Wesley Digs a Hole
by Michael Howarth
A few years back—sometime during the middle of July—I traveled to Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore, to visit my friend, Matt. Our other friend, Eric, flew in from Chicago, and on Thursday night, after devouring a few pepperoni pizzas, the three of us sat outside in Matt’s backyard, drinking IPAs and snacking on potato chips. As fellow JMU alums, we typically get together at least once a year to indulge in a guy’s weekend, which means we drink alcohol, eat greasy food, and reminisce about past luxuries like beer pong, student discounts, and being overly active on a regular basis.
Having covered the obligatory topics required in a catch-up conversation, such as politics and pop culture, and having provided each other with detailed updates regarding relationship status and current job responsibilities, the three of us stared off into the encroaching darkness and segued into a more pensive mood. Eric and I complimented Matt on the purchase of his first home and on his most recent promotion at work. His son, Charlie, still a toddler, raced around the house with a speed we envied. His wife, Kim, watched TV in the living room, curled up on the couch while their cat and dog snuggled up beside her. The atmosphere was relaxing and wholesome, no doubt accentuated by a full stomach and a slight buzz.
We were all in our late thirties—well-educated and financially stable, staring down the barrel of our fortieth year. As unmarried men with no kids, or at least none we were aware of, Eric and I opened another bottle of beer and grilled Matt about the difficulties of raising a child. Assuming the tone of a prying social worker, we tag-teamed him with a series of elaborate questions:
What do you do when Charlie throws a temper tantrum? Is it terrifying, or just unsettling?
Do you secretly sit on the carpet and play with his toys when no one is looking, particularly the Legos?
Is it true that a child will bounce if you drop it on the floor? If yes, is that because they’re mostly made of cartilage?
Are you ever afraid that, despite instilling him with positive values, he’ll either become homeless or turn toward a life of addiction and petty crime?
We chatted until it was almost midnight, our eyes heavy as we swatted at mosquitoes and sipped the last dregs of warm beer. It was quiet in suburbia, just crickets chirping in the grass and the occasional bark of a dog somewhere down the street. Yawning, we picked up our empty bottles and carried them inside, speaking in hushed tones so as not to wake Charlie. Then each of us chugged a large glass of water and trudged upstairs to our respective beds.
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen at eight o’clock to find Matt and Eric standing in front of the sliding glass door, whispering to each other and gazing out into the backyard like a duo of peeping Toms. Curious, I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked over, expecting to see something unremarkable, like a deer nibbling the grass or a white plastic bag floating eerily on the wind.
Instead, out past Matt’s property line, there was a boy who looked to be about eleven or twelve years old. He wore sneakers, blue shorts, a white T-shirt, and thick black gloves. A gallon jug of water rested on the ground beside him. In one hand, he held a shovel, which he leaned on for support. With his other hand, he wiped beads of sweat from his glistening forehead. I peered closer and saw that he was standing at the edge of a large hole, which he was still in the process of digging. For several minutes, the boy just stared into the hole with a glazed look on his face, then he took a swig of water and resumed his digging.
“Who’s that?” I asked Matt.
“That’s Wesley. He lives next door.”
“What the hell is he doing?” My first thought was that Wesley was either digging for buried treasure or burying a dead body, neither of which should be performed during the daytime hours in a densely populated neighborhood.
Matt shrugged. “No idea. I’ll ask him.” He stepped outside and walked over to Wesley. They chatted for a few minutes, during which Matt knelt down to inspect the hole. Then, after a parting wave, he hurried back inside and said, “He got in trouble, so his parents are making him dig a hole.”
Eric laughed. “What did he get in trouble for?”
“Playing World of Warcraft,” Matt said. “I’m sure he was supposed to be doing something else, like cleaning his room, and he got busted.”
“How long does he have to dig for?” I asked.
“A while, probably. He has to dig a hole that’s half his size.”
“Width or length?” Eric asked.
“Umm…both, I guess.” Matt pointed to Wesley, who had decided to take another break and was now staring into the hole again. “That’s why he has a measuring tape.”
I looked at the jug of water. “Is he allowed to use the bathroom?”
“He’s being punished,” Matt said. “He’s not on a chain gang. He can go in and out of the house to get all the water he wants–and he said he’s allowed an hour off for lunch–but other than that, he has to keep digging until he’s finished.”
The three of us nodded as if those instructions made perfect sense, and then we turned back around to watch the show. There we were, three grown men, exulting in the sight of an unruly teenager forced to perform manual labor, not because we were vindictive assholes, but because it’s always fun to watch other people get into trouble, no matter what age you are.
When I was in kindergarten, our class visited a farm. We wandered around for hours, traipsing across fields, walking in and out of barns, sidestepping piles of shit, and learning why John Deere tractors are crucial to the American dream. We petted horses and chased chickens. We watched pigs roll around in mud to keep themselves cool. The next morning during arts and crafts, our teacher passed out crayons and construction paper and instructed us to draw a picture of what we had seen on our trip. Naturally, I drew a brown-spotted cow nibbling on some lime-green grass, but Greg, the kid next to me, drew a picture of fireworks.
The teacher walked around the room, examining our Crayola creations, and when she arrived at the chicken-scratch display of sparklers and Roman candles, she put her hands on her hips and clucked her tongue in disapproval. The entire class waited, mouths open, practically bouncing up and down in our seats. Then, exhibiting a dramatic flair usually seen when one of my classmates couldn’t get his straw into a juice box, she snatched Greg’s picture off the table and held it high in the air.
“Greg,” she said, addressing the guilty party, “where did we all go yesterday on our class trip?”
“To a farm,” he told her, though it sounded almost like a question.
“And what did we see on that farm?” she asked him.
“Umm…animals. Like cows and pigs and sheep.”
“Correct. And what,” she tapped her finger against the construction paper, “is this a picture of?”
“Fireworks.” Again, he phrased his response like a question, as if constantly eating Elmer’s glue with popsicle sticks had muddled his memory.
“And did we see any fireworks at the farm we visited?”
“No,” he said.
She dropped the picture onto the table as if it were a fresh turd. “Greg seems to be having an awful lot of trouble when it comes to following simple directions. Perhaps he needs to concentrate more when adults are speaking to him.” She clucked her tongue again to remind us that she was bitterly disappointed in America’s youth. “I hope the rest of you demonstrate better listening skills. When I hand out an assignment, when I give you specific instructions, I expect them to be followed.”
Greg stared down at the floor, wide-eyed and stunned. He looked to be on the verge of tears.
The rest of us sat quietly at the table with our hands folded. We were thrilled by Greg’s severe scolding, as well as his inability to recreate a rural setting with only crayons and construction paper. Affirming our teacher’s stern words with a loud and emphatic “YES,” we continued on with our lesson, diligently coloring inside the lines while we tried to stifle our laughter.
Thirty minutes later—having enjoyed a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast—we sat on the deck in lounge chairs, stretched out in shorts and T-shirts, charting Wesley’s slow progress as if each of us had an individual stake in the outcome. We commented on his lack of shoveling skills, which morphed into the all-important question of whether it would be easier to shovel snow or coal, and then we debated how long it would take Wesley to dig his shallow grave. Three hours? Six hours? There was a light breeze, and a fair amount of shade, but already the temperature was in the 80s, and it was liable to reach 90 degrees by late afternoon. At one point, I questioned whether he was wearing any sunscreen. I’m all for teaching kids an important lesson, but not if it involves heat stroke or an early onset of skin cancer.
Wesley didn’t seem to be moving too fast, though. In fact, he took a lengthy break every couple of minutes. First, he’d examine the shovel and chug some water. Then, he’d glance up at the clear blue sky. Then, he’d pick up the measuring tape and measure a few random leaves and branches. Finally, he walked around the perimeter of the hole with his hands on his hips, studying it intently as if by sheer force of will he might trigger a sudden eruption of rich, dark earth.
Watching Wesley, I thought back to my own childhood and tried to remember memorable punishments. There was a smattering of spankings and a few smacks with a wooden spoon, but my parents never used a leather belt or any other fashion accessories. They weren’t afraid to call me out for being a moron, but they never sent me outside to work construction, perhaps because of my asthma. One time, my father threatened to bring my sister and me to the police station if we continued to act up, but he drove right past it and took us out for Chinese food at the mall. Another time, during a spitting phase (brought about by a false belief that I looked really cool hawking phlegm onto the ground) I had to stay at the neighbor’s house while my parents drove my sister and several of the neighbor kids to Carvel for ice cream. I was a bit dejected, but during their absence I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers on TV, so the night wasn’t a total loss.
I asked Matt and Eric if there were any childhood punishments they remembered with a particular fondness, maybe a light spanking that turned into a whipping frenzy.
Matt cocked his head and thought for a moment. “Not really. I didn’t get disciplined because I rarely misbehaved. And when I did misbehave, I rarely got caught. So, two fractions of a fraction, right?”
“You should buy a small plastic shovel,” I told him. “Then, when Charlie misbehaves, you can send him outside to dig small holes around the yard. Just make sure he works in the shade…and that he has an unlimited supply of cheese sticks and fruit juice…otherwise child protective services will be all over your ass.”
“I had to lug rocks,” Eric told us. “And not small rocks, either. I’m talking twenty to twenty-five pounders.” He spread his arms wide to emphasize their size. “Our house was on top of a hill, and the yard was sloped, and one year, when I was in middle-school, Dad decided to build a stone wall. We would borrow someone’s dump truck and take these family trips into the woods. There was this foundation just sitting there, part of some house from the 1700s. Dad would choose which rocks he wanted and then we would load them into the dump truck, bring them back home, and unload them at the edge of the woods at the bottom of the hill.”
“That was your punishment? I asked him. “Quality family time, coupled with a do-it-yourself project?”
He smiled. “Imagine this huge pile of rocks, maybe a hundred yards from the house. And my Dad wants to build this stone wall, so he designates me as his rock retriever. For two whole summers, every time I got in trouble, I had to lift two or three rocks into this old wheelbarrow and then push it up the hill.”
“Where was the stone wall?” Matt asked him. “Was it anywhere near the rock pile?”
“Not even close,” Eric said. “It was, maybe, fifteen yards from the house. So, we’re talking about an eighty-five-yard haul with the wheelbarrow. And remember, I’m maybe seventy pounds, so this is a massive undertaking.”
“I have enough trouble pushing a wheelbarrow out of my garage,” I said. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve used it in years because it has a flat tire.”
“Right. And I couldn’t go straight up the hill because it was too steep and heavy. So, I had to zigzag up the hill. Sometimes, I’d get a running start so I could build up a little momentum, sort of propel myself through the first twenty or thirty feet, cut off a zig here or a zag there. The problem with that, though, was that every third time, the goddamn rocks fell out of the wheelbarrow. Sometimes, they even rolled down the hill, and then I had to chase after them.”
Listening to all our crazy stories—reflecting on expensive objects we had broken and boldfaced lies we had told—I wondered if it’s true that most teenagers are pretty miserable to live with. I guess that’s to be expected, given that most of them are still figuring out who the hell they are and what they believe in. They want to practice self-reliance, then demand that all their problems be fixed by someone else. They want to be seen and respected as unique individuals, but everything they do and say, right down to their flashy clothes and YOLO slang, is modeled after someone else who is a lot more hip and a lot more popular.
My wife and I don’t have any children. Instead, we opted for three large dogs and an assortment of green, leafy plants, all of which we’ve managed to keep alive with a combination of teamwork and sheer luck. Sometimes, one of the dogs will misbehave, especially our youngest, but all I do is take away her chew toy and place it atop the refrigerator. I’ve learned that holding up a finger and saying, in a stern voice, “That’s a warning” just doesn’t have the same effect on a dog as when my wife does it to me.
Still, the nice thing about raising a dog is that I don’t have to worry about her crawling out of a window late at night to meet her boyfriend, or totaling my Scion because she was talking on the phone while executing a left-hand turn. I don’t have to worry about her smoking pot in the basement and then eating all my junk food. Of course, most teenagers don’t usually piss and shit on the floor—or rip apart the sofa cushions with their bare teeth—so either way, it’s a gamble.
The subject of discipline is fascinating because everyone likes to argue over what exactly constitutes an effective punishment. Every parent has their own unique approach to raising a child, whether implementing a five-minute time-out, instituting a moratorium on video games, or making their kid sit at the dining room table to copy down words and definitions from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Some people might argue that a certain punishment is abusive while others might tout it as character-building, like forcing a teenager to stand on the corner of a busy street and hold up a handwritten sign declaring “I stole money” or “I disrespect my parents.” Some people might view the inner workings of a specific household as emblematic of Leave it to Beaver while others might decry it as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Granted, none of us thought Wesley’s parents were being too strict, even though we did question whether digging a large hole would teach the kid a valuable lesson. It was quite possible he would become resentful and dislike his parents for a few weeks, bitching about unfairness and exploitation while only acting sneakier and more problematic. Or perhaps he would pierce his upper lip and dress Goth—complete with black hair, black lips, and black clothes—believing that the best form of rebellion is when you look like you’ve been assaulted by a cheesy horror film.
When it comes to child-rearing, however, most parents aren’t concerned with the niceties or with current subculture fashion statements, so the three of us doubted Wesley’s parents would actually feel offended if he stomped up the stairs and into his bedroom, slamming the door while throwing up his hands and shouting, “Nobody understands me! You don’t know what it’s like to have to live in this house!”
Then again, he might also develop a sudden interest in unearthing ancient artifacts, in which case he could end up double-majoring in History and Anthropology. Instead of playing video games, he might invite some friends over to watch all four Indiana Jones movies. At the very least, though—what with all the shoveling and pacing and running in and out of the house to use the bathroom—Wesley would certainly be building strength and muscle tone, which is more exercise than most teenagers seem to get nowadays. Unless, of course, you count their fingers skimming across a cell phone’s touch screen as they text furiously every morning, noon, and night.
Other people might argue that doling out a reward is far more edifying than administering a punishment. These people believe that if you praise a child for performing good deeds, like taking out the trash or vacuuming the carpet, then perhaps that child will crave constant encouragement and seek out more positive actions on a regular basis. There’s no doubt that everyone loves a compliment, especially when it’s extended by someone we care about and respect. After all, I’d much rather hear someone say, “You are an amazing friend with a beautiful heart!” instead of, “Your birth certificate is an apology from the condom factory.”
Personally, most of the lessons I’ve ever learned—and continue to learn, in fact—have stemmed from bad judgment and poor choices. Case in point: Never touch a pan when it’s just been removed from the oven. This noteworthy incident happened while I was still in elementary school. My mother had made brownies for dessert, and once the timer had gone off, she removed them from the oven, set the pan on a trivet, took off both potholders, and said, “Don’t touch that pan, otherwise you’ll burn yourself, okay?” I nodded like an obedient child and then crept forward, curious to see if the pan was really too hot to touch while also wanting to prove that no one could boss me around.
My mother saw me walk toward the oven and delivered one final warning. When I persisted, she sat back in her chair and watched as I reached out and took hold of the CorningWare handles. Immediately, a searing pain shot through my fingers, and I jumped back in complete surprise. My mother, being a nurse, ran my fingers under cold water. She made an ice pack and instructed me to apply pressure for at least fifteen minutes. Then she gave me some aspirin to help with the throbbing. Later that night, my fingers were red and blistered like overcooked sausages. I was miserable for the next few days—complaining whenever I had to hold a fork or change the TV channel with the remote control—and the only comment my mother offered was a casual shrug of the shoulder followed by an unruffled, “I told you so.”
That afternoon, the three of us headed to The Phoenix Emporium in downtown Ellicott City. We sat at a small table in the corner, bathed in murky light and surrounded by an impressive selection of one hundred and sixty bottled microbrews. While we ate our cheeseburgers and drank our beers, the conversation veered wildly from professional baseball to college basketball, then over to rap music, which transitioned into a hilarious celebration of Reddit, before finally shifting into a lengthy discussion regarding the best original shows on Netflix.
Despite the laidback atmosphere, it was obvious that our minds were elsewhere. So after the waitress had collected our empty plates, after she’d recited the list of microbrews for the fourth time and we had ordered a second round of beers, Eric leaned back and said, “So…do you guys think Wesley is making any progress?”
I pictured him measuring all those leaves and twigs, kicking at random pebbles with the toe of his sneaker, and wandering around the woods like a disgruntled Thoreau. Surely, the temptation of cold soda and potato chips—not to mention sitting on a cushy couch to play violent video games—would spur Wesley to pick up the pace. For one thing, it was sweltering, and he’d likely be covered in sweat and dirt by this point, which any normal person would find disgusting. Plus, most adolescents don’t enjoy being outside anymore because fresh air makes them want to throw up.
Matt wondered if Wesley would still be swinging his shovel when we returned home from lunch, and none of us felt guilty in admitting that we really hoped he would be. We wondered if his neck was sore, or if his arms were getting tired, which led to a debate over whether it’s best to first dig the length of the hole, or to first dig the width of the hole. This led to more confusion because we weren’t actually sure if the “half his size” mandate applied to the width, length, or depth of the hole. Maybe it included all three, which would make the hole more of a square than a rectangle. Of course, there’s no standard shape for a hole, but we were hoping for one that looked semi-professional.
We Googled the dimensions of a grave and discovered the traditional measurements are two and a half feet wide by eight feet long, which includes space for a tombstone. Was Wesley supposed to adhere to those dimensions? Clearly, he wasn’t digging his own grave, at least not in a literal sense, but we found it hard to believe his parents would make him dig a hole that was six-feet deep. We liked the idea of valuing tradition but wondered if that was excessive. Certainly, a hole that size would take him hours to dig, especially given his lack of speed and determination. Then again, perhaps we were being too lenient. After all, it’s not like he was ordered to fashion a Burmese tiger pit and fill it to the brim with venomous snakes.
And how far can a parent actually go in using manual labor as a form of punishment? Certainly, it’s fair game to make your kid clean the oven, scrub a few toilets, iron some clothes, or polish the silverware. Those are all minimal-risk chores. Even an incompetent louse could complete that list in a couple of hours and require nothing more than an ice pack and a Band-Aid. But hanging drywall? Refinishing cabinetry? Installing hardwood floors? Those are DIY projects that require a deft combination of patience and precision, not to mention a lot more time and money. Compared to retiling the walk-in shower or adding some backsplash in the kitchen, digging a hole is cheap and easy.
Then we wondered what would happen if Wesley didn’t finish digging his hole by the time the sun went down. Would he be out there all night long with a flashlight and a bottle of mosquito repellant, singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in a tortured voice? And what would become of the infamous hole once he finished digging it? Would his parents just leave it there—risking the chance that someone might fall into it and sue them—or would they make him fill it in? If so, would shoveling all that dirt back into the hole be considered a continuation of his current punishment, or would his parents wait until he screwed up again and then surprise him with another landscaping chore?
We ordered a third round of beers, commenting on the fact that in many countries, children probably dig holes on a daily basis, whether to forage for food and water, or maybe to aid their parents in building a fence, or perhaps even to sleep in it so they can stay alive. To be honest, Wesley’s punishment was very much a first-world problem. Digging a hole is a light slap on the wrist when compared to being caned with a piece of bamboo or having your hand chopped off. Consider that the ancient Aztecs used to hold their children over smoking chili peppers—burning their eyes until they cried—while other times they would pierce their skin with the sharp spines of a cactus. Or that Roman fathers could actually sell their children into slavery, and sometimes kill them under certain circumstances.
Being an educator, I’ve noticed that, more and more, children tend to receive the benefit of the doubt whenever they get into trouble. Perhaps that’s a side effect of living in a country where we celebrate mediocrity, where kids can suck ass in sports and still receive a green participation ribbon or a trophy for fifty-seventh place. Some of these parents who pride themselves on cracking the whip at home suddenly become highly suspicious when another person assumes the role of disciplinarian, especially in a school environment.
These parents refuse to believe that their perfect little angel could ever do anything as beastly as punch someone on the arm, cheat on a spelling test, or lie about homework. They believe teachers should mind their own business and leave every punishment to the parent’s discretion, that teachers should stick to the curriculum and focus their time on instructing students in basic life skills such as “home economics,” “public speaking,” and “empathizing with others so you don’t look like an absolute dick.”
As a child, whenever I got into trouble, which was not often, the first thing my mother always asked me—as soon as I stepped inside the house and kicked off my shoes—was, “What did you do?” Sometimes there was a phone call from the principal, and sometimes there was a folded-up note from the teacher shoved inside my backpack, but there was never any possibility that I was completely innocent, or that I’d been framed like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. And while I often resorted to sputtering clichés like, “I don’t know” or “I didn’t do it,” or even fake crying under the most extreme conditions, my parents were rarely fooled. They understood that kids do stupid things, kids make stupid choices, and every boneheaded adventure is an important part of growing up.
I once worked for Camp Fire Alaska while I was attending graduate school in Anchorage, and in the summer of 2001 I was lining up a group of kids to go outside after lunch when one girl cut to the front of the line. She wasn’t subtle about it either, choosing instead to break the coveted “no cutsies” rule while I was looking straight at her. When I sent her to the back of the line—which wasn’t even that far away, maybe ten short steps—she freaked out as if I’d run her through with a sword. Later that day, the girl’s mom arrived to pick her up and demanded to know why her daughter was complaining about her shitty day at summer camp. I explained in detail how her daughter had pushed past half a dozen children and cut to the front of the line, an act of defiance that has been a serious no-no since lines were first invented during the caveman days.
To which the mother firmly responded, “No, she didn’t.”
“Yes, she did.” I tried to sound helpful rather than annoyed.
“My daughter would never do that,” she told me.
“Except that she did,” I said, perhaps a bit too forcefully. “I was standing right here and witnessed it with my own two eyes.”
“That’s not true.”
“Okay…umm…why would I lie?”
“My daughter did not cut in line on purpose.”
“As opposed to accidentally? How would that even happen, unless she was sleepwalking?”
“My daughter is well-behaved, and she is aware of the rules.” She practically spat the words right in my face. “You’re just not understanding what you saw.”
Suddenly, the daughter’s behavior and attitude made perfect sense. For almost half a minute, I simply stared at the mother, more amazed than angry. I suppose I could have continued to argue with her, repeating the same words over and over again like a broken record, but it seemed smarter to just take a knee and run out the clock.
“Fine.” I stepped back, raised my hands in the air as a sign of surrender, and sent the angry mother to one of my supervisors, lamenting her sheer stupidity and eternally grateful that the only thing waiting for me back at my apartment was not a small whiny child, but a philodendron in desperate need of watering.
Upon arriving at Matt’s house a few hours later, we sprinted inside like marathon runners, shouted a quick hello to Kim, and bolted straight into the living room. Giddy with anticipation, we pushed open the sliding glass door and rushed outside into an empty and quiet backyard, our eyes zeroing in on a small clump of trees about twenty yards away. We were ready to hear the pleasant sound of metal scratching earth, to see heaps of dirt flying through the humid air.
Alas, Wesley was nowhere to be found. His measuring tape was gone, his jug of water was gone, and his shovel was gone. But the hole—just visible in the shadows beside a tangle of fallen limbs—had not been filled in.
I’m sure we looked crestfallen in the late afternoon sun, three grown men huddled together on a deck, wide-eyed and stunned, looking very much like an eight-year-old boy who’s just been told that Santa Claus isn’t real.
We waited for several more minutes, glancing around the yard as if Wesley were hiding in plain view, wondering aloud if maybe he went inside to fill up his jug or to snack on some potato chips. But when he failed to appear, we had to accept the cold hard truth that one of two things had transpired during our absence: either he had finished digging his hole, or he had collapsed from heat exhaustion and been taken to the hospital.
Dejected, we crossed the backyard, swung our legs over the wooden fence, and stepped past the property line, eager to inspect Wesley’s handiwork. We expected the hole to be a perfect square—a deep black chasm of ninety-degree angles, like one of those burial plots often seen in creepy cemeteries on thundering moonlit nights—but Wesley’s hole looked more like an out-of-shape oval. Considering he had a measuring tape, we assumed he would take some pride in his assigned drudgery. Instead, the hole was pocked with gashes and rough edges, curving and zigzagging as if he became distracted by a squirrel climbing a tree. Plus, the bottom of the hole was lumpy and uneven, full of quartz rocks and sneaker prints, hardly the smooth foundation we had hoped to see.
Wesley hadn’t even bothered to inscribe his initials with a stick, which seemed only fitting given the hours he’d spent slinging dirt in every direction, especially since he was probably nursing blisters and sore fingers. If it was me, I’d have urinated into the hole or poured out a domestic beer. Of course, we needed to remember that Wesley was a rebellious kid, not a gravedigger in training, so there was really no need for him to do anything more than to dig a hole that fit the parameters of his punishment.
Kim came outside and told us she had spoken with Wesley’s mom while we were having lunch. Apparently, Wesley had been lying to his parents quite a lot lately. His initial punishment had been an immediate freeze on all video-gaming, but when he shrugged that off and secretly tried to play World of Warcraft, his parents had sent him outside to work construction.
“His mom did offer to loan him out to us if we ever need any work done,” Kim told Matt, and I saw him glance around the yard as if processing several ideas, maybe mowing the lawn or washing the windows.
We went inside the house and dug through the refrigerator for more beer. After cracking open three more IPAs, we returned to the patio and hoisted our bottles into the air, offering a celebratory toast to Wesley and his misshapen hole.
Initially, I’d been tickled by the sight of a kid being disciplined, by the concept of punishment being actualized right before my eyes with a shovel and a measuring tape. I remembered my own happy childhood, filled with teachable moments and epic screw-ups. Once upon a time, I served detention, got sent to the principal’s office, and lost my TV privileges. Once upon a time, I tried to lie my way toward innocence, and I enjoyed blaming others whenever I jumped into a bad decision and drove it straight off a cliff.
In a sense, it was validating to see Wesley pay his dues just like every other child. But another part of me felt jealous. Because, in some weird way, I sort of miss those sporadic punishments. Looking back, they all seem so quick and painless. Sure, I used to bitch about them, but that’s because I had yet to develop a sense of perspective. At forty years old, what constitutes a punishment is a lot more severe, and the sting of it can last quite a bit longer. Being grounded for a week or having your superhero toys taken away for the weekend doesn’t even compare to a shitty credit score, trial separation, termination from a job, or having to buy a new car because you ignored the “check engine” light.
This fundamental shift occurs because not only do adults have more responsibilities, but they also take more serious risks. Kids might agonize over which cereal to eat, which clothing label to wear, and whether or not to honor a pinkie swear, but adults might agonize over which person to choose as a life partner, which career path to select, and whether to invest in stocks or mutual funds. Taking those serious risks can certainly yield higher potential returns, but they also increase the possibility of higher potential losses.
I considered the past and the present while I stared off into Matt’s backyard, and I sipped my beer with the understanding that, sooner or later, we all have to dig a few holes. Nowadays, though, the ones I dig are deeper and wider and costlier than those piddling ones I dug as a kid. The holes I dig nowadays take much longer to finish, and they’re often a lot harder to crawl out of.
Leaning against the porch railing, I suddenly wanted to run next door and tell Wesley to appreciate the simplicity of his mundane task. I wanted to put my arm around his scrawny shoulder and explain in a learned tone the importance of appreciating this significant moment, of being more careful and appreciative of where he might walk in the future, lest he fall into a hole he had already dug.
Of course, on Sunday morning the three of us awoke to find Wesley back outside with his measuring tape and his jug of water, wiping the sweat from his furrowed brow while he kicked at rocks and twigs. The sun was shining overhead, and a light breeze was blowing through the treetops. The grass was still wet with dew. Feeling invigorated, Matt and Eric and I rushed outside to claim our comfortable seats on the patio, trying to contain our bursting smiles as we watched Wesley dig another hole right next to the first one.