|Ross, age 5|
Our elder son Ross turns 21 years old today. I can't express how proud I am of him, or how unfathomably great being his father has been. But this column, written when he turned 5, touches upon it.
Surprised? I thought you might be. It didn't take a genius to realize that databases such as old newspaper files would hang around for a long, long time, and a bright guy like you would figure out he could plug his name and his dad's byline into some search device and kick out everything the old man wrote about him while he was growing up.
Wasn't like that when I was a lad. No fancy search engines for us. No, we had it tough. We had to trudge miles to libraries, through blinding snowstorms, to scour thick indexes and court eyestrain reading scratchy microfilm reels. . . .
I won't start. You've heard that enough. See, that's the thing about being a dad. You set off in one direction and suddenly find yourself somewhere else entirely, off on some stupid tangent, about to explain how music sounded sweeter played on a thick vinyl 33 rpm record.
Five years old, this week. Hard to believe. The time just snapped by. That's a cliche, I know, but it's also a fresh reality for me. I knew it was coming, I tried to avoid it, seizing the moments, clutching at them, observing closely, listening hard, taking all those pictures, and it flashed by anyway. You were born, now you're 5, and a few more flashes from now you'll be—what? 30, 35—reading this in the blue glow of some sleek little computer gizmo at Mach 5 high above the Earth.
I picture you tall, handsome as sin, of course, hair closely cropped at the temples with maybe some sort of a weird futuristic touch — a single Anakin Skywalker rattail, beaded or dyed or something. You're wearing the charcoal-colored spandex business suit we've been projecting into the future for the past 30 years, and relaxing in the big aqua leather seat on the 7 a.m. suborbital shuttle from Chicago to Tokyo.
You glance out the window at the curve of the Earth, give a last look at the sales figures for carbon fiber data couplings in the Asiatic rim, sigh, then hit a few buttons, and up pops one of dad's old columns.
Five years old. Happy birthday, boy. Did you like the metal Chicago police car? Just like the real ones. The doors open, and everything.
I wish you could see yourself as you are now – the videos just don't convey it. Sprawled on the floor, doing a hard puzzle, working through a maze, tossing tough questions from the back seat. "Dad, what's the difference between hornets and wasps?" "Dad, why does the moon follow us?" "Dad, what happens if somebody shoots a missile at us?"
I remember well the moment you were born, howling complaints like a Steinberg. They cleaned you up, and then they did something I didn't expect, despite all the books and preparations and Lamaze training. The nurse shoved you at me, and everybody turned to pay attention to your mother. I looked down – there was a baby in my hands – and got another shock. Most babies are all red and creased and squished and look like Jake LaMotta after 12 rounds. But you were beautiful, china pale and perfect, and I held you and sang the Air Force song –"Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, flying high, into the sun . . ." – because it was the only thing I could think of.
I wrote it all down in a letter to you that night. I meant to write letters on every birthday, but you know what happens. Time passes, everyone's so busy, and important things get pushed aside.
I did try to soak moments in, to look at you and see what was in front of me. It's so easy for adults to ignore kids, to treat them like the curtains, the stage scenery, and not as the point of everything. I will take credit for that much; I realized, when you were born, that you were what everything I was working toward was about, you were the thing I was going to leave behind, you and your brother, and everything else ratcheted down a few notches in significance.
That sounds nice, but there's a downside to that attitude. Expectations grow and grow. There is no glory that I haven't imagined for you, from smashing World Series-winning homers out of Wrigley Field, to being sworn in as president, to saving the world.
In fact, I lied about the shuttle to Tokyo image. That's the watered- down version. My actual thought was something grander. I imagined you on a mission to Mars — Lt. Col. Ross Steinberg, NASA, commander of the International Mars Mission. It's a three-year-trip, so you have plenty of downtime, and you found yourself surfing the Tabloids of Yesteryear Web site.
I was embarrassed to admit that. I know how harmful expectations can be. They're good in that they set standards of ambition, but bad in the sense that life falls so short so often. Expectations can be a trap that parents, with the best intentions in the world, set for their kids.
That might seem like an odd message to drop into an electronic bottle and toss into the churning sea of cyberspace. Maybe you are reading this, not aboard the shuttle to Tokyo, not on the flight to Mars, but in the free computer room of the public library. Maybe you play the washboard in a skiffle band on Madison Street, and you've come in to get out of the cold. Life does that to people. I'm still proud of you.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 22, 2000