Friday, July 3, 2009

Father Knows Less

Thirty-one years ago today my son Jesse arrived, changing my life forever. Twenty years ago I wrote about what he means to me. I still feel the same. So, here’s that essay:

Jesse tells me that I'm definitely not cool. I don't dress right, he says, and I couldn't possibly beat him in a footrace. Why do I put up with such abuse, day after day, as he hits me for money or lounges around like a little king while I make his lunch?

He's a kid, that's why. My kid. And no one is more amazed than I that we've made it so far without major injuries or mayhem. "But dad," he reminds me, "I had my appendix removed. Use your brain."

Right.

"Use your brain," he likes to say, usually when illustrating why he is smarter or more in touch with reality than I am. Lately, he's become the kind of lovable smart alec you want to hug and pummel at the same time. But since he's my wiseguy, I can do that. It's one of the few privileges connected with fatherhood. That and puffing up with pride whenever he does something especially well.

That's my boy!

How did I become this dad person? In my twenties I was one of those people who stated flatly that there were already too many people in this sick world. Why condemn another being to life on this suffering globe? In 1970, I recall laughing ruefully when Kurt Vonnegut outlined the problem to the graduating class of Bennington College. He begged the women to believe a ridiculous superstition: that humanity is at the center of the universe.

"If you can believe that," he said, "and make others believe it, then there might be hope for us. Human beings might stop treating each other like garbage, might begin to treasure and protect each other instead. Then it might be all right to have babies again."

Eight years later I participated in the making of a baby anyway. Despite the fact that everything was still getting worse, I'd decided that creating a new life might actually help. At least it might help me find a purpose larger than myself but more manageable than world revolution.

In the delivery room after a full day of labor, I helped Robin regulate her breathing while the staff tried to adapt to our Lamaze demands. Jesse's emergence into the world still ranks as one of the most moving events of my life. Our friend, Doreen, put the crucial moments on film.

With such an entrance, I suppose it was destiny that Jesse would turn out to be some kind of performer. And as if to prove it, upon graduating from elementary to middle school just about 11 years later, he won the "Class Clown" award from an appreciative fifth grade teacher.

That's my boy!

No manual can prepare you for the rigors and rewards of fatherhood. It's one thing to read about waking up nightly at 3 a.m. and quite another to do it. There is also no way to capture in words the feeling of holding your infant child and knowing that, for the moment at least, his life depends entirely on you and your partner.

Even if you don't read all the books, you quickly learn the ropes. When it comes to raising kids, trial and error is virtually unavoidable. Sometimes a chance experience provides an important clue. The secret to putting Jesse to sleep, for instance, came to me while riding with him in a car. Vibration was a foolproof sleep-inducer. After the first success, anytime I couldn't rock him to sleep I'd take him for a ride.

Maybe that's why he's so hung up on Lamborghinis.

The books also won't prepare you for the strong emotions that sweep over at times of trouble or joy. This is perhaps more shocking for men, who are used to keeping their feelings under wraps. The first time Jesse wanted to climb a tree, I was frantic. Images of crushed little bones invaded my brain, forcing me to hover nearby and utter inexcusable inanities.

Equally unnerving was the absolute pride I felt when Jesse won some trophies for karate or horsemanship. It was a powerful surge of pleasure that I'd rarely felt even when winning a prize myself. And it was not the size of the victory that mattered, but rather that my kid had mastered some new skill. I realized that there was nothing wrong with taking pride in such progress – as long as you didn't mind looking a little foolish.

For me, perhaps the biggest surprise was how comfortable I became in the role of dad. It put my feet on the ground like no job ever could. Very soon I was hooked on the experience. I reveled in the responsibility, and looked for opportunities to be a role model. I also found that it was possible to be both a father and a friend. Cuddling with Jesse, talking about school or watching a film, was often the highlight of my day.

Just how central Jesse was to my life became clearest when we were apart. My frequent trips overseas meant that we were separated for months at a time. Even if I was in some idyllic setting, his face would appear in my mind's eye and I'd be lonely.

There was only one way to describe that feeling – love.

Being a dad – at least one worth having – also means being a teacher and sometimes a boss. Since I'd taught previously, the former wasn't such a stretch. But setting down rules on matters such as toys and television put my self-image through some heavy changes.

Here I was, saying things like "turn it off NOW," and "No, you can't have that $25 hunk of plastic." Who was that guy using my mouth? Had my father taken control of my body? I tried to change the dynamic by shifting into my teacher role.

"Now, Jesse, you know what commercials do?" I would explain. "They make you want to buy things you don't need."

But he, as usual, was way ahead of me. "You mean they're lying, right?"

Right.

Still, his ability to see through the lies did not prevent him from wanting to consume. Though I resisted, we did go through action figures (without the guns), Gobots, Autobots, Transformers, and a slight touch of Masters of the Universe. Later came Atari and Nintendo video games. I despised these plastic and video monsters, but what could I do but remind him that they were trash? A ban on mass culture would only have alienated my best friend.

It was a costly compromise, but we both survived without too many laser burns.

TV was more problematic. My own philosophy was that content matters more than time. Thus, I would prefer it if he spent three hours watching "Fanny and Alexander" rather than one hour glued to "The A-Team." Robin felt, on the other hand, that time limits were also important. Jesse must have found it humorous to watch his two parents arguing repeatedly over how many hours of tube time he should be allowed on weekends – especially since he could violate the rules with impunity once he was in some more "liberal" household.

If there is a right answer to the great TV debate, I sure haven't found it. But the struggle has taught me that limits are necessary, and that most kids instinctively understand they are signs of caring. Both TV and toy struggles also have made it clear that we're living in a deeply addictive culture. When a kid is hooked on video games at eight, there's no telling what he'll be into at 18.

Anyone who thinks his or her child is immune to the psychic assault of mass culture would be well advised to heed my son's advice: "Wake up and smell the rubber barf.

Since we're still friends, Jesse has been explaining a few things lately about girls. They're mostly silly and giggly, and their notes are not cool. "I think you're cute," several of them wrote recently. "Do you think I'm cute?" One even added, "I want your body."

"And what did you do?" I asked naively.

"Brain, dad," he said. "It's going to be a long process.”

I don't know if most 11-year-olds are as philosophical about pre-pubescent rituals, but I was reassured. I was also a bit shocked to learn that by 10 they know as much about sex as I knew at 15. From the vocabulary to the techniques, somehow they've covered it. One friend told me that the celebration at a birthday party her daughter attended came to a crashing halt when the 8-year-old birthday girl got a shock: her "boyfriend" had "slept with" one of her best friends.

Luckily, Jesse seems satisfied with his "long process." He's much more turned on by a solid homerun than a kiss right now. His passion is achievement, especially when it involves beating his old dad.

But he has been showing signs of rebellion lately. It's no longer enough to simply bend the rules. I get the strong impression he wants to change them. In the old days, it was easy to convince him that tagging along with the adults would be fun. Now he knows better. Meetings are boring, and all we oldsters seem to enjoy is talking. Kids thrive on action, and by 11 I guess they're ready to break away.

There really isn't a choice. To demand that your child like the things you enjoy is asking the impossible. Force only makes matters worse, deepening the suspicion that parents are out of touch. Or as Jesse puts it, "In the olden days things were less cool."

But sometimes I can still convince my friend to trust my judgment, usually by offering to meet at least some of his needs. Though force usually fails, I find that most kids remain open to persuasion and fair negotiation.

Jesse hasn't read Kurt Vonnegut yet, but I think he already shares some of the writer's pessimism. Even though he thinks he's quite different than his dad, he may have inherited some of that from me. I can only hope he's also learned to take risks and hold onto his sense of humor.


And what about dad? Well, even though I've changed from respected authority figure to poorly dressed geek, I'm still satisfied with the job.
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