Sunday, June 12, 2011

Boyhood on the Cusp of Manhood, and Other Gadgets

The story of my younger son is a beautiful story. A classic tale of wonder and boyhood on the cusp of manhood and I am holding on tight as I know it will soon be nothing more than vapor that I can no longer hold on to, or capture, or completely recall. I will tell it from only one event and so the story will unfold.

Tonight I went to the 2010/2011 Rhinebeck Crew Awards dinner. I went with the delight in knowing that the season was over. My weekends will be a little freer, my commitments my own. My celebratory feeling was a bit self-centered. The awards were given at the end of dinner. The coach of this team is this rare and unique man. At times, he appears zen-like, ethereal and fluid, other times perhaps disorganized and distracted. Occasionally I hear he “gets crazy”. Which generally translates to, he is an adult responsible for numerous adolescents transcending hormonal fits and jags, those beasts with illusions of immortality and all-knowingness, with assorted parents that seem deluded into believing each of their own children have been created to lead the universe with some supersized trait or another. I don’t know exactly what he does that might appear “crazy”, nothing crazy enough to speak of. Perhaps he raises his voice or sternly asks them to pay attention. Crazy stuff like that. Even zen-like humans have their limits, I suppose.

At the dinner when rowers are called up to receive their athletic pin or varsity letter, the coach typically shares something personal and meaningful about each rower. We parents sit waiting, eager to have our beliefs affirmed. Tonight I was delighted and thrilled to hear a small piece of my son’s tale. It was told initially when he called up my son’s friend, another rower, his partner in crime, so to speak. It was not entirely shared, the story, but a gadget was produced and held up for all to see. Suddenly the coach called my son up as he was known to be involved with this gadget. And the moment I saw it, I was elated. I clapped. My beliefs about my son’s supersized traits were surely being affirmed. I felt a part of the magic that will never be mine to experience. The partner in crime, I believe was the inventor or at least the developer of the, let’s call it the “Pre-Manhood Cusp Gizmo”. I only know the story because the gizmo that was produced and revealed at this awards dinner was first unveiled a few weeks earlier in my car. My first reaction, which is standard by now, a joke even, because it is overused, “Is it explosive?” The assorted gadgets that are frequently produced have not been, but I believe it is important to check. My son feels otherwise, but still laughs, in my face pretty much.

The gadget consists of wires and string. A bent wire, maybe a piece of a hanger, doubled and curved hook-like, similar to a gyro wheel, but taped up. Attached to this is a small rod smaller than a pencil, with twine twisted around it. When it was first pulled from the sport bag and unraveled slowly, a knowing glance and a wide beaming smile grew upon my son’s face. The partner looked a bit smug or sleepy, gently nodded, wrapped it up, returned it to his bag and nodded off. Crew schedule is a 6 am kind of thing, nodding off is part of the deal. “That’s not going to blow anything up is it?” I didn’t quite demand, but wanted to feign seriousness. Laugh, “No” followed by snorty, huffy laugh, “Why do you think everything is an explosive?” As if I am obsessed with mad science, and explosions! I quieted myself, certain that I did my job, imagined it might be for fishing or retrieving sunk cox boxes or treasure and went on my way. Enjoyed the meet, enjoyed it more that it ended earlier than scheduled, and enjoyed that my weekends would soon be free.

After we dropped off the partner in crime, I asked. “So, what was the contraption for?” And so the tale was told.

Earlier in the season, we were playing with a ball while we were hanging out, y’know, like when we all play hacky sack or we’re just goofing around? So someone threw the ball, (or hacky sacked it, or some such boyish detail) and it got stuck in a vent up near the ceiling, (or high on the wall above standing level). So we’ve been trying to get it out every so often when we’re bored. Every once in awhile someone has some idea and tries to do it but no one has been able to do it. So we were talking and trying to figure out what we would need to get it. Flash forward to son, friend with gadget and current meet.

This is what I love about my son, and his friend. They are creative and imaginative thinkers and problem solvers. They are strong enough to be silly and innocent enough to not care about so many other unrelated but creativity deadening peripheral factors. So they unraveled the gizmo, climbed or jumped and attempted to free the ball. The joy in this being, the ball could easily be replaced, the need for it was long gone, but they kept it alive, discussing it, toying with ideas, attempting to retrieve it, others were involved and interested. Now they had supplies and a strategic plan. On their first attempt, someone went “crazy”, (think back to the earlier use of this expression). A coach approached them, yelling at them to get down, get away, get outside. A couple of other coaches were also approaching. One was their own coach. They explained what they were doing, and they were listened to, if only briefly. Suddenly as if the Pre-manhood Cusp Gizmo shimmered or glowed, the coaches seemed to collectively become boys. Innocent boys with wonder and an innate knowledge that they can fix things and figure stuff out. The coaches began to offer ideas and thoughts. They made suggestions and told them to get something to stand on to make it easier. They encouraged and allowed. They gave permission for these soon to be men to be boys in the ways that boys can be if allowed. Suddenly they were all together, softer, but inspired, in a way the coaches could remember from a time long ago.

In between races and events they went back to the vent and the ball. In the end, they were discovered again by another coach, who yelled and carried on and would not listen. He didn’t care what their coach said or anyone else, they needed to get down and get away from the vent. They left, defeated and chagrined. All but the friend was left. He continued on, quietly, out of radar. He suddenly felt, foolish, alone, as though he were involved in a ridiculous and meaningless pursuit. He started away from the vent, gently tugged the gizmo, wrapping it up as he meandered out, and then heard the roll and thud of the released ball freed from the vent behind him. He won. The Universe was on his side, and he got what was his due. Not an old stuck ball, but inspiration and the ability to spread wonder.

The last coach to take the stern approach and not hear the story missed out. Many of us do. Life gets tough, and long, and sometimes it is a nuisance and an act of frustration to care for kids, work with them and just be around them. I have had those moments with my kids and others, and for that I am sorry, it is unfortunate.

I am happy that my son and his friend have the spirit and imagination that they have. I am delighted to know they have been encouraged and permitted to explore and discover and participate and problem solve. I love how the gizmo touched the lives, if briefly, of the several coaches and team mates in a way that only Steven Spielberg or Jerry Spinelli can capture boyhood wonder and make it mean something precious and “right” in a world that is moving childhood far too quickly and much too rigidly. I am thankful that they were honored and valued for these acts by a coach that still gets it. My son is after-all, a somewhat perfect being and a future leader and dreamer.


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