Look, I’m not proud of it. It’s not like I wanted this to happen.
As parents, we have dreams for our children, and we work to make those dreams come true. We want our children to be good people, better people than we are, truer, happier, more successful. We want them to be based on ourselves, but alternate versions of us, in which everything turned out the way we hoped it would. The people we meant us to be.
Whenever people compare The Knucklehead to pictures or memories of me at his various stages of growth, they would always tell me how much we look alike. I still hear that, from friends on Facebook from high school, seeing pictures of him for the first time. I’ve always said the same thing: “He’s me, through a filter. All the good stuff, none of the crap.” At least that’s the way I’d always seen him, and within limits, that’s not such a terrible way for a parent to view a child.
But the filter, it turns out, has a few gaps. Some geekiness slipped through that I never wished on the boy.
Tom Waits was the first gap in the filter.
I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits, have been for thirty years, and I’m not sure that says good things about me as a human being. For those of you who have spent your lives in blissful ignorance, Tom Waits is a musician who seems to live in a genre all his own. Or genres, because his stuff covers a broad range, from blues to torch songs to, well, stuff like this. There’s a part of Tom Waits oeuvre that seems to have been nourished by carnies, gypsies, hobos, and third-rate circus people, the kind that hit rural towns and make you clutch your child’s hand a little extra tight as you wander through. That’s the kind of Tom Waits music I love best of all. The kind that seems to be made by and for junkyard employees, merchant marines, pawnbrokers, repo men, transients, bible salesmen, and junkies. The broken people of this world. Music for the displaced, displeased, and dispossessed. Us.
As The Knucklehead was growing up, I didn’t want to think of him enjoying this music, certainly not needing it the way I seemed to. Tom Waits music appeals to people who have been there. I definitely didn’t want Knucks to go there. Waits is not fit for polite society. He’s not for decent people. He’s not for those with their dreams intact. I love the man’s music, but I always thought that fact pointed to a character defect deep within myself.
The iPod is usually on at my place, and it’s usually on “shuffle.” Let’s call my taste in music wide-ranging. Eclectic implies a sophistication I really can’t claim. Schizophrenic might be closer to the truth, but that seems a little harsh. Basically, any music that doesn’t sound like a hundred things I’ve heard before goes a long way with me.* So the iPod on shuffle is a little on the ADD side, lurching from Bizet to Abba to Bob Dylan to Blind Willie McTell to The Ramones to Mozart to Neko Case to Talking Heads to Johnny Cash to film scores to mambo to opera to Soweto hip-hop to bluegrass. Not a lot of country, or rap, or jazz. But enough of everything else to keep The Knucklehead on his toes.
But whenever The Knucklehead was around if a Tom Waits tune came up, I’d zap through to the next song. It’s kind of like keeping your kid away from David Lynch movies, or the Chicago Cubs. Not experiences conducive to a well-adjusted existence.
And, yet, The Knucklehead found Tom Waits, anyway. Oh, sure, he found some good stuff, too, like Talking Heads and The Who and The Rolling Stones. But despite my efforts to protect and shield my dear boy, Tom knocked on his door anyway. Something in me infected The Knucklehead. It’s not like you’re going to find Waits on Top 40 radio, or on a Disney soundtrack, or at zumba class. Nope, if Waits is a disease, Dad was Patient Zero, as far as Knucks was concerned. I have only myself to blame.
Still, some questionable taste in music isn’t the end of the world. So the kid likes to dabble in the dark side. Big deal. This, too, shall pass. It’s a phase. He still has a chance for a normal life.
And then I heard the words that sent a chill to my bones. The words that let me know I had ruined my son’s life came during a seemingly casual conversation upon returning from a weekend at his mom’s house:
The Knucklehead: “Hey, I got to see Moonrise Kingdom this weekend.”
Me: “Oh yeah? Who’d you get to go see that with you?”
The Knucklehead: “Nobody. I just went by myself.”
I just went by myself.
The last words any parent wants to hear from their child.
I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, come on,” I hear you say. “How naïve can you be?! Your kid didn’t go to the movies by himself! He was underage drinking, or screwing around, or shooting meth or crack or horse tranquilizers or whatever it is kids are into these days! HE WAS LYING TO YOU! He was probably knocking over a liquor store or rolling drunks or burning down the VFW!”
Thank you. It’s kind of you to say so. But I know better. I know he was telling the truth. Because I do it, too. I’ve done it most of my life. And I ain’t proud of it, either.
See, nearly the entire world sees going to the movies as a social activity. It’s what you do on a first date. It’s what you do with a bunch of people when you don’t want to go clubbing. Theaters are filled with people in twos, threes, and more. “Going to the movies” is like going to a fair, or a ball game, or bowling. It’s just absolutely unheard of to go by yourself. People alone in movie theaters garner the same kind of stares of horror/pity/revulsion that people sitting alone in restaurants usually do.** Even The Onion will tell you this. Everyone knows this. Sitting in a movie theater by yourself is the sure sign of an unredeemable loser. You can do it, but you don’t want it to get around.
If you go to the movies to be part of a social group, then going to the movies alone really is pathetic. But if you go to the movies because you love movies… well, that’s different. At least that’s what I’ve always told myself.
If you love movies, then going by yourself is a great way to go, as long as you don’t mind that everyone from the ticket seller to the usher cleaning the theater during the closing credits is convinced you’re pathetic. You get to see the movies you really want to see. No compromising. You don’t have to worry about somebody talking or asking questions during the film, and you don’t have to worry about whether someone next to you is enjoying the film or not. It gives you the opportunity to really get lost in the film. If it’s a thoughtful film, it gives you the freedom to be alone with your thoughts as you analyze what you’ve seen. You’re free to mull it over on your own, to let it percolate, to make sense of your reactions. You don’t get that chance when you’re with someone. You have to start talking as soon as the lights come up, forced into a snap judgment as to whether or not you liked it.
If you found yourself nodding in agreement with that last paragraph, I’m afraid you’re a loser. Just like me.
And now, apparently, just like my Knucklehead.
I see now my mistake. As he was growing up, I’d tell him about movies I’d seen, and I should have invented some imaginary companion I’d have with me. Her name would be Esmeralda Villalobos, and she would have tortoise-shell glasses and kids of her own who wouldn’t be old enough to see the movies she wanted to see, and we would have coffee and pie afterwards and talk about the movies we’d seen like Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in True Romance, only she wouldn’t be a hooker. An imaginary movie friend. Maybe that would have saved The Knucklehead from a bad example.
The problem is, I still do it. I’m happily married, I love My Bride, and she graciously sends me off to the movies all the time. It’s at the heart of our relationship. We have plenty of interests we share, crosswords and baseball among them, but when our interests diverge, as me with my movies and she with her quilting, we’re happy to give each other the freedom to wallow in our diversions. I’ve even been known to take a vacation day to knock off three or four movies in one day.
There, I’ve said it. Now you know.
Now, that’s OK for me. I’m growed up, I’ve lived my life. I’ve had my shot. But The Knucklehead is still young, with his whole life in front of him. It’s not something you like to see in one so young.
It’s a reminder that the things we want to teach our children aren’t always the things they learn. A reminder that our children are watching us even when we think they are not. Eccentricities like this are harmless enough, but you begin to wonder how much of you slipped through to your child that you didn’t intend. What else is there that you didn’t plan on? Were we really in control the way we thought we were?
And if you’re asking yourself those questions, here’s a few more: what does that mean about us? How much of our own parents did we inherit without being aware of it? Which of those quirks that we think make ourselves so unique were actually passed down the line?
So some geekiness made it through that I didn’t intend. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the Dudley Do Right I’d had in mind for him was unrealistic, and kind of a drag, to boot. Maybe he inherited from me a little character, whether I wanted him to or not. Maybe he’ll still do better things with that piece of me in him than I could. Maybe he’ll show me the endearing side of myself that I couldn’t see.
Maybe I didn’t raise such a loser after all.
*Same goes for movies.
**Yeah. Done that, too.