If you were a teenager, or a slightly pre-teenager, just starting out on the long and often rocky road of a lifetime of romantic-style relationships, what kind of advice would you want to hear from your father? Or would you want to hear any at all? Maybe you'd just want the old man to stay out of it.
There's something to be said for what's always seemed like a tired, malinformated teenage refrain: "My parents don't know what I'm going through." Well, sure, we do, if we can remember. But how often can we do that? And even if we do, what kid wants his parents to tell him that what he's going through isn't all that special, and in fact, we all went through it before becoming the people you see leave for work every morning and then come home at night?
It's been twenty-seven years since I graduated from high school. For seventeen of those years, I've been married to the Jawa's mother, Sandra Bullock. For almost thirteen, I've been the Jawa's father. Add those numbers up and you get almost two decades since I traded in my fully-outfitted leading man trailer for the more humble digs of a character actor.
I make a lot of noise about how I can remember exactly what it felt like to be 12 years old. Sure, I can. I remember exactly what it felt like for me to be twelve yeras old in 1977, and that should serve the Jawa better than if I couldn't remember at all what it felt like to be twelve, but only slightly better. The Venn diagrams of my pre-adolescent world of coveted Op shirts and non-stop sports only slightly overlap those of the Jawa's 12-year-old world. His includes Skype, hip-hop and the limited independence that is the sorry lot of city kids in 2010. Last night, we huddled in the living room, my wife and I, shot through with lightning bolts of anxiety while our son soloed through the neighborhood with our dog. Twenty-four hours and one news report of three separate muggings in our neighborhood on Tuesday and he's back to having an escort, me. He's almost thirteen years old. City life.
What I don't remember from seventh grade was the moment I asked my parents to change from omnipotent (and omnipresent) problem-solvers to laissez-faire managers. It's not like one minute my dad and I were driving around Anaheim every Sunday, eating ice cream cones and having deep father-son conversations like Eddie and Tom Corbett, and the next I was hiding in my room, the keeper of great secrets my hapless father couldn't hope to understand.
But at some point, you start wondering how your parents, those people who hang around acting like roommates or business partners most of the time or, God forbid even worse, moon over each other like they think they're teenagers, could seem relevant in the supercharged world you've started to inhabit.
What's the move for a parent? So far, our Jawa is very communicative. Almost too communicative, if you ask me. Although tonight, after spending an hour Skyping the Chef's Daughter, he took a shower then appeared in the living room, where he announced, "I'm going to close my door for awhile. I want some private time."
I leave nothing to impossibility and, unlike former 10,000 Maniacs vocalist Natalie Merchant, I don't judge. So rather than get all wound up and say, "Why do you need your door closed? What's so private?" I went with, "We're trusting you not to do things we've asked you not to do. If you're asking for private time so you can go back on your computer or your iPod, that's not going to fly," and left it at that. I think I also threw in a "pick these clothes up off your floor," too.
"Good job," whispered Sandra Bullock, when I returned to the living room, where we were wrapping up a screening of "500 Days of Summer," the movie that reminded me of the gulf between the exhilarating beginnings of romantic relationships versus the grownup nuts and bolts of making them last, and got me started thinking about all of this stuff in the first place.
There's no way to convince a teenager that you can remember very clearly exactly what it feels like to feel things -- everything -- so intensely when what that same teen sees from you on a daily basis is essentially a constant show of uninspired ritual, boring talk about finances and money and a weird dependance on unglamorous hobbies. Great, he's thinking, this guy is obsessed with me keeping clothing off of my bedroom floor. He complains about money all the time, and at night, after we're all asleep, he lies on the floor doing crossword puzzles. You're telling me he has any idea what it feels like to have the world exploding all around you every minute of every day? I'm not buying it.
How is he supposed to wrap his head around the idea that a life not erupting with daily emotions is potentially as satisfying as the fireworks he dodges every day? Does he want to hear about how difficult it would be to make it through the week if your emotions at age 40 were as unpredictable as they were at age 15?
Yes, one day you will be like me. You will devote a large percentage of your waking thoughts each day administrative tasks. You will search for ways to maximize the serenity of the time you have leftover each day after completing your tasks. You will worry about your health, your weight and your financial well-being. And your hair, until you realize that nothing you can do is going to change the outcome of that battle unless you're willing to have some guy poke holes in your scalp and feed in transplanted hair shafts, which is too gross to even consider.
If you are lucky, you will be wind-blown the whole hurricane gamut of romantic ups and downs and then one day see an old couple walk from their car across a parking lot in Sun City, Arizona, and realize that what you really want from a mate is that they be someone you wouldn't mind spending all of your time with when you're old. When that happens, all the holes poked in your leading man armor will stop stinging, because everyone knows that leading men go through wives at the rate the rest of us change cars: once every few years. Better to be Alan Alda, married to Arlene for 53 years, than to churn through soul mates like Brad Pitt.
On the one hand, I figure we've got at least the next six years -- until the Jawa leaves for his chosen university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he will room with his very tidy cousin Shea, creating a perfect third-generation "Odd Couple" scenario, to perfect the shift from "parent of a small child" to "parent of an adult." On the other, there is a good chance that every misstep we make along the way could have permanent ramnifications. Those are pretty high stakes.
But listen up, kid; it may have been the 70s, and I may have been a different type of teen than you will be, but I remember. You can change the names and the faces, but we're talking about the Universal Experience here. Anyone who can't recall how it felt when the colors were brighter, the noises louder, when the world was outlined in sharp contrasts and each day brought with it the possibility of great highs and equally excruciating lows, well, they're either lying to you or they deserve your pity.
That constant agitation, that edge, it never goes away completely. The part at the end of "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" where they're heading down the escalator the subway and Nora says to Nick, "Are you sorry we missed it?" and he says, "We didn't miss it. This IS it," is just as cool to me now as the part in "Valley Girl" where Julie asks Randy where he wants to go and what he wants to do and he answers, respectively, "I don't care," and "anything" was when I was 19. People don't change that much. They aren't riding the ragged edge of emotions 24 hours a day like they used to -- except in San Francisco, where those who don't "fly their freak flag" are herded into a pen with the other squares and banished to some far-off subdivision in the East Bay. It's just not so easy to figure out how to let your kid know that you kind of sort of understand what they're going through while still letting them hang onto the feeling that this is their experience -- unique, special and completely valid. If anyone has the key to that riddle, let me know. I'll be out here at the edge of this field, knee-deep in rye, making sure nobody goes over the edge.