Saturday, November 04, 2006


I always thought I was a tomboy.

To my father's credit, my dad did his best to believe I was the son he never had. We went fishing, camping, worked on cars (okay, he taught me to change the oil and check the tire pressure...which I am pretty sure are the only things he knows how to do on a car), hung stuff on the wall. I flipped the breaker when he needed to work on the electrical. I brought up tools and tools and tools from the garage to the upstairs rooms (why was he always working on the second story?) - because I didn't know a crescent wrench from any of the other silvery contraptions in the red tool box. I cleaned the attic, washed the car, hauled the firewood (I did get money for that one), cleaned the pool, learned how to move valves and switches on the pool pumps (to this day I don't know what I was doing, but I knew if I messed up it meant a big electric bill from heating the pool for a week instead of just the spa).

I believed until recently that my poor dad, living with 3 women and even female dogs, was trying his best to pass his expertise on all things manly to me (and by doing so, hold on to the last vestiges of his manhood in our estrogren soaked house). I figured being first born and the less dramatic (only slightly, and therefore slightly more male-like) of the two daughters was the reason I got chosen for this inheritance, despite the fact that I had that extra leg on my chromosome. I was XX, and if he couldn't break off that chromasome and make me an XY, well, he would pass on what he could and take the issue of no sons up with God later. Because of sympathy for my dad (come on, THREE "times of the month"!), and because he was then (and still mostly is) my hero, I played along. I thought I was helping - maybe even rescuing - him for those short bonding times where I played apprentice to his Mr. Fix It.

I see now, though, that what this was really all about was efficiency. My dad didn't want an apprentice, he wanted a gopher. He wasn't driven by a sense of legacy to teach me the electrical systems, but he needed someone to run just up the stairs enough to hear "still on!" and back down to flip another breaker switch. I thought he was challenging my courage when he sent me up in the creepy attic alone to pass down boxes of holiday decorations each year, but really, he wanted to be at the bottom of the ladder, piling the boxes up for me to carry in once I came back down. The reason I brought so many tools up to his projects was that to teach me which tool went with which name, he would have had to make a trip downstairs to walk through the assortment with me. Apparently, walking up and down stairs was beyond his abilities. He avoided those extra trips like the plague - something that in time I came to realize was THE last, or maybe first, or maybe the only, vestige of his manliness - laziness.

In fact, had I been the first born son and not the first born daughter, instead of helping so much, I would have devised ways to avoid these situations at all, since I too would have held running up and down the stairs with the same manly contempt as my father. A son learns early on that these "teaching moments" are not meant to teach anything, and would despise the blatant attempts at indentured servanthood. Had I lacked the extra chromosomal leg, I too would have been driven more by laziness than even that primal urge to earn your father's approval.

How do I know this? Because I have a husband, and he has a son. Ty tries so hard to include Tristan in car projects, but Tristan has already figured out that this his role as "dad's helper" is NOT one he wants to do. He has even less enthusiasm for helping dad with the car than I do - even though he might get to learn manly things about valves and gas lines and tools and soldering. But that would mean moving around and getting things - not worth it to him! And while I like to think that Ty wants to share his man-knowledge with Tristan, the reality is, when Tristan is not around, I suddenly get indoctrinated into the secret order of "Dad's helpers" - lending credence to my theory that its all about the helper and nothing about the legacy.

So now that I have lived with men, and watched them in action, I have learned a lot about what it means to be a man. In fact, just recently, Tristan and Ty taught me a secret - there is a name for this father-son "who wants to get the Phillips from the toolbox" game..The Lateral Pass. My own (step) son, at age 9, who can barely throw a pass of any sort, already knows the lingo and when to use it. He laughs as he easily sidesteps Ty's attempts at "sharing" the man jobs with him, and says "nice try at the Lateral Pass Dad"...I can't believe it. My dad can STILL talk me into hauling firewood for him. I still jump up when he says he needs help with a project or someone to run to the store with him (ie. to go get the stuff in the far aisles while he hovers near the registers). I am such a fool...clearly, not the surrogate son I thought I was. I know see that the way to truly honor my dad's desire for male progeny would have been to ignore him, laying on the couch with one hand in a bowl of pork rinds and the other hand flipping the remote, saying, "Nah, I don't feel like it."

What I have also learned is that all those tomboy things didn't make me a boy. The things were the same as things boys do, but the motivation was all girl. Boys and girls often overlap what they do - gardening, baking, riding bikes, climbing trees, make believe - at least until they get socialized. But the reasons why they do those same things are vastly different. Boys are motivated by competition, proving themselves, and laziness. Those may seem at odds - I am still figuring out how they all work together. But I was motivated by adventure, learning, the chance to bond with my dad (something boys do by beating the crap out of dad - oh wait, we did that too). My dad was just crafty enough to see that those desires could be manipulated to mean less moving and getting things for him! How manly of him, after all....