Thoughts On Being Dangerous – Part II

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Bringing Out the “Dangerous” in My Boy, Part 2 : The Handmade Car

By Greg Fitzsimmons on August 11, 2016
Originally appeared on Parent Co

Having constructed a tree fort in our front yard in Venice Beach that was large enough to rent out on Airbnb, it was time for another project inspired

by “The Dangerous Book For Boys.” The fort had brought my 10-year-old son and me closer and we both learned, through trial and injury, how to use power tools. I also had a September 1 book deadline so I needed to take on something that would derail me for about 30 days. 

Each of these projects is another step towards making my son a man, and keeping me a child.  Owen was very difficult as a baby, crying constantly and only calming down if my wife or I held him. As a toddler he began expecting this doting and, quite frankly, I feared his becoming a momma’s boy. 

But I knew there was another side to him. I saw it at SeaWorld in San Diego one afternoon. Jim Breuer and I are at a sand play area with rubber mushrooms popping up for our kids to climb on. Jim and I watch as a bigger kid reaches up and pulls my son off of a purple shroom and then waddles away. I begin running towards my child but Jim grabs my arm and says, “Let him shake it off bro.” 

Owen picks himself up and heads after the kid. He comes up behind him, pulls him to the ground and rolls over on top of him. As the kid starts crying, Breuer high fives me and says, “Righteous dude!”

So, once again, we cracked open “The Dangerous Book for Boys” to get some inspiration. We skipped past chapters about making paper airplanes and hunting rabbits, and then we saw it: The blueprint of a simple skeleton for a soapbox car. 

It was an H-shaped frame that you steer with ropes. We laughed at the simplicity and then headed to Anawalt Lumber to load up on supplies. Returning home with a rooftop full of 2X4s, we had already decided to upgrade the plans for the car (not cart).  It would need a hood, a space in the back for the second man to crouch after pushing the car, foot brakes, and hand levers on the sides to steer. Something the Beach Boys would have sung about.

It took only five days to sketch it and then saw and drill the skeleton of the car. Keep in mind we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. It was pure ingenuity and logic mixed with two guys shirking all other responsibilities in their real lives. My publisher texted me that they were very excited to read a draft that week. I was very excited too, but it had nothing to do with a stupid book; I was crafting a death trap for my son and me to tear down a hill in. The inspiration was a 1957 Corvette, a matchbox car he’d had on his dresser since he was 10. 

For the interior we hit up a material warehouse where we picked up boat padding for the seats and a sheet of pleather to wrap the padding in. The steering mechanism consisted of two pieces of sawed down broom handle bolted to the sides of the chassis and connected to chains, which pulled either side of the front axle. For brakes, a square of thick plywood was hinged to the underside of the frame below the driver’s feet. Large rubber bands held the brake taught until the driver would press down and pray the contraption held together.

The finishing touches included a hinged front hood that housed a bungee cord leash to pull the car back up the hill. The exterior was spray painted blue and black with reflectors on the bumpers and an LA Kings decal on the hood (no one was going to steal a go cart with a gang emblem on the front of it; except maybe a member of that gang). For the rims we bought a highly toxic gold lead paint that shined when the light hit it. 

It was time.

We loaded the car (which weighed nearly 150 lbs.) into the back of my Subaru and we went in search of the largest hill in Venice California. May Street looked promising. Newly paved and wide, it sloped downhill drastically but leveled off for a good 50 yards before hitting a major intersection. If we were to coast that far it would be a victory worth dying for. 

My daughter, at eight years old, wanted to witness our adventure. Even at this young age she sniffed danger and humiliation and planned to document it on her GoPro. The plan was for her to capture the magic from the top of the hill and then hop back into the Subaru to wait for us.

I insisted that Owen wear all of my ice hockey equipment and his bike helmet. He looked like a dwarf from “Mad Max: Beyond Logic.” Some fathers would have started out only halfway up the hill, but then some fathers would have been working on their books this whole time and occasionally showering. 

We lined up the car. Owen commandeered the cockpit as I crouched behind the car and gripped the two handles attached to the sides. My heart raced as we teetered between stationary inertia and the free-falling momentum we were about to embrace. The fruits of weeks of our labor were about to be transformed into the beginning of what would hopefully be many more rides. I began pumping my legs until we had enough speed for me to tuck myself into the compartment behind. I then peeked over his head as we descended the notorious May Street. 

The car, I remarked to Owen after about 20 yards, was quite a bit faster than I had predicted, owing perhaps to it’s massive weight now combined with two bodies and 25 pounds of hockey equipment. I suggested to Owen that he perhaps push down on the breaks a bit, as we seemed to have accelerated beyond the street’s 30 mph speed limit. He was euphoric in the thrill of the moment, however, and began to gently slalom from curb to curb while shrieking with joy. 

This is not like him, I thought. This is a cautious boy with a need for control. I then realized the screams were not joy but abject terror and the slalom was not for sport but because he had lost control of the steering. He told me later that he forgot there were brakes and his legs had simply frozen. 

The car began lifting off the ground onto two wheels, first in one direction and then the other. I suddenly felt way too tall to be hunched in the back of this half-baked experiment as it careened down the side of a monstrous hill. 

With a grunt of rubber the wheels suddenly gripped hard and I was launched over the top of the speeding car as it flipped. I looked back to see Owen bail out the side and dodge the spastic car by inches. There was a trembling silence as we lay sprawled on the double yellow lines of May Street. Our chariot was upside down with wheels still spinning. 

I crawled over to him like a wounded soldier and he held up his hands. They were scraped and bloody but he didn’t cry. We dragged ourselves to the side of the street and lay moaning by the curb. My shoulder was on fire and I’d banged my head but I felt immense relief that it hadn’t been worse. 

JoJo! We had left her in the car at the top of the hill. I needed to get up there and make sure she was okay. We righted the car and although it was splintered and banged up it still rolled, so we strapped on the bungee cord and started pulling it up the hill. 

My wife was hysterical. We were idiots apparently and I was irresponsible. She lovingly treated our wounds, fed us, and we sent Owen to bed. I came in a while later to say goodnight. He lay there but his eyes shined through the darkness as I sat on the edge of his mattress. 

“Today the hill won,” I said. “But tomorrow we’ll win.”

He put his arms around me and for the first time he let out his tears.

Six years later, with Owen in the midst of his teen years and having built and destroyed many other projects with me, I look back at this event as having birthed a running theme in our relationship. It boiled down to this: “Let him shake it off bro.” Whether it’s letting him discover his own authentic reaction to a pushy kid on a playground or dodging a flying deathtrap, he can handle it.

 


Greg’s Thoughts On Being Dangerous

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Bringing Out the “Dangerous” in My Boy

By Greg Fitzsimmons on June 20, 2016
Originally appeared on Parent Co

 

When my son was born my mother gave me a gift that I came to treasure: “The Dangerous Book for Boys” by Conn and Hal Iggulden. 

The book contains a series of activities meant to bring boys out of their comfort zone, to use their hands and to some extent, their balls. I think my mother gave it to me out of concern that my generation is raising pussies. And she would know. She raised one herself.

Each chapter challenges you to build something and then have an adventure. I saw in this book the possibility of drawing out the rugged side of him and bringing some risk-taking into his childhood. We live in Venice Beach and it is not the kind of area where you can just let your 10-year-old loose to explore (unless you really don’t like the kid). My son was experiencing more adventures on his PlayStation 3 than in the real world.

To be honest I was hoping to get something out of the book as well. My father had taught me no building skills whatsoever. When a light bulb went out he would call an electrician to “fix” it. We had no heat on the second floor for 17 years. I’m not making that up. I’ve always felt cheated of basic manly skills by his preference for the golf course on weekends versus rolling up his sleeves with me in the garage.

My grandfather worked for the electric company in the Bronx and had an extremely manly workbench in his basement with tools that looked Paleolithic. Heavy, thick hammers and pliers looked more like they were designed for torture than handiwork. His nuts, bolts and, screws hung in Hellman’s mayonnaise jars that had the lids screwed into the underside of a shelf above the workbench.  It smelled like wood, metal, and ginger ale down there and it was my favorite place to hide out when I was little. 

We bought a house about 10 years ago that came with a workbench and I saw it as our destiny.  We opened the book…

My son spent an hour going through the book before landing on a tree fort. I nixed his first choices of a slingshot and a bottle rocket in favor of this project (plenty of time to harass the new neighbors later). 

The structure had a simple, elegant design and seemed doable. We had a good tree for it; its branches spread open creating a foundation that would involve the roof of the house on one end and a set of monkey bars on the other. It was not as basic as we had first planned but it only made sense to connect these and have a solid floor. 

Our lumber supply was more than we would possibly need because we had just renovated the house and scraps leaned against the side of our fence yearning to be sawed and hammered.  Seemed like there would be no out-of-pocket expenses.

Then I realized we were light on tools, having only a screwdriver, a rubber hammer and one of those L-shaped wrenches from an IKEA shelf. We headed to Home Depot to pick up the basics.  Some would say what happened next was overkill. We returned with a jigsaw, a rotor saw, a power sander, and a drill. The nail gun was on sale so it seemed stupid not to buy it, and the power screwdriver came free when you bought the ratchet wrenches. I was already imagining erasing my checkered past where I hung shelves at obtuse angles and bathroom hooks that tore from the wall under the pressure of a wet towel (forgot to factor in the weight of moisture). 

We spent the next 9 days measuring, sawing, drilling, and hammering. The result was beyond what we first imagined. Four-by-fours held up a rectangular platform that could hold a truck. Testosterone was pumping and I felt as close to my son as I ever had. We needed more. 

There was another branch projecting towards the neighbor’s house. My son correctly pointed out that it would have been a waste not to add on a balcony/ lookout tower. Also, as we installed the railing around the main floor it seemed like not that much extra effort to just put walls around it. But we had run out of wood. 

The wood for the walls at Home Depot was cheaper than I expected so I got enough to also make a simple roof (and some corrugated plastic so the wood would not warp). It was obvious at this point that the kids would be spending a lot of time in there and it does rain in Los Angeles upwards of four times a year. 

What was supposed to be a simple platform with a railing suddenly sprouted a second story, a roof and a lookout tower. Rock climbing wall to the second tier? Absolutely! What about turning that blue aluminum rod from the alley into a fire pole? Done. 

Now that the structure was this fancy it occurred to us that we should not leave this tree condo open to the public. We put in a sliding door with locks on it. There were clearly going to be sleepover parties here and the kids must be safe. 

Tree house built together by a father and son

Throughout the construction process my son insisted on using the power drill. He hung off a beam of the structure attaching a swing that would go underneath. We fought over who could wear the tool belt and made one more trip to Home Depot for the upgraded project. One day my son got some real splinters and wanted to take a day off to do homework but I cajoled him on as I allowed my own work to slide to the back burner for a while. 

My wife finally snapped. She walked onto our work site and called for an end to the madness.  We’d been ignoring the rest of the family, were way over budget, and had turned our cute little front yard into an elevated shantytown. We filed for a one-day extension and by the following afternoon laid down our tools. 

It was done. 

That night my son and his friend lay in their sleeping bags inside this architectural masterpiece and listened to me tell horror stories. They were about having to perform at Friday night late shows in places like Green Bay and New Jersey. Scary stuff.

Now that we’d finished installing this fortress into our Japanese maple tree it was time to move on. We opened the book again.

To be continued…

 


Greg’s Essay On Once Being Cool

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I’m Not Sure My Kids Really Get It – I Used to Be Cool

By Greg Fitzsimmons on April 28, 2016
Originally appeared on Parent Co

 

I’m not sure my kids really get it – I used to be cool.

There was a time before I owned a Prius, rubbed sunblock on the top of my head, and slept with only one woman. How could they know? They see my wife and me as wholesome and have a vested interest in believing this is how it’s always been.

I have a duty to present this reality despite the gnawing dishonesty of it. My buddy Danny once told his kid, right in front of me, that he had only gotten high twice in his life. Danny got high twice A DAY in the ’80s but now has to disown all of that for a singular purpose: robbing his children of the excuse to say, “But daddy, YOU did it!”

I also partook frequently in the ’80s. I lived to test boundaries, often going past them to press up close to reality and stare it down. I was insufferably bored and felt an anxious loneliness when not out with my friends breaking rules and getting intoxicated.

I regarded kids who got good grades and respected authority with curiosity. It’s not that I didn’t like them, I just didn’t understand them. Didn’t they know they were wasting their time? How did they restrain from their primal impulses? How were they able to stand the boredom? Could they seriously be wearing boating shoes? The irony is that these are the children I am now trying to raise.

And yet they treat me like I’m not now, nor ever have been, cool. Sometimes after dinner my kids like to play a game called, “Let’s all shit on Dad.” They get a charge out of calling me a nerd.  “Dad, you don’t get it!” “Dad, you’re so out of it!” “Dad you don’t know how to download an app.”

One night I snapped. “You don’t know me motherfucker! You don’t know who I was! You have no idea how I used to be!”

Eyes go wide as the family paradigm shifts faster than the GOP with Trump leading the race. “I used to be very cool. Way cooler than you will ever be. You know when I stopped being cool?  When you two assholes were born!”

My wife opens her mouth but then freezes and says nothing.

“Here’s a news flash for you. You will never be as cool as I was. You know why?”

They know it is a question that is directed towards them but ultimately has no answer because Dad is in 5th gear and they are not even strapped in yet.

“Because you’re not being raised by an abusive alcoholic parent. And that can change.”

Having never seen me drink or hit them they now recalibrate what their future might look like.  “When I was a kid I got into fistfights every day after school. You wear a helmet to ride a bicycle! When I was young only the really good athletes got trophies. Now they’re handing them out to the white kids too!”

My son casts his eyes down as he thinks about the wide trophy case in his room housing dozens of statues, many earned before the age of nine.

I know I’ve gone too far but I feel relief that the lie I’ve held in for so long is being rectified and I believe that my kids might actually feel closer to me knowing there is (or at least was) a different side.

I want to tell them more but reason starts to apply the brakes. I want to tell them all the crazy things I’ve done, but I can’t. I have to protect some image of my old self. I want to tell them that, in fact, I had a three-way in college – with two guys (this girl was supposed to show up but she was running late so we figured we’d just get started by ourselves. She never showed up. Good guys though. Can really keep a secret.)

The worst part is that my children think my wife is really cool. That part kills me. I decide to set the record straight.

“You think mommy is cool? Do you? Well, guess who’s banging her? This guy right here. She doesn’t look so cool when she’s on all fours hyperventilating.”

My daughter gently cracks her knuckles as my son pokes at the un-forkable bits of his now soggy salad. My wife’s face has the intensity of a bull rider waiting for the chute to open. I lean back and take in the moment. It is a turning point we will all grow from. There will be no more teasing.

I shift in my seat as I feel a vaguely familiar release from my nether regions. I smile as I realize it’s my old friends – my balls.

 


Greg’s Thoughts About His Son’s Size

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My Son is Bigger Than Me. This is Troubling.

By Greg Fitzsimmons on April 20, 2016
Originally appeared on Parent Co

father-son-basketball

At 15 he’s three inches taller and way more athletic than I ever was. He’s the only freshman on varsity soccer (I played JV hockey as a senior, which I think is illegal).

I knew this was going to happen. Delivered via C-section because of his head size and always one of the tallest in his class, I heard the footsteps even when they were a child’s size 12: He’s coming for me.

Before this recent growth spurt we enjoyed a blissful 18 months where we shared clothes and shoes like college roommates. Emerging from my closet sporting one of my vintage shirts he’d wordlessly relay to me that, in my sons eyes, I am at least semi-cool. I, in turn, showed up to The Laugh Factory in his slip-on Vans and soft flannel shirts.

I didn’t care that he came home wearing my dress shoes covered in mud from kicking a soccer ball after school. I can wash that off. But the feeling of communing with my son in this give-and-take will stay with me.

It occurred to me the other day that I have never hit him. It also occurred to me that that ship has sailed. If I hit him now he might punch me back. And if he kicks my ass I’ve got to move. I can’t live in a house with an asshole like that.

I’ll end up like the old lion that’s beaten down and plays out his final years on the edge of the pack waiting for the jackals to circle him and tear his flesh apart. This Oedipal nightmare needs to be shut down immediately, but how?

He’s upsetting the paradigm of paternal dominance going back to my own childhood. Unlike me, my father was not a pacifist. He was 6’ 2” with a bad temper and being much smaller than him was overwhelming.

Towering over my son in his younger years put me on confident and familiar footing. But it was a complicated footing because I didn’t want our relationship to be based on the dynamic I’d had with my own father.

When I grew older and shed my fear of my dad, I also lost some of my respect for him.

In my insecure moments I comfort myself with the knowledge that no matter how big my son gets, I will be able to take him down. I’ve been in a lot of fights and even though I haven’t always won, I’ve never lost. I am a nasty Irish prick and will break a bottle if necessary. (I may have written that last part in case my son ever reads this and gets any ideas.)

We play one-on-one basketball and over time the game has progressed from my indulging him in an occasional win to me having to give it everything I’ve got – and then some. I trash talk, box out, and occasionally pull down his shorts when he goes for a layup.

I went to hug him last week and mistakenly went high over the top not realizing that I am now the guy who goes low. I stretched my arms around his torso while he hugged me around the neck like I was his prom date. It felt awkward at first as I adjusted to the new arrangement.

He doesn’t act any different than he did in simpler times when I was bigger than him. It’s a long hug during which I realize that I’ve overcome this Oedipal hurdle and my ancient fear of being small. Thanks to my bigger-than-life son, that is just not the way we relate to each other.

We played one-on-one the other day. It was tied at 13-all when I got an open lane twice in a row and won the game. We looked at each other and silently acknowledged the obvious; the kid let Dad win this one.

Instead of the sense of powerlessness I had always feared, I felt respected. I felt loved. Then I mocked him for losing, and went inside for a smoothie.

 


Santa Monica killings come too close to home

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Mike Gibbons joins Greg for a light-hearted discussion about the shooting spree that occurred.

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Andy Richter

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Greg welcomes Andy Richter to the show as they discuss their careers, raising kids, and Andy’s relationship with Conan. Then they answer some Twitter questions, do the Overheards and play “Talk Your Way Way Out of It”.

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