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Defending Boyhood

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

Peace, said Saint Augustine, is the tranquility of order. 


Esolendb1I recall a typical day from my boyhood.  It is Sunday.  That means we are going to church. 

My mother and father will not eat breakfast, because of the discipline that still held at that time, that if you were going to receive Communion, you had to fast from midnight of the night before.  Practically it meant that you didn't have breakfast.  I wasn't old enough to receive, so I had something to eat, as did my younger sister and my two-year-old brother. 

Back then we lived in a four-room house, two downstairs and two upstairs.  The three children slept in one room, very small, with a bunk bed on one side and a separate bed on the other.  I slept on the top bunk, accessible by a ladder.  We all clambered out and managed to get to the bathroom, three children and mother and father.  We put on the good Sunday clothes that my mother laid out for us.  That meant a dress for my sister and a good shirt and slacks and a coat and tie for me.  It was a matter of course.  My father too would be wearing a coat and tie, and my mother would wear a dress, and also a light covering for her head, as women then did, following the understanding and instructions of Saint Paul.  For the woman's hair is a glory to her, he said, not like the man's, if he still has hair and not a shiny bald pate, and the glory ought to be covered modestly before the Lord.  So she did.  It was actually formal and attractive, that tradition.

I should mention the shoes.  I never paid attention to what shoes my mother or my sister wore.  My own shoes were enough to think about.  We had bottles of liquid shoe polish in the cupboard underneath the kitchen sink.  My shoes, usually black, sometimes brown, would get scuffed, because I wore them to school also—not sneakers.  Those weren't allowed.  To this day, if I catch the smell of shoe polish, I will be swept back in mind and spirit to those Sundays, and I will be squatting on the kitchen floor again, pressing the bottle and its sponge dispenser to the surface of my shoe, and then buffing them with a brush till they shone evenly.  That's what everybody did.  Boys who loved football did it, and boys who didn't love football but rather army weapons or hunting or roaming the woods or something else did it; all the boys had shiny shoes.  It was a thing to do, to be like your father.

We would then go to Mass, taking always the seats to the right of the center aisle, my father standing at the aisle, then my mother, then the children in order, one two three.  I have earlier memories of the Mass in Latin, and then sometimes my mother would give me her missal, and I would gaze upon the words in that mysterious language and puzzle them out, while committing to memory the various parts of the Mass, such as the Gradual, the Secret, and the Fraction, which last word meant something to me long before I heard of such in arithmetic.  Other families were the same, and in our Irish and then Italian and Polish coal-mining town, you would see their other whole clans in attendance, with boys and girls I knew from school. 

The priests of course were men, and the altar boys were boys, and there were quite a few of them, with their rotating schedule of duties.  Otherwise nobody was milling about the sanctuary.  We had an organ in the loft behind us, where one of the sisters of the convent, or one of her students, always a girl, would play the hymns.  Everybody thought that this was all as it should be.  Nor was it the only time in the week when many of the boys and girls would be in that church.  We were supposed to enter it when we arrived at the parochial school in the morning, when school was in session; those times would vary, because most of the children walked to school.  Then the boys would sit in their pews on the right, by class, and the girls on the left, by class, with the sisters watching and keeping order.  When Mass was over, we filed into the school, boys in one line, girls in the other.  Many a public school had the same sort of thing in that regard: an entrance for the boys, and an entrance for the girls.

After Sunday Mass, we either went home for a bit—and that was when I got to read the sports section and the comics, and I could shed the necktie and, if it was a warm summer day, the coat—or we went straight to my grandmother's house, to visit Grandma and Grandpa.  My mother's parents lived across the street from us, so we saw them almost daily, but my father's parents lived all of three miles away, so we had to drive there, which we then did every Sunday.

My father was one of ten surviving children.  He had a sister Teresa, named after the Little Flower, Saint Therese of Lisieux, who died of leukemia on the very day that he was born.  My grandmother had a custom photograph of her, in the old artistically painted style, blown up and framed under glass.  When I was small, I thought that she was the Little Flower, with her rose colored blouse, her light brown hair with a ribbon in it (there was, I think, some Norman Viking strain in our Italian lineage, making me blond when I was a small boy, though my hair had turned glossy black by the time I was twenty), and her sweet smile.  She was a bright child, my grandmother's treasure.  Grandma sometimes took out little handwritten school assignments of hers to show what a good girl she was.  Of course, since Grandma was a woman and an Italian, she had a large glass hutch with photographs of every one of her children, their spouses, their children in turn, and other relatives whose noses and chins were familiar to me when their names were not.

Grandpa was usually holed up in his room upstairs.  He was always kind to the grandchildren, but often not kind to other people, and that was because of something I did not know at the time.  He had worked down in the coal mines, as my mother's father had.  My mother's father, after fifteen years of that claustrophobic and dangerous work, had suffered a nervous breakdown, and could never hold down a job again, though he did work hard on the plot of land he owned, farming it and keeping chickens.  My father's father had to leave the mines when he was injured in an explosion: he fractured his neck and nearly died.  So he did work at many a job after that, but he was in constant pain from the injury, and he dulled the pain with drink.  There was often a medicinal smell about him, and his chin was usually hard with stubble.

Grandma, ever the motherly sort, would bring out frosted cookies she had made, flavored with vanilla and colored a kind of gold from the egg she mixed in with the dough.  She kept them fresh in a big canister from Charles' Chips—Charley Chips as we called them; and in those days the Charley Chips man and his truck would come by every so often, as the Bread Man came from the local bakery, wafting the aroma of fresh bread down the street, and the Coal Man, with the clean astringent smell of the "black diamonds" that he sent down his metal chute into your coal bin in the basement, and the Milk Man from the nearby creamery, leaving bottles of cold milk, even chocolate milk, at your door.  We ate the cookies always with Pepsi, which we drank from colored aluminum glasses that were good and cold to the touch, and that beaded up with dew during the summer.

Our confusion has hurt everyone: men, women, girls, and boys.

After a while, my father would go to visit his friend, an elderly Italian gentleman who ran what we called a "beer garden."  His name was Joe Butera, and I knew him as Joe-Butera, as if it were a single appellation.  The Pine Cafe was a cross between an Italian and an American establishment.  My father sometimes took me along, if I wanted to go.  Sometimes I wanted to play at a nearby playground instead, or, if my favorite baseball team was playing the Phillies, I might catch them on television.  Naturally my father would not take my sister to the beer garden.  That wasn't because it was a dive.  It was clean and fresh, and Joe-Butera was a very nice old fellow.  But I was a boy and she was a girl, and it wasn't the thing to do.  So there my father would have a bottle of beer or two, while I ate peanuts or red-dyed pistachio nuts and drank soda, and then played around at the electric bowling game, or the shuffleboard table.  I remember one of those Sundays very clearly, in the dead of winter, because my uncle from New Jersey happened to be in town with his son, who was about my age.  The four of us caught a football game on Joe's television. 

My uncle and my cousin were big fans of the team that won: the New York Jets, 16–7, over the Baltimore Colts, in January 1969.  I was nine years old, and by then a tremendous fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball team, as were two of my cousins and one of the other boys in the neighborhood.  Two years later, as a big present to me, my father went with me, my kid brother, another uncle, his son the Cardinals fan, and Joe-Butera to Shea Stadium on a weekday afternoon, where we watched Steve Carlton and the Cardinals beat the Mets 6–3.  My father missed Joe Torre's three-run homer because my brother had pestered him for a hot dog and a drink, and he had gone to fetch them from the concession stand.

I sometimes ask people to do a simple thought experiment: change the sex of everybody in the picture, and see how long you can think about it before the whole scene dissolves into absurdity.  Imagine my mother taking old Mrs.  Butera, my sister, my aunt and her daughter, to Shea Stadium to watch—it doesn't work.  It didn't happen.

We would then go back to Grandma's house after a couple of hours at the Pine Cafe, for supper.  What the women were talking about in the meantime, I don't know, and I would never know, even on those days when I stayed in the house.  I paid no attention to it.  It was their business, not mine.  But when supper came, that was my business.  Grandma was a great cook, and there was nothing she did better than make spaghetti and meatballs.  She cooked the sauce in an enormous cast-iron pot, over a gas range, and to this day, I believe that something of the sharp smell of the gas and the iron got into the sauce and gave it a great pungency, a bite.  Whatever it was that she did, the food was tremendous. 

If our family were the only ones visiting, we'd sit at the table and she would serve us the macaroni or spaghetti with big meatballs, which you would sprinkle over with grated parmesan cheese.  I was a late grower—nine inches in one year, and six inches the next, but by then I was fourteen years old—but when Grandma served the spaghetti and meatballs, I had a full plate, as my father had, and then invariably another full plate, which he also would usually have, and often a third plate.  When that happened, everybody would laugh and cheer me on, and my father was proud of me then for being a good healthy eater, though where the food went, nobody could tell.  Into boy energy and boy thoughts, evidently.

Whenever any other of my aunts and uncles had come to visit too, I and the other cousins would take our plates to the staircase beside the kitchen, often cousin after cousin all the way up. 

The tranquility of order. 

My mind returns to those days not because I think they were perfect.  They weren't.  I was often a lonely child when I was outside of my family, which was, thankfully, very large—thirty-nine first cousins, more than half of whom I saw all the time, because they lived in our town, in the same neighborhood.  My father had a high-pressure job selling insurance, and that meant that in my early years he was often not home until late, and by then he was exhausted and sometimes a little impatient.  He also had to get used to me in a way, because I was a kind of boy he had no experience of.  I was the classic Boy Genius, of whom he was notably proud, but proud and comfortable are two different things. 

EsolendbI should stress the point.  When a child is an early reader, that's a comfortable thing, but when a child has a habit of scrawling a series of more than fifty initials, always in the same order and always from memory, that is not comfortable.  Many years later I came upon the initials and puzzled out what they were: the first letters of the books of the Bible, in the order to be found in the Douay-Rheims translation.  I do not remember any time when I did not know how to read.  The Bible was the only book in the house, until my parents bought me a set of World Book and Childcraft encyclopedias, when I was five.  I absorbed them.  I still remember that the population of Pittsburgh in 1960 was 604,332, and the population of Philadelphia was 2,002,512, and things of that sort.  That is not a child whom people would find easy to get a hold on.  I thank God that at that time such boys, and some girls too, did not have the strangeness stifled in them by psychotropic drugs.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in our school were sometimes ill-tempered (and sometimes sweet), and I see now that it might have come from the terrible crack-up of their whole order that was ongoing at the time.  We had between forty-five and fifty-one children in our class, in one room, but the sisters did keep order, and we did learn things, though it was nothing by comparison with what I could have learned had I not been in school at all.  Lunch hour was an hour.  Some of the boys crossed the nearby bridge and got something to eat at a luncheonette in town.  Some kids walked home for lunch and returned to enjoy the last fifteen or twenty minutes of recess; I did that for a while.  We were also trooped off to the church every first Friday of the month for confession, followed by the Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. 

My brother, far more of the scamp than I ever was, played a game with the other boys in his class.  When you went into the confessional booth and shut the door behind you, you would then kneel on the kneeler and wait for the priest to be done with the penitent on the other side.  When you knelt, the kneeler engaged a switch that lighted up a small red light over the door on the outside, to let people know that the booth was occupied.  So the boys played a game to see who could make the light pop on and off the most times, while presumably one of the sisters wasn't looking.  The record was five.  And so my brother got the idea of kneeling next to the kneeler, and pushing on it with his hand, and so getting the number up to about thirty.  When he came out, one of the sisters was ready with a glare to turn flesh to stone, and she pulled him by the ear up to the monsignor stationed in the sanctuary, to do confession all over again.

Anyway, they were not idyllic times, and we were already beginning to suffer some of the consequences of the sexual revolution all around us.  We even had a divorce in the family—one of the sixteen marriages among my aunts and uncles—and my cousin was hurt irreparably by it, as we could see even then.  I am not claiming perfection, or even great joy.  I am claiming that there was a great measure of peace, of sane and healthy and matter-of-course order, in the relations between the sexes, in the raising of children, and in the acknowledgment that boys were boys and girls were girls, so that even a rather quiet and sensitive boy like me was still in obvious ways thoroughly a boy, and the girl next door who was a perky tomboy was still in obvious ways thoroughly a girl, as she and I both knew very well.

The tranquility of order; and what do we have now, if not war, never-ending conflict, suspicion between the sexes, embitterment, each sex as thoroughly dependent upon the other as ever, yet neither sex willing to acknowledge the gifts of the other?  We have the restlessness of disorder.  When you have order, you can leave your keys in the car outside and not bother to lock your front door and not worry when your children are roaming the woods; and I mean these things as symbols for a common sense and peace-filled understanding of the sexes generally speaking, an understanding that clears the space for innocent fun, love, and gratitude.

Our confusion has hurt everyone: men, women, girls, and boys.  When you talk about corruption among grownups, you must necessarily imply the harm they do to their children, and when you talk about confusions in one sex, you must necessarily imply confusions in the other.  The sexes stand and fall together.  But it is hardly possible for any single writer to focus on every facet of the trouble.  An open sewer laps at your doorpost.  If you write then about cholera, the reader should not conclude that you have no feelings for people who suffer dysentery.  I will write here about what I know best, and leave to others to write about what they know best.  I will write about boys.  I do not deny that girls also need help in our time, and that what I say about boys might analogously but also in a different way be said about girls.  But I am not writing that book.  I am writing this one.

Yet it is fitting to choose boys as the topic, because boys get so little sympathy from anybody, and because, I believe, they have been treated with scandalous shabbiness, contempt, neglect, and hostility, with obvious results in a variety of social pathologies: under-education, under-achievement, under-employment, crime, addiction to pornography, begetting of children out of wedlock, and, in some, a self-loathing flight from manliness itself.  Pay special attention to boys, as the brave Christina Hoff Sommers has done in her book The War on Boys, and feminists will drum you out of their camp and aim their popguns at you for the rest of your life.  Pay special attention to boys, as I am going to do here, and you will invariably be accused of misogyny: a classic case of "projection," whereby people who are eaten up with hate and envy see only hate and envy in everyone else too.

Yet it is fitting to choose boys as the topic, because boys get so little sympathy from anybody, and because, I believe, they have been treated with scandalous shabbiness, contempt, neglect, and hostility

Boys get no love, not even the ordinary attention that you would give to a big and active dog.  I seek to remedy that.  And I have recommendations to make.  They are not mine, not really.  They are those that every single person, both male and female, would have made and in other times and places did in fact make, for the raising up of clean, confident, and manly boys.  My work is to remind people of reality, and bring them back to something like peace, the tranquility of order—even when that tranquility is to be observed in a heap of sprawling and clambering boys playing King of the Hill, or in all the other things, preparatory to wrestling with the world, that boys once did and would still do if they were given half a chance. 

If you do not love those creatures—if you are a feminist who grits her teeth as she drives in a man-made car fashioned from man-mined metals and powered by man-drilled gasoline on man-paved roads on your way to a man-built college with man-laid brick buildings fitted with man-set pipes and electrical wires as you teach your charges in a partially man-financed Women's Studies class about how rotten men are—then this book is not for you.  Read Simone de Beauvoir instead, and weep your tears of ressentiment.  If you are content to see boys languish in school, because you are more firmly committed to the abstraction of some social equality than to doing justice to the real human beings in front of you, this book is not for you.  If your ideal boy is a girl, or if your heart is delighted by boys who seize upon the nearest means of drawing attention to themselves, which is to make themselves pretty and dress up like girls, in the sad and ghastly fabrications of the "transgender" movement (and I dearly hope that some reader many years from now, with a shot of whisky handy, will have to look up the word to find out what it once meant) then this book is not for you, unless someone should pitch it at your head to knock some sense into that dull hard place.

But if you do love boys as boys, read on.  Men especially—read on.  It is your duty.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

esolenAnthony Esolen. An excerpt from Defending Boyhood: How Building Forts, Reading Stories, Playing Ball, and Praying to God Can Change the World (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2019).

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from TAN Books.

The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2019 Tan Books
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