As light sharpness enters my 14-year-old son's voice when his friends visit for the weekend, as though I'd better look to my behavior. Normally Matthew humors me a little, making allowances for my slow wit and personal eccentricities, but when his friends visit he expects a little more from me.
For instance, there's my habit of wearing the same sweater each day. No young person likes this. And my son makes it clear to me that I have another sweater in the closet. And on Saturdays I don't comb my hair until around noon, a cause of much impatience. After a while I get nervous. I'm not sure which rooms it's still okay to pass through.
Meanwhile, my wife tries to ''draw out'' these friends in conversation, an attempt that is met with wonder by everyone. Inquiries about family relationships - Damon, do you have any sisters? - are handled with the dispatch of multiple-choice questions on electronics exams. She also finds it strange that these friends don't seem to eat breakfast. They talk about getting ''something later in the day.'' She has visions of a Dorito truck pulling up around 11. It's like there are two entirely different worlds here, stuck together for the moment like robin's eggs in the same nest.
After a while I begin to have doubts about myself. The question ''What are you guys going to do today?'' is met with a total absence of interest, showing a doctrinaire belief that the day will unfold even if they don't have a plan for it. And there is a kind of antiphonal quality to their responses that makes me think of the collapsed churches of the 16th century. When I ask my son to do anything, although I'm pleased the answer is immediate (yup), the matter of execution looms large for the rest of the afternoon. And when Matthew goes into the shower and I think I should ask Damon if he wants to ''have a catch,'' he just says ''naw.'' That's pretty much it: yup and naw. It can build on you.
I have been thinking there may be a slight lull in young people's lives between age 14 and 15 as they wait for the world to reorganize. Meanwhile, they are content to take a pure satisfaction in themselves. For many years they have hung around the house waiting for something interesting to occur. This does not include horseshoes and walking the dog. They have been patient, even grim. And I have watched approvingly. So when I try to introduce a little purposeful activity into my son's life (want to dump the garbage?), it naturally comes as a shock to him. He looks at me with raised eyebrows: ''What's the matter with you today?'' he says, and then lapses into the glow of pure being.
It was when we had a conversation about this that I first learned about the fun-meter. I found out that I was only 2 on the fun-meter. Damon was 6. Three months ago Matt's dog Sunny got a 9, but he slipped to 5 when Matt got a dirt bike, which got a 10. Then Tracy came to town, the blond black-belt from Youngstown, Ohio. She gets a steady 9. Only Matt's karate teacher scores higher. But I don't feel too bad, because there are a lot of things that get just a zero - taking a nature walk, going to French restaurants, reading books by Caldecott winners.
I have always liked woods: the chirp of birds, the rustling of dead oak leaves in the wind. Matthew has not caught on to this. I talk to him eagerly about my own youth: throwing balls endlessly against a barn door, listening to the Giants, putting postage stamps in albums, spending uplifting hours in front of a bust of Beethoven. ''Did you have a skateboard?'' he says.
Damon wanders back into the room. He has just finished combing his hair. Again I am overwhelmed by the need for hospitality, casting wildly around for something to keep him occupied. Monopoly? A game of hearts? But Damon senses only the need to mix with the elements. ''Do you want to do anything?'' Matt says.
I look at Damon expectantly, as those robin's eggs shift uncertainly in the light winds of the '80s.
''Naw,'' he says, and sits down on the rug to tie his shoe.