THE HURDLES AND HOOPS OF BECOMING A MAN

My beautiful picture

The author about the time he started attending boarding school

                            THE HURDLES AND HOOPS OF BECOMING A MAN                             Steve Dresselhaus

For some mysterious  reason which still baffles modern science,  there is a point in human development at which each  human male must prove to himself and  to anyone who is watching that he is the toughest, baddest ,  and coolest individual life form  ever to walk this  planet.  This life phase is what scientists  have termed profundus stupidus maximus (PSM) .  Fortunately, this period  of a guy’s life is of limited duration,  starting  in the earliest stages of toddlerhood  and ending at what is commonly  termed  late assisted living.    Human females  have their own  condition  called chronic moodius erraticus maximus  which corresponds roughly  in length  to that of a male PSM,   but since I am married to one of them and I consider life to be sacred and  precious I will not develop this point publicly at this time.

One of the  best environments  in  which to  observe PSM for research purposes  is  a boarding school  where a bunch of boys are glommed together in what is essentially a permanent sleepover sans parental oversight.  Sure, there were dorm parents vainly attempting  to keep track of  35 boys  simultaneously,  but it  was like controlling hooligans at a British soccer match.   I never did discover what the dorm parents had done or not done to merit  such  a banishment, but like Napolean on St. Helena,  or St. John the Apostle  in lonely exile on the island of Patmos,  there they were at  this remote outpost of pre-civilization.    My boarding school was the Siberian Gulag of missionary assignments.  Whatever the dorm parents had done  must have been really, really bad.

My school,  high in the Andean mountains of Venezuela,  was the inspirational source of the  Burning Man Festival  which,  in a bit of little known historical trivia,  was   relocated from my school  to the  Nevada desert about thirty years ago.*   My dorm was the birthplace for  exceptionally novel  and boundary-testing deportment , exotic traditions  and science fiction level  behavioral creativity.  Every day came with an  inviolable mandate for each boy to be the toughest, weirdest,  most radical  kid around.   Margaret Meade would have served humanity better by having chosen my school over the Samoan Islands as her choice for fieldwork.

Amongst the boys, the status quo was feared far more than death and was something from which to flee and from which to hide.   The status quo was  to ego what the Black Plague was to medieval  life and culture.  It was  masculinity’s apocalypse.   Every day provided psychologists  with an overflowing  cornucopia of exotic behaviors  to study, all of them  concentrated into one small , easy to isolate location.  Not every boy behaved like the spawn of Beelzebub.   There was always the good kid, the teacher’s pet, the kid who always made his bed neatly and who was unwaveringly and milktoastianly compliant with all the rules and regulations.  Like a pudgy  American house dog waiting for food spills in the kitchen,  these boys hung around the school’s staff  looking for new  rules to obey.  These were  the boys  who, when they grew up, settled into American  suburbia and became the  “White and Nerdy” models  for Weird Al Yankovich.   Their obituaries will someday be four lines long:  name,   dates,  survived by______, and  “volunteered at the local library.”

Every culture,  whether it be a tribal group in the Amazon jungles of Brazil,  Eskimos  in the northern tundra or a boarding school in Venezuela,  has its own time of testing–its own  rites of passage into manhood.  Some tribal groups will make the candidate for manhood  live by himself on a mountain plateau for thirty days of deprivation, surviving on his wits and whatever he happens to find to eat and drink.  In some cultures, young men must kill a lion or a buffalo or some other fearsome  beast bigger and more dangerous than themselves, using nothing but their hands, teeth and a rock or two.  In America, manhood is achieved  through attaining the highest score in a video game or by drinking multiple  consecutive 7 Eleven Big Gulps.  At my Andean boarding school,  manhood was  attained  through   a non-standardized series of pre-approved  behaviors,   most of which inflicted   pain and  included self torture and  the exercising of  various  high risk activities.  While the rites of passage were not formally scripted  or officially assigned, and all were  individualized,   there was  a common  core through which each boy had to pass.  Just like in  Olympic figure skating  in which there is a formula by which a  spectacular  performance can lead to a gold medal , there was a  boy-to-man  formula in my dorm.  The formula for figure skating   is a witches’ brew that includes compulsories, artistic  impression, and moves like axels and oil changes, which, when multiplied by the technical difficulty minus the temperature of the ice and the  bribes paid to Russian judges, all tally up to the winning score.   Each route to manhood, while it did have the compulsories,   ended up being as unique as a snowflake.   Right now  I’m wondering why I am comparing figure skating with the road to  manhood since the two concepts are oxymoronic and incompatible beyond any conceivable reconciliation.

One of the first tests to accomplish on the road to manhood usually occurred around third grade, when we boys would sneak into the dorm parents’ room late at night and touch the sleeping  threats to our existence.  Like slithering  pythons in tall grass,  we would  silently sneak  into their room, always taking a witness to verify the deed.  This usually  occurred without mishap, although there were known occasions when the hibernating dorm father/bear/beast  would startle and seem to wake up.  The candidate for manhood would drop to the floor and, like  a rabbit seeking invisibility  from a hungry coyote,   remain motionless, petrified with fear, praying desperately to God,   pleading  first for immediate forgiveness  for the still-in-progress, yet-to-be completed  misdeed,  and then secondly  for protection from the vengeful creature known as the  irate dorm father.   Our theology at that early stage in our lives was not too well developed and was more karmic than Christian, more fear-based than grace-based, and more about divine retribution than loving forgiveness.   Living in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country as we did,  our desperate  prayers of confession were motivated by the fear of being taken from this planet,  as they say in Spanish, “inconfesado”  (unconfessed).    I don’t recall any of us ever getting caught by the dorm parents, but none of us wanted to be the first.

A second common trial  endured while on the road to manhood was known as  the “sticking-your-finger in-hot-water test.”    In this test we would, like the name implies, stick our finger, almost always the pinky,  in hot water and see who could endure the pain the longest.  Clearly, the longer the finger remain immersed, the more manly the candidate.   The water we used was hot, very hot.  Sticking our fingers into the cup of hot water was  like Dr. Robert Ballard inserting his thermal  probes into the volcanic  vents in the spreading zone of the mid-Atlantic ridge.    Since we were all the poor children of poor missionaries, we had no  expensive instrumentation with which to measure the temperature of the water, nor did we have any  elaborate time pieces to record immersion times .  Records were not kept, and our lack of proper instrumentation  most likely precluded uniformity in testing, but we did what we could and via consensus would determine if the candidate had suffered enough to meet our entrance requirements.  For keeping time,  we used the  time- and tradition-proven  method of chanting  in unison, “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.”   I do wonder how  ancient peoples kept time prior to the discovery of the “New World” and our mighty river.  I have a hard time picturing a bunch of bearded, long robed Mesopotamians  at the hippodrome  timing the racing horses by chanting out  “One Euphrates, two Euphrates.”   Or worse yet, imagine if Columbus had discovered New Zealand first and we had to keep track of time the Kiwi way by chanting  “One Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu.”

A third test of manhood was an adaptation of the Northern Mexican torture of burying a person up to his neck  next to an ant hill and then pouring honey on his head.  In our case the test was to plant both feet firmly into an ant hill, the home  to several hundred trillion red army ants, and then seeing how far up our legs we would permit  the ants to crawl prior to running away and swatting the little carnivores from our bodies.  We would stomp our feet into the ant hill and then watch as the minuscule but well-armed and now enraged defenders would work their way over the canvas tennis shoes, up the socks and then onto our legs.  As soon as the ants crossed the sock to leg barrier the stinging would start.  No individual sting was unbearable; but the cumulative effect of many stings was not an event to be enjoyed.  When we had endured enough, we would begin a frenetic below the waist Macarena,  swatting the stinging, advancing hordes off our legs.  This was accompanied by running away and stomping our feet hard on the ground in an attempt to dislodge the invading horde.   Since allergies to insect stings had not yet been invented  by the  American Medical Association, we had no  concerns beyond the immediate pain.

By everyone’s standards but my wife’s, I have now successfully transitioned from boy to man, but the self-torture continues.  Now instead of touching sleeping dorm parents, I confront  angry clients and credit scores.   Now instead of sticking my finger in hot water, I answer my office telephone, an experience not quite the same but far more emotionally damaging.  Now instead of standing as long as possible in the ant hill, I endure my office for unending hours.  All things considered and given the option, I would go back to the ant hills.

*I would advise against using this bit of historic trivia in anything that involves money, law or the necessity of unwavering truth since I may have been a bit creatively fuzzy on the details of this point.

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