I’d been wishing away this coin toss for months, and now it was here. In the softly lit antechamber of an ob-gyn, the sonogram technician paused her probe’s ramble across my wife’s belly, and looked up. “Do you want to know the gender now?”
Ellen said, “Yes,” just as I was saying, “No.” Then I called my last time-out.
“Do we have to know this second?” I pleaded. “Couldn’t we put it off a bit longer?”
I’d have given anything for even 30 more days of ignorance. Thus far, I’d been able to cling to the idea that the rest of my life might be tenable, if not enhanced, by the imminent Blessed Event. I’d even found stories that presented fatherhood as the ultimate self-improvement project, the key that might turn the ignition on this creative dynamo sleeping within me.
“Everything changed,” comedian Louis CK said (not joking) of the creative reboot he experienced when he became a father. “I started to look at shit like a real man does . . . . I had to start going OK, what do you want to do? Make plans,” he said of his new mode of operation. Go from middling surrealist stand-up to Comic Laureate of America. I devoured similar accounts from other heroes — Wu-Tang mastermind RZA, reformed crackhead and star journalist David Carr — all of whom shared that game-changing moment, the instant they first saw their newborn . . . daughter.
The technician pivoted the monitor to face us. Holding a ballpoint pen against a black-and-white landscape, she indicated the stalagmite, declaring the defendant, Baby Norris, boy in the first degree.
I believe it was the English poet Hugh Grant who said, “Fuck-a-doodle-doo.”
I mean, hooray! It’s a boy! I have sired an heir!
As I fumbled for composure, my gut hit the floor, followed by waves of shame and confusion. I’d been able to put on a brave face over most every non-parental feeling I’d had thus far, but this freaked me out.
What was my problem? There’s no way this was all bad news. Didn’t the Chinese choose auspicious date nights to conceive boys (and drop the others off at adoption centers bound for the U.S.)? Don’t new dads get so geeked on the miracle love hormone oxytocin they can’t even see gender? Aren’t they, in the end, all children?
“I’m fond of children,” said Lewis Carroll. “Except boys.” The opinion is not without basis. Boys. Boys prefer breaking toys to playing with them. Boys see no poster or wall decor that isn’t improved with the addition of a scrawled hairy penis. Boys fill time not spent jacking off by playing Killzone: Mercenary. Boys invented the high five. Try to recall a mass shooting news story with the line “Then she reloaded and kept shooting.”
And then, eventually, boys grow up to be men. Like Donald Trump, Ryan Lochte, Charlie Sheen, Richie Incognito, Michael “the Situation” Sorrentino, Joffrey Baratheon. Think of the five humans with whom you’d least like to spend any time on a desert island. Now what percentage of them are male?
Clearly, boys require special handling. I believe fathers can and do raise sons well, all the time. I’ve just never seen it done in any way I could reproduce. The role’s most crucial task is what psychologists call “modeling”: providing a consistent example of manhood the boy can adopt as he matures. Unfortunately, this implies a model who is himself adept at manhood, who can straight-facedly call himself a man without adopting a cartoonish self-mocking voice. Call me “Dad” and I run a frantic mental search for precedents.
The postwar era’s twin poles of model patriarchy, Don Corleone and Ward Cleaver, both got whacked in the free-to-be-you-and-me 1970s. Not many archetypes replaced them, but three seem to endure.
Type one: the huggy, man-boobed Guidance Counselor. An unashamedly loving, male by default — ready to kiss away boo-boos, serve up tasty s’mores, homeschool the bullied in nonviolence through puppetry. Dustin Hoffman in Meet the Fockers, for example. (See also: James Dean’s apron-wearing, wife-cowering pop in Rebel Without a Cause.)
Type two: the enigmatic Boardroom Warrior. A remote but well-intentioned provider whose enduring appeal modernizes even an anachronism like Don Draper, whose first moment of filial intimacy comes six seasons in, when he sneaks a 10-year-old Bobby into a matinee of Planet of the Apes, prompting Bobby’s small act of kindness to a stranger. (“Then one day they get older,” Draper confesses to a former co-worker, “and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. It feels like your heart is going to explode.”)
Finally, there’s type three: the Zen Mechanic Handyman, indelibly minted in the 1965 children’s classic My Father Can Fix Anything. (“He can make the cabinet door work again, the toilet, the light switch. He has toolboxes of cold metal wrenches and sockets and screwdrivers that turn any bolt or screw.”) That’s the kind of dad I had: a former Boy Scout and MIT-trained engineer who could, literally, fix anything: model train, cylinder block, Gauss accelerator, leaky roof, laser range finder, rotted floor beam, a fire, in the rain, with fucking sticks.
I, on the other hand, am perfectly adapted to the information age — which is to say, utterly without use. My Dad Can’t Fix Anything but Portrays His Failure Amusingly. This was cute for a while but clearly won’t cut it in the role the biological imperative just assigned me.
Ernest Hemingway, whom for some reason they called Papa, gave one absolute rule for raising young children: “Don’t look at it for the first two years.” I’ve spent these last two years looking at little else. My current role in the home is “caregiver.”
Most days, I’m easily spotted at city playgrounds: dark-haired, pale-skinned, black-framed glasses — the sole adult male in a rugby field of screaming toddlers and Trinidadian nannies. As a 40-something recovering hipster with a dubious revenue stream, I’ve tried to adopt a kind of proletarian chic: faux-Dickies trousers, zip-up hooded sweatshirt, trail sneakers, ball cap. Moving around the kid sphere, I sometimes catch the threat-assessing eye of a mom or nanny running through a quick pedophile-looney-junkie process of elimination before placing me under the harmless rubric: homebound father/jobless loser.
And this is who the kid’s supposed to listen to? This is who he’ll come to for fatherly advice? This is the guy he’s meant to respect and even fear on occasion?
Now, a man who can fix anything: There’s a formidable role model. Although like every model, mine, too, had his ticks. I’m sure he had emotions other than blithe amusement and minor frustration, but only in the way I’m sure the Earth rotates around the sun — from conjecture, not observation. He felt there wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be solved with a mechanical pencil or a citation from the Baltimore Catechism, that operating manual for the soul for ’50s Catholics. But when it came to the boy shit you encountered in late-’70s greater Boston, you’d be better off seeking the Vulcan counsel of Mr. Spock.
I’d come home shaken up from my latest ass-kicking, wanting advice or, better, a weapon, and get the Socratic poser: “Well, what’d you think you did?” He knew every action had an equal and opposite reaction. Since the unreason of bullies didn’t compute to him, there must have been a reason for their actions, and you didn’t need Occam’s razor to narrow those reasons down to my being a total fag.
During this time, I wanted to trade in my dad for the one my best friend, Matt, had. Mr. J was a tall, lanky, tough-talking ex-Army guy. At their house, they had a German shepherd and a gorgeous cherrywood cabinet stocked with guns. Mr. J’s advice on handling school hassles was to pack a roll of quarters into my fist and lay out the biggest of tormenters.
Five years later, after I’d fallen out of touch with Matt and his dad, I arrived for college at Berkeley, on the other side of the continent, showing up the day classes started. My father was dropping me off on his way back from a family trip to Greece. There, at the birth of the free speech movement, we parted with a brisk handshake and a “So long!” — my father marching back to the Travelodge and me finding my way to the dorm where we’d dropped off my belongings. I’d already claimed the bottom bunk, and when I entered the room, I saw a middle-aged man kneeling, ass-up, on the top bunk. This was the father of my new roommate, Mike, who’d stepped out for a moment while his dad, an actual fire chief, made his son’s bed. I could barely look at the kid for a week.
A few years into college, I learned Matt and his superdad were in prison. On Matt’s Christmas break from college, his dad drafted his kid into helping him with a few chores, which included using a semiautomatic weapon to rob an armored car of more than $4 million. The FBI discovered inconsistencies during questioning, and Matt was headed off to a five-year stretch, just three years fewer than they gave his dad. On the night before they were sentenced, Matt’s dad had a heart-to-heart with his son. It was a short. “Next time,” he said, “I’ll get better help.”
Today I can say with some confidence that this man was not a model father. I can also say that whatever ass-kicking skills a boy needs for this world are useless without a basic sense of worthiness, of being loved. But don’t ask me what we talk about when we talk about love. It didn’t come up much in my house.
It’s not that all boys suck; they don’t. Yes, they’ll greet fellow toddlers with a Heisman palm to the face. Yes, they’ll take every toy from Lego to Barbie doll and promptly weaponize it. But the culture that awaits their maturity has been ingeniously engineered to thwart it. Every nasty, selfish, violent impulse that testosterone produces has a digital touchscreen button to reinforce it. And every soft spot in a young male’s self-esteem has its own social-media-calibrated insult.
To make things worse, in the past few decades, Lewis Carroll’s antiboy bias has gone mainstream. Psychologists and sociologists view boys as future suspects, date rapists, and wife beaters. They point to a range of very recent and entrenched phenomena to show how multifariously fucked boys are by today’s society. The social mandate to keep up an emotional guard leaves boys without energy for basic schoolwork, so that they now earn lower grades than girls, are almost two times as likely to be in special ed, and less likely to go to college.
True, boys don’t undergo the self-muting that hits girls in adolescence. Boys get that by age five. Studies show that male infants are actually more emotionally expressive than females, until premature separation from mothers and covert shaming drive these feelings underground. After which our culture sends them the bipolar message to share their vulnerable feelings while also hiding them behind masks of strength and independence.
When we first brought my son, Calder, home, I discovered a mental library devoid of nursery songs. It turns out you need at least one if you want to get any sleep — preferably something in three-quarter time that you know by heart. Eventually I found my bedtime staple. It has a triple-feel rhythm, a gentle refrain, and words and melody that are so deeply ingrained I could sing them straight from REM-stage sleep. There’s a rousing “Hey!” at the top of the chorus, which must be rendered sotto voce, but the rest nods along like sweet narcotic: “You’ve got to hide your love away.”
They’re the three most destructive words every boy hears, says one man who sounds like he would know. They’re “Be a man,” says former NFL tackle Joe Ehrmann, 67, a 6-foot-4 Baltimore minister and youth counselor whose white Vandyke beard and raspy voice would suit a Navy SEAL or lifer at San Quentin. Ehrmann’s TED Talk gave the impression Phil Jackson and Jesse Ventura had somehow conceived a son.
This man isn’t a Guidance Counselor, Boardroom Warrior, or anyone I could imagine relating to in any way. Which may be why he got to me, cutting through a miasma of men’s-movement slogans and sketchy psychological paradigms. “Young boys are taught at a very early age that in order to be a man they’ve got to separate their hearts from their heads,” Ehrmann declared. This gender-wide ban on sharing emotions, he says, causes “a massive repression of the very thing that makes us human.” That last adjective-noun is what stuck with me. I just might have put “boy” and “human” in two different slots.
Half an hour ago, he lay on an incubator tray, tiny amphibian hands gripping each of my index fingers. And the next thing you know, I’m watching a three-year-old run off into a preschool thrum without once looking back. I’m the only one who’ll remember a damn thing we went through in the years in between. If autobiographical memory doesn’t roll tape until age three, Hemingway’s advice may have come less from macho disdain than compassion for dads who got too close. For sale: Two baby shoes. That’s it. The shortest story is still a killer, no need for “never used.”
This stranger I’ve gotten so close to will be gone before I really get to know him. In all the prefatherhood hazing I got, no one seemed to mention this fact. If I glean any actionable dad intel, it probably comes from that new kind of gut punch I get now and then, a feeling that will likely inform what I say to him when he asks, however obliquely, what it means to “be a man.”