Monday, January 10, 2011

Metaphor Man

Nick was home from his first semester in college and we were out walking the dog when I gave him some pithy piece of advice. He rolled his eyes. What? I said. It’s good advice, right?

He said it was. So why the eye roll? It’s just that I’ve heard it a million times, he said. It’s one of the things you tell me all the time. The only thing you vary is the metaphors you use to make your point. He looked at me the way I remember my grandmother looking at me during a kind scolding. You use a lot of metaphors, he said.

So, I am metaphor man. (I fancy myself a writer, after all.) Actually, many of my rambling windups to some moral are more like parables. Blame that on growing up on the King James Bible and William Faulkner.

Morbidly curious about the breadth and depth of my nagging, I asked Nick how many things I “tell him all the time,” and how big a slice of the Dad Advice Pie Chart this one would be. He said this particular one---Don’t Procrastinate---was a big one, probably accounting for a quarter to a third of the whole.

That’s good. If one is a quarter to a third, there aren’t more than three or four. How bad could it be to boil my guidance down to three or four bromides, delivered via charming morality tales?

Actually, it turns out the number is more like eight to twelve, according to Nick. Still, not so bad. He promised that when he got back to school, safely out of range of another metaphor, he would send me a list of my core pieces of advice and indicate their relative percentage of the whole. I’m thinking it will make a good self-help book. The cover will be a Roz Chast-like pie chart with a harried dad, perhaps dressed in a preacher’s robes, pointing to it from behind a pulpit.

Cartoon by my daughter, Ashley
(with her recollection of Dad's little homilies) 
I know children have to make their own way. I write about that all the time. The trouble is, when push comes to shove, I can’t help trying to be helpful (the way I see it), or shut up (their point of view). I think I may have an over-active part of my base brain that takes everyday fears about my children and runs them through the fight-or-flight loop that is reserved for those times we are about to be eaten by something with sharp teeth and a big appetite.

It’s almost physical. If I fail to remind my children of something important that they need to be doing, I begin to feel uncomfortable, experiencing the same kind of low-level anxiety that you feel on the airplane to Europe when you wonder if you turned off the stove. What if, in my heroic effort to be a non-nag, something dreadful befalls them that a gentle nudge from me could have prevented?

I’m addicted to protectiveness, I fear. That and motivational inspiration. I haven’t yet tried “Win one for the Gipper,” but there’s still time.

The other night, Meg and I were trying to remember when Nick learned to sing from his diaphragm. We think it was in a theatre camp he attended in Santa Barbara one summer, when he was about eight. The camp only lasted a few weeks, but whatever they told him stuck. Ever since that summer, he’s been able to blow the roof off.

He only has to be told once, Meg said. And she’s right. He can read lines for a play and know them almost immediately. He has practically perfect memory for song lyrics and movie dialogue, even after many years.

So, why, you might well ask, do I feel the need to tell him the same things over and over? It’s one of life’s little mysteries.

One explanation might be that I can see and hear that he remembers song lyrics when he sings, or arcane bits about dark matter when he talks about a Nova program we watched long ago, but I have too few external indicators of whether he remembers the advice I have given him, especially now that he is (mercifully, as far as he is concerned, I’m sure) living too far away for daily checkups. I realize that it is possible that he remembers what I say and ignores it, but it is such good advice that that seems unlikely. What boy would ignore his father’s good counsel?

Nick is studying computer science. Perhaps he’ll invent a chip and display that will glow green in each category of the Dad Advice Pie Chart when the advice is remembered. Instead of bothering him, I could just check the chip.

Speaking of the Dad Advice Pie Chart, I still haven't received the list of my eight to twelve core pieces of advice. If you read this, Nick, send it along. Don't procrastinate.


  1. Most amusing. Aren't you being prolific?

    I find I have to say the same thing at least a thousand times before it even begins to penetrate. I've probably told Tim to hang up his towel after showering a million times -- and still I find it on the floor some days. On larger issues, it's quite hard to let them make mistakes and take their lumps.

    Here's a metaphor for you. It's got parental anxiety, generational conflict, children striving for independence, and the arrogance (and ultimate triumph) of youth. Life in a nutshell.

    A few weeks ago, we're walking across an icy intersection. Emma wisely takes my hand. I offer it to Tim with a warning about ice. He refuses. Falls. I offer to help him up. Warn him again. He refuses all assistance. And again he falls. Still he will take no help. By this time, a couple of other nearby parents are snickering with satisfaction at this vindication of parental sagacity.

    So last night, same intersection. Icy again. Remind him. Warn him again. But he's totally undaunted. In fact, just to mock me he starts running and dancing down the street. He even pretends to fall to ham it up. All the way home he runs laughing through every wintry patch. Never falls once.

    Guess we all just have to take our own lumps -- and decide for ourselves when they hurt, and when it's not so bad as everyone says.

  2. Mac,

    Another wonderful piece! I could so relate to this! I call it "not on my watch," meaning that as a parent I can't let anything bad befall my son when he's within my sight, or voice, or email or.......even if I know he has to make his own mistakes, and even if I know he has heard all my advice. I will never stop worrying or caring.

  3. Laughing at Cord's comment. The leaving towel thing is definitely a Clayton genetic defect. ;-)

    And love "not on my watch," Carol.

  4. Everything about this article describes me. Thank you.