Thirteen-plus years ago, upon learning that we would soon be parents, Sandra Bullock and I followed the time-honored path of the educated middle class: we went to the nearest bookstore (in our case Bailey/Coy books in Seattle) and filled our cart with parenting books: "What to Expect When You're Expecting," "The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy," and, for me, to honor my so-called literary bent, "Operating Instructions. (Back then, everyone who knew me did their best to find some way to convert each and every stage of life, every new job, every rite of passage, every major change, into an opportunity to inspire me to write. They're still trying.)
We took the books home and studied them. Each offered advice relating to key elements of parenting, but they were very age-specific; none of them had anything to say about what to do with your kid once they reach toddlerhood. Even "What to Expect the First Year" cut off at 12 months.
So a year later, we went back to Bailey/Coy -- this time pushing what we were convinced was the most adorable child in the world in an impractical stroller I picked out because it had giant wheels that I thought looked tough, long before I figured out what features (lightweight, nimble, good storage space, easily foldable) actually made a difference in a stroller -- and bought more books.
What halcyon days those were. How great it was to feel like every day, with everything we did, we were re-inventing the process of raising a child. The mistakes were to be expected. After all, no one had ever attempted to raise a child in the enlightened manner that we were. No one knew that sixteen-month-old children should be expected to walk the half-mile home from daycare. No one knew that infants could easily take naps sidled up to a sidewalk table at the Broadway Grille. These days we scoff loudly and often rudely at young parents for committing the crime of being like we were. I'm sure someone was ridiculing us back then. We deserved it.
Because as your child ages, you realize that they have yet to write the book that applies to every situation. I don't care who you are; you're not forging new ground. Nothing so noble as that. No, you're basically making it up as you go along. And, I'm fond of telling anyone who'll listen, especially the childless, if you care at all about being a parent, well, then you constantly feel like you're failing.
The Jawa continued to grow. We moved from Seattle to San Francisco. We purchased "Real Boys," "Real Boys' Voices," and "Raising Your Spirited Child." We're readers, so we continued to search for the proper users manual. Still, there were gaps.
The funny thing -- and by this I mean funny tragic, not funny ha-ha -- is that the very moment I start to get a handle on whatever phase my Jawa has entered is the exact same moment he decides to move on into the next one/
Today, I went to Barnes & Noble and, for the first time in several years, purchased a book that would help me raise my child. This time, something was different: the book was for him, not me.
After school, we went to Krispy Kreme to take advantage of two two-for-one coupons that magically appeared on our kitchen table yesterday. We hadn't been there in a long time, because ever since I had Top Pot donuts in Seattle, nothing else measures up.
This time I suffered through two Krispy Kreme donuts so I could have some time alone with my Jawa to do a little check on where he's at, because from where I've been sitting it seems like he's done a complete personality transformation over the past month.
Our conversation confirmed it. "I'm not interested in Pokemon anymore," he said casually, longish hair sticking out from under the trucker's hat he's begun jamming onto his head every morning in response to requests that he "fix (his) crazy hair." "And Yu-Gi-Oh, well, I don't think I'll be buying any more cards." His eyes wandered to his iPod touch, which he'd managed to ignore for almost a full minute. "Check out this app, Dad," he said, brightly. "It's a mood screen. You touch it and it changes colors."
When I was 28 years old, I got my cholesterol checked. It came back at 308. I think the day before I got those results was the last day I didn't devote at least part of to wondering how much longer I have before the heart attack hits.
So I have spent some time learning about heart disease and heart attacks. One thing that's stood out to me, I can't remember where I heard this, was that an EKG of someone having a heart attack looks like an electrical storm; all jagged, irregular lines. It really looks chaotic, like something significant is happening.
I thought of that today when I was trying to describe to Sandra Bullock what all of this sudden teenage development looks from my vantage point, and after glancing at the book I bought and saying, out loud at Barnes and Noble, "I'm not ready for this.": it looks like an electrical storm. Everything was calm, we had things relatively under control, and then it all went crazy. Today, my son and I spent a half-hour discussing the various activities people in his class do when they go on dates. Sometimes, they go to the movies. Sometimes, they just walk around.
'm not lamenting. I welcome this enormous challenge. Also, I loved being a teenager, so I don't have any of those "most traumatic time of my life" memories to offload onto him.
And yet, it feels like this is where you earn your parenting stripes. The other stuff was tough, sure. I remember sitting there in our one-bedroom apartment one afternoon with a screaming infant in my lap, trying to grade 36 essays about "The Canterbury Tales," thinking, "I can't remember another time in my life when I wanted to sleep so badly but wasn't allowed to."
So far, it just feels like the questions are bigger and the stakes a bit higher. I've always told my Jawa that the worst part about being his dad was that he was going to get bigger and I was going to get older, and, well, that part is here now. No more feeling like the king of the jungle, carrying my sleeping child into bed.
Ah, well, what are you going to do? I can pinpoint the moment when we went from entertainers to catering; now it's time to settle into the role of silent chauffer. All ears, no mouth.
I just spent a few minutes bedside, talking to the Jawa about the new book we got him. "I've read a couple chapters," he reported. "I already knew all of this stuff, you know. You're about four years late."
"Sure, but how does all this stuff feel to you?" I asked.
He thought about it for a second, then smiled. Same smile I used to get when we sung the "Smiley face" song ("Smiley face, smiley face, smiley face... splash!" It was meant to be sung in the bath.). "Weird," he answered.
I remember seventh grade very clearly. I was four feet, eleven inches tall and had a mad crush on Robin Hardy. I almost stopped hanging out withe Fred Luna, one of my best friends, because he wore Toughskins. And we had to take showers in P.E.
Yup. Weird is a pretty good call.