As one ages, there come seminal moments of revelation and discovery: I'm old(er). I'm slow(er). I'm square(r). And — horror of horrors: I am my dad. Er!
Sometimes I hardly recognize my own voice when I lay out the classic, fail-safe platitudes and diatribes on my kids: "You're gonna poke somebody's eye out!" Or: "Sure, it's funny until somebody gets hurt!"
Reckoning with middle age is a hard row; I would argue it's every bit as confusing as adolescence — if not more so. Often I wonder: Who is this man in my body?
For instance, I have discovered something downright mystifying in my development; something I have never heard of before, never even knew was possible, something more terrible than turning into your own dad ...
I have become other kids' dads.
This phenomenon has manifested itself through an experience my youngest son and I are going through for the first time together.
He is playing tackle football. And I? I am that guy I promised myself long ago I would never be: I'm the loudmouth moron on the sideline, the yelling, taunting, pestering, thoroughly annoying sports dad, relentlessly spewing forth all my collected wisdom and experience like an uncapped gas pipeline.
Gas — the perfect metaphor.
In short: I drive my kid crazy.
In truth: I am a pain in the ass. And for this, I blame the Carrollton Boosters.
When I coached a Carrollton Boosters baseball team — a million years ago, before I even had kids — I used to joke with my buddies that the social dynamic at work at that playground made for a unique challenge: coaching the underachieving children of overachieving parents.
Of course, now I'm the butt of the joke instead of the teller. Yeah, I'm that guy, the one who exhorts the son to work harder, run faster, hit harder, jump higher, when all he really wants to do is play. You now, just ... play! Because it's fun and, win or lose — Coach still buys everybody a soda.
But we dads (or is it just me?) hang our own unfulfilled dreams on our sons. His every triumph is my triumph, his every missed tackle is a summation of my own personal failings, his every error a reflection of my own sorry-ass life.
And Good Lord, if the child fumbles! I don't know if I have the strength.
You'll find this hard to believe, but I've been told that sometimes I overthink it.
When I go to the games these glorious evenings, I am seduced — calmed, even — by the smell of the freshly mowed field. My life is fulfilled by dampening a towel and wiping away the dirt, grass and toxic field chalk that has been ground into my kid's knees and elbows (and random open wounds) and even the sweat: Football sweat smells different from the others. It smells ... American.
Autumn in America, Uptown New Orleans, life at its richest, if for no other reason than it's all we've got — and we stand and watch our sons with overflowing wells of pride, nostalgia, regret, love, love, love.
The notion of fathers and sons can be overwhelming to the chronic sentimentalist. Me, I cry during really good Hallmark ads. You throw me into the grand, mythic tableau of Friday Night Lights and someone says "Hike!" and someone else gets the ball and 22 kids crash into each other and they all fall down.
A thing of beauty.
Maybe someone scores. Maybe not. Coach tells 'em anyway, "Great game, kids," and springs for a soda for each, and the kids stand around getting Cherry Coke mustaches, telling each other how great they performed.
We dads stand nearby, arms folded, masters of the universe. Been there, done that. We tell them how great they are. Turns out that's the only reason we need to show up. All that yelling? It's just, well ... noise.
And then it's over, and then you walk away slow and load up the family vehicle and it's dark now and you drive home in contented silence, everyone lost in their own personal reverie and triumph, and the dads — well, we forget whatever it as we thought was so dang important when we were telling our kids to run faster, jump higher.
Really, who the hell cares?
The player — the son — he relives every moment of it in his head and his own playback reel shows Walter Payton and Drew Brees and Lawrence Taylor and other Hall of Famers; this is what he sees in himself, in his reflection in the window. Greatness!
Out of nowhere, you say, "Good game, dude. Great game."
The player looks out the window. The siblings are exhausted from having spent the past two hours chasing each other around the bleachers gassed up on Skittles from the concession stand, and in the rear view mirror you see it all.
All of them: angels with dirty faces, sleepy faces, turning onto Carrollton Avenue to head home to the mundane stuff like homework and dinner and baths — because you left you, the best of yourself, and your past — back on the field, back there at the playground, another day done, another game played, another night in the life of a Carrollton Booster.
Yeah. That guy.
Not so bad once you get to know him.