First, the math: my sons are now 29, 25, 25, and 12, which adds up to 91 child years. Or is that dad years? More important, have I learned anything?
On paper and otherwise, the three older boys (Jeb, Reid, Tim) collectively have done just fine—acquired manners and humility, earned diplomas with distinction, run swift marathons, finished triathlons, been awarded the game ball, trekked to Everest Base Camp, brought home a keeper of a daughter-in-law, moved to another continent (Africa), memorized every line of Goodfellas. No complaints from this corner. But if I were them, I'd have registered at least one: Dad, please, less is more.
If I could have one do-over, it would be to have spent less time telling them what I'd done in my life, what arcane knowledge I'd accumulated. If only I had just listened and absorbed what the world looked like through their unadulterated, as it were, eyes. And now, of course, they are adults themselves, residing under other roofs. Which is how the youngest, Paul, became my mulligan boy.
We live in the busiest of places—Manhattan—where guilelessness and silence are rare commodities. Paul is bright, competitive, and no fool, yet willfully innocent, having arrived at a simple but profound understanding: for as long as possible, he wants to remain a boy/child. This is where I come in. The key, I think, has been to mute my reflexive irony and hum along with the music of his monologues, the euphony from his brain.
We drive: "I just like looking out the window, Papa. It's a time to reflect. My ideal trip would be one around America. That would be a fun trip. Maybe I'll decide to learn to drive."
We camp, we canoe, we fish: "Fishing and camping are really fun. It makes you realize that some parts of the world aren't yet built up and super civilized. You forget that computers exist or how they could even be invented. And I like the fishing part just because it's fun, even though we release them. It's like going to the grocery store but really having fun at the grocery store."
His plausible fantasy: "Go into the woods and, like, have a survival kind of experience. Just live off of not much. Just have the basics: a tent, sleeping bag, and flashlight, a minimum amount of clothes. For fire I'd need matches and wood. No ax—well, OK, an ax, but I'd only cut stuff off of dead trees. The weather might get nasty in other months—so summer. So I won't get sick in the middle of the woods." Bugs? "I'd deal with them." Bug repellent? "No, thanks." Getting to the woods: "I might have somebody drop me off, and from there I'd just walk around. I don't know that anyone would want to come with me, but if you wanted to, you could."
That's it? "That's it. I'd fish for my food. I'd have a tiny bit of money. Just in case. Because I'd be traveling inside the woods, I probably wouldn't need it. Unless maybe I came to a city. If I came to a city, I'd buy some fresh vegetables. And sushi."
Mark Singer is the author of Character Studies: Encounters With the Curiously Obsessed.