Dec 18 2011

No Protecting

He was wearing seersucker Bermuda shorts. He’d already kicked off his white boat shoes, they were laying on the floor in front of my seat. He wore a light charcoal colored T-shirt betrayed (or enhanced) by the stains of a long backpacker tour. His Justin Bieber hairdo was greasy, like the shirt. His muscled thighs were thick and he sat low in his seat so his knees fanned out to the sides, encroaching on the woman next to him, his young girlfriend who didn’t seem to mind, and on me on the other side, not so thrilled about sharing my airspace with him. He never once looked at me nor spoke to me; he only grunted when I asked if he might move his shoes, and his knee, to make a bit of legroom for me.

This is just the guy that keeps me up at night. I see him, when I’m walking Short-pants and Buddy-roo home from school. We pass by a lycée, its clumps of teenagers spilling out into the middle of the street. The girls look ridiculous, awkwardly pinching their cigarettes between superficial puffs. The boys shout vulgarities at each other across the street, the mating-call of the adolescent male. They shake their haircuts into place and wave their arms in the air, revealing five inches of black boxer shorts above the waistband of their jeans. I realize this is the current fashion – as a teenager I was slave to such timely styles, too – but still I constantly fight the urge to go grab their belt-loops on each side and hike those low-rider pants up until they fall correctly on the hips. Either that or give them the full wedgie they appear to be begging for.

This was that guy. He had the look, the bad-boy cool, which is really just a mask for his lack of confidence. Adolescent girls are easily blinded to this fact, which is why they always fall for him, with disappointing results. Even that I can take: teenage heartbreak is a part of growing up. But he’s the one that messes, purposely, with your daughter’s self-esteem. He kisses and tells, doesn’t-kiss-but-tells-he-did-anyway, callously adds her to his list of cavalier conquests. I knew this guy in high school, and in college. That’s why I can smell him a mile away.

At least I was on the aisle seat, so I leaned left and studied my Sudoku puzzle while the airplane taxied down the runway. Except on the other side of me there were two young American women, maybe just 20-years-old, swapping stories about their travels. Their conversation was loud, one of them in particular insisted upon broadcasting to a wide radius around her seat. I’d already turned on my noise-reducing earphones but I could still hear her clear as a bell. I was impressed with her capacity to incorporate the word like a minimum of three times in every sentence. Plus, you couldn’t help notice that rather than sharing her thoughtful insights about traveling, she was, like, showing-off, how, like, in-the-know she’d become.

I knew this girl, too. I was once her. Over-inflated, full of myself because finally I was out in the world, doing all the grown-up on-your-own things I’d dreamed of doing. I’m sure I spoke with the same overzealous disclosure, a would-be reflection on my experiences that was really just a chance to boast. But hopefully, at least, I did it with a little less volume, so only my immediate seat-mates were compelled to roll their eyes, not the entire cabin of the plane.

What saved me was that my in-flight entertainment screen wouldn’t work, even after two re-boots, so I was moved to another aisle seat further back, amongst sleeping, movie-viewing people who had no desire to impose or impress.

Sitting in the dark, in the rear of the plane, I wondered what it was that summoned my harsh judgments against these two young people. I worry about that type of guy preying on my daughters, that despite all the seeds I’ve already planted and all the prescient mother-daughter conversations yet to come, that they won’t recognize and steer clear of him. And I’m afraid that despite all the reminders about using their inside voice or any tips on art of conversation that I would hope to impart along the way, they will become that girl, that nearly intolerable it’s-all-about-me airplane conversationalist.

But there’s nothing I can do about it. They will meet that guy. They will encounter that girl, too, whether it’s in their circle of friends or in the mirror in front of them. They’ll meet bullies who torment them, friends who flip on them, humorless teachers who squelch their spirit. I can’t protect them. Even if I could, I shouldn’t. So much of life is what you figure out on your own.

When they’re little babies, there are compelling reasons to protect them. Now, as they grow, too much protection is helicoptering. I don’t want to do that. I want them to grow up fully, with the benefit of their own realizations and experiences. I want to help them to be free-range kids. I want to let them fail, at least a little, and figure out, on their own, how to recover. That’s how I learned to smell danger a mile away, that’s how they will, too.

Still, the urge is there. To warn them. To make them wiser. To help them skip the awkward phases of maturing and get through it faster, easier, better than I did. I know I can’t control what they choose to do in their lives, but I hope I can at least teach them how to make good choices. But how much longer do I have? They’re growing up fast.

On my way home from New Zealand, I stopped midway, in Los Angeles, to visit some friends. They have two teenaged children who look you in the eye, ask if they can help, share interesting, relevant facts about themselves when asked, and possess a sense of humor that is intelligent and thoughtful. This gives me much hope that when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are teens that they could be palatable individuals. I suppose part of that comes from steering them the right direction, and the other part, maybe, from holding your breath, crossing your fingers and just getting out of their way.

Shout Quietly Please is a painting by Dan Walker.