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CHRIS ERSKINE

Dad Clings to the Waning Days of His Son's Wonder Years

March 25, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

So we're watching Michael Crawford sing a nice ballad on PBS, the only place anybody sings nice ballads anymore. And he seems to be doing a pretty good job of it.

"He's weird," says the little red-haired girl next to me. "Really weird."

"He's a crooner," I tell her, as he sings something from "Phantom of the Opera." "Listen a minute. The man can really croon."

I tell her that the world used to be full of crooners. Every time you turned on the TV, some middle-aged man in a blazer would be singing like a sparrow, a dreamy look in his eye.

"And now, there are almost no crooners left," I tell her.

"He's still weird, Dad," the little girl says.

As we sit there, I hear a thump from the boy's room. It's a pretty decent thump, the kind of thump you notice.

"Ow," the boy says.

"You all right?" I call.

There is a slight pause.

"Yeah," the boy says. "I just fell out of bed."

He says this cheerfully, as if people fall out of bed all the time. As if it were kind of fun to be sitting there reading, then roll right out of bed like an airplane.

"You going to do it again?" I ask.

"Maybe," he says.

To him, falling out of bed is one of the things young boys do on a whim, one of the privileges of youth. And youth is quickly leaving him behind.

"He's got to grow up sometime," his mother said last week.

"When?" I asked.

"The sooner the better," she said.

And I went ahead and scheduled it.

"BOY GROWS UP," I wrote on the calendar in big block letters.

So now, without much notice and with very little fanfare, the kid is set to leave boyhood behind and begin the grueling climb toward manhood, toward the land of middle-aged crooners and Jerry Springer haircuts. A land he loathes.

"Sorry. I promised your mother," I explain.

"It's all right, Dad," he lies. "I understand."

It has been a good boyhood, full of ballgames and slumber parties, processed food and backyard camp-outs. There have been a lot of great moments, like the time he taught the dog to belch. Or the time he took a three-hour bath, getting out only to take a phone call, then climbing back in for another 45 minutes.

Now, he has to leave all this behind, the scrapes and bruises, the belches and the baths. Now he has to grow up. Why? Mom says. So do others.

"You've got to stop treating him like a little boy, Dad," my lovely and patient oldest daughter said last month, always eager to offer child-rearing advice. "He's 12. He's going to be in seventh grade."

She won't admit that he already shows occasional signs of maturity.

Just last week he drank some milk and didn't make the "ah" sound. For years, he has made the "ah" sound. Every time he'd have a glass of milk, he'd take three or four gulps, then exhale loudly.

"Ah," he'd say, indicating satisfaction with the milk, indicating a glass of milk well done.

And now, suddenly, everybody expects him to stop making the "ah" sound every single time. And to pick up every dirty sock he sees. And to quit putting a towel on his head and talking like an Egyptian. All the stuff that makes being a boy so worthwhile.

"How about I give you a bar mitzvah?" I say, trying to cheer him up. "We could celebrate your becoming a man."

He seems to like the idea of a bar mitzvah. Since he is Lutheran, it would have to be a Lutheran bar mitzvah, with great platters of Wonder Bread sandwiches and other Lutheran delicacies, maybe a veggie tray and big bottles of ginger ale.

He'd invite his baseball team and maybe some friends from school, and they'd stay up late, hoping Anna Nicole Smith might crash the bar mitzvah and cause a great scandal. Now that would be a bar mitzvah.

"Or maybe a slumber party," I say. "You could have one great, last sleepover."

He seems to like the idea of a slumber party. Since he is Lutheran, it would have to be a Lutheran slumber party, with great platters of Wonder Bread sandwiches and other Lutheran delicacies, maybe a veggie tray and big bottles of ginger ale.

He'd invite his baseball team and maybe some friends from school, and they'd stay up late, hoping Anna Nicole Smith might crash the sleepover and cause a great scandal. Now that would be a slumber party.

"Let's do both," the boy says, still thinking like a boy, still thinking that everything is possible.

"I'll call the caterer," I say.

"Thanks, Dad."

*

* Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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