06/30/2014 02:12 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

The Father of All Problems


The moment was already painful enough. There I was, in the midst of my fourth dental appointment in two weeks, following up on gum surgery and a root canal by getting a filling and a crown. And yet, despite three Novocain shots (the first two didn't take) and the inescapable reek of smoking tooth enamel, it all still felt less painful than what I was looking at.

Hanging a couple of feet away was a small television, showing what I believe was Hour 27 of The Today Show. The four male anchors had departed on a fishing trip to reminisce about their fathers. They were lounging on the front porch of a rustic cabin, beers in hand, boasting about the valuable life lessons they'd learned from fishing and playing ball and just hanging out with their dads. I'm sure they thought they were doing something sweet, but hearing about how perfect their relationships were with their dads only reminded me of how painful mine with my 16-year-old son has become.

It's not like anything has happened that involves calls to the police, interventions or made-for-TV movie scripts. It's just that my time with the kid I loved playing catch with now leaves me feeling like Darth Vader to his Luke when it comes to father and son pairings. We are so disconnected, I swear we'd argue about the necessity of oxygen to stay alive. If he'd ever take the time to have a conversation.

Things weren't always so complex. When he was younger, it was easy to be a good dad because the rules were pretty simple. I decided what to do. And we did it. Going to ball games. Buying baseball cards. Reading bedtime stories. Pretending our car was a spaceship. Going to the comic book store. There were no fishing trips (sorry, Al Roker and Matt Lauer), but he seemed to look forward our time together as much as I did. And so it went right up until he hit his teen years.

Since then, he's moved well beyond my ability to coach him at baseball. Cards and comics are what little kids like. Any reading he likes to do comes in 140 characters or less. Most of our time is spent in silence, him clicking away on his phone, with the occasional argument that ends with me becoming Get Off My Lawn Guy, complaining about his lack of initiative. (And his horrible taste in music, but I'll save that for another time.)

Like most fathers and sons, at least we have sports as our way of keeping the lines of communication open. When all else fails, as it always does, we can discuss the NFL draft or debate the NBA Finals. I suppose it's the manly way of staying bonded, particularly when you don't quite know how to explain to each other what you're really feeling.

It's the same shorthand I developed with my dad after moving out. When I'd call and he say, "So those Seahawks look like they've got a good offense this season," that meant, "I hope things are going well for you." If he said, "The Mariners need to fire the whole team and start over," that meant, "Don't get too down if things aren't going well." And if he said, "Let me put your mom back on the phone," that meant, "Halftime is over."

I could write off a lot of my current problems to the fact that my boy is a hormone-addled teenager, so all bets are off at that eight years ago. Still, during a break at my son's baseball practice the other day, I noticed one of the other players sitting back to back with his dad while chatting about where they would go for lunch. Here was a kid the same age as mine, with the same interests and circumstances, yet he and his father were getting along fine.

So perhaps my son wasn't the issue. Maybe it's me. After all, what are the issues I had with him? He doesn't push himself hard enough to get better at sports and school. He prefers to sit alone in his room, playing with his phone, rather than get out in the world to socialize. When I give him a chore to do, he finds every possible distraction to keep him from doing it.

Meanwhile, I keep saying I'm going to start golfing and never do. I still haven't gotten around to writing my book proposal done or launching the podcast I've always wanted to do. I spend much of my spare time alone, never forcing myself to be sociable and perhaps even (god forbid) attract a girlfriend. And even though my house trim needs painting and closet doors need doorknobs and the floor needs sweeping, it always seems more important to check emails for an hour instead.

So basically, I'm getting mad my teenager for being me. I like to think this comes from a good place. We all want our kids to have better lives than we do (just as we have all vowed not to be like our parents). Still, at 16, he probably hasn't the slightest idea of how he wants to live his life and there's no reason to. I just wish I could relax and not worry so much about him making the same mistakes I did and start letting him go instead of clinging to how he and I used to be.

I suppose that's the key to being the sort of fathers that inspire network anchors to opine about them on cabin porches. Remember whose life is whose. Find and be happy with your own, which is the best way to teach your kids to find and be happy with their own. Then, just trust that there's enough commonality between the two so you'll still feel like parent and child.

This isn't easy. Still, this morning, I drove my son and a neighbor's kid to the summer camp where he's working. On the way, the other kid starting boasting that his dad's favorite team, the Oakland Raiders, were going to beat my son's Patriots this year. My boy shot right back that the Patriots would destroy the Raiders, and win another Super Bowl. He said this while wearing the Red Sox hat and Patriot jersey I gave him, to support the teams I live and die for. So maybe my boy and I are closer than I think.