Quick! Don’t think, just answer. The song Puff, the Magic Dragon: a happy song or sad song?
I’ve been asking that question for years. With rare exception, folks hum a few bars, and say “Happy song.”
Puff, the Magic Dragon is, from start to finish, a tragedy. It is the story of a culture that requires little boys to sacrifice their imagination as the necessary price for becoming a man. And, what becomes of men, separated from their imaginations? It’s not good. Life has fewer dimensions. Less vitality. Certainly less laughter and play. Really dull. Colorless.
I’m pretty sure there is no imagination in hell. That’s one of the torments.
In every healthy man there lives and breathes The Boy. Real men never lose access to this energy. The Boy is playful. Boyish. Ornery. Full of pranks and shenanigans. Sometimes crude and off-color.
The man will often ally with his wife at the dinner table and share her stern expression in response to kids laughing at burps and farts. But just let mom be absent: often The Boy in the man will be laughing, too. Perhaps even leading the behavior.
Ever watched 3 men descend on a 4th man’s driveway loading up for a fishing trip? It looks, feels, and often sounds like 4 kids loading into a car to go to Disneyland.
Little boys are ever-ready with spontaneous wonder. The “wow.” When you find a dead bug, you squeal. When you master something, you simply crow: “Mom! Mom! MOM! Look!”
Healthy men retain this capacity for spontaneous wonder, sharing, and crowing. How does this work? Can I fix it? Can I build one? Can I take it apart and put it back together? What’s the next adventure? Look what I can do! It often seems like mere showing off. And, it includes that, yes, but at its core is a sharing. A celebration. This is just too much fun to keep to myself.
Fathers often nurture their boyish wonder by playing with their children. They play make-believe. They do projects. They admire their children. Openly and shamelessly. They put the kids to bed, stand for a moment at the doorway, and think, “Wow.”
Woe to the man who has severed ties with the boy within himself, and woe to the actual boys he might be charged to the rear. Girls, too.
The Boy in the Man is at once endearing and exasperating. This is the part of men that makes women roll their eyes. But, also the part of a healthy man that women would sorely miss if it was gone.
If you call your husband from work at 2 o’clock and tell him you’re feeling randy and you’re wondering what he’s doing later in the evening, The Boy in the man will lock on to this conversation like he locks on to Christmas Day. And, should you, in the course of the next several hours, find that the moment has passed, perhaps even forget your solicitation, he will have on his face exactly the same expression the children of Whoville had when they awoke on Christmas morning to find the Grinch had stolen Christmas.
The enthusiasm, imagination, and wonder of The Boy deserves to be respected by women, if often begrudgingly. The Boy is childlike. Not childish.
I didn’t see The Boy inside my father very often. But, one memory is seared. 1976. NBA Western Conference Championship. Game 6. The upstart Phoenix Suns trying to tie the series against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Suns by 1. 11 seconds on the clock. Warriors ball. Dad and I are sitting courtside under the Warriors’ basket.
The inbound pass goes to rookie Jamaal Wilkes, who turns to shoot. Suns’ forward Garfield Heard soars. I remember thinking he looked like an eagle, his hand like a talon. He swats the would-be game-winner into the stands as the buzzer sounds.
I exploded out of my seat, screaming. Suddenly I’m dancing with this beautiful black woman. My hand is around her waist, and we pirouette in frantic, joyful circles. She kisses me. I think to myself, “Hmm … I wonder what her husband thinks of this.” I turn to look.
Her husband is dancing, too. With my dad. Not before or since have I seen my father dance. It’s a sight to behold. Here, for a moment, my father has forgotten to be homophobic. Forgotten his acculturated self-conscious discomfort around black people.
My father is dancing. I shall cherish that picture until the day I die. I have never loved him more.
(Steven Kalas writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. He is an author, therapist and Episcopal Priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)