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June 17, 2007

Boys Will Be Boys

Fathers Day.

It's still early morning. The woods are quiet and my daughter in law hasn't woken up yet so I have the house all to myself. I slip silently down the stairs to the basement to let Sausage out of his house. He explodes from the door as though giant springs were attached to his butt and thunders up the stairs and down the hall to my office, ears flying madly, sounding like a herd of buffalo.

I am never sure how one tiny miniature dachshund can make so much noise. Does he have lead in his paws?

He is eleven years old. This makes him 77 in dog years - the same age as my Dad. I wonder if my father gets out of bed the same way every morning? Dear God, I hope not.

I open the kitchen door and struggle to contain his brown wriggling body while I attach his line so he can take care of the urgent business of elimination and regulating squirrels and passersby who are insufficiently impressed by his ferocity. He is the first male dog we have ever had and let me tell you, they are different.

With a husband, two sons, and a male dog, I have been under siege in my own house for decades. But I accept my fate with equanimity. You see, I have always loved men, ever since I was a little girl:

Speaking of Cassandra, she really does like guys. Responsible guys, mind you.

You can blame that on my father. In my eyes, my Dad was everything a man should be. A dashing Navy man, he stood six foot four with curly black hair, and brown eyes a girl could lose her soul in. He loved to do man things like camping and fishing and building things and messing with power tools and carburetors. Because of him, I knew what a butterfly valve was in junior high, and what to do if one got stuck and how to do a perfect figure 8 paddle manoever in a canoe, and I could beat anyone in my 6th grade class, including the boys, in the flexed arm hang. Of course that was before the testosterone kicked in but it compensated somewhat for the teasing about having to wear a bra so early to hide my budding breasts, which unfortunately failed to live up to their early promise and mushroom into Pamela Andersonesque monuments to our national motto, "More is more".

Dad used to take me to the hardware store - it was one of my favorite places in the universe. I could wander around Hechinger's for hours just looking at hinges and lumber and wondering what various oddly shaped metal doohickies in the plumbing section were for. Because of him, I wasn't afraid to try and fix things myself, years later when my husband was deployed and everything I owned seemed to break at once. It didn't always work, but then it didn't always work for my male neighbors either, I soon found out.

The thing was to try, and not to get too discouraged.

Somewhere in the bunch of slides my Mom has in her house, there is one of my Dad lying on the floor watching TV. And sitting on his chest is a chubby eighteen month old baby girl with curly blonde hair and brown eyes like dinner plates. His eyes. That's me, his firstborn. My Dad was pleased as punch to have a daughter. He was my biggest fan. When I was about 14 or 15 I used to argue with him so much he had one of those office signs made up and posted it over my door. It had my full name, and underneath the words "Attorney at Law". I think I disappointed him very much when I decided to leave college. He had high hopes for me but even though I didn't finish school or get a law degree, he never gave up on me. He accepted my stubbornness, even if he didn't like it.

And it was because of my Dad that the first time I talked to a young man who lived two doors down from me in Navy housing I realized he was something special, someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and on the day my Father gave my hand to his in marriage, a lifelong journey of discovery continued seamlessly. For to me the most wonderful thing about marriage has been the opportunity to walk side by side, neither expecting we could change the other but quietly posing a challenge to become more than we were alone. The chance to gaze into the utterly foreign landscape of the male mind has been endlessly fascinating to me, if at times mind boggling and confusicating: a breathtaking thrill ride I still can't believe I've been allowed to take for free. I can't imagine why anyone would want to change men when they are so completely, infuriatingly delightful the way they are.

Fausta, who has a great interview with the author, pointed me a few days ago to this great essay in the Wall Street Journal. In it, Tony Woodlief (also a blogger) echoes thoughts I've had often, oddly enough, as a mother of two sons and as a wife to a strong willed Marine:

The trick is not to squash the essence of boys, but to channel their natural wildness into manliness. And this is what keeps me awake at night, because it's going to take a miracle for someone like me, who grew up without meaningful male influence, who would be an embarrassment to Teddy Roosevelt, to raise three men. Along with learning what makes a good father, I face an added dilemma: How do I raise my sons to be better than their father?

What I'm discovering is that as I try to guide these ornery, wild-hearted little boys toward manhood, they are helping me become a better man, too. I love my sons without measure, and I want them to have the father I did not. As I stumble and sometimes fail, as I feign an interest in camping and construction and bugs, I become something better than I was.

Men are, for me, the undiscovered country. For all my life I have thoroughly enjoyed loving them, talking with them, being friends with them, arguing with them, just being confused by them.

But I don't really want to change them, even when I don't understand them and even when, sometimes, I am confronted with things in their nature that, as a woman, terrify and sadden me. For me, everything I don't understand and sometimes fear is bound up in what I most admire and have learned from over the course of my life. To change a thing is to destroy it, and when you love something with your whole heart how can one even entertain such a path? I did, however, love this, from Woodlief:

I can't shake the sense that boys are supposed to become manly. Rather than neutering their aggression, confidence and desire for danger, we should channel these instincts into honor, gentlemanliness and courage. Instead of inculcating timidity in our sons, it seems wiser to train them to face down bullies, which by necessity means teaching them how to throw a good uppercut. In his book "Manliness," Harvey Mansfield writes that a person manifesting this quality "not only knows what justice requires, but he acts on his knowledge, making and executing the decision that the rest of us trembled even to define." You can't build a civilization and defend it against barbarians, fascists and playground bullies, in other words, with a nation of Phil Donahues.

Maybe the problem isn't that boys are aggressive, but that we've neglected their moral education. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote to one of his sons: "I would rather have a boy of mine stand high in his studies than high in athletics, but I would a great deal rather have him show true manliness of character than show either intellectual or physical prowess." Manliness, then, is not the ability to survive in the wilderness, or wield a rifle. But having such skills increases the odds that one's manly actions--which Roosevelt and others believed flow from a moral quality--will be successful.

The good father, then, needs to nurture his son's moral and spiritual core, and equip him with the skills he'll need to act on the moral impulse that we call courage. A real man, in other words, is someone who doesn't run from an Osama bin Laden. But he may also need the ability to hit a target from three miles out with a .50 caliber M88 if he wants to finish the job.

Yes, yes, and yes. This is what I tried so hard to accomplish with my small sons, now grown - not to crush their maleness but to add to it a strong moral fiber that would allow them to channel that uniquely masculine force properly.

I also, though I keep reading that men hate to talk, tried to teach them to talk to women, to be friends with the other half of humanity. Not to be women, but to be comfortable with women.

This is why we marry, why we refer to our spouses as our better halves. There is something that happens to us when we find the right person. We are exposed to another way of thinking, of seeing the universe, and if we open ourselves to it, we do become better people.

More than ourselves. I think, whether we are male or female, each of us has much to learn from the other half of the human race and on this day we salute fathers, who give us life and teach us to face it squarely, with our heads held high and a can-do spirit.

It is a good lesson.

Posted by Cassandra at June 17, 2007 08:31 AM

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Comments

Great thoughts, Cass.

I think the best thing that can happen to a boy is to be born to a woman who is not a feminist, someone who realizes that the two sexes differ, and that testosterone is there for a good reason. I often tease my lads and MathMan about "testosterone poisoning", but I am glad, on the whole, that they are afflicted with it.

Merrilyn, the woman who taught me to be a mother, always had a way of helping me understand that children do not need to behave perfectly to be good kids. The piece of advice that landed right in the sweet spot when I needed to hear it, was, "You don't want to break a boy's spirit. You want boys to be a little bit obnoxious!" I'm glad I had her to train me, and I'm glad I listened to that bit of advice.

We are a family with two Boy Scouts, one (SpecialLad) just made Eagle, the other (MathLad) is Life rank. I have often thought that you could do much worse than to hang out with a bunch of Scouts. Yes, they'll learn how to belch really loudly, you'll be treated to the Talking Armpit, have to endure the stench of guys who have been out camping for days without benefit of showers as you drive them home. But they will learn to do stuff in the wilderness, to canoe, kayak, dive, climb, rapel, and learn to be men. They'll understand what muscles are used for. They'll learn character, self-reliance, disaster preparedness, how to think in a crisis. Some Scouts go on to moral failure, for certain, but more come away a little better. Some come away a lot better - some walk on the moon, or become President of the United States.

And it's the getting away from their mothers that does this. It is getting out with men who wish to help shape boys into something more useful than the North American Domesticated Mall Rat, who demonstrate manliness and honor and other ideals, that can take all that potential for aggression and turn it into a force for good.

Thank God for boys, for fathers, for MEN, and for testosterone! Happy Father's Day!

Posted by: MathMom at June 17, 2007 02:40 PM

Are you a blogger in Nebraska?

Posted by: Angela at June 17, 2007 03:21 PM

Thank you. You've put words to my thoughts. I collect writing on the subject of manliness, it is dear to my heart. This article has been gratefully saved...
Harper

Posted by: sillyblindharper at June 17, 2007 03:25 PM

You see, I have always loved men, ever since I was a little girl...

We love you too, kid.

I can't imagine why anyone would want to change men when they are so completely, infuriatingly delightful the way they are.

Now that's just how I feel about you women -- well, the best of you, anyway. :)

Posted by: Grim at June 17, 2007 06:14 PM

Absolutely wonderful.

Posted by: HomefrontSix at June 17, 2007 07:37 PM

I am privileged to be a mother of sons, and wife to a man who encourages me to let them learn how.
I will never forget with the birth of my first son, how much more helpless I felt that he, since
I had preconceived notions and he, not a one beyond comfort.

As time went on, I was afflicted to see his father teach him as a toddler to navigate stairs so he wouldn't fall and really get hurt...

So it has been with all our children. Their father, their mentor. Sometimes they run to mama
for the softer side of discipline, but they are
not afraid of their dad, and respect his authority and trust him completely. In the case of the Young Princess Kitty, she sometimes runs to her father. heh.

Sorrow can temper a man, but still not break him or deter him from the task at hand; to raise good men to conquer life.

I love you, honey. Happy Father's Day from all of us.

Posted by: Cricket at June 17, 2007 07:40 PM

Some days are just meant to be the best days of your life.

Thanks.

Posted by: spd rdr at June 17, 2007 08:01 PM

"I also, though I keep reading that men hate to talk, tried to teach them to talk to women, to be friends with the other half of humanity. Not to be women, but to be comfortable with women."

A funny thing...at least to me; for years I have tried to assist certain of my male acquaintances to get over their shyness around women. My advice? Just talk to them as though they're people, 'cause they are. It often amazes how difficult it is for some guys to dialogue with female types. My efforts have met with mixed success...

Posted by: camojack at June 18, 2007 01:22 AM

I know a few million men that would gladly pay good money to have you tell that to their wives. You could make a lot of money on the speaking circuit.

Posted by: Russ at June 18, 2007 02:32 AM

One of my guy friends at work and I have a running joke (well, actually we have several, but this is the one that applies here). Every now and then he'll ask me to do something for him and sometime later in the day I'll get a snarky email or phone call saying "You.... complete me". It never fails to crack me up.

I do think, camo, that's one reason men and women enjoy each other's company so much, aside from the other obvious reason. It's like two pieces of a puzzle fitting together.

I read somewhere that people who are natural leaders combine male and female traits and that is why they are successful. I think that is true - they are probably more well rounded than most and therefore better able to relate to people around them. I don't ever want to be a guy, but I do spend a lot of time trying to understand them because frankly the way you all do a lot of things makes eminent sense.

Then there are certain things I think we women do better. Since I'm not a big fan of wasting energy, I'm happy to let you all do the things you do well and I'll do what I'm naturally good at and hopefully there's some overlap in the center.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 18, 2007 07:56 AM

Thank you for this post! I have often had to defend my love of my men to other women, and it's wonderful to have what I think put into such eloquence.

Posted by: RebeccaH at June 18, 2007 04:53 PM

A wonderful post, Cass. Thank you!

Mathmom:

"We are a family with two Boy Scouts, one (SpecialLad) just made Eagle, the other (MathLad) is Life rank."

Congratulations to SpecialLad from one Eagle to another!

And Happy Belated Father's Day to all those Fathers out there!

Posted by: Kevin L at June 18, 2007 05:10 PM

Well shoot.

It was sort of dedicated to you all.

And no, I am not from Nebraska. I have never even been there. But Pile has.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 18, 2007 05:17 PM

Thank you very much, Kevin L. I will tell him.

Posted by: MathMom at June 18, 2007 07:35 PM

Scouting was good to my boys. They were lucky enough to be in a rather funny Scout troop with a Marine Gunny for a Scoutmaster. I think he was probably the only one on earth who would have tolerated them.

Or who could have controlled them. We used to call them D Troop (d for dysfunctional - they put the 'fun' back in dysfunctional :p). One day I was driving them back from some camp out and they had me laughing so hard I literally had to pull my station wagon off the road because I was in tears. A few times they even cracked my normally stoic husband up like that too.

I used to have them over the year the boys were home schooled and we had stupid water balloon fights that ranged all over the neighborhood - I filled these enormous trashbags with water balloons and they split into teams and hid caches all up and down our street. It was a hoot. I can't believe no one called the MPs but it wasn't that kind of neighborhood, thank heavens. Teenage boys on bikes and skateboards and all sorts of assorted nonsense with water balloons is not something you unleash on your neighbors unadvisedly :p

Thankfully they were gentlemen.

Except to each other... heh. Boys are nuts. I was just glad they didn't have BB guns.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 18, 2007 07:50 PM

"I do think, camo, that's one reason men and women enjoy each other's company so much, aside from the other obvious reason. It's like two pieces of a puzzle fitting together.

In more ways than one, yes...that's the beautiful symmetry of it.

"I read somewhere that people who are natural leaders combine male and female traits and that is why they are successful. I think that is true - they are probably more well rounded than most and therefore better able to relate to people around them. I don't ever want to be a guy, but I do spend a lot of time trying to understand them because frankly the way you all do a lot of things makes eminent sense.

Although I sometimes find it amusing, I've been told by a number of women that I am really in touch with my feminine side. If I was less secure in my masculinity, I might be offended by this, but I know that it is intended as a compliment.

"Then there are certain things I think we women do better. Since I'm not a big fan of wasting energy, I'm happy to let you all do the things you do well and I'll do what I'm naturally good at and hopefully there's some overlap in the center.

Beautiful symmetry again, yes; the so-called "yin and yang"...

Posted by: camojack at June 19, 2007 01:12 AM

I think it is because confident men are secure.
And they are confident because they had both a mother and a father who believed in them and mentored them.

Posted by: Cricket at June 19, 2007 09:26 AM

Cricket:
They did do that, 'tis true.

But I wasn't always the supremely confident person that I am today, even so...

Posted by: camojack at June 19, 2007 10:28 AM

Thank God there are other mothers who feel the importance of fostering manliness in their sons. I too, have two sons and have developed much the same outlook on boyhood as you. Teddy Roosevelt is also a hero of mine.
Here are two of my blog posts that reflect much of what you have defined:
http://watch-and-learn.blogspot.com/2007/01/fisticuffs.html
http://watch-and-learn.blogspot.com/2006/05/america-needs-you-teddy-roosevelt.html

Posted by: kelli at June 20, 2007 12:57 AM

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