I I I I I I I  

AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Be a Man

Transitions are hard. For our friend Theo, whoís not two yet, thereís a difficult few minutes that mark either his arrival at my house for a daytime visit or his reluctance to leave when his mother arrives to collect him and heís been having fun. For the elderly, the ongoing restructuring of our world by technology paints modern existence as a constantly steepened learning curve eager to shake them off and leave them behind. Between the two, pretty much every crossroads our lives turn at has at least a hundred yards of rough road, but there are huge transitions more akin to a car crash, changing vehicles, setting out into a deep and unforgiving sea, or rocketing off giddily into orbit. Puberty, and the awkward and phenomenal ongoing transition from child to adult, feels like all of them at once.

Twelve-year-old Keefe stands at the brink of that abyss, one foot firmly planted in childhood whim and the other stepping into space. Rather than rehashing arguments about Playstation 2 usage in the house and struggles about skills development and other manifestations of this process, I was inspired by a recent Escape Pod podcast to try and compose the advice I would give him for life as an adult if I werenít here to give it to him later. After all, I have to have learned something from that life experience Jan and I mention as part of our decision making process and about which he rolls his eyes. I like to think Iíve picked up some habits that work, and Iím positive Iíve made plenty of mistakes Iíd love to help him avoid. Heíll make new ones.

Life as a man is a horror without respect. We seek the respect of others, and at our worst moments are ego driven and dangerously wounded by feeling dissed. At its heart, this isnít about anything but our quest for an unshakeable sense of self-respect. To earn the respect of both yourself and others requires acting with a kind of personal integrity. The idea of a Ďcode of conductí by which men must live is familiar to anyone whoís ever watched a western, knows what a Klingon is, or befriends a successful professional. Like all men, I fail to live up to my own ideals at times, but the code I try to live by looks a bit like this:

Show up. Be present. Do your best, and take pride in what you do.
If you give your word that you will do a thing, do your best to make it happen.
Know your limitations. Try not to promise things you cannot deliver.
Find reasons to do it, rather than reasons you didnít.
Learn about things before you make decisions about them.
Be ready to revise your opinions and try new ways of doing things.
Have a reason for what you do or decide, but donít expect everyone to like it.
Donít expect life to be fair, but try to add to the fairness where possible.
If your approach isnít effective, it doesnít matter if it feels good or youíre proud of it.
Anticipate the worst and prepare for it. You canít stop chaos from happening, but the moment it strikes is too late to start thinking about what to do.
Hope for the best and plan for it. If the pandemic kills you, it doesnít matter, but if it doesnít, making the most of your life takes effort.
Never stop learning. The more you know the more options are available to you.
Cause as little harm as you can. Heal whenever you can. Forgive more.
Walk softly, minimize your footprint on your environment, and know when to shut up.
Speak out against injustice. Back the little guy. Even the odds.
Donít trust authority, but donít pick fights with it, either.
Feed yourself and your family first.
Be generous when you can feed others.
Donít try to be honest all the time, itís impossible. Be honest when it counts and always to the people you love or who rely on you. Donít lie without compassion or to be lazy. When youíre lying or breaking the rules, do so carefully and with conviction.
Trust your gut. If something feels wrong, donít do it.
If someone pressures you to do something that feels wrong, tell them to piss off.
When someone does something you appreciate, thank them. Give something back.
Donít take anything for granted.
Identify and respect the sacred. That doesnít only mean whatís sacred to you.
Know what matters to you.
Donít gamble more than you can afford to lose.
Wear a condom. Donít drink and drive. Avoid stupidity.
Admit your mistakes.
Remember that resolving things through conflict is the absolutely last resort.
If you must fight, donít play nice. Fight to win.
Own your choices and their consequences.
Save time for activities that feed and refresh your spirit.
Pay attention. Seize the moment.
Love more.

After going away overnight and coming back to read those, it occurs to me that my rules for living are unwieldy and overly complicated, and also that Iím not terribly good at them. Iíve picked plenty of fights with authority, normally to my detriment, and the gleeful malice with which I open the door to hapless door-to-door religious proselytizers is only the first example of how little I respect what some consider sacred. So is the example I set as a man that you should be a hypocrite, with ideals you donít live up to? No, I think the point is to have something to strive towards. Beyond that, though, I guess I can boil things down a bit.

When we are children, because we are so helpless, we can take some comfort in the way the adults who care for us seem confident or competent, with a vast array of knowledge about things we have yet to experience. The family game where a child asks ďwhyĒ over and over again and we get to reveal how much we do or donít know about the apparent color of the sky or how the toaster works or what riboflavin is (or at least how effectively we can talk convincingly out of our butts) is illuminating not only for seeing our limits, but because it generates an infinite number of further questions. Still, as creatures who intrinsically value order, itís nice when we are little to think that the grown ups who are running the world know what they are doing. Eventually it becomes more and more clear that weíre making it up as we go along. The best of us are trying to follow some sort of values in our process, but weíre all are trying to do the best we can with the limited tools and powers we have, and we often work against each other and our own self interest. Maddening, but true. To be the best sort of men, I just want the boys to be conscious about their impact on things. So letís call that my first principle of manhood Ė you pay attention, know your limits, and earnestly try to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Boys also like to think of the rite of passage into adulthood as a kind of door that you walk through, but itís a long and ill-defined road that must be traveled. Thatís the other thing I have to stress while Keefe alternates between ďBut Iím a kid, dad! I want time to play!Ē and ďBut why canít I watch this restricted movie/buy a paintball gun/have the house to myself for a week?Ē There isnít going to be any magical moment that he suddenly wakes up feeling mature and motivated, with the skills and attitudes heís going to need to hold his own in the adult world. If he learns to type today, itíll be one more tool in his tool belt to work with later, and taking responsibility for his laundry or his homework is a stepping stone towards showing us he can be trusted alone downtown for the day. So thatís number two Ė youíre never done, thereís no moment that youíre done learning, improving, or growing up. It keeps you humble, and after that, everythingís negotiable.

ďWhen I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.Ē
 - Mark Twain

Michael Nabert
is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe. Visit his site here.   


I I I I I I I  

AustinMama operates on a shoestring budget, which is often untied causing us to trip a lot.  Our noses could probably use a good wiping, too.  But we are decent people who will never be too proud to accept charitable donations to our cause.  We promise.

Reproduction of material from this site without written permission is strictly prohibited
Copyright © 2001-2004 AustinMama.com
Don't make Dottie mad

Dottie / Sarah Higdon