The other night my 7-year-old gave me a short lecture. I was attempting to hurry along the process of going to bed. He, like most kids, was attempting to drag it out.
"Dad," he said, "you have to have more patience." The kid might have been right, but I was overwhelmed by a feeling of paradox.
This kid who was urging forbearance was the same one who gets angry at me for "throwing a stupid pitch" when he swings the bat and misses my baseball toss.
Moreover, this voice of tolerance has also served as my major tormentor. Such as the time I had to summon every drop of restraint in my system to keep from grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him like a pina colada.
It happened after I spent an entire Saturday afternoon arranging some bricks around the base of a backyard tree. There is an earthy pleasure that comes from shaping dirt and vegetation to your wishes. After considerable digging I had worked the bricks into what I thought was a nearly perfect circle around the base of the tree.
The next morning I arose and strode into the back yard to admire my handiwork only to see that my son had unearthed every brick.
He was, he explained, looking for worms.
I fumed. I hollered. Then I retreated to the house, telling myself "patience, patience."
"Patience" is my mantra, what I chant to myself when I find tools that have been left outside and are starting to rust, or soggy baseballs sitting under the holly tree, or "lost" lacrosse balls rolling around in the car trunk.
Similarly, when I do a slow boil as I wait for my older son to take out the trash, a job that takes me five minutes yet takes him 45, my wife tells me to "be patient. He'll do it."
And when the kids have a problem with homework or with a friend or with parts of life I had hoped they would miss -- rejection, prejudice and crime -- I again tell myself to be steadfast. That this, too, will pass.
It isn't always true, and it doesn't always work. But I do it anyway. One of the tricky parts of life is figuring out the "correct dosage." How much patience is too much? When is a shot of impatience called for?
I don't know. But I do notice that as I age it has become easier to tolerate arrogance among the youngsters who don't know anything, but harder to tolerate it among oldsters who should know better.
On some household matters I remain incurably impatient. No amount of chanting can calm me when passing bikes scrape the paint off my parked car, or food is thrown at the table, or shoes are lost.
But on other once-stormy fronts, the kids have brought me around. Worn down by their endless requests, I relented and let them work with primal elements -- fire, water and hammers. So now they can light a fire in the barbecue and nobody has to dial 911. Now they can water the garden without eroding the top 8 inches of soil. And they can wield a hammer so the nails absorb the majority of the blows.
My kids are relatively young, 11 and 7. But as I recall their cries in the middle of the night when they were infants, and when I hear men with older children talk about teaching their kids how to drive and about getting phone calls from the other side of the Earth for kids requesting permission to rent a new apartment, I see that while the nature of the demands on a dad change, the need for calm endurance remains constant.
One of the things I like about Father's Day, tomorrow, is the relative sense of calm with which it is marked. Unlike Mother's Day, the long-distance phone lines aren't overloaded, the greeting cards aren't sold out a week before the event, and there is no national compulsion to drag dad to brunch.
A note, a handshake, a hug, a small gift and maybe a cigar and the ceremonies are taken care of.
I plan to play softball on Father's Day. It is an annual gathering of some guys who once played every Sunday morning. Back when we didn't have kids, we played for hours. Then, as the children arrived, some dads tried to cart their kids to the game, corralling them behind the backstop. It didn't work. And as our families grew and domestic responsibilities increased, the Sunday mornning softball game dissolved.
Now it is a once-a-year event. The "kids" that show up are often taller, stronger, and certainly faster of foot than their dads. Years ago whenever a kid would come to bat, the dads in the field would all move in. Patiently the dads told the kids to "get ready" and keep "your eye on the ball."
Now the dads often either have to back up when the "kids" bat or watch the batted ball soar over our heads.
Which proves what kids do to their fathers. They teach us to be patient, whether we are ready or not.