Just when I felt like I'd attained my parental sea legs, right when the ladder felt sturdy beneath my Chuck Taylors, someone started gesticulating that creaky old thing from the ground below.
And that someone, again, was my teenager.
She's sixteen. Actually she'll be seventeen in a couple of weeks, but I'll acknowledge that milestone in due time, because, well, I'm not ready just yet.
Anyone who lives with a teenager, and I'm including that old guy who's married to Courtney Stodden, understands the role sarcasm plays in the dynamic of a parent-teen relationship.
It's an omnipresent force, and the adolescent human, usually by his or her mid teens, has honed the craft to an adult-level mastery. While my daughter can infuriate my wife and me with her facetiousness, beneath my steaming layers of indignation and bile, I often feel oh-so-faint tingles of admiration at her adeptness and wit in slinging verbal compost:
"You're right, Dad. I thought about unloading the dishwasher but I didn't because my soul is nourished whenever I see that vein stand out on your forehead."
Is this an appropriate time to gush with fatherly pride? Hardly.
The problem is, although she can converse in an adult manner, this child of mine is still a child in just about every other facet of her personality.
She and her friends giggle relentlessly. Her favorite TV shows are "Gossip Girl" and "Jersey Shore." When I walk into her room, I'm just as likely to crush a cheddar cheese Goldfish under my shoe as I was when she was four.
Her brain continues to develop; in fact, it won't completely seal up until around the age of twenty-five. And my challenge, now more than ever, is to be mindful of that.
My girl is currently a high school junior, so college preparations have seeped into our world. Last weekend, she traveled to eastern Washington with a friend and her dad to tour three schools— two public and one private.
She returned highly impressed with the private university. In fact, she wanted to start immediately.
"Oh, the campus was awesome and the people were really nice and everyone looks like they have so much fun. I really want to go there."
My wife looked at her. "Great. How much is tuition there?"
"Um, I don't know. I didn't ask."
"Come on, Mom. That would've been really rude, and I didn't want to offend them."
Poker face. Keep your poker face, I commanded myself, as retorts cascaded through my consciousness. Within seconds, my reply had been cemented:
Look, kid. It's not rude to ask an admissions counselor about tuition. They're not on the list of people whom you go out of your way not to offend, like food service workers, hotel maids, I.T. people or anyone who is presently adjusting your I.V. or palpating your prostate.
But I didn't say any of it, because I realized she was serious. And at that moment, the bug-splattered windshield over my gray matter received a cleansing squeegee.
We've always stressed that broaching topics like money, religion or politics is a risky game with those we don't know. Our daughter was just following the game plan.
The muddy slope that is parenting dictates that we release enough information to our offspring that they can make some sense of the world without receiving a full dose of its cynical and cruel reality.
Because of that, our messaging is often mixed. We warn them about talking to strangers, then require them to order their food at the restaurant like a big girl. We teach them to show compassion but then explain that the woman holding a cardboard sign can't be trusted.
We assume the know too little and we presume they know too much.
Several years ago, my then-three-year-old daughter approached me as I sat on the couch nursing a cup of coffee. "Here, you should give these back," she ordered, handing me a pair of strappy black shoes.
I didn't understand. "What do you mean we should give them back?"
"Dad, they're Mary Jane's. I've had these a long time and she needs to have them back."
Aha. Through her thousand-day-old lenses, they weren't Mary Janes, they were shoes which belonged to Mary Jane.
My sixteen-year-old daughter has reached the point where she can obliterate her old man in a game of H-O-R-S-E. She can solve complex math problems and break down a mitochondrion. She can bake a bitchin' batch of brownies and text faster than I can type.
She's even taller than I am now. But she's still a kid.
To be continued.