The carpeted floor rushed up and smacked my side. I lay there, stunned. Why wasn’t I standing? How had I gotten here so quickly? My anger spiked and I could feel my face getting hot while in a lower level of my brain I dimly registered that the thin maroon rug covered a concrete slab that was – son of a bitch – hard. As I felt my fingers shake from the adrenaline pumping through them I heard nothing. But I saw a face looking down at me. It was Max. And he’d just knocked me on my ass.
* * *
Every son remembers the first time he physically beat his father at something. For me, it was when I ran my 40’ish dad into the ground one winter day during wrestling season when, unbeknownst to me, I had transformed myself into the best shape of my life. For Theo Huxtable, it was when he beat his dad in a backyard basketball game on The Cosby Show. And for Max it was when he knocked me to the ground like he was pushing a toddler over. The events leading up to this life-altering moment were, like so much of my life, ridiculous.
I had returned home from CVS with candy for each of my three kids to consume while we all watched a movie. Jackson had scored some Reese’s, Caroline had gotten a Hershey’s chocolate bar and I had procured an impossibly large bag of Twizzlers for Max. After giving them the candy but before they finished it, I decided that it was appropriate for me to tax them for my efforts. As the person who had (a) volunteered his time to obtain said sugared goods, (b) driven his car the 1.1 miles to the CVS, thus using about 1/275th of the total volume of his gas tank, and (c) purchased the items, I unilaterally determined that a small levy would be appropriate. I therefore made known my intention to exercise the Paternal Candy Tax in a manner uncharacteristic of our current tax system: simply and briefly (i.e., “Max, give me a few Twizzlers.”).
I had not known before that exact moment that my son had Libertarian tendencies. But Max, like the proud men and women who built this Republic, clearly believes that big government – which, within the 4 walls of our home, he refers to cynically as, “Dad” – must be resisted. Implicit in his response – a shouted, “No!” as he clutched the bag containing 20 uneaten Twizzlers to his chest – was his well-thought out, experientially-crafted personal ethos that absolute power corrupts absolutely, leading necessarily to the conclusion that the only way to prevent such abuses lies in the active creation and support of states’ rights. (Which he labels, unironically, “me,” in daily conversation.)
Big Government stared at the revolutionary, aghast at the insolence – the arrogance – of his refusal to pay the tax that it had decreed necessary for the continued well-being of all its citizens. Jackson and Caroline – small satellite states – watched, enthralled by this real-life reenactment of the principles upon which our country was founded and that so many died for, no doubt realizing the nuanced philosophies and theories of power unfolding before them. Relying on my historical power base and perceived greater strength, I chose a policy of rapid, aggressive escalation. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, incredulous that 2-3 Twizzlers weren’t already resting in my Big Government hands. I got up from the couch and took a step in Max’s direction.
Faced with Big Government looming over him, hand outstretched, Max retreated. Hugging the Twizzler bag to his chest, he screamed “No!” in a mock falsetto, leaped up and slunk to the corner of the room, back towards me as he looked over his shoulder. Confident that continued pressure and brute force would result in submission and production of an ever-increasing number of Twizzlers with every second that went by, I stomped over to Max, hand still out, expecting payment.
I don’t know the precise moment when Max decided that there, on that day, he would break the chains of Big Government in defense of his candy. But I do know that the Great Twizzler War of 2014 will go down as one of the shortest and most definitive battles in military history. From his semi-crouched, protective position, Max suddenly launched at me and gave me a solid push, no doubt intending to merely back me off with a warning attack. But to his surprise and mine, I toppled over, my facade of strength and dominance crumbling in a single, irrevocable moment. Max stared at me, wonderment and fear blending together as he realized what he’d done. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry …” His voice trailed off. Jackson and Caroline looked on, dumbstruck. I swore, an expletive directed as much at the realization that Max could knock me down as at Max for actually doing it.
Jackson then broke the stillness, yelling at Max at the same time that he came over to help me up off the floor.
* * *
I’ve carefully constructed a model of myself that acknowledges no weakness or downside to wearing a prosthetic leg. I walk on ice in the winter. I run on a treadmill. I scale (small) mountains. I view the world as something I control while I interact with it physically. But given the fact that my 15 year-old son took me out with virtually no effort, it’s a lie.
After this happened, I kept thinking back to when I took karate, all the thoughts I used to harbor when sparring. My head filled with memories about how I believed that with enough training and skill I could hold my own physically if attacked by a human biped. Then they disintegrated, gone forever.
I don’t physically dominate the world; I just work harder than most people to always keep my balance while hiding the effort it takes to do so. That makes me weaker than I thought I was. But I think I’m ok with that now.