Creating a Monster
No one said fatherhood would be easy. For Santiago Rocagliolo, perhaps the most difficult thing has been realizing how similar his son is to him, knowing that as a result, certain challenges inevitably lie ahead. Do you prepare him for those difficult moments, do you warn him, or do you simply let your son find his own path?
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Translated by: Patrick Moseley.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Hello! Ambulantes, with this story we wrap up our seventh season. Thank you so much to all of you for supporting us, promoting us, sharing our stories. You don’t know how much it means to us. Thank you also for engaging with our social media, for being a part of our community. In different trips this year I was able to meet Radio Ambulante listeners all across the US, in Puerto Rico, in Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, Peru and Colombia, and it’s always so lovely. Thank you, from the heart. We would also like to thank our friends at NPR: Rolando Arrieta, Isabel Lara, María Paz Gutiérrez and N’Jeri Eaton. And Camilo Garzón, who helped us at the start of this season. Now, we’re going to rest, for a short time, only a little really, because we have a lot of work ahead of us, preparing the new season, which, hopefully, will be even better and more ambitious. We will be back in September.
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we’re celebrating Father’s Day, a day that was very important when I was growing up —though not as important as Mother’s Day, of course—; then it was practically irrelevant in my 20s —sorry, dad—; and, now that I’ve become a father, well, I like it again. They give me little gifts. They bring me coffee in bed. Little loving gestures.
When my youngest son was just a few months old and I would get up at 2 or 3 in the morning to give him his bottle, I remember he had a look. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. At a certain point, he would let go of the bottle and grab my face with both hands and pull me toward him. Then, he would put his eyes right up to mine. It was intense: I would feel him breathing and he wouldn’t blink. In the dark of a small room, that child would look at me literally eye to eye and I wouldn’t dare move. And he wouldn’t let go. 10 seconds. 20. A minute. Like that: eye to eye.
And well, the first time I was taken totally by surprise. The second time I felt like: “Ok, what an interesting kid I have here.” And by the third time I already felt something else: an anticipated nostalgia. That is to say, every time he would do it, I would think: “Hmm. Will this be the last time he’s going to do it?” And I felt I was going to miss it, miss that look, the intensity of being looked at so closely, sharing such an intimate moment. As a father, you quickly learn that children change. All the time. Something that you think is the essence of your child can just be a phase: an ephemeral moment and nothing more.
In other words, you have to enjoy it all.
To celebrate this day, we have something a little different. Santiago Roncagliolo is a Peruvian novelist, journalist and essayist and he shared with us an essay about his own fatherhood.
[Santiago Roncagliolo]: January 2013: 4 years old.
My 4 year old son likes princesses. And dolls. If I bring him to a toy store, he spends more time in the girl’s section than any other. He recommends toys for his sister that he ends up using. And if I ask him his favorite color, the answer is a strong: “pink”.
I’ve always defended the idea of children not sticking to gendered cliches. It doesn’t matter if he likes Barbie or jump rope. I already know that whole equality spiel. But still, it makes me very nervous. And not because I’m embarrassed. Not at all, because that’s how I was too.
As a kid, I didn’t play sports. I didn’t ride bikes. I read a lot. I played with girls, because they ran less and talked more. I was a repellent boy. In fact, I still am. When they awarded Messi the Ballon d’Or, all I could think was: “What an awful tux. Who picks out that man’s clothes?”
That’s why I worry. Because I know the price of being different.
There’s nothing crueller than a boy. And there is nothing worse than being a weird boy. When I was growing up, I lived in Mexico and when I went back to Peru, I “talked funny”.
That turned me into a source of all kinds of jokes, sarcastic remarks and some beatings (in addition to the those I got for not playing soccer). Most of the time the other boys talked about sex in street slang, and I couldn’t even understand what they were saying. I learned by instinct when I had to laugh. And when I had to get angry. In hopes of being like everyone else, I even told jokes that I didn’t understand myself. At least I brought the aggression down to bearable limits.
I don’t want my son to suffer humiliation if the other boys think he’s different. So, I develop a whole plan for my son to play soccer. I bring him to parks where other boys “just happen” to be playing. I structure my social life around friends with sons who play soccer. I watch matches on TV, of teams I don’t even know, and I try to seem enthusiastic about them. It’s no use. The boy insists on playing with plush cats and purple bracelets.
Luckily, in the process I discover, to my relief, something I wasn’t expecting: I’m the same dope I was when I was young, but, a few decades later, society is better. At my son’s school, and at his friend’s schools in Barcelona, and among my friends all over, people are different. South Americans, Africans, Chinese people, Russians. They have homosexuals too. Some of them are parents. At least in my children’s small world, being different isn’t necessarily a problem anymore. If everyone is different, no one is.
Still, for peace of mind, I decide to talk to my son about it directly. That’s what you’re supposed to do in the 21st century. Talk. I find him coloring a picture of Tinkerbell and I suggest:
“Hey, why don’t we also draw some bloody alien monsters?”
“No,” he says, “that’s ok. I’m going to give it to my friend Aitana.”
“Of course. You have more friends that are girls instead of boys, right? Why is that?”
“Because girls are smarter,” he says, from his 4-year-old wisdom.
“But, aren’t you worried that the boys are going to make fun of your for always hanging out with girls?”
“I don’t care,” he said, not looking up from his drawing.
“And… if they do make fun of you?”
“I’ll make fun of them too,” he explains nonchalantly.
If only I had thought like that at his age.
Since that conversation, it’s clear to me that I will never be able to educate my son perfectly. But, if I’m lucky, he’ll manage to educate me.
October 2013: 5 years old.
I don’t know how to ride a bike. There. I said it.
When I was 5, my parents bought me one. But after my first fall, I decided it wasn’t for me.
My parents were intellectuals. It didn’t occur to them to do anything other than respect their son’s choices instead of slapping some sense into him. Damn.
When I was 20, the girl I was going out with insisted on teaching me, I think because she was embarrassed for me. Since I was in love, I accepted. While I was falling and making a fool of myself, her 6 year-old little sister rode alongside us on her bike without training wheels and she said to me, with a sarcastic smile:
“You’re so big and you don’t know how to ride a bike?”
I broke up with that girl.
To the confusion of the rest of the world, I tend to defend myself with an argument from basic physics: it’s absolutely impossible for a bicycle to stay upright. Things that aren’t being supported, fall to the ground. Everyone knows that. One day, out of nowhere, all the cyclists of the world will come to realize this and split their heads open.
I think I’ve repeated that enough, that I’ve come to believe it.
But now I have a son. And that unsupportive 5-year-old jerk has learned to ride a bike. For months he’s been saying:
“Dad, wouldn’t you like to ride bikes with me?”
“Dad, it’s too bad you don’t know how to ride a bike.”
Or, most humiliating of all:
“Dad, if you want, I’ll teach you how to ride a bike.”
Having kids turns you into an adult. They make you notice and correct all of your shortcomings that you always refused to confront. Since my son was born, I’ve gotten my driver’s license, I’ve gone to therapy, I learned Catalan, I’ve started working out, I’ve battled my neuroses, I’ve improved my relationship with technology and gotten my bookkeeping in order. But I realize that the moment has come for me to take the final step into full adulthood.
For a week, I search online for instructions on how to ride a bike. How to position your waist. What precautions to take. There’s nothing. It’s a science with no theory. How the hell does everyone learn?
In the end, I recruit a sportier friend to by my personal teacher. The poor guy thinks it’s going to be easy.
“10 minutes,” he tells me. “Or 10 seconds. Riding a bike is the simplest thing in the world”.
“Brother,” I say sadly, “you have no idea who you’re dealing with.”
We choose a pedestrian street and we go out at night, at a time when snotty girls like my ex’s little sister won’t be roaming about. And I get on the bike.
I fall on my first try. And my second. And my fourteenth. My friend pushes me on the bike like a child. And that doesn’t work either. He’s afraid I have a neurological disorder. I can see it on his face.
Passers-by think I’m drunk on drugs, which is more normal that not knowing how to ride a bike. I keep falling. I’m soaked in sweat and I haven’t even moved a meter. I’m about to give up and go home to cry.
Until, finally, I learn the only lesson you to have learn, which isn’t on the internet: Keep pedaling.
When you’re about to face-plant, don’t stop: pedal faster. It’s hard to get your body to accept this rule because it goes against all self-preservation instincts, just like the bike goes against the laws of physics that say it should fall.
Why is it harder to teach me than a 5-year-old? Because I have more fears: If I were 5 years old, my only fear would be getting sent to bed without dessert. Becoming an adult means holding onto a lot of fears: deadlines, accounts in the red, illnesses… things that could go badly for you.
When I understand this —and that the bike has a hand break— I start really pedaling. All of a sudden, I feel the air rushing past me. The bike is going forward. I’m overcoming the laws of physics, my whole personal history, all the bratty little sisters in the world!
And then… I smash my face into a pole.
We’ll be back after a break.
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[Gregory Warner, host of Rough Translation]: A man waits seventy years for an apology from Japan. He’s about to give up hope, until:
[Woman]: This is the moment that I really, really want to make a difference — only one person, a housewife.
[Gregory Warner]: The story of an apology so delicate, it gets its own broker. This week on Rough Translation.
[Guy Raz, host of How I Built This]: Hey, it’s Guy Raz here, host of How I Built This. And on our latest episode, how Chip Wilson turned workout clothes into a fashion statement and along the way, built a break out brand: Lululemon, now worth billions. You can listen to How I Built This on Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts.
We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Santiago will continue his story.
June 2014: 6 years old.
All of a sudden, when all seemed lost, my son is bit by the soccer bug. And it appears irreversible.
For the first five years of his life, he was never interested in it. Up to this point, he was your standard variety artsy kid. He was into drawing, listening to stories and playing on the iPad. If you wanted to go down to the park to play ball, he would look at you in horror. If you put a match on TV, he would get bored. Once, I promised to take him to the stadium if he was able to follow a whole match on TV. He tried once and fell asleep after 15 minutes.
But the arrival of the World Cup has caused a strange kind of metamorphosis in him. It all started a month ago, when he came home demanding:
“I have to play soccer!”
From that moment on, all he has thought about every minute of the day has been the king of sports. He’s made me play against him every day. And he forced me to buy him a ball.
I’ve looked into it at his school and he’s not the only one. The Word Cup virus has spread like an epidemic. The boys are going crazy and a lot of the girls are too. One of them forced her dad to buy her a ball and a Neymar jersey, and insists on staying up past ten to watch the matches. Other kids don’t even know the World Cup exists but feel soccer in the air. And the contagion spreads.
Sure, the virus has its advantages. For example, my son has stopped being an indoor kid. Now he wants to go outside. All day. He wants to go outside before school, and after brushing his teeth. He wants to go outside while we’re eating and after his bath. And incidentally, he wants to bring me.
He’s also become more social. Before he was too shy to approach other kids. But now he plants himself in the park with all of the authority of his new ball and he invites everyone there to play with him. He’s become the life of the party.
However, as it progresses, the virus also shows its darker side. For starters, my son has turned into an Olympic-level cheater. Soccer brings out the worst of his meanness. If you score a goal, he refuses to acknowledge it:
“The goal doesn’t reach that point. The goal ends over there.”
If he misses a goal, he counts it anyway:
“Your goal is bigger because you’re bigger. That’s how it has to be.”
If you get a work call while you’re playing, he keeps running and scores a goal on you:
“We’re still playing! No one said, ‘time out’.”
“I did!,” I protest.
“You had to say it louder.”
He tries to make his best friend, Aitana, play soccer. Every time they’re together, I hear her shout:
“If you’re going to play soccer, I’m not going to be your friend anymore!”
“I don’t care,” he responds in his self-sufficiency.
“I’m never inviting you to my house again!”
“Uh… do you get league games at your house?”
That’s all he cares about.
I try to think that this is a passing phase. Like diapers or the bottle. But when I watch soccer with my friends, I worry.
For starters, we repeat all kinds of useless statistics from memory: How many times our team won a match, how many penalties kicked from the left a goalkeeper blocked, how many corner kicks there were in the last three World Cup finals. If we applied that same memory and mental agility to our jobs, we’d all be millionaires. We also always harp on complaints about not understanding the vice: “My wife only lets me watch one match a week.” “My dad wants to take a family trip in the middle of the World Cup.” “My boss is trying to end a project on the same day as the final.”
Seeing us all lobotomized by this sport, I understand that my son isn’t going through a phase.
He’s going to stay this way.
And I’m afraid.
February 2016: 7 years old.
“Dad, take me to the stadium.”
“It’s too expensive.”
“Then buy me a Barça jersey.”
“You already have three.”
“Then let’s go play with the ball in the park.”
“It’s 10 pm! Go to bed!”
I’ve created a monster.
He’s lined his room with Barcelona FC posters. He’s made it to the highest level of the FIFA video game. When I wake up in the morning, he’s already sitting in the living room watching old matches on Barça TV (Why is there are Barça TV? Where are the damn educational channels?).
“Dad who was better? Rivaldo or Ronaldinho? Cruyff or Maradona? Figo or Stoichkov?”
“Can you eat your breakfast?”
To get him to use his brain for other activities, I give him a task of daily reading. He discovers sports writing. Now, every day he reads Sport cover to cover. I make him spend 20 minutes a day on math. Now he calculates the Barcelona’s signing bonuses and compares them with Real Madrid’s.
Trying to recover some of his imagination, I try to read a few pages of The Little Prince to him every night. I stop, when he blurts out:
“Now I get it. The Little Prince is like Messi and his fox is like Neymar, right?”
I guess my son is “normal” now: He goes to park and makes friends right away.
But when can I do: I miss my misfit son.
April 2017: 8 years old.
My son has joined an extracurricular soccer team. I don’t have the heart to say no. It’s his problem.
Evidently, his first few matches confirmed my fears. True to his origins, the poor guy is a terrible player. The forwards of the opposing team passed him by without even looking at him. If by some chance, the ball fell between his legs, he would inevitably lose it. It didn’t even work to stick him in the last refuge for bad players: the goal. Some unbearable parents shout instructions at their sons from the bleachers or get mad at the coach. I stayed quiet, hoping mine would go unnoticed and the staff had the kindness to change him out, for our sake.
And still, even while he’s warming the bench, he looks happier than in any other place.
This year, his team participated in a tournament with other schools. I saw them play on Saturday. I feared the worst. But, to my surprise, the boy’s improved a lot. There’s not doubt about it, he’s not a dribbler and he doesn’t run too fast either. But he’s big and he thinks. Knowing his limits, he’s become a defender who gives his team a lot of security. When he’s facing a dangerous counter-attack, he doesn’t waste time with fancy maneuvers: He throws the ball down the field, so his teammates can have time to go back. He makes good passes, setting up a lot of goals. And the only advantage to his terrible genetic heritage: He’s a leftie. Lefties play more.
Now, much more importantly than his progress as a soccer player is his social progress. Since he started playing, more friends come over, and he gets more invitations to their homes. The ball is an antidote to his shyness.
Incidentally, his obsession has forced me to learn more about soccer, thanks to which, my personal relationships have also become closer. Because men are generally too awkward in intimate conversations. When my women friends get divorced, they tell me about every minute of their marriage. They verbalize their emotions. They remember the good times and the bad. They express themselves. My male friends on the other hand, when they get divorced, they come over and turn on a game. We talk about plays, we criticize the coaches, we blame the ref. And we call that “friendship”.
In the masculine universe, soccer is more than a sport: it’s a social network that brings you closer together. It connects you and gives you a place in the world. And in my case, it’s a great lesson that a 9-year-old is teaching me. Because in the end, like it or not, your children win battles that you lost and in that way they teach you to win them yourself.
Santiago Roncagliolo is a writer and journalist. His most recent novel is called La noche de los alfileres (The Night of the Pins). He just published a children’s book called Los peores partidos de mi vida (The Worst Matches of My Life). He lives in Barcelona.
Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri. The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Camila Segura, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Luis Fernando Vargas, Silvia Viñas and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Our interns are Lisette Arévalo Gross and Victoria Estrada. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
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For more episodes and to learn more about this story, visit our webpage, radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.