It happened a few weeks ago when my 10-year-old son, Anton, was sitting at the kitchen table, up to his eyeballs in Yu-Gi-Oh! literature. "Time for bed," I announced.
"Just five more minutes, Dude," he said without looking up.
I wasn't sure I had heard correctly, and perhaps I hadn't, because Anton soon went up to bed, distinctly calling me "Dad" before lights out. That single, clipped "Dude" had been a blip, then, a shooting star, gone and forgotten.
Or so I thought.
The next morning, as he rummaged through the cupboards in search of breakfast, Anton heaved a sigh of frustration, followed by, "Where's the oatmeal, Dude?"
"Anton," I said, "are you talking to me?"
He threw me a puzzled look, as if he didn't have the slightest idea what I meant.
"What did you call me?" I asked.
He thought for a moment and then his expression brightened. "Dude," he said.
Just like that.
I didn't make an issue of it, because, frankly, I didn't know what to think. But I did brood on it during the course of the day while my son was in school. Truth to tell, it came to strike me as humorous, and I found myself chuckling on and off. I knew, of course, that kids – usually somewhat older ones than my son – sometimes went through a phase of addressing their parents by their first names, no doubt in an attempt to exert a degree of independence and claim some sort of peer relationship.
I smile when I recall a local couple who years ago had a 13-year-old daughter. Once, when I was over for supper, the girl blithely inquired of her mother, "Shall I get the dessert, Madeline?"
The mother didn't bat an eye, which suggested to me that she was fully aware of what was afoot and had no intention of dealing with it head-on, at least not in front of company. Within a month the daughter had resumed calling her mom "Mom," or "Mommy" when she was desperate for attention or really needed something.
All of this makes me wonder how my parents would have responded if I, as a kid, had had the temerity to presume such a note of familiarity. After one "Would ya pass the mashed potatoes, Tom?" my father, a quick study, would probably have firmed his lip, gazed down at me, and directed, quietly and clearly, "Please take a moment to revise your point of view."
And that would have been the end of that.
Over the course of days following Anton's preliminary "Dude," he seemed to grow more comfortable with the moniker and used it whenever addressing me. "I forgot my homework, Dude!" "Can you help me with this, Dude?" "Dude! We're out of toothpaste."
I have to admit that I came to feel an affinity for the name "Dude." As a kid I never had a nickname, but often wished I had. As a skinny 10-year-old with a crew cut, I was often on the run from bullies and under fire from boys who were allowed to grow their hair long and wear play clothes to school. I like to think that if I had had a nickname like "Spike" or "Bullet," the tide wouldn't have run so hard against me.
The thing is, I don't look much like a "dude." A dude, in my mind, is someone with the swagger of John Wayne or the straight-as-a-rail stride of Gary Cooper. I have never swaggered or strode. If anything, I tend to scurry, which makes me reminiscent more of Groucho Marx than The Duke.
In time the "dude" thing faded of its own accord. Perhaps my son realized it wasn't getting a rise out of me. Perhaps he did it more unconsciously than consciously and had little awareness of the word's peppering his speech – so when the impulse left him, he didn't miss it. I don't know.
But the experience was influential in its way. Recently I had to fill out an application for a new passport. One of the questions read something like "Other names by which the applicant is known." For a moment my pen hovered over the space, and I considered writing "Dude," for no other reason than to see if I could discover what Uncle Sam might think of it.
But I didn't follow through, which failing convinced me that Anton had assigned me the wrong nickname after all.
A real dude would have gone through with the experiment.