Even in our postmodernist, postfeminist age, some things about being a boy -- and about being a dad -- are constant.
They go largely unnoticed by our mothers, wives and daughters.
Men hardly ever articulate them to one another.
We don't even think about them consciously very often.
They were forged long ago, before history, before memory.
And that, perhaps, is why they survive...
At the risk of drawing fire from all of the moms, wives and daughters out there, I propose to bring them to the light.
A small example first.
So I'm washing my 2-year-old son Cole's hands on Saturday, and making sure that he rubs the soap between his fingers and all around BEFORE he rinses them (for some reason both of my sons want to stick their hands in the water immediately after they get the soap on them), and I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job.
He hops down from the sink and starts to run away.
I shout cheerfully after him: "Dry your hands on your shirt!" Seemed to me like a sensible solution.
But the thing was, his mom, and my wife, was, at that very moment, walking around the corner into the kitchen.
She stopped in her tracks and stared at me. Thinking I might have seen something out of the corner of my eye, I turned my attention from the dish I was sponging in the sink.
Hey... There was my wife! Staring at me! Curious!
"What did you just tell Cole to do?" she asked.
"To dry his hands," I answered softly, sensing trouble.
"On his shirt?" She stood very still.
"Uh. Yeah. I thought that was a good place."
"No!" she said decisively. Her eyes burned into me. I put down the dish.
"I don't know what you're thinking," she muttered. And she headed around the corner to deal with the sounds of a squabble that had broken out in the next room.
Now I admit, when I think about it, that the fronts of my sons' shirts are not the most hygenic places I can imagine. But I often dry my hands on my shirt or the sides of my pants.
I must say, it's a convenient spot, and often dry...
Dads, are you with me so far?
A more significant example:
Last week I caught my wife teaching my 3-year-old, George, to wipe himself.
Great, you might say. An important step.
No. She was teaching him to wipe after he pees.
That was deeply disturbing to me. I launched into an indignant explanation of male anatomy. I did a mocking demonstration, with little mincing steps and flourishes, of the inanity of wiping the tip of a man's privates: Wipe, wipe! Pat, pat!
I pleaded with her that she was preparing our boys for a life of humiliation and shame. With my voice dropping a register for maximum effect, I insisted that she was "un-sexing" them... like a reverse Lady Macbeth.
She said that their willies still drip a little after they're done.
I said, "Who cares!" "What's a few little drips?" I told her about the highly revered Shake, Shake, Shake Ritual. (Sometimes secrets of the brotherhood must be revealed -- in a crisis.)
My wife was not moved. She said that the drips disgust her. I came back at her: it disgusted me to think of my sons wiping after they pee...
Based on my level of concern, she reluctantly agreed to end the lessons.
I choose to believe that my boys are as yet untouched by this madness.
Both of these examples are meant to highlight something that is becoming more and more apparent as my sons get older: Dads have different ways of moving through the world than moms. There's a different code at work.
Most of what we do as parents resists gender stereotyping. We teach our children to pursue goals, to show curiosity about the world, to be kind, to respect others, to stick with it, to act politely, and so on.
Just as for the current Democratic primary field of candidates, in no way should gender be relevant. And yet it is.
When Maureen Dowd refers to Obama as "Obambi," it means something different because he is a man. It unsexes him.
When CNN pushes a student to ask Hillary if she prefers "diamonds or pearls," we find ourselves strangely listening for the answer, not for its explicit words but for the way she responds. Does she have a preference? If someone had asked Bill Richardson that, I don't think we would have even hesitated to listen to the answer before dismissing it as ludicrous.
The unspoken secrets and codes of being a man or a woman hover in the background of everything.
Other than drying your hands on your shirt and shaking after you pee, what exactly am I talking about?
Well, I'm talking about, for a man, a certain comfort level with the code of "as if."
Take your sense of humor as a starting point.
When men joke they often joke in an "as if" mode.
Insults are made "as if" they are really saying them...
As in, your friend falls down the stairs and looks up at you in surprise. You might (if you are still talking as if you are in your 20s, which all of us occasionally fall prey too) say: "Don't look at me! You're the dumb-ass who apparently needed to body surf those stairs. Get up!" You're talking to him as if you're not concerned.
Boasts are made "as if" too. As in: "I'm going to pound this ping-pong ball right down your throat, get ready!" before you hit a little dippy serve to psyche your opponent out.
It's one of the pleasures of being a guy, this "as if" business.
A friend of mine has a comedic character he slips into called "the Monster." The Monster is so outrageous, so sexually voracious, so violent, so mind-bendingly inventive in his riffs on what he will do next, that you can't help but move from slack-jawed shock to not knowing whether you are laughing or crying. The Monster's riffs (usually prompted by a friend -- who will go unnamed -- asking what the Monster would say to on the subject at hand) are short and effective.
The shared understanding behind them, the thing that makes them work, is that "the Monster" is really harmless. He's actually a nice Monster, if you ever met him. My friend (his creator) and I talked about what the Monster looked like once, and we agreed that he's probably blue and fluffy, not unlike a certain cousin of his on Sesame Street. Only, in this case, his obsession has advanced from cookies to pure "as if", straight from the id.
My friend's own sense of judgment and tact drop away entirely. He's gone, and the Monster takes his place.
This is a case of finding humor in the "as if."
But it's not always funny.
As a boy, you learn, somewhere along the way, that there are times when you just don't worry about yourself. It's as if your own calculus of needs is suspended for a specific time period. Here again, you slip into the code of "as if."
When I am in a physically demanding situation (say, out in nature dealing with a storm), and I am with other men, I know -- I learned as a boy -- that I don't complain.
Instead, I shift into a different mode, I get through it. I suck it up. This is not just macho idiocy; it is an unspoken way of being. It feels right, deep down.
I suspect that, way back, it has something to do with the practice of self-denial, the disappearing act, required when hunting wild animals. There's no standing on ceremony and no thought to social concerns in the "as if."
Perhaps it's this same thing that made me open a can of corn this morning with the thought of having my boys spoon the corn directly out of the can. It would be quicker that way! You're animal for a brief time. You're not yourself. You have slipped out from under the blanket of civilization -- Huck Finn would understand. (In the end, I will confess, I checked myself and found bowls for them.)
Here's the important part: If I try to think where I learned to do it, I remember most learning it from my Dad. I can see him now on our sailboat, indifferent to the way we were heeled over, seemingly oblivious to the freezing cold, green seawater flooding over his knees as he wraps a sheet around a winch -- like some kind of crazed sea-wolf having an out-of-body experience.
It makes an impression.
I would propose that wiping your hands on your shirt, or peeing quickly and unthinkingly (without wiping!) are actions which are connected to this way of being. The details sometimes just don't matter.
You act "as if" you are not there, as if you are an animal, as if your social self is someone else for the time being. For better or worse, this is, I think, connected to being a man.
It's difficult to describe, but it may be one reason why boys need their dads. Not the only reason. Not perhaps the best reason. But a reason.
Those little dudes need someone to show them that it's okay sometimes. Go with it!
"As if" away!