"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

Location: Ozarks, United States

Friday, June 03, 2005

Sixteen Tons, Sixteen Candles

Yet another bit from the archives, before my son (who is nearing twenty months old) was born. I keep expecting to read something that makes me cringe, but so far it seems to have played out like I thought it would. My folks prepared me well.

Sixteen Tons, Sixteen Candles

I am the epitome of manhood.

*waiting for snickers to die down*

At least, I will be, for one person, for a little while. For this new little guy coming down the pike, I will be the primary model of what it means to be a man for several years. When my wife and I discovered that our child is a boy, it took some time for us to adjust to that. We'd been hoping for a girl, and I was already casting myself in the role of protector and defender. With a boy, the job changes a little bit for me. I'm still to be a protector and defender, especially in the early years, but I've also got to be a model of male behavior for him to emulate. That means that as he gets older, I do less and less of the protecting and let him do more and more of it, both of himself and of others. My role becomes more vital now, because a boy needs a man to teach him how to be one.

Now, oddly enough, I'm not really daunted by this too much. I've had some time to get used to the idea, and that helps. I think the major reason, though, is that I'm confident enough now to teach my son what I think about masculinity without wringing my hands over my "right" to do so. In other words, I plan to assert without apology that men and women are different and that there are certain traits he should model: strength, toughness, attention to duty, protectiveness, sacrifice, love of justice, faithfulness, perserverance, endurance, and honor (ESPECIALLY honor.)

Do I mean that the above list of virtues apply only to men and not to women? Of course not. It would be beyond absurd to suggest that women are not inclined to be protective and sacrificial, for example; I am certain that my wife would already lay waste to anybody who tries to hurt our little boy, and he's not even born yet. But I will teach him that attention to these virtues is particularly important to men and that our way of embodying these attributes is distinctly different from how women do so.

Now, some of you might think I'm making too big a deal of this. (My wife certainly does; she strongly resists characterizations according to sex.) But I think it's important for a couple of reasons. First, fathers are vital, especially for little boys. Check out the social science in this area: many of the problems (crime, illiteracy, poverty, drug use, etc.) considered endemic to certain populations have as the common factor the lack of a daddy that's married to mommy (rather than the usual suspects of race and class.) When dads aren't there teaching boys to be men, big trouble ensues. (A review of the movie Secondhand Lions is largely about this very thing.)

Second, there are a number of parties in society who are quite hostile to what I just said. Some are people who want to claim that gender roles are purely a imposed cultural construct and that the whole notions of masculine and feminine are outdated concepts. (Personally, I find it somewhat silly to argue with biology, but some persist.) Others acknowledge the inherent differences but attempt to eradicate them by punishing or ridiculing distinctively male behavior. Boys who get in fights on the playground get equal punishments, even if one is a bully and another is protecting a weaker victim. Lesson: fighting is always bad, regardless of the circumstances or principles at stake. (There are many more things to say about that, but I need to finish this.) How many sitcom fathers get portrayed as buffoons or hapless? (More to the point, how many aren't?) When the president moves to defend our country and attack our enemies, he's charged with cries of "cowboy" and "unilaterialist" and "warmonger." Consequently, there are a number of people out there who don't want men to act like men--and, as a result, there are a number of men who don't know what it means to be a man.

I'll wrap this up with this observation relating to my title above. "Sixteen Tons" is a coal-mining song sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It is the most unabashedly masculine song I think I've ever heard, both in the lyrics and that deep, resonating voice. Ol' Ernie doesn't have a lot of company out there these days, though, unless it's provided on an individual level. More prevalent are the male models from movies like "Sixteen Candles": the vain, shallow jock, or the desperately insecure nerd, or the wild party animal. It's angst as an operating principle, narcissism as a defining trait, satiating base impulses as an existence model. To borrow a term from C.S. Lewis, there are too many "men without chests" roaming the streets, and not enough with chests on patrol. As for me, I must do my best and do my part for the sake of my son.

So while it feels kind of silly for me to think of myself as the ultimate man, knowing how far short I fall of the models I set for myself, it remains true that I've got that role to play for this little boy. Maybe I'll get it wrong; maybe I'll get it right but he'll screw it up. The important thing is to be there and do it: to do my duty because not to do so would make me less of a man. And if I fumble and fall, what will he do?

(update: there's a bit in the Harris piece I linked yesterday that talked about the power of "shining examples". It strikes me as a good description of what I wanted to be when writing this. I still do.)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Whither Tradition?

Via a heads-up from Stanley Kurtz on NRO is this long, thought-provoking piece by Lee Harris. In particular, this passage caught my attention:
A society that wishes to reproduce itself must take care to pass on to the next generation the knowledge required to maintain itself at more or less the same level of civilization. It is not enough to pass on the good china; you must also pass on the family recipe for making the pot roast. Yet even that is not quite enough; you must also find a way to pass along the culinary skills needed to transform a recipe written in words into an actual plate of pot roast. Figuratively speaking, a civilization must pass on the china, the recipe, and the cook. But even this is not quite enough. You must also make the cook realize that in addition to cooking, he must know how to replace himself, and, most critically, he must feel that he has a duty to replace himself. Not only must he teach his children to cook, but he must also teach them how to teach their children to cook.

If a society wishes to find a way of ensuring that newly emergent and valuable techniques are passed on and preserved, its members must feel themselves under an ethical obligation to leave the best possible world not only for their children, but also for their grandchildren.
This helps encapsulate something I've thought about being a parent. I've long known that there's no way I can really repay my parents for my upbringing. I cannot give them back their youth, nor could any amount of money repay them for the opportunities they passed up in favor of me and my brothers. The closest I can come to it, I have decided, is to do for children of mine what my parents did for me. My child does indeed give my parents the joy of being grandparents, but I would still feel the obligation even if my folks had passed on.

I had not recognized this tendency in myself to be very important, but this observation by Harris has made me realize that this is the most important societal inclination I have. That I feel a duty to have children and transmit the culture in which I live to them is absolutely vital to the survival of my society. In churches, it is commonly observed that Christianity is a mere generation away from dying out. So, too, may America be in danger of dying, just as much of Europe already seems to be.

Is there a connection between the willingness to accept standards of, shall we say, a certain laxity (or even seek to uproot standards altogether) and the lack of desire to have children? I wonder. It seems the great thrust of a certain modern mindset is to break down barriers and tear down walls. Well, barriers and walls are built for reasons, and sometimes the reasons still make sense. Not every wall is the Berlin Wall, nor is every barrier an unnecessary or undesirable impediment.

Finally, the point Harris makes about the mother and the cat also echoes something I've thought in the face of all the experts and researchers that tell us how to live our lives all the time. Isn't it amazing that people managed to raise families and build countries without all these white coats with studies around to tell them how to do it? Gosh golly, just think how much better they would have done it with all that helpful advice.