Oak and Acorn

Winter, 1962

Winter, 1962

Owen has his own way.

If I take a Nerf football out onto the front lawn and engage him in a game of catch, he’ll take up the game with great excitement. He’s six years old now and already has a fairly strong, accurate throwing arm. His catching, it should be said, needs some work, but he’s perfectly happy to toss the ball back and forth for five or six or seven exchanges.

After that, he’ll start to tinker with the framework of what we’re doing. First, he’ll decide that we should be kicking the ball to each other. This will send me scurrying around the yard in pursuit of errant kicks, to Owen’s great amusement. Then he’ll decide that we should be standing with our backs to each other and tossing the ball backwards over our heads. Or hiking the ball between our legs to each other.

Left to his own devices, he’ll begin to embroider an entire new story line around our endeavor. He’ll begin running around the yard with the ball, playing a game of “you can’t catch me.” He’ll begin kicking the ball around on the ground like a soccer ball. Or he’ll slip into his ninja persona and begin to fend off each of my passes as if they were projectiles hurled by an assassin. Soon, he’ll be narrating his own adventures, drafting villains from his favorite cartoons and videogames into an evolving intrigue of good versus evil, and he might hardly even notice as I retrieve the forgotten Nerf ball from the ground and go off to sit on the front stoop.

He has his own way. He insists on grilled cheese at virtually every meal, including breakfast. He doesn’t like to be alone, but has difficulty integrating his play with that of others. He is a virtuoso of the Xbox game controller, capable of generating long series of intricate on-screen jumps, feints, and attacks, but has great difficulty writing or drawing shapes. Likewise, he can solve difficult videogame-based puzzles and tests with surprising leaps of intuition, despite being unable to read the on-screen clues and prompts. He is swift to anger, capable of enormous temper tantrums, and incapable of holding a grudge for more than a few minutes. His IQ places him in the top two percent of his age group. He still sucks his thumb, though does so mostly in private, these days. Loud noises (and even some noises of modest volume, like the sound of a shower or a fan) upset him. He can be cruel, sometimes, in the things he says. He reminds me, more so than his well-adapted and socially graceful sister, of myself.

When I was a boy, I had an odd fondness for copying things down, for keeping arcane lists and making peculiar annotations in the margins of books. I can remember getting my hands on a paperback general almanac for the year 1964 and painstakingly copying out by hand the sports statistics in the book, rows upon rows of numbers, into a blank composition book. Why? I have no idea. I can remember taking down my father’s lathe operation and machinist study manuals from a shelf over the desk he kept in my parents’ bedroom, and carefully adding my own little pointers and labels (often consisting of little more than a long line and a random letter or two) to the diagrams in the books. Again, I can’t imagine why.

When I was older, I became fascinated with tabletop baseball and football strategy games. I would play them by myself, managing offense and defense simultaneously according to strict standards of impartiality, and compile the stats generated by those games. Pages and pages of batting averages, ERAs, standings, on-base percentages. Countless hours worth of counting and annotating, and to what avail? Search me.

Oh, and I had my own unique version of thumb-sucking, as well. Unlike Owen, I would stick my index finger and ring finger in my mouth. This was a vice I clung to tenaciously, despite scolding and hand-bandaging, until going off to school finally broke me of the habit.

Can there be some genetic basis, some chromosomal contributing factor, for these seemingly superficial habits of mind? To what degree are these eccentricities dictated by the Xs and Ys of our DNA? I look at Owen and I wonder. I try to parse the significance of the acorn’s placement in relation to the oak.

It’s a staple of family history that I had to be dragged by my mother—literally hauled by the arm and the back of my shirt—kicking and screaming and pleading, the entire quarter-mile distance from our home to Wilson School for my first day of kindergarten. This week, Owen entered the first grade, his first year at his new grammar school. We didn’t have to drag him and there was no screaming. He stoically shouldered his little backpack and carried his lunchbox as my wife and I walked him and his sister the short distance from our parked car to the school. When we left him, in line with his new classmates in the all-purpose room, he had already formed a new friendship with a boy similarly enamored with Scooby-Doo and the Transformers. He gave us a jaunty little thumbs up as we retreated into the hall and out into a brilliant, cloudless morning unshadowed by the troubling influence of genetics.

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