James Thurber

The Secret Life of …Build-a-Bear

Now that my boys are getting older, I am confronted by contradictions daily. My sons act too cool when it comes to wearing helmets, but want the Scooby-Doo band-aids when they fall and get hurt. My nine-year-old, Owen, uses AXE hair gel to spike his, yet still wants us to tie his shoes. His seven-year-old brother, Hayden, hates to bathe, but still could spend hours in a bath playing with the pirate tub toys we’ve had since he was two.

Yesterday was a perfect reminder of how interesting it is watching my children grow up–right before my eyes. All year the boys have been mentioning wanting to get stuffed animals from Build-a-Bear. Secretly, I’d roll my eyes, smirk, and think to myself: “Seriously, you want another stuffed animal at your age?” We held them off until the holiday season, but they were still talking about it. Hence, Hayden “adopted” one on our New York City excursion. Mushroom photo (37)Thomas Trainer was born at the best toy hospital money can buy–FAO Schwarz. Owen did not have enough allowance then, so he received a gift card from my in-laws on Christmas. Fifty dollars–for a stuffed animal!! If I think about it too much, I’ll get sick.

That’s part of my problem. Even though we may be fortunate enough to afford a nice lifestyle and give the boys things they want (or ask my in-laws to) I have always had a problem with spending money, stemming from my childhood: Part Catholic guilt, part anxiety that my parents could not afford to do things for all seven of us–which adds up to never feeling worthy of such luxuries. Having children has forced me to confront this–a lot!

For years, I would play the saboteur, ruining experiences, or at least putting a damper on them, because I had unresolved feelings about money and spending. I would complain or deny under the guise of not wanting to spoil my kids or claiming we couldn’t justify the expense, but really it was guilt and shame on my part. It has only been more recently in my parenting journey that I have tried to be more fluid in my responses and reactions: To “go with the flow.” To choose the path of least resistance. I have certainly seen the benefits of this attitude.

So, that’s how I accepted the fact that my boys wanted bears, and that was fine by me. The insights I gained from this experience cost much less than a therapy session. First of all, I loved watching Hayden create his in New York. To watch him be so gentle and patient, to see the traits he selected for his bear’s personality: bravery, kindness, friendliness…reminded me of the hopes we all have for our loved ones. I was not there for Owen’s bear photo (36)yesterday–which is actually a mouse–and it’s probably better that I wasn’t: “Does he really need 2 outfits?” “No, you are NOT getting a Bear-Pad (fake I-pad) for this thing, it’s already too expensive.” I avoided such confrontations, and instead enjoyed meeting my son’s newest charge at home, and delighting in the fact that Owen chose to name him Rufus, in honor of the yellow labrador we lost earlier this year.

Yes, this Build-a-Bear experience was reaffirming in a weird, albeit corporate sort of way. But it forced me to consider and re-consider my job as a father. Often, I feel it’s my place to be the heavy, to say “NO!”, to have them act tough, to suck it up, to prepare them for a world that tells them to “man up.” But that’s where the contradiction comes in. They are not men. They are boys. They are only seven and nine. And in the end, I’d rather them still want to cling to a stuffed animal than to a remote control while playing Call of Duty Black OPs, or the latest gadget that our culture says ALL kids MUST have (I-pod Touch, anyone?).  No, if my kids still want to act their age, then who am I to stop them?

Which brings me to the second half of our day yesterday. The contradiction. The part where Owen and I went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_poster It was pouring rain–the perfect afternoon to sit in a dark, warm movie theatre. I was excited because it was only PG. The movie, starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig, is a remake and a reboot of the Danny Kaye classic, based on a James Thurber short story. On the way there, Owen asks me why I love movies so much. “I love the escape,” I tell him. “I love the way you can be transported to another time and place, a different world, for a few hours. And you know how I teach English? Well, I love the idea of storytelling, the art of storytelling.” I actually said the “art” of storytelling. I knew he had probably tuned me out by then, but it was cool to share these thoughts with him.

It was also cool to watch HIM watch the movie. As Walter envisioned scaling sky scrapers and later scaled the Himalayas for “real”, I watched Owen’s eyes widen as he sat, riveted, for two hours. How he laughed at the right parts, and gasped at the thrilling parts, and even grunted in agreement at the end when Walter calls his boss, his nemesis, a dick. (Hmm, didn’t know he knew that word). This boy, who had just hours ago been picking out PJs for his new toy, was now watching a movie that dealt with the harsh realities of life: loneliness, death, and the downsizing of corporate America.  A movie that also showed him glimpses of how tender new love can be, how amazing the world is and the beauty that can be found in our backyard or half-way round the globe.

As we watched the film, I was a sap (and a bit foggy from the night before)–tearing up at various parts that resonated with me: the relationship between a father and son, the unrealized dreams one must confront in middle age, the fear we all have of living life to the fullest extent possible. But they were also tears of joy, thinking about the path that lies ahead for my sons. Of all the lands that they have yet to encounter, of the relationships that they will discover (and lose) along the way, of the bridge we all build between our dreams and our reality.

AS we drove home, we talked about our favorite parts: Owen liked the imaginary battle between Walter and his boss through downtown Manhattan; I liked the scene where Walter skateboards down a winding road through the mountains of Iceland. Our discussion ended with his seal of approval: “Good movie, Dad. That was cool–really cool.” I nodded in agreement.

Yesterday, as I confronted these contradictions, indeed, embraced them, I hugged my son a little tighter, and he hugged his new buddy, Rufus, a little tighter, and we both held firm to the hope and promise that life has to offer.

And that’s exactly where we both should be at this point in our lives.