June 15, 2012

My dad has scars on his knuckles. You wouldn’t think this is something you could easily work into conversation, yet my dad has told me many, many times how he got them: in knife fights in the Bronx, where he spent much of his childhood protecting Jews smaller than him from large, anti-Semitic Italians. Though switchblades wielded by poor ethnic youths fit perfectly with everything I knew about fights, all of which came from “West Side Story,” I figured it was a bit of an exaggeration.

Then, two years ago, my grandmother told me that one of the first things my dad learned in life was how to blame other kids for the fights he started. His aggression was so severe that — and this was back in the 1940s — his pediatrician recommended putting him on drugs to calm him. While Mama Ann told this story, my then-70-year-old father kept interrupting her with: “You mess with me, I’m going to mess with you.” I now believe that there are a lot of knuckle-scarred 70-year-old Italians from the Bronx talking about the violent, racist Jew.

I find Father’s Day to be a good time to reflect on my relationship with my dad and blame him for all my shortcomings. But I can’t blame him for the fact that I don’t know how to fight. My dad was eager to teach me. Especially after a couple of incidents in which I got into fights — technically half-fights, since the other kid punched me and I stood there and got punched.

It turns out that the best way to stop a man from teaching you how to fight is to giggle at everything he shows you and to giggle even harder when he calls you “lily-livered.” I never got past the lessons of putting my thumb outside my fist so it wouldn’t break and keeping my hands in front of my face. He never got past the lesson that if you make some money and move to the suburbs, this is what happens to your offspring.

Three years ago, I had a son. And after a lifetime of thinking that fighting was barbarism easily avoided, I found myself wanting him to know how to fight. I realized that not knowing how to defend myself has made me live in fear, or at least fear of going to biker bars, which I never really wanted to do anyway. But still, fear. And I don’t want my son to feel that way.


(Jason Raish for The Washington Post)

I knew that if I wanted to be a good dad, I had to change myself. I had to immerse myself in the foreign land of masculinity to learn its language. I wanted to show baby Laszlo that fears are just a list of things to be done. And I hoped to get to a point where I could say manly things like that out loud without cracking up.

So, as part of a general manhood upgrade — which I chronicle in my book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest For Masculinity” — I got Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White to train me so I could go one round with Randy Couture, a former UFC heavyweight champion. I don’t want to give away the results of that fight, but I will reveal that Couture was flummoxed by a little move I mastered that involves running around the ring in a circle.

Laszlo isn’t ready for cage-match fighting. But nearly every day we either wrestle or get on the bed and tackle each other, and sometimes he gets a little hurt, and we’re both okay with that. When he’s 6, I’m hoping to bring him to a mixed martial arts class to see if he likes it. But I’m pretty sure he won’t.

I’ve seen him on the playground, and he’s the kid who gets his toys taken and stands there befuddled, or, more often, crying and befuddled. He’s got my wimpy genes. He’s going to giggle when I teach him how to fight. And only partly because I’ll look like an idiot while I’m doing it, since I’ll keep glancing down at the instructional YouTube video on my phone.

But I can’t blame just my genes. Even though I want him to be tough and assertive, even though we wrestle and tackle, I know that I am still teaching him never to fight. When we look through the newspaper in the mornings, I quickly turn past any images of war or boxing matches. If I don’t flip the pages quickly enough and he asks about them, I make up ridiculous stories about how the people in the photos are helping people or playing. When I was carrying him through a Thai street fair and had to squeeze through a crowd cheering on a Muay Thai match, I faced his head away from the ring so he wouldn’t see the fighters kick each other.

I’ve convinced myself that he’s just not ready to deal with those images, that you don’t throw the reality of the world at a 3-year-old. Being a dad is knowing when your kid will be receptive to certain lessons. But that’s not it. I’m the one who is never going to be ready. Even when he’s 20, I’ll be trying to distract him from the violence of the world. I’ll be proud of his kindness, his gentleness, his ability to extract revenge by firing off pointed satire on Twitter. I believe that the more conflicts he avoids, the happier he’ll be. That getting angry over every injustice only serves to make you a small, miserable person. That you should never, ever let anyone endanger your pretty, pretty face.

But I also know that my theory of life works pretty well because I live in a nice neighborhood and that it won’t work all the time. Because he’s a boy, he will get into at least a few confrontations with other boys, and if he doesn’t know how to fight, he’s going to back down from too many of those situations. Fighting might be awful, but backing down — like I’ve done in my life by not asking women out, never asking for a raise and never once asking for a balloon or a lollipop at the store when I was a little kid — is worse.

So he’s going to learn how to fight. No matter how much he giggles as I teach him. So that when he gets intimidated, he’ll know he doesn’t have to back down like I do.

Though I didn’t let my dad teach me how to fight, I did let him teach me how to take care of myself — how to work hard, save, invest my money. He didn’t throw me into the pool of life, but he let me know that if I ever needed help, he would be the first one there. And by feeling safe, I was able to take risks.

I want to make Laszlo feel that way. While knowing how to earn a living, build a group of trustworthy friends and avoid unnecessary drama accomplishes most of that, the most basic way to feel safe is by knowing how to physically defend yourself. That way, by the time he’s 10, if he gets into a dangerous situation with a bully, he’ll be able to take on his psycho 79-year-old grandfather.

thejoelstein@yahoo.com

Joel Stein is a Time magazine columnist and the author of “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity.”

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