I Don’t Know’s on Third…

First baseball game of the season. Machine pitch for the 9-year-old boys means a high scoring, high action game. Bottom of the 5th. Catcher is setting into place. First batter taking practice swings. My son’s team is in the field, facing the plate, knees bent, still and ready. My son is at third base. And he is dancing.

He’s not literally moving rhythmically to music in his head. He is practicing. Mimicking what he will do when the batter grounds to third. He will catch the ball and throw to first. But he is not putting his glove in the dirt and then pretending to throw to first. He is darting his glove straight out in front of him and then whipping a straight side-arm motion with his other arm. So it looks like ‘glove out ‘stop!’ gesture, hop, other arm swing around with a sideways hip twist.’ Once and again, once and again. As if in rhythm.

He may not be the best player on the team, and by a lot. But I do not care. Really I don’t. Picture the most obnoxious and demanding dad yelling at his son to crush his enemies, and I am the polar opposite of that. I want him to have fun, to be a good sport. All I ask of him is that he tries – that he shows the other boys, the coach, that he’s doing his best. He is a nice boy. A gentle boy. And to be his father is pleasure in its purest form. He does not insult the other team. He does not make excrement jokes in the dugout. He sometimes even tries to chat with opposing players when on base.

At this moment, I know he’s nervous. He is terrified of the ball in general, and he loves to play right field because he sees almost no action there. But the rules say that each boy must play at least one inning in the infield. And so here he is in the 5th at third base. His practice tells me he is nervous. But he wants to show the other boys that he is ready. That this is what he will do with speed and fury when called upon to do so. He wants to show he’s got the moves down. And so he is dancing.

The inning begins. He plays toward shortstop, as coached. He runs to his base and turns with his glove out to catch a throw, every play, whether a runner is on second or not. For, that is the third baseman’s job. Then, there is a force play at third. I speak up from the dugout, “Marco! Force play at third! Marco!” He notices me. “Force play at third!” He nods with surety. As if he knows what I mean. I so very much hope he knows what I mean. The coach yells “Marco, if you get the ball, step on third base!” He nods again. I am not reassured.

Then a solid hit to third. Ground ball, one bounce, coming at him hard. I know he will raise his glove, side-step, and leave the retrieval to the fielder. And he does not catch the ball, but he uses the back of his glove to knock the ball to the ground. And it works. He has stopped the ball. Parents cheer. The coach yells ‘good job, Marco! You kept a single from becoming a double!” My son nods again. As if he knows. He did not catch the ball. He did not step on third. But he acted. He tried. And I could not be more proud.

Next inning, bottom of the 6th, he is happily back in right field, behind first base. I look over toward him and realize I must position myself where he can hear me without having to yell so loudly that everyone notices, because he is standing out there, his glove on his head like a hat, karate punching the air.


Tree house

My son’s tree house is in reality a large play set with an extra few steps up to a higher platform, with safety rails and a tarped roof. It is huge and awesome and cost the price of a crappy used car. And because of our down-sloping back yard, I had to build a level retaining wall out of a couple dozen railroad ties, a few tons of gravel, a month of spine bending weekends, and the cost of a crappier used car.

We positioned the play set within a tuft of trees, and the desired ‘tree house’ effect was achieved. And it has the added awesomeness of a 14-foot slide off the downhill slope, right off the retaining wall, that sends my son and his friends rocketing into the neighbor’s yard at a speed that gives me palpitations to witness.

Sitting up on the top level of the tree house is an idyllic experience that begs for make-believe play of every sort, from Army Sniper picking off enemy forces at will, to Dinosaur Hunters picking off massive monsters at will, to Swiss Family Robinson Tree Home Army Sniper picking off enemy forces at will. For, however innocently the fun begins, violence and death are where the fun inevitably arrives.

And so it was on one particular occasion. My son and I, sitting at the child-sized plastic table on the high level of the tree house, enjoying an afternoon as wilderness explorers, when he climbs down to the lawn and runs inside to pick up a few toy rifles so the games can begin in earnest.

A minute passes. Two. Five. My neighbor, let’s call him ‘Bob’ because his name is in fact Bob, happens by, mowing his impeccable lawn – his lawn that makes our living room carpet look unkempt, which it totally is. He passes a few times. We give each other the cursory ‘I couldn’t hear you anyway’ wave over the scream of the mower. Then he shuts the mower off to fiddle with what must be a sprinkler head.

We begin a quiet conversation. Nice weather. Those sprinkler heads can be fussy. We sure could use a bit of rain. He is a grown man tending to his lawn. I am a grown man sitting on a small plastic chair in a tree house. By myself. Bob arrived on the scene only after my son had gone inside to fetch his requisite arsenal, now fifteen minutes ago, and as far as Bob knows, I have been enjoying a quiet afternoon up there all alone. I’ve got a nice warm coat on. I’ve got snacks. I’ve got a compass that points north if I turn it that way, and plastic binoculars that, when I look through them, I see only what I think might be peanut butter.

Bob wraps up his sprinkler fussings, stands to pull his mower again to life, and before he rips the cord, he says “have fun.” I close my eyes and nod. Yup. I built the damn wall. I paid for the damn fort. Why couldn’t I just enjoy some nice alone time out there by myself, with my snacks and nice warm coat, whiling away the afternoon within my own quiet imaginings?

Finally, I squeeze out from under the safety rail and step down the ladder. The slide is much faster but would rocket me straight into a body cast. I reach the ground and mosey inside, as if my dignity is very much intact. My son is watching TV, some toy guns on his lap.

“I thought you were coming back outside.”

“I got hungry”

“We had snacks out there.”

(No reply)

“How about a heads-up next time, okay, buddy?”

“Okay, Dad.”


Stupid Plus Unwelcome Equals Me

While helping my 3rd grade son with his homework, I have learned some very basic dos and don’ts that I would like to share, which may help you to keep from losing your temper in five seconds. But they likely will not help, as they have all only failed me so far.

First, do not let him eat a snack, or his pencil, when he’s supposed to be thinking. Food is a distraction, and their stains on his paper have got to make you look bad in the eyes of his teacher. And a pencil is, simply put, not food. Not even the eraser part. I did once witness my brother’s huge dog poop out a large portion of a red Nerf football, which I would liken to a horrifying neon cherry ice cream. I apologize for the image, but my point is that I am fairly certain a tiny bit of eraser would not do my son any real harm. Especially after living through his baby years with all the bits of bright and happy crayon colors we would occasionally find in his diaper. But hopefully, with my son, I will not have to resort to actual chew toys as redirection.

Also, you will quickly learn to distinguish between his ‘I’m thinking’ face and his ‘I’m pretending to be thinking’ face, which he will use as a way to stall, to finish up a daydream, or to just try to get that pencil back in his mouth. The biggest hint that he is pretending to be thinking is his actual voicing of “umm,” when it sounds staged, as if ‘this is the noise a person makes whilst thinking, and so I, therefore, must no doubt, at this moment, be thinking,’ while tapping the pencil eraser part against his cheek, stepping ever closer, back toward his mouth.

Also, do not allow stuffed animals at the table. They will arrive under the guise of friends who offer moral support, a cheering squad for his efforts, but they are really only there to act as puppets that he will animate to voice his own criticism of your work ethic and methodology.

Next, be emotionally prepared for him to use his teacher against you, immediately and constantly. “She does it this way.” “She said we didn’t have to do that.” My son is a good boy and he is only trying to make his life easier, which I can understand and appreciate, but he is full of crap and lying straight to my face. Performing basic math and spelling homework with parents is how children learn to debate. And lie and cheat. And probably steal.

Most importantly, keep in mind that his academic level is at a point where you are still likely able to help him with minimal preparation on your part. And if not, it’s still possible to fake it at this stage, and pretend to know an answer before you have actually figured it out in your head. Just stall. “Do you know the answer? Can you figure it out? Think for a minute. Get the pencil away from your face, please.” This should buy you the time you need to arrive at the answer. Unless you are my wife. She is a brilliant business strategist, but putting a two-digit number over another two-digit number and combining or separating them to produce a solution requires either the part of the Rosetta Stone that is still missing, or Dad. And Dad is not, as yet, missing.

And when my son does reach the academic level at which I cannot help him without studying ahead of time myself, I will without a doubt fail with catastrophic totality. And thus will begin the ‘Dad is stupid’ phase of my life, which should only last until I am dead.

Even with these early challenges, I still have grand designs for helping him with his homework in the future, as his studies advance. I fully hope to obtain copies of his text books, communicate with his various teachers, read ahead, and ready myself for any and all intellectual challenges posed by, say, 4th grade. And I have already received some crystal clear signals from his teachers that they would be happy to hear from me, but maybe not more than once, maybe twice. Better, though, to be a teacher’s bane than my son’s idiot father, though I will no doubt become both. When his teacher replies to a simple ‘how should he show his work?’ e-mail with phrases like ‘reform mathematical pedagogy,’ I know I’m fast approaching ‘stupid and unwelcome,’ and accelerating at a rate which I will never be able to compute.


My Seven-Year-Old Son And Me, Building Our First Birdhouse Together

A Project I’d been Dreaming Of Since I Found Out I Was Having A Boy

(Basement workroom, work bench, basic tools)

“Okay, my boy. Here we go. I know you’ve been waiting a long time to do this, and you’re finally a big enough boy to use a hammer. But be very careful, and don’t do anything unless I say so first, Okay?”

(I point to his drawing of a birdhouse, our ‘blueprint,’ all crayon, ridiculous, not a single right angle, and hovering unattached in the sky. The scene is complete with a bird family, a cloud, and a sun so huge it would roast the Earth at that distance. His scale would make the birdhouse about the size of a small school.)

“Let’s start with the walls. We can see if we have some wood that would be the right dimensions for us to use.”

(I had spent a few hours over the previous days cutting wood to the proper sizes, so that we would have minimal cutting before assembly. We would make a few short, easy cuts, mostly for show, and then we would hammer the living crap out of the wood, and hopefully have enough uncrushed material left over to actually house a bird.)

“Okay, look over the wood pile and… where are you? Where did you go?”

(He is nowhere in sight and does not answer.)

“Marco?” (His actual name, not the ‘where are you’ game.)


(He has found a box of toys he has outgrown, but now finds himself re-enamored and unable to part with them.)

“We can talk about maybe not giving these away later. We have to do our building today, so let’s please get back to work. We have to work and focus if we want to do the job right. So come on back. Come on. Let’s go, buddy.”

(Back at the woodpile, with the precut pieces all stacked neatly on top.)

“Do you see any that are about one foot square? No? Are you sure? Look again. Right on top there. Use your ruler. That one on top looks to be about right. Just hand me those top few pieces. I’m pretty sure they’ll work. Just hand them to me please. Just… I’ll help you.”

“Well, I do think they’ll work just fine. Can you measure them? Just hold the ruler. Just hold… just… the ruler. Where’s the ruler?”

(Two minutes of looking for the ruler, no luck. Then a snack, a pee (him), and some action figures, and we’re back at it in about a half-hour.)

“Okay. Let’s get these boards together and get this done. Hold this piece. Just hold it still. Just… no, it’s not an airplane. Yes, if you hold it sideways and wag it around it can be kind of like an airplane, but right now we need it to be a birdhouse wall. Just hand it to me.”

“Those are dowels. Yes, they look very much like swords. We’re not sword fighting right now. We can sword fight with your foam swords when we’re done here. Don’t… just for a minute. I’ll get started.”

“No, I’m not going to sword fight with you yet, so please stop poking me. I’m using tools. They’re pretty cool tools if you want to… ”

“Yes, just go ahead and sword fight in the other room.”

(20 minutes later. He’s started a DVD upstairs.)

“Do want to help? Marco? Come on back down, buddy.”

“Yes, that’s good singing. I like that song. You sure sing it a whole lot.”

(20 more minutes later, one finished birdhouse, very basic, box design, no entrance hole.)

“Where are you, Buddy?! Come look at our birdhouse!”

(He comes down the stairs)

“Good job, buddy. Go show Mommy what you did.”

“No, we’re not going to paint it today. I think you’ll be painting it with your mother.”


Sons Basketball Game

My son’s basketball coach was sick for practice last night, so I had to assist another dad in running it. The other dad has a clue about basketball, so that was good. I wrestled and played rugby, so if I can’t hit it, I don’t know what to do with it. And having never, ever played basketball outside of a driveway, where all I can do is pass, pick and foul, I am bad. So very bad. Alarmingly, slapstickly, child endangeringly bad. Luckily, no children were harmed in the making of that practice.

If you are terrible at a particular sport or activity, I highly recommend that you still participate if you have time while your kid is young enough to not notice how badly you suck at it. It’s time together, you can help the kid practice at home, and decide if you want to reveal that you’re learning right along with him or her. Also, at practice, your active presence can cushion your kid from any other jerk or bully kids. No matter how pathetic you may be as a man, you are tougher than most 9-year olds, I promise you. And even at just 5-foot 9, I actually look pretty awesome with the rim lowered to 8 feet.

And don’t worry about the fact that the other dads and moms who are watching are openly laughing at you for being so terrible. The moms think you’re adorable and the dads are just glad they’re not as bad as you. And if you’re kid is 9, then you long ago lost any pride or coolness you may have once ever had.


All’s Quiet On The Midwestern Front

My son does not know how to not make noise. Mostly through talking, but also through singing and sound effects such as gunfire, explosions and the screams of villains and heroes alike. All on top of the background noise of stomping, toys equipped with sound effects and crashing furniture. All the various childhood activity clamor.

An advantage of this ‘condition,’ is that he is always easy to find, even when he is hiding. “Can you find me? Can you find me?” Yes, even though I thought the ‘go hide and I’ll come find you’ trick might buy me 45 seconds of quiet. Also, he cannot help but reveal every detail of every event in his life, real or imagined, so his mother and I get the benefit of his brutal honesty about everything, always, from whether or not he received a behavior warning at school that day, usually for talking, to what he thought could be improved in the lunch his mother provided for him that day. That last advantage is really more of a start of the downslide toward the long list of drawbacks.

The drawbacks are myriad and sweeping, and range from not being able to have a conversation with someone who is not him, to not being able to hear the television. That TV one makes me a bad father, I realize (“Please stop trying to emotionally connect with me, I’m trying to watch a fake family try to fake emotionally connect.”). The simplest drawback is one we don’t always remember until he has fallen asleep – that we have forgotten what quiet sounds like. Sweet, precious, golden quiet.

At school conferences, his teachers call him ‘social,’ with a tone that deepens with each rising grade level. His mom and I sheepishly agree, and promise to help him curb his need for constant interaction, knowing full well we have no idea how to do this, and have not ever succeeded to even dent his noise-making armor.

Even right now, as I type this, he is acting out a fight between two plastic dinosaur toys just inches from my keyboard. “Daddy look, Daddy look, grrrraaarrr!” “Yes, I see. Yes, I see. Yes, there it is right in front of my face, I see it, right effing there, biting holes in my train of thought.”

What was I typing? Oh yeah. Part of the problem, maybe all of it, is that our efforts to quiet him are too subtle. His endless social engagement and imagination come from a place of happiness – an exuberance with his life, a sense of identity. And we as his parents cherish this for him, and cannot bring ourselves to squelch it. Like all young children, he does not ask, ‘who am I, why am I here?’ – a question that will no doubt creep up soon enough, as his perspective widens with maturity. And there’s no need to rush that existential cross we each eventually build for ourselves to carry. After experiencing some of the more serious downsides of being a grown-up, as we all have and will, I have come to believe that among the many responsibilities of parenthood is the effort to provide your child with as carefree and happy a childhood as possible.

We realize fully that being an only child and our sole focus for his entire life has taught him that he is the center of the universe. And so, when people are treating him as though he is not the center of said universe, he seems to feel the need to remind everyone within earshot that they are wrong, that we all orbit around him, and so all attention gravity must pull back toward him for the moon and tides and all to remain in balance.

But his talkative nature has been the case since day one, it seems, rather than learned via our undivided attention. Before he could talk he would vocalize almost constantly. And when he first began to piece words together, he would talk until his throat was sore. He would talk until he fell asleep mid-statement, and had at times, quite literally, woken up and finished that statement.

And still now, while in the shower: “Daddy, what’s a baselisk?” (From Harry Potter?) While using the bathroom (him, or me): “Daddy, do you know the difference between a pterodactyl and a pteranodon?” (Because he wants to know? Or because he wants to demonstrate that he knows and I don’t?). He is also the very worst ninja of all time; stealth being surely the most basic of skills for even the most novice of ninjas. “I’m sneaking up on you. You don’t see me.” Pretty sure that’s not how that works.

And, anytime we are driving anywhere, even the 90 seconds it takes to drive to school. “Daddy, do you want to play Fighter Pilots? Police Patrol? Coast Guard Rescue Ship? Tank Battle?” Sometimes Daddy just wants to drive. I’ve even said, “let’s pretend we’re a father and son driving somewhere and we’re very late so the dad has to concentrate on driving.” “Okay, daddy. The daddy is speeding. That’s dangerous and against the law. The mommy would be mad.” I know Mommy will hear about the speeding at dinner later, but she will smile, knowing her driving has always been speedier. For now, as long as we are pretending, and he can narrate what is happening, he is content.

So, fine. Talk, son. Talk and talk and talk. We’ve all heard a parent say “he’s going to be an architect” while watching their son build some simplistic and precarious block mound. Or, “she’s going into fashion” because she’s wearing a tutu and cowgirl vest at the grocery store.

What will our son be? The sole anchor of a 24-hour news channel? The next great actor to don the famous screaming Godzilla suit? A professional diversion while others sneak quietly elsewhere? Sure, there’s ‘radio announcer’ or ‘politician,’ but he has given me more fantastical hopes, and louder expectations.


The Tummy Ache

Tummy Ache Revisited As I should have expected – in fact should have inked into my calendar ahead of time, my wife and I both contracted the stomach bug brought into our home by our unwitting son. He just bounced into the house, all smiles, meaningless news from school, and bacteria. We all know that a child’s body is a traveling carnival of maladies. And a school is the United Way of infection. They air drop it in to our tiny peaceful villages and we run to it, cheering. And 48 hours after his endless rivers of puke, flowed our own, his mom and me.

For us both, it began at 2 a.m., and lasted all night, just as I had lamented it did with our boy. And the next day, we moaned and complained and shoved our misery outward in every direction, just as I complained he had done. Two days earlier I was rubbing my son’s back and telling him it would be okay. It would pass. There was nothing to worry about. His problem was little. It was solvable – one of the great triumphs of parenting a young child is that virtually all of his problems are solvable.

But now I was swimming in the misery which I had all but dismissed in him so recently. And it was real, and terrible. Of course I knew it would pass, it would be okay. My concerns were not long-term. But I was still feeling my guts rung out like dirty dishtowel. And intense illness can become its own sweat lodge of alpha state thinking. The experience did bring to light for me a simple and what should already have been obvious truth – that my son’s problems, no matter how small or incidental they may be, are real. Real to him, and so, real. For what is reality but that which we think it is?

But less esoteric than this thought of reality was the experience itself. The discomfort was extreme, the exhaustion absolute. I have a longer gaze than my son, and so I can see ahead to 3 days from now. This bacteria which my body must eject so violently would be gone in 24 hours or so. I know this, so my calm doesn’t slip like my son’s does. But even aside from the science of it, in my son’s mind, now equals forever, so being told that his misery will pass tomorrow is like telling him he should start saving toward a secure retirement. That’s fine but it’s a ways off. But this big-picture thinking I have earned with years did get me thinking about my perception of other aspects of my son’s life.

He often climbs in the car after school and announces with total certainty that he had just experienced his worst day ever. Now, a child’s words and thoughts are generally hyperbolic, so these statements tend to roll off. Of course I care. Of course I want to know, to sooth, to solve. And his hyperbole has as much to do with his limited communication skills as it does with his limited perspective. That’s why kids live moment to moment. They don’t know how to think long-term because they have not experienced what long-term is.

Some stupid kid with some stupid older brother who knows everything said something stupid and it has upset my son because he doesn’t realize it’s stupid. That’s five ‘stupids’ in one sentence to describe the unfortunate hypothetical 5th grader whose argument I write so that it will fail in the face of mine. The truth is I don’t give a rip what some idiot 5th grader thinks about the rules of kickball or the color of backpacks. But Idiot 5th Grader has given me a gift. He has opened a door to a conversation, an opportunity for my son to question and for me to answer. Thank you, Idiot 5th Grader. Now stop telling my son he’s wearing the wrong color of sneakers or I will find you and destroy you.

And no, my perspective was not suddenly lost in the last few sentences. I’m sure Idiot 5th Grader has his fine qualities. I’m sure he participates in all mandatory school charity work. I’m sure my son will in 2 year be Idiot 5th Grader. I realize all too well that I was once Idiot 5th Grader, and in some ways, still am. Therefore I do not judge him except in the most obvious ways that he clearly deserves.

There’s nothing like a little bit of time on this earth to earn you some perspective. Time, a low-grade fever and a nice little bout of gut-twisting puke.

Why does the tummy ache always come on at 2 a.m.? And always last all night long? It’s a normal part of parenting to lose a bit of sleep sometimes, and to ignore your own nauseating fatigue, and do no more than purse your lips over endless rivers of puke. His mom was just back from business travel and wiped out, so cleaning last night’s mac and cheese out of the carpet was on me this go-round. Super-happy-fun-time-night.

And now, mid-morning, I’m home, and not voicing how bored and miserable I am, too. He’s complaining enough for 8 or so of us. But, I’m also keeping quiet about the fact that watching Muppet Treasure Island at 10 a.m. on a weekday is a little bit awesome. Those guys still crack me up. And Tim Curry seems to be actually enjoying himself.

I’ve gotta feel bad for the little guy. I mean, we’ve all been there. And every parent has that tiny nag in the back of our head that won’t shut up about maybe things are getting worse instead of better – a tough diagnosis in these first stages, especially for a worried parent who knows as much about medicine as the 9-year-old patient. “Is it a hard, pointy, ‘ouch’ feeling? Or is it a soft, yucky, ‘bletch’ feeling?”

And amid the continued heaving, we’re deep into negotiations about when the next sip of ginger ale is allowed. 15 minutes after the last chuck, and just a sip or two at most. Okay, 12 minutes, and just a third sip. Applesauce soon, but please stop begging for milk. That’ll end up so gross and horrible, you can’t even imagine.


Find Your Meatballs

A friend recently asked me about how she could bond with her new step-son, who is a preteen with a new step-mom, and so the answer is: it’s impossible so don’t even try. But having made her sit through so many of my coma inducing stories about my kid over the years, she had earned the right to ask how she, too, might make her own stories boring enough to fade the color of the wall paint as she told them.

And so after my internal reaction of “don’t bother,” my answer was “find your meatballs.” She of course thought I was being a wise-ass, which of course I was, but knowing that she was sincerely reaching out, I was being a wise-ass in delivery only and genuine in meaning.

My son and I sometimes make meatballs together. I’m second generation Italian American. Think “The Sopranos,” if they were middle-class and obeyed the law. Actually, think of every Italian American caricature from the Sopranos who wasn’t in the mob. That would be about right.

So, meals, cooking, food in general were a massive percentage of my childhood experience. Grandparents next door, aunts and uncles up the street, cousins everywhere. Mom and aunts in the kitchen all afternoon, their nonstop chatter over the white noise hiss of breaded groceries frying in olive oil. You get the idea.

I live far away now. No cousins down the street for my son, no grandparents next door. I try to give him some sense of this family experience by cooking together whenever we can, which is pretty often. He’s young enough to still want to hang out with his dad, and I do almost all the cooking in my house.

Many years ago, when my wife, then girlfriend, and I moved in together, she asked me if I wanted my pasta ‘al dente,’ or ‘cooked.’ I told her to get out of the kitchen and to never cook for me again as long as she lived. She immediately agreed, and we have been generally happy kitchen-wise ever since. Here I need to say that she’s got a few good meals down, because she does, and because I would like to avoid getting throat punched in my sleep.

Making meatballs with my son is a long process with many steps and it requires him to concentrate, to do as he is told (whilst handling raw meat and such), and to have a thing to do with his dad that he likes. And the pay-off is meatballs, the awesomeness of which should go without saying. And I will risk bragging by saying that our meatballs are better than most (yours). Let me know if you want the recipe. And they are one of the very few high calorie non-crap foods he will eat, which a lot of parents know is a victory of ‘Impossible Dream’ proportions.

We don our aprons, lay out our supplies and ingredients, and we become a professional level duo of meatballers, a Guinea Batman and (half-Guinea) Robin that I’d put up against any surgical staff or Olympic bob sled team for seamless work process.

And thus we make meatballs. Lots of meatballs. At least 50 at a time. They freeze great, and they are the go-to conversation starter at every dinner which features them (“This was a good batch. Not too heavy on the breadcrumbs. Nice browning,” etc.).

My friend told me that her step-son doesn’t like to cook, but that doesn’t matter. My son and I have meatballs. She needed to find whatever they could do together that would hold his attention. It would be even better if on the surface the activity has nothing to do with her – her participation incidental, but her presence necessary.

Some time later, she told me she had actually started making meatballs more often. He enjoys them, which increases the likelihood of a pleasant family dinner experience, and she schedules those dinners on the nights when it’s his turn to clean the kitchen. She stays to help him move things along, which gives them as much as an entire hour in the same room together.

Maybe they talk, maybe they don’t. Maybe they solve a problem, maybe they load the washer and go their separate ways. But he’s doing something, and there she is. He feels her presence in his life. Not pressing to finish homework, or to get off the computer already. No explosive arguments where the kid discovers new ways to be insulting and disrespectful. She’s just there. And during those early teen years, that’s often what a kid needs, and maybe the best a parent can hope for.

I’m sure my kid won’t want to make meatballs with me in a few short years, and I’ll have to just be present and bite my tongue, which won’t happen and we’ll have those explosive fights I just advised my friend on how to avoid. But maybe I can at least threaten my son with meatball deprivation. I’m sure it won’t have the desired effect, but maybe it’ll give me something to write about in a few years. Even when kids are good for nothing, they’re always good for that.