Thursday, February 25, 2010

177 days to Bar Mitzvah: mortality tale

Last night, I stared my own mortality in the face. It was bored to tears, had terrible posture and needed a haircut. It didn't want to discuss the Talmudic lessons of "Like Father, Like Clown," an episode of The Simpsons that explores Krusty the Clown's Jewish roots.

It was holding its phone in its many hands, trying to resist the temptation to start texting or testing out the apps it had downloaded earlier in the day. It had a dirty San Francisco Giants knit cap that it kept putting on and taking off, or absently twirling it around its finger.

It needed to shave, but didn't want to because once you shave, there's no turning back.

It found sitting up straight so difficult that as each minute passed, it got lower and lower until, as we wrapped things up, its chin was resting on the tabletop. It wanted to leave the room and run around exploring the synagogue, figuring that the way to do that would be to say it was "going to use the restroom," which would buy at least fifteen minutes before anyone would notice it'd been gone.

It was disappointed that there weren't enough seats for its girlfriend, but the rabbi told us we needed to sit with our families, so it spent almost two hours doing a delicate balancing act -- letting its friends know it wasn't one of "those" guys, who blow everyone off for a girl, but also making eye contact often enough to let her know it'd rather be sitting with her.

Two weeks ago, Doug Feiger died. I was fourteen when "Get the Knack" came out. I've never since been exactly the right age to identify with a piece of popular culture. If I could, I would conjure up a latter-day Doug Feiger to write the songs that speak directly to thirteen-year-old boys. Or I would give them Big Star's "Thirteen," which I didn't hear until I was in my twenties and too grown-up to perceive its lyrics, which include this:

Won't you let me walk you home from school
Won't you let me meet you at the pool
Maybe Friday I can
get tickets for the dance
and I'll take you

as anything more than hazy memories reduced to a wisp in the rear-view mirror.

Though my mortality seems to lean more toward danceable music without a shred of sentimentality, maybe it could hear that "Thirteen" and go, "Oh yeah, I totally get it."

Last night we had Family Education Night at Temple Emanu-El. You are required to attend four of these nights as a run-up to your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, although from what I can tell, people with superior powers of rationalization can skip them guilt-free and get Bar or Bat Mitzvahed anyway, a marked contrast to the many families who continue attending Family Education Nights after their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. We sat around big round tables, ate whatever food was left once the kids got through the line, watched that Simpsons episode, and discussed the Talmud. We were supposed to sit with our families, but somehow our table ended up including four adults from three families (please note that I was the only father/husband at our table) and six twelve and thirteen-year-old boys.

And there they sat, these boys we've known since they tooled around town in car seats, all sitting there in various states of engagement, living reminders of the time that passes by and cannot be reversed.

It's easy to see that they've already begun heading down the paths they will follow as teens, likely without ever making a conscious choice one way or another. You can tell by what they're wearing, how they talk to adults, how they talk to each other. If you could see inside their heads, or if they had the cartoon thought bubbles I've wished they had since infancy, you'd see a dizzying eddy of thoughts, ideas and feelings careening off each other, randomly coming to the forefront without rank or priority, where they're considered and either acted on or ignored.

Even if you can't see into their brains, you can see it on their faces. You can see the kid who doesn't know where he belongs mulling over how confusing and downright cruel it is for that to remain a mystery when he wants so badly to have it solved. You want to reach over to him and tell him, "Look, it's not worth it," because you know that what's brewing in his head is volatile and risky.

Though they are boys, some of them really care about their looks. During the two-hour program, they'll experiment with different combinations, little tweaks in their personal style, then look around with a combination of curiosity and anxiety, wondering why they never seem to catch all those people who are definitely staring, passing silent judgement on their appearance.

As for my own Jawa, I felt transferance pain for him when one of his friends asked him to move over a seat when a classmate he wanted to sit next to arrived late. I saw the whisper, the perplexed look. The Jawa moved over without a word. He didn't seem to mind at all, even if I did.

And I watched him sneak glances over to the next table, where the Chef and his daughter were sitting. Only a few glances, but enough to see that figuring out the best strategy for this brand-new scenario was another issue added to his already-overflowing plate.

One of his friends has already become the guy who's very comfortable talking to adults, which cracks me up. I should have predicted it when, during a field trip to the Jewish Home in third grade, an old guy asked him what he drank with dinner. "Scotch," the then eight-year-old kid answered.

Yes, we lack cartoon balloons, but spoken and unspoken actions reveal them already choosing what kind of teenager they're going to be. They'll be the kid who has no problem talking to the parents while the other guys drag his wasted friend upstairs, the kid who sits hunched over, resting his chin in his hands, watching everyone else and weighing the risk versus potential rewards of joining in.

There will be popular kids and kids to take foolish risks in the hopes of being popular. There will be kids who don't play the game only because they can't figure out not only what the game is but that there is a game to be played at all. There will be kids who will do what the adults have asked them to do, if to stay out of trouble.

That these kids were five years old recently enough for me to still own some of the clothes I wore that year is mind-blowing, no matter how much preparation we've had. To see them all sitting there at the same table like a sample-sized helping of The American Teen is weirder still.

But what can we do? Keep our opinions to ourselves and keep our hands off as much as possible, being ready at all time to apply them upon request -- or when we properly intuit that they are necessary, which is the hard part. The time for coming out with a shovel and destroying the snowfort built by the bad kids who made your son cry by excluding him is over.

It's tough to show up on a Wednesday night and spend two hours sitting across from your collective mortality. It's like having what's always been on my mind -- that as time goes by, they'll get bigger and I'll just get older -- come to life as equal parts ecstatic rapture, melancholia and harsh reality. And it's strange to see how things are accelerating and childhood alliances are switching and fraying.

But it's also a great time, a time when so many things that eventually take a back seat to the administrative tasks of life lie in the forefront, gleaming like a diamond, there for endless examination and consideration. They'll just have to come up with their own "Get the Knack," is all.

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