I try not to take it personally, really I do. You’d think getting a game of chess going in a home full of enthusiasts would be easier. It’s wintertime, we’re basking in the glow of a crackling fire on the hearth — why, the board practically sets itself up. But you’d be wrong, at least if you tried to square off at my house, where more than chess itself, my teenagers relish “the game within the game.” By this I mean yes, they like to play, but they know how much more I like to play. So I’m screwed. Like a poker player with an obvious tell my exuberance, once endearing, now keeps me from playing the game I love:
Me: Anybody want to play chess?
Teenagers (in unison): No!
Me: You know what? To heck with this. You like chess as much as I do. I know it and you know it. So that’s it — I’m done. No more invitations from dad. If you want to play, you’ll have to make the first move. That’s the last you’ll hear from me. Believe you me, I have plenty of other things to do. Plenty.
Teenagers (not even looking up): Got it.
Me (fifteen minutes later, sheepishly): Seriously, does anyone want to play chess? I thought maybe you didn’t understand the arrangement. Just to clarify, I’m interested.
It might be time to play hardball and bring 7:00 AM Sunday Mass back into play, just to remind them who’s boss. But that might be exactly what they want me to do — a classic pincer movement drawing me into the Russian Winter of their indifference. Without chess I’m left to question basic tactics! Stalemated by the kids, I move on to the missus, but instantly she shuts me down with a familiar look. Familiar because it’s the look I give her on any date-night where she picks the movie. There, my behavior is the exact opposite of how the selfless groom behaved in The Gift of the Magi:
Wife: I was thinking maybe a romantic comedy for tonight. Perhaps something with Ryan Reynolds.
Me: I would love to but (wincing) … I think I separated my shoulder! You go ahead and order it. I’ll join you later, that is, if I can pop my shoulder back into place. (Start jamming it violently against the couch). But please, don’t wait for me.
Wife: You’re not fooling anyone. Your shoulder is fine. I saw Lethal Weapon. Which we’re not watching tonight, by the way.
Me (disgruntled, settling onto couch): It was Lethal Weapon 2.
Scarves are another vexing area. I don’t think anybody in America would question a man’s right to wear a scarf in the cold. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t included in the Bill of Rights only because it’s so obvious. However, I’ve found that a surprising number of people take issue with my decision to wear only a scarf. (To be clear, I am wearing clothes, just no overcoat.) Sometimes that’s all you need, especially if like me you have a draft-beckoning, Barbara Billingsley neck. Yet apparently I’m not free to walk America’s streets, scarved but coatless.
I’ve found it’s a strange alliance of haters. My wife, first and foremost. Boy, does she hate the look with white-hot intensity. Most other American men who pass me on the street don’t care for it either. Perhaps they think I am an English Premier League agitator, dropped like a Jedburgh in Nazi-occupied France. Area beekeepers seem to have my back, but that’s about it. How many of them can you count on seeing as you go about your day? But here’s the strange part. I think the majority of haters would be okay if I just wore the scarf loose on my neck, like that pretentious math professor in Good Will Hunting. To me that’s the effected look, the insouciant choreographer, the rakish David Niven wannabe, the whimsical jaywalking kid in Mentos Commercial #7A. The scarf-knot – the very thing that keeps those cruel winds from plumbing the depths of my soul – seems to focus rather than diffuse their anger.
But my point. These things shouldn’t be so difficult. I shouldn’t have to horse-trade with my kids just to play chess. And if a scarf is all I need, then by Chester A. Arthur’s chops, a scarf is all I should wear. It’s not like I’m sporting a fez or a monocle. But make no mistake, kids: it is like wearing a cape cloak, or brandishing a polished wooden walking stick at your soccer games, both of which affectations I’m presently considering. What’s that you say, you don’t want to see that look on the sidelines? Then smarten up and play some chess with your old man.