Monday, January 29, 2007

Father/Son Degree of Difficulty

What's harder, being a father or being a son? After yesterday, I'm not sure. I do know one thing, though; neither job looks to be getting any easier in the future.

I told someone once -- okay, it's me, I told lots of people lots of times -- that if you care at all about being a parent you constantly feel like you're screwing up. Take yesterday, for example.

These things often begin quietly. We took Shack for a walk around a very disappointing lake and then went to Trader Joe's. Lately -- not so lately --the Jawa has been devoting himself to making sure that every one of our planned or spontaneous events is somehow ruined. Usually he does this by disagreeing with something -- or everything -- that we say, then, like a litigator ruled more by emotion than professionalism, driving his point home with a series of increasingly combative and pointed comments.

By the time we got to Trader Joe's, I was already sniffing around the edge of the idea that every time we do something, the Jawa makes sure to ruin it. As a thoughtful parent, the kind who spends $19,500 to send his child to school that includes a "kindness committee," I should use these moments as "teaching opportunities." I should gently remind my Jawa how precious our time together is, and that his behavior is doing nothing but compromising that preciousness.

I should also probably have named him "Sunshine," while we're at it, and fed him only organic juices and left-wing propaganda as well.

As a deeply flawed human being, my response to these incidents is always the same. A voice begins, at first small and distant, then, shockingly quickly, throbbingly loud and insistant. The voice repeats the same thing: "How DARE this child RUIN every single thing we do! What is WRONG with this child? He NEEDS TO BE TOLD that he is WAY out of line."

And so I do that, with great skill. By "skill" I mean "relentless sarcasm and nastiness."

This had not yet surfaced as we circled around and around the Trader Joe's parking lot, looking for a parking spot, Shack panting in the back of the car.

Sandra Bullock had an idea. "Wouldn't it be wonderful," she thought, "if we could buy Shack this bed I saw at Cost Plus?" We could put it under the front window. Then he wouldn't have to climb up onto the end table that can barely support his 22.9 pounds.

Here's where it really falls apart. Had Cost Plus not had the wicker bed thing at all, or had they had one not ripped up and damaged, we could have made it through Trader Joe's, either holding our new dog bed or vowing to buy it online.

Since there was a bed, but it was damanged, this put the imprint of an idea into the Jawa's head: Shack needs something like this bed, and he needs it right now.

And so, like a Lorax who speaks not for the trees but instead for partially-grown Corgis, the Jawa accepted his mission: he would find something similar to this wicker box -- where are most of the world's wicker boxes? At Cost Plus! -- and he would find it NOW. We would not leave the store until he found it.

At this point, the voices in my head grow louder. Negotiations ensue. Finally, several minutes past the time I'd hoped to exit Cost Plus, we drag him out of there. By now, his advocacy for Shack has grown epically. Like a small, Vans-shod Clarence Darrow, he continues to plead his case, often in direct opposition to our orders and requests.

Within five minutes, I'm dragging him across the Trader Joe's parking lot. He's threatening me, swinging his free arm at me, yelling at me. All of the other Trader Joe's patrons, many of whom have named their children "Sunshine," and fed them only organic greens, otherwise why would they be at Trader Joe's, have stopped where they are standing and are watching to see how I am going to respond to the fact that my 9-year-old is doing a Rich Little-level impersonation of a three-year-old, minus the adorably cute part.

As usual, I fail. Instead of calming the child, I feed his rage, squeezing his arm harder as he tries to wriggle away, trying to adopt a quiet, threatening voice, not because I think it might be effective but because I'm still hoping that if I don't lose it, the hippies in the parking lot will figure I have everything under control and will continue on their way.

Nothing works. The Jawa is a few seconds short of going Linda Blair and having his head spin around completely. This is my child? This is my partner in funk?

Finally, I snap completely. I lean down closely to my child, the person I would most definitely take a bullet for, and whisper, "Do you want me to hurt you?"

First of all, as if.

Second of all, he doesn't believe me, and rightly so. Third of all, I look up and a family of four is staring right at me. I can see in the mother's face that she's cursing herself for not memorizing the number of Child's Protective Services. I give the Jawa's arm another squeeze and we walk waord the car, where his poor dog is sitting, anticipating the arrival not of a crazed, sub-par parent and a raging child but instead the two people who play with him, feed him and pet him.

Finally, exhausted I pull something out of my childhood. Appropriately, as we will soon learn, I draw from my own father's legacy and apply the feared "fingerprints on the neck" method. It gets his attention immediately.

I rip open the door and throw the Jawa in. That will have to take the place of "hurting" him. I really want to yell at him, but yelling has long since lost its effectiveness. I've been trying the low, threatening thing so far, so I continue, trying to make it sound as if I've compressed an eighteen wheeler full of rage into 45 decibals. And I say this:

"When we get home, you will go straight to your room. You will have no electronics for the week. You will have no playdates. We will talk about the proposed sleepover with Tony Hawk later."

From the back seat, he just sneers at me.

Eventually, Sandra Bullock returns, minus any Trader Joe's loot. In a desperate attempt to pierce my child's impressive personal armor, I say, "Nice job, Jawa. Mommy couldn't even buy food because of you."

I am expecting to receive news, either by phone or email, of my nomination for "most petty parent of 2007" any day now.

We drive home in silence, save for the part where the Jawa tosses a sweatshirt toward me and I swing around and say, "DID YOU THROW THAT AT ME?" with enough force to actually kind of scare him. Two hours later, after we've each calmed down via our go-to sources -- me, crossword puzzles, him, loud funk music -- he is released from his room, sporting a conciliatory attitude.

For this I thank him, because life wasn't done with me yet. Earlier in the day -- and if flying off the handle wasn't my usual M.O. I guess I could blame my behavior on the stress of this -- my mother called to tell me that Gedalya Ben Yitzak was in the hospital. Again.

See, my father is in worse shape than a lot of guys his age. Years of smoking, inhaling saw dust and eating pizza have left him susceptible to all kinds of illnesses, most of which I have to research on my own, due to my family's long-standing policy of sugar-coating all forms of bad news.

So I got the call yesterday morning and quickly shifted from bad dad to good son mode. Since my parents were not CC'ed on the email explaining my lack of ambition and willingness to embrace responsibility, they still have in their mind the argyle sweater-wearing 17-year-old son who could handle any crisis. Back then, their biggest worry was that the world was having a party that I was too uptight to attend. But that persona came in handy then, and I'm thankful that enough of it still exists, at least to them, that I could step up and be of some use yesterday.

Today, after hours of research, I called my dad in his hospital room, asked a bunch of pointed questions about his condition, hung up, satisfied in part that he/they are taking this situation seriously, and then called Noodles' Mom to share my findings. And told my parents that, despite my well-documented distaste for the state of Arizona, that the Jawa and I would be visiting them during Spring Break, when the average temperature in the Grand Canyon State is a comfortable 95 degrees.

Taking these events back-to-back, I couldn't help but wonder where the ceiling is on all of this. I've been telling the Jawa, since he was very small, that the worst part of being a parent is that as he gets bigger, I get older. It seems like parenting has been getting more difficult with each passing year, as the Jawa completes his transition from adorable toddler to disgusting boy. Next comes sullen teen, which I'm sure will be no picnic.

I noticed the other day, after 15 minutes of negotiation culminated in the Jawa agreeing to join me in taking Shack for a walk, that we've long since passed the point where just showing up in public with our child elicits smiles and coos from everyone we pass. Shack does his best to pick up the slack, but my child himself actually now has to do something exceptional to win the crowd's unconditional love.

Where is the precocious toddler who spontaneously danced on the sidewalk to the club music coming from "The Pink Zone" as everyone smiled their blissful approval?

Will I be able to roll with his combative nature as he gets older? Will we turn into one of those toxic father-son teams, where the son charges out of the house in a rage several times a month and then later waits until I'm dead to write odes to my well-intended but poorly-executed attention?

Soon, I know, he will be unable to hold my hand, at least in public. I will always pat him on the head, though, even when he is bigger than me, and I plan to sneak into his room every night before going to bed, as I have been doing since he was a baby, and say goodnight.

Nobody has to tell me that being a son becomes more difficult as your parents (and grandparents) get older. I understand that the whole of my earlier thought is actually "as the Jawa gets bigger and I get older my dad gets even older than me."

I've also got Roger A. Hunt to offer constant reminders of our parents' -- and our -- mortality once a week or so. It's the one thing we can count on, he tells me, though since becoming a hotshot lawyer he's added that taxes are another thing we can count on.

I remember two pictures of my dad from old photo albums. One, which I've referenced more than once when writing a story, was taken some time in the mid-1960s. I may not even have been born yet. It's black-and-white, and in it, he's wearing a white shirt and one of those skinny, cool 1950s ties. He's at work, and he's talking on the phone. In the photo, he looks ambitious and very young.

The other picture was taken at Hammond's, "The Pool." We went there all summer, every summer, in lieu of a country club, most of which in our part of Pennsylvania, I think, didn't accept Jews at the time. In this one, he's standing in the pool with at least 3 kids hanging from his arms, hoisting them all out of the water. I'm one of them, skinny, maybe 9 years old, wearing a bathing cap because they'd decreed that summer that anyone with hair past a certain length, boy or girl, had to wear a bathing cap. There's water flying around everywhere, because all of the kids are climbing up onto my dad, kicking, waving their arms around.

I'm sure that one day the Jawa will be asking himself when he got too big for his dad to carry him up the front steps. That day is coming very, very soon, by the way.


Anonymous Roger A. Hunt said...

Your son is very fortunate that one day, maybe several years from now, that he'll be able to read (and know) about the relationship you have with him. That is quite a gift you've given to him.

4:17 PM  
Anonymous zin gal said...

Get well soon to your dad. My father also is not as healthy as many his age, and sugar coats things.

Right now, my ever so stubborn one is on the couch with 104 fever looking very vulnerable. Do let S.B. know that she got sick Friday, which explains her lethargy on the court. Dog Whisperer and Jawa would make a formidable team (or opponents). I am hoping she sleeps through J and I watching 24. J, by the way, at age 13 does still sometimes hold my hand in public and will cuddle at home. But don't tell him I told.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

When Count Burpalot was in kindergarten and his teacher told us how wonderful he was, we were thrilled, and confused. Count Burpalot's response? "I save up my badness for home". Maybe Jawa, surrounded at school with "kindness committees" and sensitivity, just needs to be a regular boy sometimes, and this is how he gets it all out.On a different note- I remember the photos your talking of-especially the one at Hammonds.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous the hammer said...

All of the comments above are spot on. You and SB are great parents and Jawa is a terrific kid, even if he doesn't always show it around you. Strong willed, yes, but smart and loving also. He's a bundle of emotions (as are you) that will serve him well later in life. Stick with it, pal.

As says Zin Gal, the aging process can be unsettling. I too see decline in my parents, esp. Dad. If you'd like company in AZ over spring break, let me know and we can talk.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous flush puppy said...

there have been some close calls, but it's been a while since i've had to physically drag the girl child anywhere. in public anyway...

I have noticed there's been a lot more snide and sarcastic remarks on both sides of the fence in our house. Not pretty. Gotta get a handle on it now, while we still CAN drag them around.

The jawa is definitely in a testing phase - we hope it's just a phase anyway!

12:24 PM  
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