Catches and Canyons: Making the Most of the Time with the Children
Some folks have asked for more stories about the children. I’ve been struggling with that, out of a deep sense of respect for their privacy — too many parent memoirists chase a good story at the expense of their offspring. Still, sometimes I can manage something.
The first time I threw a football for David to catch, it flew through both his hands and hit him in the face. The blood from his nose stained his t-shirt. My son cried a little; his sister fussed over him, his mother shook her head at me as she treated the shirt for washing.
Ten minutes later, he caught the ball for the first time.
That was three years ago, and now, the bunny boy runs patterns, and snatches the ball out of the air with one hand. Depending on the day, he asks me to call him Keenan Allen or Cooper Kupp or Odell Beckham, Jr, his three favorite NFL wide receivers. At eight, my son knows more about football than I do. “No, daddy, if we’re the Chargers, you’re Justin Herbert,” he tells me, after I’ve forgotten the last few decades years of franchise history, and said that perhaps I could be Dan Fouts, who retired in 1987.
“Daddy, Odell Beckham isn’t with the Giants anymore. Daddy, when I line up in the slot, throw it to me faster.” I do my best to keep up.
I never played catch with my father, and it took me until I was well into my 20s to stop wishing I had. He and I did kick a soccer ball about a few times, but my Austrian-born, English-raised father’s great love was cricket, and I could never follow when he tried to explain the game. None of my friends had foreign fathers; all their dads, even the divorced ones, knew about baseball and football. They could teach their sons to grip the laces and throw spirals. When I was in the fourth grade, and bragged to some boys at recess that my father had been a very good fast bowler at school, they declared that cricket to be “a game for fags.” I ended up in a fight, and as usual, got the worst of it.
I felt guilty for resenting my father for not being an American. I felt guilty for resenting him for playing a “faggoty” game. I felt a lot of guilt about my father, who was so gentle and so kind and so not-there-often-enough. If he’d been a tyrant, or a shouter, or anything other than the most loving man in the world, I could have had a justified anger that I saw him for one weekend every other month and two weeks in the summer. As it was, he seemed to be a hapless, helpless victim of circumstance. He was so obviously doing the best he could, and to resent someone when they’re doing their best isn’t… fair. I felt as if I was very unfair to daddy.
I quietly swore that I’d teach my son, if I ever had one, all about “real American” sports. (I also swore I’d never get divorced, and make my children live under a roof that isn’t mine, so not exactly batting 1.000.) David and I have watched a great deal of baseball, basketball, track, boxing, and football, and he’s excited about all of them. When he was four, I almost got him interested in bull-riding, but he’s too much urban a child to have the affection for rodeo I did when I was his age.
My son’s mother has an old friend who’s a former college football assistant coach, and he gives David private lessons two hours a week at Pan Pacific Park, working on everything from routes to conditioning. I’ve been to these practices, and they are a delight to watch. David loves it when I come, though his performance anxiety ratchets up a little when I’m there.
In pandemic times, David’s school starts at 9:00AM. On the weekdays I have with the kids, I’m over by 8:00AM to get him up dressed and ready. After breakfast, but before class, we go out to the street to throw the ball for ten minutes. We start a few feet apart, and with each successful completion, take a step back. By the time we’re ready to go inside, we can usually get to 30 yards between us. It’s no less moving a metaphor for its obviousness; as he grows, he can stand safely further and further from my reach, but the connection remains intact.
“Last one,” I call out on Friday morning; “You need to be in school.”
David nods, and asks me to throw a “Hail Mary.” I grunt “hut,” and the child lopes down the middle of Holt Avenue. I launch the ball in a high and wobbly arc, well off target, but the boy redeems me, pulling the lame duck from the air before racing away. “Touchdown,” I shout, raising both arms. David runs all the way to the corner, two football fields away, drawing out our triumph. When he comes back, I kiss his head, and, channeling my daddy and his old cricket expressions, say “Well held.”
I usually tell him “Good catch,” and David looks up. “What does ‘well held’ mean?” He asks.
“It’s something your grandfather used to say.”
David beams. “He played catch with you like you play it with me!”
The boy needs to be online in two minutes. There is no need or time to explain otherwise, but I find a truth: “He would be so happy to see us together, and so, so proud of you.”
Saturdays, David goes to “Got Game,” a weekend-morning program that gives kids two hours of structured recreation in socially distanced, masked pods. Though I’d like more time alone with my daughter, this is the window Heloise and I have, and we have made it into our pandemic ritual.
I take her to Starbucks. My twelve-year-old has a peppermint mocha, and I a black coffee with three sugars. At her request, we pick a neighborhood to tour, and until it is time to collect her brother, we drive together. At first, Miss Mouse wanted to see the trendiest parts of the city, where the Tik-Tok stars she follows live in rented houses. I drive her up into the “Bird streets” above West Hollywood, and up funky, narrow Sunset Plaza. On subsequent weekends we move west, going through Trousdale Estates and Bel-Air, and finally further towards the ocean, through Brentwood and the Palisades. Then we go east again, and I drive the girl up Laurel Canyon and Wonderland, and later still, Beechwood and the secret back way that brings you closest to the Hollywood sign.
Traffic is light Saturday mornings, and for all my myriad faults, I have a very keen sense of how long it takes to get anywhere. We are always back to the park by 11AM to get David.
I love Los Angeles, my adopted city, and I love its windy canyons, and I want to tell Heloise all about them. There are so many ghosts in these hills, and anecdotes, but it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, it’s the right of a father to bore his tween daughter, just a little, in the hopes that what she finds tedious now will be precious decades later. On the other hand, daddies can be such repositories of useless and even age-inappropriate information. I decide she is old enough to learn about OJ Simpson on our drive through Brentwood, but not old enough to hear about porn star John Holmes and a quadruple murder as we wind through Wonderland.
Some mornings, my daughter is full of questions of the sort she knows I’ll answer. She asks for more details about the divorce, or for help remembering the names of the children at her fourth birthday party. A weekend or two ago, she asked what “bulimia” was, as it had come up on a TikTok video, and though my grip tightened on the wheel, I used all my youth-group-leader training to stay placid and informative. When I’m done, Heloise nods. “So many girls I know hate their bodies,” she says. I ask her to say more, and she does, offering snippets of confidences she has heard. We’re heading west on Sunset Boulevard, and for a moment, I silently curse my city and its famous obsession with a particularly narrow vision of female beauty, but then I remember that TikTok is everywhere, and we’d be having the same damn conversation if my daughter was growing up in Bossier City, Louisiana or Bellingham, Washington instead of one block south of Beverly Hills.
Other days, Heloise wants to be silent. I throw a few soft openings at her, but when she doesn’t pick up, I let us be quiet together. We can go an hour without talking, and I try not to wonder too much what’s in her head. One day, I can’t resist, and ask, “A penny for your thoughts.”
My daughter sighs, stares at the huge houses we’re passing on Stone Canyon. “I was thinking that I really like Tudor architecture, but I will need so much more light. My house someday will be Tudor inspired, but the windows will be huge.”
At a stop sign, I look at her. She looks at me, exasperated. “Sometimes, daddy, that’s the best you’re going to get out of me.” I snort. She rolls her eyes. I reach for her hand, she pulls away. Five minutes later, she laces her fingers through mine, reminding me that she is the gatekeeper, and what comes from her, be it affection or stories, must always come on her terms.
The great Berkeley poet Sharon Olds wrote,
is free and she is in me – no, my love
of her is in me, moving in my heart,
changing chambers, like something poured
from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.
As I drive home to Hawthorne that night, I think about my day with the kids, and about that distinction Sharon Olds draws. My love of my children is in me, as love of my brother and me was in my father’s heart every time he drove away from us to go back home. The endless weighing and reweighing – was I too impatient? Did I look at my phone too often? Did I ask the right follow-up questions? Do they feel my love in return? Did I make the most of the time we had?
I cannot answer as a father, but I can answer as a son, and as I make my way down the 405 to Victoria, I put on that famous Dvorak cello concert, the one that Jacqueline du Pré made into a cultural touchstone, and I imagine my father sitting next to me, and me telling him that everything, everything he did was not just his best, but absolutely perfect.