“I’m a rabbit!” Pema shouted. Ruby laughed. “I’m a rabbit!” Francis echoed, which was sensible enough, seeing as we were playing on the trampoline. I watched as the three of them bounced happily on their stocking feet, breaking at least two of the rules written plainly on the tag.
“I’m an alligator,” Ruby said, then added, “a dominant male alligator.” Her statement, spoken in her quiet, matter-of-fact tone, almost escaped my attention. A dominant male? I smiled. Ruby, an independent and strong-willed girl, is nevertheless quite calm and easygoing. Then Pema, smitten with the idea, shouted, “I’m a crocodile then! No wait, a caiman! A caiman is a kind of crocodile.”
“I’m an alligator!” Francis echoed, looking left and right for a visual cue from Ruby or Pema that would confirm, yes, he was indeed an alligator.
“I’m a dominant male,” Ruby repeated, still hopping on two feet. Pema giggled.
Picking up an old twig from the apple tree nearby, I laughed inwardly at the phrase. A dominant male. Must have got that from some nature show, I thought. Sitting down in the grass underneath the tree, I felt grateful that these kids so often imagine their play outside the typical realms of gender. Usually, it’s the other way around, Francis in full costume, pleading to be a princess, while Ruby and Pema respond plainly, “Nope, sorry Francis. Princesses are only girls.”
Raising a girl, along with several of her playmates, brings up all kinds of questions for me. I’m not a particularly macho man, but when push comes to shove I’m as competitive as the rest. More, actually. And like many proud fathers, I want my little girl to be fierce and cunning like a wolf.
“I’m a dominant male,” Pema said, giggling so hard she could hardly speak the words. Ruby squealed and the two sized each other up. Still bouncing, they began swinging their arms at each other in a mock fight.
“Rawrr!” shouted Francis, in a particularly well-executed roar from deep within his throat. His cheeks were drawn back, baring his teeth, and ferocity crinkled around his eyes. To be perfectly honest, it struck a trigger deep in my brain, and though I knew it was only play, I felt my nerves tense up. I don’t like anyone growling at me. I released my eyes from the feast of his expression, looked down at the twig in my hands, and snapped it.
Pema and Ruby, friends since before conscious memory set in, continued wrestling in a playful way, tearing at each other’s dresses or grabbing an errant arm. But they were careful. Squeezes weren’t too tight. Holds were released. Both managed to stay easily on their feet. Then Francis, who had till then stood at the edge of the trampoline, entered the fracas. Growling once again, he approached cautiously, bent back at the waist, hands up to protect his face and chest. A half-smile, half-grimace was smeared across his face, and as he got within striking distance, he began flailing his arms wildly like an angry raccoon. He managed to get a few good swipes in before Pema, who has two years and nearly twenty pounds on him, dropped him with one push.
Andrew was milling around the other children, looking for playmates. He and Sebastian had made a fort in the juniper tree, and Isabelle, an older child who had joined us for the day, had taken up with them. The three of them were fast at work defending their fort, but the other children, largely to their disappointment, didn’t seem to care. Pema, Ada and Brigit were busy playing mama and baby near Silke, who was crafting something in the warmth of the sun, while Peter, normally a playmate of Andrew’s and Sebastian’s, had attached himself to me. We were balancing rocks.
“Ada, do you want to play with us?” Andrew asked, his voice calm and entreating.
“Can I bring baby?” she asked, taking Brigit’s hand into hers.
“Sure,” he answered.
“Okay,” Ada said, interested in the possible adventure. The girls, who play mama and baby all the time, seem to enjoy a particular variety of the game where the baby escapes and the mama, or the big sister, have to chase her down and bring her home. Just like a good fort requires someone to defend against, a baby seems to require a bit of mischief. “Come on, baby, let’s go,” Ada said. Standing up, she pulled at Brigit a touch too aggressively. “Wait, I’m coming,” said Pema.
“Isn’t this a great wall?” Peter asked, looking up at me with puppy eyes. It was a great wall, but it was also clear he wanted my approval. I was beginning to wonder if he needed a little extra time with a father figure. His dad, a bright and cheerful man, had, of late, frequently been away on business. Though Peter and I don’t spend time together outside of school, as several of the other children and I do, we are still quite bonded after more than a year of school together.
“It is a great wall,” I said, glancing in his direction, while keeping one eye on the other children. I placed a stone on my rock tower. “And what’s that over there?” I asked.
“That’s the house. And here’s the yard,” said Peter, “where, you know, the kids nya-nya-nya…” and Peter waved his hands and scrunched up his face. I could almost see the children dancing around in his mind.
“Joe, can you keep an eye up there?” Silke asked, meaning the tree fort. I looked at her. She had a tangle of string in her hands and seemed to be making… something. I turned to the kids in the tree, on whom I had had only a loose eye. The girls, who had been gently invited a minute or two ago, were now being bombarded with an explosion of face noises and shaking tree limbs. Unimpressed, they watched for a minute, grew silent, then slowly backed down the hill. Meanwhile, Andrew, lost in the romance of battle, hardly even noticed.
“Hey Joe,” Peter said, drawing me back to the small, rock world under my eyes.
“Yeah,” I answered, half-wondering if I should say something to Andrew.
“Do you want to know how many rocks there are in this wall?”
Francis, having been knocked flat, was quickly back on his feet. Growling once again from a safe distance, he watched as Pema and Ruby continued to wrestle playfully. I sat in the grass, ready to step in if needed, hoping I wouldn’t. I don’t encourage this kind of play, but I don’t break it up either. Most boys have lots of opportunities to develop the sensorimotor skills required for close combat. Tackling, pushing, pulling – these are a boy’s repertoire. But girls are often subtly discouraged to roughhouse, or even downright forbidden, and the result is sometimes a lack of close-quarter hand skills.
Mastering his fear, Francis drew once again into his fighting stance, waist back, claws up. He was no match for the momentum of two girls bouncing on the trampoline, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. Approaching slowly, as before, he advanced on the girls till, within striking distance, he delivered a flurry of blows. Pema, without so much as looking in Francis’s direction, reached her arm out to him, which, amplified by the buoyancy of the trampoline, knocked Francis to his butt.
Withdrawing quickly to the outer ring, Francis stood up and shouted, “I’m a dominant male!” This time, instead of a growl coming from within the depths of his throat, the sound travelled up the nasal cavity and exited as a high-pitched scream. The play, which was outwardly physical, nevertheless had an extremely important psychological element. The fact is, Francis often feels left out.
Grasping the tenor of Francis’s scream, I was on the verge of stepping in. But Pema and Ruby’s play, though rough and tumble, was still obviously friendly and I wanted them to have this opportunity. They continued to giggle and were clearly enjoying it. Francis, however, was growing disappointed. Stepping once again into fighting stance, this time with fists curled and drawn to the side, he advanced quickly into the girls, evidently intending to inflict real harm. His lips were pressed together in an expression of utmost seriousness. Play is such a dangerous game.
Stabbing a few quick blows from the side, Francis hoped to finally assert himself, but the combined motion of the girls’ bouncing on the trampoline was all it took to overcome Francis’s toddling sense of balance, and, once again, he was knocked to the ground. The two girls, who mostly ignored Francis’s threats, continued wrestling playfully.
When I was young, I had a friend named Scott. Though he’s a good four or five inches taller than me now, he was a somewhat scrawny child and I had the best of him in most, though not all, ways. This was rarely a challenge for the two of us, and we spent many weekends and summers together, riding bikes, playing video games and, in particular, lots of basketball, where my size advantage was mitigated by his speed and three-point game. But at school, though I was friendly enough, I tended to avoid him. Aside from my physical strength, I was one of the smart kids, and I had better social standing too. Like any twelve-year-old, I used all of this to my advantage, and the plain truth is that I was not always a good friend to Scott.
One particular day, when we were about ten years old, Scott and I were lingering in my living room after school. I cannot recall much of that day, but what I do remember is growing angry with him for some reason and jumping on top of him. I knew he couldn’t fling me off, and I stayed on top of him for a minute to assert my dominance, squeezing his arm so that it hurt. I hardly remember even that, because it was what happened next that really stuck. Climbing off him, I saw his crumpled frame and heard his soft tears, which shocked me. My brother and I roughhoused like that all the time, and crying was not part of the game. But Scott was crying not so much because I had hurt him, though surely I had, but because I had delivered a powerful message: might makes right, and I had the might.
I apologized immediately, but I will take that moment to the grave with me.
Having been knocked down on three consecutive attempts, Francis now stood at the edge of the trampoline. He was no longer roaring. In his most plaintive tone, “Pema, Pema,” he beseeched his constant companion. Living, as our families do, in community, these two are like brother and sister.
“What, Francis?” Pema asked, still giggling in her playfight with Ruby, hardly deigning to look in his direction.
“Pema,” Francis answered, in a quiet, whiny voice, “I don’t want to play this anymore…” His head was cast down, lower lip relaxed, and his arms were loose and floppy.
“Fine, Francis. You don’t have to play,” Pema answered, matter-of-fact, continuing to bounce playfully. “Yeah, Francis,” Ruby said, reaching for Pema’s arm, “you don’t have to play.”
“No,” whined Francis, growing agitated. “I don’t want to jump anymore.”
“You don’t have to jump,” said Pema.
“No!” said Francis, sharply, growing angry now that it was becoming clear the two girls would simply exclude him.
Earlier that morning, after Pema and I had eaten breakfast and read a few books, we walked into the Buffalo Room, the large central room of our community house. Francis, as usual, was eager to see Pema and quickly ran up to her, but Pema, still shaking off the shyness of early morning, recoiled from Francis’s greeting. Instead, she clung to my leg as we walked across the room towards the kitchen.
Greeting the several adults gathered there, all in various stages of breakfast, I proceeded to the sink to wash our dishes. After a while, Pema peeled off and, after making a tour of the kitchen, retired to the Buffalo Room. At one point, as I was walking back and forth from the fridge, I noticed her crafting some kind of village under one of the tables. Francis kicked a soccer ball nearby.
“I’m up for hanging with the kids this morning,” I said to Francis’s mother. Besides eating breakfast, she seemed to be involved in a lengthy kitchen project involving some kind of dough. “Maybe you can take them a little later?” I asked, then added, “I know Sol is up for taking them this afternoon.”
“Yeah,” she replied, spooning the dough into a baking pan. “When do you want to switch?”
“No! Francis, no!” came a shout from the Buffalo Room. “No means no!” It was Pema. I glanced into the Buffalo Room. She and Francis were under the table. Pema was leaning over Francis threateningly, shouting in his face. I guessed at what was going on, but I decided to give them a chance to work it out. Francis’s mother glanced at me. Would I intervene? Would she? We both half-smiled.
I walked over to the cupboard, shimmying past another housemate who was sautéing veggies on the stove. The blender was on the counter and someone, probably Dana, was making a green smoothie. I reached for an apple.
“No Francis!” shouted Pema, this time with a blood-curdling scream. She was evidently on the verge of tears. I decided it was time to check in.
“Hey… Hey…” I said, walking into the Buffalo Room. “What’s going on, you guys?” Francis eyed me cautiously, not moving an inch. He was under the table, sitting with his hands on the ground behind him. In front of his feet was a large purple ball, the kind adults do stretches on. Pema, on the opposite side, had her back to me, with one hand on the ball and the other clutched menacingly in the air.
Turning to me, Pema began to speak in broken phrases. “This is my house…” she said, “And Francis keeps…” She trailed off, mouth wide as she choked back tears. She could barely keep it together. Francis looked at her, then me, waiting to see how this would play out. “I told him to stop…” Pema continued, almost hysterical, then turned and snarled viciously at Francis, shouting “No!” in a high-pitched squeal. She slapped weakly at his feet and turned back to me. “He keeps…” And then she lost it and fell into a chest-heaving moan. Francis just watched.
This is a common pattern. Pema, being the older child, creates a world that is enticing to Francis’s fledgling imagination. Even beyond toys or games, Pema, more than anything or anyone else, is this world to Francis. He deeply wants to be a part of her games, and most of the time the two cooperate happily. But there are plenty of moments when Pema simply wants to be alone, and Francis, aside from being too young to notice, mostly doesn’t care. When Pema draws a boundary, he, being the lively and curious three-year-old that he is, immediately wants to cross it. The subtlety of this exchange can reach remarkable proportions, and there was little doubt in my mind that Francis, moving a toe’s length closer to the purple ball, one at a time, was driving the two of them insane. It was a battle of willpower, replete with all the complexities of shoulds and should-nots, including hitting, screaming, sharing, respecting each other’s space, and vying for adult interference. Humans are amazing, and anyone who thinks a dog is as smart as a three-year-old has not spent enough time with children.
I sighed. Comprehending all this didn’t make it any easier. And besides, I was probably missing a piece or two. But mostly, I was reluctant to join this conflict, because there was a part of me that just wished Pema would assert herself, physically if that’s what it took. Then, I could have come in and reprimanded her for hitting Francis, asked Francis to respect Pema’s boundaries, and called it a day. Francis would have tested the boundaries, Pema would have clarified them, and I, the adult, would have reminded them that, at some point, they would have to learn how to settle these boundaries without hitting. Case closed.
Instead, though Pema was screaming grievously, everyone, including Francis, could tell that she wasn’t holding up her part of the bargain. Francis was willing to wiggle his toe a little closer. I was willing to tell them that hitting was wrong. But none of us could fully resolve the conflict, because Pema wasn’t willing to say no and mean it.
When these two started living together, about a year ago, there was a time when I had to teach Pema that it was okay to say no. Then I had to teach her that it was okay to say it loudly. Most kids don’t need this instruction. Francis will assert himself with full voice and action until he wins, or loses. Ruby too, and I think they’re right to do it – at this age. Our needs and convictions should be the most important thing to us as children, and when we’re young the biggest voice we have is our lungs and fists. This is how we learn about our bodies, our voices and our social environment. It’s only later, with the development of executive brain function, that we learn to mitigate our selfishness. But you can’t transcend your impulses if you don’t give in to them first. And it only takes a three-year-old a handful of wimpy no’s, even screaming no’s, to learn that you’re not going to do a damn thing about it.
One out of every six women in the United States has been the victim of attempted rape. That’s an appalling statistic, and a big thematic jump, but bear with me for a minute. It gets worse. When you add in the rate of sexual assault, harassment, and the other more subtle forms of sexual abuse, you start to envision the scope of the problem. The recent #metoo campaign highlights the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct, as well as the impact that that sexual aggression has had on women. Still, it hardly scratches the surface.
I remember the first time it dawned on me, as a male, what it meant to live one’s life in fear of unwanted sexual attention. I was twenty-seven years old. My partner at the time, Pema’s mother, told me how crippled she felt when a strange man walked behind her at night, or when she was alone in a parking lot, or just walking out her front door. I had heard such things from women before, and, as usual, I shrugged it off. “You’re crazy,” I said, “there just aren’t that many attackers out there. There’s no need to live with such fear.”
Then I listened a little deeper to what she had to say and it finally sunk in that, regardless of what I thought, she had that fear. It didn’t matter whether I thought her fear was justified or not. She had fear. End of story. For the first time ever, I dropped my own ideas and just felt empathy. It took only a moment to realize that she was not alone, that, in fact, there were millions of women in this country, and all over the world, who felt similarly. The statistics were bad enough, but the attitudes and practices that those encounters produced, not just in the one in six women who actually suffered an attempted rape, but also in the remaining five who, like most women, suffered endless come-ons and cat-calls by well-meaning and piggish men alike – it was enough to make my head spin.
I felt a sense of outrage and despair, yes, at the actual prevalence of sexual abuse, but even more so at the fact that nearly half the world’s population walks the streets feeling vulnerable, at least in part. I rarely feel insecure. Except for extreme and rare situations, I walk down the street without so much as a passing thought about my security. I’m more worried about oncoming traffic than I am about who’s walking behind me.
Imagine the affect that has on one’s consciousness. I’m still stunned when I think about it. Most of the women reading this are probably rolling their eyes at my ignorance, but I would venture to say that less than one in ten men truly comprehend this reality.
This is depressing enough, but what I’m getting at is a strange and concerning fact: between fifty and seventy percent of rape victims do not fight back. Chew on that for a second. As a male, raised in a loving family, with lots of opportunity for horseplay and roughhousing, I can hardly comprehend that fact. Of the more than three-hundred-thousand women who are the victim of attempted rape every year in the United States alone, less than half of them resist. I feel like I’m living on another planet.
I wish to be clear – I do not in any way mean to suggest that rape victims are at fault for what is unquestionably a violation of their rights. I simply mean that our culture, regardless of its tendency to produce violent men, which is abhorrent enough, is not raising enough women who stand up and fight for themselves. Surely, it is even more complicated than this. But I want an empowered daughter, and an empowered planet. And I would venture to say that one of the primary reasons women do not fight back in such encounters is that, as little girls, they did not have the opportunity to develop the sensorimotor skills of close combat. In other words, they were taught to be nice, and not to roughhouse. And the result is that, when overtly attacked, they freeze.
In most circumstances, an adult male can overpower a female. This, perhaps, goes without saying. An adult male can overpower a raccoon too, but how many would make the effort? How many would take on a goose? A hundred-and-twenty-pound ape is a hell of a fight, male or female. Now, again, I’m not suggesting that rape victims are at fault (they’re not), nor am I suggesting we should send all our girls to combat training. I’m simply trying to give some context to the tussle between three dominant male alligators on the trampoline outside my house. I want my daughter, and all children, male and female, to engage and develop the sensorimotor skills of close combat, playfully and comfortably, not so they can grow up and kick ass, but so they can walk their neighborhoods at night without fear.
My brother, Pete, is sixteen months older than me. By the time we were five and six, most people thought we were twins. He was, of course, always one step ahead of me, but not by much. In fact, he was a loving and gentle brother, and I loved him every moment of my life, including today. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t fight.
As children, Pete and I had a rule – if one of us hurt the other, in a more than acceptable way, then the victim had the right of retaliation. I’m not exactly sure how we developed this rule, and I’m sure we never spoke it, but it was unbreakable. The moment I hurt him, I turned tail and ran, or vice versa. In fact, the worst moment was right at the crescendo of a pinch or a slug, when the tables suddenly turned and the bully, now the victim, knew he had it coming.
We would tear through the house, slamming doors and hiding under tables or chairs. Whatever it took. If I had a pain debt, there was nothing I could do about it. I wouldn’t have resisted, or fought back. Nor would he. But evasion was always fair play. I suppose this appeared violent to our parents at times, but it always felt fair to me, and even intimate. I cannot recall a single time when one of us kept on fighting, or refused to stop bullying. But once retaliation had been delivered, roles reversed once again, and it sometimes took three or four rounds of chasing each other down before we cut our losses and called it even.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the social and physical lessons of those fights were critical for me. Through that rough-and-tumble play, I developed the confidence to stand up for myself. I didn’t always win, but neither did I always lose. Besides, winning wasn’t really the important part. The important part was standing up for myself. And bluffing.
I have only been in one real fist-fight in my life. I was in fifth grade, and Mohabe McCoy, the biggest kid in my class, the kind of kid who flipped his eyelids over to gross-out the girls, got steaming pissed at me, and for good reason. We had been playing basketball at recess, and at some point, mid-play, I spit on the ground like the cocky young man I pretended to be. I hadn’t meant anything by it, except, as many of us were wont to do, to express my virility through the expulsion of excess saliva. Unfortunately, without my even noticing it, the wad of spit landed directly on Mohabe’s new tennis shoes.
Beyond the obvious insult, it’s helpful to know that I grew up in a predominantly black suburban neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio. One’s shoes, especially in that low- and middle-class black culture, were a child’s primary status symbol. You didn’t mess with somebody’s shoes, unless you were iron-tough, and it was a very real possibility that, black or white, if you walked down the street in Air Jordan’s, or some other expensive shoes, somebody would try to steal them from you. This was not a problem at my Catholic grade school, but it was the culture of the streets that surrounded us.
Mohabe, needless to say, was upset. Stopping me in mid-stride, he demanded that I apologize. But I, unwilling to take the blame, refused. We squared up, face to face, and words got heated. The game stopped, and within seconds the other boys had us surrounded. Most were just curious, but a few egged us on. Fights weren’t common at our school, like they were at the public school down the street. The faces in the outer circle, some white, some black, were all mostly friends, but racial tensions ignite quickly.
Looking back, I wonder at Mohabe’s discretion. He didn’t just flatten me outright. He gave me a legitimate chance to apologize. But I was too hot-headed. It was an accident, I told him. I didn’t mean it, so it wasn’t my fault. But he wanted more than that. He wanted me to say I’m sorry, and mean it. Instead, I told him that if he was going to get pissed off about spit, he might as well have something to get pissed off about. I spit directly in his face.
That was the beginning of the end. Francis’s wiggling toe went one inch too far. Within seconds, I felt my chin, and the whole side of my face, move to the right, then snap back into place. It stunned me, and for a second my mind raced to understand what just occurred. Then it happened again, and I saw one of the yard mothers running towards us. The boys in the circle were yelling, then started to part. I could see that the whole playground was watching us. I was mildly confused, still pissed as ever, but now more worried about getting in trouble than anything else. As I walked, stiffly in hand with one of the mothers, it began to dawn on me that Mohabe had punched me twice, in the face, and that I hadn’t even felt it. Neither, for that matter, had I raised my hands above my waist.
“Hey look, there’s Odin,” Ruby said. We were on our way back from the trampoline when she paused to look at the sheep gathered on the other side of the fence. The girls had finished their playfight, and afterward all three of the kids had had fun jumping and performing the whimsically named maneuvers I called out. They call it school, and I’m the teacher. After a few carrot flip-flops, and juniper berry front-backs, the dominant male playfight was all but forgotten.
“Odin, bodin,” Francis echoed, looking through the fence at the large ram, who was lazily eating grass.
“Stinky Odin,” Pema said, giggling. Then she grew serious. “Hey Dada, wait. Why is Odin in with the females?”
Odin, our ram, is normally kept in a separate field by himself, or with the yearlings, while the four females, who get milked in the spring and summer, are kept in a separate field. Ornery as hell, Odin is a bit of a sore point round here, and the kids won’t even go in the same field as him, and for good reason. Pema was once knocked flat by Odin when he was just a yearling. Scared me to death, but aside from a good cry, Pema turned out to be fine. He’s quite a bit beefier now, and a full-frontal blow from him can send a grown man flying. In fact, just a couple weeks ago, that’s exactly what happened to one of my housemates when he went out to feed the sheep. He didn’t even hear him coming. Another time, he nearly broke someone’s hand when he lingered too close the gate.
“Well, it’s mating time, I guess,” I told the kids. “You know how the Mama’s had their babies last spring?”
“Well, I guess this is the time for the females to get pregnant in order for them to have babies next spring.” I turned to Ruby. “Hasn’t PD been in with your papa’s goats?” PD is the billy. “Mm-hm,” she answered. “Yeah, well,” I continued, “I guess that’s how it is.”
“Yeah,” Pema echoed, looking at Odin, who gazed back with a lazy expression, “I guess that’s how it is.” We turned and walked up the hill.