I have another story to tell about my 15-year-old. It happened a month ago or so, but I still get the giggles every time I think about it. She'll kill me when she finds out I told you, but that can't be helped. It's too good not to tell, and besides, at the rate she's growing up, she'll be over it in no time.
I had just picked her up from school like I always do. I realize a healthy young lady of her age can walk home just fine without a ride from ol' Dad. But while others might see a simple walk home, ol' Dad sees a half-mile gauntlet of mutant ninja skateboarder morons and Brittany Spears skank-alikes, and he would rather spare her the experience.
Believe me, I keep a low profile. I park a block from the school proper and I never stand in the middle of the road and bellow out her name. She's easily embarrassed and I would never do that to her. She's a freshman, you see-what I still call a ninth-grader (but that's only because I would prefer to think of her maturing numerically rather than categorically, if for no other reason than I can keep more accurate track of how many years we have left)-and her public image is increasingly important to her. She is justifiably proud of the altitudes she has reached on the way to entering a successful adult orbit: good grades, civic involvement, peer acceptance, scholastic discipline, personal hygiene ... all this she has accomplished, and more. And in return for her hard work and dedication, I wouldn't even consider standing in the school yard in my bib overalls howling out to her name like Jeb Clampett calling in the pigs.
To protect her sense of self-decorum even further, I won't even use her real name in this piece. She's already taken no small degree of guff from her contemporaries for being regular subject matter in her ol' Dad's writing, so from now on her name is "Molly." Forget you ever heard the word "Annie."
On with the story: I picked Molly up and made my way home by way of the nearest convenience mart, as usual. I follow the same routine every day: a Jackson store hop for a scratch-off and an orange juice, then on home. Yes, I could drop her off at the house before I follow my accustomed rounds, but I feel it's important that youngsters understand the value of a predictable routine, don't you? Even if it does drive them nuts. Sometimes, I can almost hear her aggravation-"Gosh! Dad and his dumb daily lottery ticket." On the other hand, whenever I deviate in any way from my habitual behavior, she's the first to assume something's wrong. So as you can see, it's best for both of us that I never stray far from my own rut.
Sad to say, however, by the time we reached the store, I had so utterly pissed her off she wouldn't even look at me. At that time of the afternoon, more often than not, I'm in a sour, rotten mood, and on the day in question, I was sourer and rottener than usual. As a rule, just before I go to pick her up, I watch Crossfire on CNN, the show where well-known rightists and leftists argue like rude snots over topical issues. On that particular day, the rightists were applauding George Bush's pandering to young people to gain their support for his Social Security privatization plan because young people, much more so than we old farts people, might better appreciate the reliability of Wall Street for their retirement prospects. Uh-huh.
By the time I picked up Molly, my argumentative nature was a busy, busy bee, I tell you. "Yeah! Sure!" I muttered like a crazy guy. "These young people Bush is counting on are so hip to fiscal reality that they're losing their fannies playing Texas Hold'em online! And these young people are so financially savvy they are going into credit card debt up to their pierced navels because they don't know 'interest rates' from 'info-mercial!' And these young people are so econo-smart, they don't even know when to stop with the text-messaging until their parents get the bill! And these are the geniuses Bush wants to support his Social Security reform package?"
Unfortunately, the message I suspect Molly heard was, "These kids ... stupid! These kids ... dumber than dirt! These kids ... wouldn't trust 'em to do nothing right!"... and her mood quickly grew as sour as mine. One thing I've learned about teenagers: When you say something bad about youngsters in even the most general way, they take it personally. It doesn't matter that I was talking about hypothetical stereotypes, Molly naturally locked into a Red Alert defensive posture, and by the time we reached the store, she had stopped talking to me for a good six blocks.
Well, of course I felt bad. I hadn't mean to say she was dumber than dirt. She took it all wrong, but the damage was done. To every peace offering I made, she would respond only with, "Whatever, Dad." That's the first and best sign she's totally mad at me, when all she'll say is "Whatever ..."
As I pulled into the Jackson's, I was wishing desperately for a way to start over, and that's precisely when I saw this two-headed dog on the sidewalk out front. Granted, it only appeared to be a two-headed dog. A pair of identical little terriers-a mom and daughter, I suspect-were laying together in just such a way that it looked like one spotted dog with a head coming out each end. It was a remarkable illusion, something like you only see once in life.
I said, "Look, Hon ... a two-headed dog!" And she answered, "Whatever, Da-HOLY COW!" You could have heard her gasp all the way to the next Jackson store. Yes! For some fraction of a moment, she truly believed she was seeing a two-headed dog.
When we were done giggling, it was a better day. She was better, I think, because for that fraction of a moment there, she had experienced magic again, the kind little kids do until that sort of vision is abandoned for more adult attitudes. And I was better because within that sophisticated, accomplished, volatile and increasingly independent young lady riding along with me, I caught a glimpse of the little kid who not so long ago believed everything I told her.
At times, when things between she and I are at their worst, I'm convinced the teen years are God's way of adapting parents to the inevitable separation. But then something comes up that makes you realize you don't have to scratch a teenager very deeply to find a happy, curious toddler. Still there, and still eager to be your loving, laughing child. Consolation enough, I suppose.