Watch this, Daddy

A perceptive reporter I know once did an article on stay-at-home dads and came away with this observation: All the men had tanned feet.

I was welcomed into their ranks recently when a houseguest arrived and said, before she’d even come indoors, “Look! Even your toes are tan!”

For the first time in maybe a decade, I have a suntan, and it’s because I’m a stay-at-home parent. In the past, I’ve spent all my free time working and writing, and you can’t get a tan from the glow of a computer monitor.

But this summer was a first: My two sons stayed home with me -- no day camp, no preschool -- and I quickly discovered the swimming pool was the best place to spend long, hot summer afternoons.

Swimming is a way to channel the boundless energy of children. It wears them out for bedtime. It gives them a chance to practice their negligible social skills on other kids. And, since I’m doing most of my work in the pre-dawn hours while they’re still sleeping, it gives me a chance to rest and soak up some rays.

Tanning doesn’t come easy to people of Anglo-Germanic origin. We’re melanin-challenged, our natural skin tone a shade I call Moby Dick white.

Both my sons are blue-eyed blonds. So we slather on the sunscreen -- SPF 600, I think it is -- for protection from the blistering New Mexico sun. In the tiniest of increments, we’ve changed to a life-like color. Not bronze, exactly, but darker than the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.”

We go to the Elks Club pool every other day, taking the day off in between to let sun-hot skin cool. On weekdays, I’m often the only representative of the species Big, Hairy Dad on the premises.

Sometimes I catch the moms eyeing me suspiciously, probably wondering why I’m not at a real job during office hours. Those of us who work at home know office hours are whenever you can get them -- early in the morning, late at night, whenever the kids are asleep or otherwise occupied. Three hours at the pool in the afternoon is just an extended coffee break.

My personality changes at the swimming pool. A normally modest sort who wouldn’t think of jiggling around shirtless while, say, mowing the lawn, I strip down to my trunks and beach myself on the nearest lounge chair without a thought to whether anyone’s watching.

I hide my usual gregariousness behind sunglasses and a fat book. I’m usually vain about my hair, but I don’t even care as it dries into an arrangement that would make a porcupine proud.

Even my name changes. I become “Watchthisdaddy.” My sons started the Summer of Swimming tentatively, paddling around, getting their sea legs. By midsummer, they were doing cannonballs off the diving board and initiating splash fights and leaping into the deep end without hesitation.

Aquatic daredevils to the end, as long as they have “Watchthisdaddy” as an audience.

It’s not just my kids, either. “Watch this!” is part of the everyday cacaphony of the swimming pool, a steady background noise of squeals and shouts and splashes. Sometimes, as I’m dropping off to sleep at night, I can still hear “Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo!” ringing in my ears.

We come home from the pool reeking of sunscreen and Eau de Chlorine, hang damp towels and swimsuits on the coat rack, and repair immediately to the kitchen.

What is it about swimming that makes you voracious? It can’t be simply the burning of calories through exercise. Often, I don’t swim enough to even breathe hard. But by the time I get home, I’m ready to gobble my way through the fridge like the shark in “Jaws.”

It shows, of course. I’ve put on weight during this summer of having the boys home with me. “Watchthisdaddy” isn’t going to be left out of the snack bar raids and the post-dip ice cream breaks.

I try not to think about how I look in my swim trunks, though the phrase “Thar he blows!” echoes in my head. I avoid mirrors like a vampire. And I tell myself: It’s just more to tan.

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