Thursday, July 15, 2010

36 days to Bar Mitzvah: mood swings

Here I am, walking around thinking I remember exactly what it felt like to be 13, then being completely blindsided by the full range of emotions (and emotional distress) displayed by an almost-13-year-old Jawa during the course of a single day. Apologies to every adult who approached the 13 year-old me expecting one thing and getting another. You just never know what's coming next.

Take this evening, for example. Today was a good day, whose unexpected highlights included eating Panda Express in the middle of downtown Oakland. In the afternoon, we took Shack to the park and ran him until he practically collapsed, then sat on the pavement next to the tennis courts, waiting for him to gather enough strength to get up out of the shade and walk home. It was a day where time passed effortlessly, where enjoying the company of my child was a no-brainer, requiring no prerequisite body of knowledge or skillset; you can just be.

At five, we went to Pacifica. It was time for the Jawa's weekly swim lesson. Three years of swim lessons and the kid's practically a dolphin. A few weeks ago, I overheard him answer "swimming" when someone asked him what he was into. So I was quite surprised when, on the drive down Highway 1 into a fog bank, he said, "You know, you can stop my swim lessons whenever you want. I'd be okay with that."

Call that knockout blow #1. It wasn't exactly a mood change, but it was a hint, a reminder not to get too comfortable. Here I'd thought (and hoped) that he was going to choose something, some physical activity, by which to partially define himself. He would be a swimmer.

Instead, swimming has now begun its swerving drive down the familiar road of indifference, doomed to a slot in the Jawa's memory rather than a place in his present. It's crowded on that road, with bits and pieces of earlier efforts scattered along the median.

I made a mental note: "Swimming interest in danger."

"Those swimming skills will come in handy when you're surfing," I volunteered.

"I already know how to swim well enough to surf."

You see what I was doing there? Instead of lasering in on the slow death of interest in swimming, I went forward toward surfing, this summer's great new passion, instead. All summer he's been talking about surfing, so I'll jump on board with surfing, maybe also subtley working a swimming angle in there as well.

For the short-term, it didn't matter. It was 4:58 and his swim lesson began at five. No time for second-guessing. We pulled into the parking lot and leaped out of the car, pausing for a moment to wordlessly high-five each other as he went into Anderson's and I went into 24-Hour Fitness.

I think, though he would be loathe to admit it, he really likes swimming. He always comes out of there in a good mood. Which is why I was so surprised to feel the temperature in the car drop about 40 degrees without any warning twenty minutes later, after we picked up Sandra Bullock at work.

We do this every Thursday. He swims, I sweat, Sandra Bullock plays basketball at the "GenenGym," one of her employers' many little reminder to the rest of us that not every large corporation treats its workers like chattel. We pick her up and drive to La Corneta for burritos.

He was normal when she got in the car. At some point, though, I think one of us asked the wrong question. Something along the lines of "How was your day," but phrased wrong, touching on an incident or idea that reminded him of something he'd tried to forget, plunging him into sudden reticence. Without warning, his answers, usually expressed in his trademark run-on sentences, became economical and monosyllabic. Animated and engaged only a few minutes before, his voice was now dulled and monotonous.

"Is there something wrong?" I eventually asked, but not before I, not entirely realizing that the temperature inside the car had cooled, tried to good-naturedly make fun of his obsession with his new phone. His response to that had been, "Great. Sarcasm."

So finally, I asked, tentatively. "What's wrong?"


Something was wrong. And lucky for everyone else on the road, our windows were rolled up, so they couldn't hear my son's low opinion of them. "Don't let that guy in, Dad," he spat as a dented Toyota -- the kind of car you let do whatever it wants because you're pretty certain that if you don't, its driver will get out and shoot you in the face -- edged in front of us in the tangle of cars next to the BART station.

Finally, after Sandra Bullock returned from picking up our La Corneta stash, he told us that he'd "pictured something," then described a vision so clearly self-loathing, so horrible in its teenage angst and so detailed that it took us both aback for a moment. From our 45-year-old perch, we could see that it was the basic teenage "I'm a bad person" tableau, but that didn't make it any less deflating for the Jawa held prisoner by its image.

"You're not a bad person," Sandra Bullock said. And it was funny, because for the past couple of weeks he's been radically not a bad person. Part of it, he told me this morning, I think by accident, was that I had told him a month ago that I would not under any circumstances take a misbehaving, disrespectful child to a water park this summer. "It's been a month, Dad," he said. "Do you think we can go to a water park after I get back from camp?" Later, he rescinded. "No, no, I didn't even think about the water park thing until today."

His efforts at being easy to get along with, to not take our parental bait, to sit quietly and not complain while I subjected him to reruns of the Ken Burns "Baseball" documentary on PBS instead of a "never before seen" episode of "Mythbusters" have been very noticeable. At times, I can see him struggle, then tamp down his temper and move forward, almost like he's got visible cartoon thought balloons hovering over his head. It's admirable. And it must make suddenly getting a "you suck" message from your subconscious even more frustrating and strange.

By the time we got home, he was teetering on the edge of anarchy. Without asking, he snapped on the TV and turned to Cartoon Network, offering only grunts in response to questions. Then, I swear, less than ten minutes later, the little kids in the neighborhood knocked on our door, sprinkled fairy dust at his feet and immediately blew his Joe Btfsplk storm cloud harmlessly out to sea. He spent the next hour showing the six-year-old down the street how to operate a fishing pole.

Now he's watching a Godzilla movie, pointing out the cheap special effects, eating a popsicle, with his Lego robot-building materials spread out on the floor. I'd love to go in there and get him to put the Legos away, but I don't dare. And if you're shaking your head from side-to-side right now and smiling knowingly then you have way more experience as the parent of a just-about-teen than I do.

And so we beat on, boats against the current, and all that stuff. He gets bigger and I get older and all the memories in the world still leave little gaps in your skill set.

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