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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bad Boy

This Saturday we returned from Sea Isle, the Jersey beach town where we vacation each year with Karen's family. We stayed on 48th Street, steps away from the boardwalk, which stretches north to south from 57th street to 29th street, a span I ran, up and back, a mile and a half each way, every other day.

On our final morning in town, a hot Friday, I walked with Owen and Ella and their cousin Katherine to the Island Breeze Casino, on 37th Street, where the kids spent quarter after quarter on the claw machines and various other games with impossible-to-master directives, which all issued strips of five, ten, or possibly twenty tickets as a sort of consolation for defeat.

This pittance of tickets, of course, could later be traded for the mementos one expects from these places: Whoopie cushions, plastic green army men, or the Pinky Hi-Bounce Balls I remember from my childhood vacations in Stone Harbor, when my brother and I tossed the balls back in forth in the water, crashing ourselves into the waves, making the easiest of catches seem impossible.

We got all of these mementos and more, for we won, incredibly, thousands of tickets.

On a whim, to assuage my growing impatience, I put a quarter in Owen's favored game: a truck game, whose purpose was to shoot a quarter down a slot into one of three truck's trailers, each overflowing with quarters. If you hit the trailer, you won some tickets. I aimed at the trailer, but I hit a lever which forced one of the trucks to dump its load.

The game issued an alarm. Lights flashed. Owen looked at me, confused.

"Uh oh," I said, smiling. 

When the tickets came, a seemingly endless train, Katherine and Ella came running from a nearby game. We stood watching, laughing, gathering the tickets in our hands.

Owen jumped in place, excited, his fists balled at his sides, but I sensed his confusion, even alarm, when I said, "When will it end?"

He looked at me, then, and I realized he was worried.

Had we done something bad? Had we broke the machine?

At least since he could speak, Owen has expressed a fascination with the distinction between good and bad. When playing any sort of imaginary game, he assumes the part of the bad guy. Darth Vader. Ultron. Sinestro. He relishes the war, the mayhem and destruction--I've taught him to associate all of this with "bad guys."

Yet I recall more than a few seminal moments from his early youth, when I shouted, in frustration, "bad boy."

And now, I think, he has internalized those accusations and my attendant anger, for he clearly wants to be a good boy. He often feels compelled to say, "Daddy, I'm good." And he often asks me, "Daddy, am I being good?"

So it was at the arcade. I could see Owen trying to interpret my mood, placing himself in a holding pattern until he knew, for sure, my emotional state. Had something bad happened? Was I angry?

I realized, then, that he'd been doing this for some time, looking at me at opportune moments, and that I had likely clouded many moments for him, for I am so often a melancholy, rueful person, and I can not help but reveal my emotions.


This moment at the arcade returned to me on Saturday night, our first night home, when I sat with Owen on the couch watching his"videos" about the heroes and villains of America's superhero culture, all enacted with the little Imaginext and Play Skool figurines he collects. Marvel. Star Wars. D.C. Comics. This video happened to be about Batman and Mr. Freeze.

I have been a vocal opponent of these videos. "They make you crazy," I have told Owen. I usually forbid him to watch them, but vacation with his doting extended family had normalized the devices, for the time being, and now Owen was experiencing an unprecedented moment: He was welcoming his father into his own world. 

As we watched, he continued to glance at me, searching my eyes, gauging my reaction moment-by-moment. The sincerity of his probing expression. The hope he seemed to hold, which battled his fear, which I guessed to be of my disapproval, or worse, my outright dismissal.

It was almost too much to bear: this awesome responsibility I had assumed, and largely ignored, as the father of a son, to allay his fears--and not to be his fear.

"Look," I said to him, finally, my eyes widening. "That's so cool."

"So cool," he said, burrowing his body close to mine.