Last year on Father's Day you gave me a rock, a small rock you found in the driveway and wraped in a piece of Sunday comics. You said, "After you open it, you can share it with me." It was a fitting gift from a 4-year-old.
This year I'd like to reverse tradition and give a gift to you, because a child makes a father a father. You'd probably like something from; "Star Wars," but you're getting this letter instead. Maybe you'll read it someday; maybe you won't. Maybe it's a gift for me after all, a chance to get in touch with some of my feelings about being a father and being a man, and becoming both of these after being a boy, like you.
When I was young and growing up in the wilds of Flatbush, being a boychild in America meant being athletic (which I was not) and not being afraid (which I was) of kids who could pin you down with their legs on your arms and very slowly drop a glob of spit onto your face. You weren't allowed to be too smart either (which I was) because that brought you respect from people whose judgment didn't count in the stickball society that defined Real Boy. Teachers might let you become a crossing guard and mothers might wear your achievements with pride, but their estimation held negative value in the schoolyard.
It would be nice if today's kids were paying less attention to macho than they did when I was a boy, but I don't think they are. I watch the kids in our neighborhood playing ball in the street. The one who drops the ball walks home alone when the game is over, while the others head off in the same direction, in pal-groups of twos and threes. I haven't seen kids choose sides the way we used to ("Once-twice-three-shoot! I win! You get Yudell."), but the lousy athlete is still denied shortstop and assigned a post on someone's front stoop a half mile away.
Sports are great fun, and it does seem as if shows of strength and general rough-housing are primal needs in males, right from the beginning. You and your friends can play Lotto only so long before wrestling each other and heaving every household object in sight.
You're too young to hear it, Georgie, but there's a lot of talk nowadays about macho becoming obsolete, replaced by the senstitive, "feeling" male. Still, I don't see the message getting through to youngsters -- because it has't become a true, living experience for their fathers. The "new man" -- who takes a year off work to be a full-time parent while mom pursues her career; who is not afraid to embrace a male friend or admit to episodes of sexual disinterest with his wife; who is not rattled by female competition in the board room -- is still a rare bird.
A few months ago, a Navy career man described as "brilliant" and a "non-conformist" was allegedly straped upside down to pipes in the ship's boiler room, stripped, then "greased" on his genitals by his shipmates in a perverse ceremony of male camaraderie. This had apparently happened to others, but no one filed a complaint because doing so meant "not being a man." Among all of these men, the doers and the done-upon, there must have been fathers. What have they to say about expression of feelings -- and the so-called "masculine" virtue of silence in the face of barbarity?
As you grow up, I hope that one stereotyped "male" role will not merely be replaced by another. But I see it happening. The newer attitude is a "class" macho. It belongs to the highly salaried man who has straight, white teeth offset by a sunlamp tan; who puts on a $600 lizard skin belk to intimidate a business foe; who smoothes his way into ladies' beds and can confess emotions he may or may not feel. The daily credo of this man is: Never Show How Nervous You Are.
You've always liked secrets, Georgie, so here's one for you now: Women never liked macho. Men did, and rewarded it accordingly. Women bought macho, which is a different thing; there was a time when women were uneducated consumers in the sexual marketplace, but now they're smart shoppers. We're not going to get away with fooling them anymore.
Why are men still hung up on both of these self-destructive illusions, but about to throw off the first and embrace the second? Maybe it's easier to coast on hand-me-down myths than to find something that runs deeper than any "role." Just as women were somehow led to believe that their intrinsic worth depended upon the men they landed, so we've been conned into measuring our self-esteem by the titles we hold, the power we wield, and the money we make. None of it sits easy.
This may surprise you, son, but men have periods too. It's called the first of the month. You may have noticved my violent mood swings in the weeklong period beginning on the first, when the bills have to be paid. This is not a good time to tell me that you put Darth Vader's black little head in the car's water tank while I was checking the oil. When I'm sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of envelopes containing cute little windows, it's not a good time to ask me to sing "The Piggy on the Bus Goes Wee-Wee-Wee."
The fact is, Georgie, if there's not enough money, my manic depressive state has something to do with practical worries, but more with a self-image I internalized somewhere along the line: It isn't "manly" to live in a debit. When the bankbook is dry, a man feels as if he's failed the family. Those are the times he wakes up at 3 a.m. and doubts himself.
Nor does he let up in his drive to bring in the big bucks. Despite the the media hype, most men don't battle for child custody. We don't want it. We're internally pushed to get up in the morning and head into the jungle as the conquering peacocks. In one way, however, we are pretty smart. We don't want to be with the kids fulltime because we know that ulcer-wise, there's not much difference between working in the world and staying at home. Women are just beginning to find out the great secret men have known for years: At home you scrape it off a diaper; at the office you move it from desk to desk.
Role-reversals won't make things any easier. It's hard to be a mother and it's hard to be a father -- not because we're all trying to live up to images of perfection. They were never