After writing these things for almost two decades, I’ve learned you prefer me to “be brief, be brilliant and be gone.” Perhaps this essay fails on all three accounts. But here it is anyway.
My son turned 42 at seven-twenty p.m. on Saturday. At that moment, Brandon was teaching my 11-year-old grandson the essentials of a basketball shot in the driveway of their home.
I lean against the stucco, 68 years of aches and pains touch every corner of my being, from a tiring body to the decaying of the world we will hand-off to Hudson’s generation.
At eleven, I had a green Schwinn 1966 Varsity ten-speed, modified with Stingray ape-hanger handlebars and the freedom to ride it anywhere my legs took me. The only requirement: be home when the streetlights came on.
A decent left arm made me a momentary little league prospect. My short attention span and the interminability of the game were deterrents. I preferred model rockets and slot car racing to Boy Scouts and team sports.
My parents engaged in changing a civilization clouded by the uncomfortable realities of mutually assured destruction and institutional inequality. Third world crime, hunger and ignorance populated late-night public service announcements on television yet existed in reality in nearby inner city neighborhoods.
Whatever dangers lurked in Eberwhite Woods, the train station where I pedaled to witness the Wolverine make it’s 5 O’clock visit, or the busy streets where my bicycle competed with tons of American iron for asphalt never entered my mind.
The middle-class expectation that we would “make a difference” floated above my adventurous youth. I decided to deal with it later.
In time, I focused on the concept, so much so that when my ability to lead groups of people toward worthy goals diminished, I didn’t see much value in whatever life might be left to live.
We raised our kids to find their own way in their own time. They did, despite unconscious mental programming that got in their way. I tried to inspire others to reach beyond self-imposed limitations and dream of what might be. The corollary to “No good deed goes unpunished,” became clear. Risk accompanies kindness. As Kent Keith told me, “Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.” I am missing several teeth.
Hudson sank a jump shot from the three-point circle. His dad reminded him to use the backboard when geometry favored the percentages. He’s improved over the last two years and now works with a personal coach who is helping him gain more skill and confidence.
It’s important for every kid to have at least one thing he or she is good at. Music became my thing. Thanks to a great teacher and enough repetition, I jumped a few pages ahead of most of my classmates. That opened the doors to friendships and experiences that molded me.
I think about these things as father and son interact. Their dynamic makes me smile. He challenges Hudson; encourages him; prods and compliments him. Basketball is a comfortable realm. H is at the age where the math they teach requires us to do our homework to help him with his. To have a common athletic language and the opportunity to share it is a gift.
Time is something most two-income parents don’t have. At 11, my stay-at-home mother built her educational and professional resume while we attended school. We never dealt with daycare. Until we started driving, her smile almost always greeted us when we escaped our academic prison. Suppers centered on guided discussions. We hashed out the day, tried to make sense of things like Vietnam, assassination, and cultural evolution, and deconstructed life and death.
Colleen and I did our best to follow the same road.
Today, exhaustion and ever-present screens distract us from meaningful conversation, numb our consciousness and sap our energy. We dealt with our share of riots and fights in our day, escaping to Batman and The Time Tunnel at night. But only if the homework was done and the dishes were washed.
Now, we worry; from the moment our grandkids exit the car until the moment their parents pick them up. Will our boys indavertantly trigger a white-hot woke flame thrower? Will our girls become an abuse statistic? Will this be the day some troubled soul, abandoned by defunded social services, decides to use one of his half-dozen weapons to kill our child?
Riding your bike beyond a trusted adult’s line of sight is out of the question. At 13, I talked my way into a Who appearance in an Ann Arbor bar, selling the bouncers on the fiction of covering their show for the school paper. The long summer days ensured I still made it home before dark.
We discussed a local outdoor concert series tonight featuring a band H likes. I can’t imagine letting him go without one of us enduring the experience in tandem.
Hudson’s parents will spend the equivalent of college tuition to educate him from here on out. The public schools my father led prepared most of us for the next steps. By the time our son entered sixth grade, we lived in Florida and opted for a private education experience. Colleen took a job at the kids’ school and I served as a trustee. Brandon graduated with enough advanced classes to enter college with a full term of credits already under his belt.
We live in a state that uses public education as a political football. The outcome will likely be a generation who defines reality in terms of the Marvel Metaverse and whatever non-news channel the family may choose to populate an insular world view.
H hits another three-pointer. Constant chest pain distracts me. It’s stress. PTSD.
I’ve scored a few professional points but consider much of my attempt to leave the world in a better place for my grandson to be an utter failure. Others in my demographic report this common sensation.
We are still fighting for the same freedoms six decades later. Hard won advances twist in reverse like the final minutes of a Twilight Zone episode. The self-centered villains and dystopian tales racking up hundreds of millions at the box office have real-life analogs we fear may become chapters in future history books, without the politically correct computer animated endings.
Brandon passes the basketball to his son. The rising seventh-grader hits five in a row before missing. The first drops of forecast evening rain portend the daily tropical downpours ahead. It’s time to decorate Easter eggs and bake cookies, two shared-experiences of more importance to us than to our short-attention-span grandchildren. Nostalgic traditions mean little to those still building their own.
Our parents fought a World War for people they never met. Television broadcast graphic images of admired leaders being killed by the people they sought to help. They contended with the fear of change that might redefine comfortable power and privilege. Their traumas forged their beliefs. And they kept pressing forward, modeling behaviors that some of their offspring made our own.
For better or worse, we coped. First, we thought King and the Kennedys would be our traumatic moment. Then came Vietnam, 9/11, MAGA and Covid; Ukraine and a madman with nuclear bombs, the inevitability of China’s impending Taiwan land grab and our impotence to stop it.
I think of the fine people our two kids grew up to become and cross my fingers. I rationalize they lead action-oriented lives that might ripple across the space-time continuum to catalyze positive outcomes.
Those outcomes are uncertain.
Thoughts and prayers are the hollow gestures of cowards. I despise the cliché, but sometimes it feels as if they are the only tools I have left.
Hudson banks another two-pointer off the backboard before bouncing inside the house. He has the energy and smarts to wear down the worthiest opponent. I imagine a negotiation strategy for cookies and candy already forming inside of his head.
That’s OK. Hopefully he will have the chance to help save the world… later.