That Comment at Dinner about Manhood

The other day at dinner, we were all at the table, and you said something about “Trump.” I corrected you, told you to insert a “Mr.” and you did. Then, you went on with your story.

Since then, I’ve had a couple moments reflecting upon that parental intervention. I’ve questioned my response like I often do with you. Was it right? Where was I coming from? Was my approach authentic to the best parts of my upbringing, the parts that I want to pass on to you and to your brother?

And I’m thinking over the goods and bads of that insertion. That Mr. comes with problems. I didn’t go into the problems then, though they were on the borders of my thinking. I’m your father and a part of my role is to regularly be as close to my best thoughts as I can be because you and your brother come up with all kinds of things I want to affirm, correct, question, laugh at, or otherwise capture. It takes energy to be present. It takes energy to be a good father. I want to be both with you and number two. So the Mister.

In some ways, we’ve already discussed portions of the problematic insertion. In some ways, explaining myself at the time would have gotten us off the important point you were making and pulled us away from the more pressing matter of what you wanted to say. But this is why I blog, to post up little indications of increasingly critical and vulnerable discourse so that you and your brother will have trails of thinking where I’ve said my piece, made my peace.

There are issues with my suggestion about the current person sitting in the Oval, the broad white structure made by a lot of beautiful black hands and recently inhabited by a beautiful black family, the family there when we traveled to DC as a family so we could trek through the Museum while our president was Barack Obama.

First, everyone is worthy of being treated like a person. In my quick move to tell you how to put a handle on a last name, I was foundationally trying to say that you should treat “Trump” the way you’d treat anyone who was an adult and that isn’t by saying there name.

Second, this is an admittedly cultural application. You know people, some of them are your friends, who call people by names without handles, but that’s not the family you are being raised in, is it? Black people have conventionally raised each other to be honorable and that honor is expressed by an enduring respect for elders. That respect is easily translatable to others who aren’t old but who are older than you.

Third, you cannot restrict yourself to the limited experiences of people who use language irresponsibly. For better and worse, I am your father. You and your brother have inherited the godparental influence of Auntie Pat who on too many long rides corrected me and Uncle Mark and who wouldn’t let us get away with poor speech. I am passing that on. Of course, she has told you some of these stories herself. Both me and your dear mother are communicators in our own ways. There are certain phrases you must use, certain ones I’d strongly encourage you not to use.

Fourth, adults are adults. When you become an adult–and I plan to tell you precisely when that occurs!–those who are older are elders. As I said, adults and elders generally must be treated as, among other things, containers of deep wisdom. This comes out of your African heritage. It isn’t constricted only to blackness but it is certainly in your blackness. Your lineage includes honor for the elders.

I was coming out of these points of view. However, and now we turn toward the paradoxical and toward the ways I’m encouraging you to second-guess me and toward ways I’ve second-guessed myself on this comment at the table, some people are not worth your Mr. Some people–and I’d include this person in the Oval–are not worth your respect.

There are males who are only men by virtue of their maleness, who do everything to diminish your view of them because of how they conduct themselves in the world, and those males are not worthy of your respect. They may well be worth your acknowledgement of them as human beings, but they are unworthy of your respect. The men in your life, me among them, are aiming to teach you in how to discern which qualities make a man respectable. For now–and at the table–I was intervening, showing you this current example of a man who is unworthy.

You know because of how you are being raised by your dear mother, by me, and by our extended family (the plural collective that I’m collapsing in the singular term) that your respect is hard-won. Your respect is an indication of what it took for you to develop an idea of personhood broadly and manhood in (this) particular.

You have seen and loved and been by and loved by good men. For quick instance, your uncles are good men. All of them. For another instance, I am a good man. We are teaching you to respect yourself and how that respect is immediately and intricately related to respect for others. Since it’s hard-won, you ought not give away easily.

Giving your honor to a person means that you are extending to him or her some part of you that they ought to be able to accept, take in, and appreciate. People ought to be able to receive you, receive the pearls that come from you to use a biblical allusion. The man is the Oval, the current president of the country, is not one of those people. Again, this is complicated so I need to tell you more about why I’m offering a well-situated exception to the rule.

The current president, as you have told me, has been unkind to many people. This was a part of your heartbreak when he was elected. You remember how excited you and your peers were to vote in school, how surprised and perplexed you were when the man who said “those bad things about Mexicans and women” won. He has called for the harm of individuals and families. He has repeatedly told lies. He has admitted to participating in sexual assaults against women. He has deceived. He has consistently misapplied sacred texts, a devious consequence when a person is not a part of a sacred community. He has made decisions based upon people he knows and not taken the wide grace of counsel beyond his own comforts. He has encouraged violence and engendered, insofar as is possible for his talent, a national culture of division. He has been a successful businessmen in the United States of America without any real historically visible integration of spirituality which says more of the same. These may be true about other political misters but it has been documented by others in this president’s case and it has been experienced by you in your own life.

The current president will not always be the president. We will have others. So govern yourself accordingly. You can respect his personhood without extending to him what he would not extend to you. You can respect his personhood without accepting the type of masculinity that he models.

I wish I could tell you to use me as a guide. In some ways, you necessarily use me as a guide and measure of manhood. That is a delightful, bruising, high burden for me. But I’m imperfect as I often tell you. What I’m happy to do is point to the very contours from which you will judge me and judge others. Use these mentionings to hold me to the accountability of your best notions of respect. And use them to judge others too. They’re good enough for that, these cultivated ramblings.

Park Swings

I heard Nina Li Coomes, a poet from Japan and Chicago, and her poem–which I got to by her essay in my inbox through the On Being newsletter–made me think of you. It made me think of your brother, too, but the thought of you came first.

Her poem was written to her unborn daughter and for a moment the title of the poem, spoken at a Chicago slam which Nina won, felt implausible to me, felt foreign to me because of my deep experience with you boys, felt distant to me because your mother used to say all the time how she thought I’d soften if I ever had a daughter and how she wanted to see that softening.

Presumably I’ve spent a lot of time hardening. Well, I should be honest that it’s not a presumption. I have hardened. I could insert the things I’ve said in a dozen ways before to explain that calcifying of my heart, that drying of my spirit, and provide departure points that begin with you, extend with your brother, and deepen in the country of loss that I live in while being a father whose own father exists in memories, in pictures, in videos, in the mouths of loved ones, in the twinkle of my mother’s eyes.

But I have softened and I thought of that softening today. I thought of it last night as I melted over the pain joy blanketing me in the quietness of a wonderful day to be a father. I softened all over again as I thought about why going to McDonald’s is so hard for me, why white and brown vans send my heart into its own swirls, why passing by parks and playing in parks with you and your brother the way we did yesterday is a trip full of complicated pleasures. These softenings remind me of the days when I held my father’s steep, chiseled hands, when he took me and my brother to eat, to play, to run, to be free. Thinking of them let me think of the hardening.

Nina’s words brought back my scholar and peer’s words while we were swinging on the swings, your brother commanding me to push and him watching you and you doing the same, smiling just the way you did when you were your brother’s age when we played in our park across from the Obama home, and me pushing you both by using the back stretch that ends of a sanchin kata that you haven’t learned yet, one you’ll do better than me. I was being a good dad and it was a way to spend the day with you and with my good dad on his birthday.

Nina’s poem had a line. You know lines because you possess many of them, keep your own like a poet awaiting his debut, inching up to the stage at Busboys, breathing lines at Louder, testing phrases at the Hyde Park Blvd bus stop, whispering them while you review a kata just before a promotion. Her line made me think of your line, which made me remember a moment that you discussed with me and your mother late one evening, after bedtime came and went.

You were distressed and that distress etched something in me that made me want to shield you. We talked it through. You and your mother had talked it through before. I heard some of it and stayed out of it. I waited until I was brought in so that you could do your thing with mommy. Then, we three discussed it. And we kept at it. I hardened in the moment because I’m used to hardening. I’m not bad at hardening. I would soften later. We would keep speaking over themes like the one you raised that night. We would edge toward the swing, lift ourselves in it, and eventually press ourselves into the blue.

Second grade would be a long grade for you (and me), longer than the others so far. It would be the grade where I heard difficulties emerge for you that were never difficulties before. It would be the grade that would show me the poverty and richness of my fathering skills. It would be the grade when me and your mother worked through how to become even better at something we do well.

It would be the grade that would deepen my longing for my own father, when I would write for him and offer my words to the sky for him to read the way I pushed my sons on swings during the holiday when their father felt free with them and, surrounded by friends over poorly coordinated leisure that worked out fine, despite his little fears that felt less strong.

You and your brother will keep swinging. The smiles in your faces tell me that. I’ll be one of the ones behind you, pushing, pausing, pressing you to extend yourselves, kick your legs, and dig into the movements of freedom. And we’ll all be engaging in that extending and kicking and digging. We’ll all be freer for it. One swing at a time. One smile at a time.

You and your brother can fight about who will write the poem. I have my thoughts about who will win.

My Blog: Name-Calling

My son and I were talking about someone calling him a name. We’ve discussed this a few different times. This happens to children. Of course, it happens to adults, too.

I told Bryce that name-calling is a compliment and that the boy, saying what he said, was trying to get his attention. He was trying to keep his attention.

I suggested a strategy to which Bryce said, “I like your thinking.” I like your thinking. Six-years-old and he likes my thinking!

Aside from the strategy, Bryce followed the suggestion and the boy immediately switched, became his friend, and made me look like I knew what I was doing with my son!

The point of this post is that name-calling is a compliment. Bullying is not. Bullying is different. Find your words to distinguish them. And help somebody else do the same.

Remembering School

Waking up to see your mother buttoning your white shirt.

Making your breakfast and talking to you about your first day.

Listening with you to the “Good Day” song.

Tying my tie that looks like yours, being your twin.

The full feeling of watching you enter a room with children you’ve never met.

Seeing your mother reach for you after we’d left the classroom.

The rumble and bustle of students in the school, dressed for learning.

Parents greeting, introducing, and drinking juice.

The sound of your cough echoing in my memory from the morning.

Taking your mother to work and joking about how you’re growing.