Monday, August 1, 2011

Man, Instinct, Risk, Stupidity

Fables - The Dodos (mp3)
Dark Turn of Mind - Gillian Welch (mp3)

“It’s definitely too rough out here for your brother.”

One of the bigger indicators of gender is the inability to heed one’s own better wisdom. The better half has things called “mother’s instinct” or “women’s intuition,” and we act like this is because men don’t have the ability to foresee dangers or portend calamity.

But it’s not true. Men have tremendous intuition; they just ignore it.

Last week, after three days of overcast skies, three days of an oceanfront experience as if we were vacationing inside the caves of The Lost Sea, we were all desperate to squeeze out some cloudy time in the sand and sea. With my 3-year-old son on the shore building sand castles merely for the chance to stomp them, my daughters and I braved the testy tides. The choppy waves and strong undertow, tugging us northward, were great fun because they were just a bit risky.

My younger daughter, not quite yet 10, is the more cautious soul, and trepidation always accompanied her into the ocean. She’s a little too short and scrawny to fight the ocean pull, and she was having to work twice as hard to keep from drifting further away from us.

“I bet Turner will want to come out here,” she said. On our first day down, we had beaten the rain to the beach for a desperate hour of celebratory arrival swimming, and he had stayed glued to my shoulders or waist as we jumped waves. He'd loved it and been wigged out by it at the same time.

My response to her -- it's too rough for him -- was the right one. And it was obvious.

Hardly had the words drifted away from my mouth in the word balloon than I heard him at the water’s edge, calling out to me. “Come get me, Daddy! I wanna go!”

Twenty minutes later, as I stumbled and wobbled back to shore, Turner screaming and fighting to spit out all that salty nastiness from his mouth, my daughters both laughed at how quickly I had ignored my own observations, and I could only shrug in resignation.

Something in dads, in men, in boys, is desperate to downplay risk. And it doesn’t even have to be a “risk/reward” calculation. The reward for taking Turner out into the torrents was low at best. I would receive no medals. My son wouldn’t “cherish this moment for the rest of his life.” My in-laws and wife wouldn’t look out on the waves, crashing in above our heads, and then tilt their heads adoringly at each other with that “Isn’t that the greatest dad alive?” look on their faces.

Yet there I was, picking up my small child, pulling him into my waist and chest, and trudging out into the foamy tuggy waters.

I could have said no. He might have pouted or objected briefly, but I’m not the kind of dad who worries about that stuff. I render my children painfully disappointed and pouty all the time and never think twice about it.

But I wanted us out there, together, doing something a little risky and stupid and fun. No defense attorney, no psychologist in the world could rightly defend me.

We hadn’t gone 20 yards into the water when my decision paid off. A wave hit us so intensely that it buckled my knees, and I barely managed to prevent our mouths from taking in ocean. Turner thought it was hilarious, which made me proud and giddy. This was all the reward I was to receive. Soon after, a wave that seemed to curve at least three feet above my noble leap slammed into us, and it took intense focus to keep any kind of balance while keeping hold of my son.

As I recovered, and as I tried tending to his drenched face and screaming panic, I'd barely even cleared the water from my own eyes when another wave hit us full force, knocking me to my knees and Turner briefly under the water. This second attack did us in, and he was (understandably) inconsolable.

The reward for ignoring my instincts? A son it would take two days to coax and coddle back into the ocean.

Oh yeah, and that first wave knocked the glasses off my face. Didn't even know it until I got back to shore. I spent the rest of my vacation with only a pair of prescription sunglasses. Until I can get an eye appointment, I either wear my sunglasses at night, or I view the world in a strange blur.

Yay me and my instincts.

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