Saturday, January 14, 2012

Role Models

“Auto.” It wasn’t Robert’s first word, but it’s his favorite.

Robert sees autos everywhere. When we explore the neighborhood in his stroller he shouts “auto” every time one passes. Several times a day he points out the window to our own car parked in the driveway. “Auto.” Even reading a book where a little boy locates his ears, eyes, and nose, Robert points to the illustration on the boy’s shirt. “Auto.” Indeed, I hadn’t even noticed.

I don’t know where he gets it. We are not particularly an auto-centric family; no one in the family has ever been a gearhead. And ever since I’ve been old enough I had to pay for them myself, I’ve thought of cars as a necessary evil – an asset which devalues 20 percent the moment you drive it off the dealer’s lot. Liina and I have only one car between us, and it is nothing fancy: a Skoda wagon that we bought used. Most of the time my transportation is a bicycle, which elicits no reaction whatsoever from Robert, except for when he sits on the back in his child seat, which allows him to see and identify even more autos.

Liina and I have considered that he might get his love for cars from our gearhead neighbor, the one Robert can see from his bedroom window. This is a kid whose entire life consists of a 15-year-old BMW, leather jacket, gold chain, bad haircut, illiterate friends, techno music, cheap beer in two-liter containers, and cursing at the neighbors (us) over the fence.

It is perhaps too early, but I worry that Robert might want to emulate him. As far as I can see, the he contributes nothing to the GDP, sponging off his 50-something parents who go to work in the morning while the young man blares bass from his second-story window. He is not even polite. Perhaps the gearhead’s presence is why some of my other neighbors – bankers – must earn so much: someone’s social taxes have to support the deadbeat.

I see the gearhead and I imagine Robert at 18, lighting spliffs on the sofa and declaring that he’s not going to work until his journey of self discovery through the lyrics of “My Beamer Has New Tires” is fully complete.

It is my hope of course that Robert will choose role models closer to home – his father – which of course creates its own attendant worries. Am I worthy?

Robert’s grandfather, a taciturn man not known for dispensing much advice at all, told me shortly after Robert’s birth that I would have a period of ten to twelve years to teach Robert something, and after that it would be pretty much hopeless – the young man would decide things for himself.

(The only other advice I recall my father providing me was before my first date: “Treat all the girls like ladies. Those who are expect it. Those who aren’t appreciate it.” Years later, comparing notes with my brother, we discovered that the pre-first-date advice given him was entirely different: “Never trust women with two first names.” Perhaps we each got the advice we needed?)

My father, in my eyes, was a sterling example of what any father should be. While he was not as affectionate as modern women would perhaps wish, he was a model of fairness, discipline, hard work, and devotion to his family and community. Mother was God. Not a negative word about her was permitted. You did not swear in front of her. You finished everything she put in front of you on a plate.

He was compassionate. Driving sideways into a post, I once put a dent the full length of his favorite hunting vehicle. He only put his arm around me to forgive. He never bothered to fix it.

He great dignity, too, though some would call it pride. I remember during one period of rather tough economic times he refused to take even a cent from the government. Even pleas from my mother that he had paid countless times more money into the government – so why not take some out? – were ignored. We were not that desperate and never would be. We could live on less. It was better to be your own man.

Through times good and bad he was a master of composure. Perhaps it was stoicism. As his son, I saw it as raw conviction and self-confidence. He could not be visibly shaken; or if he was, it would not have happened within view of his children. The only time I ever heard him lose his temper was when another duck hunter criticized his dog. (And God help the man who would have criticized his son.)

And so I have considered what kind of example I am setting for my son. Is Robert seeing anything worth emulation?

William, an American friend of mine, who is completely devoted to his children, once flipped the bird to a reckless driver who came close to hitting his kids. The driver stopped his car and challenged my friend to a fistfight. William, a former Golden Gloves champion, could have easily given the driver the beating he deserved and gone on to smash the windows of the precious car, but with his kids present, William was left in a quandary.

In a traffic culture like Estonia’s there is no shortage of opportunities to flip drivers the bird. Robert currently lacks the motor skills raise his middle finger, but he is a little sponge, and so I have attempted (unsuccessfully) to resist the temptation to point my finger at the country's deserving many.

I’ve become almost paranoid about my own behavior. Are my clothes clean enough? (Does he notice me shine my shoes?) How are my table manners? (What if he catches me eating over the sink? Am I pushing my soup spoon?)

Of course what he more closely monitors are things like how I treat his mother. Even though it may be considered a declaration of love in Eastern Europe, I’ve never beaten her, but now I’m even more careful to try to show her the respect she deserves. I now endeavor to tell her she is wrong in a fashion worthy of my own father (“Oh, I’m not so sure about that, dear”), instead of slipping into the lazy approach (“What are you, on crack?”). I have probably failed, and so I hope that, though Liina may not, children will perhaps award points for good intentions.

I also attempt not to reinforce his antisocial behaviors which I find amusing. When he makes the farting sound with his mouth I try not to laugh. When he rolls around on the church floor as if possessed by Satan, I try to simply pick him up. When he climbs out of the shopping cart to ride the supermarket’s conveyor, I try to remove him before he reaches the scanner. Although I am rarely successful, I think of my own father and try to live up.

Given Robert’s love for automobiles, I have braced for the day when his love of something inanimate surpasses his love for me. I have taken the magazine essay, “Why I Hate Barney,” to heart, the lament of a father whose infant son has given his heart to a purple dinosaur.

But amidst the worrying, Liina and I have instituted counter-programming measures to indoctrinate Robert against gearheadism – and here, one must fight fire with fire. Whenever he says “auto,” I offer him a toy gun.

Liina and I are also aggressively working with new vocabulary. She is teaching him about herbal teas and healing plants. I am instructing him how Salmo trutta may be caught on an imitation Ephemeroptera. On his own, he is taking a seminar course on the best movies of Jean Claude Van Damme.
Hopefully Robert will move on from cars and Liina and I can return to the more usual parental concerns, like worrying that our son might be gay. Of course, I suppose it is possible he could turn out to be both. And we would still love him unconditionally.


More on gearheads.