I made my first The Moth appearance at Los Globos in LA last week and shared the following story inspired by the evening’s topic ~ Boundaries:
So far, to date, I think the most interesting thing I have ever done is ‘to be a parent’. A journey that once embarked upon is a no-turning-back expedition. In fact, it’s kind of like getting on a runaway train… you might find yourself hanging onto the back for dear life, and other times you’re able to climb on board and take a seat for awhile as the train hurtles on down the track. My experience of being a father of two boys has been especially profound given the context of my own father dying when I was 12. What I remember most — from little boy perspective of the world — was that my father was “there”. He participated, and he was a solid citizen, but I didn’t get the impression that he really enjoyed living. I am grateful that I have a couple of pictures of him that I like to remember him by in which he was smiling, but unfortunately what I remember most about him was that he was mad, maybe sour is a better word, so much of the time. From a child’s perspective I didn’t understand why he seemed angry so often. Fortunately for me, that thing that lives in each of us — I suppose we call it disposition — didn’t permit me to walk around worrying that I might have been the cause of his temper. Maybe also because I tried to be on best behavior as much as possible, for fear of the giant index finger that could appear at any moment to threaten me. You know those giant foam hands they sometimes give away at big sporting events shaped into the “WE’RE #1” position. That to me was the size of his finger wagging in my face! Technically, there’s not really that much damage an average person can do to another with an index finger, but from my vantage point it was impossible to see this finger in my face in any other way than as a major weapon. Plus, when that finger was out… the slap on the rear was potentially not far behind. Come to find out from my Mother, years after he died, that he told her how much he hated the face I made, when he was trying to get me to understand what I had done wrong. He thought my wincing face — which was completely involuntary on my part — was my complete disrespect for him. He thought I was mocking him! When I learned of this in my late teens, I wondered what kind of tortured adult would be so insecure, so impressionable, by the reaction of a 10 year old boy? This still makes me feel very sad for my father. But my biggest take-away from my relationship with him was that I knew I wanted to be a parent myself. I wanted to right the injustice perpetuated by the universe that prevented this poor guy from being the father he would probably have liked to have been. I wanted to get it right on his behalf! And then taking it to the next level, as is typical of me… not only did I want to be a father… but I wanted to be the best dad on the block. My relationship with my kids would be all about fun, they would genuinely LIKE me! But wait you can’t just be your kid’s friend if you want to be an effective parent right!?! Oh no! What to do? I knew that my main responsibility to them was to make sure they felt safe and loved, the best thing I could do for them was to be a sort of… moral compass development coach. But don’t you have to do that by instilling a little fear coupled with the unconditional love? But MAN did I want to be their friend. I was always jealous of my friends and other acquaintances that would pop in-and-out of my kids lives completely able to form a FRIEND-ly bond with them. I feared that all of the other adults seemed so much cooler to my kids than I did. In my head I was raging “OK you can leave now!”, “OK you, stop being so great with my son right now… go away!” Ironically I was now the tortured parent trying to figure out if I was making the right choices in my interactions with my kids desperately trying to strike the right parental/friend balance. And then they became teenagers! Now I was really screwed. Once my oldest son turned 13, I ran out of real life father-son experiences to aid me in making the right choice during our daily interactions… maybe I could successfully model the cool dads I’d seen on TV when the time came? And it did. My oldest son’s sophomore year of high school. One Saturday night after he got home from a party. He called out from his room, “Dad, can you come here?” I may never have heard this sentence before, but if I did, never was it so memorable! “OH MY GOD! How thrilling! Oh my god, how startling!! What’s wrong, are you alright!?!” I’m thinking, simultaneously terrified and gleeful that it is me who has been picked in this moment of crisis! As I hustle down the hall to my son’s bedroom I’m also filled with the fear triggered by my wife who I have left behind sitting up in our bed waiting for me to fuck up whatever was about to transpire so she could come into to save the day. But nonetheless I persevere. I enter my son’s room to find him leaning over the side of his bed with his head hanging over into his little plastic garbage pail. I was so happy! It kicked right in… I was now going to get to live out one of my most favorite episodes from the show Happy Days when Tom Bosley has to take care of Ron Howard because he’s so sickly drunk. This was great! Not so great that the poor kid was sick, but great because I had the perfect TV reference for what I should do, I was able to successfully blend the right amount of nonjudgmental, unconditional love and understanding — just like Mr. C — and give him the support that he needed to be successfully sick and sleep it off. In that instant my struggle with the parent-as-friend dynamic completely vanished. The considered vacillation I continuously went through so many times of how to properly behave up until then paid off. I had finally figured it out… without really figuring it out at all.