Thursday's child has far to go. Eleven hours, in the case of Isaiah John Woodlief, before he emerged mewling and wiggling, a "stunned peck of flesh," as Galway Kinnell wrote, into the world. He weighs eight pounds and one ounce, and is 19 inches long. His mother was courageous throughout, though his father whimpered like a baby and almost threw up at a critical point. All the Woodlief boys are happy to have a new little one in the house.
Welcome to this broken earth, Isaiah John. May it be better for your breathing its air and trodding its soil.
My writer friend Darren Defrain recently turned me on to Andre Dubus, and so I've been working through his stories and essays. He has, as another writer friend describes it, a lyrical voice. You can see faith in his stories, along with doubt, and the grit and ugliness in life that makes faith the anchor or buoy or life preserver that it is, but which for some reason too many of us are ashamed to admit about ourselves. Dubus also evokes the question I read once somewhere I can't remember, about why nearly all serious literary figures of Christian faith have been Catholics. Think about it; you're hard pressed to name a significant Protestant writer of prose. I'm not sure why that is, and the question fascinates me.
Last night I read Dubus's essay titled "Digging," from his collection, Meditations from a Movable Chair, which he wrote after being crippled by a reckless driver while helping two disabled motorists. In the essay he describes the hot Louisiana summer of his seventeenth year, when his father got a job for him on a construction site:
I had never done physical work except caddying, pushing a lawn mower, and raking leaves, and I was walking from the car with my father toward workingmen.
Halfway through his first day of helping dig out the foundation, Dubus vomited and nearly passed out. I did not have the strength for this, he wrote, not in my back, my legs, my arms, my shoulders. Certainly not in my soul. Soon his father appeared over the hole where he was digging.
In the car, in a voice softened with pride, he said: 'The foreman called me. He said the Nigras told him you threw up, and didn't eat, and you didn't tell him.'
'That's right,' I said, and shamefully watched the road, and cars with people who seemed free of torment, and let my father believe I was brave, because I was afraid to tell him that I was afraid to tell the foreman.
But his father didn't take him home. Instead he took him to a diner in town, and ordered him a 7-Up for his stomach, and a sandwich. Then they bought a work hat to keep his head cool. And then his father deposited him back at the work site. Despite the arduous work and the dangerous heat, Dubus finished out his summer there. He writes:
It is time to thank my father for wanting me to work and telling me I had to work and getting the job for me and buying me lunch and a pith helmet instead of taking me home to my mother and sister. He may have wanted to take me home. But he knew he must not, and he came tenderly to me. My mother would have been at home that afternoon; if he had taken me to her, she would have given me iced tea and, after my shower, a hot dinner. When my sister came home from work, she would have understood, and told me not to despise myself because I could not work with a pickax and a shovel. And I would have spent the summer at home, nestled in the love of the two women, peering at my father's face, and yearning to be someone I respected...
You should check him out, if you've not already read his work.
Update: They're pushing my segment to 7:40 p.m. EST. You can also catch me with John Steigerwald on Pittsburgh's 93.7 FM tomorrow at 9:20 a.m. EST. I believe you can listen live on the Internet. If you're interested in how I might humiliate myself on a station that calls itself "The Man Station," that is.
Cathy Young, whose writing I sometimes enjoy, suggests in her Reason Magazine essay that the wildly popular Dangerous Book for Boys is dangerous indeed, because it reinforces traditional sex roles. Why couldn't it have been titled "The Dangerous Book for Kids"? In service to this question, Young quotes a female friend to great effect: "'Where is the book for girls who did stuff like make their own chain mail as kids, or cracked rocks with sledgehammers in the driveway both to see what was inside them and to see if you could get sparks?'"
I thought I would ask some chain mail-knitting, sledgehammer-wielding little girls how they feel about the exclusionary effect of the book's title, but then I realized I don't know any little girls like that. I've also never seen girls drooling over cowboy guns at the hobby shop, or sticking butter knives in their belts and pretending to be pirates. But, as Jeffrey Chamberlain wrote, "In a country as big as the United States, you can find fifty examples of anything."
So it's a legitimate question: what to do about the tender feelings of girls who want to make chain mail and use sledgehammers? It's really a question about curves, isn't it, and not the kind that some females have been socially constructed to sometimes get, and which in sexist literature some males sometimes pay attention to, though of course we know in the real world we shouldn't make generalizations like: boys and girls are different. No, I mean curves of the Bell variety, which often capture human realities quite nicely, and which were we benighted enough to pay attention to data rather than self-serving anecdotes might disrupt the argument that goes: girls would like wrestling more and boys would like tea parties more, if not for the dominant social paradigm.
And the answer, in light of these curves, is delightfully conservative (in the old-fashioned sense, not the newfangled Republican sense) namely: nothing. If you have a little girl who would rather learn how to make paper airplanes and read about the battle of Thermopylae than do cartwheels and play with dolls, then by all means, buy her the book, and tell her with conviction, not the self-doubt that seems to plague so many essays like Young's Honey, just because the book says it's for boys, doesn't mean you can't do it too. Now let's read "A Brief History of Artillery" (one of the book's chapters).
The solution, in other words, is not to reorient nature to suit the self-esteem needs of the minority of girls who want to make chain mail. It's far better to embrace their difference and impart to them the strength to go against the tide, if that's how they're made, to become, as Shaw wrote, "a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." To complain about titles of books, it seems, is to give far too little credit to these brave little girls, wherever they are hiding, who want to blow things up and learn how to spit.
Part of the problem here is the mistaken notion, perhaps due to an overactive sense of grievance, that the title of the book means that the knowledge therein is exclusively for boys. A more generous reading reveals that the authors, Conn and Hal Iggulden, simply wanted to include the stories, games, and skills that a great many boys (and men) want to know. Does that mean no girls should want to know these things? Of course not. But could you sell millions of copies of exactly the same book, had it been titled The Dangerous Book for Girls? Here comes that pesky Bell curve, accompanied by his pernicious friend, Common Sense, to spoil a good feminist lather.
As for the boys Young worries about, the ones "who may be more interested in reading than in catching snails and may prefer art to stories of battles," I think the answer is simply to get them out of the house. This comes from someone who would far rather curl up with a book than go fishing, mind you (a challenge I describe, often to humiliating effect, in my pamphlet on raising boys). That's because boys are physical as well as mental creatures, and to let the former atrophy is to do your son a disservice. Yes, of course this goes for girls as well, but as anyone who has had to supervise great numbers of boys and girls will tell you, sometimes the physical activities that girls seek out are distinctly different from those preferred by boys. Yes, they all like to play tag. But no, you don't often see girls randomly tackle one another. And that's okay.
Father's Day morning, the Wife brought me homemade blueberry muffins in bed. I sat reading short stories and eating blueberry muffins, and it was blissful. Soon I heard them conspiring outside my bedroom door, the little ones and their mother the ringleader. In marched a little troupe of celebrants, each bearing a gift. They perched themselves around me on the bed, each clamoring for me to open his gift first. They gave me a big bucket of bubble gum, some metal collar stays, a Hemingway-style pocket journal, and a cheerful little book published in 1902, titled The REAL Diary of a REAL Boy, by Henry Shute. It's written in the language of a schoolboy, and has entries like this:
December 15. Micky Gould said he cood lick me and i said he want man enuf and he said if i wood come out behind the school house after school he wood show me and i said i wood and all the fellers hollered and said they wood be there. But after school i thaught i aught to go home and split my kindlings and so i went home. a feller aught to do something for his family ennyway. i cood have licked him if i had wanted to.
I love old books, the feel and weight and texture of them, and the knowledge that they were born when people read, and when they read something more intelligent and edifying than Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlum.
We went to church and happily it wasn't a sermon about how none of us men are good enough as fathers. After that we went to our favorite Wichita restaurant, and I had a Dr. Pepper and didn't feel the least bit guilty about it. Later that day there was more short-story reading and then a run with the boys, Caleb and Eli on bicycles and Isaac in the running stroller and me doing the hard work in between wheezing at them to look both ways before turning onto a street, and to be extra careful because that SUV coming at us is being driven by a teenager, and for God's sake to look up at the road and not down at how fast their feet are pedaling.
Later that evening we had my favorite meal: hotdogs and the Wife's extra-special macaroni and cheese. As an added bonus her grandmother, who is visiting, made me creamed corn. Still later, I attempted to make The Perfect Tom Collins, according to a recipe I found in The Wall Street Journal, but I put in too much gin and then tried to compensate with more soda and sugar, but then that threw the squeezed lemon into too small a proportion and so by the time I was done it was something more like a soggy sugared pine tree than the perfect anything, but liquor is liquor and it tasted especially good because I bought the gin the next county over, because Wichita forbids alcohol sales on Sundays, unless one happens to own a restaurant or bar, which likely inclines one to contribute generously to city council members, who in turn are more likely to stick by their moral position that alcohol should not be sold on Sundays.
One day, in heaven, I'm going to sip a Tom Collins with Jesus on a Sunday, and we're going to have a good laugh about blue laws.
Still later, some friends and I watched a man movie, although it wasn't really because there was far too much kissing and love lost for my taste, but the moral of the story was good, plus more than one bad guy got skewered, so it was certainly a good use of two hours.
Around midnight I realized that while I may be an okay father, I am a very bad son, because I didn't call my father or stepfather. I'll try to remember how easy it is to be swept up in the chaos and bliss of being a father to all these young ones, so that my feelings aren't wounded when they are too busy being fathers to be sons.
I lay awake for a time after the house was completely dark and silent, thinking thank you over and over in my mind, whispering it to God. And he must say I know when we thank him for our children, because he is a father too. It is good to be a father. More fathers should try it. If I can get this right, I keep telling myself, the rest of it doesn't matter. Be a good husband. Be a good father. The rest of it fades away almost as soon as we are cold in the ground. Help me get this right. That's what I whisper to God in between the thank yous.