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by Forrest Seymour
"Can you play Playmobile?"
I am shaken from an all too brief night by my newly minted four-year-old who sits suddenly upright between Nancy and I, casually sliding the covers half way down the bed on this chilly New England morning.
"No.We're trying to sleep.You're pulling the covers off." I make a vain attempt to pull the warm things back up over us, but he's got them pinned down now with his feet.
"Pleeease!" he implores.
By "Playmobiles," Jake means knights, swords, armor, horses, castles, dragons; a mythical medieval world of pretty German plastic. By "Pleeease" he means do it now, or else.
"After you get your clothes on; it's a school day," I counter, trying to salvage my negotiating position as I reach through the chill air for my bathrobe. Nancy is ignoring all of this, pretending still to sleep, to her credit.
"Before!" he counters.
"But then you get dressed," I quip.
"OK." He's off the bed and out the door for the living room. Did I just win a concession? Or have I been flummoxed? Again.
My son is big into knights and all that implies. He has the plastic armor, the arsenal of plastic swords (including the light-saber variety), and, with his buddy Tommy, has several times rescued his big sister from peril of a certain fiery, dragony sort, about which she is strangely unmoved.
I am often stuck by this macho strain in Jake's play and world view. While I will never concede that this is the inevitability of gender, I wonder then where did he come by these traits? My guess is that he must have learned this machismo from his mother or me, yet I far prefer to see myself as a gentle man, unfettered by prehistoric notions of masculine power, and his mother, while no wall flower, is also no budding Amazon. And yet here he is, right in my face; me as a three foot fierce warrior, embracing all the guy stuff society throws at him, with a grace and enthusiasm I have to admit I admire.
I'm reminded of a weekly drop-in support group for men in our town I sometimes attend. Some of the men who drop in to this group are of the new age variety, looking for a little more personal growth; others are very troubled souls in search of any support they can find; and a few are tough muscle and tattoo guys, forced by life's twists and turns (and sometimes by the courts) to rethink their masculinity. It is from this third group that I learn the most about myself.
I watch and listen as these guys explore emotions and sides of themselves they'd never guessed existed, or at least believed extinct since wee childhood. Tears, love, heartfelt caring for other guys, I see and feel the fruits of their emotional labors. And I see, suddenly and exquisitely, that their struggles are mine. It is one thing to know what it means to be a caring and emotionally present husband and father, another to walk it.
I am forced by watching these other guys to look at myself, at how fathers pass masculinity to their sons, and how maybe we sometimes re-vision our own manhood in our son's boyhood.
Turns out in me there is a muscle and tattoo guy. Who'd-a-guessed? When I hear these men talk about wanting a break from the work of relationship, I suddenly see myself. When I find myself walking away from my daughter's latest tantrum, I see Mr. Muscles & Tatoos, heading for his truck and a beer. Though I may these days forgo the beer, I am still just as distant, just as macho.
Perhaps it is this part of me that admires the muscles and tattoos I've never dare sport, this closet tough guy, who surreptitiously teaches Jake this stuff.
So where did I learn to build these walls, this emotional masonry I appear to be passing to my son? One of course seeks to blame the father, but I've learned to be quite sympathetic, as a fellow father, to the difficulties men face if they wish to be gentle and open, to raise gentle sons.
No, I place the blame for distant men more squarely on our culture as a whole, on the men and women of a society that relies on young men with a warrior mentality to willingly staff its armies, be they military, police or the armies of corporate warfare. And I blame an economic system which feeds, needs and rewards competitive materialism that profits from hard choices uncurbed by empathy or emotion. These insidious forces draw young men in with their love of power and authority; there is no lawyer, no emotional advocate, to whisper in the ears of those young men, boys really, "Read the fine print son, see where it says 'forgo real intimacy?'"
I think of my own grandfather at 25, the newly minted father of a toddler son (destined to be my father) and already 7 years into a competitive career he'd stay with his entire life, who one Iowa spring day put down the following stanza:
"My soul is an impenetrable fortress,
I grant no god nor man the power to break
Through walls that guard my inner self from gibbering legions."
A fragment he typed, had the forethought to date, and preserved for the next fifty years. Did he believe he'd captured something important? About himself? About men?
He concluded the same poem:
"And if within the gods abide unknown,
Still what care I? They neither interfere,
Nor do they let the vandal enemy, man, come in."
I remember life with a toddler, like my grandfather had when he wrote these words. It is no picnic, and can often feel like life under siege. Parenthood can be a humbling experience, when new parents learn the limits of their control both of self, and of other, a hot house from which many men seek asylum. But in this same furnace of family is forged the steel of intimacy, the ability to stick with your child and your spouse though chaos and crying. When we avoid this pain we also forgo the skills needed to draw a bridge to those we love.
Was his young son, my father, the "vandal enemy, man," of which my grandfather wrote? Or was he thinking of his corporate coworkers? Regardless, by 25 my grandfather, after whom I am named, had build his castle walls, forged his armor, sharpened his sword, drawn his bridge up, and declared his isolation in chivalric meter. The threatening dragons of intimacy were already doomed.
Men are not generally taught to stay with the hard feelings. We tend to bolt, inward to away, often to alcohol. We build our fortress around ourselves.
I wonder now, over 70 years later, if the men in our family might be ready to breach our own walls, to draw down the bridge to those gibbering voices of emotion. I wonder if am.
"Dad. Can you find his sword?" Jacob asks, unarmed plastic knight in one hand while with the other he digs through the toy box. As requested, we are now playing Playmobiles.
"How about we use this?" I ask innocently, producing a nurse figure clutching a long pink sword the untrained eye might mistake for the kind used to spear little sandwiches.
"Not the Knight Nurse," he says off handedly, continuing his search. This is a running joke, my small effort to challenge stratified gender roles in his play. He rarely sees the humor. I concede and help him find the little gray sword he seeks.
After clothes and breakfast the play mode shifts, Jake no longer wants to play with knights, he wants to be a knight, and so is off to scower the house for his armor and sword, while I retreat upstairs to don my daily armor. And so it is Jacob, in the basement rumpus room alone, who discovers our dead cat first, lying as if asleep on the extra mattress, but with his eyes wide open and lips in a grimace.
Jake pelts back up the stairs, finds Nancy and asks, "Why does Puddy's face look like this," then he makes a toothy grin.
"Let's go see," Nancy says taking his hand, because Puddy has been ill.
We spend the morning mourning, the kids miss a little school. At first Jacob is all nervous energy. "Oh, well," is about all he says. Finally he sits in my lap on the mattress near Pud and says to me, "I'm crying inside."
"Me too," I concede kissing the top of his head, for though both Nancy and Emily display their tears, I typically do not. But cry inside I do, and often this has to do. Mr. Muscles & Tatoos still has some things to learn.
After a while Jake has a realization: "Finally," he says. " Something we really love has died." He repeats this several times to be sure we hear.
At first this seems callous; then I realize, he's been playing knights and killing bad guys for a long time, he's been very involved with death in his way, trying to understand it, and now he sees it for real, he feels it, for the first time. He seems confused, out of synch perhaps with his sister's more voluble and tearful response. But he sticks with it, with his feelings.
"Puddy's dead." He tells us from time to time.
"How're you doing?" we ask.
I am relieved. As Puddy's death unfolded I wondered how Jake would take it in, how he'd respond. I am comforted by his response, his willingness to try to give voice to his feelings. At one point he shivers sitting there on the mattress.
"Are you cold," I ask?
"No. It's Puddy trying to get out of my head."
"Did he get out?"
Good, I think, hugging him close. Stick with it little guy. Raise the banners, arm your troops. Let your draw-bridge down, and welcome those gibbering legions of emotions into your small tough fortress; don't ever let them go.
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