I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection between my 14-year-old son Jacob and Bluto sooner. There were certainly plenty of signs. Like when Jacob asked for a “Food Fight” party to celebrate his 8th birthday. He certainly hadn’t seen National Lampoon’s Animal House. But somehow, he was channeling the energy of John Belushi’s iconic toga-wearing frat boy character even at that early age.
Birthdays were a great creative outlet for all of us when our sons were younger. Both boys took ownership of their parties, from theme development to cake design to activities planning. I must have been feeling guilty about something, since I agreed to the food fight party without much hesitation, with the caveat that it had to be outside.
It is the one and only time in my life that I have cooked mashed potatoes from a box. To my surprise, they didn’t taste that bad. More importantly, the weird potato flakes provided a cheap and quickly prepared input for the arsenal.
Best of all, the mashed potatoes were perfect for scooping up with little hands and throwing; they had enough heft to cover some ground even if your pitching technique needed work. The whipped cream was harder to throw (too light), but the Jello clumps proved to be respectable ammo. The kids wore disposable rain ponchos, which made for a satisfying “splat” sound whenever the moving targets were hit.
“What was I thinking?” did cross my mind right before we let the kids loose with the food. But the hilarity of the ensuing scene washed away any second thoughts (my only oversight was not having the kids take their shoes off–flip flops would have been a lot easier to clean).
Jacob’s wacky idea for a birthday party became family legend. We embraced the energy and the chaos that accompanied the event. The fact that it was his birthday made that degree of acceptance easier to muster.
Since then we’ve had countless opportunities to practice acceptance of Jacob’s inspirations, like, “What will happen if I run over the newspaper with the lawn mower?”
Or, “What will happen if I aim my paintball gun at Mom’s birdhouse and pull the trigger?” (Don’t worry, there were no birds in the house before the hole was blown through it.)
Or, “What will happen if I add blue food coloring to surf board wax and melt it all up in Mom’s sauce pan?”
None of the above happened on a birthday. All of the above resulted in yelling on my part. Jacob’s favorite refrain became, “Excuse me for being a curious x-year-old (fill in the age) boy.”
But while I’ve said for a couple of years now that our life often feels like a scene out of Animal House, the comparison of Jacob to Bluto only goes so far.
I hadn’t seen the movie in over 20 years when we sat down with the boys a couple of months ago to introduce them to the classic. I had forgotten about the topless women and bare bottoms (oops). I had forgotten about the overt sexual references (oops). I had forgotten about the blatant aggrandizement of alcohol (oops). Yes, it seems I had forgotten just about every scene of the movie except for the food fight and the toga party.
I questioned the comparisons I had made between Jacob and Bluto. Watching the movie reminded me of their differences. For instance, Jacob is fashion forward. He showers every day. He’s an excellent student. He’s articulate (when he chooses to be). He’s an athlete. Bluto can’t make even a modest claim to any of those qualities.
Having said that, my son and Belushi’s character do get the same twinkle in the eye when a wacky–and almost always risky–idea comes to mind. Maybe it’s an evolutionary protective trait that makes your mother love you a little more right before you do something stupid.
You can’t help loving Bluto even as he’s sneaking the horse into the dean’s office. Or when he’s chanting, “TOGA! TOGA!” Or when he’s crushing a beer can against his head in an attempt to cheer up a friend.
Jacob and Bluto simply love the promise of life. They revel in the “what will happen if” moments. They’re not afraid to put themselves out there. They draw on deep creative reserves and produce splashy results (sometimes quite literally).
They may act first and ask for forgiveness later. But for Jacob, it’s what allows him to discover hidden mysteries that may not present themselves later. It’s what keeps that screw just loose enough to make him a fearless soccer goalie.
And it’s what makes him an excellent spiritual teacher for me, although he hates it when I label him that way. “Stop saying that,” he objects when he reads the draft of this blog post. “I don’t believe in that stuff!”
But it’s true. The spiritual exercise kicks in as soon as I find myself yelling, “JACOB!”
The test is to see how quickly I can bring myself back to mindful awareness, taking a breath, letting him do the talking instead of drowning out the teaching moment with my own reactivity.
If I’m having a really good day, I will catch myself before I yell. I will have enough space between my thoughts to ask, “What’s the lesson in this?”
Because there is always a lesson to be found, both for him, and for me. The universe just likes to keep the scavenger hunt interesting.
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