Into the Dark
Where everything was exactly how it seemed"
--- Sleeping In, The Postal Service
"No, no. You have to release the ball at the bottom of the swing."
I'm frustrated. I've been bowling with Jen for the last half hour.
"C'mon, I know you can do it, you were doing it before."
Jen's little fingers grab the Wiimote. The way she has to hold it is different. Not better or worse.
Learning how to hold a game controller is of course vastly more important than learning to do something as pedestrian as, say, reading. My shameful secret is this: having her play games, skateboard, snow board, hike -- these are all more important to me than expansive tranches of traditional education.
Distracted, but smiling, she faces the wrong way -- sideways to the screen. Inexplicably, she holds her hand off to the right like a tennis racket.
"See how it's showing you to hold your hand up like this and hold down the button?"
I mimic the perfect limb-and-finger position of the pretend Nintendo player on the screen. She ignores me in the way that only a 7 year old girl can. Paying me no mind, she pirouettes. Somewhere in the middle she presses the "B" button. Ghost-Jen on the screen some 20 feet away walks laconically towards the line. The Wii must be unsure how to process a pirouette as a potential bowling maneuver. As her avatar closes in, Jen finishes with an arabesque towards the screen, arm poised as if saluting the fading sun. Somewhere along the way she has releases the "B" button.
The ball, confused and most likely relieved, drops from her fingertips. It meanders down the lane, gently curving to the left.
"See Jen? You twisted your hand when you dropped it, so it's curving! See that? Isn't that cool?" Hearing my own adolescent enthusiasm makes me cringe, so I stifle the internal dialog about the miracle of precision in the Wiimotes accelerometers.
"You kinda just heaved it out there, so it's just ..."
The ball finally, endlessly, sashays up to the leftmost pin -- the one standing guard at the gutter with its wooden belly. The pin wobbles comically on the loving kiss given it: left, center, right, center, left. Finally giving in gracefully to the call of gravity, its bulbous head descends, grazing the nearly immobile ball, until they both roll into the black beyond.
"I got one!!!" She jumps up and down, giddy. "What's my score daddy? Did I win?"
I've long since made the decision about how to answer these questions. I could count the number of times I've actively lied to my daughter on two hands. If I was genetically more interesting.
"Not yet sweetheart. Here, watch."
I stand at attention. I assume the position. I tap the D-pad right a few clicks. I press the B button, conforming my grip to the 8 inch plastic phallus. I swing high, then back, then follow through, with just a hint of wrist roll. Dialed in, the ball rolls straight, then curves left as the wood catches.
"Strike!" I yell, and then do the most embarrassing thing possible for a midlife dad. I do the "it's your birthday" dance. In a deep sleep, 3,000 miles away, Gwen Steffani loses interest in men.
"Awe...." Her shoulder's slump in an exaggerated gesture of despair. She decides this isn't dramatic enough and makes comical "waaahh, waaaah" sounds.
She stops. She has long since learned what this means. Since the age of, well, nothing, she knows that the ultimate palliative comes not from Jesus, Buddha, or Pfizer, but from Cameron Crowe. She smiles at me.
"You must chill, I have hidden your keys!" she hollers at me laughing, tackling me in mock aggressoin. I laugh back, and I pick her up, flinging her over my shoulder and crashing her into the couch.
I love her to death. But she just sucks at video games.
"Playing a game with dad" has nothing to do with "playing a game." It's all about the "with dad."
She stands, smiling, tooth-challenged, hair in crazed braids. Eyes glowing with love and light and a youth which pulls the short hairs out of my heart, one by one. And she flings Nintendo glee into the air once more.
It's four o'clock. We walk, hand-in-hand, mom-daughter-dad, into the theater lobby. Jen is radioactive with excitement.
Jen drags us towards the matte black double-doors marked "No Entrance." We stagger past a posse of 16 year old boys, all black T-shirts and duct tape. Jen presses the door open, struggling against the weight.
"Bye!" Her hand, damp with enthusiasm, pulls out of mine. I squeeze tighter, but her little dirt-stained hand slips from my calloused grip. She gives me the "Daaaaad, you're embarrassing me!" look as she heads down the hall into the crowd of dancers.
"Bye Jen! Good luck!"
And she's gone. Out of sight. I stare blankly at the closed door for a minute, wondering what just happened. Jess pulls me back. "Come on, we can get back to the lobby this way." She's already been to a few performances. Of course she has: she's the mom; I'm the dad; and I'm living in bizzaro land. She does the real work, I sit in the basement and extract checks from the suckers of the universe delusional enough to write them. She's the builder. I'm the carny.
We find our seats. The lights go down. I stay focussed for at least 10 minutes, before my eyes droop. In my head, I hear nothing but Death Cab for Cutie and the low hum of Marshall-Stack-Induced-Tinitus. The Nutcracker is lost on me. Jess is used to me fading off. I can always blame my medication -- by 7PM I'm rarely coherent even without a warm, dark room and classical music. I rouse as a vision in grace emerges.
She dances. Just for a few moments. She's nobody else's star but mine. My heart, predictably, swells with a father's pride. She's cute, in her little clown costume. And they're funny, this Ton ton Macoutes of pre-teen glee. But it's more than that.
She's good at this. For every moment she flails at Katamari Damacy, I've missed a moment where she's learned a grace and confidence beyond her narrow years. For every longing I've had for her to learn to Ollie, there's a Grand Jete she's mastered. How is it possible in so few years I can feel like I've missed so much?
Maybe she won't grow up to be just-like-me. Perhaps, after all, she'll just grow up to be herself.