Thursday, March 10, 2011


Eli 9.7 had a meltdown at hockey practice on Tuesday.

I picked him up at school, like I always do on Tuesdays, and he was at early stick and puck, just like always. I told him a few weeks ago, because he had been coveting a particular hockey stick, that when he could put 3 of 5 pucks into the net--on the fly--from the red dot in the curling circles, that I would get him the stick.

Those red dots were where had to shoot from, and it's a very long shot for both his size and his skill level. He decided to go and shoot, and occasionally would put one in, more often shooting and landing a foot or two outside the net.

He became progressively more frenzied as he shot, claiming that he already succeeded on 3 or 5 shots, but I didn't see that--I saw occasional successful shots, followed by 2 or 3 failures. He was so frustrated that he banged his stick on the ice repeatedly, which is something I've never even seen him do before.

"WHAT?" he said as he came off the ice. "I WON that stick, I SWEAR!" He had sort of a wild look in his eyes, one I don't think I've even seen before.

"Well, I didn't see it that way," I said, "and since there appears to be a dispute over what counts and what doesn't, let's come up with a scoring system. You take a shot, look back at me, and I will raise a finger if it counts, and lower a finger on my other hand if it doesn't. That way we both agree it's fair. And if you can do it, I'm sure you'll be able to do it again next week."

"Next week! That's NOT FAIR!" This was a singular moment for Eli, at least in terms of how I know him, because I can't remember the last time I saw him this upset.

"Look, I can't believe you're this upset about a hockey stick," I said. "What else happened today?" We started talking, and as it turned out, he had gone to study hall at lunch and somehow didn't have time to eat lunch. That would knock anyone down several pegs, and even though we had an early dinner after I picked him up, he was still hungry.

"So let's find something we can do to help this," I said. Food first."

"Yeah. I'm just having a meltdown, Dad," he said, his voice shakey, with a few tears. I gave him a long hug.

"Well, we have fine dining machinery located in the rink," I said, "and I have plenty of quarters. You are in desperate need of a snack."

One small bag of Oreos later. "I feel better," he said. "Almost fine now."

"All right," I said. You had a bad moment, but don't let it ruin all the good things that can still happen today. Don't give away the rest of your day."

"I won't, Dad," he said. Even has he said that, though, I knew how hard it is to come back from something like that. Plus, one of his friends (also a goalie) had forgotten his shoulder pads, so Eli (who wanted to skate in early practice, then play goalie later, so we brought both his bags) had to sacrifice his goalie session so his friend could use his shoulder pads.

"That's a hard thing to do, but it was a good thing," I said, as his friend left the dressing room and I helped him tie his skates. "Now here's the tricky part."

"What?" he asked.

"The tricky part is enjoying his happiness, so that you don't regret what you gave up."

"I don't really feel happy," he said. "I wanted to play goalie."

"I know," I said. "It takes time to be able to feel that way. But being generous is the right start. Now go out there and get something good out of this."

Yesterday, I thought about what he had said, and thought about anger. I've certainly had problems with anger at various times in my life, although Eli's helped me with that, because I never feel angry around him. Trying to understand how I could help him made me look at anger in a more honest way than I usually can.

When Eli came home from school, he wanted to immediately go outside and play catch. We do that almost every day. Today was baseball day, so we wore gloves and threw tennis balls back and forth to each other, chatting easily. After a few minutes I said, "Eli, let's talk about yesterday for a minute."

"Okay," he said. "Why?"

We kept up a nice throwing rhythm as we talked.

"Well, anger is an important thing to understand when you feel it. Do you know what anger is most like?" I threw the ball back to him.
He caught the ball, paused, then shook his head. "No," he said.

"Fire," I said. Anger is fire. And what does fire do?"

"It burns," he said.

"Yes," I said, "and it destroys. Usually."

"Usually? Isn't it like that all the time?" he asked.

"No, it's not," I said. "Can you think of a relatively recent example where anger played an important role in changing our country?"

He cocked his head for a moment. "No," he said.

"When black people were treated disgracefully, and enough people got angry that they began to peacefully demonstrate. They were taking their anger and doing something deeply powerful with it, something that would make our country better."

"That makes sense," he said.

"Yes, and that's how anger works. Left alone, it just burns. But as a spur to do something positive, it can be used for all kinds of good things. Powerful things. So when you feel anger, think first about something positive that you can do, then do it. Don't let the fire burn you up."

"Dad, I'm sorry about yesterday. I really am."

"It's okay," I said. "Anger is very difficult to control. There are lots of grown-ups who can't deal with their anger, and it makes them unhappy every day. Learning how to turn anger into something positive is a skill, like learning how to play goalie. We'll help each other learn."

It was almost dark now, and turning cool. Eli always wants to throw until even the bright yellow tennis balls turn gray against the sky, so we kept throwing, laughing when we couldn't even see the ball to catch it.

Eli is getting older now, suddenly.

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