Monday, October 21, 2013

Growing up in the newspaper

Big Sur, 2009

     With my older son Ross turning 18 on Friday, I found myself glancing back at the many stories I've written about him, since he was less than three months old and I began writing a regular column. 
     Which is ironic, since Ross is the only topic I was directly ordered by the editor of the Sun-Times not to write about. "Every time you write about your SON," boomed New Zealand press lord Nigel Wade, "I get the impression you didn't know what else to write about." Probably true. But I wasn't wearing out the topic  — he had just been born.  My theory was that Nigel, who had no kids himself, didn't quite see their utility. 
At the old Sun-Times office. Photo by John H. White
     I didn't listen to him. Part of the secret to a long career in journalism is knowing when to ignore your bosses. And the readers did seem to enjoy my occasional columns about Ross, and my younger son Kent. I tried not to overdo it —better too little than too much— and didn't want to let my sons devolve into shtick, don't want to stray into "Good Morning, Merry Sunshine" territory.  I've tried to deal with the boys with honesty and humor and love, and I like to think that readers can see that.  Some wonder what Ross thinks about being in the paper. I asked him a few years ago if he minded, and he replied: "What I MIND is that you don't put my picture in the paper more." So there you go, like father, like son.

     ‘They blow through your life like the wind on the plains,” John Hiatt sings. “Like the dust that covers everything, til the rivers fill with rain.”
     He’s referring to children, of course, and if parenthood’s first shock is the overwhelming responsibility (“Being a parent,” I said, when it began, “is the sudden realization that your whole world can choke to death on a penny”) the second shock is when you turn around and they’re nearly adults, driving and managing their lives; while you’re reduced to a minor supporting role, like some ridiculous aged adviser in a Shakespeare play, uttering your idiotic, ignored advice.
     My older boy, Ross, turns 18 on Friday, and is busily filling out college forms, like a prisoner working on a tunnel with a spoon. I whistle my way over, a guard on patrol, and he freezes, quietly waiting for me to pass.
     Wasn’t always like that. You folks know. He’s popped up in this column his whole life. Computers never forget. A few keystrokes and we’re back on Pine Grove Avenue in 1997: 
     “Bye-bye Ross. Bye. Daddy’s going to work now. Bye. See ya.” 
     Nothing. My 2-year-old son’s head doesn’t turn. His face doesn’t deviate a degree from staring directly at the object of his affection: "Teletubbies."
     I walk over to his chair, lean down low, and whisper in his ear: “Bye-bye. See you. Have a good day!” Nothing. Eyelock. He doesn’t even blink. The Teletubbies dance and sing.
     Then he’s 5, his birthday. I write a letter to him.
     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 . . . 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?”
     At 7 he insists we see Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal."
     [Ross] wanted to know where the seven seals were in the movie. He thought there'd be actual seals, the kind with flippers. I explained about how in olden times important letters were sealed by wax, and about how in the Christian Bible there is a story about the end of the world.
     The next morning, he ran into my office, hugged me, as always, but instead of asking for our chess game, he asked for "the story of the movie." . . . he wanted the Book of Revelation.
     Then he's 11. I ask if he has accomplished all he hoped to over the summer and he says no, he wanted to try oysters. Off we go to Shaw's Crab House, not only for oysters, but the George's Bank Haddock, with spinach:
     Conversation ranged from why fish places always serve cheese bread to which ring of Dante's Hell his dad would occupy, according to an online survey (Level Two, with the gluttons and those buffeted by their lusts).
     Suddenly, a stricken look crossed his face and he leaned over, his nose almost to the white tablecloth. I thought it might be an oyster flashback. "What's wrong?" I asked, alarmed.
    "I have spinach . . ." he said, groping under the table, " . . . stuck inside my shoe."
     Then he's 12, blond hair down to the middle of his back, jumping into frigid Lake Michigan, doing the Polar Plunge with me.
First time behind the wheel: Bonneville Salt Flats
      Then 13. I would never have considered staying downtown on Election Night 2008, would have missed the unforgettable scene on Michigan Avenue. But he wanted to go. The next summer, I'm teaching him to drive on the white tabletop of the Bonneville Salt Flats, during our epic trip out West. The day he turns 15, we go to the Goodman. The PR staff sings him "Happy birthday" as we arrive.
     I did suggest to him, seeing it's his birthday and all, that he might prefer to do something else with someone else — go hang out at the mall with Biff and Marty, go have an ice cream soda with Becky Thatcher. No dice. He's been looking forward to "The Seagull" ever since we saw "Uncle Vanya" at Chicago Shakespeare last spring. I know this won't last. It can't, and I don't want you mocking me when he pops up in a video shot in a cave in Pakistan, gazing sternly at the camera and urging jihad. Those things happen. But it hasn't happened yet.
     Three years later, no cave yet. So what's it like now, his senior year? Quieter. Formal. I make a point to be downstairs before he rushes out at 6:40 a.m., just to say hello, to encourage breakfast, exchange some words. "Have a good day at school, son" I'll say. "Have a good day at work, father," he'll reply.
     When I turned 18, my mother bought cases of 3.2 beer, iced in a garbage can. A backyard crowded with kids. "Don't you want a party?" I ask him, now. No. Gifts? No.
     How do I feel? Proud. Lucky. Some kids drag their parents through hell. Much sympathy for those parents. It must be hard. It's hard enough when kids cause no trouble and just become adults. Well, almost adults. He still has that police car on his dresser.


  1. When did he start calling you "Father"? Seems very British schoolboy. Better than "Pater," I suppose.

  2. He has for a while. Also calls me "Papa-dad." I've stopped trying to fathom it.

  3. I wish someone had told me that if your baby is born in the summer you will have them out of the house just weeks after their 18th birthday. So jealous of you for the extra (almost) year with your kid!

  4. Those who don't have kids can't appreciate what it means to be a parent. That is, if you intend to be a good one. However, you'll make it through this time. And if your sons get married and give you grandkids, life will be very good. I'm sure that you've heard the old chestnut about grandparents and grandkids getting along so well since they have a common enemy.

  5. Sounds like he's gifted, noticeable at an early age.

    Anyway, your office was a mess. Don't hoard, clean. Hope your dear wife doesn't let you get away with that at home. ;)

  6. Anthony Trollope famously did not write much of anything about his wife and children. The one exception to that was Steinbergian, however. He and his wife toured the U.S. in 1862 and were told when they stopped at a certain town in Pennsylvania that the view from the top of some hill was not to be missed. Trollope asked the guide whether the trip up the hill was suitable for a woman. The man glanced at Trollope's wife and said, "I suppose so...for a young woman." There was no way the wife wasn't going up the hill after that remark according to Trollope. As it happened, it got dark just as soon as they got to the top of the hill and then started pouring rain, cold hard rain, and they had a hell of a time getting back down, even wading across a river ... twice -- they were on the right side to begin with. Not a word more did he utter about his very very dear spouse.



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