Back in Montreal in the seventies, when I was a kid, my father tried his hardest to make a man of me.
To be honest, he wasn’t working with promising material. I was a small, unathletic boy, meticulously neat, and generally preferred the company of girls. When I ran, which was not often, I flapped my arms like a chicken.
I had no interest in “boy” thing like sports, including hockey – an indifference that could have gotten you beat up in those days if you were reckless enough to admit it to other kids. I preferred making crafts, collecting stickers and watching old Hollywood musicals. I even liked cleaning my room.
On weekends, my father would drag me across the street to the park to play catch. I guess this was his idea of what fathers and sons were supposed to do on weekends, but it never ended well. I was simply the wrong kid for playing catch. When he would throw the ball, I would run in the opposite direction.
“You’re supposed to catch the ball!” he would yell. But this made no sense to me.
“Why would I willingly throw myself in front of a moving ball?” I would ask, though this would usually make him more angry.
“It’s called ‘catch.’ You’re supposed to ‘catch’ the ball, not let it drop on the ground.”
“What’s the difference? I can still pick it up and throw it back to you. I don’t understand the point of this game.”
“The point is that I throw the ball to you, you catch it, then you throw it back to me.”
“Why don’t you just keep the ball if you want it? I don’t want it.”
We would go back and forth like this for an hour before he would give up and drag me home, swearing his head off.
I hated sports – playing them, watching them – and I dismissed all my parents’ efforts to get me involved in one. Finally, a decision was made for me without my consent.
“We’re enrolling you in judo,” they announced one day. “You need to do something physical.” That was their justification, though I suspect they were more concerned with giving me a means of self-defence when the inevitable day came for me to be beaten up by my larger and physically superior peers.
I hated judo from day one. I hated the smell of feet on the judo mats. I hated the macho posturing of the other boys, and I especially hated the angry instructor.
Because I was the smallest kid in the class, there was only one possible sparring partner for me, a pudgy kid who was a few years younger. I hated him, too. He must have felt empowered to finally have someone in the class who was smaller than him because he immediately began calling me names in French and taunting me.
We only sparred once. I think it took him about 10 seconds to have me pinned to the ground and squirming like a bug. I reacted the only way I knew how: I began tickling him. That did the trick, but he complained to the instructor and refused to spar with me again.
After that, there was no one for me to spar with, so the instructor took me on himself. Mostly, he used me to show the rest of the class the new moves he was teaching. I became the judo equivalent of the crash-test dummy. He would throw me all over the room like a rag doll. I was twirled in the air and pounded on the ground like an old mat.
“I hate judo!” I cried to my parents.
“You hate everything,” they’d reply wearily.
“No, but I really hate judo.”
Luckily, I came down with a terrible flu that allowed me to miss the rest of the spring judo course. When the next session began in the fall, the subject, to my relief, never came up again.
Next was Boy Scouts. After a few months, my father took over as leader and ran it like a paramilitary unit. We had marching drills, inspections and guns. A lot of guns, actually, since my father was a collector.
The moment we turned 15 – legal age in Quebec at the time for being able to use a firearm – he drove us up to an empty plot of land my family owned in Lachute. We tried to shoot at rabbits and, when that failed, we would pick a small tree then blast away at it until it fell down. My father was not a tree-hugger.
The shooting, admittedly, was fun, but it was always accompanied by camping in the dead of winter, which was not. Winter camping is not fun for a boy with a small bladder, particularly one trying to stay warm by wearing snow pants with no zipper.
“Can I just stay in the car and listen to the radio?” I would beg, but no, I couldn’t.
I never did learn to catch a ball, or fight, or hold my bladder for an entire weekend, though to the surprise of many, I did not turn out gay.
I’m 42 now, and the best thing about adulthood is that no one ever forces me to play dodgeball any more. If anyone tries to pick on me or push me around like the bigger kids used to in the playground, I can hire a lawyer to deal with it.
As I commence the journey to becoming the old man I was probably always meant to be, I am finally being liberated from a standard of manliness I never aspired to and could never really pull off, even when I tried.
So why do we still make boys try?
Jason Kunin lives in Toronto.
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