Tuesday, June 1, 2010

81 days to Bar Mitzvah: rules are rules. aren't they?

Though it has been a non-issue for almost 25 years, there was a time when I was defined by my refusal to drink alcohol. I was, famously, a teetotalling teen, a no-show at high school parties, a habitual Friday night bowler and moviegoer, my blood alcohol content holding steady at .00.

In the beginning, it wasn't a problem. Everyone was like me. Then one by one they approached the river of adolescence, looked around for an empty bottle of Dewars to sit on, and floated easily across. I stayed on shore, terrified of the water and what lay on the other side.

I felt betrayed. In eighth grade, Dave Money was my best friend. We played baseball in front of his house. Two years later he was gone, his varsity football jersey the passkey to the scary teenage party that left me behind. After awhile, being sober became my calling card. People who went to parties left me alone. Not at all religious, I got lumped in with the church-going crowd. It was ironic.

The one time I went to a party, I was shocked to find people there that I'd thought of as beneath me on the high school social ladder. But there they were. Someone had told them the password. They had someplace to go on weekends. Faced with Sophie's choice and no less terrified of the high school boozer's world than I had been at 14, I retreated behind a wall of black and white. Let 'em have their parties, the dirtbags. They'll pay for it someday.

For the first three years of college, while everyone else was pushing their livers and behavior to the limit, I was smugly removed, feeling superior and clever while delivering clever lines like, "What would I need that for?" to the guy handing out keg cups at a party.

As a social strategy, being the arrogant guy who doesn't drink was a disaster. It led to passionate midnight debates -- me vs. a drunk guy -- that I could neither win nor lose. It confused at least one of my fraternity brothers, Dave LeKander, so badly that he would leave the room, muttering to everyone about how he just didn't get it. Eventually, he and Jack Murphy, his roommate, tried to have me blackballed.

My poor girlfriend got the worst torture of all. About the only good thing I can imagine that came of the two-hour late night phone calls I repeatedly subjected her to was that by the time she went to bed, she was sober.

I was a social leper, pretending to stand up for something other than fear. Truth is, it had gotten away from me. By the time I turned 21, the only thing keeping me from joining the party was imagining the room full of people who already knew me -- and my reputation -- losing their minds the first time they saw me holding a bottle of Miller Lite. When I finally ordered that first longneck, I did it at a bar with a guy named Mike Dineen who didn't know me well enough to make it a big deal. "This is my first beer ever," I told him.

"Wow, I'm honored," said Mike Dineen, earning my lifelong gratitude. You got anything bad to say about Mike Dineen, you go through me first.

And of course, it took a total of one party for everyone else to get on board. I think they were relieved.

Looking back, I'm not sure why I waited until I was 21 to have that first beer. Like I said, it just got away from me. Turns out for most people, alcohol and career success are not interlocked. You can have both. Who knew?

Eventually, my dry past faded into the background, no more a defining life experience than the Alfa Romeo I drove when I was 17 or the 50 record albums I bought in 1984. If I thought about it at all, it was to rue the parties I missed and the bars I've never been to.

Until I became the parent of a pre-teen.

When the Jawa asks, "Did you drink during high school?" I can answer, "No," without lying. If he asks, "Why not?" I can say, simply, "Because it was illegal."

And actually, I kind of stand behind that. I don't mind never having experienced the sheer terror of being underage in a bar, my entree secured by a phony ID. Mostly, though, I use it as my excuse because the truth is doesn't stand up. "Uh, because I was afraid I'd say something stupid?" "Because I thought everyone who drank was going to end up a loser someday?" "Because after awhile, I knew I wouldn't be able to start without everyone making a big deal out of it?"

But for my child, whose adolescence is arriving with the total absence of emails and casual invites from his classmates, is stressing the "because it was illegal" angle the right thing to do?

I've watched this year as one by one, the friends he's had off and on since kindergarten have approached that river of adolescence. While they're not floating across on empty Dewars bottles, they're somehow getting to the other side. Once they get there, they don't look back. And there he is, all alone, without a clue as to how to get across.

They're all on Facebook. You're not supposed to be on Facebook until you're 13. The Jawa is not yet 13. A few weeks ago at a Family Education event at temple, I watched as three of his classmates huddled together over a violent video game, our Jawa desperately trying anything to pierce the outer armor of the circle. "Sorry, you're too young," one of the boys finally told him.

It's not their problem. They're kids. It's not their fault that while our boy is memorizing the lyrics to the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, they're sitting there with sweaty palms, trying to figure out how to get that girl they like to sit on their lap at Middle School Performance Night.

That was tonight, by the way, Middle School Performance Night. The Jawa played with the jazz band. Don't think my heart didn't break in ways I'd thought had disappeared 20 years ago when none of the seventh graders in the audience yelled out his name like they yelled for everyone else in the band. What can you do? You just sit there like all the other parents and try to clap loud enough so he can hear you. Then afterwards, when he wants to sit with you instead of with his classmates, you bite your tongue because you don't want to be that clueless parent who says, "Why don't you go sit with your little friends?" and sends his kid back into a lion's den of something worse than conflict: total apathy. Nobody actively dislikes him; they just don't care.

You know that genre of movie where some uptight guy learns that he needs to cut loose in order to be happy? In the end, he learns that all of these things he thought were important -- following rules, trying to be what he thinks is good -- aren't. Human warmth trumps all. I always feel bad for the uptight guy in those movies. There's a part of me that still thinks he should have stuck to his guns. The message is, of course, "Be like us and we'll accept you."

But here we have a kid who's having a tough time finding his niche. My rules aren't helping.

So that's it. Tomorrow I'm signing him up for Facebook and we're going out to buy Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Then, on Friday, I'm taking him to Mike's Liquors, buying him a fifth of Jim Beam and sending him off to the nearest teenage party.

No, of course not. I won't be doing any of that. I'm just wondering if stressing this idea -- no, you can't; you're too young -- has made a potentially painful situation worse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We should catch up one of these days (so excited to get the Bar Mitzvah invite!). I have one of both -- the effortlessly popular athletic daughter and the sweet, thoughtful son whose father often quizzes him to make sure he didn't spend recess alone. It's a daily education in contrast parenting. And we haven't even (quite) hit adolescence yet.

-- Coady