i was once at a dinner with friends and the topic of earliest memories came up. some people, like my wife, had crazy early memories going back as far as pre-school. my first memories started way later than most the pack, solidly picking up in mid-elementary. every now and then i'd get a glimpse of something hazy but after further contemplation the flash was just as likely to be a scene from an old x-file's episode or happy days as it was my own experience.
days after that dinner, i looked up from the book i was reading and asked marty why the hell i was working so hard with the kids. bella was then four or five and alex one or two, if they weren't going to remember it, any of it, why all the trips to the park and rough-housing on the floor. my face surely expressed shock at being so completely duped by my parental role. marty's face did not share my stupor. without even looking my way she said, "you do it so when they do start remembering things, they know who the hell you are." given how many answers marty seems to have been let in on and how few were shared with me, most days i'm shocked i haven't been thanked for my efforts and asked to step away from my paternal duties by my children, my wife, or the authorities.
granted, thus far i feel like i've stayed with the class. sure, there's been plenty of all-nighters and study groups but my grades are respectable enough. i do realize though that while the current years are taxing physically, the real chop is a few years ahead when the parental hazing turns mental. physical parenting while kids are young takes the form of long days at the zoo and reading dinotopia sixty three times (and doing the voices and expressions with equal vigor and energy each time lest you get called out for botching the job). while the early days seem trying i fear they will prove to be proverbial childs-play compared to wondering what your child is thinking on the other side of her closed bedroom door or sending your daughter off on a date with a highly suspect young man and renegotiated curfew. for all the work you did to prepare your child for the the world and the choices that reside in it, you'll stand waving in the doorway wondering what kind of job that kid's parents did with him? did they read dinotopia that tenth time or did they tell the kid to piss off and go play with his ipad.
so i'm told this is what these early days are about, preparing you and them for those imminent trials, which are looming just over the next horizon, and you bleary-eyed and doing thirty over the speed limit on a stretch of road with no off ramps in sight. but what really made me recall this mental gymnastic is something i read recently in a ny times magazine article. it occurred between a mother and a son. the son was pining for the most beautiful girl in his ninth grade class and the mother was attempting to offer counsel to the boy.
i paused in my reading to think what great and grounded advice this was. top-notch truly. but then i recalled that i received this exact insight from my own mother when i was about this boy's age. and it would have been just as smart in the time but it helped me exactly zero percent. why? because i was broken and not able to think properly or clearly. i was that boy. deluded. mental. a head-case. i fear trying to reach most partially raised kids (e.g. teenagers) is going to be like trying to control a computer without a keyboard. the frustration will make you talk, bark, yell even, at the screen, but sadly we all know, none of those seemingly obvious tactics ever work there and unfortunately they won't work here either. i hope marty's as loaded up with answers down the line as she is now. i'm sure to need some of them.
why do girls only like jerks?" he asks me after we both stare at the wall in silence for a minute or so.
"Well, girls are just like you," I say. "They all like the hottest guy
in the ninth grade. Whoever that is, he's a jerk because every single girl in the entire class likes him. You would be a jerk, too, if you were him."
"No I wouldn't! I would not be a jerk!" It's hard not to be a little solipsistic when you're a teenager.
But things will get better, I tell him. Once you stop mooning over the fairest of them all, then you can find someone who actually likes you for who you are - someone who doesn't mind that you don't always have the perfect thing to say of that you don't make your bed or empty your pockets before you put your clothes in the hamper. (It's hard not to be a little solipsistic when you're middle aged.) In the meantime, stop feeling so much! Let your intellect exert a tyrannical control over your emotions. Wrestle your heart to the ground and give it a noogie. Do this enough, and in 26 short yeas, you might just end up as neurotic and distracted as I am.