One thing I know is this: we plung headlong into every day knowing that there's little or no chance that our behavior will measure up to that which we see on TV and in the movies. Or in some books, for that matter.
Unless we choose to spend each day hiding in a dark, media- and interaction-free room, it's impossible to get to the daily finish line without coming across an image or message that confirms one thing: we're not doing this the way we're supposed to. Our conversation isn't a cohesive string of clever repartee. We don't have six-pack abs even though our character is supposed to represent "everyman." If we are at a train station and see our as-yet unmet soulmate sitting inside a departing train, it's very unlikely we'll be able to whip out our PDA and change our ticket before she pulls away.
As educated adults, we are invested in reminding ourselves and each other that we are quite cognizant of the difference between reality and fantasy. And yet there is a part of us that goes to bed every night thinking, "Man, I didn't resemble Jimmy Stewart AT ALL today."
I am hopelessly lacking in one fatherhood skillset: the aptitude for and interest in doing construction projects with my son. Not that I grew up building birdhouses with my dad. The couple of times we combined forces -- to complete plastic scale models of Apollo 11 and later a transparent view of a Wankel rotary engine -- the division of labor was very unequal. He built while I watched.
There are men who crave the opportunity to build something with their son. If their son were to do what mine did yesterday -- out of nowhere announce that he wanted to build a "dog park" for Saturday's Surrey Street block party -- they would have seized the opportunity, effortlessly cashing in on meaningful father-son time and the teaching moments inherent in working with power tools.
More than an inability to work with tools -- which terrify me, by the way -- I've also got no interest at all in building things. The minute the Jawa started talking about this project, which he'd already mapped out in his head, I began seeing teeth-gnashing trips to Home Depot (where I once stood in front of a wall of drywall screws, frustrated out of my mind because my wife and father-in-law had sent me there to "buy drywall screws" without mentioning the vast array of drywall screw variables, thinking, "I wonder if this is what some people would feel like if I threw the latest 'New Yorker' in front of them and said, 'Read this.'"), followed by much demonstrated impatience on both of our parts, brief but sharp periods of physical pain and a final project whose quality would be so subpar that people would have to lie to us in order to spare our feelings.
But it doesn't matter. Even as the world's most manually inept adult, my responsibility as a father is to nurture his self-esteem. Everything you hear and read tells you about the horrific damage that comes when you consistently crush your child's dreams. The world will crush them soon enough, my mother would say, so what's your rush?
I'm supposed to be like that guy Gordon, whose farmhouse living room I found myself in one day several years ago, after a Poulsbo, Washington groomsmen outing during which I neither got a massage nor appeared nude in the hot tub. Gordon lived on Bainbridge Island and was slated to play the bongos during the upcoming ceremony. The groom, a former college roommate of mine, had met him during grad school in Olympia.
(Around this time I learned that the groom, who later lived in a yurt on Whidbey Island, had spent much of his youth living in a home that fronted a golf course. One day we went there and played golf, leading to one of the two most memorable sports-related moments of my life: seeing a guy in a tie-dyed shirt and Birkenstocks unload a 300-yard drive. The other was seeing a guy in a cheerleader skirt and giant hoop earrings repeatedly hit the ten-foot line during a volleyball tournament.)
Across the living room in Gordon's farmhouse were two unusual, furry objects. In passing, I asked, "What are those?"
"Well," Gordon said, eyes twinkling to indicate that everything he needed to know, he had indeed learned in kindergarten, "those are my drum stands. But they can be anything you want them to be."
If Gordon was the Jawa's dad, he'd be out back under a tarp right now, sawing away at the enigmatic "wood" the Jawa told me he'd need for his "dog park."
Sadly, I'm not Gordon. If those things are drum stands, then they're drum stands. They're not magic carpets, inanimate pets or the initial building blocks of an aerie. And you can't just decide, two days before the party, that you want to build an enclosure out of wood and "mesh," populate it with (as-yet unpurchased) dog toys and food dishes and somehow store the thing in your 1,100 square-foot house on its 25 x 84 lot. That's not even considering the imaginary block of time required to go to Home Depot and buy these materials. And Petco.
But at least if I were Gordon, I'd let the kid down easy. I'd know exactly how to tell him that, while his proposed project was impossible, there's certainly something else we can do -- together -- that will be just as fun and meaningful. Gordon would make sure to start by complementing the Jawa on his initiative. He'd say, "Wow, I wish I had your imagination!" and "It's great that you're thinking about the dogs. I'll bet they really appreciate that!"
Shoot, Gordon. Not counting time spent behind the wheel, I can't even remember the last time I said anything out loud that had an implied exclamation point at the end of it. How do you expect me to Fred Rogers up enough to maintain my son's belief in magic while simultaneously squashing this particular project?
Even as I lounged around your living room, you had to know that I couldn't get on board. When you invited me to consider the endless possibilities imagination could bestow on a pair of bongo drum stands, I said, "Sorry, Gordo. I don't live in that world," and all you did was half-smile. And I did actually call you Gordo, but what can you expect from a guy who, while everyone else was cross-country skiing during the groomsmen retreat on Mt. Rainier, trudged through the snow with the other oddball groomsman to find the nearest bar.
I listened for awhile, agonizing over how to proceed, before saying to the Jawa, "Yeah, you know, I'm just not sure you're going to have the time to do all of that."
"It wouldn't take any time," he protested.
"And it sounds like it might be kind of expensive," I said.
"Wood's not expensive."
Help me out here, Gordon.
Later that night, the Jawa changed his mind. "You're right," he told me. "There's no way that would have worked." Victory has never been less sweet.
And again I go to sleep feeling nothing at all like Sheriff Andy Taylor, Henry Fonda, Dick Van Patten or even Darren McGavin as The Old Man.