“What's WRONG with you?!”
As the angry tears erupted and Toshi jumped up from the edge of the pool, suddenly red-faced and livid at me, I realized I had made a serious miscalculation, and perhaps ruined a day that I've spent much of this summer planning and anticipating in the process.
Let's back up, though.
The seeds of this amazing day began when I was looking for an apartment last year in the wake of my separation from my wife of over a decade. I remember the entire process as sort of a blur. I looked at about 20 buildings in different parts of town, and when I visited the building I live in now, something about it resonated immediately. It's a nice building, it's a good area, and it felt like the kind of California apartment building I remembered from movies like “The Karate Kid” when I was younger.
I brought the kids with me the second time I came to see the building, to give them a chance to weigh in on their room. They were immediately taken with the giant chalkboard in the kitchen, and with the idea of their room having bunk beds, and they immediately fell in love with the building itself. In particular, they were taken with the large pool just outside my apartment door.
The rental agent explained that there are a total of 20 buildings in this neighborhood, all owned by the same company, and my key would open the main door of every one of those buildings, and we were allowed to use every one of those 20 pools. “Think about that,” she said to my kids. “You'll have 20 pools!”
Allen leaned in, unimpressed, and told her, “I already have a pool, so I'll have 21 pools.” If he'd had a mic, he would have dropped it.
A few months ago, my friend Dayan brought over his kids Dash and Beckett. They're the perfect ages to hang with Toshi and Allen, all of them clustered together and spread out from 10 to 7 years old. We went for a walk in the afternoon, going from building to building, the kids looking at every one of the pools and counting them as they went. They were the ones who told us they wanted to try going in every single pool, and as we continued going building to building, each courtyard and pool laid out differently, Dayan was the one who suggested it.
“What if we did that? What if we went went in all the pools in one long day and then we show them 'Jaws' at the end of it?”
It seemed like a perfect fit. After all, “Jaws” is one of the movies that ushered in the age of the event movie, so why not make an event out of the screening of it? I love that the Alamo Drafthouse hosts screenings of it on lakes or at swimming pools, and we were presented with a perfect opportunity to have a big water-themed day of mayhem.
Since then, we've been actively trying to figure out the day to do it. The summer's coming to a close soon, with his kids starting school before mine, and travel's been cutting into possible dates. We've shown them a few other things as a group this summer (“Tremors” was a pretty big hit with all the kids, and they seemed to like “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure” just fine as well), but we all knew what the main event was, and finally, we had a chance to set aside a full day for nothing but this event. I announced it, and a friend of mine (the always-delightful Sarah Sprague) mentioned that she had an idea for a dessert.
On the morning of the day, the boys slept in, storing up that last bit of little-boy energy they'd need for a full day of events. We're at an interesting point in the relationship of my sons. They're just old enough to drive each other crazy, and they are together so much that they never really get a break, a chance to decompress or even, god forbid, miss one another. I find myself, even on the best days we have together, putting out three or four emotional fires a day. It's just the way things work. I think sometimes it's easy to see just the good parts of the experiences I have with Toshi and Allen, and certainly many of the things I present are experiences that have touched me or that convince me that my kids are on the right path emotionally or morally or intellectually, or that were just plain fun.
But this has been a hard year, and while my kids are resilient in a way that surprises me, it hasn't been easy on them. In unguarded moments, they ask me when things are going to go back to normal, and it breaks my heart to try to explain that there is no back. There is only forward and a new normal, whatever that is. We can't have things the way they were for so many different reasons, most of which I can't even begin to explain to the kids right now. So when we have those tough days, I try to steer into them with a sense of humor to show the kids that this is how we handle things.
I don't always succeed.
We had a light breakfast, and the boys were chattering, excited, ready to play. When Dayan and his boys showed up, I pitched an idea to Dayan to create a different challenge for each pool. I fully intended for us to rig the game so all the boys would have a chance to win several events. Dayan suggested we hold each pool to ten minutes. It didn't sound like much, but it turned out to be the exact amount of time they were happy to be in each pool before asking to move on. The natural life-cycle of “new pool excitement” turned out to be ten minutes, almost exactly. It was funny how closely their attention spans synched up with Dayan's stopwatch.
The JAWStronauts have launched. pic.twitter.com/EYdDp5NKfq
– ImperatorHitFixDrew (@DrewAtHitFix) August 2, 2015
Dubbing the boys the “Jawstronauts,” we set out for our first building. We didn't tell them what the challenge was until they were all in the pool, when we announced that the first winner was Dash, and the contest was “first person in the pool.” At another pool, Dayan dropped a toy into the water when none of the kids were looking, and whoever noticed it and picked up would be the winner. We tried fastest time across the pool and slowest time across the pool. When they started the day, Dash was showing Toshi and Allen how to do somersaults off the side, something he just learned, and so we turned one of the contests into who could do the most somersaults in a row. Dayan had twenty $1 bills in his pocket, with each pool representing one chance to win, and we were prepared to collectively make it rain.
Even with us carefully tailoring each contest to try to give each boy a fair number of victories, tempers eventually flared. Lately, I've seen Toshi start to withdraw sometimes, and he seems to be getting more surly on occasion. It's a sneak preview of adolescence, and even knowing full well that it's coming, it can be a shock to the system. One of the things that has always defined my relationship with the boys is the ability to tease them and speak frankly as well. When Toshi's feeling grumpy, I am often able to break that mood by making him laugh, and sometimes, simply pointing out how silly a bad mood is in the face of good things can be enough to do the trick.
That was not the case on this particular day, though. Walking over to pool number seven, Toshi seemed like he was just plain irritated by everything and everyone. It didn't help that little brother Allen was crowing about his victory in the pool and how he had one more point than his older brother now. It can be something that silly, but it becomes everything to kids when their feelings get hurt. By the time we reached the pool, Toshi had a full-strength scowl locked in place. Dayan and I consulted on a possible contest for this pool, and then I turned to Toshi. “This one's going to Toshi, who wins for Crabbiest Attitude!”
And that's when the “WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?!” rant began. Oh, man, was he not in the mood for being defused at all. What would have been treated as a joke nine times out of ten instead sent him into a Tasmanian Devil-style rampage of anger, and for a moment, it looked like he was going to march out completely and just head back to my building. Instead, we talked for a few minutes, I apologized for upsetting him, and we decided to suspend the contests and just focus on enjoying the pools.
What was fun going from building to building was that each of the buildings was laid out differently, and each of the pools were different sizes and shapes. We made it to the end of our time at pool number ten before the kids all seemed to reach a collective brick wall. We called a time out and headed back to my place, where a spirited round of snacking and “LEGO Batman 3” on XBox ensued.
Ten pools down. Only a wee bit of drama. So far, so good. pic.twitter.com/WqyO9woIxG
– ImperatorHitFixDrew (@DrewAtHitFix) August 2, 2015
When we broached the subject of heading back out to round two of the pool challenge, the boys all voted to stay at my building instead and just enjoy one pool for a while. So in the end, our 20 pool challenge capped out at 11 pools total, which seems like plenty when you're actually doing it. Dayan and I spent the next chunk of the afternoon just managing the sorts of little flurries of mood that happen anytime you've got four kids of a certain age playing together. For the most part, these four kids play together beautifully, but they each have their quirks that have to be observed if they're going to have a good time. Dayan's youngest, for example, just got comfortable in the pool. It was a pretty tremendous moment for him, something they've been building to for a while, and he just had that moment where he realized that he enjoys the water and he's not scared of it. Even so, it would be easy to send him right back out of the water with the wrong kind of rough-housing. Trying to balance those particular needs for each of the boys while standing back and just letting them play is the juggling act of being a parent, and when it's just me and Dayan and the boys, that energy gets even rowdier.
We took a break to run out and grab dinner for the boys, and in keeping with the theme of the day, we went to Sharky's, a Mexican restaurant near my apartment. Once we'd loaded up our little monsters with beans and cheese and tortilla chips, we headed back to the apartment for the main event of the day.
I would not say any of our boys have an appetite for horror films yet. Toshi's starting to become a little more adventurous, and as long as something isn't just a non-stop parade of jump scares, he's willing to try more things than he was last year. This title has been looming large for all of the kids, though, and so when we sat down and found our places on the couch, we told them a little bit of what to expect. “There's some suspense in here, and there are a couple of jumps, but I wouldn't really call this a horror film. It's more intense than it is scary.” Dayan's older son is really into science at the moment, and he was curious about two key points. He wanted to know if there was a scientist in the movie, and if the scientist made it to the end of the film alive. We refused to give the kids spoilers, though, so when we did finally start the film, they were all on edge, not entirely sure what they were getting themselves into. Dayan put it into perspective by saying, “You love the 'Jurassic Park' movies, and less people die in this movie than in any of those films,” and that seemed to settle everybody down.
One of the beautiful things about “Jaws” is how effortlessly structured it is. The film unfolds in such a natural, unforced way that it seems to just fly by, no matter how many times I've seen it. By now, so much has been written about the way the problems with the mechanical shark caused Spielberg to change his entire style of shooting, but none of that matters when you look at the movie itself. The way the shark only gradually becomes visible, little by little, a bit more each time we encounter it, is one of the great reveals in film history. No matter how scared the boys were by any individual scene in the film, they seemed to keep leaning in, keep looking for more details. When Brody's son Mike comes face to face with the shark but isn't attacked, the boys immediately puzzled out the reason. “He wasn't moving, and the shark is attracted to the motion! That's what they said before!” They were still on edge from the little boy dying earlier in the film, so they seemed relieved when this second batch of kids survived.
Two scares in particular almost ended the screening early. The most famous jump in the film is when the head appears in the hole in Ben Gardener's boat, and sure enough, when that head popped out, four little boys spiked right to the red, terrified and freaked out and not sure what to do. We paused for a moment to let them calm down, and I told them the story of my first time seeing the film. I saw it on cable in 1980, and I went to see it at the home of one of my friends. His mom and my mom sat behind us as we watched, and when that head popped out, I scrambled completely over the back of the couch to escape. Since none of our kids actually cowered behind furniture, I assured them that they all handled the film better than I did.
The second scare wasn't something I meant as a scare. We screened the film on August 3rd, and after Quint's brilliant monologue about the aftermath of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, I paused the film to add, “The day they pulled those last survivors out of the water was exactly 70 years ago today. We didn't plan that when we scheduled today, but it's pretty amazing.”
Dash, Dayan's oldest, said, “But in the movie, right? Not for real, right?”
“Oh, no, that whole monologue that Quint just gave… that's all true. That really happened.”
Cool as a cucumber, Dash stood up and headed down the hall. “That's it. I'm done. Nope. No more of that.” The movie was fine right up till the moment I so happily asserted that the mass deaths of hundreds of men by shark attack was a true story. Not since I introduced “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” at Butt-Numb-A-Thon as “a real documentary” have I so completely miscalculated an audience. Dash was eventually convinced to hang out for the rest of the movie, but it was not an easy conversation.
The final act of the film was pure rollercoaster, and the boys got into it in a physical way, bouncing around with each new scare and yelling and freaking out over Quint's death and eventually shouting “Shoot the air tank! Shoot it!” at the screen as a group. The attack on Hooper's cage played great, and just when the boys were talking about how fake the shark looked in a few shots, the great footage of the real shark got cut in, and they got real quiet again. When Brody finally lands that perfect shot, the boys all cheered, justice having finally been served.
They survived! Now it's time for their reward. pic.twitter.com/qodZgyHNk8
– ImperatorHitFixDrew (@DrewAtHitFix) August 3, 2015
I broke out the desserts, and Dash was the first to grab his. He began spooning out the whipped cream and the Jello, finally finding a gummy shark there in the midst of the cup. He plucked it out, bit the head off, and then dropped the whole mess in the sink. His place in the food chain firmly established, he seemed to relax. The boys were immediately talking about “favorite parts” and laughing at each other for being scared and asking us about sequels. After we explained that no one would be dumb enough to make a bad sequel to “Jaws,” and certainly no company would milk it for three terrible sequels, so no, there is no other “Jaws” to ever track down or watch, they ran off and played together for a last few frantic minutes.
I could see my guys were already fading, though, and sure enough, we said goodnight to Dash and Beckett and we got everyone ready for bed at my house, and we sat together on the couch and talked about the day and I read a chapter of “Jurassic Park” (their current bedtime story of choice) to them, listening as their breathing got more and more regular. I didn't even have to look at them to know they were gone. Wrestling Toshi into his lower bunk involved an elaborate effort on my part, since he's got my husky genes, while lifting Allen into his upper bunk is so ridiculously easy that I wonder if he's ever going to get any bigger. He takes after my wife completely, and the two of them are a constant reminder of how we got to this place. And each time I'm reminded of where we've been and how things got broken, I double down on my efforts to create special days for the boys for any little reason. One day, years from now, hopefully time will heal the day-to-day pains of divorce and Allen won't feel compelled to ask me when I'm “coming home,” but when those pains fade, I want there to be memories of their dad working hard to make them happy.
There was no single part of the day that was amazing by itself, but it was the context of it all. It was the way the kids kept enjoying each next step of things. It was the way they stayed excited all day long for a movie they hadn't seen yet. It was the idea that a friend of mine was moved to make special desserts. It was all of it put together.
When I feel them worn out from joy, and when they keep talking about an event for days or even weeks afterwards, I feel like I got at least one day right. And even one day is a huge victory right now. I'll take it.