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Today I Am a Fountain Pen

The ritual isn

Jesse Green
June 28, 2007

Three days after the bar mitzvah, still somewhat high from Erez’s success, I got a call from the head of the middle school he attends, saying I should come right over. Erez had gotten himself in trouble.

Rushing the ten blocks, I thought how brief his newfound maturity had proved. And what kind of maturity was it, anyway, if so quickly compromised?

The story was almost comical. Hearing music, he had been drawn to the orchestra room between classes. Younger students were rehearsing. Standing in the doorway, he caught the eye of one of his fifth-grade friends and started making faces. The friend made faces back. Erez pretended to be choking and lay down on the hallway floor in a feigned death agony. The friend threw a pen at him. Erez threw the pen back. Ha ha. Except that, with an unerring sense for mayhem, the pen flew smack into the side wall of the boy’s violin, breaking it as if it were balsa.

It wasn’t balsa. It was in fact a fine instrument his parents had just bought because of the boy’s promise as a musician.

Andy rushed from work, too, and we found Erez in the office, crying. The head of the middle school, who had taken him out of classes for the afternoon, said she could hardly bear to punish him further because he was so miserable and contrite. She limited his suspension to time served.

We were angry yet relieved. Behind the crime of accidentally hurting his friend’s violin was the fact that he loved to hang out in the orchestra room. This was not such a bad form of adolescent loitering. When he didn’t get home on schedule from school, it was usually because he was practicing there or losing track of time in that other den of iniquity, the library. His disobedience was on a very high plane and oddly nonrebellious—or, to put it another way, his rebellions were neither intentionally nor radically disobedient. He was more apt to take contrarian stands on things we couldn’t really argue about, like his choice of instruments when he signed up for orchestra in the first place. He wanted to play viola. I begged him not to because viola music is written in the one clef I can’t read easily. That sealed his decision.

At every stage of parenting, we have been told, “Just wait.” Wait for the terrible twos, the selfish sevens, the nightmare of adolescence. For me, the paradox of the bar mitzvah was based at least partly on the idea that no 13-year-old could reasonably be called mature; he was in fact at an age when he might instead blow up with immaturity. And we had certainly seen kids behave horribly at bar mitzvah parties, or partake in orgies of self-indulgence as they opened their gifts afterward. Like three-year-olds on a sugar bender, they spend an hour ripping wrappings and ignoring Hallmark wishes, then lay exhausted amid the spoils of their false adulthood, no one knowing who sent the savings bonds.

We have tried to prevent these scenes, and also not to look for them. We have been, by the standards of our generation of urban parents, premodern as Mennonites. No electronic games, computer time limited to ten minutes a day, TV on weekend mornings only. Erez’s cellphone, which we gave him so he could reach us if necessary when he started to walk to school by himself, can only call four numbers, and we programmed which ones they would be. The world in which he could be disobedient was vastly circumscribed by such choices.

And yet the world gets in. He found a way to override the phone’s program. A girl he knows—an older schoolmate who likes to try out her sophistication on anyone who will pay attention—sent him outrageously vulgar emails that appeared blank to the naked eye. (We monitor his email.) Eventually I realized she had used a white font against a white background; only when you highlighted the message by dragging your cursor across it could you see the astonishing contents. Gaping at it, I was reminded of the children’s novel that Charlotte Brontë wrote in the tiniest script she could muster, so no adult could read it, and of the boy—a New York City private school student, of course—who downloaded a high-pitched sound only kids could hear and turned it into a parent-proof ringtone. When the Times provided a sample of the sound on its website, Andy and I played it and scoffed: There was nothing there! But Erez and Lucas started screaming and holding their ears.

As parents, we consider ourselves sensible, but we can only be sensible with what senses we still have. No matter how narrowly you try to limit what your children will read and hear to what you already know how to handle, they will inevitably begin to sense things beyond the safe zone you’ve created for them. This is actually necessary, as the bar mitzvah ceremony demonstrated so beautifully: Erez was sensing the world beyond his parents, and taking steps into it. But the process is also confounding, as the aftermath proved.

We had not thought very much about the gifts Erez would get. When people asked what he might like we deliberately answered a different question: What could we tolerate his having? Books, music—and if cash was easier, not too much. None of these suggestions quite worked out the way we intended. The books generally came in the form of gift cards for bookstores, with the result that he now must buy the equivalent of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before next March or forfeit their value. Music came largely in the form of coupons for use at the iTunes store, which would have been useless except that two very generous (and, as it turned out, subversive) friends gave him iPods. (The Nano, he kept; the Shuffle, holding fewer songs, he gave to Lucas.) And the money was perplexing as well, not just because people gave so much, but also because it was often accompanied by restrictive covenants such as: “Only to be spent on fun things!”

The first fun thing Erez would spend his bar mitzvah money on was fixing his friend’s violin. But even after that expense, he was left, as of this writing, with almost $10,000 in cash or cash equivalents. Andy and I eyed the mounting total somewhat enviously. The bar mitzvah, tightly budgeted though it was, had dug us into a deep hole, and Erez’s booty would half refill it. Of course we would never really commandeer his gifts; they mostly went into the bank, despite those covenants. But I began to wonder if the bar mitzvah ritual, looked at macroeconomically, had become little more than an elaborate wealth redistribution scheme, transferring money from parents to children at the fairly inefficient rate of 50 percent. Or at least that was the figure in our case; your results may vary.

Ours may too; several months after the fact, these totals aren’t yet final. That’s because of a family rule—devised to control birthday mania—that limits the boys to opening just one gift per day, with a thank-you note required before the process continues.

After the bar mitzvah we gradually realized we had to increase the quota to five gifts per day and eventually ten, or risk stale checks and disgruntled donors. Erez has dutifully written over 100 thank-yous—and yet a few gifts still remain. The bookkeeping has been intense, making us very grateful indeed for those who elected to give nonfungible items like fountain pens. Our favorite so far: a collection of grooming products that make Erez smell like the interior of P. Diddy’s limo. Erez’s favorite so far: a Remote Control Farting Bear from his sportswriter cousin, which he promptly farted to death.

But even when all the money is banked, the pens lost and the tube of body gel empty—and it will be soon, if he keeps using it as hair gel—something of the bar mitzvah will remain. I refer of course to those iPods and the new, private music they contain. As of now, it’s a strange amalgam of Franz Ferdinand and Sweeney Todd. But going forward, no matter what limitations we place on where and how often the devices may be used, we will no longer be connected to the innermost melodies (and provocative words) that shape and color his longings. Until now it has been possible to believe, and to arrange things so the belief was true, that what our boys wanted was the same as what we wanted for them.

I finally understand that the bar mitzvah is not best understood as a signpost indicating arrival at the outskirts of maturity. It is instead a gate of desire. What that desire will mean, and whether it will be achieved, is out of our control, beyond our hearing. It is written in a clef we can’t easily read. We can only hope we were good enough parents not to have locked the gate, even if we kept it gently closed as long as possible.