They may be about to drum me out of the parents' union -- with cause. Willingly, witlessly, I introduced my daughter to John McEnroe last week.
Emily Susanna Levey will be 21 months old on Friday. Some say John McEnroe isn't that old yet, and won't ever get there. A sulker, a sneerer, he is a heck of a tennis player -- and about the worst role model for young eyes I can imagine.
But did that stop me? It was a hazy, languid Labor Day afternoon. Mom was off visiting Grandma and Grandpa, and Dad got possessed by a brainstorm. He flicked on the TV and said to the small person on the rocking horse in the corner, "Hey, Em, you wanna watch tennis with Dad? They're going to hit the ball."
Emily eagerly climbed in my lap, took one look and said:
"They're playing baseball, Daddy."
"No, Hon, it's tennis. Tenn-niss. In baseball you hit the ball with a bat. In tennis you use a racquet. See?"
At that moment, John McEnroe leaned gracefully into a backhand volley -- and pushed it into the net. It was the sort of error he seldom makes. So he responded with the sort of petulant gesture he often makes. He threw his racket onto the court.
"Look, Daddy!" said an excited Emily, pointing at the screen. "He throw the bat!"
"It's not a bat, Emily, it's a racquet. And I don't want you to do what he does. Dad doesn't like throwing."
There was no response from the Wimbledon champion of 2002 -- at least not right away. But then John McEnroe kicked at his racquet. And kicked at it again.
"Look, Daddy!" said Emily. "He kicked it! He kicked it again, Daddy!" And she squealed with delight.
My mind raced ahead to an imaginary meeting 14 years from now with a high school guidance counselor. He'd be shuffling a stack of papers on his desk, all labeled "Levey" with an indelible red pen. Jane and I would be sitting before him, heads bowed, miscreants about to be taken to task. The counselor would look up after a long pause for thought and say, "Can you possibly explain why Emily kicks her books? And her classmates? And squeals with delight while she does it?"
But this was no time for fantasy. McEnroe was following up his two kicks with some hands-on-hips grousing at the umpire. Then he simply stood there, live and in color, pouting.
"He's not happy, Daddy," said Emily, gravely.
Recklessly, I waded in: "No, hon, he's not happy, because he's losing. You don't know about losing yet, but you'll have to learn how to do it. Dad loses. Mom loses. Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Mark and Uncle John all lose sometimes. We don't like to lose. But we don't kick our racquets. And we don't get angry. We try to smile and get ready so we can win the next time."
Emily took all this in, then pointed at McEnroe and asked: "Why he not happy, Daddy?"
I decided to take the long way around.
"Hon, remember the time you didn't feel well?"
"And Mom gave you the medicine?"
"Right. The yukky medicine. And we said it wouldn't make you happy right away, but it would make you better the next morning. You remember?"
"Well, it's the same thing with the tennis man. He's got to take his medicine. He's not happy because he doesn't understand this. But if he takes his medicine, he'll be better in the morning, too."
"The tennis man's sick, Daddy."
"No, Hon, that's not what I meant. He's not sick. He's just playing tennis. But that doesn't mean he can act that way."
"You watch Emily?"
"Sure, I'll watch you. What are you gonna do?"
The dopey question of all time. Emily got off Dad's lap, ran over to her toy mallet, threw it on the floor and kicked it twice.
"I happy, Daddy," she said, beaming.
Thanks, McEnroe. Thanks a million.