The heartbreak that comes from parenting a teen

He’s in his room just now, playing some game with his friends. It’s the weekend, and they are having fun, blowing off steam. They alternate between fiercely competing against each other, and just as fiercely defending each other, switching between the two extremes according to some arcane teenaged methodology that I cannot come close to fathoming. All I know is it works for them and so we let them at it. It is after all, the weekend.

During the week, however, we’re all business. The school he attends is hard. They pride themselves on the number of kids they send to Berkley, so its an “all hand on deck, everyone mans a gun” work load. I have some quibbles with this approach, but it also gets results. His writing has rapidly improving, the stuff they discuss in class is top notch. If it wasn’t for the pitiful peach-fuzz on his face, and his complete inability to do anything for himself, you’d swear he was in college.

As parents we spend our time alternating between being happy cheerleaders and cruel taskmasters.  “Great job on your paper, son,” we say. “Can you think of something more to add?” we say. “Did you finish all your homework?” we say. That last one is on heavy rotation on our house. I must say it fives times a week. Usually at the same time I tell him its time to go to bed. Finishing all of his homework is a thing.

But there are some things I say even more, and with more fervor. One of these is, “Did you remember to save?” Since I work exclusively on computers, I have a lot of horror stories associated with not saving files. Believe me, I could go on for hours on the topic, and have. Unsaved files are the bane of my existence, and thus I cannot abide it when my son does the same. Every time I walk into his room and see his five nicely written paragraphs of homework, something he has slaved over for the past two hours, and see that the title of the document is “Untitled 1” I want to fly into a rage.

Of course a rage does not work with him, anger just shuts him down, so I have to try and be calm about it. So I end up saying the same stupid words over and over, “Dude, you need to save your files.” He hears the words, but he doesn’t listen. That being the prerogative of teenagers everywhere, for all time.

And sure enough, this Friday on a single essay test that was worth a healthy portion of his grade for three different classes, he decided type madly for 40 minutes before attempting to save. This in spite of constant and fervent admonishments on our part, and some strong language from his teachers that very morning. By now you can probably guess where this is going; sure enough the program crashed, and he lost all of that hard work.

To his credit he didn’t cry or whine. He started up the program again, and started typing furiously. This is how I know some of the things we teach him are sticking; he got right back on the saddle. But he didn’t think to raise his hand and let them know he had a technical issue, and its doubtful the school would have done anything anyway. Their pretty fierce at this school. They expect the kids to listen to reasonable demands, and they don’t have a problem punishing stupidity.

So while he’s playing in the other room I very much want to fold him in my arms and tell him everything is going to be okay. But we have also taught him to be honest about the world and his chances, both good and bad–fortunately that lesson has stuck–so he knows everything is not going to be okay. He’s going to have to live with the consequences of his actions, and so will we.

But now there is something I can no longer say to him. Never again will I mention file saving. Oh sure it would feel righteous to say, “I told you so,” but since when has that helped anyone? It would only cause him more pain, and frankly it’s unnecessary. If fucking up his grade for three classes isn’t sufficient to change his behavior, then there is nothing I can do.

So I love him, and I listen to him play, and I say nothing. And that my friends is a kind of headache that is almost too sweet to bear.

On the Relative Power of Parenting

Kids on a bus

Somewhere in this photo a revolution is happening.

Our son, 13 but soon to be 14, is a rather typical boy. He loves computer games, he has friends, he has troubles with some teachers yet does well with others, he plays a part of a large number of inside jokes and stories that take place at school, and he is a joy (at least to us) to be around. He is also at times an annoying prat, but all of this is fairly typical.

Also, like most boys his age, he has almost zero concept of personal grooming. Every day we have to remind him to shower, like its a chore worse than doing math homework. Every day we remind him to put on lotion (even though you can see his skin flaking off in drifts), to put on Chapstick (even though his lips resemble the worst cracked road in America), to brush his hair, to put on deodorant, to brush his teeth. All of these things he needs to be reminded about. Daily. Sure he’ll do them, but you have to tell him to. He’d never do any of these things on his own.

So last night when I came out of the office I came across him after exiting the bathroom. He looked at me and asked, “Notice anything different?” It was pretty obvious what he was referring to. Our child, who has never to my knowledge intentionally picked-up a comb, had actually combed his hair. He had also put on lotion, put on chapstick, and put on deodorant. All of these things without us saying a word.

To put it mildly, this was a shock. If he had come home from school and announced a sudden and intense love for all things glittery pink unicorns I couldn’t have been more surprised. But here’s the kicker; once we did a little careful questioning we discovered the reason: He’d held a girl’s hand. Sometime on the bus ride home from The Disney Music Hall in downtown L.A., a trip in which both of his parents had chaperoned, he had sat next to a longtime friend and calmly held her hand.

Now his interest in the girl wasn’t a surprise. For a long time he has been the two have been sharing barbs in class. They trade insults back and forth all the time. We know this because he tells us every day. Mixed in with his daily exploits involving friends and frenemies, was a consistent sub-plot, a growing set of stories revolving around the same girl. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that the daily barbs mask something deeper, a growing attraction.

But when I look at this sudden change after a night’s rest I find myself troubled. Here we are, Teri and I, almost daily badgering him, trying positive ways, negative ways, (hell any way) to get the boy to take an interest in the basic level grooming. The kind of grooming required of every human that wants to live in polite company. Yet all of our efforts have remained consistently blocked by his whim. Yet give him the nerve to hold a girl’s hand on the bus one day and suddenly he’s off and running.

If I look at the situation unemotionally like an engineer–that is measuring the efficiency of our parenting by measuring effort over effect–I can only come to one conclusion: When it comes to the power of parents vs. girls, we don’t stand a chance. Heck, we’re not even in the same league.

Sniffing

So the other evening Teri and I were sitting in the office at our respective computers, doing something like surfing the net or writing email, when Trevor walked in and start sniffing us. First he came up behind my back, and sniffed around my neck and shoulders. Then he went over to Teri, and did the same to her. Its a bit unnerving to have a 10 year old walk up behind you and start smelling you, but we are used to our son being slightly eccentric. (For instance, he will not refer to either Teri or myself as Mom or Dad. He only calls us by our first names.) Since it was near his bed time I think we both thought he was tired, and trying to get our attention so he could go to sleep. Rather than be upset, we both stopped and turned to him asking “What are you doing?”

“I’m sniffing,” he said. “Sniffing for guilt.”

* * * * * * * * *

I wrote this back in August of 2011, and for some reason didn’t publish it. Today, while doing some maintenance for this site I found it, and had to share. Trevor is 13 as of this post, and just as wonderfully strange.

Aztecs react to…

Trevor and I went for a walk tonight, and because its its favorite topic right now, we talked about military tactics in history. He’s been playing the Total War game series, which allows you to general various armies and go head-to-head with them or to fight against the A.I. At some point we started talking about the Native Americans in general and specifically about the Aztecs. Most people understand that when the Aztecs ran across Cortes they simply did not have the military technology to compete. But what most people do understand is they didn’t have the right ideas either. Cortez and the Spanish not only had a huge weapon advantage over the Aztecs, but the also had an idea advantage.

For instance the Aztec fought a kind warfare that was significantly different form the Spanish. They didn’t even have the same goals. Aztecs fought wars to gain people for sacrifices. To them killing was completely secondary, and killing too much actually counter productive. So a typical Aztec victorious battle would mean ganging up on a neighboring tribe, killing enough of them so they quit, picking 10-20 people of that tribe for sacrifice, and making sure you got 20 more people each year.

Now counter this against the Spanish. Their idea of a victorious battle would start with killing so many of the other guys that you either were to exhausted to kill any more, or they ran away. For them, killing was the goal. It was why you went to war. And a vanquished enemy didn’t just pay you tribute every year, you went and took EVERYTHING from him.

Mind you, the Aztecs were not stupid. Not even primitive. They just had never come across certain ideas about war and warfare before, and it was their inexperience with these ideas that proved to be so fatal. Well that and small pox.

Anyway, it was while we were talking about this, about the native American Indians having the largest WTF experience in history, that Trevor suggested he’d like to see the look on the Aztecs faces when they got charged for the first time by Egyptian chariots.

And that’s when he came up with the idea for a tv show: Aztecs React To…. Every week the Aztecs face a new enemy. Every week its pretty much the same results, Well not quite. The Aztecs really did kick ass, for armies in their area. Pound for pound they were certainly tough.

So we went from Aztecs React To Egyptian Chariots, to
Aztecs React To A Roman fighting square, to
Aztecs React To Napoleon’s Army, to
Aztecs React To modern day U.S. Marines, to
Aztecs React To the 50 cal machine gun, to
Aztecs React To the M1 Abrams tank, to
Aztecs React To Apache Helicopters, to

I think you can see where this was going. Soon it was time for bed.

On Raising Wolves

When I meet people I often tell them I was raised by wolves. I do this as a way to excuse my sometimes pointed comments. This sentence is delivered like a joke, and often get a laugh. Usually the laugh is followed by a look of recognition, as the other meaning starts to sink in. I was raised by wolves.

I was thinking of this as I was listening to my son play with a friend this morning. The friend stayed the night, which was a first for our son. Teri and I were both a bit nervous, needlessly so as it turned out. His friend is easy to deal with, good at grasping his own needs (for a 12 year-old), and gracious with adults. The friend is also smart and verbally gifted, like our boy. Listening to them play, really more like riffing on each other, is an interesting peek into that strange time of growth called pre-adolescense.

As I listen to them casually trade verbal barbs so pointed and sharp that they would considered terribly rude if spoken among strangers, I am reminded of tiger cubs playing. Each swat and bite a cute and playful treat, yet at the same time this  behavior will eventually lead into something terrible. Fully grown tigers bite and swat with lethal force. Once they hit a certain age, there is absolutely nothing cute or charming in them.

The same can be said, of course, for wolves and their cubs.

Teri and I, because we are adults and mindful of the pain our words can inflict, are forever warning Trevor. “Find a nicer tone, son.” “These are your friends, be nicer to them.” or “Do you think you could have said that is a nicer way?” We say these things because we know from painful experience how amazing sharp and deadly harsh words from an adult can be. But Trevor is not an adult. He lives in a different world.

In middle school tough words are an art form, and being quick with a quip is a valuable skill. This is his world. There is where he lives. Boys and girls at this age are verbally vicious, yet at the same time their words are usually completely ineffective. Stand on a corner as middle school kids get out of school and you’ll hear insult after insult, sometimes repetitively, sometimes with whole groups of kids ganging up on one another. But the funny thing is all these harsh words seem to have little effect. Kids will gleefully insult each other, and then turn around and talk about their favorite video game, exactly as if nothing untoward was said. Its as if middle school kids survive by having a thicker skin than adults. Or perhaps, like the bites of young tiger cubs, the verbal skills which as an adult will prove to be lethal, are  playful and largely ineffective because they are still so young.

And that is what he is. So young, yet at times so adult. One day his words are going to carry far more weight. Like that tiger cub’s bite, they will mysteriously transform from playful to lethal. I don’t envy him this transition. It was not a easy path for me, nor was it for Teri. But its also a part of growing up.

I wonder if tiger cubs have a similar experience, if they wake up one day and say to themselves, “Holy shit. I just bit a hole in my sister’s face! How’d that happen?”

I know Trevor will eventually have this experience. I can only hope that when he does his behavior will be easier to monitor because he’s learned at an earlier age to be more compassionate for his friends, and more mindful of his words. Then again, if he doesn’t, he can always retort, “I’m sorry, I was raised by wolves.”

The irony is, from his lips it will be just as true.

Success

I dreamed about my father last night, something I have not done since he passed almost four years back. In the dream he was talking to me, telling me that some obscure thing I had invested in would pay off really well. Later in the dream this proved to be true. Since I don’t do much in the way of investing in the real world I assume the dream, the investment, and the succeess are all metaphor.

For all that he grew up a cowboy, my father was ever the banker, and worried about money and its intendant security more than anything else. He never really grasped why I am self-employed. The idea was almost abhorrent to him. For years whenever we would talk he would ask if I had gotten a job yet. Never mind that I was making more money freelancing than he ever did, it was the insecurity of my position which worried him. The irony is of course that his “secure” job never proved to be any more secure than mine, but that is the nature of people and parents. At least I can say is that he spoke out of the concern of a parents, and I cannot honestly say that  this concern was always misplaced. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart.

It wasn’t until after he passed, at his funeral in fact, that his wife (my step mother) appreoached me to say, “You’re father wanted you to know he was very proud of you.”  Kind words. I would like to say it would have meant more coming from his lips, but that was not his way. Perhaps I am biased, but I seemed to recall hearing more of my father’s concerns than I did his praise. My sisters had this experience as well so if I am biased, at least it is a shared one.

So when my father spoke to me last night in my dream, his words were pretty much like always. He was telling me, not really talking with me. He used the same tone he used when asking, “Are you sure your client’s are going to pay you?” Anything I might say in response didn’t really matter, and would likely be ignored. He would simply bring up the subject in our next conversation exactly as if we had never spoken of it before. In short, he was stating something completely obvious, and with his voice of authority. Mind you, I do this myself sometimes, the manners of the father are often passed to the son. So much so that a friend of mine often jokes, “Eric Tolladay, Master of the Obvious, Curator of the Plainly Seen.” I can only hope that my pronouncements from on high of “the obvious” are not as painful as his were to me. Doubtless this is not always the case. Lucky for me most people are willing to overlook this annoying habit of mine. Those that cannot, well I can’t say that I blame them.

But I find it odd that my father would be speaking as he was in my dream. He was so very concrete, speaking in metaphor was not his way. I can only hope it is a sign I am doing well. I suspect this investment metaphor refers to my writing. I certainly hope so as it is an investment. Especially as a time when I really should be more mindful of filling my spare time with paid work. The vagrancies of freelance work means I often stumble into stretches of no work. I try to fill that time with writing, when I can afford to do so, but it is costly in terms of money not earned. Lucky for me, Teri does not mind this investment, or is kind enough to bite her tongue when I do. Since I’m not heavily invested (be it time or money) in anything else, other than my family and our home, I can only assume this obscure hobby of mine will eventually come with a paycheck.

The funny thing is Teri is forever dreaming about friends and family who have passed. It one of the things I truly respect about her. For her such dreams are a way of letting go, saying goodbye. They don’t always start well, but they end with a sense of balance and closure. I’ve not had dreams like this, at least until last night. Do you supposed some of her is rubbing off on me? God I hope so.

Not knowing your future is a feature, not a bug.

Over the holidays I got to see one of my nephews. He’s a fantasic young man, but visiting with him, especially in my home town, brought me back to when I was his age and trying to work out my place in the world. This post, and hopefully a few others that will follow are both a letter to him, and the voice of an older man attempting to pass on all the wisdom that 48 years of hard knocks and stupid mistakes can provide.

A long time ago, at least as reckoned in internet years, I worked in the software industry. It was an interesting field to make a living in, especially at the small “startups” where I worked. Its a field custom made for people who like to wear a lot of hats, can think on their feet, and can learn quickly. One of the phrases I learned from that experience was substituting the term feature for the term bug. It was used when someone complained about a bug in your software. What you did was deny there was a bug, and instead claimed it was an undocumented feature. The concept is nothing but pure marketing bravado. The phrase was referred to often by everyone in the industry, but I never actually saw it in use. It is an inside joke about the nadir of software marketing finesse, and it is an expression of the deep anxiety that one feels when they know they are selling a less than perfect piece of software.

That being said, the saying does have its uses. And one of those uses is in looking at your future.

You see a lot of people go around with the annoying confidence that comes of knowing what they want to do for a living. It is trifling easy to be angry at such individuals, especially if you are like me, someone who has never known what they wanted to “be”. And it is easy to look at yourself and assume there is something wrong with you for not being like those other “knowers”. After years and years of living as a “not knower,” I now contend that the bug of not knowing is actually a feature; that not knowing is actually better than knowing.

To support this contention, lets us first look at the causes of not knowing.

Not knowing your future avocation does not stem from a lack of ability. Far from it. In fact, not knowing usually stems from an overabundance of ability. It is when you can literally do almost everything and anything that choosing a direction has a consequence. Those poor mundane souls with less IQ and raw ability do not share our quandary. They do not wake up thinking, “Fuck! I wonder if I should be a brain surgeon?”  Why? Because they recognize it is not something they will ever be able to do. They understand their choices in life might be between being a auto mechanic and a security guard. Being a brain surgeon is simply not on their list, more importantly neither is the existential angst associated with making that choice. When your choices are fewer, you have a lot less to get wrong. Which can be translated to, when you have less options, you have less to be depressed about. True, you could be an auto mechanic, if that is what makes you happy, but you can also be a brain surgeon, and therein lies the rub. You at least, have the option for both choices, and because of this, have the anxiety that goes with it.

So not knowing is a position of ability, not disability. It carries with it an anxiety based upon a greater risk than most people face; a greater chance of success (and presumably failure) than your less well thought peers. Fortunately for us, we both have been though therapy, and have a decent idea of how to deal with anxiety. Who knew that depression would eventually prepare you for a career? Funny how that works, eh?

But there is another reason why not knowing is a feature, not a bug, and that has to do with a thing called change.

You see, one of the ever constants of the universe is change. It is easy to miss this as a young man (I know I did), or to discount its value, but either position would doing yourself a disservice. By change I mean that we all face several massive changes in our lives, and quite frankly most of them we are not expecting or well prepared for. This is just how life goes. An auto accident, a random chance with cancer, a bit too much alcohol, a casual word misspoken, all of these things (and more, much much more) can, and will, fuck up our lives. Hey, shit happens. The thing is, our avocation is just as open to big change as any other part of our lives. For you, having to change careers would be a pain, maybe even a major inconvenience, but it would not necessarily be crippling. Why? Because you are not “set” on a particular career, you are merely doing the one that came along (and looks best) now. Now imagine the poor slob who, unlike us, knew exactly what he wanted for all of his life, and suddenly discovers he can no longer work in that field. What will he do? Panic, I tell you. That and more. Depression would be the least of his issues, as his self-identity will be taken out from under him. Why? Because he is now facing what you and I have had to deal with for all of our lives; not knowing. Only he will be terribly unprepared for this ordeal as it will be new to him. And “new” is not a nice word to those who have their lives all planed out. In essence, change has brought this man down to our default position (not knowing) and it is terrifying to him.

So who is the strong one here, and who is the weak?

There’s more to my position than just the two arguments above. For instance, there is a very good chance that 20 years from now you will have a thriving career in a field that has not yet been invented. Don’t believe me? This is exactly my position. 20 years ago there were no digital retouchers. Today there are thousands. There was no school, no college, no way of learning what I do for a living, short of trying it out and seeing if you could do it. What engineers call trial and error. And yet, I make very good money at it, and find the job deeply fulfilling. I see no reason why you cannot have a similar experience as my own. Based on the rate of change I see happening today I suspect you have a much great chance than I ever did, of working a job which has not yet been invented.

And when such future jobs become available, who do you think is going to be better prepared to switch to them from the field they are in? A knower or a not knower? Who is going to be less entrenched in their field? Who is going to have less of their identity tied up in their job, and more of their identity tied up in themselves? The answer to all of these is the not knower. In other words, men like us.

So you see, knowing you future doesn’t necessarily give you one.

Crazy Morning with Kittens

We got two new kittens about a month and a half ago, and they are integrating nicely with our madness household. Today, however, they really got into hot water.

You see Trevor was in the middle of his toaster waffles, and got up to tell me something while I was reading through my morning email in the office. This is normal behavior for him, the getting up part, so much so that in ten years I don’t think the verbs “sit” and “eat” have ever been used in the same sentence to describe him. After he told me his joke, he left the office, and in doing so left the office door open. The reason I knew he left the office door open was that not much longer after his exit one of the kittens climbed up the back of my office chair, and proceeded to stroll out onto the desk looking for trouble. The reason why we keep the office door closed is precisely to keep the cats out of trouble, otherwise known as the drifts of stuff in the office all of which must be amazingly tempting to a kitten based upon their behavior.

As I was putting the cat out, Trevor came by again, so I called him in to show him a web page I had up on the screen. It was a report of the recent invasion of our local waters of Humbolt Squid. Since the lad is a budding Marine Biologist (as has been since he was in kindergarten) we like to point out things like this which might be of interest to him. The photos led to a discussion, which led to some wild imagining on both our parts of an invasion of giant squid and robots, and such. Little did we know a real invasion was going on while we were talking.

We stepped out of the office, and while I was closing the door I heard Trevor give a shout. Walking into the living room I found the two kittens on top of the dinning room table happily eating his waffles. They leapt off the table at our shouts, but were soon up on it again while we were preparing more waffles that were not “ruined” by the cats. The second time they were removed by the more effective method of a water bottle spray shot into the face. This lead to a discussion of the idea (presented for the one-thousandth time) of sitting and eating, (the key idea being the two are done simultaneously) as well as the idea of putting one’s chair back under the table when one is not sitting in it so it doesn’t make an excellent cat ladder.

Over all, I suspect little was learned today, except that the kittens now know that human breakfast foods, especially those dripping in syrup, are especially delicious and usually left unprotected in a place they can quickly get to.

I dream of peaches

I had a strange dream last light. I was opening up a bag of frozen peach slices, and eating them. For some reason I knew these slices had been prepared by my paternal grandfather. The taste triggered a memory of his large wrinkled hands carefully cutting and bagging the slices, before putting them in the freezer. It gave me a sense of connection to him, the peach piece was something he had touched in his hands just last year, and now it was in my hand.

When I woke up I remembered that Pops, as we called him, hadn’t died last year. He’s been in the grave for 30 years come this fall. Funny how your time sense is distorted by dreams. i also don’t recall him ever freezing fruit, although I’m sure he did it. The man kept a HUGE garden, and was happy to pass off fruits and vegetables to us whenever we visited. As a kid we thought that anything grown by Pops was bigger and sweeter then anything else you could buy. This was a rule we all believed earnestly up until his death made it impossible to prove otherwise.

He did freeze the trout we caught every time we went fishing, but I don’t recall peaches. Except for last night.

Full fathom five

When my father died,
he took with him,
things I will never see,

Yet are as much a part,
of the man I am,
as these lungs which help be breathe.

-ERK
7/10/2011

For some reason the term Full Fathom Five fell into my head today, so I looked it up on wiki. Reading the Shakespeare poem/song that is the source brought to me a whole host of emotions, all associated with the death of my father, and my father-in-law. Hence the poem above.

As I write this, I am 48.  On the whole I have found being older to be a great benefit. Its as if the dross of your life is burned away slowly by time, leaving nothing but the hot undiluted self behind. Every year I feel like my thinking becomes clearer, at least in terms of being me, while my surety that the world runs only a particular way falls off more and more. That is, I am more sure about myself, but less sure about everything else. This I think is a wonderful trade-off, a nice balance of pride and humility. Something I actually look forward to, and see as a benefit that more than overcomes the physical imperfects that also come with age. But there are parts about becoming older that are not so fun. One of them is burying your parents.

It is easy to assume if you are male, and over 18 that you are in fact a man, but I will tell you right now, you really do not know what it means to be a man until the day you bury your father. That day, and all the days that come after. That is when you really sense the full weight of manhood resting hard upon your shoulders.

My father does not lie five fathoms down. One was sufficient. And let me tell you, that one fathom is the heaviest amount of dirt I have ever felt.