The Champ used to be so sweet.
A happy child. Friendly and amenable. A parent's dream. That's what people called him. Of course, they'd see him playing happily by himself, nary a whine nor whisper of discontent ...
He was never one to immediately share his toys, or anything even remotely resembling toys — lint balls, perhaps from under the bed — with visiting playmates, but eventually the kindness of others would rub off and he would relent. He might even ofter a broken rubber band to the patient guest.
But that's just how kids are sometimes. Selfish little jerks.
Mostly you try to let that stuff pass with small reminders of how we "should be treating our friends," hoping the operative word FRIENDS will eventually make an impression with repeated use.
Lately, though, life with The Champ has seemed a little like being forced to to sit in a darkened movie theater watching sneak previews of his teenage self saying all manner of unscripted lines, in a language I don't quite understand. Only the smell of butter-flavored treats or the feeling of an arm's length detachment would make this "phase" seem less dreamlike.
He growls at strangers when they try to make his acquaintance, or worse, he'll describe physical features instead of using names when asking questions of his own.
Even when he's trying to be pleasant, there's the unmistakable awkwardness of candor:
He'll respond to an emphatic "Thank You Very Much" with an equally effusive "You're not welcome."
"Hey, Mr. Fat Guy, did you ride your bike all day way over here? Dat's pretty cool."
"Mrs. Old Lady. You dropped somepin from your poctet."
"That kid is out of control. I'm not playing wit him."
I smile painfully, wishing I could clasp my hands tightly over his mouth two seconds before the words tumbled out. But there is no two-second delay in real life. ... It only feels like time slows, since the words hang in the air taunting you with the fallacy that they would be so easy to clear away with only the swish of a hand.
Those moments of pure mortification, however, are the flip side of the moments of undeserved perfection.
Like the time, in high school, I walked home from the bus stop and some catcalling seniors drove by in their muscle car making a spectacle of themselves.
I thought it may have been some act of divine intervention when their transmission fell out onto the roadway a few yards after they sailed past me. I remember feeling vindicated as I walked by the broken down jalopy and they were quiet as mice.
Or when my otherwise disobedient pooch, heeded my whistle at the dog park and ran to sit at my side. As a crowd watched.
Even though you know these moments were gifts and unlikely to be repeated, the seed of hope that you can control the universe is planted anyway.
Someday ... if you just keep reminding him ... he will be charming again.
"Oh, Champ. That's not polite. We don't describe people ... we use their names. We try to find something nice to say. We try to avoid things that could hurt people's feelings. What if I said you were out of control and I didn't want to play with you?"
I stand there squinting in the glaring light of truth: Parents can really be jerks sometimes, too.