works require obsessive detail.

3. Losing your temper, though satisfying, usually doesn’t get you anywhere, and it creates more trouble than it’s worth.

4. Take long walks, especially on weekends. Nature restores the soul.

Long after most children ­start speaking, Nathaniel continued to stay silent, or his words were so garbled that I could not understand them, though his mother usually could. She played with him, the blocks and the trains. But he was prone to sudden white-faced rages: once, carrying him into Lord & Taylor, I found myself, with Nathaniel in my arms, in front of the escalator, a device that seemed to frighten him, and he began to claw at my eyes. Around that same time, my wife’s back had bite marks and scratch marks, where he had clawed at her. I carried my own wounds around, especially near my eyelids.

But I liked to carry him around anyway, anywhere, on my shoulders, a daddy thing to do. On Saturday night, we danced together to music on NPR and tumbled around on the living room floor, roughhousing. I am inventing fatherhood, I told myself. Like most grand concepts, fatherhood appeared to be made up of small, mosaiclike blocks of activities. In Hawaii, it means taking Nathaniel around to see the pop-up lawn sprinklers, which he adores.5 Or forcing him to try chicken ­coated with honey. Or, back in Mi­chigan, singing to him as he falls asleep, particularly “You Are My Sunshine.” Or taking him to McDonald’s, for the hamburgers (not the buns, which he will not eat). Trying to understand his speech, I give him a microphone attached to nothing and pretend to make him into a network correspondent, or a guest on a talk show.6 I sit him on my lap so he can pound the keys on the typewriter, and I sit him on my lap again, downstairs, so he can pound the keys of the piano. This habit of playing the piano stays with him.

Nathaniel is obsessed with fountains, with elevator doors and escalators, and of gaps that divide and then close, such as screen doors that he can open and shut repetitively, all afternoon. He adores trains.

A young woman wearing a Carleton College T-shirt comes in asking for Daniel. I tell her that he’s not here, that he’s off with Alex working on the Chaos Machine. She nods, smiles, and disappears. She has a pleasantly absentminded expression freighted with intelligence, very much the norm at this college; I have rarely seen so many intelligent and physically awkward students in one place.7 Seeing Carleton students playing Frisbee is like watching a convention of mathematicians out on a dance floor.8 The sight is touching but laden with pathos.

I am physically clumsy. Daniel is physically clumsy, or was. Instead of shooting hoops, on almost every Sunday afternoon, winter and summer, he and his mother and I, along with Tasha, the dog, if she is up for it, go out walking in one of the Michigan parks. These walks constitute one of our family rituals—walking on a path in the woods affords both togetherness and pri­vacy: you can be pensive, and in solitude, but you’re being pensive and solitary in the company of your family, and you’re being active, too. Families sometimes give the ap­pearance of three or four solitudes living under the same roof. Ours certainly does. Did.9

Now I am carrying out Daniel’s chair, purchased by us at ShopKo, and his computer, a giant, lumbering old Macintosh. Is it al­ready afternoon? Sweat is pouring down my face and soaking my shirt.

Gertrude Stein, in Everybody’s Autobiography, said that the twentieth century was the era of bad fathers. She noted that bad fathers would appear on the scene locally, within families, and nationally as bad political fathers—Hitler and Stalin—and that the appearance of these tyrants was an effort to reintroduce a dead God (He had died in the nineteenth century) and to put him in charge of the state apparatus. There has already been too much fathering in the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein said. My own parenting lacks a certain authority; I am a somewhat insincere and doubtful father, having never quite become accustomed to the role.

One morning when he was four years old, Nathaniel came down­stairs, and when Martha called him “Nathaniel,” he said, “Not Na­thaniel. Daniel.” And he became Daniel from then on.10 He named himself. My brother Tom was frightened and appalled by our son’s self-naming and worried about what would happen if he tried to do so again. What if he kept renaming himself? Chaos. Napoleon crowned himself—a blas­phemy—and Daniel renamed himself, as hippies in my era did. So, OK. Why shouldn’t children name themselves, particularly if they can’t pronounce their given names? So we let him do it, and Martha went down to City Hall and had the birth certificate altered so that “Daniel” would appear on it in­stead of “Nathaniel.”

Despite the normalization of his name, Daniel felt slightly different (to me, to others, maybe to himself) from other boys: obsessive, brilliantly intelligent—those shock­ingly intricate sentences! that diction level!—and physically at odds with himself. Other kids noticed, and eventually we took him out of public school and placed him in a Waldorf School, a Rudolf Steiner school, where many of the kids were oddballs (even his teacher called them “oddballs,” and the teacher himself was no slouch, either, when it came to oddballdom), and where Daniel was accepted and loved by everybody.11

I dismantle his desk and take it to the van. Or do I?12 It’s almost a decade later, now, as I write. The past is beginning to smear together, the years taking their kindly toll.

More rules to live by:

1. When driving, respect the orderly flow of speeding traffic.

2. Use the left lane to pass. But don’t stay there.

3. Life is really very simple; be openhearted and try to live for others. Avoid pretense.

Throughout his childhood and adolescence, we travel; we see the world, we view the United States (by car, by train), the three of us. Daniel and I both love Virgil Thom­son’s and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, especially to drive to. An odd love for a father to pass down to a son, but it makes us both laugh.13 Once, following a case of pneumonia, he says he wants to see New York City, and he and I take a slow train there and back, meeting in the dining car the lead singer for Herman’s Hermits, who tells us about a “great novel,” one of his favorites, Atlas Shrugged. As Daniel’s father, I explain to my son after we have returned to our compartment why the famous singer in the dining car is full of shit. This, too, is a parental responsibility.

Daniel begins playing. He plays key­boards. From first grade on­ward, the house is full of music, morning and night. Mozart, Hummel, Beet­hoven, and then, later, Virgil Thomson’s score for Loui­siana Story and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Have I had anything to do with this? I played records and CDs constantly, but I can’t play the piano, not really; classical music is simply one of the atmospheres Daniel has grown up in and breathed.

On short notice, I write lyrics for his rock band.

You’re from Banana Republic

 You look like J. Crew

You’re a victim of fashion

I’m a victim of you.

Adolescence is supposed to be a scary time for parents. In ­America, at least, the norm is for boys to turn into sweaty, sticky, hostile monsters, full of rage against the world and their parents. They are full of alcohol and drugs; it is the time in life of projectile vomiting. My wife and I await this change. We wait for yelling and slammed doors. It never happens. Daniel becomes a bit quieter but remains sweet and affable.

He did, however, along with a few of his adolescent chums, have a few other artistic ambitions, which included an intentionally ironic art video titled Mr. Scary. This feature, made in black and white, combined the moody expressionism of Bergman’s middle period with the outsize silent-film theatrics of Eisenstein. Daniel, playing the eponymous Mr. Scary, accompanied by our dog, Tasha (who played herself14), walked through a forest, raised his eyebrows, an­swered the door speechlessly (Mr. Scary does not ever speak) when a salesman came to call, all these scenes shot in a pretentious, over-the-top High Art style.15 A lighthouse served as a recurrent symbol of something. The tone of the film was jarring: think of Aleksandr Nevskiy in the suburbs. Like Orson Welles’s Don Quix­ote, this work of cinematic artistry was never completed. It succumbed to its own irony.

I take his clock radio to the van. The vehicle is almost filled with the detritus of a young life.

When children are small, time often crawls. Then they grow, and time speeds up; once you couldn’t get away from them, and then they’re never around.

What do you mean, he’s ready to apply to colleges? He was just born! He studies late, into the wee hours, and I cannot sleep myself un­til he turns his lights off and goes to bed. He struggles through the college applications, bitterly complaining every step of the way. One late af­ternoon, while he is laboring to complete the application for Northwestern University, which in­cludes the demand that the prospective student write an essay explaining why he or she wants to go to Northwestern, I slip into my study and write a goof version of this essay for him, for laughs.

 

Why I Want to Go to Northwestern

by Daniel Baxter

Many is the time I have thought of the pleasing location of Northwestern Uni­versity, situated on the shore of picturesque Lake Michigan. The campus, I have noted, is close enough to the rocky shore of this Great Lake so that students, carrying their heavy textbooks on the way to classes, can be pleasantly diverted by hearing the sounds of waves crashing on the rocks. These sounds are almost always mixed, in damp and rainy weather, with the sounds of muted foghorns, which make their way into the liberal arts classrooms where Shakespeare’s plays are being taught by bearded and grizzled scholars. Foghorn sounds are like the lowing moos of anxious herds of cows, waiting to be milked. Certainly, from time to time, one must also be able to hear the muted clash and clang of freighters colliding. With the right kind of police scanner, you might also hear the radio distress calls. Perhaps, as Lucretius says in the second book of On the Nature of Things, it is pleasant, even sublime, to see ships sinking in the distance if you yourself are on the shore, that is, at Northwestern, safe in a sort of “ivory tower” from danger. Lucretius calls this the sublime experience of beauty, and so it would be on the campus of this great institute of higher learning, home of the #1 Business School in the United States.

 But the beauties of Lake Michigan are not the only advantages of which Northwestern can boast, and there are many other reasons why I wish to attend this fine Big Ten center of erudition. The architecture of the buildings varies from Gothic Revival to 1950s Bauhaus to Frank Geary Las Vegas–style “post­modernism.” This distinctive brand of ec­lectic architecture, so different from the bland brand of monomaniacal “Ivy League” archi­tecture favored by our so-called “prestige” universities, gives to Northwestern a more democratic and populist “grab bag” appearance. Moving from one building to another on the Northwestern campus, from the threatening appearance of the Music Building to the turreted castlelike appearance of the Humanities Building (where many damsels are possibly in distress), the student hardly knows what to expect from one moment to the next. Call me an eclectic student, if you will, but I must say that Northwestern’s unpredictable appearance, whether you approach it by bus, truck, train, or family car, is one of the particular sources of my interest in it.

On my two visits to Northwestern, I have noticed that most of the learnèd professors are quite mature. Their gray hairs and beards (not on the women, of course) are signs of learning and experience. Walking about on campus, one cannot but be impressed by their slow pace, their hands on their canes, as if they were thinking about “thoughts that lie too deep for tears.” I was impressed by the colossal lecture halls and huge classes, and the Wildcats who were listening and dozing through the lectures, knowing that the professors would cover material that they had missed, their voices echoing in the immensity of the lecture chambers.

Northwestern has lately achieved a bit of a renaissance. I refer, of course, to the superlative record of the Northwestern football team. The school fight song (I have learned it) is the most memorable tune associated with any great public American university that I know of. Any school worth its reputation must have a football team to keep up its manly institutional pride, and Northwestern has lately improved its athletic skills so that it is no longer known as the “whipping boy of the Big Ten.” Now it is the Northwestern Wildcats that are doing the whipping!

In summary, Northwestern has much to offer me in its location next to Lake Michigan, in its surprisingly successful and bowl-headed football team, its always-surprising architectures, and its wise and aging faculty speaking to crowds of attentive youth. I can imagine myself dressed in the school’s colors of purple and gold, waving a school banner displaying the word northwestern with pride. I hope you will agree.16

 

What kind of father would do such a thing? Write a mockery of such an essay? I would. That’s the kind of father I am, the kind of father I have always been.

Daniel got into Northwestern, by the way (without ever visiting it), but did not go there. He went to Carleton instead, which is full of students like him.

Here he is. The Chaos Ma­chine is finished.17 He’s taller than I am, has longish brown hair, which used to be blond, widely spaced brown eyes that radiate in­terest and intelligence. He walks with his head slightly bent, as if he were ducking under a door frame. (Later, in his twenties, he begins to straighten up. But I am still trying to break him of the habit of walking with his hands clasped together in front of him.) He helps me finish loading the van, and we make it as far as Rochester, where we find a Mexican restaurant where we have dinner. We drive that night as far as La Crosse, Wisconsin. He asks about Tasha, the dog, and Louis, the family bird, who also helped raise him.

These days, he works as a successful structural engineer, a bridge de­signer, in downtown Cleveland. He has published papers I cannot understand. He’s a fine and wonderful young man.

The next morning, with Daniel sometimes driving (the person who does not drive is responsible for directions and what gets played on the van’s audio system), we head toward Michigan. He instructs me on how to get onto the Chicago Skyway from the Dan Ryan. We both admire the sublimely sinister industrial magnificence of Gary, Indiana. I am proud of him. I love him. And he is a better driver than I am, much more alert, as the young should be, as they must be, to get where they’re going.

1. I’m fairly certain that I had told my dad that we would both load the van after the Chaos Machine was complete. My dad, however, decided to load the van on his own before the machine was finished.
2. The shirt was red and shiny but was by no means a tropical shirt in the Jimmy Buffett sense of the term.
3. GÜ was best known on campus for covers of “Psycho Killer” and “Jump,” and the original mini–rock opera Astronaughty.
4. My dad was often able to quiet me down by playing Brian Eno’s Music for Airports while we drove around in his car.
5. Unfortunately, this is true. I remember getting in trouble in Hawaii after I snuck out early one morning to watch the pop-up lawn sprinklers in action.
6. My dad’s short story “Talk Show” was based on this and the aforementioned Hawaii trip, although I don’t remember there being anything about pop-up sprinklers in the story.
7. None of my Carleton friends appeared physically awkward, at least to me anyway.
8. In fairness to Carleton it should be noted that the women’s and men’s top-level ultimate Frisbee teams won the national championships in 2000 and 2001.
9. The weekends followed a pleasant routine. My parents and I went out to dinner on Fridays. My dad, Tasha, and I would always go through the drive-through line at the nearby Taco Bell to get lunch on Saturday, where we (except for Tasha) would always order the same things we ordered every Saturday. After we ordered, she would start to growl if the drive-through line was slow, which it usually was at that particular Taco Bell. When we got home, Louis the parrot would squawk until he was given a nacho from my Nachos Supreme, and I would sneak a second nacho to Tasha. On Sunday afternoons we would go walking, as my dad mentioned, and we always had spaghetti for dinner afterward. My efforts at the time, however, to convince my parents to extend this system and have a different preset dinner for every night of the week were not successful.
10. I’m not in a rush to let people know about the name switch, but I suppose this essay would be incomplete if this were omitted.
11. My favorite years before Carleton were when I was at Steiner, from third through eighth grade.
12. Probably not. The desk was included with the furniture that came with the room.
13. Four Saints in Three Acts is still funny and good driving music. Along with Four Saints, tapes of the NPR incarnation of The Bob and Ray Radio Show were a staple of my family’s annual summer road trips to Minnesota’s north shore. Growing up, I’m pretty sure I assumed that both Four Saints and Bob and Ray were also being listened to in many of the vehicles we passed on the freeway, but when I think about it now I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard either of these mentioned in conversation or the media. I hope this is because I’m not talking to the right people or reading the right magazines, and that there are, in fact, plenty of people driving around with Four Saints and Bob and Ray in their CD-changers and iPods.
14. In the closing credits, Tasha is credited with the role of Cerberus.
15. For example, the last scene featured close-ups of Mr. Scary’s face, onto which 8 mm home movies were being projected, intercut with footage of im­ploding buildings from Koyaanisqatsi.
16. This essay still makes me laugh. Another Northwestern demand was to list my least favorite word, which was then, and still is, potpourri.
17. The Chaos Machine, when completed, was an analog electrical-current waveform generator that consisted mostly of a small circuit board and several electronic instruments from the physics department attached to a metal rack and connected with cables. It was capable of generating waveforms with chaotic properties, the details of which I have since forgotten. The machine worked as planned, and Alex and I made a poster (which has either been thrown away or is gathering dust somewhere in the physics department) that explained its inner workings and reason for existence. Over the following summer, the machine was probably dismantled by members of the physics department who needed its parts back.
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