Friday, May 31, 2013

Unprotected


Oh, to be a teenager! To be filled with hope and cynicism in equal amounts. To be simultaneously arrogant and ashamed. To be an inexperienced know-it-all. To be lustful and fearful, horny and chaste, eager and incompetent. To grope your girlfriend awkwardly on an unopened sleeper sofa, silently and fruitlessly dry humping, while your parents watch Night Court in the bedroom down the hall. Oh, to be a teenager! May I never be one again.

Sex and adolescence do not go well together. My memories are somehow suppressed yet crystalline; like a Jurassic bug trapped in amber. I cling to the logic that says that I wasn’t the only pimpled and brace-faced teenager who found his way under the shirt and over the bra, only to wake up the next morning wondering why it hurt to walk. Memories of my early, Clouseau-esque investigations into sexuality are laced with a combination of pride (I started on the early side), shame (I was, shall we say, underprepared), and regret (the teen libido yields some questionable choices).



But now I have two children. Suddenly I view my early sexual experiences through a rather different lens. Pride, shame, and regret have been replaced by outright fear. It's not that I fear the objectification that is the specialty of libidinous young men. (It’s easy to think this has gotten worse in the age of the internet and reality shows, but I doubt it.) Nor is it fear rooted in the anticipatory anger that my children will be pressured into something too soon.  No, what I fear is that they will be subjected to the familiar idiocy of teenage sexual awakening; the na├»ve and falsely romanticized awkwardness of where-does-this-go and what-happens-if-it-I-touch-that. If only I could spare them. But how?




I had a girlfriend when I was 18.  She was not my first. I’d learned a few things by then.  That said, we were seniors in high school. Future generations of libertines will not study film of our escapades.

Now that I have kids, I reflect on the uneasy and inconsistent rules that our various parents had for our conduct under their roofs. My father and step-mother were the most permissive. Her father and step-mother were the least (which was not the main reason that were never went there, though it surely could have been).

My mother maintained a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, though even the policy was largely unspoken. If we stayed in my room for more than an hour with the door closed, she sent out maternal sonar that caused us to cease and detach, and emerge sheepishly to ask what was for dinner.

Viewed through my new parent lens, her mother’s approach was the most vexing. We were allowed to be alone in the bedroom of their tiny apartment with the door closed, unsupervised, for any length of time. The only rule was that I absolutely could not spend the night.

So we would sequester ourselves in her room for hours, doing tamely unspeakable things to each other; the sort of ribald groping that would make a Puritan blush. Occasionally we’d break from our hunting and pecking to say how much we loved each other, to affirm the permanence of that love, and to giggle quietly at how much noise we weren’t making.

Then, sometime before the second sunrise, I would slip silently out of her room. We’d pause at the apartment’s heavy front door and kiss with brazen tenderness as her mother dozed in the living room. I’d step into the hallway of their Deco building and ride the birdcage elevator down seven floors. My ’85 Accord, parked four blocks away, waited to take me home.

I drove west on Lombard, past the Palace of Fine Arts. I rolled the window down and put the heat on full blast. I felt the foggy morning air on my face. A Led Zeppelin mix tape played Ramble On. Crossing the bridge, I could see the first notion of dawn above the Easy Bay hills; the black of night greeting the dark blue and violet of daybreak.  

I felt indescribably alive. My head tilted back and a smile overcame my face. The moment’s radical freedom carried my mind to a place I had never been. I was growing up before my own eyes, acutely aware of the newness of my experience. It was the pure and unsullied joy of finally being old enough, without considering for even a second that I would ever be too old. My body, still tingling from a long night of teasing and titillation, seemed to feel the world more intensely. My heart beat faster as I accelerated down the Waldo Grade, pushing the ordinary white sedan past 100 miles an hour.  I was invincible.

Reflecting on that feeling, I realize that the fears I have about my children are misguided and mislabeled. I am not afraid for them. I am afraid for myself. Will I have the courage to let them feel as awkward as I did? Will I let them be embarrassed? Will I let them get hurt? Will I let them regret? Will I let them spend hours alone in a room with a boyfriend of girlfriend?

Do I have a choice?

Sometimes I think they are best left unprotected. I cannot spare my children from the very things that define childhood.  I cannot shield them from the pain of adolescence unless I am willing to rob them of its pleasures. My parents were kind enough to let me get lost, so that I could know the joy of finding myself. I hope I have the courage to do the same for my kids. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Played Out


Notes from today's WALK...

I never liked the term "playdate." The first time I heard it, it seemed like a contrivance; a needless adult convention to describe something that didn't need describing. Two children playing together is no more a "date" than a puddle is a rain "event" or a tear is an eye "emission." Some things just occur naturally. 

A playdate differs from actual play in that it is a sanctioned and organized event. It must be scheduled and hosted, like a fundraiser. The hours and activities are prescribed and agreed upon in advance. Food is usually provided. Allergies are disclosed and willingly accounted for. Locations rotate, so as to avoid any inequity or the implication that one child's home is more fun than the other. Most importantly, a playdate requires permission. And permission equals parents. 

It's possible that, "Mom, can Sofia and I have a playdate," is the second most commonly spoken phrase by American children under 10. Right after, "Dad, when will you be done with the iPad?"

Ultimately, the playdate is the enemy of spontaneity; just one more brick in the wall we are building between our children and self-reliance. It is the invention of parents who seem to depend on their children’s dependence.

Or maybe that’s all bullshit. Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe none of this explains why I don't like playdates.

On the WALK today, I strolled past a house that sits above the street that leads to the trail. I've often heard kids playing there, but they've never stood close enough to the retaining wall for me to see them. Today I heard the sounds of brothers playing catch. An errant throw rolled to the edge of the yard. A freckle-faced boy chased after it. He saw me below.

"Hey, you're E's dad, aren't you?" he called down.

"Yeah, you're Owen, aren't you?" I said, recognizing him as one of my daughter's classmates; one whom I happen to like.

"Yeah."

"I didn't realize you lived so close to us," I said enthusiastically. 

He didn't answer. Kids, of course, don't view this kind of serendipity as particularly serendipitous. 

"Yeah," he repeated blithely.

"I'll have to tell E that we're neighbors."

"Okay."

And we were done.

As I walked, relocating banana slugs that had strayed into the sun on a hot day, I thought about how I might arrange for my daughter and Owen to play together. They liked each other, as far as I knew; as much as second grade boys and girls can like each other. He was always nice to her when I dropped her off at school. Come to think of it, he was always nice to me when I volunteered in art class. I imagined broaching the subject with my daughter over dinner. 

"Did you know that Owen lives in that house just past the fire gate?" I’d offer in a leading voice.

"No," she'd say, looking at her dangling feet through the tempered glass tabletop. 

"Do you want to see if he wants to come over sometime?"

She'd hesitate, trying to find a way to answer that saved us both from awkwardness. "That's okay," she'd finally say. And I'd know what she meant.

My daughter doesn't have many playdates. At school, all the kids know her and, so far as I can tell, they like her well enough. She gravitates toward the boys, joining in their games of tag or wallball, but the girls are nice to her, too. She is not a playground ringleader, but I never see the other kids excluding her in the cruel ways that my generation devised to ostracize kids who were branded as outcasts. She has friends and, despite marching to her own drumbeat, she gets along.

But when I pick her up, I hear other children asking, “Can Sydney and I have a playdate?” “When can I have a playdate with Trevor?” “I want a playdate with Julia.” Playdate, playdate, playdate. And no one ever asks her.

I know it bothers her, though perhaps not as much as it bothers me. She plays all day long with these kids. They know and like her. But playdates are different. They are publicly calendared acknowledgements of friendship. They are the way that children make it known that they do, in fact, like some kids more than others. And my daughter isn’t anyone’s first choice.

If I’m honest, I probably can’t blame this on the advent of the playdate. Lord knows I didn’t need a coined phrase to reinforce that I wasn’t anybody’s best friend. Kids know these things about themselves.

But the saving grace of my childhood was that no one put a name to my loneliness. I went home from school alone most days, but I didn’t have to hear other kids advertising that they were not.

My daughter is eight now. I can see her fragile confidence starting to falter. She doesn't know how quickly the social wheel can turn. She could meet a friend at camp this summer and they'll be attached at the hip. Third grade might pair her with a new classmate who will become her lifelong confidant; the stuff of sitcoms and wedding toasts. I want to tell her this, but she wouldn't believe me. Sometimes it's harder to imagine the future when you have so much of it. 

Instead, I tell her that she’s my first choice. She smiles, but I know she's only humoring me. A playdate with your father just isn’t the same.