Archive for August, 2014

walk forward in a walking position….

boxingboys

 

 

“Walk forward in a walking position.
Put the bridge of your nose in the
crease of your opponent’s neck.
Make a bridge with your body and
punch away from you and up.”

The moment that my father said those words, I was instantly taken over by a wild feeling of giddy exhilaration.  

“The first thing you do in boxing is
put your right hand next to your right cheek.
Put your left hand in front of your face.”

He would stand on the floor and place me on the bed, standing in front of him, so that we faced one another, as equals.

 And then it would begin.

Elated swinging arms and gentle jabbing of fists in the tickley belly parts. He would hold me steady with one hand on the small of my back and “jab” my tummy with the other hand until I was more giggling puddle than little girl.
When I’d had enough, he would pull the stabilizing hand out and I would flop down and bounce on the bed, hysterically happy and ready for another round.

My father boxed with the Grand Street Boys when he was a kid.  This is not what it sounds like. He is basically the opposite of a tough guy. But, as a boy, he did take several years of boxing lessons at a community center on the Lower East Side. 

There is a video of him boxing another little boy on the Perry Como show when he was 11. He is all smiles and skinny arms swinging in wide circles. He is a scrawny little torso hovering over enormous shorts,  emerging from which are spindly legs that never stop moving. The constant dancing back and forth clearly fills him with such joy and was probably a perfect outlet for some of that extra energy that kids constantly need to shake off.  The gleaming grin never leaves his face, or the faces of anyone else in the clip.  The boys are playing at fighting, just throwing themselves at one another for the love of movement and life. The whole thing is accompanied by bouncy strings and you can’t help but be happy when you are watching it.

The joy my father felt in those moments was clearly something that he wanted to give to my brother, sister, and me when we were kids, and so our crazy boxing game was born.

And I do something like this with my boys. We have wrestling matches on my bed where they leap on top of me and try to “pin me”, basically by laying down on top of me and hugging me tightly.   I always win– I’ve got 90 pounds on them– and I snuggle-pin them with little effort. We are always overwhelmed with laughter and the warmth of the moment fills the room, making me long for their childhood to last forever, making me squeeze them just a little longer, just a little tighter.

 About two years ago, Aaron and I were looking for something new and different to sign Zeke up for and heard some good things about a karate place nearby.  It seemed like a fun way to burn off some energy and we hoped it would encourage confidence and focus.

Zeke was beyond adorable in that floppy white uniform and I love watching him punch and knee-kick the air, run around, and shout out the count in Japanese.

Pride warms the dojo as gaggles of parents hold up their phones to capture their little sweeties yelling, “Tetsui!” as they pound their precious little mini- fists downward and count together: 

“Ich! Ni! San! Chi! Go!…”

And when they spar, they are like puppies tumbling around the mat.  Bodies loose-limbed, all shining eyes and playful punches. When Zeke fights his teachers or a senior student, his cheeks go pink and the absolutely extreme width of  his smile makes his whole head resemble an apple split in half. It is a joy to watch them dance around one another, miming a kick with a tap of the tip of the toe, or just brushing their knuckles across their opponent’s chest.

So when Aaron started taking class there too, I had warm feelings about the place and I was eager to support his cheery new hobby.  That is, until I attended his first belt test.  The first half of the belt test, where the children’s skills were tested, filled me with the same pleasure that it always had, and I was not prepared for the dramatic shift in mood as the adult students took their places on the mat.

All of a sudden the glowing room of parents, cellphones raised, cooing encouragement, transformed into a room where fists are pumped and grunts of excitement echo each time the sickening thud of a solidly landed punch reverberated through the dojo.

Shouts of “Great Job Sweetie!” gave way to bloodthirsty bellows of “Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!” as two solid adults square off against one another.  

When Aaron’s turn came I felt sick to my stomach.  Every time he or his opponent landed a punch or a kick people in the dojo would shout triumphantly.  The salivating anticipation of the fighter’s pain among the spectators seemed to swell my chest making it hard to breathe.

Then Aaron lost his balance when he kicked the other guy, and fell down hard on the mat. This man in black-rimmed glasses standing next to me, barked, “Yes!” in excitement.

I felt ill. “That’s my husband!” I wanted to yell.  And I was glad that the boys were playing with their friends in the back of the room and not paying attention.  I felt like karate just wasn’t what I’d thought it was. There is nothing heart-warming about watching sweaty men try to make brutal contact with one another, even if they are doing it for fun.

A few months later, determined to be supportive and not a lily-livered spoilsport, I took the boys to watch Aaron fight in a tournament in Newburgh.  I truly wanted to stand there and cheer him on and for the boys to be proud of their dad.

But when I saw the red-faced intensity of the people on the sidelines shouting at their family and friends to annihilate the person across from them I began to have real feelings of misgiving. When I looked around the school gym where the tournament was being held and saw lanky, acne-spattered teenage boys, barely able to stay on their feet, weaving, eyes unfocused from hitting their heads too hard, I began to feel that I was in the wrong place entirely.

When Aaron’s match was finally called he was so excited, a boyish smile dominated his whole face and he couldn’t keep still. He kept running and jumping in place, bare feet in constant motion as they stuck out of his gleaming white gi.

And then his opponent walked up and I felt my stomach hit the floor. I was overcome by the desperate need to stretch my smile out as wide as it will go so that no one, certainly not the boys, would be able to detect the horrid trepidation I felt about being stuck in this horrible place.

The guy was young, probably 24, and when I looked at his arm, I saw a prominent USMC tattoo and immediately cast him as a recently discharged veteran from the Middle East who needs an outlet for all of the anger he built up while witnessing the horrors of war. The idea of having to keep my upbeat attitude so that the boys won’t start to feel upset is overwhelming and I was afraid that I was going to cry.

It was then that I thought of this Shel Silverstein poem that I’d always loved.

 

Hug O’War

I will not play at tug o’ war

I’d rather play at hug o’ war,

Where everyone hugs

Instead of tugs

Where everyone giggles

And rolls on the rug,

Where everyone kisses

And everyone grins

And everyone cuddles

And everyone wins.

 

This is the game that I thought we were all playing.  I thought we were rolling around and laughing and just wrapped up in the playful  love of parents and children.  I don’t want to know that I am training my sons for actual fighting in a world that is filled with actual violence.  I just want to giggle and roll around on the rug.

I have managed to block out most of Aaron’s fight in Newburgh. He didn’t win, but he wasn’t seriously injured either. And our children were not traumatized, but I’ve made only sporadic trips to the dojo since.  

Fighting seems fun now, but sprightly violins will eventually give way to intense, pounding percussion and I have never lost my taste for the gentle games of my childhood.

“Walk forward in a walking position.”

Those words still make me smile.

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Growling Friend and The Boy

growling_small

“Looks like we are too late for Growling Friend today.”

 Jack and I are walking down Rutland Road to his school. Two girls from his class, who we met on the train, skip along the sidewalk with us.

 “Who’s Growling Friend?” one of them asks.

 “Well, “ I say. There’s a man who delivers fruit to two of the stores along Rutland and every day, when Jack and Growling Friend see each other, they put their arms up in the air like big Grizzly Bears and growl at one another.”

 “That’s weird,” the girl says.

 “It is kind of weird, “ I say. “But it’s great too. We look forward to seeing Growling Friend every morning.”

 And it’s true. It’s just not the same when we don’t see him.

Growling Friend is a middle-aged Asian man, glasses, mostly bald with some shaggy grey and white hair around the sides of his head.  We see him every morning, unloading boxes of fruit from his white truck, when we descend the steps of the Sutter Ave. 3 Train. And if he unloads slow enough and we walk fast enough, we see him again, further down Rutland, making a second delivery.

One morning, in a surreal non-verbal mental communion, both Jack and this man put their arms up in the air, tensed their hands like menacing claws, bared their teeth and began loudly growling at each other.  

I was taken aback.  It is extremely unsettling to have some random stranger growling at your child, unprompted, on the street.  But before my Mama Bear took over, I looked at my son, who was giggling with delight. I looked at the man, whose face glowed with jubilant mischief.

You could see the playful little boy inside his aging face, and I knew there was no need to be afraid. Without a word, the man went back to stacking boxes of mangos and papayas in front of the store and we continued down the road to school.

And just like that, our weird little morning routine was born.

Every day Jack and the man we now called Growling Friend would catch sight of one another, menace and snarl for a moment, and then just pop back into normalcy.

All of the Spanish guys who helped bring the fruit from the sidewalk into the store used to smile and laugh when they saw us coming.  Passersby would laugh and shake their heads when their haze of business was momentarily penetrated by the strange sight of a little boy and an old man raising their hackles in mock threat, for no apparent reason, on the street.

After seeing us, the man would always beam, his smile warming our backs as we headed down the street.  And if I caught him making his second delivery on my walk back to the train, he would always wave effusively, and I felt strongly that we shared a kind of odd friendship.

 

Jack’s friends wanted to know more.

 “What is his name?”

 “Well, I don’t actually know.  We don’t even know if he speaks English.  It’s just that every morning he and Jack just growl at each other and it’s so silly…”

 

You don’t know his name?” She glared at me accusingly. “ So he’s a stranger.”

 

“Well, yes, he is a stranger. But we see him every day and when he growls at us it’s so silly and we feel happy…” I was sputtering. I could see how absolutely bizarre this story sounds, even a four-year-old is questioning my parental judgement.

 

Jack interrupts,

We don’t know his name. We just know how kind he is.

 

And that is exactly it.  Jack just instinctually understood this man’s kindness, no matter how strange a manner he had of putting that kindness out there.

 

I thought a lot about this.  Do I want my son, in pre-school, walking the streets of Brooklyn sizing people up and just following his intuition about them?  Do I instill in him the belief that adults know best and that you should think and act as they think and act?

Should I teach him to go with his gut or to follow my lead?

And this line of mental questioning led me inevitably to The Boy. 

There’s this Boy in our neighborhood that we see around a lot. We frequent the same coffee shops and playgrounds. We have many mutual friends.

One day, probably 2 years ago, we saw The Boy at the playground, zooming some toy cars around on the top of the water fountain. Jack climbed onto the water fountain to get a drink, interrupting The Boy’s game.  Just as I was thinking of mother hen-ishly reminding Jack to say “Excuse Me” or something, The Boy pushed Jack off of the water fountain and calmly went back to playing with his cars.  

Jack lay on the the ground screaming, both knees raw and scraped.

I picked Jack up, bounced him and comforted him. I saw The Boy’s mother looking anxiously in our direction and when she came up to us and asked what happened, I told her calmly and somewhat apologetically, what I’d seen. I was sure that she would insist on The Boy apologizing, thereby restoring Jack’s sense that all is right in the world.

She crouched down and spoke quietly to her Boy, nodded decisively and walked up to Jack and me and said, as if daring me to challenge her, “He says he didn’t do anything.”

 I was somewhat startled, but weighing my options, basically fight or flight, and seeing that Jack was basically okay, I cowardly decided to retreat and let The Boy have his cruel way.

A few months later, we found ourselves walking down Lincoln Road toward Flatbush just a few steps ahead of the Boy and his mother.  I felt very aware of their presence behind us and was very aware of ignoring them. So I felt my whole body shrinking as I heard Jack say loudly , 

 

“I know that Boy.
I know his name.

I hate that Boy.”

 

I cheerfully chirped something about how we shouldn’t say mean things about people and about how we don’t really hate anyone and doubled the speed of my steps, pulling Jack forward, imploring all of the forces of the universe to make him stop speaking.

 

We managed to avoid any awkward encounters with The Boy until fairly recently, when we ran into the Boy and his mother with a very good friend of Jack’s and her family. When they asked the Boy’s mother and me if we knew each other, we wore matching vague smiles, and both muttered similar noncommittal things about how we were sure we’d seen each other around.

 Jack, however, was not as inclined to be polite.

 

He fixed a venomous gaze on the boy, his eyes narrowed, lip curled in a hateful sneer.

 

“I know you.” he snarled.

And then he spat on the ground.

 

There was no way that I could warble something that would brush away the absolute contempt that Jack had just expressed. And feeling bound up in politesse and helpless to deal with the situation, I took Jack by the hand, said something along the lines of , “Okay. See you around.” and dragged him down the street and away from our awkward social interaction.

 

And now I have to ask myself.  If he can just intuitively find a kindred spirit in his Growling Friend, should I just trust him to decide that the Boy is his enemy?   Is it my responsibility to teach Jack to be neighborly and well-mannered or is that essentially just teaching him a form of socially conventional spinelessness?

What it seems to come down to is this– do I want him to be himself, true to his instincts and confident about his feelings, or me, a shrinking violet, desperate not to rock the boat? And the answer seems to be the former, even if his exuberant flowering can sometimes make me want to wither on the vine.

The world is full of Growling Friends and Boys. We don’t know all of their names. But, as Jack has taught me, if we look closely and trust our instincts, we can see their kindness or their cruelty.  And we can respond accordingly.