Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What I Learned in Tahoe

For the past five hours, I have been sequestered in a turret of a bedroom, frozen like a racoon in a compost bin, reading Don DeLillo, and periodically checking Twitter to see if the Giants have landed Bryce Harper. Put another way, I‘ve been hiding from my teenage daughter.

It is a frigid day in mid-February. The schools in our town are closed for something the kids call “Ski Week,” and I call “President’s Week,” but is really just a random week off from school coming on the heels of the two weeks off they just had a little more than a month ago, which, when I think of it that way, seems like a recipe for ending white privilege through the systematic under-education of an entire generation of rich kids. Fight the power!

At any rate, for as many years as they've been in school, my older children have returned from this pointless week away to be regaled by their classmates with Tales of Tahoe Adventure. Monday arrives and my cruelly under-skied children slink to their classrooms where they get to listen to McKenzie, Tucker, Finn, Hunter, Ella, Emma, Sofia, Sophia, Tyler, Taylor, Max M, Max L, Zoe and Liam swap stories about Squaw, Northstar, Ikeda’s, Donner, North Shore, South Shore, mid-mountain, groomed powder, and twenty-five other words and phrases that mean absolutely nothing to them. And because I am the person I am, I have never once felt guilty about depriving my children of experiences that their classmates seem to regard as a Southern Marin birthright, on par with good public schools, homeownership, Patagonia jackets, and inheriting your dad’s A4 on your 16th birthday. In my mind, forcing my children to spend a boring week at home is an act of inspired parenting.

Until this year.

My daughter, in particular, has reached an age at which her boredom is something she inflicts upon us. She sits at home for days on end and somehow her mother and I feel inadequate. Why don’t you go for a bike ride? Maybe there’s a friend in town whom you could call? How about picking up a book? Want us to sign you up for that basketball camp? All of these questions are met with a mild grunt and the same expression she makes when we ask her to pick up the dogshit in the backyard. Of course, what we’re really saying is, why aren’t you more inspired? Actually, that’s what my wife is saying. What I’m really saying, because I see all of my children’s shortcomings as a function of my inadequacies as a parent, is I’m sorry I failed you.

So here we are in Tahoe.

It is 14 degrees outside. It’s been snowing for hours. We are snowed-in the house that our incredibly generous friends have given us for the week. (Perhaps a more experienced Tahoe Dad would be brave enough to try blasting his Subaru Outback through the snow banks, but I am a Tahoe Coward, another reason we never come up here.) And I’ve just realized that I am experiencing my first real vacation with my teenage daughter. I am not handling it well.

Since our daughter was born, my wife, who has a very holistic, Esalen-esque sense of the universe, has been saying that our oldest child possesses a kind of overpowering spiritual energy. When she says this, I typically nod and passively agree with her premise, mostly because my wife is very sensitive to such things, but also because my psycho-spiritual compass is about as finely tuned as Mitch McConnell’s.

Yesterday I drove up I-80 with my 14 year-old daughter, her eighth grade classmate, and my 11 year-old son. (My youngest child and her mother are happily ensconced at home in what I imagine is our largely deserted town.) The drive up was relatively benign, set to a soundtrack of my daughter’s insipid Spotify playlist and three “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcasts. It took a little over three hours, including a stop at the In-N-Out in Davis. We arrived by 3:30. I unloaded the car as the children attempted (and ultimately failed) to build a sort of toboggan run in the woods behind the house, foiled presumably by a lack of experience and the roughly 834 inches of snow that have fallen in the past two weeks.

They returned to the house two hours later, having left the sleds and shovels on the hillside, and proceeded to shed snow-covered clothes in the entryway before coming upstairs and leaving the front door open, because, again, they have no experience in sub-freezing weather. After a not-so-gentle lecture from me about energy efficiency and how stuff left outside tends to get buried in snow until May, the girls settled in ungratefully for some chips and salsa and stared at their phone screens for two more hours, while the boy and I rewatched “Solo: A Star Wars Story” on Netflix.

Soon I was heating up the lasagna that I’d personally assembled at 7am that morning and serving a lovingly homemade meal to three vacationing children. The boy thanked me. The girls did not.

After I did the dishes, wary of the eye rolls that would ensue if I suggested the kids do it, I offered another movie of the girls’ choosing, assuming, of course, that they could find something appropriate for the 11-year-old. This request seemed entirely too much for them, or perhaps beneath them, so I dialed up “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” as part of my occasional and ongoing (and almost certainly misguided) effort to expose my children to things I value. Needless to say, the girls disappeared into their room within 30 minutes, leaving the boy and me to watch a movie that I’d seen seven times before and that he didn’t really understand.

In their room I could hear the girls giggling in the way that smartphones make teenage girls giggle. Before we’d left, I’d told my daughter that I wanted them to limit their time on scenes. (My wife had suggested a no-phones trip, which I was too weak to enforce.) Retreating to their room for more phone time was a clear violation of my edict. She was defying me. She was ignoring me. If I’m being honest, she was hurting my feelings.

I summoned her from behind the varnished pinewood door.

“Yes?” she said, as if questioning my temerity.

“I don’t want you guys on your phones in there.”

“We’re not. They’re just plugged in.”

“Okay, well, I just have to ask. What’s up?”

“With what?”

“With how you’ve been acting?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Forget it. Forget I said anything.”

“Fine,” she huffed, spun on her heels, and closed the door loudly enough to be make a statement, but softly enough to avoid accusations of slamming.

“Come out here, please.”

She emerged again, annoyed but careful not to cross any lines.


“What’s going on? Why are you acting this way?”

“What way?”

“Do you really not know what I’m talking about?”

“I swear, I don’t know.”

“Okay. Sorry I said anything.”

WIth that, I retreated to my room upstairs and did not sleep, barely appreciating the splendor of being alone in a king size bed, wondering how she could pretend not to know what she’d done. How could she fail to acknowledge her pattern of dismissiveness? Fail to express gratitude for the luxury vacation home I’d arranged, the food I’d cooked, the dishes I’d done, the heat I’d saved, the clothes I’d dried? Fail to apologize for hurting my feelings?

When I awoke this morning, I was afraid to go downstairs. I heard all three kids chatting amiably. I tried to make out the topic of their muffled conversation. I read a few pages of Delillo and ginned up the courage to leave my turret. As I descended into the living room, my daughter looked up and smiled.

“Hi, Dad.”

As if nothing had happened.

I tiptoed into the kitchen, made coffee, and warmed chocolate croissants in the oven. I served breakfast. The boy thanked me. The girls did not. I noted the angelic snowflakes wafting in the morning air.

"Do you see?" I asked, directing their attention away from a celebrity's Instagram feed.

“We saw,” my daughter said without inflection.

“Do you want to get a picture or something?”

“It's okay.”

“Do you know you’re acting like an ingrate with a shitty attitude and a sociopathic deadness inside?”

Only I didn’t say that. Because I had to admit that she wasn’t acting that way at all. She was acting like every teenager I’ve ever known. In fact, she may have been abiding me a bit more than most 14-year-olds abide their fathers, especially when in the presence of their friends. But that was how I felt.

It was at that moment that I absconded upstairs to figure out why. Five hours and 80+ pages of White Noise later, I had the following realization.

She has always been like this. Not a teenager. Not attitudinal. Not ungrateful. Those things are temporal. Though she is my oldest, I’m aware that in a few years, she will be distinctly not a teenager, completely lovable, and totally appreciative of what she has. And I will still be afraid of her. She will still possess the power to send me scurrying to a lofted bedroom in a mountain retreat simply by being herself.

My wife is right. (As usual.) Our daughter was born this way. She has always cut through me, piercing my inflated ego, and exposing the virgin skin of my insecurities. She burns me. Every time. Her words. Her expression. Her silence. Her stillness. In each of these and a thousand other actions, she reveals a power great enough to alter the world around her, the way a mountain can make its own weather. And she has no idea yet.

This is what I learned in Tahoe. It’s taken me 14 years to come to terms with the fact that I’m afraid of my daughter. My fear exceeded only by my love for her, which is infinite. She is stronger than I am. Not because I am weak, but because she is preternaturally powerful. She came into the world that way. As an infant, she fought with the world, writhing like some mythological creature intent on bending the universe to her will. As she aged, she learned to restrain herself, to hold back, to avoid conflict and detection by those who wouldn’t understand her, who might seek to change her. Now, finally, she is growing up. Her contents under pressure are beginning to feel the heat of impending adulthood. Soon it will be time to put on protective eyewear.  

Or maybe not. The world is still not a friendly place for powerful young women. My daughter is acutely aware that she is expected to please. Please men, please bosses, please her parents, grandparents, friends, and teachers. She is not immune to the forces of the culture in which she’s been raised. But she is surely at odds with those forces. Something will have to give. I hope it won’t be her. She is at her most powerful when she isn’t trying to please anyone. I see that now, finally and for the first time. I truly hope she will see it, too.

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