10 December, 2012

Mr. T and Me

Mr. T’s fourth birthday was in September, and the gift he got in the mail from his godfather was a sticker activity book. In seeking the right present, I was acutely aware of his new obsession with all things Star Wars (now that he regards Disney/Pixar’s Cars as kid stuff); however, I found it tough to shop for a child-sized lightsaber from prison. The sticker book, despite its dearths of Darths Vader, Sidious, or Maul, was reported by my friend, Mr. T’s mother, as a perfect gift — something he can do alone, quietly, for a span of time roughly equivalent to Mom’s ideal nap length. My gift being well received is a victory I chalk up as my second successful significant act in my role as a godfather. It is a role I take very, very seriously.

My first successful act, I believe, was holding him. Never having held a baby before, I was nervous. His parents had brought Mr. T all the way across the state for a visit, and the last thing I wanted to do was drop him or break him or something. Not quite a year old and wriggly, he didn’t make it easy on me at first, but as I read to him The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the German translation of which I remember from my own childhood, and talked as encouragingly as I could to him about his questionable motor skills (“Don’t worry,” I said, when he fussed at my not surrendering the utensil to his grasp, “people won’t have to spoon applesauce into your mouth all your life”), he came around. Mr. T left that visit without incurring apparent physical or mental trauma, and I left it with a smile on my face.

This interaction is kind of a big deal because, historically, I have felt terribly awkward around, and, in all truthfulness, with the very idea of, children. My discomfort started when I was a child myself, averse to noise, befuddled by impetuousness, and uninterested in the group activities that developmental specialists say are so important. Unlikely, then, as my nomination for a Kids Choice Award might seem, children have delighted in my attentions ever since I became a teenager. I don’t know why this is, but I have a few simple theories. The first is that I talk to them, to tweens and infants alike, just as I talk to everyone else. My voice doesn’t ascend two octaves when I come in the presence of a newborn, I don’t do baby-talk, and I won’t dumb down my conversation for anyone. Kids seem to like this, that I treat them as equals. Second, like cats, whom studies show are drawn to the very humans who pay them the least attention, children may perceive my comparative indifference to their antics as puzzling: Every other grown-up pays attention to me as soon as I come near, but that man doesn’t care — how interesting! Third, kids may appreciate that I’m easy to make fun of.

A former girlfriend of mine had an eleven-year-old sister who took a preteen’s uniquely sadistic delight in mocking my old-mannish ways and overall unhipness. (“Did you just say ‘neat?’ Who says ‘neat?’ God, Byron, what are you, like, seventy? ‘That’s really spiffy-keen neat-o.’ Ha!”) She and her cadre of friends, collectively called “the Little Girls” by my girlfriend and me, got no end of pleasure from my annoyance at their nickname for me, “Unkie Byron,” and went to great lengths to try publicly embarrassing me, especially on occasions I was recruited by someone or other’s mother to drive the troublesome troupe to the mall. Whatever points I won for coolness, during those outings, were always deducted as soon as we returned to my car.

Turning the ignition key, I took note of dashboard indicators. “Who doesn’t have a seat belt on?”

“Why do we need seat belts,” one of the Little Girls would groan from the back, ‘’if you’re supposedly such a good driver?”

“Because the road is full of idiots, and I don’t want to get Little Girls’ viscera all over me if one of them crashes into us while he’s picking his nose.”

“What’s viscera?”

“Viscera are internal organs. So keep your intestines to yourself and buckle up.”

A chorus of giggles. “Okey-dokey, Unkie Byron.”

And so on.

There’s that cliché about kids, how they grow up so quickly that one often won’t recognize the changes until the kids aren’t kids anymore, until they’re grown up and away. It won’t be long before my godson, Mr. T, will be old enough to dislike that I call him Mr. T, rather than his real, full name. And of course he’s far too young to get the flattering ironic association it makes between him — gentle and contemplative — and the loudmouthed one-time professional wrestler and A-Team star. But that’s a minor concern. I worry more about being limited in what I can do with him, and for him, as he gets older, if I remain imprisoned. I want to be able to take him on fun, educational day trips, on tours of neat (neat!) places like bookstores, museums, train yards, farms, and factories, and to be a boon to his parents, if and when they want a break, by looking after the little guy for a bit. I want to, but I realize I may never be able to, which is why I take my responsibility as his godfather so seriously — it might take extra effort for me to be good at it.

Fortunately, Mr. T and I are well suited to one another, with him evidencing enough nascent geekitude — a precocious love of reading, a prodigious curiosity, a thing for spaceships — that we can easily relate. Being amply versed in Star Wars lore made my third significant godfatherly success, carrying on a bidirectional telephone conversation with the young Padawan for the first time, as casual as the dress code at Jabba the Hutt’s palace. I’m not a natural phone-talker, nor are four-year-olds renowned for their telephonic chops. Mr. T begged for the phone, though.

“I wanna talk to Byron,” I heard him say, in the background.

His mother laughed. “What would you even say?”

But the distance did nothing to diminish our rapport, which was as strong as ever, as I barraged him with questions about his Jedi Halloween costume and his favorite aspects of the Lucas-verse, while trying not to rebuke his childish preference for Han Solo over Boba Fett. As is probably inevitable whenever one generation extends a hand to welcome the next, our first long-distance exchange did provide one humbling moment for me when he broke the news of Disney’s newly begun production of Episode VII. He’s four! How could he know such a thing before I did, even with the Internet at his wee fingers? Clearly the Force is strong with this one, and I’ve got my duties cut out for me.

1 comment:

  1. You'd better rethink your skiddish notions of children - sounds like you're already a very sucessful godfather. Mr. T is lucky to have you.

    ReplyDelete

Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.