“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.
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.
Jack’s little body is heaving with sobs. He wails again and again, “How do I grow into a grown-up? How do I get bigger?” and he is breaking my heart.
I am changing his diaper. Potty-training Jack has been a monumental challenge, and he is resistant to even the slightest suggestion that he start relieving himself in the potty.
I am exhausted by the effort it takes to stick to my pro-potty talking points and disgusted by the foul mess that I must clean up day after day. In addition, I feel brutalized by Jack’s intense emotional response to the process. He wants the growing and maturing to be over, to just be “big” (and potty-trained), without having to experience the torment of growing.
Grief pours from him as he moans oddly,
“I want my eyes to be bigger. “
And that is when I pause, thinking all of a sudden of the oft-cited fact that children’s eyes reach their adult size from a very young age, some say as young as two, and that these “wide” eyes are what give children their irresistible look of innocence. But what does it mean that their adult eyes– shifting, watchful, careful not to betray intentions or vulnerability– are already there?
There’s a deli next to Zeke’s school– coffee, sandwiches, drinks– nothing to distinguish it from any other random bodega in our neighborhood, except possibly for one thing: this deli houses a scrawny gray and white cat. The cat skulks around, presumably to keep rodents from eating up the profits. And truthfully, even this doesn’t really differentiate it from other delis, except that for some reason, this scraggy, bony feline has completely captured Jack’s heart and imagination.
After we drop Zeke off at school, Jack invariably begs to go inside and look around for the cat. One day Jack asked the silent and watchful man behind the deli counter what the cat’s name was. The man stifled a snort and said in a lazy voice, “You give a name, and that will be cat’s name.”
Jack thought for a moment, then beamingly declared,
“His name is Catty-Cat.”
And from that day forward, so it was. We went to visit Catty-Cat several mornings a week and as Jack happily wandered around among the racks of chips and peeked beneath the coffee machine, I felt creepily aware of the alert gaze of the deli’s proprietors, tracking our every move.
In addition to the silent man behind the counter, there is a much chattier fellow, just a little taller than I am, the whites around his darting eyes huge and strangely bright. He dresses in an overly enthusiastic and dated “hip-hop” fashion, that calls to mind Ali-G.
He would always greet Jack with a vehement friendliness, often grabbing Catty-Cat out of whatever corner she was hiding in and roughly presenting her to Jack. His tensed hand would be positioned in front of her paws as he spoke firmly in her ear , and loudly encouraged Jack to pet her. He always insisted that she was terrified of everyone but Jack, whom she loved (attempts to spring from his firm grasp and escape from Jack’s clumsy little hands, notwithstanding).
Once he glanced pointedly at my wedding ring and asked me why I never came in with my husband, asked if he was “away in the army”.
Another time he insisted on giving Jack a free snack from the shop, and as Jack happily selected a bag of “butter-flavored” popcorn, that I knew I would never actually allow him to eat, he told me about his two children, pounding forcefully on his chest as he insisted that his son was “his heart” and that he loved him much more than his daughter.
He and his friend made me insanely nervous. I found myself trying to cross the street before we reached Catty-Cat’s deli. There was nothing I could put my finger on exactly that made me want to avoid it, but when we were there I always had a knot in the pit of my stomach, and I always kept a wary hand firmly on Jack’s shoulder as I hurried him through our visit and out to the safe anonymity of the street.
But Jack took such pleasure in visiting Catty-Cat and it was hard to resist the joy shining from his child’s eyes, as he placed his hand on her protruding ribs and felt her vibrating purr. So from time to time, we did stop in, though I did my best to be brusque and never to meet anyone’s gaze.
Then one rainy day, we stopped in and as Jack’s little voice called , “Catty-Cat? Catty-Cat where are you?” our colorful friend sauntered over to us and told us that we couldn’t see her because she was in the back room. I saw consideration wash over his face and saw the slight shift in his expression that indicated that he had actually changed his mind. “Wait,” he said. “I show you where she is.”
And as he ushered us toward the back room of the deli, I gripped Jack tightly and felt panic rising in me slightly. All of my adult instincts were telling me to be on alert, but a needling part of my mind told me that I might be being ridiculous, that this man had never been anything but friendly, and that there was no reason to deny a child an experience that made him so happy, or to make him feel nervous about people that had been kind to him and a cat that he had discovered and named. I wished that I could see it all with his innocent joy and wonder and turn off my full-grown anxiety.
In the back room we saw Catty-Cat. She was grooming herself, perched on a dingy, once-white vinyl dining room chair. Jack’s eyes locked on her with delight and I found myself nervously glancing around the room.
Next to the chair was a filthy over-flowing litter-box, and a giant hookah, as tall as Jack.
The room was surprisingly empty for a store room. There were a few cases of A & W Cream soda, a variety of mops and buckets and a metal drain in the center of the concrete floor. My eyes kept being drawn to a strange lofted platform that dominated the room. There were 3 or 4 crudely built stairs that led up to it and a neon-printed shower curtain separating it from the rest of the space. Through a gap in the curtain I could see a large duffel bag and a precisely made pallet, where someone clearly slept.
My heart and mind began to race as it dawned on me that SOMEONE LIVED BACK HERE– and I wasn’t sure if that was legitimately scary or not and I didn’t want the man to perceive that I was afraid and I didn’t want to frighten Jack, but I just wanted to get out of that room and back outside as fast as humanly possible.
As I led Jack back to our apartment I was struck by how profoundly differently we experienced that morning in the deli. Jack chattered about Catty-Cat and was aware only of the magic of this living being, that ate and breathed, and felt things, and allowed him to interact with it. My mind was possessed by paranoia and the potential for danger. Whose mind did it make sense to dwell in? The world is certainly more lovely in Jack’s eyes. And it saddens me to imagine his child’s vision being clouded by fear and mistrust.
My father studies Perception, and I remember him teaching me about the eye from a young age, quizzing me on of its various parts: the lens, the iris, the cornea, the rods and the cones. He excitedly explained that the brain fills in blanks so that we would perceive a clear and complete picture of what was before us.
It seems to me that this is very similar to what my adult view of the world does to Catty-Cat’s deli. I don’t understand what is going on in there. There are huge and petrifying gaps in my knowledge about the deli’s staff and why someone might live in the backroom and why someone might tell a stranger that they don’t really love their daughter, and without the benefit of a complete picture, all of my mental alarms go off and fill in the fuzzy areas with a strident vigilance.
Children are free to experience the unexplained, without that terror. We absorb all of the fear for them, tightly grip their little hands, and quietly scan the horizon for threats. In their yearning to grow up so quickly and to be independent, they have no idea that potty-training is merely the barest beginning of independence or of how incredibly sinister life for an adult can be.
We teach them to use the toilet, and to tie their shoes, and to navigate the world on their own.
And from us, they also learn to put their guard up. They have to. In order to survive, we all need to assess risks and think about the dangers that could be lurking in the places that we can’t see clearly.
But, in the moment, in Catty-Cat’s deli, as I gaze at the contented glow on my young son’s face while he caresses that skittish bag-of-bones, I don’t mind that soon I will go home and change another dirty diaper.
And I am acutely aware of a raw longing for the time when
I could wallow without fear in the simple rapture of an unfamiliar cat’s purr,
rather than being so keenly aware,
one hand on my son’s shoulder, one eye on the door.