Sunday, February 28, 2010

174 days to Bar Mitzvah: break-up

I knew something was up at the Bat Mitzvah Saturday night, when we went to pick up the Jawa, who appeared before us wearing a tiger-striped plastic bowler, an inflatable guitar slung over his shoulder. "Lets go," he said brusquely, after crunching out a few air guitar power chords. We walked quickly to the car, but not before I noticed him brushing by the Chef's Daughter without a word.

"Uh-oh," I thought.

His mood seemed okay, not that of someone who'd just had his heart broken (or done some heart-breaking which, as my son, didn't seem likely). He seemed more interested in talking about the food at the party than anything else.

Today began like any other Sunday. I got out of bed at 9:30. By then, Sandra Bullock and the Jawa had already been having spirited discussions -- usually involving one or the others' inability to completely understand the needs and wishes of the other -- for two hours. He seemed interested in his usual Sunday pursuits -- avoiding homework, scheming to stay on the computer for as long as possible, randomly throwing clothes around his room and then walking over them repeatedly as if it weren't there.

Everything was normal.

What I hadn't counted on was the effects of peer pressure on my young (I mean young even for his age; figure that one out) child. By his count, so far only Josh S. and he had girlfriends, and Josh S. was the son of the legendary Man About Town, so he came from the womb already imbued with the smooth charm of a Vegas lounge singer. Josh S. was handling his relationship with ease. Not so our Jawa, as it turned out.

I left home at noon, to spend the afternoon looking at houses for potential stories. When I returned four hours later, no one -- not even Shack -- met me at the door.

They were sitting in the dining room, my wife and son, under a heavy gray cloud of doom. They were speaking in hushed tones. Shack, using his canine intuition, sensed a shift in tone and decided his best move was to lie flat on the ground nearby, his head in his paws.

It didn't take long to figure out what was going on. What was impressive, to me, was what I found out later. The Jawa, I heard second-hand, was struggling with a number of things relationship-related. All of them boiled down to one issue: he just didn't feel like he was ready for all of this.

Taking advantage of modern technology, he eventually slinked off to his room, where he wrote a Dear Chef's Daughter email. I went in there about an hour later to find him slouched in a chair in front of his computer, listless, wearing sweat pants and no shirt. "What did she say?" I asked.

"I don't really want to go into it," he answered.

He was spent. The past month had, without our realizing it, taken its toll. He had been getting pressure from all sides, zooming into his teens so fast that he'd had to develop an unprecedented (and kind of weird) interest in Hot Wheels cars just to stay in contact with the little kid he'd been such a short time ago.

I hadn't realized that it had gotten away from him. Fortunately, Sandra Bullock was on top of things. Having come to the game late, I played the supporting role, showing up and saying, in a low voice, "Is everything okay?"

"Now you know what we went through," my mother told me a few minutes later, after I'd delivered the news during my weekly phone call to Arizona.

"Yeah, but not when I was twelve," I responded.

"Not when you were twelve, but plenty of times afterwards."

He sat there impersonating a boneless cat, staring at his computer, looking totally spent, for almost an hour. During that time, I went downstairs to check out the TV we bought yesterday with a combination of the gift certificate my grandmother gave me for selling her house and the GenenBucks Sandra Bullock earned from her benevolent employers for yet another stellar performance. Lulled by 42 inches of flat screen glory, I quickly fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was almost dinner time. I came upstairs to find a Jawa miraculously turned back into himself. No sign of the sad struggle he'd undergone just a few hours before. He was unburdened, I was later told by my in-the-know wife, free to return to his usual agenda of arguing, singing loudly and inserting rebellious comments into conversation just to see how much he could get away with.

Later, while he noodled away on his saxophone, trying to learn the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams," a top-40 hit when I was a senior in high school in 1983, Sandra Bullock laid down the facts. The Jawa was just feeling too much pressure, she said. He wanted to hang out with his friends, but he felt like he couldn't.

From the distant bleacher seats of middle age, it seems like the solution to that problem should be as simple as it is benign: keep hanging out, but do it as part of a group. There doesn't need to be some kind of harsh ending point at all. It just takes an adjustment.

But it hardly ever ends that way, whether you're 12, 22 or 40. It didn't end that way this time either. The Jawa is spending the balance of his evening feeling light as a feather, unaware or simply not caring what happens tomorrow, when he leaves the safety of home and heads back to school to deal with the aftermath.

"I told him he'd have a lot of girlfriends," Sandra Bullock told me. "He's sad."

I like that, because he should be sad. But he should also be proud. I've got to hand it to the Jawa; for a kid who can't decide from one minute to the next whether he wants to be four years old or fourteen, he showed some real character. He realized things were getting out of hand, so he jumped off the train before it reached a speed he couldn't handle.

Digging back through the walk-in closet of thirty-odd years of personal history , I've got to wonder if we've heard the last of the Chef's Daughter. This comes just a few days after we'd had our first face-to-face with the Chef Himself. We'd nervously circled each other after Wednesday's Family Education night at Temple Emanu-El, making small talk about Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Earlier that night, I watched the Jawa sneaking glances at the Chef's table. I could see him trying to grapple the sudden changes in his life. Turns out he was deciding that for him, it wasn't yet time to turn up the volume.

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