I’ve just finished a draft that I’ve been struggling with for over a year, based on an idea I first sketched out and made notes on more than two years ago. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written, and I think it’s pretty good, but I suspect my beta readers will have some other ideas. None of that is relevant, though. I only bring it up because, like Brooklyn, Burning, one central theme of the new manuscript is gender and how we connect with ours and that of others.
Another theme of the new one is online gaming, which is also relevant, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Why have I been so focused on gender the last few years? Well, it’s been moving toward the front of the zeitgeist, for one thing, from way way way in the back, where it’s been for many years now—probably since the last real thrashing our ideas about gender got, in the 1970s. Debatable, but again, not relevant. So moving on. It’s been on my mind a lot because it was right around three years ago that I became a full-time, stay-at-home dad.
Weird, being a stay-at-home dad in a stay-at-home-mom world. I liked it. Still do. In fact, when I was in high school and people asked me what I wanted to do when I “grew up,” I’d always say, “Write and be a stay-at-home dad.” No joke. That’s what I said. I suppose I’d smirk when I said it, because to some degree I probably believed that being a SAHD was something of a lifelong vacation with time to write fiction. But the smirk was also a layer of protection, because I knew that the person I was talking to would very likely think me less of a pinnacle of masculinity if they didn’t think I was at least half kidding. But I wasn’t half kidding. I think that’s pretty obvious at this point.
Monday Boy tackled the identity issues this position raises. Wednesday Boy tackled the issue of the Huxtable Complex (it’s real, and it’s coming for you). Let me a little bit combine those two matters. I’ll start with my own dad.
He died, twelve years ago yesterday, as it happens. But when I was growing up, I have a very distinct and highly predictable memory of life with him on a day-to-day basis. He got home every day a little after five. He put his briefcase down next to the couch and called out hello. He wore dark slacks and a light-colored collared shirt. He wore a tie. After supper, he went back to work for three more hours. He smelled generally of ‘Lectric Shave and Speedstick by Mennen.
When I was a little boy—the late 1970s, early 1980s, let’s say—some of my favorite shirts were Batman and Robin, Dyn-O-Mite, and Mr. October. I probably smelled of apple sauce and Coke and dirt. I looked up to my dad. I figured men wore ties and shaved and worked long hours.
Now, in 2012 as a dad, here’s me: most days, I wear jeans, if I bother to remove my pajama pants, which are covered in a pattern of Atari 2600 joysticks. Some of my favorite shirts are: Space Invaders, Star Wars, and World of Warcraft. To my son, I am essentially always around, except when I sneak away on Saturdays to sit in the coffee shop and write. For what it’s worth, I use Speedstick by Mennen.
What’s my point? This: Yes, there are plenty—plenty—of dads out there today who wear a nice shirt every day and a tie, or they wear work pants or a uniform or a reflective vest. And plenty of them work very long hours. But my experience of dads, within the (admittedly small) circle in which I socialize and generally exist (that includes an Early Childhood Family Education class of just SAHDs, and trips to Target when most people are busy working and can’t get to the grocery store yet, and visits to the zoo and the children’s museum with my son, also during office hours), the dads just ain’t what they used to be.
Is this a bad thing? I guess that remains to be seen. I don’t mind being my son’s best friend (debatable again, but please don’t tell me otherwise yet). I don’t mind that I rarely find occasion to put on a pair of dress slacks and a tie. And I really like my jammy pants.
In the draft I just finished, though, the protagonist reflects on this, and he comes away with the feeling that while girls grow into women, boys just keep getting bigger. I’m not saying that’s the case. I am saying that it seems to be getting harder to demonstrate any difference in an outward sense. If I’m going to insist on dressing like a boy, and listening to loud music like a boy, and playing video games like a boy, how exactly am I anything more than a boy with body hair and male pattern baldness?
I know the answer, somewhere in my gut. (There is one; I swear.) But I bet if you asked my son, he’d just say, “Dad has a beard.”