MY FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD son probably wouldn’t approve of me mentioning him in print, so it’s a good thing this is about my friend Wally’s fourteen-year-old son. To those of you who think I am making up Wally and his son, I have two words: plausible deniability. That’s something I learned from a former American President who may or may not have been from Arkansas—it all depends upon what the meaning of the word Arkansas is. Or I’ll just say I was in the bathroom during that meeting, and I don’t remember anything, which I also learned from a former US President whose son was also a former US President.
Our kids. They grow up so quickly! One day they are toddling around in their diapers, and the next they are dropping out of Yale and running an oil company into the ground. And as Art Linkletter used to remind us every week, our kids say the darndest things: like “they misunderestimated me” and “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.” Haha, cute! It is not hard to put food on your family, at all, and when you’re older you kids will know. The hard part is getting the food off them, especially if your family wears suede to dinner, like mine.
Wally’s son started shaving this week. Now, the irony of this is that it’s Movember, and although Wally’s son is a bit self-conscious about having a moustache, Wally is proud of his son and couldn’t grow a Movember moustache himself, even if he wanted to (and he doesn’t). Maybe that’s because Wally doesn’t have good facial hair genes. When nature shuffled the deck, he got a Royal Flush of non-moustache DNA. And that would be great if Wally were sitting at a table where genetic poker was being played and moustache was an actual card suit. But he’s not—he’s at a table in the food court, eating Pad Thai.
You can see how this story is like a little vignette about fitting in, or maybe not fitting in. Wally is a grown-up man who can’t grow a moustache during Movember, and meanwhile here is his son shaving. It’s not a big deal, just a funny little coincidence. But maybe it’s also a story about how, no matter your age, you never are entirely free of this funny thing called approval.
I don’t think Mr. Obama is sitting around crying over his low approval ratings, but even a President needs approval. The only people who don’t are recluses, serial killers, and reclusive serial killers, which I’m guessing is a tough thing to be. We writers need readers; they don’t have to approve of us, they just need to read. Maybe disapproval is a reason to read. In that case, disapproval is just a form of approval. I don’t know if that’s a paradox or a contradiction or a sophism, so let’s just call it a paradictionism. I’m sure that’s a word, and that George W. Bush has used it.
Sometimes Wally thinks the boy takes more after his mother, and it’s not just because of the moustache. She cares a lot about what people think. The approval of others is really important to her. Wally, not so much. He finishes his Pad Thai and buys a shirt in the mall. He pays with Interac. He pushes in the numbers and waits for the magic word before removing his card: approved. And he realizes that every time he’s done this, there’s been a little part of his brain that is anxious up until the moment he sees that word. Approved. It’s as if he’s passed a test, propitiated the Interac god, or maybe even gotten away with something. And who knows, maybe he has.