Saturday, October 21, 2006

From Boys to Men

From Boys to Men
Originally uploaded by lorenzodom

Saturday, October 21, 2006, Jersey:

Boys Will Be Boys

I love being with my boys.

For they not only remind me of what it is like to be a boy, or a child even, but also a “man,” or at least – male.

Because for these guys it’s all about getting down and dirty, competing against each other, fighting, taking risks, adventure, jumping in and giving it all you’ve got.

All day long at work I often feel like I’m flatlining – making sure no one’s offended by this word or that phrase, making sure no one is somehow excluded, because its all about inclusion or cooperation or teamwork these days; making sure the world is perceived as flat and that our organization has no discernable pulse.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for a lot of men. Were more apt play by old-school rules – winner takes all, may the best man win, give it all you got, either you’re a winner or a loser. At least that’s the case with your (stereo-)typical type-A-personality, alpha, over-aggressive, extroverted, Scorpio-Sagittarius, American rugged individualistic male like me.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
– Vince Lombardi, American Football Coach, Green Bay Packers –

All this talk about giving everyone a chance, sometimes means you’re bringing down curve; while you’re creating equal opportunities you’re also stymieing the potential of your best performers and most extraordinary individuals, those that are most apt to make a difference.

That’s why I was rather proud of Nicky today, he was by far the most focused on the field and he knew it. Later in the day he made a point to tell me, “Papa, I’m better than all the other players, because I always kick it on the right goal, but they don’t. They’re stupid

I didn’t know whether to smile or frown upon his thoughts. For although from what I observed today this was essentially the truth, I made sure to try to explain to him that even though it was important to be the best ball-player you could be, that he need not belittle other players in turn.

Because as much as I was excited to see him revved up about the game today, for he was truly exuberant while playing, I still wanted him to comport himself like a true little gentleman. That to me is a true mark of excellence – nonpareil performance combined with grace outside the race, on and off the court, and apart from the cut-throat throes of the game. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Lance Armstrong, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Joe Montana, are but a few good examples of this critical combination.

All of these sports heroes exhibited uncommon sportsmanship, which has always been a mark of distinction and a personal aspiration of my own. Hence, I would like my children to learn much the same, and thus I tried to convey that to Nicky this morning.

Nonetheless and allthemore, we’re still men and were still liable to be less graceful and uncivilized then most women, mothers, girlfriends and innocent bystanders would prefer us to be. And today proved to be a wonderful experience and exemplar of why this is true, why boys will be boys, regardless of how often our natural inclinations are batted down, so that we might behave.

This morning I took Nicky to soccer practice. It was a special Saturday morning session held primarily to give many of the fathers a chance to see their children play, because practices are usually held on Wednesday mornings, when the moms bring the kids. Thus, myself and the other fathers bonded this morning when at one particular moment Nicky demonstrated the other side of what it means to be male.

The coach was doing a great job with all these 5 year olds and was rolling through a gamut of playful exercises. At one point she said that she was going to show them various ways to handle the ball.

The first was “Mashing The Potato,” which meant they had to stop the ball by stepping on it.

Second came the “Kick The Potato” where the kids practiced dribbling.

Third was “Juggling The Potato,” which required practicing juggling the ball by bouncing it on their knee.

Finally, the coach asked, “Now, how do you think you do the ‘Stinky Potato’?”

Nicky, didn’t miss a beat, and he immediately blurted out, “You FART!”

Myself and the other fathers hanging out on the sidelines all burst out laughing. It was great timing and the perfect male-minded and male-bonding joke. They all asked me, “Is he yours?” I beamed when I answered affirmatively, and one of the fathers came over to me to give me a high-five.

Now that the ice was broken, with a touch of W.C. Fields, I boasted in jest, “Yesss, I taught him well didn’t Iiii?” Seeing that they were still laughing, I continued in parody of the moment, “So, son what’s the first thing you do in the morning? – Fart!” At this point one of the fathers took it one step further and added “or ssshit!”

Perhaps it was one step too far, for while we were all still laughing, this guy’s wife rolled her eyes and said, “Alright Jake, I’m going over there for a while.”

Thus, as you can see, whether were four-years-old or bordering-on-forty, the inherent thrill of potty talk, fighting, slapstick humor and other aggressive behavior and gestures really rarely wears itself out.

After soccer practice I was really so proud of Nicky that I folded when he asked if we could get donuts. Initially I said, “No,” but then, I spontaneously spun into the Dunkin’ Donuts parking when I reflected upon the morning.

It was bitter cold, and so some of the kids and the parents including myself, were complaining. Yet, even though he was the only one with a short-sleeved uniform and shorts, Nicky never uttered a word about it, I kept on asking him if we wanted his jacket, but he insisted on playing without it. He was so into the game that nothing seemed to bother him.

Moreover, seeing him laugh and run restlessly about and shout with glee continually over the hour made me beam with joy myself. I felt that the passion and spirit, this joie de vivre, that I often see in Enzo and try to constantly stoke within myself, was overflowing from Nicky this morning. Thus, I stopped the car after practice, and ran in to get a small bag of munchkins (donut holes).


At noon, we met Rayner, Zea, and Kaya and drove up the Garden State Parkway to exit 168 to go apple picking. Alas, “all the apples had been picked” purportedly and all they were offering were over-priced hay-rides and pumpkins. We compromised by buying a pumpkin and ice cream for all. Then we went for a whimsical ride in the countryside and not only admired the colorful display of autumn leaves, but also how all the rich people live, for everywhere we looked old mansions were being torn down and castles were being built in their place.

Eventually we returned to my humble abode, a comfortable two-story colonial in the small town of Bloomfield, and we played in the backyard for a while.

At about five we all jumped back in the car again, drove into Manhattan, dropped off the Ramirez family and spun around the corner to eat at La Rosita on Broadway, which is a wonderful little Dominican restaurant that has seemingly been around forever. It is a father-and-son operation, with Don Francisco doing a lot of the cooking and his son, Eduardo, managing the dining room and cash register.

It so happened that the son, Edie, recognized me, and asked if I used to come here when I went to school up the block at Columbia. I confirmed his intuition and explained why I was now living across the street again, at the very same apartment..

Thereafter we chatted a bit in Spanish, discussing how, although my boys weren’t speaking it right now, they would eventually catch on, and that the exposure would prep them for the time when they would embrace learning and being proficient in a second or third language. He had observed this phenomenon in two of his nephews who initially fought speaking Spanish, but later became very excited about learning the native-tongue of their forefathers.


By the time we got home it was close to nine o’clock and although I fully expected the boys to fall asleep on the ride home, they were still wide awake and began faux-fighting in the driveway. I loved the spotlight that they fought under, and thus ran inside the house to grab my camera.

I had already taught Enzo some basic boxing principles, such as a stable stance, how to hold your hands up in front of your face to block your opponent, and most importantly, that you should always keep one of those arms up whenever you throw a punch yourself. Thus, I thought it was the perfect time to teach Nicky. Of course, as expected, he adapted like a pro and began to throw punches at his older brother more aggressively than ever, now that the lesson had instilled a little extra confidence in him.

The boys loved brawling, and I loved watching them. (Click HERE to watch a 90 second slide-show of street fighting Jersey-style. Make sure to change the speed to one second, and to either play or hum the theme to Rocky).

Of course, eventually, both got a little hurt, Nicky a little more than Enzo, so that Nicky cried for a moment, but he soon recovered after I consoled him with a hug and then grabbed Enzo, so that Nicky could feel better by punching him a few times. The little bruises and scrapes they might have received were innocuous enough that I felt that it was good for them, it would toughen them up, much as it toughened me up whenever I likewise fought with my two older cousins as a boy.

Moreover, in retrospect it makes me proud to pass on the things that my father and the other male influences of my life had taught me. Although the time for me to teach my boys to be “men” per se is still some years off, there is much that must begin now, because God knows its becoming increasingly harder to be a “man” in our society. Times are changing and roles are changing, and although men and women should definitely be given the equal opportunity to develop and prove their strength, character and intelligence, there is something to be said about cultivating those gender-specific characteristics and skills that have traditionally distinguished the boys from the girls, and separated the boys from the men.

Just as I had written in the last piece about why I am grateful for girls, science is continually confirming what we have known all along - men and women are different and the differences exhibit themselves from the very beginning. Not only in terms of color preferences and how each gender subsequently expresses themselves, but also in regards to activity preferences and preferred modes of interaction.

Once again, I’ll cite Dr. Leonard Sax, who published Why Genders Matter (2005), and made the following salient points at a recent conference in DC:

• Most boys are impressed by other boys who take risks, especially if the risk taker succeeds. Girls may be willing to take risks, but they are less likely to seek out risky situations just for the sake of living dangerously.
• Boys are much more likely to engage in physically risky activities.
• With boys it is important to have as many “supervised” risk-taking opportunities as possible. Unsupervised boys together are often a real danger to themselves. As a rule encourage a boy to play any organized sport (even the rough ones), but do not let a boy practice his skateboarding with his mates in the road!
• Boys fight physically about twenty times more often than girls do. Boys, however, find many friends through fights. Picking a fight can be a way of relating to another boy. Controlled aggression can have positive outcomes for boys. This is not true for girls
• There is evidence that some of these differences are biologically programmed. The “rough and tumble” activities of boys are not socialized behaviors. In fact, there is evidence that “rough and tumbling” as a young male can reduce their aggression as an adult male. They learn the rules of the game of life in this way.
• Aggression between girls destroys their relationships. When boys and girls interact their styles can often clash. The proverbial boy pulling on a girl’s pigtail is the boy trying to make friends!
• Pain is processed differently by male and female brains. Males and females perceive pain differently. Stress reduces the male’s pain awareness and increases the female’s pain awareness.
•Girls’ friendships work best when the friendship is between equals. Boys, on the other hand, are comfortable in an unequal relationship, even if they are the lesser party. With boys the hierarchical character of a relationship can define and even ennoble the friendship.
•The best way to break down gender stereotypes is to embrace gender differences.

That’s why some males in particular prefer competition to cooperation, strategic cut-throat tactics over team-building collaborations, being lupine leaders over sheepish followers, keeping calm and taking control in crisis situations, and taking risks while everyone else plays it safe.

That’s why I’m tired of trying to make the world flat again; tired of appealing to the lowest common denominator, because the lowest common denominator is not very appealing; tired of taking exciting and colorful ideas at work and making them bland, baseline and mechanical; tired of having to behave asexually, hide the-man-i-am because I work with four other females on my team, and thus have no true-blue male camaraderie to relate to.

And that’s why, women just don’t get a good fart joke when it happens, or maybe they “get it,” but just they don’t see why its so damn funny. Well, we may not really understand why either, but it just is. Much like women don’t understand why men never get tired of watching The Three Stooges - they’re just funny, you know, like they amuse us.

And much like many men will agree that one of the funniest movie dialogues comes from one of our favorite violent gangster-guy movies, Martin Scorcese’s hallmark bad-guy film, Good Fellas. The scene is when Tommy DeVito decides to test Henry Hill and bust his balls a little in front of all the other fellas. For most of the scene you’re on the edge of your seat, because you’re made to believe that any moment Tommy is about to whack (kill) Henry:

Henry: You're a pistol, you're really funny. You're really funny.
Tommy: What do you mean I'm funny?
Henry: It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy.
Tommy: what do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What?
Henry: It's just, you know. You're just funny, it's... funny, the way you tell the story and everything.
Tommy: [it becomes quiet] Funny how? What's funny about it?
Anthony Stabile: Tommy no, You got it all wrong.
Tommy: Oh, oh, Anthony. He's a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how?
Henry: Jus...
Tommy: What?
Henry: Just... ya know... you're funny.
Tommy: You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little fucked up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?
Henry: Just... you know, how you tell the story, what?
Tommy: No, no, I don't know, you said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the fuck am I funny, what the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what's funny!
Henry: [long pause] Get the fuck out of here, Tommy!
Tommy: [everyone laughs] Ya motherfucker! I almost had him, I almost had him. Ya stuttering prick ya. Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.


I surmise that since testosterone underlies all our actions, and because men have long been the more physically active and aggressive gender, that we put a lot of emphasis on proving ourselves physically. Thus, when an individual either excels or blunders, we get as excited as any little boy might get when watching sports highlights and bloopers.

Seemingly this proclivity has been around a long time. Thus, I can readily imagine that Neanderthals grunted and guffawed much as we do today, scrawling upon cave walls and reenacting the more notable club-kills and fatal falters of the day.

Thus, I truly enjoyed watching my boys play and fight and interact as most men are apt to do, today.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowances for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies;
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master,
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it in one turn of pitch - and - toss,
And lose and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart, and nerve, and sinew
To serve your turn long after these are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crouds and keep your virtue
Or walk with kings - nor lose your common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count on you, but none too much;
If you can fill an unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth distance run,
Yours is the earth and all that's in it.
And -which is more - you'll be a man, my son.

-Rudyard Kipling -


More stories, musings and poems about and written for my sons:

To Live A Life Uncommon

There’s Always Something (Ode for a Son)

Nicky The Brave (The Spine of Life)

Like Father, Like Son (a paternal self-fulfilling prophecy)

I Love You, Dominic

Three Familiar Faces (Lesson 6: If…)

I’m A Father (Designing My Little Architects

Just The Two of Us (Papa Loves You)

From Boys to Men

The Quiet One

The Boys (Collection of Photo Sets )

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