WHEN A GUY returns to the helm of his household, he likes to see some proof that his steady hand has been missed.
He doesn't want to return to ruptured plumbing, smoldering wiring or collapsing walls, but he wouldn't mind seeing a minor disorder or two. A light bulb snapped off in its socket. A screw that has strayed from its mooring. A tool out of place. He regards this as evidence that his presence, his sense of order, his manly mien has been missed.
Recently, when I returned home from a weeklong journey, I made myself available for consultation, minor repair work and dispersal of wisdom. The homecoming scene I envisioned resembled the return of a conquering hero. A glorious reception. Music. Supplicants approaching with problems that only the lord of the manor could solve.
The scene I experienced was much quieter. There were a few friendly grunts from family members. There was some glimmer of recognition that I had been away, or at least out of their hair, for a few days. I held their attention for a time as I gave out gifts, bounty snared in far-flung malls, but soon that wave of excitement washed over and I seemed to be just a part of the woodwork.
No broken dishes in need of mending were brought to me. No fallen lamps in need of resurrection were presented. No family crisis in need of intervention was brought to my attention. Instead, everything seemed to be running smoothly without me.
Like many bosses, I reacted to the appearance of calm at the workplace with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I told myself the fact that domestic life was sailing along in my absence was evidence that the household's plan to maintain domestic order was working. Everyone knew his job and was doing it. On the other hand, I didn't believe things were as good as they appeared. There was, no doubt, some problem lurking on the home front, a problem that could be spotted only by the master's eye.
I checked the roof. Like many veteran homeowners I am afflicted with roof-worry. I can be basking in California sunshine, sipping fine Napa Valley wines, and when I hear broadcast reports of heavy rains hitting the East Coast, I think "Holy moly! Will the roof hold?"
Our roof held in my absence, but my inspection found some spots that needed mending, so I called the roofer. I have always believed in staying on good terms with your roofer. You are asking him to carry hot tar and shingles some 50 feet above the ground, a trick you sure don't want to try. Moreover, you might need him at a most unpleasant time, say in the middle of a snow storm. So I tried to be upbeat when I called Patrick, my personal roofer. Could he possibly drop by and do a little work to prevent the ceiling from caving in? He might be able to squeeze me in next week? Marvelous.
Feeling like I was regaining my old, authoritarian rhythm, I ordered the 11-year-old to water the next-door neighbor's yard. Watering this yard had been his summer job. To me it was obvious that while I was away, the kid had become a slacker. "Man the hose," I barked, "full speed on the sprinkler!"
The kid saw things differently. The neighbor no longer needed her yard watered, he said. The kid turned out to be right. Sheepishly I walked back from the neighbor's yard, with my sprinkler between my legs.
Eventually my family found a task it needed me to perform. It was called "go fetch," as in go fetch a kid from football practice, go fetch the book left at school, go fetch a pair of "receiver's gloves."
These gloves are the hand gear that kids, or at least our 15-year-old, must have to catch a football. Never mind that bare hands were good enough for fabled players like Raymond Berry of the old Baltimore Colts and for not-so-fabled types like me. Times have changed. The pros who prance around in the end zone on Sunday now wear receiver's gloves.
So I worked the phones. I called sporting goods stores until I found one that had not sold out of the gloves. Football season was a few weeks old and apparently plenty of other dads had already been through this drill. So one morning this week, after dropping the kids off at school, I drove over to Rudo Sports in the Mondawmin Mall to get a pair of the gloves. They looked like a cross between the gloves worn by bowlers and those worn by baseball players.
But my job was not figure out what these gloves do, or even to ask if they were needed. My job was to "go fetch" the gloves. And after a few days off, it felt good to be back at work.
Pub Date: 9/14/96