Avian metaphors are so hot right now. Schizophrenic financial markets seem to hinge entirely on whether central bankers are hawks or doves. Closer to home, child number two starts college next week and the dreaded empty nester syndrome looms. I’m no ornithologist, but I always thought “empty nester” was an oxymoron; it seems to me “free birds” is much more on the money. Freed from the tyranny of school holidays, tortuous exams, and other sundry activities, I’m actually looking forward to the next phase. Depression is for the birds, this could be fun.
To be fair, parting with one’s child can be traumatic, and I have to confess it took me some time to come to terms with my son’s departure for college a couple of years ago. Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, a parody of how talented students can unravel at America’s elite universities, had created all types of apprehensions in my mind, which were fortunately quickly dismissed given how obviously happy he seemed to be. What came as a surprise, however, was a transformation in the father-son relationship, a subtle and continuous shifting of sands that I admit to with a healthy dose of humility. I first started becoming aware of this last summer, as the two us enjoyed a drink at a slick sidewalk café in Soho, with me sipping my customary vodka-soda with a splash of cranberry. “Dude” he said, “real men don’t use straws, and you should never order a pink drink besides.” Bemused, I could have pointed out that “real men” don’t wear skinny-fit orange jeans either, but I guess he did have a point. Sean Connery, whose warped idea of masculinity includes a belief that all women need to be slapped periodically, would never order a colored drink garnished with an umbrella. As we raced to our dinner reservation, he gently admonished me to slow down – “nothing is that important; besides, they can wait for us.” Fair enough. A trip to the gym was next. “Biceps are the male cleavage Daddy”, observed my first born, examining my withering physique critically, “you need to do something about your arms.” As I struggled to make it to 50 push-ups – the minimum standard for manhood, according to him – he made the encouraging observation that “pain is weakness leaving your body dude, hang in there.” I’m not sure if Wordsworth ever worked out with his son, but he was certainly onto something when he talked about the child being the father of the man. When I asked him (I mean my son, not William) if he was picking up this stuff in his college classes, the immediate retort was that “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”.
I guess when your son starts quoting Oscar Wilde back to you, you know you must have done something right.
Daughters are different, and mine happens to be my favorite person in the world. Saying goodbye in a few days will not be easy, but it’s even more difficult to come up with the type of inspiring message one feels obliged to deliver on these occasions. What meaningful philosophical guidance can I provide to someone who is already better versed in the classics than I ever will be? It turns out that in the curious circle of life, some of the finest philosophers and psychologists in the world carry golf clubs for a living in Scotland, and one of my favorites is Glenn at Kingsbarns. I once asked Glenn, as we strolled down the signature 12th fairway with St Andrews Bay to our left, why I persisted with my increasingly frustrating goal of playing scratch golf rather than simply taking pleasure in the joy of being out in this and other equally spectacular settings. Without hesitation, and rather in the fashion of Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna as chronicled in the Bhagavad Gita, Glenn answered as follows. “We chase our dreams because we can. Because we’re not in some hospital, dying of cancer.”
And so to my little girl I have this to say. You are of course too small, too young and too fragile to be thrown into the world, but your dreams will make you stand tall and make you bigger and stronger. As for what dreams you should chase, you already know the answer. It’s the title of the song from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that you choreographed so beautifully and poignantly last year. Think of the coat as a metaphor for your new incarnation and reflect on these words from the song:
I wore my coat, with golden lining
Bright colors shining, wonderful and new
And in the east, the dawn was breaking
And the world was waking
Any dream will do