The Neurotic Who Sired a Chess Prodigy

IMG_1104Harry speed-walks through Wal-Mart, Atlanta Braves hat pulled low on his forehead, baggy shorts hanging well below his knees.  In his hand is a Ziploc bag filled with crumpled dollar bills and silver coins, which he swings back and forth as he sings, “I’m going to buy a toy, I’m going to buy a toy!”

“Slow down,” his father says.

Harry speeds up.

The father keeps pace until they reach Lawn and Gardens, where he stops to rest against a display of pesticides guaranteeing to kill every bug known to man.  Watching his son move farther and farther away, the father curses Sam Walton.  The father curses his son.  The father curses himself for cursing his son, who only wants what all children everywhere want: something shiny and new.

“Harry, wait up, please!”

Harry, change jingling, disappears down an aisle with an end cap display of toy guns.

The father takes a deep breath and gives chase.  First he walks, and then he jogs, and then, once the fear of his five-year-old son being kidnapped by sadists looking for precocious, doe-eyed boys and incredible savings has completely taken hold, he bursts into a full sprint, weaving in and out of shoppers, some frightened by the thirty-eight-year old man barreling toward them, others merely pissed off.

“Sorry,” the father mutters to no one as he reaches the toy gun display.  He catches his breath and turns right.  There, standing in the middle of the toy weapon aisle, is Harry.  In the boy’s left hand is the Ziploc bag of money.  In his right hand is a plastic gun, which he is aiming at his father, who raises his hands in surrender.

“Thought we were partners,” says the father. “Thought we were going to split the loot fifty-fifty.”

“We were never partners.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, that’s so.”  Harry drops the money on the floor, places his left hand over his right to steady his aim.  He closes one eye, grins, and pulls the trigger.

The father grabs his stomach and staggers backward.

“I got you with my laser gun, Daddy! I finally got you!”

“So you just shot your ride home. With a laser.”

“I can drive home.” Harry pulls the trigger five more times and drops the gun, laughing like a Bond villain on amphetamine.

“Okay, Harry, fun’s over.  Put that gun back where you found it.”

“No.”

“Put the gun back, or you’ll lose privileges.”

“I’ll do it later.”

“Do it now, or I’ll take your money away.”

“You can’t take my money away, Daddy.  It’s mine. I earned it.”

“You’re right, Harry. That money is yours, and these,” says the father pointing down, “are my legs, which I will use to walk to my car and drive to my house without allowing you to use your money.”

“No, you won’t.”

“Yes, son, I will. Unless you put the gun back where you found it.  Pretty please and thank you.”

Harry doesn’t say anything.  For twelve seconds.  He picks up his Ziploc bag, stares at the money, and then asks if he has enough money to buy the gun.

The father sighs, for this is a genuine parenting dilemma.

IMG_1152On the one hand, what the boy said about the money being his is true; he’d earned a bulk of the Ziploc bag’s contents by meticulously stacking boxes at his mother’s office, and, by all accounts, did so without complaining, which pleased the father, a miserly grump who rarely buys anything and frequently informs the boy that the only way to get money is to work.  The father wants Harry to, within reason, make his own money and make his own decisions about how to spend said money.

But on the other hand, the father despises guns.  As such, he is now suddenly, and perhaps irrationally, worried he might be raising a psychopath, simply because Harry wants to buy an ersatz weapon.   The father toys with the idea of giving Harry a lecture on why real guns are bad, on why automatic weapons like the one in the lad’s hand, for instance, should be outlawed immediately and permanently, and only highly-trained military and law enforcement should be permitted to carry handguns, period.

“Daddy, do I have enough money?”

Still thinking about what the father would say to those NRA members who need their precious rifles and shotguns in order to hunt game, he scratches his head.  He doesn’t want to talk about guns to a five-year-old, but he does want his son to understand how dangerous they are and, when he is old enough and mature enough, to decide for himself what, if any, value the Fourth Amendment has to him.  Another parenting dilemma. So, after internally exhausting all other possible options, the father opts to tell the truth.

“Harry, you do have enough money to buy that gun, and your money is your money.  However, I strongly dislike guns, even fake ones. So I can’t let you buy that thing. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Daddy, I understand.”

“What do you understand?”

“That you’re mean.”  He giggles.  “And that guns can kill people. And only God can kill people.”

The father, an agnostic, wonders where all the God talk lately is coming from.  Earlier this week, Harry informed his father that God created everything everywhere, including the beaches and the trees and the Legos and the animals and and the people and the donuts, even the super yummy ones with chocolate icing and sprinkles, and what did Daddy think of that? Doesn’t Daddy think God created everything, too?  Similar to the gun conversation, the father panicked, and then told the truth, that while he has respect for those with faith in God (and even a measure of envy), he also finds it far more likely that Earth was not created by one all-powerful guy, but was formed by Science and Time and Nature and other capitalized words that Daddy doesn’t even remotely understand.

But the father is too tired to have another heavy conversation. Especially in the middle of Wal-Mart. Where it is crowded and smells of bleach and old lady perfume and American consumerism.

“Harry, put the laser gun back on the shelf, okay?”

“It’s not a laser gun, Daddy,” the boy says doing as instructed.  “It’s a Nerf gun. It says so right there on the box.”

The father laughs.

Harry snatches up his bag of money, places his hands behind his back, and walks away, change jingling.

In the next aisle, Harry picks up a black box and says, “Can I get this chess set, Daddy?”

At first, the father smiles. Chess. A game of kings and strategy and thought.  What better way could a young child spend his money? The father’s heart swells, imaging all sorts of good-natured chess battles at the kitchen table, each one worthy of a Saturday Evening Post cover.

But then the father worries that his only son will end up like Bobby Fischer, an Anti-Semite with only a tenuous hold on reality.

“Daddy, why do you look so sad?”

“It’s nothing,” the father says and kisses the boy’s smooth cheek. “The chess set is perfect.”

“Do I have enough money?”

“Save your money,” the father says. “I’ll pay for this.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Kid Stays on the Pitch

Harry stands a few yards apart from his teammates, who cluster near a ten-foot tall inflatable tunnel, which leads out to Field #1, where the Little Bears are scheduled to take on the Little Rattlers in the final match of the 2018 Upward Soccer season.  An impromptu game of Tag commences around Harry, and he steps away from the madness.  He tugs on his bright orange jersey.  He stomps the grass with his neon green cleats.  The result: a demolished ant hill.  Sweet victory!  He pumps his fist.  But for the Little Bears’ holding midfielder, a handsome soon-to-be five-year-old with shaggy brown hair and big eyes that twinkle, the mood never lasts long.   Within seconds, Harry’s smile vanishes, and his memory—much longer than the elephant’s recall—kicks into overdrive.  Harry remembers that he is hungry.  Really hungry.  Earlier that morning, he’d refused his father’s offers to scramble an egg, or toast an Eggo, or make a pepperoni-and-spicy-cheese sandwich with extra mayo (the boy’s favorite).  Now, mere minutes away from kick-off, he blames his dad for the rumbling in his belly.

IMG_1518Harry stomps the ant hill a second time, and a third, and a fourth.  He exhales and looks up past the fifty or sixty parents and grandparents waiting for the player introductions, their cell phones poised to record every adorable moment.  His eyes settle on Field #1, and he remembers something more important than his hunger pangs.  He remembers that he is ready.  He is ready to sprint past all those grinning grown-ups, and out onto that soccer pitch, for Field #1 is not a slightly uneven patch of grass behind Kelleytown Baptist Church.  Oh no, Field #1 is Stamford Bridge, the Cathedral-esque soccer stadium in London, where Harry’s beloved Chelsea Football Club chase not only silverware for the trophy case, but immortality.

After a season of brilliant positioning, last-ditch tackles, and goal-preventing clearances that made his father, a soccer junkie, swell with pride, Harry is ready to chase immortality, too.  By kicking a ball into a net.  Just once.  Today, on this balmy, sun-dappled morning in mid-May, Harry is ready to push forward up the pitch, ready to break away from the pack, ready to go for goal.  Today, he is ready to get his name on the score sheet, and once his status as a soccer god is secure, he can celebrate by dousing himself with a juice box compliments of the Team Mom.

But first, Harry must wait for an old man with a microphone to introduce all of the players.

“Good morning, folks,” the old man says, an unseen PA system popping and hissing like an old record.  “Looks like the Good Lord’s given us another beautiful Saturday for Upward Soccer!”

A smattering of applause.  An Amen or two.  The old man thanks the fine people at Kelleytown Baptist Church for sponsoring the league.  He congratulates the young’uns for their dedication and hard work.  Oblivious to the restlessness of the players, he then provides a lengthy review of the sausage biscuits at the concession stand.

“Only a buck and two bits,” he says flashing gleaming white dentures.  “Now that’s a deal!”

The adults chuckle.  Some of the players force a laugh.

Not Harry, though.  Brow furrowed in confusion, he wheels around and locks eyes with his father, who shrugs, unable to offer a non-verbal explanation for why a phrase like “two bits” is so damn funny.

On a roll now, the old man makes a quip about youth versus experience, and when the laughter subsides he asks for bowed heads.  As he catalogues the many blessings Jesus Christ has bestowed on the decent people of Hartsville, South Carolina, Harry stomps on the ant hill a fifth time.  The old man’s prayer completed, Harry claps his hands together and moves closer to the tunnel, which, in the almost nine minutes he’s been waiting, has become a metaphor for his transcendence, a symbol of his quest for glory, a portal that will transport him to another dimension where every shot is dead-on target. It’s Game Time!

The old man says, “All right, folks, our first match of the day is on Field #1 between the Little Bears and the Little Rattlers. Let’s hear it for ‘em!” Whistling. Hollering. Cell phones aloft, the red RECORD buttons flashing.  “And now let’s meet the Little Bears!”

IMG_1230The old man starts with a toe-headed boy named Edward, who scored seven goals in the opening match.  Edward jogs down the tunnel, slapping high-fives with adults along the way.  Next is Ally, a pretty brunette with temporary tattoos all down her left arm.  She bumps fists with her dad, a burly guy sporting real tattoos on his arms and legs, and then she, too, runs down the tunnel. The third player called is Eli, a pint-sized boy with curly hair and an infectious smile.  Eli holds out his hand, but Harry doesn’t slap it. Crouched low like a tiger about to pounce on his prey, he is completely focused on the tunnel, on hearing his own name announced. He has no time for sportsmanship or camaraderie.

Harry’s father catches his son’s eye and makes a funny face. Harry looks away without smiling.

“Next up for the Little Bears is number 8–”

Harry doesn’t wait for his name to be called.  Beaming like a sweepstakes winner, he runs down the tunnel, even hamming it up for the crowd as he gives everyone a thumbs up and emerges onto the soccer pitch.  He joins his teammates at midfield, catches his breath, and scans the field from one side to the other. He shuts his eyes, moves his lips as if he is speaking.  His father cannot make out what Harry is saying, but, if given the opportunity, he would gladly trade a year of his life to know.  Is Harry reciting a prayer? Is Harry repeating a personal mantra? Is Harry silently singing “My Old School,” a Steely Dan tune that his father exposed him to when he was just three?

Harry opens his eyes.  He taps one of his teammates on the shoulder, a red-haired kid wearing dark sunglasses.

“Tag,” Harry says and runs off, laughing.  The redhead boy chases after him, dropping his sunglasses in the process.

***

Two games of Tag, one lengthy discussion between the two referees, and much cajoling and organizing by both coaches later, the game begins with a loud whistle.

At midfield a very tall girl wearing a white jersey boots the ball low and hard, and it pin-balls off one, two, three players in orange jerseys and comes to a stop near the sideline directly in front of the team benches.  The players on both teams freeze.  Parents yell for their kid to do something.  Nothing happens.  So one of referees, a teenaged girl, blows her whistle.

“The ball’s in play,” she says, gesturing at her watch.

Then, at varying speeds and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, all ten players on the field—five Little Bears in orange, five Little Rattlers in white—move toward the ball and surround it.  Chaos ensues.  There’s a tangle of legs and arms, a torrent of kicks and swipes, a cacophony of grunts and squeals.  The ball bounces and ricochets and caroms a dozen times or more, but never breaches the circular barricade around it.  During the scrum, both sides take causalities.  One of the Little Rattlers falls down and crawls to safety.  One of the Little Bears gets his toe stepped on and goes AWOL, walks over to the bench and sits down.

“Get the ball, Britney,” yells a fan.  “Dribble it outta there!”

And that is precisely what the very tall girl does.  Defying the laws of physics, she bursts through the tangle of legs and arms and dribbles clear of the blockade.  On her own with acres of empty pitch before her, she uses long strides and barrels toward the Little Bears’ unattended goal.

Harry sprints back to defend, his shaggy hair bouncing.

The very tall girl dribbles into the box and moves closer, closer, closer to the goal, Harry running and panting like a dog chasing a Porsche.  Only three yards from her target, the very tall girl cocks her right leg back and takes a shot, Harry sticking his foot out at the last second and deflecting what would surely be a goal out of bounds for a corner kick.

“Way to go, Harry!” cheers the boy’s mother.

IMG_1417The boy’s father observes quietly from the shade of the picnic area, far away from his lovely yet competitive wife and the rest of the maddening crowd.  Despite the father’s intense love of both his son and of soccer, he rarely cheers, and he never, under any circumstances, calls out instructions to Harry like many of the other parents do.  Instead, he’ll wait for Harry’s turn to sit on the bench and kiss the boy’s sweaty head, making sure to offer him a drink of water.  “Stay hydrated” are about the only two words the father is comfortable saying during the games.

Having missed a goal-scoring opportunity, the very tall girl puts her hands on her hips.  She looks down at Harry.  She sticks her tongue out.  Harry smiles. For the moment, he is happy with the Atta boy from his coach and the brief adoration of the crowd.

But by the time the halftime whistle blows, Harry’s memory kicks into overdrive once more.  Sweaty and hot, he sits down on the bench and remembers that he still has yet to score a goal.

“Stay hydrated,” his father says handing Harry his water bottle.  The boy snatches it and slams it on the ground.

The father kisses his son’s head and drifts back to the shaded picnic area where he belongs.

***

            At midfield the Little Bears huddle around their coach, who reads off the names of those players starting the second half.  Harry is not one of them.  The coach calls for all hands in, but Harry refuses to join in, refuses to yell, “Go Bears” with the rest of his team. Instead, he lowers his head and walks slowly toward the sideline.  Soon, three of his teammates are walking beside him, all of them cute, none of them caring at all about riding the proverbial pine.  The red-headed boy has his dark shades on again, and he seems to be providing animated commentary on, well, everything.   One of the coach’s kids, a tiny girl with wild dark hair, is politely trying to hold Eli’s hand, and if the smile on the lad’s face is any indication, he doesn’t seem repulsed by the prospect.  Of the four benched players, only Harry is upset. Crestfallen, in fact.

Chin glued to his chest, bright orange water bottle dangling precariously from his fingertips, Harry views his benching as a major setback.  It is an injustice.  After all, he has plans to dominate the professional soccer world, if not by the end of the day, then certainly by the time he starts kindergarten in the fall some three months hence.  His plans include playing right alongside Eden Hazard at Chelsea, and together the two strikers will score goal after marvelous goal and win all the big trophies: the FA Cup, the Carabao Cup, the Premier League, the Champions League, and, just as soon as Harry can make life on other planets possible and build a replica of Stamford Bridge in which to hold matches, the Intergalactic League.  His plans are ruined though—because of a league rule stating that all players must play at least two quarters per game.

Harry plops down on the bench.

Watching from his solitary post in the picnic area, his father is relieved that Harry isn’t playing the third quarter, for the kid needs some practice dealing with disappointment, frustration, and boredom.  “The sweet is not as sweet without the bitter,” the father has told Harry so many times now that the boy doesn’t even bother rolling his eyes anymore. Although it is morbid, the father often imagines that he will die soon (peacefully and with no psychological damage to wife or child), and he sees it as his duty—his moral imperative, if you will—to prepare his only son for the vicissitudes of Life. He doesn’t want to raise a happy child.  No one, in his opinion, can make anyone else happy.  What he wants, what he strives for, what he would gladly take in lieu of a winning lottery ticket, a Premier League Championship for his Tottenham Hotspurs, and all the top-grade sushi in the world is to raise a productive adult, one with an open mind, a kind heart, and a spine stronger than steel.

“Let’s go to work Little Bears,” the father calls out, the sound of his own voice sending a wave of nausea right through his soul.

Back on the field, there’s a problem.  The Little Bears’ coach stops the referee from starting the second half.  Bending down on one knee, he talks to one of his players, a large boy with a perpetual look of astonishment on his face.  The coach speaks.  The boy listens and walks off the field, sitting down in a foldout chair beside what looks to be his grandmother.

The referee and the coach exchange looks, and then the coach approaches Harry and the other benched players.  In an overly enthusiastic voice, he says:

“All right, Little Bears, who wants to play the third quarter?”

Harry shoots his hand up into the air.

“You’re in, Harry,” says the coach, and Harry sprints onto the pitch, all his dreams possible once more.

When the referee’s whistle blows, Harry takes a running start and kicks the ball into the Little Rattlers’ half of the field.  This time, everyone takes off after the ball and jockeys for control.  After a corner kick in the Little Bears’ end of the pitch, the very tall girl accidentally boots the ball in the wrong direction, and everyone swarms around midfield.  There, play stalls. For a full minute, the players randomly kick, swipe, and elbow, accomplishing nothing other than making some of the lighter-hearted parents laugh.

And then, quite randomly, the ball bounces clear of the cluster of orange and white jerseys and rolls right to Harry.  Sensing that the pathway to the Little Rattlers’ goal is clear, he hesitates for a moment. Like the thoroughbred who actually catches the rabbit for once, he forgets what comes next.

“Go, Harry,” his mother yells, and Harry starts to dribble.

IMG_1542Picking up speed as he goes, he hears the thudding of little cleats behind him, none louder and faster than those of the very tall girl, who scored two goals in the first half.  Fueled by his distaste for girls, especially tall blonde ones with superior soccer skills, he continues dribbling, keeping his touches close to his right foot while running as fast as he can.  Entering the penalty box, he hears his mother yelling for him again, hears the other parents cheering, but he stays calm, focuses on maintaining control of the ball long enough to get within shooting range.  In his head, he hears his father’s voice: “Strikers are ruthless.  When you get near the goal, Harry, be as cold-blooded as a snake.” Thinking of his favorite snake, the lethal black mamba, he dribbles to within ten yards of the goal, eight, six.

The very tall girl, who is the closest player to the action, knows it’s too late and stops running.  Her teammates stop, too.  All any of the white jerseys can do is watch as Harry advances to within four yards, and then two yards before calmly and ruthlessly toe-kicking the ball into the middle of the goal, the black net rippling.

“I finally scored a goal,” Harry says excitedly and pumps his fist.

The boy’s mother cries.

The boy’s father keeps quiet, fearing that any outward sign of emotion on his part would cheapen the moment by drawing attention away from Harry.  So he retreats to the restroom, where he can laugh and cry and hyperventilate in private.

***

            After the goal, Harry puts it on cruise control.  Throughout the last quarter, he adjusts (and re-adjusts) his black headband, checks out the crowd, jogs perfunctorily up and down the pitch, rarely getting involved in play.  During a pivotal corner kick, he chats with a teammate.

The one time Harry does get involved and gains possession of the ball, he dribbles once, pretends to trip, and looks up at the referee, imploring her to give the nearest Little Rattler a yellow card. Mimicking certain Premier League Players that his father scoffs at and refers to as “divas with $600 haircuts,” he throws his arms into the air, incredulous and aggrieved.

Finally, with only seconds left to play, Harry makes a positive contribution. Having dropped by to defend, he makes a goal-saving clearance, and his father wonders if the boy is already nostalgic for those heady days when he—now an emerging star striker—did the grunt work of defense.

The final whistle blows.  The Little Bears and the Little Rattlers line up and shake hands.  On the sidelines, Harry stands quietly through another prayer, and then accepts a Gatorade and a mini bag of Oreos from the Team Mom.  The boy’s mother showers his face with kisses.  She congratulates him on his big goal.

“I finally scored,” he says, chocolate already smeared on his cheeks.

His father takes the boy aside with every intention of giving him a lecture.  Unfortunately for Harry, his father is both a disciplinarian and a neurotic perfectionist, and the former English instructor turned stay-at-home-dad has every intention of admonishing the kid for pretending to trip, for whining to the referee, for loafing around the pitch for the entirety of the second half.  With his arm around his son now, the father has every intention of saying, Yes, you scored, Harry Man, and I’m very proud of you, but do you understand that soccer is not only a sport, it is a metaphor for Life, and if you get into the habit of half-assing it out there on the pitch, you will, surely, begin half-assing it somewhere else, somewhere far more important than a soccer field.  Are you going to half-ass it in the classroom? Are you going to half-ass it when it comes time for you to commit to a career, or to a woman (or a man, if that’s your preference)? Are you going to half-ass it when you have a son or daughter of your own, and he or she needs you—

            “Daddy, did you see my goal?”

The father bends down for a quick fix of his drug of choice: the smell of his son’s head.  He inhales quickly, kisses the boy’s sweaty head.

IMG_1520“I bought you a Chelsea jersey for your birthday,” he says, suddenly uninterested in giving a lecture.  “Guess whose name is on the back of it?”

The boy’s eyes light up.  “Eden Hazard?”

“Nope. Someone better.”

“Who?”

“Harry Everhart,” the father says.  “That’s who.” He waits a beat, and then: “And don’t ever let me see you dive on a soccer field again, you understand me?”

The boy smiles, knowing full well that he had pretended to trip and that he would do it again.  Why? For the same reason he scored the goal: because it was fun. And soccer, despite what his dyspeptic father thinks, is all about fun.

IMG_1517

 

 

Planking is Counterproductive and I Can Prove It

When I woke up yesterday morning, my first thought wasn’t, Today, I think my wife and I should issue a family planking challenge as a way to introduce our five-year-old to the fraught topic of sexual politics. 

(In fact, my first waking thought was of waffles, and whether or not our aforementioned five-year-old had eaten the last of the Eggos, and if he had, could I, in good conscience, ship him off to military school as payback.)

But enough about my thoughts, which, I’ve learned over time, hardly anyone, especially my family, is interested in.

Back to that planking challenge, and how it led to a conversation about sexual politics.

Last night at dinner, Harry, cheeks crusted with ketchup, mouth filled with masticated meat, insisted that we play the Person Game.

“This guy wears a red coat and a red helmet and boots and he rides on a big red truck that gots sirens on it. Who is it, Mommy?” Harry pointed at my wife, who was sitting beside him.

Her dark brown eyes twinkled as she put a finger against her lips, pretending to not know the answer.  Then, she looked at me.

“Daddy,” she said, “do you know the answer?”

“Sure, I do,” I said, and Harry shook his head at me. “The answer is: Bozo the Clown.”

Harry slapped his forehead. “No, Daddy, that’s really wrong. You’re in butt naked last place in this game!”

IMG_2052Not aware that there were standings in the Person Game, I made a silent vow to do better, which meant I would try to make him laugh even harder next time I was called upon to answer a question. But, unfortunately, I didn’t get another chance because my wife said:

“I know the answer.”  She paused for dramatic effect. “It’s a firewoman!”

Harry slapped his forehead again.  “No, Mommy, it’s a fireman!”

My wife fixed our only child with a look I knew all too well: it was a look that said without saying, Surely, you ain’t that thick. In our fourteen years together, I’ve been on the receiving end of that look somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,137 times, and the only reason that figure is low is because my better half, like all women with jobs and responsibilities, accepts that her husband sometimes says some dumb stuff, and if she made him aware of every single dumb thing he said, she would be taking years off of her life, and she will need those extra years for whenever her idiot husband (me) croaks, and she wants to find a second (and, hopefully, taller) husband to spend her Golden Years with.

“Women can be fire fighters, too,” she said.

“No, they can’t,” Harry said as he drowned another roasted potato in Heinz and popped it into his mouth. “They’re not strong enough.”

I could’ve sworn I saw steam coming out of her ears. She said, “Not strong enough? Women aren’t strong enough? Who taught you that?”

“Not me,” I said. “It definitely wasn’t me.”

Harry then explained that women couldn’t be fire fighters because women weren’t strong enough, weren’t tall enough, and weren’t something else I didn’t catch because I was busy mentally planning my escape in case she decided to punch a hole in the dinning room table. Or invited Gloria Steinem over for an impromptu lecture on feminism.

“I’m stronger than your Dad,” she said when Harry stopped talking.

“No, you’re not,” Harry said.

“Yes,” I chimed in quickly, “she most certainly is.”

Harry spit out a piece of chewed-up steak on the table. He thought for a moment. “But I’m stronger than you, Mommy.”

She tried, briefly and forcefully, to convince our son that she, a woman who did Pilates, yoga, and occasionally ran 5Ks for fun (gross!), was stronger than him, but in stereotypical male fashion, he wasn’t having it. So my wife, half amused and half pissed, said:

“All right then, let’s all have a planking challenge. See who’s the strongest here.”

IMG_1708At this point in the story, I would like to mention two things. One, I am woefully out of shape. Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a gifted athlete.  Twenty years prior to this incident at our dinner table, I had a tennis scholarship to a Division I school.  Before that I made the Varsity baseball team as a freshman.  Before that I was the only white boy to make the Winston Lake AAU basketball, a squad that finished 3rd in the Regionals, and, eventually, produced several players who went on to play in college and beyond. BUT and HOWEVER, that was a long damn time ago. Two, I am a quitter. This, too, is something that has happened gradually over time.  Two quick BEFORE and AFTER examples.  When I was fifteen, I played in the 16 and Under North Carolina State Championship, even though I had just, a few days beforehand, finally kicked a prolonged bout of mononucleosis. During my fifth match, I started to get dizzy in the 95 degree heat and asked for a bathroom break. While I was in there, I blacked out, but when I awoke with a nasty headache I, foolishly, went back out on the court. Dizzy and dehydrated, heart pumping at well over 180 beats a minute, I won the match. . .and the next two I played. Now smash cut to last week when I was out for an evening walk and my heart started to race and I called my wife to come pick me up in the car. I was less than a block from our house. But I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t dying of a heart attack, so I gave up and called for rescue. Like I said: quitter.

As my wife and son stood up from the table, I explained that I couldn’t plank, didn’t want to plank, thought planking was about as useful as following President Trump on twitter.

But they weren’t listening.

They were already assuming the planking position (think: doing a push-up) on our living room rug. Harry started talking trash, strongly suggesting that his victory was a foregone conclusion, while my wife explained, as patiently as possible, that women were just as strong and capable as men, more so even in some cases, and then she looked up at me.

After a few minutes, my wife began to tire, but in all fairness, Harry was cheating; he wasn’t really planking, he was in the downward dog pose (I only know these maneuvers from the many times I’ve watched my wife do yoga while I fondle the remote control.)

“Okay, you win, Harry.”  Face flushed, my wife sat on her knees and listened as Harry gloated over the win.

IMG_2373.JPGThis rankled me.  “Harry,” I said, “we don’t gloat when we win, and we don’t whine when we lose. We shakes hands with our opponent and say, ‘Good job.'”

He wasn’t listening though. In his defense, it is quite difficult to listen whenever you’re wiggling your butt in your opponent’s face and squealing, “I won, I won, I won.”

My wife took it well though. Walking past me into the kitchen, she reminded me of this:

“I’m still stronger than you.”

Under my breath, I muttered, “Who isn’t?”

 

Concrete Evidence

Harry and me are at Kalmia Gardens having a picnic when my son spits out a bite of his pepperoni-and-spicy-cheese sandwich, grabs me by the wrist (he has a shockingly strong grip!), and says:

“Daddy, you’re going to jail.”

“What’s the charge?” I say, my mouth full of strawberries.

“Being a bad guy.”

Harry drags me (literally) away from the cool, shaded picnic area to a white gate that leads into a flower garden. Stumbling behind him, stomach still growling because I didn’t get to finish my lunch, I demand to know what the official charge is, and he tells me to keep quiet and come on, no lollygagging. He shoves me (again, literally) against the white gate, clicks it shut, and says:

“Stay in there.”

“For how long?”

He scrunches up his nose. He curls his lip. He presses a finger against chin, thinking. “Seventy eighty ninety years,” he says. “And one day.”

I accept my draconian sentence with all the emotional fortitude I handle every other piece of personal bad news. . .which is to say, I weep and whine and fall to my knees.

“I’m not a bad guy,” I say, not entirely sure I believe those words. “I don’t belong in jail.”

“Yes, you do. I’m the jailer, I know.” He wags a finger at me. “And don’t try to escape.”

“I won’t.” Then I unhook the gate’s latch and run. Well, I jog. I get maybe twenty yards before my heart skips out of time, and I see myself in a satin-lined coffin and throw my hands up. “I give up,” I say. “Take me back to jail.”

Harry, my jailer, grips my wrist again and I’m back in jail. I say, “Staying out of jail was one of my longterm goals. Guess I failed.”

“Guess so,” Harry says, and then he lets me out.

I walk a few feet, breathing in the fresh air. Just as I’m about to yell out FREEDOM, Harry grabs my wrist a third time.

“You’re under arrest,” he says. “Someone told me you robbed a bank.”

“You can’t do take me to jail for that. You need more concrete evidence.”

He stops walking and looks at me. “You stole concrete.” And then he takes me back to the Big House where I laugh and marvel at how cute the warden is.

 

 

The Time We Visit the Wise Old Monkey and Are Forced to Eat from the Sandwich of Knowledge

Harry emerges from the garage holding a plastic ninja sword and a purple tube of bubbles.

“Daddy, we’re going to play spies.”

“But I’m mowing the lawn.” (We have an old-timey mower not powered by gas. Very cumbersome, but relatively quiet.)

My son steps in front of me, shoves the purple tube of bubbles into my midsection. “You’re playing. Your name is Tiny Max, and my name is Eric the Diamond Ninja Spy. Let’s go to headquarters! They have a serious mission for us!”

He takes off running, and after I trip over the lawn mower and bruise my shin, I jog, reluctantly, after him.  He climbs atop a white door that leads down into the storm shelter/place where our HVAC unit is. The door is covered in pollen, and I say:

“Eric the Diamond Ninja Spy, might we postpone this serious mission until after hay fever season? I’m feeling a bit stuffy-nosed.” The only reason I started mowing the lawn in the first place: to get a reprieve from setting up another obstacle course for the lad, and then have him tell it isn’t anything like American Ninja Warrior on TV.

“Silence,” he says. He swipes at me with his ninja sword, but my reflexes aren’t what they used to be and I get hit in the ribcage.

“Harry, you’re going to Time Out now.”

He whines, pouts, calls me a jerk, and all I can think of hitting the road Woody Guthrie-style, thumbing it across this great country of ours and never coming back.  But I love the kid, and one of my longterm goals is to not be an asshole.  So, instead, I gently drag him to his bedroom and shut the door.

“Four minutes,” I say and set the alarm on my iPhone. Within ten seconds, I hear him playing, his Lego ninjas embroiled in yet another dangerous plot involved lava, flying knives, and a missing skateboard.

The alarm sounds, and I open the door. “You’re free. Apologize for hitting me with the sword, please.”

He makes a witheringly condescending expression reminiscent of the one John Houseman made in these famous Smith Barney commercials: “They make money the old-fashioned way, they earn it.”

“Daddy, it wasn’t me who hit you. It was Eric the Diamond Ninja Spy.”

“You’re Eric the Diamond Ninja Spy.”

Shake of the head. “I’m Harry.”

“You’re Harry and Eric the Diamond Ninja Spy. Apologize or you’re going back to Time Out.”

“I’m sorry,” he says chucking a handful of Legos over his shoulder. He stands up and sprints toward the door, accidentally (on purpose?) giving me a dead leg as he passes by. “Come on, Teeny Tiny Max, we gotta get back to headquarters.”

“What happened to Tiny Max?” I say jogging after him as he kicks—literally kicks—open the front door.

Heading down the steps, he yells over his shoulder: “You’re old so you’re getting smaller and smaller. Now come on!”

We recover our weapons—at my insistence I’m given a red tube of bubbles in lieu of purple—and we run over to a blooming dogwood tree in our front yard. Harry/Eric the Diamond Ninja Spy points up at the tree and says:

“We’re here to see the Wise Old Monkey. He’ll tells us where the gold glitter bombs are hidden.” He pokes me in the leg with his plastic sword. “Go up there, talk to him, hurry!”

I climb into the tree and speak to a tree limb covered with black ants. “Wise Old Monkey, these glitter bombs are quite dangerous, and we need your help disarming them. The last thing we want is for Harry Daddy Silly City to get covered—again—with glitter.”

“What did he say, Daddy?”

I tilt my head. I nod. I cup my hands as if I am about to take communion. I pretend to take a bite of something and wince.  “The Wise Old Monkey says we must both eat from the Sandwich of Knowledge. It tastes terrible, he says, but it’ll give us vital information as to the whereabouts of the infamous glitter bombs. Here, quick, take a bite.”

Harry chomps down and spits on the ground. “Ew, gross. Nasty. Thank you Wise Old Monkey, but we have to go find these glitter bombs. Daddy, get down! Let’s go!”

I stay put.

“Daddy, now! We’re running out of time! There’s asteroids heading to our town, and we have to be there to ninja kick and ninja punch them before they destroy the bakery and the Play Zone and all the houses!”

“My name’s not Daddy,” I say. “It’s Tiny Max.”

“No, your name is Teeny Tiny Max. Now come on, Teeny Tiny Max, before I barf.”

“Why do you have to barf?”

He drops the sword, falls like a marionette whose string has just been cut. Laying in the grass, he squints up at the sun.

“Why are you going to barf?” I ask again.

“Because the Sandwich of Knowledge had bleu cheese on it,” he says. “I stinking hate bleu cheese.”

Fortunately, he recovers and we go onto to find and disarm all “sixty ninety eighty million” glitter bombs and destroy the asteroids falling from the “lava sky.”

Having saved Harry Daddy Silly City, we return to the Wise Old Monkey, who rewards us with a candy bar from the Tree of Sugary Delights.

“Teeny Tiny Max,” he says glaring at the imaginary candy bar I hold out for him, “you know I don’t like caramel.”

“Tell it to the Wise Old Monkey.”

He snatches the imaginary candy bar and starts climbing up the tree. “I will,” he says. “I stinking will.”

 

 

Fake Pooping and a Trip to McDonalds

At 9am, Harry, dressed in way too-tight pajamas, enters the kitchen where I’m hiding and demands that I take him to McDonalds for breakfast. His hands are on his hips, and he is wearing a blue Under Armour hat, the same lid he wears every day and tries to wear during bath time and bed time. My wife worries he’ll go bald wearing a hat every day, but I don’t spend a tenth of the time she daily devotes to worrying about hair–hers and our son’s.  I’d miss all my soccer matches if I did that, and I’m not missing my soccer matches.

“Take me to McDonalds,” he says. “I’m hungry.” His eyes sparkles when he notices some cash sitting on the counter, and just like that, he is no longer preoccupied with greasy food.  Brown eyes glittering with desire and mischief, he pulls his step stool over, climbs up, and snatches the money.

“Toys, toys, toys,” he says waving the bills around as if he is about to make it rain at a strip club.

I take the money back. He pouts.

“I want you to buy me a toy,” he whines. “I know you have money. I see it right there in your hand.”

After six months of being a stay-at-home dad, I realize that the kid knows all of my tricks. Usually whenever he asks for a toy (and he asks for a toy a minimum of eight times per day), I pull out my wallet and show him I have no cash. He then points to my debit card and tells me to just swipe it, and I lie to him (it’s okay to lie to children) and say I don’t have any money in the bank, but not to worry because we have a nice house with a nice refrigerator that has plenty of food in it.  “And,” I add, “we have excellent health coverage.”  To which he haughtily responds, “I want a toy.” At this point, I filibuster like one of those Republican windbags in Congress.  I go on a diatribe about the “emotional dead end of constantly wanting things,” and he yawns and stamps his foot, and then says, “Just use a credit card.” The word credit is a trigger word for me, and I can’t resist the urge to inform him about the evils of buying worthless crap on credit, at outrageous interest rates.  When he invariably asks what I mean by worthless crap, I do not say what I want, which is “Worthless crap is any overly-marketed plastic toy made in China by basically slave kids who don’t, like you, have a stay-at-home dad/ATM machine to abuse.” Instead, I flex my emotional maturity muscle and say, “Daddy has to go to the bathroom. Excuse me.”

“No toys,” I say and stuff the money in pocket. I pick up the book I’m reading. I kiss his forehead. I walk to the bathroom, locking the door behind me.

“Do you have to poop, Daddy?” he says as he tries to open the door.

“Yes,” I lie.  “Daddy’s tummy hurts. Give me a minute.”  Closing the toilet lid, I sit down with my book and read exactly three and a half sentences of Lit by Mary Karr before I hear a polite knock on the door.

“Yes, Harry?”

Another knock. Even softer than the previous one.

“Harry, I’m pooping.”  Not really. But as aforementioned, it is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even advisable to lie to/deceive your child once in awhile.  Example: say you need a break from playing Legos or watching Sarah & Duck so you empty out half of the remaining OJ and announce that you need to take the carton outside to the recycling bin, and while you’re out there, you find your son’s soccer ball and, imagining that you’re a world class midfielder for Tottenham Hotspur, you take some corner kicks—two or thirteen—and then, just to taste sweet freedom for a few more seconds, you pull up some weeds, write something profane in the inch-thick layer of pollen on the recycling bin, and watch a baby squirrel nibble on an acorn. Total time killed: 4 minutes 21 seconds. Value: priceless.

“Daddy, I want a sausage biscuit and a hash brown from McDonalds.”

“Okay. After I’m done in here.”

A moment of silence. Then: “What do I want for breakfast, Daddy?”

I look up from my book. I stare at the back of the door, where there is a black, Harry-sized footprint near the bottom.  “Are you testing me?” I ask.

“Yes. What do I want for breakfast?”

“A knuckle sandwich?”

“No.”

“Existential clarity?”

“No.”

“A steak sandwich and the Beatles’ White Album?” 

“No, Daddy. You weren’t listening.”

“I’m actually an above average listener,” I say.  “In fact, whenever someone else is talking, I deliberately empty my brain so I can concentrate on what–”

“You’re not as good a listener as me, Daddy. I’m gooder at soccer than you, too.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, my blood coursing through my veins.  I inhale, exhale, dog-ear my page.  Accepting defeat, I unlock the door and pick up my son.  I look him in the eyes.

“Harry, I will happily buy you a sausage biscuit and a hash brown if you give me five minutes of alone time. Just five minutes. Okay? Please?”

Harry looks at me as if I am slow.  “Daddy, why didn’t you just ask?”

I drop him like a sack of potatoes.  Grinning mischievously, he says, “See you in five minutes, Daddy” and sprints into the living room, where I hear him using our couch as a trampoline.

 

 

 

Gone Fishin’

Dear Harry,

Yesterday, we went on our first fishing trip together. We hit up Wal-Mart where I bought a fishing license and some “red, slimy worms” and off to Lawton Park we went. You are really good at casting, but not so good at being patient with the fish.

“Why aren’t they biting?” you asked as you sat Indian-style on the dock. You wiggled your line around and squirmed a bit and then laid down. “Daddy, watch my line for me. Tell me if I get a bite so I can reel it in, okay? Okay, Daddy? Daddy, watch my line!”

You pulled your Atlanta Braves hat down over your eyes, rested your fishing rod on your chest, and pretended to snore.

“Tell you one thing, Harry. You’re already acting like a fisherman.”

“I know. I’m awesome.”

Indeed, Harry. Indeed.

Here’s hoping we have better luck on the next fishing trip, Harry. I love you very much.

Sincerely,

Dad

Super Mega Candy Land

Dear Harry,

We did it. Finally. After years of plotting and dreaming, scheming and planning, we have created the ultimate utopia for kids. Behold, Super Mega Candy Land!

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday, we were playing with scuba guy action figures in the backyard when your guy, Eric Lightning, fell off of the picnic table and landed in a field filled with poisonous chicken nuggets. Eric Lightning, tired and hungry, ate one of the poisonous chicken nuggets, and his stomach cramped and his butt fell off and just as he was about to die, my scuba guy, George Looney, swooped in to save the day.

“Come with me,” George Looney said and carried Eric Lightning to a patch of clover in our backyard. He sat Eric Lightning down on a piece of tree bark that we had been using as a surfboard/flying saucer. George Looney plucked a clover (not a four-leaf, unfortunately), and handed it to Eric Lightning.

“Eat this candy,” George Looney said. “It’ll reverse the effects of the poisonous chicken nuggets.”

You then looked at me quizzically and said, “Daddy, this isn’t candy.”

“Trust me,” I said.

“But candy is bad for you. It has too much sugar. And Eric Lightning isn’t real.”

I held George Looney up to your face and said, “Harry, we are now in Super Mega Candy Land. Everything you see is candy. The leaves. The grass. The trees. All of it.”

“Is that true?” you asked.

I nodded. “Here’s the best part.” I paused for dramatic effect. “It all tastes like candy, but it actually has all the nutrients, vitamins, and other healthy stuff that vegetables have. So, essentially, you can eat as much as you want, and it’ll make you stronger and bigger and healthier.”

Your eyes got as big as dinner plates. You actually said, “Wow.”

It was the first (and perhaps last) time I have ever impressed you. I’ll remember that moment forever.

After that, Eric Lighting ate his fill of grass, which tasted like Hershey’s Kisses, and he didn’t die. In fact, eating all that candy that looked like grass made him grow huge muscles, pearly white teeth that could chomp through metal, and X-ray vision. George Looney also developed super powers because of his time in Super Mega Candy Land, namely, invisibility and the dubious skill of being able to tell time by licking trees.

Harry, we spent the better part of an hour discussing Super Mega Candy Land.

“I want to live in Super Mega Candy Land,” you said. “For real live there.”

Then, I, your dorky father, gave the most cheesy response ever. “But Harry, you can go there anytime you want. Just use your imagination.”

Harry, if Super Mega Candy Land was real, I would take you there. But only after you finished your chores.

Love,

Dad

Harry Writes a Story

Dear Harry,

For Valentine’s Day, you and Mommy bought me a book of writing prompts called 642 Big  Things to Write About, Young Writer’s Edition.  You told me you wanted to write “creepy stories” together, ones about “bad guy villains” and, of course, “lava and sharks.” Below is our first ever collaboration.

You find a key outside of a creepy old building. What does the key open? Where does it lead? 

Harry finds a skeleton key outside a creepy old building. The key unlocks a skeleton-shaped door that leads into the creepy old building. Insides, Harry sees a room filled with skeletons. One of the skeletons attacks Harry, and he beats it up by using a sweet ninja move and superior intelligence. The rest of the skeletons are nice, and they give Harry some hot chocolate and a present wrapped in seaweed. The hot chocolate tastes terrible, but Harry rips open the seaweed-wrapped present. Inside the box is a new, blue Power Ranger costume. Harry puts on the costume, but when he tries to take it off, he can’t because it sticks to his clothes. There’s orange sticky goo all over the costume, so Harry takes out a knife from his pocket and cuts off the sticky costume. Then he drinks more of the terrible hot chocolate and sings “My Old School” by Steely Dan with the skeletons, who, after the singing stops, tell Harry that they prefer gansta rap. 

Thanks for the book and the laughs, Harry. I look forward to working with you again.

Sincerely,

Dad