A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
The Dark Side
A few weeks ago our household participated in the 10th annual TV Turnoff week. For a meager seven days we denied our children the slack-jawed simplicity of gapping out in front of the tube and encouraged crafts, board games, and old fashioned make believe. Nitpicky dad also ixnayed movies on the computer and video games to boot. A few years ago when we first tried this, there were the predictable protestations, but this time it was mostly business as usual. Hugh, in particular, was much more keen on playing with all of the Star Wars Legos he harvested for his birthday, and it was me who was thinking that getting things done might be easier if I could plug him into a nice harmless documentary for an hour or so. Keefe, on the other hand, didn’t take to the absence of the screen quite as readily. On day four, he and his brother had been playing with Legos and I interrupted to get them to sous-chef for me as I prepared dinner. I asked Keefe to tidy up and then join me, and he said “Okay, dad.” An hour later, when I went looking for him, he was playing video games and the tidying had not begun.
In the larger scope of things, this isn’t such a huge deal, but the basic issue is a breach of trust. When Keefe tells me he’s going to do something, I would like to count on it happening. It’s also become something of a habit for him to tune me out when I’m asking him to do any variety of housework, or to begin a twenty minute argument as the price of beginning it. Being in one of my rare lucid parenting moments, I resisted the urge to bark at him or unilaterally declare some consequence, and left that to my wife. Janice grounded him. Not earth-shaking at first, especially since in practice grounding mostly means that he doesn’t go to visit friends but the reasonably constant flow of guests through our house is unabated, but you could see in his face the moment of realization: the time frame of his grounding included the Star Wars Episode III opening day.
Quietly, when he was out of the room, I reserved the right to bring him anyway if his behavior was truly stellar in the interim. He had begun construction of his own lightsaber to wear to the event, Janice had material on her sewing table for his costume, and a ticket to the midnight first showing was already pinned to the hallway corkboard. This was likely the last opening of a new Star Wars movie in his lifetime, darn it, and I was looking forward to bringing him as much as he was eager to be there with all the weird uncles. Still, I was also righteously ticked off with him, and it seemed likely this would serve to give him the mental shake I felt he clearly needed.
The following week gave me plenty of time to think about why I take Keefe’s household habits so personally. When he dumps trash, toys, and laundry randomly around the house, or acts all Cinderella about being asked to sweep up something or clear some dishes or what not, it feels personal because I am the housekeeper. It’s me that puts it away, or cleans it up. That combined with memories of never being allowed the leeway in my childhood which he enjoys makes me resent the hell out of this process.
Slowly, I started seeing something else. Although it feels like he’s thumbing his nose at me when he does something he’s asked innumerable times not to do, I’ve begun to understand how completely unconscious he is as he does it. Maybe it is a natural result of living a fairly charmed life that he goes through so many parts of his day on autopilot, or maybe I am fooling myself completely about how much I and others do the same thing. Maybe it’s the confidence that comes with not being struck as a child, although it could just as easily be a defensive adaptation to my barking and harping at him. In any case, I am starting to believe that he really doesn’t see it. He’s just on cruise control. Baffled, stumped, frustrated, I try to encourage more useful automatic behaviors. It seems easier than getting him to really be present. But it worried me.
I went to the movie without him, decked out in jedi robes with a suitcase full of homemade lightsabers. For a couple of hours before the movie I sparred with strangers, handed out business cards, posed for pictures and TV cameras, and spoke the lingua franca of the geek. I met a lot of nice guys, traded jokes with the rare ladies, and hoped the movie wouldn’t suck. The weather was lovely and Keefe would have loved the party atmosphere, although he would have been a bag of crap for a couple of days from loss of sleep and it turned out opening day was in the middle of a three day literacy test.
Maybe twenty minutes before curtain time I started packing up my elaborate whiffle bats to grab a bite and settle in, and one last bystander who’d been waiting for a turn entreated me to let him have a go for two minutes as well. Why not? My kendo experience and the regular practice I get with my product served me as always, and I bantered playfully with him as I bopped him a couple of times with my saber. Instantly, his demeanor changed, and he made a couple of feints before swinging with all his might at the side of my head as if I were a baseball with his ex girlfriend’s face painted on it. I got to enjoy the opening crawl of Lucas’s Star Wars swan song with a ringing head and what turned out to be a perforated eardrum.
I was rocked. I guess that I am so used to winning these little games that a defeat galled my male ego somehow, but that was before I realized the extent of my injury and I knew on some level that wasn’t quite it. Upon reflection, I theorize that he is of the personality type called the ‘right man’, who is unable to accept defeat, responsibility, or culpability; who must always be ‘right.’ As I clutched my head and put things away, he showed no concern for my being possibly hurt. “You got a few good ones in on me, too.” he grumbled, and stomped away. I never expected to meet that kind of hostility in what felt like a community of fellow fans. I kept wondering if he’d been sending wacko signals that I wasn’t alert to pick up on. I was not being conscious, and I got hurt.
So there it was. In that moment, I was glad Keefe wasn’t with me,
just as I was glad Hugh wasn’t along to see the particulars of Anakin’s
descent into villainy. I wouldn’t forget this Star Wars opening for
a long time, but maybe it was the slap in the head that I needed. I
could be as unconscious as Keefe could, and I’m supposed to be an
adult. Keefe reacts strongly to me barking at him just as I was
floored that this guy could really try to hurt me like that – because
it came out of left field. We were supposed to be on the same side.
It's really that simple.
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