When I was a young boy and my parents were punishing me, I used to daydream about the future. About when I parented my own children and the punishment I would rain down on them when they disobeyed. I don’t think it was sadism. It was just an adolescent fantasy about the absolute power a parent possesses over their young children.
I remember those far-off thoughts sometimes when I actually have to discipline my 4-year-old twins. Sometimes, I yell, because, sometimes a parent has to yell. My daughter usually goes about her business, which leaves me unsatisfied. Maybe it is a sadism thing, because when I yell, I want her to react. I want her to know that, GODDAMMIT, I mean it. Usually, she doesn’t, but when the tears start flowing, I feel satisfied. For the briefest of seconds.
Then, I feel like an asshole.
But my son actually gives me what I want when I raise my voice. He gets sad. And the power play is complete. I win because I can yell and I can punish and I can make them do pretty much whatever I want. It’s the power I yearned for when I was a young boy sent to my room for leaving my father’s baseball glove out in the rain or for lying to my mother or for not informing them about the teenage girl my buddy once brought over to our house when nobody else was around.
I wanted that absolute power, and now, I have it.
And so, my boy was hopping on his bouncy bull recently a few minutes before bedtime. We told him to avoid the laundry we had folded on the floor, and he barely did so. He was too busy hopping — or as he calls it, “exercising” — to pay much attention. But it’s OK because he’s a kid and he was acting like a kid, and sometimes, you have to let a kid bounce on his favorite toy, even if it’s time to start winding down for bedtime.
But then, he hurt his foot. And he hurt his foot because he was using his bouncy toy as a step ladder, and he fell. We’ve told him not to use that bull as a step stool, and yet, here he was disobeying and he had to be punished.
So, I grabbed his bouncy bull, tossed it down the hall and told him I was locking it up (I immediately thought back to the day when I was about 4, and my parents “locked” all my toys in the closet. Don’t tell me history doesn’t repeat itself.).
And he just looked … so goddamn sad. So goddamn broken-hearted that I wanted to vomit.
“Where are you going to lock up my bouncy bull?” he asked with regret in his voice and his tear ducts glistening. “You don’t need to know that,” I said. “But Daddy, when can I have it back?” Said I, “On Friday.”
It was Tuesday, and with my absolute power, I had taken away one of the biggest sources of happiness in his life. He went to sleep a sad boy. And I went to sleep feeling like I should unlock the bouncy bull right that very instant and return it to his side as he slept.
Sometimes, absolute power absolutely sucks.
I got a text message from my father a few days later. “I wanted to let you know last week I officially retired. Yep, no more work for me, now it’s play time. Love, Dad.”
It was a jolt to my system. I’d never known my father not to work. And when I talked to him on the phone later, he said, “Josh, I’ve been working this job for almost 40 years. It’s time.”
He sounded happy. But it made me sad.
And it made me sad, because it’s not only an enormous step in his life as he transitions into the job of getting older. It’s also a step forward in my life. Now, one of my parents is retired, and something around me has been unalterably shifted.
For me, retirement is so far in the future that it’s not even worth thinking about. What do I have? Another 30 years of working? That’s a house mortgage away.
And one day, long ago, my father probably felt the same way. Retirement is too damn far away to even think about. But now, it’s here for him. And then, in our conversation, he talked about when he should take Social Security, what he was going to do with the rest of his life, whether he should think about taking up golf.
He seems pleased. It’s me who’s a little jolted.
He has absolute power as well, but not over the employees who looked to him as a boss or over his adult children. He has power over his own destiny. He doesn’t have to worry that one day he’ll get laid off or that he’ll be demoted or that somebody younger, hungrier and better will hunt him for his job. He can sleep until 10 a.m. now. He can go out photographing whatever he wants for whomever will pay him. He can buy a ticket and travel to the Caribbean next week.
That kind of power, I imagine, is awfully comforting.
A few hours after I hung up with my father, I held my baby niece. She’s obviously bigger than the last time I cuddled with her five months ago, and somehow, she’s even cuter.
I held her and kissed her forehead and lifted her high into the sky. She rewarded me with a big smile as my daughter tried to distract me by informing me that she was eating a grilled cheese sandwich.
As we walked from the restaurant to the hotel where my sister-in-law and her mother were staying, I trotted in front of the stroller and noticed just how much my baby niece’s cherubic face looked like my brother’s handsome mug.
Sometimes, my wife asks me, “Can you believe we’re parents?” and sometimes, it’s difficult to imagine that two people in this world count on us for just about everything, that they think of me the same way I think of my folks. But after four years, I often say, “Yeah, I believe I’m a parent.”
But my brother as a parent? To this cute little girl who wants so badly to crawl and squeeze my nose and tug on my goatee? That’s almost unbelievable.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s this: this little baby can make my world sparkle for a moment by grinning her toothless smile and touching my face. There’s real power in that, too.
After dropping off the baby at the hotel, I drove a mile north to catch a concert by a band called MewithoutYou. I was probably one of the older patrons there, and even though they were playing one of their albums, front to back and all the way through, from a decade ago, I’ve never heard an audience chant the lyrics back to the singer so loudly.
These kids were in high school (or younger) when this album came into existence in 2004. I had just moved to Cincinnati and was a working man and was three years away from discovering the band even existed.
But as it does, life moves along, and so did the songs on that album as the band shredded on the warm, breezy night.
As my feet began to ache and the tall dude in front of me mirrored any movement I made to see the stage, I began to think about my son and his bouncy bull and my dad and his retirement and my niece and her face.
The band roared into a number called, “My Exit, Unfair,” the ninth song on the album, “Catch For Us the Foxes.”
Mewithoutyou writes many of its tunes about god and what he or she means and what it means to have the faith to believe in such a god. This one is no exception, since it’s partially about a famous story in the bible. And this line — sung with a scream 25 feet away from where my feet hurt and chanted by the sweaty youth who bounced like bulls — caught me in the gut.
“Jonah, where’s that boat going —
Your ship set with eager sails?
There’s a swirling storm soon blowing,
And no use, fishermen, in rowing from the consecrated whale!”
Jonah, where’s that boat going?
We, of course, don’t know. Even if we believe in what the guys in Mewithoutyou believe or you believe in lording your absolute power over your kids or you believe that now’s the time to finish your work for good, nobody can know the answer to that question.
All we know is that we move forward into the great unknown. And we do the best we can. Whether we’re retired, disciplining our kids, or trying to grab the nose in front of our eyes.
Because, really, what’s the alternative? Life moves on. We’re handcuffed to the handrail and we have to move on, too.
Goddamn, we have no power at all.