October 28, 1999
Thus Spaketh Me…
By Curt Schleier
Vacations used to sound like this -- "Brugges? Wow, sure, there's a train in an hour... let's just stay another night... you look so beautiful in this moonlight... don't worry, nobody's gonna come hiking through here now... I love you, too..."
Now they sound like, "Say please! The waiter is not a slave! Feet off the table! Look her in the eye! You may not talk to your brother in that tone! Cover your mouth! That was grabbing -- no grabbing! This family does not scream in the car! I'm going to count to three!... NutraSweet is not an appetizer!... One!... Apologize to your mother!... Two!... Apologize to your brother!... Apologize to me!... three!"
A big part of being a parent is stumbling around by the feeble glow of midlife's night-light, going, "Wha...? What happened?" But after eight years of it, I'm beginning to understand.
I picked up a key clue in the good old book of Genesis the other day when I noticed that God spends a few lines creating and having fun, admiring the splendor of His domain and gushing, "This is good!"
And then he has a couple of kids and spends the next 99/100ths of the Torah laying down the law and getting mad.
The Five Books of Moses are therefore a parent's best primer, answering that bleary "Wha?"
Now, the Torah and I offer seriously differing parenting styles. I tend to go easy on the banishing, the smiting, the brimstone, the flooding, the exiling and it would take a whole lot of arm-punching in the backseat of the car for me to bring forth consuming fires from the Heavens. Though I am not beyond taking away Pokemon cards for a week, which seems to loom in my boys' eyes as a far sharper sword of discipline.
Nevertheless, I hate doing it. I hate being the law and I hate punishing. I came to consciousness under Vietnam and Nixon's sweaty perfidy. Cops were pigs, the government was a collective child murderer and the goal was to hang loose, not be uptight. Authority before Reagan was something to be battled; when we started stocking up our IRA accounts, authority was a demon to be quite rigorously questioned. But God forbid we should embrace it. As an American, I am wired to resist authority. As an American Jew, I am obliged to resist it more thoroughly -- for the extra credit.
I'm perfectly comfortable taking up the gavel a few times a day, but I just spent an entire month traveling with my two little portable fission reactors (ages 5 and 8) and about halfway through, I realized I was becoming my own best enemy -- the living, breathing poster boy for the fuddy-duddy law giving Patriarchal Voice, dealing out a voluble 30-day-tirade of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. I embodied, articulated, clutched onto, emitted, smelled like... Authority!
And waddya know? My 8-year-old knows just what to do with authority. Resist it.
With all his heart; with all his might; and with all his being. And when he runs his creative and circuitous defenses dry ("Aviv wanted me to stuff him into the couch because didn't you say we should always be curious?"), he plays what he believes to be his trump card, dealt him as his oedipal birthright. He gathers up his certainty and blurts..."You are not my boss!"
Right to the heart of the matter. On grumpy days, I'll snap back that Boss is exactly what I am until he's 18. But in calmer, more enlightened moments, I'll work with his need for guidance, and be midwife to his manhood.
"Think of me, son, not as your boss, but as your guide, Yoda to your Luke Skywalker. We all need Yodas, your character is your lightsaber, and I'm here to help you master it so that you may grow up to be a Jedi of the spirit."
Thirty days in a car obliterates such enlightened moments, though, and gripping the wheel, I had to do everything I could to hold back shouting Bill Cosby's venerable parental checkmate: "I brought you into this world and I can take you out! It doesn't matter to me, because I can make another one that looks just like you!"
And so here I am, an imperfect, reluctant, always-on-call Lawgiver. Life used to be easy. Amit was all cheek rolls and shin fat, head in my palm, plush toy feet tucked into the crook of my elbow -- a lush Eden of pliable flesh and curious eyes. I walked in the ways of my Lord by admiring him, "It is good."
But Trees of Knowledge happen... and bear unexpected fruit.
For it turns out that the Authority I find myself dispensing has ended up providing me with an invaluable gift: a litmus test of my most deeply held beliefs. I insist for him, in various ways, on honesty, kindness, truth-telling, generosity, respect for others, respect for self, boldness, gratitude, individuality, celebration of life.
And every time I refer him to these Commandments in the Great Book of Dad Law, I am forced to glance at myself in the rearview mirror to see if I am fulfilling them, myself. At 8, Amit no longer fits on my forearm. I can see his eyes fixed on me in that rearview mirror. Eyes that get smarter day by day, and help keep me on the right side of the Law. And that... is good.
Adam Gilad is a television writer living in Topanga. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com. Gene Lichtenstein is on vacation.
Detail of Siva and Parvati with their two sons. Indian Artist Unknown