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.
(Jason Raish for The Washington Post)
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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.
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.