The last few years I've pretty much known exactly what to get my 12-year-old son, Joseph, for Christmas. It's not because I know him so well and can read his mind but because he always gives me a very specific wish list that includes which video game, video game book, or video game equipment he wants. To me, it might as well be written in ancient Greek, but I've dutifully gone to the mall and shown the list to people who speak the language and then deposited the gifts under the Christmas tree.
I've mixed in a few surprises, though I didn't really feel like most of them were all that meaningful. Well, my task this year will be easier. I'm just going to fill Joe's stockings with fishing gear. That's because of what he's taught me and because some simple traditions still have the power to withstand the digital onslaught. To explain, I have to roll back the clock.
When Joe was about 7 and first starting Little League, he walked up to me one day after practice and said, "Dad, is it okay if I bat from both sides of the plate? That would be more fun." I all but whooped, "Of course, son! Of course you can!" I immediately imagined him as Shoeless Joe Tuttle, the switch-hitting phenom. The thought bubble over my head fast-forwarded to my moment of glory decades later—with me walking up to the podium to introduce Joe as he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But a funny thing happened on my way to Cooperstown. After a couple of years of crushing the ball—did I mention he batted lefty and righty?—Joe decided he wasn't coming along with me. I still remember the day he delivered his harsh verdict: "Baseball is boring and stupid." In retrospect there had been hints along the way. The first time I took him to a Major League game, Joe ate his way through the concession stand from cotton candy to hot dogs—to Cracker Jacks to Dippin' Dots. He asked to leave in the third inning, and threw up immediately upon arriving home.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this would be the first of many lessons from my son that I'd take to heart, and it would establish a very distinct pattern: Joe following his own passions, not someone else's expectations. His cold appraisal of baseball forced me to reexamine why it is I love the game so much. Most of my memories are traumatic. I still remember my first at-bat in Little League. I have a giant head, so our burly coach had to use all his strength to pull open the helmet ears; then he clapped them on my big melon like a vice. With the wind whistling through the ear holes, I walked up to the plate and prayed that I'd make an out quickly so I could rush back to the bench and pry the thing off. My wish came true when the way-too-early-to-reach-puberty mustachioed pitcher struck me out in three. At least I think they were strikes. They sounded like it, anyway. Another time the older players told me and some other rookies that the catcher's protective plastic jock cup was a device that helped you breathe better, so the three of us took turns putting the cup up to our faces, inhaling deeply, while the older guys tried their best to hold it together without laughing.
Despite all that, and despite my being the tenth best player on a nine-man team in one of the remotest parts of Virginia, I still thought I'd go on someday to join my favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds. I worshipped the Reds because a) they were awesome and b) the radio signal came in clear as a bell in the mountains where I grew up. So not only was I terrible, I was also delusional.
Joe, on the other hand, has always sifted coolly through the facts at hand, discarding pastimes (even the national one) that he doesn't enjoy, following his own bliss. In rapid succession he moved from Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh! to PSP to Wii, all of them strange new worlds that left me baffled. When he bothered to look up from the handheld games or cards, I was treated to long monologues—something about Zelda and a silver bridge and 57 levels and Easter eggs—I could barely follow. I felt dumb, and shut out from his internal world.
One day this spring we decided to go to Walmart and get him his own fishing pole. We'd fished off and on, but once he had his own rod and reel, Joe began tossing that line anywhere he could find in suburban Virginia—a tiny stream near Wendy's that miraculously held big catfish; the Potomac, where he outfoxed a bass; creeks teeming with sunfish beside the bike trail. The sharp, methodical, hungry brain he once applied to Nintendo turned its attention to the silent world underwater. Within what seemed like a week, he was an expert. He knew where to find specific fish, their mating and eating habits, at what depth he would catch them. Finally, we'd found something we enjoyed doing together.
But, like baseball, he has his own ideas about the rules of the game. Joe's policy is strictly "catch and release." To him, the experience of outsmarting a fish by using just the right bait or technique is worth more than a flaky, mouthwatering fillet sizzling in an iron skillet. Maybe he's right. Maybe a little mercy midstream is manlier than killing everything you come in contact with. It's a crazy concept, but I'm willing to consider it.
That doesn't mean he can't learn from the old guys. On one trip with my father, three generations of Tuttles waded out into a river, slipping and sliding on rocks and up to our knees in the rushing current. Dad saw a nice spot by an old stump and showed Joe where to cast. As soon as his spinner lure hit the water, a huge trout—I'm talking Moby Trout here—jumped up and took the bait. We didn't have a net so we held on to one another Three Stooges-style while Joe struggled to ease the fish toward shore. He fought the once-in-a-lifetime behemoth for a couple of minutes before it wiggled free and disappeared forever.
We all moaned and groaned, but only my dad and I knew the chances of catching another trout that size in that river were slim to none. I've never seen one that big in a lifetime of fishing there. Our expectations were tarnished by experience, but Joe's eager and enthusiastic mind wasn't polluted by such negativity. He figured he would just catch an even bigger one that day or maybe the same one again next time around.
I realize it wasn't the first time Joe's optimistic take on life had surprised me. About four years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and I dreaded the day when I had to sit down and tell him and his older sister, Grace, that I had a malignant tumor. The doctors, I said, thought they got to it early, and I was probably going to be okay. Instead of getting upset, he jumped up, pumped his fist in the air and yelled, "Yeah!! My dad beat cancer!!"
Then he went to school the next day and bragged to his whole class like I had done something heroic, when, truthfully, I was just lucky. He saw that 2 plus 2 equaled 4, where I thought 2 plus 2 equaled where are my car keys and what else can go wrong today? He looks forward, at all that went right, and I look backward, at how it nearly all went wrong.
So now I'm the envy of parents of 12-year-old boys everywhere for somehow weaning my kid off Nintendo—at least a little—and into the real, natural world. I'd like to take some credit for it. But Joe did it himself. He pushed aside childish things when he felt ready for something more. In the process, he gave me a great gift: time with him, without a console and impenetrable rules clouding the space between us.
And Joe just keeps on giving. We were fishing the other day when I noticed his favorite lure (the one he nicknamed "Best Friend" because it catches so many fish) was missing from his tackle box. He said he let his buddy borrow it, along with a pole. "You need to make sure you get them back right away," I said sternly. "It's just not okay for him to do that." Joe paused for a second before answering. "Well, his mom's in the hospital because of cancer, so I thought I'd let him hang on to them for a while." I teared up a little sitting there on the bank of the river, embarrassed by my tough, knee-jerk reaction, and so proud of my son. Looking over at him, I thought of all the things he'd taught me. Give back to the world what you don't need. Make your own rules. Be kind. But most of all, he'd figured out what we often forget in the increasingly crass way we seem to celebrate Christmas these days—that the best gifts in life don't come from a department store.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.