Universal Translator

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I Suck as a Father Figure

I am a big fan of serendipity.

Once, during my first year of law school, I went to the law school building for a night to study.  I didn’t really want to study, but I knew it was important that I should.  Still . . . I was looking for a reason to blow off being responsible and to do something fun.

When I walked into the lobby I saw a table set up to greet people, and I saw a friend of mine manning the table.  I figured this would be an easy way to waste 10 to 15 minutes, shooting the shit with my buddy, and keeping me from actually having to walk into the library to study.  However, about 5 minutes into my shooting the shit with my buddy, Linda Fox walked up and commandeered our attention.

Now . . . you have to understand about Linda Fox.  She was a third-year law student (I was a first-year) and was easily the best looking woman in our school.  Every male student knew who Linda Fox was, and I am pretty sure that Linda knew the power that she had over the rest of us.  She certainly didn’t waste words when she showed up that evening.

“Where am I supposed to go to give the Spain Study Abroad lecture?” she demanded of my friend, interrupting me.

My friend directed her to the first large classroom on the right.

“Thanks,” Linda said, and stalked off.

I watched Linda walk away, and then I looked down at my friend.  “Dude,” I said, “I think I’m gonna see what she is talking about.”

So I followed Linda into a meeting where she described William and Mary’s “sister program” with a university in Madrid.  I am sure she made it sound great, but quite frankly I was too busy losing myself in Linda to really pay attention to the words coming out of her mouth.  Now, I knew that she would not be in the program herself – she was a third-year, and would be graduating – but she made studying in Madrid seem really, really fun.  Also, the U.S. was going through a recession at the time, I was having a difficult time trying to find a summer job in Miami, and the idea of going to Europe for a summer on borrowed money seemed not so bad.

In the end, I would do exactly that.  In a lot of ways, it was the best summer of my life, and it all started because Linda Fox walked up and rudely interrupted me, and then I followed her.

* * *

Years and years later, I would be living in Miami.  At the time I was (re-)taking scuba diving lessons with a friend of mine.  One thing they don’t tell you about scuba diving:  it is exhausting.  I think it is the pressure.  Spend 50 minutes at 60 feet, and when you get home you just don’t want to do anything more.  You are tired.

By the second dive I had come to expect this, and had planned accordingly.  I had a masseuse arranged to show up about an hour after I got home from my dive.  I figured get home, get showered, get cleaned up, and then get an hour-long massage.  Tip the masseuse out on the way, open up a bottle of wine, and go to sleep well-rested.  What could be wrong?

But that isn’t how it worked.  I mean, I did all of that, but after I started into the wine I couldn’t find it within myself to go to sleep.  I was exhausted, but not sleepy.  I was also a little drunk.

Whilst watching a movie I had seen many times before, I started thinking about what I should be doing to “make a difference.”  I was drunk enough at the time to start trying to analyze what I think “making a difference” means, and how I might go about it.

What I came up with is this: there are two main ways to “make a difference.”  One way, the more organized way, is to work really hard on behalf of a large group of people.  You work hard, you accomplish a lot . . . but you never really get a chance to see the accomplishment.  I think of this as a game of EarthBall:  you work and strive and struggle to accomplish a lot, and the most you can hope to achieve is that this big, massive ball moves a few inches closer to your goal than toward the other side’s goal.

Gotta tell ya . . . doesn’t really appeal to me.

On the other hand, there is the satisfaction of personal involvement.  This is where you aren’t changing anything big significantly, but you can change the life of an individual or two.  This is the equivalent of grabbing a football in the middle of the game, running into the end zone, and spiking it.  And then doing a victory dance that will draw you a $100,000 fine.

Now that does appeal.

* * *

So . . . . rationally weighing all of these considerations, whilst sitting around in my bathrobe and wondering how I might contribute something of my own, I thought to myself:  “Probably, what you should do is get involved with the Big Brothers program.  Make a difference to some kid who needs somebody.”

And immediately on the heels of that thought was this one:  “Dude.  You looked into the Big Brothers program already.  You’ll have to fill out a bunch of paperwork, and it will most likely suck. 

“Listen . . . you believe in Destiny.  If you are supposed to get involved in the Big Brothers program, you will know.  If you are supposed to kick something back into the world, you will know.  Trust the Universe to let you know.”

So I went to bed.

* * *

I woke up the next day and had my morning coffee.  I was supposed to get a haircut later that day, so after I had sufficient caffeine in my system to keep me awake I went to Downtown Coconut Grove and cruised the mall.  I had about 30 minutes to kill before my haircut appointment, and I spent them in Borders, mostly.  I was interested in a series by one of my favorite authors, but it was obscure and the fact the store didn’t have the latest book did not necessarily mean the latest book hadn’t been published yet.  So I approached the dude at the Help Desk to ask if he could give me publishing information on this series. 

And while I was talking to him a beautiful woman walked up to the counter, interrupted me, and demanded “Where do I go to give the Big Brother lecture?”

“Upstairs,” he said.


I just stood there for a moment, gape-mouthed.  It was like the Universe had told me:  ‘Hey, asshole.  Remember that absolute shit you were telling yourself just last night?  Well, I’m standing behind you and tapping you on the shoulder.  Put up or shut up.’

I grinned at the guy behind the desk, and I turned around followed the beautiful woman up the stairs so that I could learn more about what it means to be a Big Brother.

* * *

My Little Brother was named Andrew.  He had lost his father to cancer about a year before I met him, and he was 11 years old.  I was a Big Brother for 2 years (before I moved away from Miami) so I got to see him start growing into his adolescence.  Wow!  Did that suck!

It is a hard time, I think, for any boy, but I imagine it must have been especially hard for a kid who didn’t have a dad.  I saw Andrew every two weeks, and we found a couple of regular things to do.  He liked paintball – for some reason – so I took frequently took him to a paintball range and we shot at each other.

But one thing he also liked was skateboarding.  The thing was, he wasn’t a skateboarder.  He was a skateboarder wannabe.  He liked the clothes, and he liked the attitude, and he liked the accoutrements.  But he didn’t like the actual physical fact of skateboarding.  He was a poseur. 

Which really, really bugged me.  I don’t like poseurs, and I felt that I had stepped into a (semi) Dad role here.  I didn’t want my Little Brother to grow up pretending to be a skateboarder; I wanted him either to be a skateboarder or not, no pretending.

* * *

One of the default things Andrew and I used to do, when there was nothing in particular going on, was to hang out in The Shops at Sunset in South Miami.  The Shops is a kind of open-air mall, and Andrew and I would cruise through the place, looking at things.  Sometimes I would buy him something, but I tried to keep that to a minimum.  I had gotten the whiff, early on, that if I purchased things for Andrew that is what he would expect from me whenever we got together.  I wanted to hang out with the kid, but I didn’t want to be his ATM.

But there was this one skateboarding shop in the Shops at Sunset where we used to go a lot.  They sold skateboards and skateboard accessories.  But what they mostly sold were clothes and the skateboard look.  It was Andrew’s favorite place, we went there often, and Andrew usually tried to get me to buy him something.  I usually resisted.

Now . . . one other thing the skate shop had:  a half-pipe.  It wasn’t a regulation-sized half-pipe, it wasn’t like you would be dropping into a 10’ drop if you made it . . . the height from the top of the drop to the bottom of the floor was only about 4 feet, but it was behind a chain-link fence cage and if you wanted to play in the half-pipe you had to drop off security, strap on a helmet (and other protective gear) and you were on your own.

One afternoon Andrew and I were cruising through the skateboard shop, and I was watching him exclaim over some “really rad” clothing or something.  I knew that he was hoping I would buy him something, but I wasn’t going to do that because that would just be lame.  Still, he had brought his skateboard (an affectation, not something he could actually ride) so he at least looked the part.

And then he found a set of blocks, and was determined that he needed them to make his skateboard “really cool.”  He actually went ahead and explicitly asked me if I would buy the blocks for him.

“I dunno Andrew,” I told him, “are you sure that you need them?”

“Yes," he said, "oh, yes . . . . I absolutely do need them.  If I had these blocks then my board wouldn’t be so stiff, and then I could ride the half-pipe.”

Now . . . this seemed like bullshit to me.  But he brought up the half-pipe, and I figured I’d call him on it.  “So,” I said, “this is all you need?  You get these things and then you can get in the cage and ride the pipe?”


Okay.  “I’ll tell you what, Andrew.  I’ll buy this for you right now, but – if I do – I want to see you get in the cage and ride that pipe.  If I buy you these blocks are you willing to do that?”

To his credit, the kid didn’t hesitate:  “Yes” he said.

“Great.  Then let’s do this.”

So I bought the kid his blocks and he broke out this little tool he had, and he started dissembling and then re-assembling his skateboard.  The entire time we were sitting on a small bench inside the store, watching other kids drop into and thrash on the small half-pipe inside the cage.  After a while, I began to notice that Andrew was deliberately delaying his completion of the skateboard assembly.

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” I asked him, “because I can fix that if you want.  I know how to fit together a skateboard.”

“No,” he said, “I’ve got it.”

Eventually, Andrew could not delay matters any longer.  His skateboard was assembled, and he strapped on his helmet and the elbow and knee pads that the skateshop required anyone in the cage to wear.  I watched him from outside the cage as he stood at the top of the half-pipe, obviously terrified, and then plunged forward.

It was horrific.  Andrew didn’t even come close to pulling off the drop.  He did a faceplant and splattered himself on the bottom of the pipe’s plywood floor.  But I called out encouragement, and Andrew pulled himself back up to the top of the drop, and tried it again.

It was even worse than before.  I am pretty sure that the only reason Andrew is alive today is because the skateshop made him wear a helmet.  But – to his credit – he climbed to the top of the drop and tried it a third time.  Also to fail.

By now I had taken pity on the kid, and I called him out of the cage.  “Andrew,” I said, “come on, that’s enough.”  So Andrew left the cage and came out to sit beside me on the bench and slowly pull off his protective gear.  And he was trying really, really hard not to cry.

* * *

And I felt like a dick.

I knew the kid was a poseur, and that had always bothered me.  So what did I do?  I engineered a situation where he would have to confront the fact that he was a fake, and I did it so that he would have to confront the fact in front of his peers but also in front of me.  I had hoped the kid would stand up and pull it off somehow, but I hadn’t counted on the more realistic possibility that he would fail and be embarrassed.  I hadn’t thought this one out very clearly, and now my Little Brother was suffering and it was my fault.

And I remembered, suddenly, all of those times when I was a kid and my Step-Dad would push me into doing something that I knew I wasn’t ready for, and how much of a douchebag I always thought (at the time) he was for doing that.  And how much I was grateful to him, later, when I realized that sometimes you have to be pushed in order to stand up and achieve something.

“Hey, Andrew,” I said, “howzabout you give me your helmet?”

“What are you talking about?”

“C’mon, Man, give me your helmet and your pads.  Give me your skateboard too.  I’m gonna get in the cage and see what I can do on that half-pipe.”


“Yeah, sure.  Why not?”

Well the reason ‘Why not?’ is because I hadn’t been on a skateboard in about 20 years.  So, y’know . . . bad things were about to happen.

But I went for it.  I plunged down the pipe and faceplanted at least as bad as – probably worse than – Andrew had.  I tried it again, at least twice, and both times I just embarrassed myself.  Fourteen year old kids were dropping in and swooping around, and I was taking tumble after tumble.  After a while, I gave up.

(I would have an enormous bruise, running from my hip to my knee, for weeks afterward).

* * *

After I climbed out of the cage and Andrew and I traded our protective gear back in for my Visa Card, we hobbled out of the The Shops at Sunset and made our way, slowly and painfully, back to where I had left the car in the parking garage.  While we moved, slowly and painfully, I felt the need to point something out to Andrew.

“Hey, Andrew,” I said, “d’you see how the two of us are moving?”


“You see how we are both in a lot of pain, and we aren’t moving too quickly?”


“You know why that is?”


“It is because we are men, Andrew.  Which means that we are stupid.  It means that we do dumb, macho things for no good reason.  Usually we do these things because of women, but we will do these things anyway just because we have to live with ourselves. Sometimes, to be the man you want to be, you have to do things you know are going to hurt.  Never let anybody tell you that to be a man is not to be stupid.  You and I – right now – are living proof of the stupidity of men.  Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“Good.  Let us never talk of this again.”

* * *

I was Andrew’s Big Brother for two years, and after I left and moved back to North Carolina I received a letter from Andrew’s mom.  She told me that she liked me very much, and that she thought I had been a good influence on Andrew.

Which is, y’know, nice.  And I would like to think it is true.  And who knows?  Maybe it even is.

But I don’t really think of personal relationships that way.  I think – at most – I had a chance to talk to a kid for little while, a little while, and maybe get him to see things more closely to the way I see them.  And that is about all, I think, anybody can ask for.  Meet somebody, and hope to communicate with them.

And of the two years I spent being Andrew’s Big Brother?  That moment, when we were limping back to my car, after the two of us had humiliated ourselves on the half-pipe and I was explaining to Andrew that this is mostly what being a man is about . . .  that moment was when I thought I really had connected with him.

I don’t know if he even remembers it, or if he thinks of me at all, but the idea that “to be a man” means going through on your promises to yourself, even if it hurts . . . . if he took nothing else away from our time, I hope he remembers that.

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