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The Middle Ages by Chris Erskine: Keeping a young man young

Boys. We should raise them like eagles but keep a net handy for when they fall from the sky while trying to reach the moon.

Lord, the young can be lousy with impulse, anger, arrogance and a budding lust. Never met a boy who wasn’t a little buggy, and I don’t mean with flies and fleas. Just buggy – you know, flawed, frazzled, errant.

Yet, I watch the little guy and the way a bit more of his boyishness drains from him every day – fewer milk mustaches, fewer freckles. When he loses this boyishness, I lose a little of mine. I dread the day we both grow up.

So how do you keep a young man young? How do you maintain his mad boyish spirit? A few suggestions:

Arm him with irony, not cynicism. Cynicism is a belly full of spoiled milk, and about as miserable. But irony? Give me irony, in vast smoky cauldrons.

Ambition, grit, discipline: Obviously, boys need them all. But also irony. I sprinkle it on my cereal every day, smear it on my toast. Without irony, I may as well be a tree. Without irony, life is a cold room in a bad motel.

How else do you keep a young man young?

Wrap him in bubble wrap till he can’t get out to cause you misery, grief, heartache, bankruptcy.

“Masculinity is a hard, small cage,” said the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “and we put boys inside this cage.”

So, yeah, I prefer bubble wrap – round and round, twice for good measure. Or place boys in foam insulation, wound with duct tape, to keep them safe and minimize the scars. Because boys will always find ways to somersault from the sky.

Here’s the thing with raising boys: As I grow more careful, mine grow less. It’s as if they need to separate themselves from me, bleed a little, howl at the things I can no longer see.

Which is fine. At this point, I know not to be their best friend, or their wingman, or half of their double-play combo. I want to be their dad, the only one they’ll ever have, someone who frosts their baser impulses and draws some lines. As in, “There’s the line, dude, go ahead, cross it. Go ahead.”

That’s how you keep a young man young: You get in his head a little. You become the voice he hears when he’s about to cross that line in the sand.

And while you’re at it, teach him not to shun wistfulness. That’s right, wistfulness. A certain sentimentality lends sophistication to a man, let’s you know he’s been around, survived some shipwrecks, some heartbreak and the 405 on a Friday afternoon, hull to hull, toe to toe.

Like a pocket square, a silky wistfulness looks good on a guy, gives him soul. Ennui, too. As in Cole Porter’s “Fighting vainly the old ennui.” A droll moodiness. A divine dejection.

Just don’t live there too long.

In fact, don’t live anywhere too long. I’ve been in L.A. for 25 years now. Way too long. I miss clouds in the sky, water in the river, leaves that fall in the fall. I miss winter mornings when you wake up to 2 feet of snow and can’t go anywhere except by sled.

That’s not L.A.’s fault. Even in paradise, 25 years is too long. I lived in Chicago almost 20, a few years in Miami, a decade in New Orleans. I’ve lived almost everywhere but the Pacific Northwest and New England. At this point, I figure that I’m good for a decade in each, then will call it a life. Twenty more robust years, amid tall trees and country roads.

So encourage him to always keep moving, your boy. Poke him in the ribs, hug him from behind and wrestle him to the den floor. Playfulness is mandatory, and a little roughhousing even better. As when you were 8, and that’s how you made new friends. Without friends, where do the laughs come from? Or the bloody lip? Or a winsome, ironic quip?

No matter the age, all boys need to sweat, to laugh, to kick the beehive and run, to let the wild rumpus start.

“Children live in fantasy and reality,” Maurice Sendak noted. “They move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”

So don’t flip out over their stupid video games; they will probably survive these awful escapes as well.

Just give them a ton of love – the best bubble wrap.

And let them chase the moon.