I'm getting a little tired of taking the blame for all my screw-ups. The Camaro, for instance. No one likes that beat-up old buggy but me. And the back patio didn't turn out as planned. I envisioned flagstones rimmed by moss.
As luck would have it, Venus has more surface moisture than our backyard. No moisture, no magic, no moss. Screwed up again. You'd think after six decades, I'd finally learn to do my homework.
In L.A., you are constantly surrounded by success stories, further aggravating my situation. In the pew next to me the other night was Tom, who told me he made a ton of money as a salesman for Xerox when it carried "the only plain paper copier on the market."
I think to myself: If only I'd been born then….
At another bar stool — I mean pew — is Kirk, a TV mogul and former friend of Gerald Ford, who he says quit drinking his beloved red wine out of sympathy for his wife's alcohol issues. Righteous man. Lousy president. That's generally how it works.
I try to draw from all this wisdom as I raise a boy in this thicket of hubris and perversity. This week, the little guy turns 14.
He stands before me now. There is no better piece of abstract art, all odd angles and sprigs of hair. Picasso based most of his work on the irregularities of the teenage form, mostly bones, attitude and saggy britches, all poorly welded together.
At 14, he eats almost continuously, and quickly, often followed by hiccups. If we ever ran out of food, he'd devour the refrigerator magnets.
"How many lunches did you have today?" I ask.
"Three," he says.
"You must be starving," I say.
"Dad, I can barely stand."
See, he's got promise. And an edge. Gets it from his siblings. Though he'd never admit it, they are his heroes. Aside from thugs and pro ballplayers, there may be no better bad influences on his young life.
I haven't been a dad for very long – 34 years, so I have a lot to learn. But I know you can't ever throw in the towel on teenagers; that's exactly what they hope you'll do: just give up in frustration over their eye-rolls, the way they fluff their hair into whipped confections and their general disdain for dinosaurs, particularly fathers.
In my experience, most teenagers are certifiably insane. I like that in a person.
As with big breeds of dogs, teens need to know someone else is in charge, even as they test you. They have all the answers, sure, but they are also paralyzed by self-scrutiny and their peers' opinions. Often, they can't see past their own schnozes.
To broaden my teen's world view, I culture the kid with street fairs and ballgames, the occasional concert and a museum or two. He seems to like contemporary art most of all (it reminds him of video games). Besides, it's clear to him that these artists painted outside the lines and still were successful. A lot of their sculpture looks like Army tanks.
The other day, we browsed through Franz Kline's flick-of-the-wrist sketches and Mark Rothko's dramatically simple oils. In another room, we saw a gnarly work by Pierre Huyghe, whose media is the kind of stuff you find amid the spiderwebs of your garage. In contemporary art our youngest son finds a boyishness, a sense of stretching the rules.
"Ever heard of Warhol?" I ask.
OK, so we've still got a little work to do.
I could never teach middle school … heck, I don't even like letting kids that age in my car. Often, they scare me, with their raw energy and tribal tendencies.
But I like many things about teenagers, including their ability to burst into song. I also like the way they sing, with the gusto of roosters.
"What?" you ask. "Sing? Mostly, my teens bark and slobber."
Not always. At an eighth grade Turkey Bowl football game, the pep band played the anthem and the kids all stood to sing. And not the awkward mumble you often hear from adults at such events. This rendition was full-throated, a little show-offy, as you would expect from 13- and 14-year-olds. Yet it was proudly performed and pleasing as pie.
"…and the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air…"
They could've been screaming about themselves.
In fact, I think they were.