I am an “older father.” In my twenties I split time between grad school and a job in Washington DC, finally becoming ABD at age 29. ABD = All But Dissertation, it’s a point in graduate school where everything is complete for earning the Ph.D. except this nasty 300 + page bit of original research. Until I finished my doctorate at age 35 I picked up teaching gigs wherever I could, at the University of Minnesota (where I was doing my Ph.D. work), St. Olaf College and Carleton College (both of Northfield, MN).
All this kept me busy and earning enough money to have an active social life, and I cherish those grad school years as some of the best in my life. I had enough money to enjoy myself (even while living in tiny studio apartments near downtown Minneapolis), surrounded with colleagues in the same boat, and not feeling much in the way of life stress. Basketball every Saturday at 10:00 AM, Friday happy hours, exploring the world of political science, teaching my first classes — I loved those days.
However, that isn’t conducive to long term relationships and starting a family. A few go that route in grad school, but it’s rough, and the job market tends to separate people. I waited until I got a full time tenure track job and didn’t have kids until after I turned 40. It allowed me to travel, enjoy my youth, and have an extended period of adult time with lots of freedom and limited responsibility (as well as limited income).
Becoming a father in my 40s has been a great experience. It forces me to stay in shape (when my youngest graduates from high school I’ll be 63 — I want to still ski and play tennis with him!), keep up on how not just college students but also school age kids are living, and feel younger than I really am.
Yet I realize how different the world is. We were in a hotel in New Hampshire the other night and Ryan, 8, asked in a frustrated voice, “dad, I can’t figure out how to pause this TV.”
“It’s not a DVR, it doesn’t pause,” I explained. He thought that very odd. The idea of not having a trove of recorded DVR “events” to watch — Avatar the Last Airbender, Adventure Time, Star Wars Clone Wars, iCarly, etc. — seems odd. In fact Dana (5) had trouble accepting that a show he wanted to watch, Ben 10, could not be watched yet because it wasn’t on until later. “Can’t you just go there (on the guide) and click it?”
“Not yet,” I replied, realizing that in a few years that probably would no longer be a barrier.
Where they really amaze me is with video games. Now, I admit, I am not into video games. As a teen I did play pac man and donkey kong, but most of the time I found myself bored by them. My dad and youngest sister would spend hours with the Atari playing missile command and other such games, I’d get bored after five minutes. I’m that way with puzzles, rubrics cubes and anything like that — if it gets frustrating and doesn’t offer any real benefit (I mean, so what if I have a cube with every side the same color, what the hell does that give me?) and takes time, then I’m outta there. I’ve played the Wii a few times, but have the same reaction. I’d rather write a blog entry.
Ryan and Dana, however, are already Wii experts. My five year old son is better than me on just about every Wii game, and he can’t even read the directions. He navigates by trying various buttons and figuring out which get him what he wants. He watches his older brother and then picks it up. He can spend hours with Wii Lego Star Wars, calling me over “dad, look, I have a ghost yoda,” and laugh at the fun things his characters can do. It’s often not what a serious player would be doing, but he gets his kicks.
On Monday night, though, we had a Wii disaster. Ryan got a game “Zelda the Desert Princess,” where some character named Link is battling various creatures in various habitats. The music and graphics are pretty good, but I have no clue what the game’s about. He’s been spending hours on it. We’ve had talks about ‘screen time’ and figuring out ways to get him to put more variety in his activities (hmmm, sort of like how my mom didn’t want me watching TV all the time), but between Pokemon on his DSI or Zelda on Wii, he becomes obsessed.
Monday I heard him crying loudly in the other room. Imagining that he fell down the stairs, hit his head on something hard (I mean, he takes pain pretty well, so this loud cry had to be serious) I ran in. He was in the easy chair clearly in distress. “I accidently erased almost all my Zelda progress,” he told me, “230 hours.” (That shocked me, but I guess play hours are not literal hours but reflect progress on levels…or that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.) To his credit he got over it quickly. I had to pry him away from the Wii for awhile, but later let him go back, I could tell that he needed to make some Zelda practice before he could be at peace — and he did, he seemed to enjoy redoing the old levels.
Lest I create the impression the boys are tied to video games, they’ve actually had an active outdoor summer — Ryan has a great tan. But it’s Wii skills and other technological advances that show me just how different their world is than mine was. If I don’t know an answer to a question, Ryan’s first response is “google it.” If the store doesn’t have something he wants, he says “go on line and buy it.” In the world of our children all information, all products, all entertainment and communication with friends is all available right now. He’s not old enough for facebook or texting yet, but I’m sure that’ll come.
Still, at the end of the day, as I put the kids to bed, hug them, tell a story and tuck them in, I realize that for all the differences, at base parenthood is still the same. I may not have the Wii skills, but to be there for them, build a relationship of mutual trust and be close to them is what matters. And when Dana calls me “Scott,” and Ryan calls me “Dude,” that’s OK. This isn’t 1968. But I not only love my kids, but also like them and feel extremely close to them. What more can one want?