Episode 26: Off the Leash
Can a parent do too good a job? This was always my self-congratulatory one-liner when my son, Nicholas, displayed self-control or unique personal style well beyond his eight years. Recently, that line came back like a boomerang to the head when one of his teachers gave my wife and I some advice. "Nicholas needs to be a kid," she said. "Sometimes he acts like a grown-up trapped in a boy's body." Remorse overwhelmed me as I thought about all of the time my son and I had spent together mastering the finer points of pattern matching or discussing the differences between etorki and manchego.
Summer seemed like the ideal time to reverse Nicholas' slide into premature fogey-hood. He needed to roll around in the mud, dribble mustard on his shirt, so I made it one of my resolutions to stop helping my son grow up and let him help me rediscover the joys of being a boy. This would not be an easy shift. Nicholas is the child in his class who refused to wear shorts on a field trip to a local farm because "the hay on the hay ride might cut my legs". He is also the old soul who says, "Hey, guys, don't forget your helmets" when he and his pals are jumping on their scooters. One night when I suggested that the next time a problematic classmate called him "sexy lady", he should "kick that kid's ass", Nicholas blanched at my use of profanity and then told me, "Dad, you're being inappropriate."
Remorse overwhelmed me as I thought about all the time my son and I had spent together discussing the differences between etorki and manchego
I needed a totem to remind me of my summer goal, so I spent some time hunting down an adult version of the blue suede adidas Gazelles that I wore when I was Nicholas' age. (Thankfully, vintage footwear is easier to source than swimwear, as no one needs to see a well-marbled, middle-aged man in the Speedos that Mark Spitz wore at the 1972 Olympic Games.) Totems, I've found, are helpful when you're trying to blast through years of encrusted dysfunction in your personality. Years ago when my wife, then girlfriend, told me I needed to get my head examined, I spent some time on the sofa. In order to cure my fondness for making cutting remarks, my therapist suggested that I wear a rubber band around my wrist, and every time I felt a sarcastic utterance bubbling up inside of me I should pull the rubber band back and give my wrist a good slap. While my wrist was smarting, I was meant to consider what was bringing on the urge. The feeling usually occurred when someone displayed a weakness I secretly detested in myself. I evolved, and the next time lay-offs loomed in the office I was no longer the jerk who said, "I can really see you in a trailer park". Instead I became the cuddly guy who would say, "I'm scared too. Want to drink some Chardonnay and listen to Morrissey together?"
When my adidas finally arrived in the post, the smell and feel took me back to a time in life when summer meant sleep-away camp in the woods of Maine. My adidas would begin the summer pristine. Then after countless corner kicks, stolen bases and sets of tennis on clay courts, they would limp home with me in August. How could I have forgotten these pleasures and let my boy get so far from them?
As much as I try not to be that stereotypical Manhattan dad who frets that every mistake on a spelling test will consign my child to a second-tier law school or drinking third-tier Scotch as an adult, it is hard not to come home from a bad day and let some of that intensity spill onto your child. On most school nights there's a 90-minute window between my arrival home from the office and Nicholas' bedtime, and that window gets carved up between reviewing homework, watching 30 minutes of TV together, and then reading aloud in bed. Our nightly schedule had become an extension of (rather than a respite from) the school day.
One night last week, however, I left work early and met my son as he got off the school bus. Instead of immediately attacking his homework, I told him to let it slide and suggested we go out for dinner to Shake Shack, our local artisanal burger joint. He tried cheese fries for the first time, and we walked home at dusk discussing the misfortunes of the Mets.
The next time lay-offs loomed in the office I became the cuddly guy who would say, 'I'm scared too. Want to drink some Chardonnay and listen to Morrissey together?'
Over the weekend I enlisted his help in painting our bathhouse at our beach club. Because of the mess of working with an oil-based paint, I would normally have done the job by myself. But instead we spent Memorial Day locked in close proximity, splattering Jamaica blue all over each other. Clothes were ruined; he has a blue spot in his hair, and my feet still look like something out of X-Men. But he now knows it's OK to make a mess.
Another work night I arrived home and found Nicholas bathed, in his pyjamas, ready to review his homework.
"Get your mitt," I said.
"But what about my homework?"
"If you made a mistake, you made a mistake. The sun will still rise in the morning. The stars will still shine at night."
"But I already had my bath."
"So, a little dirt never hurt anybody." He mouthed the words a few times after I said them and then disappeared into his room. I went to mine, put on a pair of shorts, grabbed my baseball glove and laced up my adidas. We headed over to the North Meadow in Central Park and played catch until the late summer light faded. There was no TV watched, nor stories read, nor homework checked that night. There was just a man and boy, slightly dirty, slightly sweaty but very happy.
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