A boy. A dad. A mid-April hike.
“Baseball should have bowl games,” the fifth-grader says.
“I like the way you think,” I say.
Up the hill we go, like shadows on a wall – first him, then me. We are determined to hike all the way to his elementary school, about a mile up toward the clouds. It is a route we take five times a week by car, there and back, there and back, on the hamster wheel of suburban life.
In the Saturday morning sunlight, I see the boyishness in his face – the breakfast in the corners of his mouth. At 11, he still sleeps in his batting stance, dreams of grand slams. In a year or two, that will probably stop. In a year or two, a lot of this will stop.
Until then, up the hill we go. Two men: the before and after of modern males.
“Will you scratch my back?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say.
“Wanna race?” he asks.
The little guy is the fourth of four – a bonus baby, a mulligan (as they say in golf). His next oldest sibling is 23.
How would you handle a do-over like this, a second parenthood? Presumably, even if you did a decent job the first time, you would change how you did a few things the second time around.
Me, I vowed to negotiate less. I’d adopt the mantra my own parents used: “Because I said so.” This time around, their no-nonsense approach carried a bit more appeal.
I also wanted to enjoy the small moments, lead by example, not sweat the small stuff.
How’d all that work out?
News flash: Each kid’s a snowflake, some flakier than others. Tactics that work with one kind of kid don’t work for another. Once again, I’m winging it. Once again, I’m trusting my gut.
I’ll also confess to one other parental realization: Too much of modern childhood is scripted, and organized, and measured in percentiles and team standings.
In its April issue, Esquire magazine has a telling piece on American boys. By high school, 20 percent of them will be diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Even allowing for massive over-diagnosis, here’s my theory: Too much of a young boy’s life is karate lessons and math tutors. Too little of it is kickball and calming hikes.
“Look! An owl,” he says, as we hike by a small ravine.
The little guy has the eyes of a watchmaker. He sees wrinkles on the moon and freckles on the face of the sun. From 40 paces, he can spot a baby owl peeking out of a tree trunk. God is in the details, as they say, and the little guy sees every one.
“Smell the cedars?” I say as we tunnel under some towering deodars.
We laugh at all the right things. At Miley Cyrus and the way the Lakers’ season played out like some sort of drunken text message.
We laugh at almost everything. Like, how his much-older sister – so sophisticated, so L.A. – cried the other night at the end of “Hotel for Dogs.”
“Remember that, Dad?” he says, snorting with laughter.
Yeah, I remember that.
“You are the weirdest child,” his sister told him the other day.
“Weirder than me even,” she said, which is setting the bar pretty weird.
It’s always nice to get feedback, I tell him. And weird is cool. Weird is real.
Till he was about 9, he’d follow me along on the most mundane chores. If I surgically broke down the vacuum cleaner, piece by piece, he’d kneel down to hand me tools. We could make a major pilgrimage out of running out to get more corn starch for his mom.
There’s less of that now. The little guy is in double digits. At 11, boys and girls start to really change. By the time he’s 13, I’ll have no hormones left, while he’ll have way too many. He’ll grow quieter yet more restless. He’ll prefer his snarky friends over me.
Parenthood can be such a ruse that way. First your children soften you up, then they pounce. That’s another thing you learn.
Till then, he still likes to hike with me up hills and through canyons, across beaches and to the deli that smells like Mussolini’s lunch.
He is a sweet, ornery, wonderful soul, a little spoiled from being the youngest, a little too mothered and fathered and fussed over by his older siblings, who are almost an extra set of parents.
All things considered, he’s perfect.
And on up the hill we go. Together.
Chris Erskine is the father of four and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.