In the age we live in now, the following story would be met with anger and most likely accusations of child abuse. This era and the current mentality of child rearing is likely to be recorded as one of the the primary downfall of current society. We live in an age of safe spaces, unfounded entitlement, social media inspired Dunning-Kruger drones filled with participation trophies where there is zero incentive for anything other than falling into the most profound point on the bell curve labeled mediocrity.
The kindest thing we can ever do as a society is teach our children at an early age and in a somewhat safe environment that life is neither easy, nor is it ever meant to reward the living with “participation trophies”. There are winners and losers, there are success and there are failures, and these are all defined by us in different meaningful ways. The gazelle that is hunted and run down by the cheetah is not given a participation trophy for trying its best, it is either successful and continues on or it is the meal of many.
That is simply life, it is a fact. If you wish to pretend life is other than this, then please do so and live striving for a participation trophy for you unending effort in propagating your self lies.
A bit of background, I was an only child and as such having neighborhood friends was my only option for companionship while I was a boy. At 8 years old, the two neighbor boys and I were the typical boys living in the 70’s. We all had this friendship where as often as not two of us turned on the third, not like today where there is cyber bullying but actual punches thrown or shoving being part of an argument. Oddly this was very educational in how life really is, there was no turning off the computer to ignore the ‘bad words’ on the screen, there was put up or shut up and never any walking away. Everyone had a turn at being odd man out, no-one was immune to that strange interaction that sounds awful these days was incredibly normal in children up to this current generation. It is normal for adults as well, but as an adult we have learned how to hide the behavior as it does not normally serve us well to be as open about it as children are.
It was my summer of being odd man out, which meant when there were two of us together it was all fun and the usual roaming around fields and ponds or setting up ramps to jump our 3 speed bikes like junior a Evel Knievel. Both excellent uses of young boys recreational time during the summer. The fields and ponds were great adventures that had us bringing back snakes, turtles and all sorts of creatures to make our mothers and the neighborhood girl scream as we all laughed hysterically. The bike jumps taught us well the understanding of risk management in our life. We learned the fun fact that most cuts, scrapes, broken teeth and broken bones in the life of a boy and then a man are preceded by the simple words “Hey, watch this!”. In those days, it was just understood that boys would have broken bones and all sorts of related injuries due to doing activities that these days would make the great majority of the male gender slink back to their curtained and isolated rooms to play “Call of Duty” in order to play at pretend risk.
The problem with pretend risk is that the consequences are pretend as well, which by its nature incapable of preparing you for real risk and real consequences. How many times do you need to shoot a pretend gun into the head of a pretend person emptying the entirety of his brain cavity into a make believe red mist on the screen before it becomes no more than a numbing act to accumulate points on your statistics page? How many times do you get to be killed in the pretend realm, only to be reset by using an imaginary life points accumulated in the make believe game before you are numb to the truth that there are choices in life made in this real life that you will never come back from?
We lived in a real world back in those days where there WERE broken bones, lost teeth and wounds stitched closed due to real bad choices and real consequences. My parents were much more likely to turn their eyes away and whisper “dear god” when they saw me doing such things, than try to stop me. Todays parents would run out, scoop their precious child from the danger, prep a snack, give them their medication and send them back to their isolation only to be babysat in the dark and pretend world of zero consequences. Both mom and dad now quite content and often times proud to protect themselves from the burden of allowing the real risks of parenting to weigh i on them as they witness their children learn the most valuable of all lessons in life … reality! They do so without any regard as to what living a life with zero consequences leads to and in result the misshapen and perverse values they have instilled onto an entire generation.
Children growing into adulthood KNOWING in their experiences that every bad choice you make is always followed up by hitting reset.
There are no reset buttons.
There is only the gazelle, you either get away from the cheetah or you become the meal of many.
I look back to my being raised and look with pride as to how my parents raised me. Certainly not into a perfect man by any stretch of imagination. There have only been rare nights in my adult life that I have been unable to look in the mirror and unable to say ‘This day I was a decent man, and my actions held the best intentions I could hold’. Those rare nights that I could not say this preceded by days filled with moments that haunt me, moments of choices the were set between a bad choice and worse choice. Oddly it is never the choice between bad and worse that eat at me, but the road that led to the moments where I had to make that choice.
I was raised by good hearted people, they were not demonstrative with emotions nor were they free with emotions. Telling tales of my growing up to others is often met misplaced compassion due to their seeing lack of love or coldness in my upbringing, however that could not be further from the truth. In fact I never once thought to ask of my parents if they loved me, it was simply a known fact thru their actions and unspoken clarity the left no room or reason for questioning.
Perhaps it was just the people they were or if you knew them like I did, or you too are of similar heritage maybe it was simply that they were Swedes.
Scandinavians are now smirking and laughing inside (but not so much as to be overtly emotional, as that is simply offensive and a sign of weakness), the rest of you are wondering what in the world I am talking about. It is ok to wonder.
One summer day arrived and I had been odd man out for weeks now, that meant me coming home often in either tears or with a bloodied face when I was the brunt of the other two. Mind you, it was always a rotating position to be in and I was just as guilty of being part of the gang up as I was as much a victim of being ganged up on. You would like to think that being on the opposite of the fence on many occasion that you would learn compassion of the other side, but in actual human practice that theory is best left to the entertaining movies or feel good television dramas. For the majority of humankind, the ability to be self aware enough so as to not simply react to the moment but rather have a realization with enough power that it changes our actions from then on in reflection to the moment is incredibly rare.
When I would walk into that house a mess from something bad happening that day, I was never met with parent who would coddle me or ask me more than once what had happened. It was as if once I had been beat up, it was ignored and felt even looked down upon.
My father was a big man and people were right to stay out of his way, but he was in reality as much a gentle soul as he was an imposing man. If ever in my childhood had my father found out I had ever bullied or beat up a weaker child he would have come down on me with very little mercy. On the other hand, not standing up for yourself and being a victim was pretty much as bad a trait as being a bully in his eyes. You learned early on how to judge what you were doing in order to not cross either of those lines. At first in fear of the consequences of his words and hands, but then eventually in the fear of the consequences of the return of your face in the mirror at night. That is how it meant to be.
Now if my father was as he was, my mother was likely even more set in that manner. She was, with my father his wife and his bride who was protected by him in this world but on her own she was just as tough and hard as my pop was. Not much room in that house for feel good hugs or ‘my poor son’ when things were not going my way.
On this day I came running back into the house as my mom was in the living room, blood running from my nose and my clothes ruined with grass stains and more blood. Somehow I expected to be received with some deep compassion, clearly that was from way too many ‘Leave it to Beaver’ re-runs.
I only received a quick ‘come here’ and a cold stare as I stood there fighting back more tears while she looked me up and down in what seemed a mix of disgust and anger. Sitting there for an eternity as mom waited on me to collect myself and for the tears to dry up, she kept staring at me with the same indifferent cold eyes. After an eternity of uncomfortable silence I was finally in a place where she would talk to me. Standing still with little emotion I was expecting to be asked who it was that beat me up and preparing to lie to keep my friends from trouble, she spoke.
After all the silent disgusted lead up all she said was ‘Time to handle this’ and she then stood, took me with a handful of my shirt’s shoulder and walked me out onto the porch. From there she turned me about and looked me in the eyes and said ‘Go handle this and do not come back until you have’. The old solid oak door then slammed shut and I heard the lock turn in a deadening snap. Confused and angry I again was tearing up and started knocking which then quickly led to my pounding on the door. The only response I got was to hear ‘Hit the door once more and I will handle you, better that you now go handle your problem before you have two to deal with!’
Again in silence I was left standing there collecting myself until I was again calm and without outward signs of how I felt and planned on how I was going to ‘handle it’ because I knew exactly what she meant. She meant I was to go find the boys, stop being a crying child, stand up for myself and to fight.
I deeply wish I could give you some embellished and detailed story as to what I did then, aside from going off the porch and fighting with my two friends my recollection is fairly light on that part of it all. There would be many more fights in my youth and many more moments of collecting myself to handle things, they all blur are are superfluous to the depth of that moment when I was locked out of my own house.
After a bit, I came home and with more blood, more grass stains, and a couple of cut knuckles I snuck in the back door. As I was rounding the wall between the kitchen and dining room to sneak further inside and up to my room I heard mom say ‘Come here’. Now standing before her more angry than I had ever known as I was expecting to now be yelled at for totally ruining my clothes she looked me up and down and said ‘How about some pfeffernusse?’ (which to uninitiated is the finest of all gingersnap cookies ever developed, Swedish of course) and walked past me to the kitchen.
Reaching up into the cupboard where I could not reach at that age my 5’2” mother pulled down a box of cookies made by my Aunt Inga during Christmas and put out a plate of them for us to share. I ate the cookies in silence facing her and doing all I could to figure out the reason she was not asking about the fight and trying to figure the purpose behind this moment now. Was it a trap, was she waiting to lay into me, was she just holding off until dad got home? Maybe she was feeling guilty??
I will never know what the purpose of the cookies was as we sat there barely speaking, once they were completed all she said was ‘Your face is pretty dirty, go upstairs, wash up and get changed’ Which I did do, but when I got to the bathroom I saw just how messed up I was with a face full of mud, scrapes and blood it was pretty impressive even after I had washed away everything. I stood there looking at my return in the mirror and for the first memorable time in my life I felt proud of myself.
Dad got home a bit later and as he was usually the dinner cook and as it was Wednesday that meant the god awful goulash he made. As he was generally an incredible cook but this meal was barely edible. I have to believe it was some joke he played on my mother because she and I would always make eye contact as if to say ‘kill me now’ as soon as he dropped the pan on the table and said ‘Dig In!’
I had gone back out the the huge chestnut tree in our yard and was 10 or 15 feet up in it when he called me in for dinner, I had been trying to figure the entire afternoon out as I watched my parents talk through the window from my perch. Its funny to look back on them now, they were as I described above but to watch them in privacy from a distance they were like a flirtatious pair of teenagers. It was not something I understood then, but having lived half a century I can see it clear as a bell now. No wonder I could never truly reconcile either of them, they lived on either end of the emotional spectrum and I learned that this is how you live … even if it does not make sense.
I walked into the house expecting harsh words from one or both of them as dad was putting the pan of his horrific concoction down only to hear ‘dig in’ like it was just another evening. As dad was covering his bowl of elbow noodles, canned tomatoes, canned mushrooms, onions long with liberal amounts of red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese he said ‘Heard you had quite the day, boy’ and I then knew that was the opening for it to all start. I knew my ass was grass at that moment and all I could muster was a simple ‘yeah’ in anticipation of the trouble awaiting me.
In the moments that followed, I had expected again that brutal silence and that disgusted stare but he spoke and said ‘boys fight, you guys will be fine tomorrow.’
That was it, nothing more was ever spoken of it that day or again. Which oddly should have eased my mind but being who I am, it was then I realized that likely tomorrow my buddies would want to even the score and I would likely be odd man out again. I took that deep inside and kept that thought all night and into the morning letting it eat at me relentlessly.
When I had finally been in the house much too long for my mothers taste that the next day, I headed out to ride my bike around the neighborhood quietly until the fighting or taunting started once again. Cruising up and down that brick street past Mr. Olsen’s house a few times and back I saw my one friend from across the street start towards me on his bike and and was dreading the moment he caught up with me.
Expecting another fight I rode a bit faster, then a bit slower, but he kept up all along and after some time he said ‘hey, wanna go catch some snakes?’ Responding with an uneasy ‘sure’ we wheeled around, got our other friend and headed to the end of the road into the fields and ponds where we would almost always be found in the summer.
It was a good day, we caught plenty of snakes and turtles to scare the pretty neighbor girl with and we all had dinner at my house afterwards. My parents did not mention fighting and treated the guys like they always did (my friends thought my dad was super cool, but they never got to see the pissed off side and to be honest dad was very charming!). That night, we all had dad’s famous cheeseburgers covered in grease, Velveta cheese and grilled onions. Afterwards he grabbed up us three boys, the pretty neighbor girl, her little brother and my dog and took us all to Stillwater creek in his convertible sedan. We swam, played in the water, fished, and looked for snapping turtle as he sat there with the dog reading his book and smoked Salem cigarettes.
The summer was back to normal and I never did dwell too much on that day. I can tell you one thing for sure, and that it went back to odd man out and I continued in both roles of even man and odd man. The only things I learned from that day at that age of 8 was that sometimes people fight back and boys fight, that was it. No moments of crystal clear understanding, no self awareness and I still fed into that bad behavior. The understanding of being locked out and my parents lesson came years later. The lesson had been taught well an in fullness but it just needed to mature alongside my maturing to be effective.
I made many, many choices based on that lesson, and it has served me well even if not every choice was easy when pitted against what my emotions wanted my reactions to be.
Even later in life I learned that life is full of choices, choosing between options as well as choosing to not choose but all choices that are to be made.
There were no resets, there were no pretend worlds, there were were no points to use for a new life in the game.
There were bloody noses, hard decisions, and knowing that your choices had consequences and there is there are the majority of nights in my life when I can look in that mirror and know why I know I am a decent man.
I know where is this came from, not from myself but from loving parents who understood that real love isn’t always easy to live out but that it is real and it is true.