Friday, March 5, 2010

Metaphorically Speaking

Fifteen, I was. Maybe sixteen. My parents had decided we would get dinner at a pizza joint by Georgetown University, which is walking distance from my childhood home. They loved the Ivy League atmosphere and have always enjoyed people-watching. Of course, I thought basking in the campus vibe for entertainment purposes was dorky as hell. Like most teenagers, I was largely preoccupied with myself – I don't even remember whether my younger sister was with us – and the prospect of sitting at a table with my mother and father at a pizza and beer hole where the average customer was just a few years older than me was absolutely mortifying. So when my parents gave me a quarter for the jukebox, thereby enabling me to get physically away from them for five minutes and fantasize that we did not know each other, I took a long time making my selection. Finally, I punched in the number for I Am a Rock by Simon and Garfunkle. The lyrics symbolized my distance from those embarrassing primogenitors. I returned to our table, grimly chewing my pizza as I sang along in my head, "I am a rock, I am an island..."

As I get older, I find myself increasingly thinking in images. Perhaps it's the brain's way of compensating for the maddening verbal memory glitches we experience in middle age - those pesky attacks of what's it called and what's his name and what the hell's my phone number. I have long since outgrown that Simon and Garfunkle tune and I'd wager Paul Simon hasn't sung it in years. It was already a little adolescent for him when he first performed it. But that tired rock metaphor has a whole different meaning to me now. I no longer see being a rock as a desirable condition. Hard headed toughness doesn't protect you: it shuts you off, limits you, keeps you from growing. Life brings change, and you need the flexibility to adapt. Which is why it deeply pains me to conclude that my son is a rock.

My-son-the-rock is especially challenging for me as a parent, because I am a fountain. Of information. Criticism. Stories. Humor. Nagging. Commentary. Guilt. Affirmation. Advice. Sarcasm. Praise. Blame. Encouragement. I runneth continuously over. I see every experience as a treasure trove of teachable moments. This was the ideal parenting style for my daughter, because she is a sponge, ready to soak up everything you throw at her. Water me, pour it on, tell me something new. I've been describing and explaining the world to her since she first learned how to talk. Now that my daughter is a well-educated and inquisitive adult, I often learn from her. And getting information from a sponge is not hard: all it takes is a little squeeze.The rock, meanwhile, remains immobile, impassive, impervious to the water flowing over him. Who knows? Perhaps in a hundred thousand years, he'll display some hint of erosion.

The problem with trying to raise both of your kids exactly the same way is that they are not the same person. Worse, by the time you realize what worked so well with the first one is tanking with number two, you're dealing with a surly, unmotivated, oppositional and unhappy teenager. The rock called for a different parenting technique, if not different parents. Teaching him to respect authority, whether ours or his teachers', is next to impossible. Explaining the value of education and hard work to him is about as effective as talking to a slab of granite. Convincing him to open up is like squeezing blood from, well... a stone. "For a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries." And if anyone ever manages to get through to that boy, or he matures enough to understand what he's done to his life, I fear he just might shatter.