Tuesday, February 16, 2010

186 days to Bar Mitzvah: remember me?

It was spring, 1978 and I was four feet, eleven inches tall. I wore oversized, tortoise-shell glasses and the volume of my hair could only be measured with the aid of a protractor and then plotted on an x/y axis. I was in love with Robin Hardy.

Flash-forward 15 years, to the summer of 1993. I'm a foot taller, seeing through contact lenses and enjoying what would turn out to be the high point of my experience with hair: all of it was on top of my head and showing no signs of the abandonment it would later put me through without so much as a "so long, good to know you." I'm sitting at a table in the back of a ballroom at a hotel near John Wayne Airport, talking to Steve Bilt, who I haven't seen in years. It is our ten-year high school reunion.

Steve and I are sitting there, really enjoying ourselves, when who should walk up but Robin Hardy. Somehow, fifteen years earlier, all I saw was blonde hair, I guess. I hadn't realized what a complete weirdo she was. Having left our high school early (sophomore year? I'd moved on to other crushes by then.), she'd become somewhat of an enigma. No one knew what had happened to the girl whose popularity peaked in seventh grade.

Turns out she'd moved to Utah, or Nevada, and had changed her name to something odd, like Faith or Charity. Rumor was that she'd become a small-town weather girl or newscaster. Now she approached Steve and I, spread her arms wide and shouted, "Look at you tow. You're all grown up!" Not satisfied with saying it once, she repeated that phrase no less than a dozen times in the five minutes it took Steve and I to convince her to move on.

But boy, back in the spring of 1978, did I have it bad for Robin Hardy. Such a cliched little ethnic boy. Bring me your white women. She loved that I was Jewish, though. I remember that. Such a novelty. It made me wince.

It is now 2010, and I'm trying to remember what it felt like to want to be near Robin Hardy, how utterly confused I was if she paid any attention to me. My approach was usually to act depressed. It had worked for Peter Brady, I figured. How confusing to a thirteen-year-old girl. Why is this weird little Jewish kid with the giant glasses and the insane hair acting so odd? I'm sure she didn't give it much more than a passing thought.

In 2010, I am the father, hard by middle age and still looking for answers. This time, I am calling on my legendary powers of memory to more clearly understand the world my Jawa now occupies. Though the soundtrack is different and the clothes are nowhere near as groovy, there's got to be an underlying commonality. I was once a seventh-grader. He is a seventh-grader.

I need this to help me understand -- and remember -- what it felt like to have one world at school and another at home. To enter the atrium at Santiago Junior High always looking for one of two things to happen: for someone popular like Rocky Lall to notice me (and maybe give me the seventh grade standard greeting of "Hey, fag!") or for an opportunity to accidentally run into Robin Hardy, to see if she'd say "Hi," or even better, say something about my shirt or my shoes, horribly embarassing me but leaving me thinking of nothing else for the balance of the day.

And what was it like to then leave that at 2:35 every day, exit the hermetic world of the yellow school bus, where people tried out swear words, talked about sports and music and sent coded messages through go-betweens to the girl or boy they were interested in, and then walk through the front door of home, only to find that the other occupants of your house -- in my case, mother, father and two sisters, in the Jawa's case, Sandra Bullock and I, had not received the bulletin outlining the emotional growth you'd experienced that day.

Is it any wonder the Jawa bristles at any attempt to control what he does? Or that he rolls his eyes at a suggestion that deviates from the plan he'd concocted in his brain (but not shared with us) during the day? I need to remember.

Otherwise, as a parent, you suddenly find yourself living with the most self-absorbed, irrational, quick-tempered, frustrating person you've ever met. To make matters worse, that person is your creation. It's your fault.

No, I've got to remember. School world, friends world, girlfriend world, they're all far more vivid in the mind of an adolescent Jawa than home world could ever hope to be. Home world is the time that exists between opportunities to visit those other worlds. What was once the only place you felt comfortable is now a challenge: how do I convince these people that they're not dealing with a child anymore? Don't they know what I deal with each day? And I don't know about you, but I don't see that hierarchy changing very much over the next few years.

Except for those times when it does. Because sometimes, I can vaguely remember and equally vaguely suss from my son's actions, you don't want to live in those other worlds, and you sure don't want those worlds intruding on home world, the world you've known longest, the most reliable world, run by those people who, with luck, will get any reference you might make to something that happened when you were a little kid. Remember our old hamster? Me, too.

If you pay close enough attention, you can hear the gears moving in a twelve-year-old's head. You can hear them mesh smoothly as he leaps forward toward adulthood, maybe when you catch him holding the door open for an old lady at the bank or laughing at something on TV he wouldn't have found funny six months ago.

Other times you can hear the gears crash into each other, clattering wildly in chaotic failure, outwardly manifesting as eye-rolls and rude backtalk that continues long after it should be over. Sometimes, I swear, I can see the smoke coming out of his ears, not from anger but from the difficult task of making all the gears fit together as the world changes seemingly minute-by-minute.

Thirty-two years ago, I was a Bar Mitzvah. I was also the little kid edging away from Brett Gebhardt as he lit up a cigarette every morning at the bus stop, the dreaming romantic who secretly read his grandparents' copy of "A Stone for Danny Fisher" not because it was racy but because it had scene after scene where Danny, a tough kid who got bad breaks, got the girl, mooning over Robin Hardy because she seemed like everything you were supposed to want in a girl. I was a confident first baseman, soon to lose that confidence when my body, unused to sudden growth, lost its ability to pick it around the bag in the summer after eighth grade. This was the trade-off for growing nine inches.

I was desperate, begging my mother to take me to Miller's Outpost for OP and lightning bolt shirts, which were beyond our budget. But to walk into that atrium wearing a Sears knockoff would have been almost as bad as showing up with no pants -- a circumstance I dreampt about almost nightly.

Yes, someone needs to remember. Because even though Family Guy has replaced Benny Hill as the forbidden fruit of comedy, the general chops are the same. Being twelve is being twelve, which doesn't make it any less confusing. I just figured that being the parent of twelve would be easier than being twelve. I was wrong. Being the parent of twelve is nothing like being twelve, but it's about as hard as being twelve.

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