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A Son Begins to Widen His Orbit

My son's relationship to me has always been that of a moon orbiting its planet: He periodically strays to transit my dark side, but on the whole he has been sweet, mannered, modest in his wants, and tolerably dependent. I have often described him as a "low maintenance" kid.

It seems like only yesterday that I adopted him in Russia as a seven-year-old. When I went to pick him up at the orphanage, Alyosha leaped into my arms and never looked back. And now I see him perched for the explosion that will replace the little boy with the young man.

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In a few days, my son will turn 12.

I can hardly believe it. But though I struggle at times to retain the image of the little boy I've known, reality has ways of making itself felt. In the matter of my son, there have been undeniable signs.

My son recently informed me that his room is no longer big enough. A couple of weeks ago, he sat me down at the kitchen table and sketched an addition to his second-floor room that would stick out from the side of the house like a poop deck and have a fireman's pole extending to ground level to allow for a quick escape.

This was followed by his request for a boombox.

When Alyosha asked for this device, I was dumbfounded. I have always associated these portable stereos with fast, open cars and life on the streets. Are they even legal in Maine's backwaters? It was several days before I could bring myself to discuss the matter with him. Perhaps it's the prefix "boom" that makes it so difficult. I don't know.

As we sat at the kitchen table together, staring at my son's plans for his unlikely bedroom expansion and looking at an advertising flyer for a boombox with something called a "subwoofer," I could do little more than rub my chin and hope for the phone to ring.

"Well?" Alyosha finally asked with a hint of impatience.

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I made a lame parry with, "Alyosha, you're not a teenager, you know."

He thought for a moment and then announced, "Yes I am."

The next thing I knew, he had changed the part in his hair.

We adjourned so I could ponder these weighty events in the solitude of my private chambers.

After a long time spent staring out the window, it suddenly dawned on me: I'm not ready to have a teenager. And, at the risk of sounding trite, I'd like to add: I don't, in truth, understand them. Nevertheless, in about a year's time....

Of course, I know exactly why I don't understand teenagers. Because I was not a typical teen myself. Perhaps it has something to do with having identified with Emerson's "Self-Reliance" at the impressionable age of 14. When my peer group moved one way, I moved the other. On principle.

My memories of a teenagerhood of contrariness are legion. While my peers grunted their exertions on sports teams, I whiled my time away in a basement laboratory, studying my Kenner chemistry manual with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar. While the other kids walked their dogs, I doted on my piranha. When long hair became the fashion, I had mine cut. I was engaged in an endless battle to define myself as different, fighting tooth and claw to avoid conformity at all costs.

And now I suddenly see my son flirting with the appurtenances of adolescence and it seems so foreign to me. It's as if someone had slipped him "the manual" in the night and he's read the preface, the preamble to his declaration of independence. "When in the course of pre-adolescent events...."

As I write these words, things become clearer. Tenets reassert themselves. The paradox of adolescence is that, in their efforts to become different, teenagers wind up conforming in matters of behavior and appearance.

For the four years I have had Alyosha, there was only one sovereign rule: Never get into an argument with a child. For there are only two possible outcomes: Either I will become irrational or I will lose.

The thing is, in outlining his plans for a larger room and calmly informing me of his advanced age, my son is becoming a rational person, so now I must plumb certain pros and cons with him. But this is the really good thing about growing up, being able to explain one's thoughts and, to an extent, one's feelings. While expanding his admittedly small room is beyond our means, I may have to learn to live with a boombox, if only I can hold the thing at bay.

THE other night, I went to the window to check on Alyosha. He had gone outside to in-line skate. I had told him to be in by 8:30, and already it was 9 o'clock and quite dark. But I understood completely his need to hold onto every waking moment of the waning summer. These nights are rare things, real pearls in the hand.

As I watched, I caught sight of my son skating under a street lamp. Embedded in the silence of the night, his energy seemed boundless, his joy complete. Significantly, he had heeded my directive not to stray from in front of our home and was skating in endless circles in his pool of light.

For the moment, then, he is still locked in a snug and familiar orbit, and as surely as these nights grow cooler and shorter, I will affirm my 12-year-old who thinks he's a teenager, despite my lack of experience. I once read it in a book, and am reassured by its basic truth: I have never begun any important venture for which I felt adequately prepared.

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