Boys to Men

I do not know Bret Kavanaugh, nor do I have any idea what Georgetown Prep, his high school, was like.

I attended an all-male boarding school (The Hill School, in Pottstown, PA) and graduated in 1978. The school taught me explicit and implicit values. What I remember most about my late adolescence was that the values I was taught were not enough for me, that I needed bigger lessons, more durable lessons, lessons that would help me grow up and become a better man. When I decided to apply to and accept admission to Swarthmore College, some of my classmates teased me because The Insider’s Guide to Colleges mentioned that Swarthmore had a gay student organization. That’s what boys zero in on, forget the mention of coed dorms, coed bathrooms, and sex in the library. The teasing stung, but I knew that one of the reasons I chose Swarthmore was because it was a more open community and that it would expose me to ideas that were foreign on an all-male campus.

We were never taught explicitly about what women were like, and perhaps that’s not a surprise given that it was the late 70s, and teaching boys—boys who lived at school with each other and without women—would’ve been tantamount to a revolution. What we learned about women came mainly from pornography or word-of-mouth; neither of those sources was well informed or helpful. The female characters in our literature classes were the attendant characters in Shakespeare, The Glass MenagerieEmperor Jones, and later in an Ethics class, the mother in Mishima’s Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Certainly, there was literature that would’ve helped address some of these issues: Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Virginia Woolf, others, but we stuck to books like Billy Budd.

On reflection, maybe there were enough lessons in those books to teach us about how we should behave in the world. The lessons of the handsome sailor have always resonated with me. There was—is—a better way to be. There was—is—also a darker impulse, based in part on jealousy, and then something unmistakably evil. Each of us carries a Claggart—a heart of darkness—in us, whether we like it or not, and if we don’t wrestle with that presence in our daily lives, and set it back where belongs, then we will be susceptible to those darker impulses.

But how helpful it would’ve been, to learn about how women thought, not just about sex, but about how they felt about their lives, and about us, and what they expected from us. Those lessons came later, and not easily. Maybe they don’t come easily for anyone, whether they spent their adolescence in an all-male environment or not.

The first yearbook I saw at my school featured Christian Nestell Bovee’s quotation: “Our first love and last love is self-love.” I’m not sure whether the boys who chose that quotation meant it as an ironic statement or an actual claim of principle. But we were taught to love ourselves. That could be a selfish kind of love, when you are at the center of your own universe all the time. It took me years to knock myself out of that center, to learn how to lead as a form of service, not merely a form of heroic self-proclamation. We spend so much time as adolescents and young men planting our flags declaring ourselves, and declaring our desires, that we forget that there are other flags, other desires, and other selves beside our own. We think our anger is the most important anger. Our love, the most important love. Our selfishness, the most important selfishness. Our success, the most important success. And of course, and in some ways, it is. But when we live that way, we don’t think, and we don’t consider. We become islands.

And so we end up 17, thinking that we can have whatever we take for ourselves. Or we end up 35, or 50, or 70, with that same notion stuck in our brains. We enter a kind of Hobbesian world, where the strongest take what they want from those who are weak, where life is nasty, brutish, and short unless you are strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, to define the world on your own terms. The only way to succeed against such impulses is to be like Billy Budd, the handsome sailor, excellent on one’s own terms in a way that is beyond grosser manly definition. A glowing exemplar. Untouchable. And yet, fatally flawed.

In time I would learn other lessons, and they were among the most valuable lessons I ever learned. I learned to complicate my world, to see beyond my immediate desires, to see into the world. I learned this from teachers who were women from classmates who were women, from the authors who were women, from philosophers who were women. They deepened my understanding of the world.

I cannot help but wonder what my life, and the lives of the young men with whom I went to school, would have been like if we had received those lessons then, from our male teachers. I am well aware that some people—and not just men—will hear lessons from women differently, less seriously, because it is not a male voice speaking. This is a loss, a fatal and horrible loss. Our world is made up of so much complexity so much richness so much that is valuable. When we exclude ourselves from seeing these things because we are men, who once were boys, we fail. We fail the women in our lives, and we fail ourselves.

I don’t know Bret Kavanaugh, but I know something of the world of boys and men. We have an obligation to be better, to expect more, to not hide behind the “boys will be boys” mantra of the excusers and justifiers. We did learn to be better. And we did not. We own this one, and so does he.

The Cats

My cat is dying. I have four cats, and one of them is dying. In the past 35 years, I have had 9 cats. 5 of them have died. I have been present for the deaths of 4 of them—3 in the auspices of cat hospitals, where their deaths were hurried on beyond their suffering, 1 as renal failure finally blotted out his light. The cat who is dying now has some kind of neoplasm—a cancer—and his descent has been swift. He is just under 7 years old; he entered my life 6 years ago.

When you adopt a pet, you know you are, for the most part—tortoises and parrots aside—going to outlive your pet. Your cat or dog will die. A child’s first experience of death often happens when a pet dies (or Santa Claus is excised from their lives, another kind of death). But, by the time you are older, mortality has been hanging around, making itself known. It’s a savage kind of knowing.

I’m in the middle of teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets—bouncing between the appeal of the “eternal summer” and hard fact of Time’s “bending sickle’s compass.” There is no comfort in death, or in the slow inexorable passage of time. All the comparisons he discounts in Sonnet 130–the sun, coral, snow, roses, perfume, music, goddess—are ideals that flower easily in the imagination. These are worth striving for! And yet, we are all “Time’s fool”—how can we be anything else? We must “tread on the ground.” Life—and its end—happen here.

Of course, I hear Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And I do. I wear glasses that alleviate the dimming light. I adapt. I go to the pool and the gym, preparing to extend that rage, thinking “Only halfway!” Perhaps the rage blinds us to the grimmer particulars. Then I’ll take that blindness for now, and rage.

Still, my cat is dying, and is confused and anxious about what has happened, is happening to him. I try to comfort him, and know that in the end, easy passage may be the way (I have phone numbers at the ready). I wish I could hold him, pet him, and reassure him that his girls—the two kittens he tended when they followed him into my household, who are now 5 years old—will be all right. That I will take good care of them. That he has been a good cat and a good companion. And I know those reassurances are echoes of words and thoughts I had for other cats. And, of course, for other people.

I may be done with death, but death, I know, is far from done with me.

Disappearing Lessons

When kids are little, you can play peek-a-boo with them, and delight them for hours because they have not yet developed their sense of object permanence. Objects that drift out of their sensory field cease to exist—the perfect “out of sight, out of mind” circumstance. It does not occur because of anything they will—it just happens. Sometime during the second year of life (and this is an imprecise measure), children learn that there is a world beyond their immediate senses. Trial and error teaches them that parents and food and comfort exist (or, do not!).

Jean Piaget proposes that we learn schemas—models for understanding the world. As we mature—during our early life—these schemas become more complex. They show us how to navigate a world that is not in our immediate grasp—at our egocentric beck and call. But how much do we simply extend our egos—using the schemas as a way of organizing the world in accordance with our desires?

I wonder how this applies to how we develop a sense of the world—how the schemas we develop shape our senses of morality and mortality. Do the schemas imbue more ephemeral things with a greater permanence than is warranted? Can the trial and error of early childhood be subverted by experiences that teach us about the ambiguity and ambivalence of the world? Or do we, from an early age and onward, cling to one master vision that cannot waver?

Because, as we age, we learn that impermanence is the standard. People come and people go. There must be some kind of formula for this: for every two people who enter our orbit, one must be released. Later, the ratios rise, switching to 1:1, and then 1:2. The causes are myriad—death, disaffection, dumb luck. People appear and disappear with stunning frequency, with hardly a moments notice for peek-a—

For example, I often think of my father, and miss him. I know that he is dead and cannot be a part of the life I lead now, however, his presence feels like the lingering effects of object permanence. Somehow, I have located him in my schema of the world, and no loss, no absence can remove him from that schema. Just like the child who can hunt for the toy hidden beneath the sheet, I can find my father behind the darker veil.

And yet, I am also fully aware that he felt often absent while he was still alive. He entered my life at intervals—holidays, sailing trips. There were stretches of time when I only saw him once a year, other times when when he was without more than with—present in the dimes and nickels that he left on his dresser for us to buy milk and ice cream at school, but only appearing, briefly, in the flesh, at dinner, and then disappearing into his den. Was he really there, or have I constructed a vision of him that became a durable substitute for the times he was away?

My parents championed independence in their children. While we were expected to be independent from them, did we, by happenstance, learn independence or absence as part of the schemas on which we built our early lives? We became free-floating, detached, prepared, in advance, for the disappearances that life would throw our ways—not the peek-a-boos of play, but the more enduring, and finally, more heart-breaking absences of adulthood. There is some solace in that, but also a modicum of sadness. We were pre-lost, almost, before we were found.

Paying Attention

When I am out walking with my daughter I have one, simple repeated lesson: pay attention. Crossing a street? Pay attention. Walking past a flower bed? Pay attention. Meeting people? Pay attention. It is the cornerstone. I point out when I fail, as she does: Pay attention, daddy. Did you look? Did you see me? Two eyes seem like slim equipment for the work of days.

As a teacher, the central lesson is a finely tuned attention. The study of literature is a proving grounds for giving attention its fullest due. Words, images, sound. The unpacking of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Joyce Carol Oates’s stories, or a passage from Joyce’s impossible novel relies on the attention one gives and the knowledge one brings. All the knowledge in the world is wasted if one does not look outward and pay attention.

When I write, I also pay attention—it is a balance between inward and outward attention—letting the still, strong voice inside reflect on the outward world. I try to write about what I see, what I learn, what surprises me—almost all outside of me. When I venture within, I hope to turn the same sharp vision within—seeing myself as if on a journey, as if I was foreign and strange—as I must be, even to myself.

But those are only three roles I play in life: father, teacher, writer. I am also a friend, and enjoy paying attention to my friends’ likes and dislikes, their peculiar fascinations and passions. We tend to have similar interests—we are, after all, friends. And I know that my friends pay attention to me—that they appreciate my odd vision.

There is one other role—and it is at once the easiest and most difficult. I love paying attention to the person I love. I love learning the stories that comprise a life, listening to the dreams of possible futures, and discovering the intricacies of another’s heart. All this is so easy—I could listen and learn for a lifetime—I feel like all else is practice for this.

The hard part is having someone pay attention to me. First, allowing someone to see me, all my flaws and strengths. That is, almost, easily assuaged by repeated kindnesses—I have learned to accept being loved.

Harder is accepting when someone misses something. When my daughter stumbles into a crosswalk, head tilted toward phone, there is a quick check—pay attention. When a student misses the meaning of the image: “star to every wandering bark,” I can quickly point out that Shakespeare is punnier and more ribald than serious young students give credit. When I make a mistake in an early draft, I can edit. And I can accept my friends “misses” easily—chalking it up to our simple flawed and generous humanity.

But, with love. Perhaps because it is only then—when I love romantically—that I feel most vulnerable. I sometimes become all but selfless—loving most and desiring least, as if true love could enable a perfect kind of detachment. So much for flawed and generous humanity—I must be perfect. Jeff Tweedy sings, “No loves as random as God’s love”—this random indiscriminate, impossibly generous love. Shakespeare calls it “lascivious grace”—unimaginable to those who walk upon the ground, and yet, the only ideal.

And yet, the hope, beyond hope, that someone is paying attention. One of the great joys of love—and of life—is feeling recognized, not simply on someone else’s terms (This is how you are like me! This is how you complete me!), but on your own terms (You showed me… You taught me… You amazed me… You surprised me… You changed me…). Isn’t this how we feel love, when we are at our best? Isn’t this how we want to be loved?

I share little details, bits and pieces, and listen and wait. What is she paying attention to? Through what screen does she see me? I expect hesitantly, trying not to overburden possibility with my hair-shirted set of (non-)expectations. And then, after sharing a story, a glimpse, a piece by Dinesen, some recollection of a journey, she travels away and returns with a small blue jar filled with water from two seas. I know there will be misses, but I also know I have been seen. And this makes all the difference. This is how.