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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Secret Places of Fathers and Sons


A couple of months ago we joined our local Jewish Community Center, which has great athletic facilities. The winter is much easier to take when you can play basketball, work out, and swim. Going to the JCC once or twice a week I began to notice something: fathers and sons. My 8 year old and I would often head down to the basketball court, and almost always we’d be able to find a father and son of about the same age practicing — sometimes with a coach-dad carefully drilling his son(s) (and/or daughters), sometimes just shooting around. An intense two on two would soon follow. Then when I’d head to the exercise machines, I’d see the next stage of male-pairing: fathers with their young teenage sons working out in the weight room: the son spotting for the dad, the dad carefully explaining how to use weights. I realized that, in the gym, I had stumbled in to a whole world of physical teaching, mentoring, where fathers teach sons. Then last week I learned about another version of this bond.

In one of the schools I visited in upstate NY, my host told me that they don’t really take attendance on the first day of deer season. So many boys are out with their dads — dads who often don’t live in the home, whom they don’t see all that often — hunting. The hunting pairs were clearly the outdoor, upstate, version of the indoor, JCC, pairs. So often we speak of absent dads, dads not involved with rearing their sons. But I realized that for many fathers, and sons, there is an intense world of connection expressed physically, expressed in sports, in action, in fishing and hunting. We all know about this world in stories of Native Americans, or colonial times, but it is fully alive now. I realized that part of why the guys read group Deb is running in Florida works is because it builds on that experience of boy-man-action and makes reading an expression of a kind of bonding that is already easy and familiar for both parties. 

Training — there is a kind of training in craft, in skill — a gruff but engaged molding of a son’s body, his abilities, his capacities to Be a Man — that happens out of sight of women, out of sight of school, away from books and homework. There is a quiet intimacy in these exchanges that is entirely about accomplishent — getting stronger, more accurate, more effective, the father rearing his son to succeed, and succeed in ways guys recognize — to be tough, to be firm, to be a good sport, to "take it" well if you lose, but to push one step harder to win. I think Deb is on to something powerful in tapping in to this world, and that we need to realize it is there — in gyms, on courts, in the woods, on the streams — away from the prying eyes of schools and teachers.