Ghost Papas: Fatherhood in ‘The Patriot’ and ‘Interstellar’

I recently rewatched The Patriot for the first time in a long while. I was big into this movie as a lad, so rewatching it as a thirtysomething dad was something of an experiment to see how my adolescent tastes hold up.

There’s good (John Williams’ score, Mel Gibson as likeable movie star) and bad (how benign slavery is depicted in colonial South Carolina, a lot of the writing and acting to be honest).

But there was one aspect of The Patriot I appreciated completely differently than before, and that’s the depiction of fatherhood. I also noticed just how much the movie shares in common in that regard with an entirely different movie: Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar.

(Here be spoilers.)

There were two moments in The Patriot that kinda breezed past me before but totally annihilated me this time around.

“We named him Gabriel”

The first act finds Gibson’s Benjamin Martin as a kindly if emotionally distant father butting heads with his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who joins the Continental Army against Benjamin’s wishes, and his second-oldest, Thomas, who’s eager to join once he’s old enough.

When the British kill Thomas and capture Gabriel, Benjamin enlists the younger sons, Nathan and Samuel, to ambush the British unit and rescue Gabriel. All three sons survive but then witness, a bit stunned, their father’s repressed brutality unleashed in a fit of rage and grief for Thomas.

Benjamin and his sons respond to this differently. Gabriel rejoins the war effort. Nathan expresses pride in the ambush. The younger Samuel withdraws into a post-traumatic cocoon. And Benjamin succumbs to shame: for failing to protect Gabriel and Thomas, for subjecting the younger boys to the terrors of war, and for letting his violent past overcome him.

Yet the ambush earns him a serendipitous (for my purposes) nickname: the Ghost. It’s fitting for his subsequent militia fighting style, with its emphasis on guerrilla tactics and ability to evade capture. But it also signifies his presence—or lack thereof—in his children’s lives.

He carries all of this and more into the climactic battle, where he finally avenges the deaths of Gabriel and Thomas at the hands of the ruthless Colonel Tavington. Before heading home, Benjamin says goodbye to his friend and fellow soldier General Burwell (Chris Cooper), who tells him that his wife recently gave birth to a son.

“We named him Gabriel,” he says. It’s such a simple moment, elegantly delivered by Cooper, that manages to avoid mawkishness and serve as an emotional capstone to Benjamin’s long journey, which included losing two sons and his home.

“Papa, don’t go!”

Back on the daughter side of the Martin family, Susan is the youngest child and most distant to Benjamin. She refuses to speak to him, whether due to her still grieving the loss of her mother or being resentful of Benjamin’s long absences. Even after he visits the family while on furlough, she continues to stonewall him.

But when he sets off yet again, she finally lets go:

Papa! Papa, please don’t go. I’ll say anything. Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it.

Reader, I cried. It’s a wrenching moment of a father and child equally longing for connection before yet another separation. I couldn’t bear to consider such a moment ever befalling me and my son—now a rascally and wondrous 18 month old.

It didn’t matter to Susan that Benjamin was riding off to avenge his sons and fight for a political cause. Her Ghost was disappearing again, and she finally had something to say about it.

And this is where Interstellar comes in.

(Again I warn of spoilers.)

“Ghost of your children’s future”

A key motif in Christopher Nolan’s near-future, time-bending space drama (a recent subject on Filmspotting’s Oeuvreview, a series I helped coin) is the “ghost” that young Murphy claims is haunting her room and sending her messages in Morse code. Her pilot father, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper, is leaving on a mission that will take him decades in Earth-time to complete, but the despondent Murph insists the ghost’s message is telling him to stay.

In a heartbreaking scene, Cooper comes to her room to say goodbye and offers a bittersweet reflection on parenting:

After you kids came along, your mother said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ And I think that now I understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.

Cooper’s prophecy comes true when he completes his mission and then, in another heartbreaking scene, watches years’ worth of messages from his kids, who bitterly rue his absence:

We also discover that the ghost in Murph’s room was actually Cooper himself, trying to communicate with Murph from across spacetime.

And that’s where Benjamin and Cooper—an 18th-century soldier and a 21st-century astronaut—also have now magically linked across spacetime: as fathers desperate to return to their children, and not merely as phantoms of themselves. They even share their goodbyes:

  • Benjamin to Susan: “I promise I’ll come back.”
  • Cooper to Murph: “I love you forever, and I’m coming back.”

A Hollywood cliché? Maybe. Would I say it and mean it to my own child? Absolutely. Which is not something I would have predicted as a youngster.

Perhaps that’s the benefit of rewatching movies at different life stages. As Roger Ebert wrote about why he loved La Dolce Vita so much: “Movies do not change, but their viewers do. The movie has meant different things to me at different stages in my life… It won’t grow stale, because I haven’t finished changing.”

Having been working from home since mid-March, I’m incredibly lucky to have had more time with my son that I would have otherwise spent away at work or on my commute. “Kids spell love T-I-M-E,” my own dad has said. It’s an insight that The Patriot and Interstellar have made ever more resonant.

Homeworking, day one

Thanks to COVID-19, today was my first day working from home. (That’s my new makeshift workspace above, squished into the space between the closet and extra bed in our guest room. I’ve since added a second work laptop.) My library is closed to the public indefinitely, along with most everything else, but as my work mostly happens online I can continue relatively unaffected.

A few days ago I joked that my life isn’t going to change much because all I do is go to work and come home. Thanks to Mr. Almost 13 Months, we don’t travel or have much of a social life. The biggest change will be adjusting my schedule with an active toddler around. But I’m excited for more time with him and my wife and for a much shorter commute.

I feel extremely fortunate to (1) still have a job (2) that I can do from home and (3) will continued to be paid for. I know that’s not the case for many, many people.

Stay strong. We’re in this together.

Inch by inch

My son walked for the first time today, the day before his first birthday. I was in front of him, bouncing on our exercise ball along to some music (Kira Willey’s “Everybody’s Got A Heartbeat” to be exact). He wanted in on the bouncing action. He was already standing—he’s been standing strongly in place for weeks and walking assisted for longer—so he took three small steps like it was nothing and collapsed into my lap.

I’m glad I was home to see it. I’m glad he did it right in front of me, right to me. And I’m glad my wife had her phone out to record it.

After that moment, I thought it fitting to play “Walking With Spring” by The Okee Dokee Brothers (probably my favorite song of theirs), mostly because of the chorus:

Inch by inch by
Foot by foot by
Step by step by mile
We’re takin’ it inch by inch by
Foot by foot
‘Til we find ourselves
In the wild

Welcome to the wild, little man.


A shot from his first birthday party. I guess we were accidentally celebrating something else too.

The rules are there ain’t no rules

There’s a scene in Grease where Leo, the head of the rival Scorpions gang, says to Travolta’s Danny Zuko before they drag race: “The rules are there ain’t no rules.”

It’s one of the many random lines that has stuck in my head from a lifetime of movie watching. I think about it a lot now in relation to parenthood.

Bun (as my wife calls him) is almost one year old and my main takeaway from that time is that there is no normal. How he eats, how he sleeps (or doesn’t), how he develops. How we teach him, what we teach him, how much screen time we give him.

There ain’t no rules. And Leo wasn’t slinging empty threats. He repeatedly rams Danny’s car and gashes his side doors with spiked hubcaps.

All Danny (and we) can do is hit the gas and hold on.

Related: this tweet from Colson Whitehead:

Four months old

The Boy just turned 4 months old and is absolutely perfect. He is starting to roll over, has recently discovered his own feet, and is super chubby and smiley.

So you can imagine my reaction when I read “The Youngest Child Separated From His Family at the Border Was 4 Months Old” in the New York Times:

Constantin was ultimately the youngest of thousands of children taken from their parents under a policy that was meant to deter families hoping to immigrate to the United States. It began nearly a year before the administration would acknowledge it publicly in May 2018, and the total number of those affected is still unknown. The government still has not told the Mutus why their son was taken from them, and officials from the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment for this story.

In Constantin’s case, it would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention center because he couldn’t stop crying; his mother would be hospitalized with hypertension from stress. Constantin would become attached to a middle-class American family, having spent the majority of his life in their tri-level house on a tree-lined street in rural Michigan, and then be sent home.

Now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own, and has not spoken.

The Trump administration and its sycophants are a cancer upon the republic.

This is my pocketknife

Part of the This Is My series.

When my grandpa died in 2007, I informally inherited several of his possessions. Nothing from an official will, mind you—just my grandma saying “You should take this” as we were clearing out his stuff. That’s how I got, among other things, his wallet, a few shirts, an old cufflinks case, and this pocketknife:

It’s very small. It’s grimy. It’s probably older than I am. But because I almost always have my keys with me, I’ve used this small, grimy, old pocketknife far more often than my bigger Swiss Army knife and fancy Gerber multi-tool. The file and bottle opener I could go without, but the knife reminds me of its utility over and over again.

It’s also fortunate. Several times I forgot to remove it from my key ring before flights, but it must have blended in with the keys enough to evade TSA’s detection. I wasn’t so lucky with another bigger multi-tool several years ago; I completely forgot it was still in my carry-on backpack until it got flagged at security and confiscated.

One day I’ll clean and sharpen the knife at least. Even if I don’t, it’ll probably outlive me in usefulness.

Advice for parents

Generally I take a liberal stance towards unsolicited advice. You never know when you’ll get something worthwhile, and you can always just ignore the bad stuff.

We’ll see if that stance changes once people start chiming in about particular parenting choices. So far I haven’t had a problem.

In the meantime, Lifehacker’s Offspring parenting blog asked people for The Best Parenting Advice You’ve Ever Received. As I’m just 3 months into this parenting thing my capacity for advice giving is quite limited, but I appreciated hearing from more seasoned parents with maxims like:

  • “Survive and advance.”
  • “Your child isn’t giving you a hard time. They’re having a hard time.” (I’ve heard this in relation to the elderly or people with special needs, but certainly just as applicable with babies.)
  • “Pause.”
  • “Kids are just little people.”

More here.

This is his song

One day I was trying to soothe my fussy baby with some bouncing and singing. I faced him toward me and then out of nowhere started singing a melody that popped into my head. The combination of the song and how I swayed and bounced him calmed him right away, and even elicited a smile.

At first I couldn’t place the melody. But then I remembered: it was the “This Is My Song” ditty from the 1958 movie musical Tom Thumb, officially titled “Tom Thumb’s Tune”:

Here’s the film version, featuring the dance stylings of West Side Story and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers actor Russ Tamblyn. I remember loving that movie as a kid, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that perhaps it’s time for a rewatch.

The song-and-bounce routine has now become something of a family joke given how effective it is at soothing, if only temporarily. Funny how things can emerge from your brain at just the right time.

Babies are wizards

Here’s a recent text exchange with a friend of mine that I started:

I keep thinking about the part in How to Change Your Mind about how babies are basically tripping all the time because of their undeveloped brains. Even mundane stuff can blow [my infant’s] mind.

Right?! He’s probably still seeing the cosmic consciousness!

But keeping its secrets to himself of course. All this pooping and spitting up is just a smokescreen to hide the fact that babies are actually wizards.

And language is the protective barrier. He probably even knows what stars his atoms came from once upon a time. He’s got them all mapped out.

And the squeaks and babbles are him actually telling me about it straight up, but I’m just not evolved enough to understand.

Are you sleep deprived enough? Maybe if you pushed yourself a little farther…

I’ve been all proud of myself for being able to get 4-5 hours of sleep each night, but maybe that has shown him I’m not ready.

I have great friends and a great baby.