Not Our Father’s Sons: A Meditation On Activity in Adulthood

Growing up, I had an excellent time playing in the forests of Brown Deer Park, and after softball games playing volleyball and horseshoes at Rollie & Carolines. This was Wisconsin, after all, the land of “Sure, let’s play athletics – but first figure out the beer.” My dad’s softball team was a part of a bar league and afterward we adjourned to the bar and the adults did more weeknight drinking and us kids played and played. We even had a set of Jarts I recall enjoying as a kid. 

Making new friends while bike camping with Phil in Northern Wisconsin

I never questioned that my dad played softball with his friends – it just was. He had the gang of guys who’d gone to high school together that comprised the team. They’d settled ino their various suburban homes and gathered throughout summer to play at baseball with a beer mug in-hand, manual pump keg between the bleachers. It was the arbitrarily selected home team’s turn to bring the barrel. 

In my 41st year I think about this now, my father and his friends’ understanding of leisure activities and my own exploits. Yesterday morning, I got up at 5am to go mountain biking before work. When I was a kid, mountain biking was some lofty activity held sacred by those Western mountain states. For me it offers a daily sense of adventure. I’m not opposed to softball, but it’s a whole lot of waiting around (and I loved baseball passionately up until the second season of the 94-95 strike). I can ride a bike pretty much anytime, whereas baseball requires a team. 

Kettle Moraine trails yesterday morning before work

I reference father’s sons because I happen to be a son. My mother never seemed to have a particularly athletic drive. She often references her clumsiness, though she’s always been tough. In elementary school a kid was once picking on her older brother. She got in the kid’s face, who announced he’d, “Never hit a girl with glasses.” My astigmatism-eyed mother removed her spectacles, replied, “What about now?” and knocked the wind out of the kid with a gut shot. At 67 today, mixed martial arts came along too late for my mother. 

Part of what makes my friends different from our fathers, I think, is that we regularly, throughout every season, with intention, spend time being active. Whether it’s road bikes or canoe camping in summertime, cross country skiing in winter, hiking or indoor climbing when the weather is uglier than for either of the former – we move around on a regular basis. 

About to leave on a trip, circa…2013?

An important detail is that we check in on one another’s activities. If anyone isn’t able to join for what seems like a protracted amount of time – we reach out to check if they’re ok. Often, we’re all just busy with work and family life. But even then, we still reach out and ask how things are going and if there’s anything we can do to help. Often, that little tap is enough of a reminder that we all need to keep an eye on our physical and mental health. 

Crash country skiing in Lapham Peak

This bears underscoring: We don’t do this because we are exceptional athletes. We do these activities because we like them and they make us feel good. We’re not racers nor have some delusion of athletic mastery. There are no rankings or track times or statistics to live up to. We’re doing stuff because it’s there to be done and it’s fun and we’re not dead yet. So we do.

My dad’s friends gradually filtered away from the softball team. A common thing was they’d pull a hamstring running to first and while limping back to the dugout swat at the air, saying, “I’m too old for this shit.” And that would be it for them, they’d amble off into the shrugging sunset. At 41, I might now be several years past when my dad played softball. And when I think of them “getting old” and quitting, my first thoughts are: 

  • You didn’t even stretch – of course you pulled a muscle!
  • You’re been standing there with a beer in your hand until your time to bat!
  • You haven’t been active all winter and now you expect this jersey to fit over your belly and your body to suddenly sprint? Come on, man! Go for a run from time to time! 

Inactivity leads to a self fulfilling prophecy of “being old.” 

My father was from a different time and without fail every generation thinks: 

  1. They invented sex.
  2. They are wiser than the generation before them. 
It’s really handy if one of your friends spent college working in a bike store

It may sound like I’m swinging heavily into that second option and that really isn’t my intention. My father’s generation concluded they would work hard and then retire to a life of leisure and that would lead to happy healthiness. This might have been a fine idea at the time, but it won’t likely ever fit my restless nature. I can’t speak to their lifestyles because my dad is long gone and I haven’t seen most of his friends since the funeral. But my mother keeps me abreast of the surgeries and heart attacks and diabetes the gout and obits. It sounds like their bodies have been collapsing slowly for a long time. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s lifestyle. I’d wager a combination of the two and leisure proves harder on a body than steady activity. 

In talking about this with one of my friends, he suggested that they were probably tired from doing more manual labor types of work, and that may be true. In our current working culture we talk about work/life balance and all sorts of theoretical health benefits, but this much is definitely true: We sit in front of computers while our parents generation moved around a lot more at work. Work life, for many of us in this time in history, has become a lifelong extension of sitting in a desk in a classroom, we’ve just traded a computer for a textbook. And so for leisure we desperately raise our heart rates.

I’m not an ideal paragon of health. I’m from Wisconsin and I act like it. Cheese, sausage, beer, an extra half barrel of weight more or less evenly distributed throughout my body – those jabbing jokes exist for a reason.  But I plan on maintaining my general activity level long before and long after retirement (whatever that abstract means for an artist/writer/poet). And I’m fortunate to have friends who seem committed to a similar pursuit. And we move around often, usually stretching first, and most often waiting until afterward to revel in the beer.

And, who knows, maybe I just mountain bike because it’s a little dangerous I can’t find a decent set of lawn darts to throw around.

Dancing, Context, Music, Masculinity

As with most things, I stumbled onto the music of Kevin Morby long after everyone else had. It was by way of seeing the video (below) for I Have Been To The Mountain.

 

After awhile I bought the record, Singing Saw, and have enjoyed it, but while driving with the windows and moonroof open for the first time I was stunned by how the music didn’t capture the way I felt while watching the video. I realized, on the winding two-lane 55 bordered by hopelessly saturated farm fields, that the absent ingredient was the theatrical dance performance by Nathan Mitchell. Context informs everything, and my context for this song had been the playful, expressive, tattooed and dying character in the song’s video.

Probably a year ago, I received a wedding invitation that requested an RSVP with three songs that would, “Get you on the dance floor.” I agonized over that until I had to send back the RSVP. The problem wasn’t which songs, it was the idea that I would move my body in a way that might somewhat mirror my emotions. I don’t move with emotions. I’m a poet, a writer, sure I’m artsy with my feelings in a way, but where I grew up boys and men were never taught a vocabulary for moving expressively. We were taught to fight back when necessary, or maybe to throw something in anger (like dad), but never to be open with our bodies in any way. If anything, we avoided dancing (and feelings, surprise) until pulled onto the dance floor by a woman whose attraction we couldn’t deny.

Sketch of Fats Waller drawn from the Phaidon Century photography collection.
Quick sketch of Fats Waller drawn last semester.

My last semester in college I had all electives left over and took a drawing class. At first drawing made me anxious and frustrated because I could immediately see that I wasn’t good. I knew logically that drawing is a skill – like anything else – but I always expect a lot from myself. Once I calmed down, increased my dexterity, and found a groove, I was stunned by how emotional I felt while drawing. I’d be sitting in a class rendering the instructor’s arrangement of arbitrary bowls and cups and boxes and I’d nearly begin to cry. Moving to create or to feel seemed so alien to me that it almost drew me to tears for confusion of feeling. I am 38 years old.

The irony is that my 11-year-old is a dancer. Ballet, specifically. My kid doesn’t even walk anymore so much as pirouetting, or executing Grand Jete (more or less leaping forward with arms in the air – remember I’m not a dancer) from place to place. I never expected for a ballet dancer the way I’m sure my parents never expected for a poet.

When I was a kid the option was baseball, so I played baseball. And it was fine – old farm fields converted to dusty diamonds surrounded by developing cul de sacs. Not a place where men learn to express the language of thoughts and feelings. If anything, expressing yourself in those surroundings can put one in tangible danger of other men who lash out with a feral anger they can’t rationalize regarding expression. I think often of BH Fairchild’s epic poem Beauty deliberating on men expressing and encountering beauty; how radical to hear a man utter that anything is, “Lovely.”

As a child, never at any point did I have any clue what my dad was thinking or feeling, unless he was shouting in anger. He was like the brackish void up there in the driver’s seat, at the helm of the recliner with a newspaper, on the other side of the baseball I flung above the suburban lawn.

Sometimes I feel like an emotionally blind man trying to guide a child somewhere toward a vocabulary of feeling and assertion and communication. So I just talk a lot. By the time my kid was three I’d probably said more than my father told me his whole life. I don’t know what else to do, and that makes the most sense to me. I guess we’re both developing a vocabulary, if anything I’m probably at the handicap compared with the honesty immediacy of a child. Children will help you if you let them.

I looked into this Nathan Mitchell, the fella dancing in the Kevin Morby video, as I tend to do when stumbling on artists whose work makes me want to know more. Turns out (I gather from his Instagram presence) he rides motorcycles, goes fishing, doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. Overall, not too different from me. The big difference being his mother opened a dance studio when he was two years old. We learn the environment we’re simmered within. The context. I wonder if he sits down to type and is stymied by linguistics, the way movement appears to flummox me.

A Poem About Men Talking

I typed this little poem quick on my phone while working. I kept overhearing these guys and it struck me, these men talking to one another candidly and without any sort of concern. How they felt their families, their jobs, their futures. Admirable.