Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Child Writes a Column

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
On the trial of the Lonesome Pine…”

Oliver Norville Hardy, Way Out West, 1937

My son and I have developed a number of Daddy and Boy traditions during our decade together. One of them is movie night, where we select a favorite from our large collection of Laurel and Hardy films. He makes an innovative dessert (usually a base of ice cream with Lord only knows what he throws in there), we eat popcorn and drink Coke, and with any luck neither of us pukes up these culinary creations. Another is the “Nature Walk” (or, as he calls it, “A Fate Worse Than Death”), where the child is forced to troll through neighborhood parks and walking trails in the company of his parent and is encouraged to converse about things in the real world like school and friends and karate class, and is constantly reminded that, dagnabit, some day he’ll be grateful for this time together. I have to ask him about school during these walks, because when I ask him on the phone I’m continually astounded by the fact that he can spend seven hours in a building with hundreds of other children and do absolutely nothing. Here’s how those conversations go:

“Did you do any reading today?”


“Did you do any math?”


“Did you do any science?”


“Did you do any social studies?”


“Did you eat lunch?”


“Did you use any oxygen?”


“Did you sit on your thumb and spin?”


This routine has become so well established in our conversations that now all I have to do is ask, “How was school today?” to hear him say, “Nonononoyesyesno.”

We also have Automotive Song Time, during which I sing spontaneous ditties while driving such as “All Praise to the Father” (Sample lyric: “All praise to the father. He’s better than the rest. All praise to the father. Of dads he is the best.”) while he cringes in the back. One of our newest habits is the Sunday Morning Breakfast, where we head to a local coffee shop and get some cups of hot chocolate while we read the comics and explore the internet. This week it was special selections on You Tube. He showed me the Kittycat Dance. I showed him the video of Peyton Manning from Saturday Night Live. We accidentally opened an email with a very grown-up picture of a young lady from Grandpa. Fortunately, the child has books about the human body at home. Minimal explanations were necessary.

I was showing him my piece on jems.com about soccer, and how I had featured his rear end as a central point of that missive. (For those who missed it, I told the tale of his greatest athletic triumph, making a save in five-year-old soccer when the ball hit his backside.) He thought this was interesting, and then asked if I could write something for him on the internet. I would have been ecstatic if he had wanted to write it himself. For a ten-year old, my son is a brilliant writer, a creative genius in Spider-Man sneakers, and this isn’t just the Daddy talking. He’s won countywide school creative writing contests for his age group, and for ages he’s been dictating ideas and stories to me that I type up for him. For example, several years ago when my brother’s wife was expecting, he created a wonderful gift for my sister-in-law where he asked folks to provide baby advice and then put all the responses in a keepsake album. It seemed logical to me to ask the person in my household who was closest to babyhood (in age, not maturity…that would have been me) what advice he might give. Here are a few excerpts from his list:

Babies are important to take care of.

The might spit out their food, so watch out!

If you treat the baby the way it wants to be treated, then the baby will treat you the way you want to be treated.

Do not feed the baby beer!

Keep the baby away from Lego pieces or they will eat them!

Babies are nice, so do not wake them up when they are napping.

Do not say, “The baby has a beard.”

(And who among us has not wanted to note that the baby has a beard?)

He also got quite frustrated when he read in the newspaper that Pluto was taken off the list of planets. Here’s his unsent Letter to the Editor:

Dear News,

I am mad you say Pluto is not a planet! Pluto was an emblem to me. An emblem of the small kids. I think all of you should get a new job. May I suggest a job selling door-to-door ham? Pluto is important to me. It is my favorite planet! MAKE IT A PLANET AGAIN! I will keep doing this until Pluto is back as a planet! So, I think you should give Pluto another chance. DO IT OR ELSE!

Your protestor,

Brendan Rodenberg

So it was with great fatherly pride, and a desire to avoid work for as long as possible while attempting to hit Level 70 on “Cradle of Rome” (available from Real Arcade.com), that I offered him the opportunity to write a column for jems.com. Unfortunately, he declined with all the politeness and tact that a ten-year-old can muster when asked to do something by a parent whom he is beginning to perceive as flawed in some vital way, but can’t quite put his pre-teen finger on it.

“That’s dumb.“

Hoping for clarification, I asked what exactly was dumb about it. He informed me (in no uncertain terms) that all I write about is medical stuff, and that was boring. He did say, however, that if I really wanted to write something useful it would be about Lemony Snicket, the eponymous author of the series of children‘s books titled “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

(I should probably note for the record that the reason my boy thinks that all things medical are silly is likely a direct result of the way I‘ve handled the usual childhood emergencies. I suspect that like most of us involved in emergency care, if someone is generally doing well we quickly lose interest. So his experience has taught him that if he gets hurt, I‘ll ask him “Is it bleeding? Is it attached?” If the answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second is yes…and he‘s able to answer the questions, which means his ABC‘s are intact…and if he stomps his feet and yells, “You ALWAYS say that!“ in my general direction, I know he‘s okay. And we discuss that it’s okay to cry if it hurts, and together march through the house in search of the mandatory band-aid.)

So I‘ve been struggling with ways to link Lemony Snicket to medicine for the past few weeks. I tried to think about how we all make our living off a Series of Unfortunate Events, but that came out too morbid and seemed to be reaching for profundity when there was really none there. I thought maybe the anonymity of Lemony Snicket might represent a parallel to the uncertain nature of who or what is driving the health care system, but no matter how I turned it over in my head or on the page the topic never quite made sense. I even tried to derive an analogy between the main characters in the stories...the Baudelaire children and the Evil Count Olaf…but lost focus when the Count had morphed into Medicare Billing Guidelines and the infant Sunny became a pre-scandal Eliot Spitzer.

And late one night, as I finally gave up, I realized that for me, the failure to write is intellectual death. Most of us have probably run across the Kubler-Ross model somewhere in our training. It’s a five-step scheme for how we react to the prospect of death. In trying to get something to gel, I had gone through all the stages…denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And with acceptance came the idea that sometimes I might need to write about what I tried to do, and not what I did. Even a record of our unfulfilled hopes and aspirations can tell others more about who we are and what we believe than any catalog of diplomas or plaques on the wall.

Maybe I‘ve learned something valuable about futility. Maybe this piece should go into the Literary Hospice, be tucked into a nice warm bed, and given adequate pain relief until it expires of its’ own accord. Maybe futility is a lesson unto itself.

Besides, it’s time to ask the school questions again. Like I don’t know the answer.

(Afternote: This piece was originally written in the Spring of 2008…it’s amazing what one finds on the computer that never got published when digging through the pile of flash drives. Since then, there have been a few changes. The Nature Walk is now tolerated because we have a new Fate Worse Than Death in The Father-Son Bike Ride. And we no longer have Daddy and Boy Movie Night…the movies are still there, but I have made the transition from Daddy to Dad, which I think is the start of the change of the father image from Conquering Hero and Role Model to Annoying Guy with Money and Keys. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. He’s now in middle school…and still does nothing for seven hours each and every day.)

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