Are We Not Men?

The smell of evaporating rain on the summer-heated asphalt conjures ambiguous flashbacks and less-than-vivid feelings from my childhood, pretty much all summed up into one memory of laying in the middle of the double-yellow street, on a blind corner, in front of the house I grew up in. Somehow I’m not dead. I remember watching steam rise and swirl around me as the rain fell, creating more steam. The street was almost too hot for my skin and I would tolerate it as long as possible, then run to the back yard covered in grit and tiny pebbles and jump in the pool. Repeat.

My dad was not around much when I was a kid. Maybe he was, I’m not sure. That’s really not the point. The point is that he left no strong impression in my mind for better or for worse. I don’t remember him being around. He liked to work. He was always working on the deal of the century. Although, nine times out of ten or eleven he was home for dinner. Most of the time he got home just in time, I think. I wish I had more powerful memories of my dad, but they are just not there. The memories I do have paint him in a very passive and in-the-background light; always reading the paper, or absorbed in something other than what was happening. Not angry, not excited, not engaged. Sure, I have some fond moments with him, but those are from my teen years after the divorce. Everyone loved my dad. He was really good at giving everyone else the best of himself. He would walk into a room and not one person would not notice. He could be considered a genius by those who measure such things. I don’t know if I ever fought for his attention. I probably did. Perhaps we just get used to things. I was always more concerned with explaining to my mom how this or that Lego spaceship worked with all its escape pods and detachable rovers and mission-specific vehicles. The older I grew, the more frustrated and angry I became as I realized how she seemed to increasingly not pay attention. Then I had my own kids. Knowing what I know now, she was most likely trying to hold everything together and had very little left over for the non-critical things.

Recently, I had a chance to hang out with my littlest sister. I haven’t seen her in over two years and only once or twice in the previous two. She just graduated from college. We talked and laughed and reminisced and had an awesome discussion about how somewhere along the line, our awareness of the world around us became larger than our creativity, or our perceived capacity to be creative. At that moment, whenever it happened, we stop believing. Mostly in ourselves. As if we traded our imagination for the voices that would tell us, “That won’t work.” “That’s not a good idea.” “You can’t do that.” I shared with her my short story concept about a time machine… about always living in the past or waiting for the future to happen, thus completely missing the present. My dad missed her graduation. So did I. It’s funny how physical proximity and time as investment collateral can be a valid excuse by which we gauge how “worth it” something is. If the only truly eternal thing in this universe is people, then why do we write them off so easily? The fact that my sister graduated from college is huge. I didn’t. Neither did my other sister. Yes, I feel bad about missing it. I’m off the hook though, you know, because we live so far away and it’s expensive to fly and life and stuff. My dad is not. He could have been there. He chose otherwise, or probably more aptly let the choice for him to not be there be made for him. I love my dad. I miss him. My mom has always said he’s got a big heart. He’s a glorious asshole.

I used to think my dad was invincible. That illusion crumbled over 10 years ago. It was nothing dramatic. At least, not as dramatic as it could be or sounds like. He no longer represented the ideal man to me. I just realized one day that my dad made some choices and mistakes that he never recovered from, or never figured out how to get out from underneath. I don’t know. Maybe he likes his life. When I realized I did not want to be like my dad, that’s when my adventures in growing up began. There was no one in my life I wanted to be like. I was newly married, with an infant son, and a full-time job. And suddenly I had no time left for making spaceships.

I talked to my counselor today (back story). He listened to me tell my stories from the past two weeks. Stories of kids running away, father & son breakfast times, losing Lego pieces in the car, and the “quarter incident” at the grocery store. Then he punched me in the face. Twice. Metaphorically, of course. Over the past three months we’ve been talking about and working on what my role is, both as a father and a husband. Today was two fistfuls of both. I can’t recall the exact phrasing he used, but the following is what I got out of what we talked about.

Guys, here’s some free advice: if you’re living for the approval or praise of your wife (or anyone), stop it. It will undermine every decision you are required to make. It will be evident to your kids that your authority can be shaken, because they’ll know you can’t do anything without her. This is not a “tyrant” or “boss” kind of authority; rather, the kind that lets your family know you are provider, protector, teacher, and counselor. It is the kind that defines your presence as peace-giving and definite and not feared. This is the kind of authority your wife considers security. Second-guessing yourself is like drinking poison that hollows you from the inside out, especially when it’s centered around self-preservation and shielding from criticism from someone else, assumed or actual. Obviously, making sound decisions is important and should be revered to build and maintain trust so that we can be what we’ve been entrusted to be. Like it or not, carrying the title “husband” and/or “father” is not just for tax breaks. And don’t be a dumb-ass (read: passive, uninvolved, too tired, over-worked, etc…) forcing her to wear your boots to carry you both through life’s shit storms. It’s hard enough to navigate when you don’t have all the answers; don’t make it harder by making your wife/partner your obsession and your enemy. She needs you. You need her. She is amazing and it’s a miracle she chose you to be with. She’s your best teammate. Treat her like the incredible person she is by being the man you are meant to be. It’s time to stop being kids in our parents’ shoes and start being adults who can wear kids’ shoes. Here’s a great article about this, in better detail. The Art of Manliness is a great site in general.

Freebie #2: As parents, our kids need to see mom and dad as a united front and that there’s no chance for a “divide and conquer” strategy to gain any ground (either planned, reactionary, or otherwise). We gotta be ready for this. It happens. We do it to ourselves, our kids do it to us. Not out of a sense of malicious intent, but out of a reaction to any number or combination of things.

Bonus, maybe: Simple is not easy. These are very hard patterns to break. We have suitcases of garbage from our past that can affect and thwart our abilities to do what we need to do. Combined with your wife’s own case(s) of crap, we’re lucky anyone makes it out alive. But I’m not talking about dealing with the past. This is about starting right now, today, choosing to be active and present; choosing to give all we have to each moment we have. Our kids are not going to be four again. They’re not going to just sing as if no one is watching for much longer. They are not going to be eight again and be willing to tell you what they’re thinking, wether you asked them to or not. They are not going to be eleven again, wanting to explain how that Lego spaceship works, or what story idea is floating around in their brain.

As I drove away from my counseling session, wiping the blood from my nose and trying not to aggravate my new fat lip, I started thinking about role models. I was thinking of what I look to for examples and how there’s no shortage of role models, just a severe shortage of decent ones. Even now as an adult it is tough to find a voice not celebrating the stereotypical “guy” who only watches sports, can’t wait to drink beer, and has no clue what the woman who has pledged herself to him actually wants, as “the life.” I don’t know what the word for being sad and mad at the same time is… maybe it’s smad. From Dexter to Abraham Lincoln, from Superman and every other super-hero to late night talk show hosts, from The President to Jesus to rock star song writers and every protagonist from every movie ever made… they all want to tell us or show us how to make life work. That somehow they have the answer. And they can’t all be right, can they? I mean some combinations are deadly. On a more personal note: there’s my dad who pretty much traded us in for a new family long after my sisters and I “grew up,” who can’t stop trying to escape the present, teaching that when life gets broken, go get a new one. And you’ve got my amazing friend Carvis whose bio-dad who only knows him by silently lurking on his blog for the past eight years only to surface and defend himself after an angry post about Father’s Day (which consequently, was not about him), teaching that if you can justify what you did then no one has the right to be mad at you. And then there’s Bill Cosby who’s pretty much everyone’s pipe-dream of a dad, teaching us that television might be the best source for finding answers. Not to mention God, which we all fall short of living up to — I don’t even know how to pull that one in and still make sense and carry this post through.

Then I realized that all we get left with is the classic Frankenstein Syndrome. We become monster. Not as a role model, not on purpose, but as a result. We are demo. We break and get broken and try to find “experts” to fix what’s wrong and before you know what’s happening, your head is cracked open and a crazy doctor is pulling stuff out and cramming other stuff in and trying to tidy up the mess.

The Monster

Do not, through inaction, succumb to the Frankenstein Syndrome.

We become bits and pieces of all kinds of theologies and methodologies and flat-out lies fist fighting with undeniable truth and promises of grace and hope… all mixed up, leaving us for the most part numb and dumb; unable to make critical, life-long decisions; creating havoc everywhere we go when all we really want is to feel loved and accepted, but have no idea how to solve this problem and so we plow through people and ourselves and end up back in the hands of some other whacked out scientist repeating the process.

Then I remember my kids and my wife, and I start praying for God to disassemble me and extract all the parts he didn’t put in, and add back the parts that are missing, and nurse me back to the man I was created to be. And let my scars remind me of what life would be like without him, and let my dependence on him power my confidence in the effect of my presence in my kids’ lives, and let his grace sufficiently enable me to fulfill my responsibility to my wife and our family and to not end up cultivating a bio-hazard dumping ground.

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