Can a dad ever be the epitome of 'cool'?
My older son, now a college freshman, seemed to have only one reservation about me while he was growing up: I wasn't cool. Wrong clothes, wrong car, wrong tastes, wrong everything. In the interest of keeping communication open, I asked him how I could change that (as if coolness were a virtue to be aspired to).
"You need to be funny," he said with a shrug.
"I'm funny," I pleaded, lamely. "Remember the time I went sledding on that cafeteria tray I found in the woods?"
Alyosha shook his head. "Dad," he said, "that wasn't funny."
Then, one day, while going through some old photographs, I found one of me in a Navy uniform, leaning up against my motorcycle, a blue 1970s-vintage Honda. Alyosha spotted it and asked, "Who's that?"
"It's me," I said.
"You're kidding," he quickly replied.
In the photo I was lean and sharp looking, sporting a look of bright optimism. My Navy "whites" fit like a glove.
"You had a motorcycle?" he said, his voice tinged with doubt.
"Cool," he said.
That episode took place when Alyosha was 15. He's now 20 and seems to have outgrown the need for his father to be a hipster. A certain balance has been restored as he has learned to accept me to the same degree that I have always accepted and encouraged him.
That leaves his little brother, Anton. At 9, Anton is not yet aware that coolness is the feature parents must lack if the desired tension between the generations is to be achieved and sustained.
He still has his childhood fears, his stuffed animals, and a yearning for a bedtime story and a hug before his ship departs for dreamland.
All of this, of course, is a pleasant interlude before the day when he will look at me and remark, "You're going to wear that shirt?"
Recently, we were visiting friends in a tucked-away corner of Maine. They were spending a week in a small, rustic, 18th-century cottage perched on a rise with a view of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The setting was simple and idyllic.
During the course of my tour of the property, my host swung open the garage door to reveal, of all things, a motorcycle. What's more, it was the exact model I had driven during my tour in the Navy.
"It was a gift from my father-in-law," he said. "I only wish I knew how to ride it."
"Would you mind?" I asked as I took hold of the handlebars.
A moment later I was straddling the thing, and in my mind I was the young sailor again, footloose, fancy-free, and tooling around Norfolk, Va., on my metal steed.
A small crowd soon gathered, including Anton and the family's two young boys. Anton's eyes were alight with interest. He ran his hand over the motorcycle's frame like an experienced judge of prize hogs.
Then he glanced up at me. The look on his face said: What's my dad, of all people, doing on a motorcycle?
"I don't even know if she'll start," said my friend.
Girding myself for the thing I knew I was going to do, I asked, "Do you want to find out?"
My onlookers scurried out of the way as I backed the motorcycle out of the barn.
"What are you going to do?" asked my son with a sense of alarm.
I turned on the ignition, rose up on the kick-starter and plowed down on it. Once. Twice. Three times. The machine roared to life.
"I'm going for a ride," I said. Suddenly my feet were up on the pegs, and away I went, bouncing and roaring down the dirt road, the three boys following and whooping in my wake.
It had been 25 years since I'd ridden a motorcycle, and I'd wondered if I still remembered how. But muscle memory took over as I coordinated throttle, brakes, and clutch.
When I reached the end of the road, I turned and headed back to the house. This time the boys were in front of me. When I came out into the clearing and brought the cycle to a stop, they cheered as if I had done some heroic deed.
Anton, for his part, was open-mouthed. "Dad!" he gushed. "You were so..."
"Cool?" I suggested.
"No," he said. "Fast. I couldn't believe how fast you came back."
"But wasn't I cool?" I prodded.
"No," said my son, waving me off. "Parents can't be cool."
Oh no, I thought. Only 9, and it's already begun again.