Anderson: Fatherhood is at its best in the physical world

·5 min read

Some kids bad-mouth their dads, but I never did. I was in seventh grade when he told my brother and me that he had cancer. He said it wouldn't be a problem. But he was sick much of the 13 years that followed, and by the time he died, we had become a different family, and not just because by then the house was gone, along with most everything else we had known.

When I was growing up, Dad neither observed from a distance nor got in the way, a fine line to walk. I bought a motorcycle when I was 19 and rode it to California, and a couple of years later I left for South America alone. To him these weren't rites of passage but life being lived, and he was as interested as I to see how things turned out. Anyway, for context, when he was 19, he shipped out for North Africa, wearing a uniform, so there was that.

Careful thought should be given before climbing onto a soapbox to lecture about parenthood. Good kids can be raised by single moms, single dads or any multiple thereof. And plenty of kids do just fine without ever hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, biking or shooting. With high hopes my mom threw good money after bad on piano lessons, gambling I'd hit a home run not in a ballpark but at a recital. Her fallback fantasy was that I'd be a preacher, like her dad. Lack of interest and skill doomed these, and in the end, it was darts to the board. Most kids land somewhere, Mom figured, and I would, too.

Yet parenthood is about playing the odds, and as a dad I always wanted the odds in my favor. One of my rules as a father was to never trade money for time with our two sons. Demand proficiency in school at levels commensurate with their abilities was another of my guidelines, as was stipulating that respect for others is a first step in gaining respect for yourself.

Yet everyone knows people they want to emulate, and when I became a parent my heroes were parent-friends who spent as much time as possible with their kids in the physical world.

Granted, school is necessary and good and a footpath leading to the universe of ideas. Dividends can include a good job and perhaps even a snazzy French colonial in a tony subdivision. But tying a square knot, sewing a dress, making a cast, riding a horse, pitching a tent and swinging a hammer are important, too.

From the time of Christ until about 150 years ago, hands-on skills like these were as vital to survival as chopping wood and hauling water, and their absence today I believe goes a long way toward explaining the ache many people feel for definition and direction.

This might be especially true nowadays for fathers and their children, because in this country, fathers aren't as present in their kids' lives as they once were.

When I was as student at the University of Minnesota-Morris, I was introduced to the poet Robert Bly. This was during the Vietnam War, and even by poet standards, Bly was a theatric dude, dressed in long, colorful robes and bearing a singsong voice that made you pay attention.

Years later, Bly would think and speak and write a lot about men, fathers in particular, and his poems on the topic wore masks behind which truths were revealed.

When I became a father, some of Bly's ideas about men, masculinity and fathers dovetailed serendipitously with traits I admired in father friends who spent lifestyle-defining time with their sons and daughters in the physical world, specifically in "the outdoors."

Some of these friends hunted deer with their kids and, in the offseason, cultivated deer habitat, making it a year-round shared activity. Others fished with their kids or camped or hiked or trekked Up North to cabins. In these ways, side by side with their children, performing physical tasks, they mimicked ageless relationships fathers especially had with their children, with the added benefit that everyone was learning not by rote, but experientially.

"In the ancient times," Bly said in a 1990 interview with the journalist Bill Moyers, "you were always with your father. He taught you how to do things, he taught you how to farm, he taught you whatever it is that he did. You learned from him. But you had this sense of being, of receiving a food from him. ... Now, when the father (started to leave) the house in the Industrial Revolution (and until now), that food ended, and I think the average American father now spends ten minutes a day with a son."

Though countless activities exist in which parents and children can participate together in the physical world, teaching and learning from one another, the many benefits to mind, body and soul of nature-based pastimes have been well established, giving parents hoping to tip the child-rearing odds in their favor all the more reason to camp with their kids, or hike, bike, paddle, hunt, fish or sail.

When I was about 10 years old, I was fishing with my dad one cool morning. We lived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and this was on a small bay of Lake Michigan. Dad had a 5½-horse Johnson and a 14-foot aluminum boat, and we had been trolling for a long while without luck.

The morning was nice enough and I was having a good time. But I wonder now what Dad was thinking, whether the point was to catch a fish, to be with me, to get his mind off work or perhaps all of the above.

We didn't own fancy fishing rods and the one dad had was steel. When the northern pike struck, I remember the rod snapping back, then arching stiffly as waves slapped the side of the boat.

I remember also how the fish broke the surface briefly and tail-walked before splashing over the gunnel and onto the floor of the boat.

All these years later, I remember that still. Perhaps Dad knew I would.

Maybe that's why we were there.

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