EPISODE 10: COOL DAD, NERD DAD
One of my greatest disappointments as a father has been my inability to become a cool dad. Every morning as my six year old and I walk to school, we spot those who are avatars of paternal groovyness. There's the French dad who effortlessly balances his child on the handlebars of his bike with the same nonchalance that he knots his scarf. There is the urban cowboy who pulls up to the school door in a battered pick-up truck and fist bumps his son goodbye. The working musician whose son has a small guitar case that echoes the old man's Stratocaster, and then there's me with my scintillating, pre-caffeinated banter:
"Want me to quiz you on your spelling one more time?"
"Sure, the crosswalk light just turned green, but you never know when a gypsy cab who's been smoking fry sticks is going to come speeding around the corner..."
"The more you save in your twenties, the better the quality of life you'll have in your forties."
I even bore myself.
What makes my nerd dad status so galling is that it is really the first time in my life that I have been lumped in with McLovin and the rest of the dorks. Part of the problem is that even as a child I preferred adult pleasures (restaurants, reading, museums), so I have nothing to offer a small boy when it comes to cool Frisbee tricks or getting a scooter to jump the curb.
When it came to sports, which have always provided a kind of social currency for boys, the only games I tended to excel at were those with a fashion component or tavern stop as part of the post-game ritual. My only varsity letter was for "crew", and as much as I enjoyed freezing to death in a boat on a New Hampshire lake amid the pre-season ice floes of March, my main motivation for rowing was to be able in June to flounce around the Henley Royal Regatta in a straw boater and a blazer that only Thom Browne could love.
With these handicaps, I nevertheless made it my mission this past fall to reclaim some semblance of daddy coolness - if not for myself then for my son. And so after taking stock of the things that I am talented at (depressingly few) and examining which of these skills would be appropriate to pass along to a young man (is six too young to taste the difference between a lager and a stout?), I realised most of my extracurricular skills make me more of a club dad than a cool one.
So one Saturday, while Nicholas' friends and their Type A parents were off at chess class (which everyone in Manhattan knows is one of the key building blocks in matriculating to Harvard Law School), I took out my massive backgammon board to see if any of my wastrel DNA had made it into the heir. As his eyes caught sight of the green felt interior, I knew we were on to something. After a brief tutorial, we were into the first of many marathon sessions. To keep him keen I'd refrain from hitting him every time he left a man open and let him win.
After suffering five defeats in a row, I decided to ramp up my play. When he left a man open, I hit him, and he had to roll in frustration for several turns, unable to get his man off the bar and back on the board. When I eventually won that game, he burst into tears and flipped the board.
"Why would you do that to your son?" he asked, as little tears ran down his cheeks. Before I could use Nicholas' outburst as a teachable moment - If you flip a board in a Monte Carlo casino or in a Pall Mall men's club you could be banned for life - my wife returned to the apartment from getting her nails done. She looked at our son's tears with great concern and then gave me a what did you do to my baby glare.
"Daddy hit me," said Nicholas.
"In the game... on the board," I stammered as she bundled him up and removed him from my loutish presence. Trying to dig myself out of the hole, I yelled after them, "It is really good for your maths skills... this game... backgammon is!"
Step two in turning my son into a clubman-in-training occurred when I signed him up for his first squash lesson. It is a game I have played enthusiastically (if not well) my entire life. It is a time-efficient workout (you can burn about 700 calories in an hour), and it is also a sport in which heart, concentration and cunning trump brute strength. Not a bad lesson for a boy to learn.
From the moment I brought him into the men's locker room at the club, he was intoxicated. The scent of bay rum, old wooden lockers and perspiration spoke to some part of his amygdala. And once he was on court, with its white walls, hardwood floors and crisp red lines, he seemed to relish smacking the small black ball as the pro fed him forehand after forehand. In general, he doesn't like his sports too rowdy - soccer more than American football - and there was something about having his own game that appealed to him. When I saw him on court in club whites for the first time, I felt a glow. (Note to self: maybe you are a dork.)
Now that a few months have passed and Christmas is upon us, he is getting the hang of the game and our Saturday trip to the club has become a father-son ritual. After our game, we shower, and I let him pick which aftershave he would like a bracing splash of, and then he accompanies me to the club library where we stare at the Christmas tree and out through the windows at the tugboats chugging against the tide on the East River. I have a beer. He has a grape juice. The barman, in his club livery, brings us a bowl of Fritos and we toast our new-found bond. Being clubmen might not be as cool as playing the opening riffs of "Black Dog" in a father-son duet, but our fondness for squash and backgammon will be pursuits we can share for many years to come.
To read Mr Brodie's previous columns, click here