“Help us! Help us! A storm is coming! A storm is coming!”
Boy is wearing a magician’s cape his grandma made. On his head, an adult-sized pair of white, fuzzy earmuffs. He’s shouting to no one in particular, as if to warn the village.
I know what’s next. He turns to me and whispers: You be the storm, OK?
With that, he stretches the earmuffs across his little round belly so that there are two white balls on each side of his torso. This is his “magic belt.” He touches each ball and shakes like a rocket about to take off, then makes a SSSSHOOOOOOO sound and runs to the far corner of the room, preparing for battle.
We didn’t teach him any of this.
I do a pretty decent storm. I spin and wave my arms around and blow and look menacing. I’m not sure where else to go with it.
Boy’s eyes flicker with the light of justice — or is it vengeance? — and there’s the flurry of his cape, and with a shout of “PUUUUNCH!!” I, the storm, am dealt one decisive blow. It’s over.
I read somewhere that the unconscious purpose behind fathers wrestling and roughhousing with little boys is not to teach boys to fight, but to teach them how to stop. I think about that every day.
When I was a little boy, my dad got two pairs of boxing gloves — a big brown pair for him and a little red pair for me. He would walk on his knees in the living room and do that delicate dance: one part trying to get me to really hit him, one part trying to teach me control. I loved this, but it was hard. If I got bopped on the nose, or if I just got frustrated, it flipped a switch, and suddenly I was pummeling my dad, trying to go for his face. Sometimes he could calm me down; sometimes we just had to stop for a while. And one day I was just too big for it, and my dad hung up the gloves for good.
This is not just a problem for 4-year-olds. In college and for years after, my life revolved around karate, and it was the same thing. In that atmosphere of hitting and getting hit, many men reveal (or discover) their tipping points — some lose control gradually, in a frustrated escalation you can measure, but most lose it in an instant. You learn to recognize that little flicker in your sparring partner’s eyes, the one that says this just got personal, and when you see it, you stop everything. You have to.
I remember once, before Boy turned two and was still not perfectly sure on his feet, he suddenly got angry — I don’t remember why — and charged me from across the room, roaring, hands scraping the ground, like a gorilla. He moved like a blur. I had never seen anything like that in a human being, something so primal. Even now, when he’s sad, or disappointed, or surprised, it’s punctuated by a little punch or a kick — if not at me, then at the refrigerator, or the floor, or the world. In the best-case scenario, he’ll spend the next 20 years trying to reconcile that part of him, the part that feels aggression as one face of desire, that experiences no intense emotion without an accompanying low hum of violence, that knows that his body has its own will, its own way of expressing itself — an expression that is hard, not soft. That’s if things go well; if they don’t, he’ll wrestle with this his whole life.
Great effort, great discipline, great concentration, great action — I feel, for myself, that they can come from the same place as that aggression, that they can vibrate with that same low hum. They can be the cultivated version of that thing inside that’s always one ember away from exploding.
Usually, our little superhero is convinced that just one punch will fell the storm, and usually he’s right. But if it doesn’t — if the storm is busy talking on the phone, for example, or hanging up laundry — then the punches can come rapid-fire, in a barrage, and the storm needs to say something, or shout something, or hug the superhero tight through 18 different emotions until all is calm again.
Sometimes the storm gets punched in the groin. Hard. And as the storm buckles to the ground, our superhero stands hurt and confused by his own uncontrolled power, unsure what to do next. Maybe he sees, in that moment, how Papa is suddenly struggling to not be a storm, how much effort goes into just dissipating clouds. Maybe it’s too much to take in; maybe he doesn’t know what it means.
But I know the forecast.
Suit up, I want to tell him. You are the storm.