Tuesday, August 17, 2010

4 days to Bar Mitzvah: in search of greatness

I'm always going around repeating my two favorite quotes about having kids, paraphrasing parental giants Ethan Canin and Joe Mele. Canin, who wrote a National Book Award-winning collection of short stories while in medical school, was once asked at a reading how the recent birth of his daughter impacted his writing.

"This is going to sound stupid if you don't have kids," he began in response, "and if you already have kids, it's going to sound redundant, but the biggest difference is that until I had kids, I'd always thought of myself as someone who feels things very deeply. Then I had kids and realized I hadn't felt anything at all."

Okay, maybe Ethan is a little hyperbole-happy, but the core idea is strong. As for Joe Mele, he was a guy I went to grad school with who had his first son while both of us were teaching at Blanchet High School in Seattle. A few months in, we -- accompanied by our own smartly-dressed, months-old Jawa, joined the entire extended Mele family for the christening. Afterward, as we dove into an awesome Italian spread at the Meadowbrook Community Center, Joe stood up to make a little speech.

"Everyone asks me what I like most about being a parent," Joe said. "It's pretty simple. The best thing about being a parent is that by the time I realized there was a hole in my life, it was already filled."

I like words. Last week, I told someone that I didn't understand people who say they "don't have time" to do Facebook, not only because my daily investment in Facebook is about five minutes, but also because if I wasn't writing status updates to my Facebook page I'd just have to find somewhere else to put all those words. I've simply got way too many words; the more places I can find to write them down, the better. Otherwise, they'll back up, which may be why I get so many headaches.

As a word-lover, I take my hat off to Canin and Mele. I've been in this game 13 years and I still can't think of a better way to describe the highlights of parenthood; that's why I constantly cite them.

Ethan and Joe touched on the best parts. What they didn't discuss was the street-level life changes that accompany a Jawa. In my experience, the worst part about expecting a baby was having to endure the endless, well-meaning "advice" doled out by everyone in the entire world -- friends, co-workers or complete strangers. Everyone wants to tell you how it's going to be.

I made a promise to myself on August 3, 1997 that I would never tell a pregnant woman or a nervous would-be father, how it was going to be. Last week, when 31-year-old newleywed Matt Elliser asked me if having a kid meant giving up your dreams of being great, I told him how it had worked with me, not how it would work with him. And of course, I quoted Mele and Canin, suggesting that, to them, fatherhood is its own kind of greatness.

It's a greatness that comes when you shrug off all of the selfish impulses you've built up in a lifetime, not by slaying dragons or building a multinational company out of nothing. It's more evident in the way you give up the last cookie than it is when you get promoted at work. As subtle a form of greatness as it is, the hard part is that it's a greatness that is way more elusive than the kind you get when the Queen drops an OBE medal around your neck.

Tell me how it feels when you realize you just ruined your son's night by making some sarcastic remark because you had a headache and didn't feel like hearing more about Disneyland. Or when you figure there's something not right about the 13 year-old in the back seat telling you to close your window because he can't hear his iPod over the wind, which snaps you out of this awesome private moment you've been having, thinking you'd created the perfect Sunday afternoon drive, only to find that your efforts are actually annoyances and Steve Jobs has defeated you again. You know the right thing to do is to close your window without comment, but you say something anyway because darn it, the kid needs to know that the world is not his alone.

It's a balance, and I find it nearly impossible to maintain. I try pretty hard, but I could try harder.

Because it takes a ton of bad behavior to turn your kid against you, which is part of the great responsibility that comes (to those who choose to accept it) with being someone's dad. I still remember a day, several years ago. The Jawa couldn't have been more than four, maybe five, but I was giving him a bunch of crap anyway, because I'd forgotten how to be an adult.

We were out somewhere, arguing back and forth, or he threw a fit because I wouldn't buy him something, which ticked me off and made start thinking in the "how dare they!" mode of thought -- the quickest route to being a terrible dad. We were walking, and somewhere during our twin tirades, we reached a curb. Without thinking, the Jawa reached up and grabbed for my hand, because he knew that I was going to protect him as we crossed this street, and no amount of arguing was going to change that, and no matter how mad he was at me, the bottom line was that I was still his guy, which was pretty awesome and terribly heartbreaking, and something I should have not needed a five-year-old to remind me of, all at the same time.

The one day you wake up and your Jawa is 13 and holding hands is no longer a heartwarming picture of father and son, but instead two hairy guys who need a shave holding hands.

I still feel terrible about the arguing/hand-holding day, several years later; which doesn't stop me from hitting the roof when it's obvious that my son thinks I can't tell that suddenly realizing that you haven't played with your hamster all day is more than a coincidence when it happens thirty seconds after someone has told you it's time to go to bed.

The problem with seeing fatherhood as a paradigm for measuring "greatness" is that if you care at all about it you constantly feel like you're failing. The job often requires behavior that goes against your nature (see: patience/lack of patience) and the rules are always changing. Over the past month, the Jawa's bedtime has slowly crept back an hour without anyone saying anything. One night he's up working on his Bar Mitzvah speech; the next night he's making origami fish for the centerpieces. Last night, after working on paper lanterns for two hours, he joined Sandra Bullock in watching "Clash of the Titans" from nine until 11.

An hour later, I went into his bedroom. Until earlier this year, this was my habit. Every night, after he had gone to sleep, I'd sneak into his bedroom and watch him for a few seconds before going to sleep myself. I don't know why I stopped. Maybe because he's often up as late as me now. Maybe because it seemed like something you do when your kid's little; not when he's a teenager.

Last night I went in there. He was asleep. I went to pat his head and my fingers caught on something: headphones. From them, a cord ran down into the covers, where it was attached to an iPod. He'd been watching videos, something we've told him numerous times not to do.

But what can you do? Sure, I can ban his iPod. I can take it and hide it and tell him he can't have it for a week. It wouldn't be the first time. The efficacy of this behavior modification tactic is questionable. And what, my solution is to let the poor kid lie in bed for hours, staring into space because he inherited my night owl genes and I insist on him trudging into bed every night at 10 even though he can't fall asleep before 11?

Add this to the growing list of confusing elements involved in watching your child turn into a teenager. I want him to go to bed at 10. I want him to put down his various electronic devices and do something else. I want him to keep his room clean. Is any of this realistic? Should my real goal be to monitor his decisions, instead of making them for him?

Back in August of 1997, I had my own take on sudden parenthood. It was neither as eloquent nor as deep as those of Canin and Mele. "It's like someone turned my life up to 11," I said and continue to say. Thirteen years later, I've found that no matter how many things change, that's the one thing that stays true.

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