Monday, January 18, 2010

Eight months and three days: creeping adolescence

I will be 45 years old on my next birthday, too old to be the youngest at anything you'd want to be the youngest at. Possibly as an unexpected perk of my lack of career, I maintain a fairly youthful image. I don't drive a minivan. I don't wear Facconable shirts or sport white leather tennis shoes on the weekends, and my CD collection is not entirely made up of classic rock.

On the outside, at least, despite my lack of hair, I am not an old 44. On the inside, however, I'm closer to 70. I've been taking pills for high blood pressure since I was 35, for cholesterol since I was 40. I go to the gym at least twice a week and don't eat meat; the heart disease gods don't seem to care.

Armed with this knowledge, I have to wonder how many more experiences like last night I can handle. Given the right set of circumstances, a poorly behaved 12-year-old Jawa can defeat even the strongest beta-blockers and cholesterol reducers. I was once a poorly behaved 12-year-old, and yet I can't spot the triggers before they occur.

I once taught high school. During grad school, there was a segment where the education faculty did their best to convince us to find our inner middle school calling. "No way," I said at the time. "I don't like middle schoolers." Consider last night a confirmation of that.

It could have been great. We had two hours to kill before the 7:55 showing of Avatar. Having exhausted our primary dining options (too crowded), we settled on Val's, an Italian place in Daly City. Approximately 93% of all Yelp reviews of Val's mentioned "Goodfellas," so I knew I'd like it.

And I did like it, or rather, I would have, had I not spent the entire meal speaking in an angrily compressed voice at the alien who's inhabited my child's body.

He slouched. He grabbed at food before the waiter could set it on the table. He put a baseball cap on and pulled it over his eyes. We tried to discuss our desire that he add an extracurricular activity next semester, only to be treated as if we'd asked him to eat nails. I sat there in shock.

Now I know EXACTLY WHAT'S GOING ON. Were I an anthropologist, instead of a flawed human being, I would have been fascinated by his behavior. No matter who the child is -- and I happen to think my child is pretty special -- they will be possessed by the demonic teen. The demonic teen doesn't like people who get in the way. Itwill argue with you, talk to you like your an idiot, shake its head sadly at the utter foolishness spewing forth from your mouth, the outrageously irrational demands you seem to take sadistic joy in making.

I should understand. I was a demonically-possessed 12-year-old once. Last night, when I haplessly siad, "That mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble," I knew I was speaking a line directly lifted from my own mother and father. And they were right; that mouth of mine did get me in trouble and continues to get me in trouble and I would love it if I could somehow help my child avoid the lifelong heartache that comes from not knowing when to shut up. And yet, I am powerless.

I exhausted my arsenal. My quiver of parenting weapons was empty before the entrees arrived. So instead of enjoying the time warp ambiance of Val's, I ate in bitter silence, pathetically hoping that if the kid wouldn't respond to scoldings, maybe he could be made to feel guilty for having ruined his father's meal.

No dice.

How I would have loved to have eaten the Fandango tickets and said, "Okay, no movie, then," but all that would have done was get Sandra Bullock mad at me and ensure that the demonic teen would follow us home. But there are consequences and all that; I would have liked to at least get that point across. I'm not sure what that would have accomplished in the long run.

It seems that each incident is self-contained, and nothing learned from one can be applied to the next. You just have to put your head down, whisper, "This too shall pass" to yourself and hope you can handle it better the next time.

So I'm used to this, settled into my smoldering, angry place, and we drive to the movie theater, also in Daly City, and I'm distant and polite, a tactic I learned from my wife, who taught me not to always drive a point into the ground. The child is chattering on obliviously in the back seat, perfectly happy to have a two-way conversation with his mother.

We park and start walking to the theater. Halfway there, he walks up to me and absently puts his arm through mine. This is the part where I walk up to Sandra Bullock and say, quietly, "I'm not going to make it to high school graduation."

"Yes, you will," she says.

My Jawa and I walk arm-and-arm into the Century 20 Theaters. We race up to the second floor, him on the escalator, me on the stairs. Suddenly, he has transformed back into the lovable, thoughtful child who rewrote the rules to my life on August 3, 1997. I have no option other than the let my anger, however fully-realized and gloriously toxic, float away.

To celebrate, the three of us ate Milk Duds and popcorn and made deadpan faces from behind our 3D glasses. Mine looked especially sharp, as I was wearing them over my other glasses.

Three hours later, we knew all about James Cameron's attitudes toward the U.S. military, U.S. military intervention, the treatment of indigenous cultures and the irreperable damage capitalism can do to the soul. All of it is bad.

I can take or leave "Avatar," and I hear the everyone who works for James Cameron hates him. Besides, nothing he showed me on a movie screen left me nearly as dazzled and confused as the effortlessly unpredictable mood changes of a 12-year-old who shares my DNA.

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