Bicycle

Bicycle

The other day I was called by a single mom and asked to assemble her son’s shiny new bicycle. It was his birthday gift, and the task of building such a thing was a little beyond her comfort level or ability. Since I have known them both for quite some time, and because I have become somewhat of an expert on handyman-type stuff, I was the guy she called.

The project didn’t take me long at all, with my bag of tools and a glass of iced tea. And as I later stood and looked at the completed bike, I thought back about my own memories of my childhood BMX.

bicycle

 

When I turned 7, I came downstairs in the morning to see a brand-new BMX bicycle. This contrasted with what I had before in several ways. First of all, the banana-seated, yellow monstrosity that was in my family’s garage could have never been described with the word “new.” It was a faded yellow, and not a cool sports car yellow, but the kind of yellow that is not complete unless speckled with copious amounts of rust. It had a sissy-bar behind the seat followed by a large rear fender. But, the handlebars were really the coup-de-gras. I have never since seen such a deep U-shape, and they terminated in plastic hand grips that I’m sure at one time had streamers dandily flowing in the wind. No, I suspect the word “new” was barely applicable even when it was purchased from the Sear’s Catalogue sometime around 1963.

I had acquired it on a Saturday morning when my mom returned home from a garage sale. Even though it was so early in my life that my memories seem like the dream sequence in a bad soap opera, I remember instinctively knowing that this had the potential of both causing me to be beaten up by other boys, but also to pay large amounts of money to therapists throughout my adulthood. I can’t blame my mom, though. She knew that I was a boy, and a boy needed a bicycle. She also knew that we couldn’t afford to buy a new one, and this was the best that a single mom could do.

Also, this hunk of metal and rubber could not be called a “bicycle” either. It did have two wheels and pedals, but inherent in the definition of a bicycle is that it can be used as transportation, which this could not. While this art piece was a sight to behold, I could not actually ride it, no matter how hard I tried, and oh how I did try.

After several months of flopping over, I decided that I was the sort of boy that was somehow just dysfunctional. I wasn’t the bicycle riding type, I was the—being pushed for a few feet and then falling into the rose bushes type. So, at the risk of death I decided to just look at it and avoid it, rather than spend more time de-thorning myself.

What we didn’t know, was that whoever owned it in the past had been in some accident that left the frame bent, possibly an intentional crash to desperately avoid being seen riding it. Lance Armstrong himself could not have ridden it after such a distortion. This problem was finally discovered when my grandfather (who I never saw ride any bicycle before this or after—and could barely drive a car) hopped on and promptly crashed sideways into the aforementioned rose bushes.

bicycle

 

Eventually, my mom began dating the man who after a time became my stepfather, and on my birthday a new BMX sat in our living room. It was beautiful. It had chrome everything. The handlebars were not U-shaped. In fact, they were beautifully straight. The seat looked like a bicycle seat, not a banana. There were cushioned wraps that protected you when you did awesome dirt-bike tricks that the neighborhood boys would gaze at in wonder and never consider beating you up…ever, and no sissy-bar at all, saving tons of future money on psychotherapy. It was amazing, and it was mine.

Shortly after breakfast, we went across the street to a church parking lot to see if I could ride it, where my new step-dad announced, “He won’t need those training wheels. Let’s take them off.” And you know what? He was right. He pushed me for a bit, and then released me, and I rode…alone…without falling. The feeling of freedom was one I would never forget. I was the bike-riding type of boy. I could do it after all.

bicycle

 

I’d like to say that was the start of many things my step-dad taught me about how to be a man, but that would be a lie. I can count on one hand the number of times he spent any appreciable time with me teaching me anything. The truth is, when I work on my lawnmower engine, remodel a bedroom, or assemble a bicycle for a friend’s kid, it is mostly because I’ve somehow figured out how to do it all on my own (or at least from watching YouTube). I’ve learned to enjoy doing those things out of necessity and challenge, not from some formative childhood apprenticeship, but I have learned to do them.

bicycle

 

So, as I stood there looking at this boy’s new birthday bike I had great hopes for him. I know that I could never be to him anything like the father every boy needs. God has placed men in his life who love him and I have to trust God to follow that process through. And I hope that maybe someday he’ll get a call from some woman he knows, asking him to assemble a shiny new birthday bike. —Ryan

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Apprentice

 

In a recent series of car commercials, a husband and wife enter a dealership and the sales person asks what kind of car they’re after.  “Exciting,” “Sensible,” the husband and wife respectively say at the same time, seeming to contradict one another.  The husband looks like a kid in a candy store, but the wife looks annoyed.  The saleswoman says that they can have both of these things if they buy the advertised model.

A subsequent commercial in the same line, shows the husband being asked a question by the saleswoman.  The husband’s eyes roll up and he sounds out a long, frozen “uhhhh…,” seeming to go into spinning pinwheel mode.  The wife says, “That’s ok.  I call this my me time!”

This type of characterization isn’t a rare phenomenon on Television.  In almost every ad you see, men fall into one of only a couple categories.  There is the eternal teenager you typically see in beer commercials, only interested in sex, cars, and alcohol.  You’ll see the idiot dad, totally incapable of making any intelligent choices for his family or his own wellbeing.  You’ll also meet the manly-man who basically just thinks about sports constantly.  There are countless other media versions of these characters, often referred to by the term “mook.”

If we were to be fair, not every male character on TV is like this.  Urban men are typically shown as more well-rounded, and there even are a few good dads mostly in car commercials, but the message when a female partner is present is very consistently clear: men are stupid, sex-obsessed, goofy creatures who are good for comedy relief, but need a woman around so they don’t accidentally kill themselves.

It has not always been this way.  Women used to be the target of the jokes, the weaker partner in need of guidance.  Certainly, no one would suggest that the Ward Cleaver version of reality is something that should be foisted on the public in this day and age.  Clearing the air of many years of sexism against women may seem to mean that men should now be the ones in the social doghouse.

But the question one might ask would be, “does this constant characterization of manhood affect society?” It does.  It affects the way men see themselves, the point and purpose of manhood, and the women and children in our society as a result.

When I was 4 years old, my mother and I went out to wash the car one Saturday afternoon, a small moppy-head child,  a woman in 70’s clothes, and a yellow ’76 Corolla with fake wood paneling on the sides.  I had just seen an episode of Sesame Street in which a fireman stood on ladder spraying water.  He had the walkie-talkie up to his mouth and was repeating “the fire’s out!  The fire’s Out!”  I can still hear it in my head.

Guess what I did from the back bumper of my mom’s car while holding the garden hose that day?  Yep, you guessed it.

When I was a little older, I tried to re-enact a scene from Superman, and broke a glass vase.

I once made a grappling hook, and tried to climb a tree after watching the A-team.  That one hurt, and I landed on dog poop.

A few months ago, I saw the latest James Bond and ran around my house shooting my Nerf gun.  I’m not ADHD, and I’m not a child-like goofball.  Although, I would never claim to be average, in this sense, I am pretty normal.

Knowing that guys are geared this way, who is surprised when adolescents want to buy Axe Body Spray after seeing a commercial with 4 attractive girls walking in on a guy showering after he uses their product?  I don’t wonder what those teenaged boys are thinking.

I hear women complain sometimes that the men in their life act more like teen boys.  They want to play video games instead of getting jobs, drink too much and don’t care about the problems they create when they are drunk, and don’t think through their actions.  Some of this is more than the complaints of women who are surprised that men aren’t acting like women.  Some of it is true.

This is also not something that is new in society (with the exception of the video game part).  It is a weakness of manhood to fall prey to these problems, but it is growing worse.

Everyone, men and women, need mentors, and heroes: people to model themselves after.  Humans often learn much more by watching people they admire than by simply reading how to books.  Youtube is a great example of this.  It is easier to watch someone do something while teaching you how to do it, than simply reading a tutorial.  Likewise, while Youtube is a great tool for teaching how to change the water pump on an ’08 Sentra, it is far less adequate at teaching a guy how to be an auto mechanic than actually hanging out with an a seasoned professional mechanic while they work together.

Men are particularly, naturally geared that way.  We learn better by kinesthetic practice even more significantly than women do.  Society has known this for thousands of years.  To make a boy into a blacksmith, he spent every day with a master blacksmith.  A young knight spent went about daily carrying the knight’s equipment.  This process was not by accident.

Now, we have decided to largely abandon that process at least until the young man has reached his 20’s.  But that doesn’t mean that the natural process has stopped.  The boys still learn by watching and copying the behavior of the men they admire.

I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons for the explosion in the numbers of young men getting tattoos, especially in urban settings.  Watch basketball or football for more than ten minutes, and you will see men inked from head to toe.  Young men who see sports stars as some of their greatest heroes, especially when fatherless homes have become normative, will copy what they see.  Most of them won’t become sports stars themselves, but unfortunately their tattoos will make them largely unemployable.  The cycle will continue.

If we are to fix our society, we must break this cycle.  Men who are available and successful must make time to mentor young boys who don’t have this at home.  Families, particularly urban and poorer one’s without fathers in the home, must highly manage the messages being seen by their boys.

The commercials and programs will change accordingly.  The consistent whining about the content of programming and music lyrics won’t help.  These things are pure capitalism.  I am not defending it, but it is a market, like it or not.  If you don’t like the shows on TV, stop watching them.  If you don’t like the characterization of a commercial, don’t buy the product.  No matter what we do, we can no longer afford to be media abusers, like crack addicts continually returning to the poison that is killing us.

The only reason they show that type of programming is because it works and makes the companies money.  When that changes, the media will adjust.  The remote control is in your hands.  The future of our society is not as easy as a channel to change, but they are undeniably linked.  We are not passive observers of media, it is affecting us.  The time has come to do something about it.

The Wall

Wall Header

I decided to undertake a massive project this summer, which we now affectionately call the Great Wall of Ryan.  My house sits on the top of a little hill, which is a pretty novel thing in North Texas.  This means that in every direction, the ground slopes down and away from my house, like a little rollercoaster for any topsoil.  The only defense I have found for this problem in my front yard is to build a massive retaining wall near the street.

In preparation for this project, about two years ago I imported a large amount of dirt into the front of my yard.  Then about a year and a half ago, we were able to swing a deal for a whole lot more soil, which was also dumped on top of the existing pile.  And there it sat, for over a year.  It was embarrassing.  My neighbors would occasionally comment.  I was afraid I would get a brick thrown through my front window, but I was handicapped by work projects that I could not walk away from.

This summer I finally got the time, and I dedicated my life to making this wall.  And what a wall it is!  Nearly 120 feet long, in its two sections framing my yard, and just under 4 feet at the tallest, it is a giant monument to hard work and dedication.  And I built it all by myself…with lots and lots of help.

While to my neighbors, the most important thing is that the former Prairie Dog Farm in front of my house now actually adds to the aesthetic of my block, the biggest lesson to me was the kind help that my hard-working friends put into the project without asking for anything in return.   And the lessons I learned this summer, alongside teenagers and grown men while building this wall, are what is most worth mentioning here.

Much of the summer played out this way: I would start working relatively early in the morning, mostly to avoid the heat.  Then I would call to, or answer a call from one of the teenagers I know, who said he was “bored,” and “do you need some help today?”  I would pick the teen up and drive him to my house.  We would then work until lunch (which I’d provide), go back at it, and often bust our tails till evening.  Many times, we would also feed them dinner before taking them home.

Not a single teen sat in the yard and complained.  Not one 13 through 18 year old said, “It’s too hot!” as we worked in 105 degree sun.  None of them avoided me the rest of the summer.

What I did hear a lot of were things like, “Wow, this is so much fun.  I’ve never done anything like this before,” and “Hey, call me when you need more help.”  They always thanked me as I dropped them off back at home filthy from digging, looking like some Depression era dust farmer.

There was the 13 year old who begged me to let him come, after his brother had helped.  We spent the day driving stakes and putting up line-levels to set the height of the project.  I had to force him to wear sunscreen and drink water.  He laughed the whole time, and wondered why I only let him put in some of the stakes.  Mostly, he wanted to use my axe and a few other sharp tools to try and cut a log.  I let him.

I also spent many days with the 16 year old who practically lived at my house.  He stayed in our guest bedroom on the weekends, not because there was something horrible at home, but because he wanted to work.  This teen doesn’t even attend my church or youth group.  His family is from a different country, and they sent him here alone for High School.  He approached my front yard project like it was food, and he a starving man.

We were cutting some blocks for the curving corners of the wall, a task that takes forever and I really dislike, when he asked for a turn at the saw.  I showed him how to operate the angle grinder with its sharp diamond blade, and he went to cutting.  When he finished, I was astonished at the quality cut he made.  It wasn’t quite as good as what I could do, but it was an amazing first attempt.  I told him so.

From that moment, he wanted to cut every single block.  He spent hours making perfect cuts and angles, which were eventually far better than the work that I could do.  I told him that he was good at it, and he became a master at it.  He later told me that it was actually his least favorite thing to do, even though he was always the one who asked to do it.  He did it because he was proud and accomplished.

But this was far different from what parents and teachers have been telling me about teen guys.  Huge numbers of teenage boys are getting barely passing grades in Junior High and High school, and are deciding not to go to college at all.  They aren’t doing this to chase after wild dreams in art, music, sports, or to travel the world.  Instead they are staying home and sitting in front of the X-Box until their parents force them to get a job.  In fact, according to a government official in the State of Washington recently, “Teen males, 16- to 19-year-olds, have an unemployment rate of about 40 percent. That is certainly something unique to this recession.”[1]

So why did I experience such a difference in the guys I was working with?  Why were they sweating in 100+ degree temperatures and not complaining?  Why were they thanking me at the end of an 8-hour day instead of demanding payment?

I think it is because they were engaging in something that is hard-wired into guys, and part of what manhood is about.  They were out building something, working with their hands, and accomplishing a project.  They were doing something they were being told not only that they could do, but also that they were good at.  They were also seeing immediate results of their labor.  When you shovel a pile of rocks for an hour, after that hour the rocks are no longer there.

But the narrative for success that we are telling our young men does not involve those elements.  What we tell them is to be quiet and listen in school, which many of them are naturally not any good at.  They also need to invest in things that they won’t see any results of for many years.

This is told to teenagers in High School career programs, and as a threat to keep them studying hard.  “I mean, you don’t want to not get into college and have to be a construction worker for the rest of your life, do you?”  You can almost hear the sad trombone play in the background.  But that threat doesn’t appear to be working on many of these boys anymore.  Now more than ever, their response to this question is “I don’t care.”

That response says far more than most people realize.  “I don’t care” isn’t a complaint.  “I don’t care” isn’t a cry for help.  It isn’t something you can argue past or even fix through stern lecturing.  “I don’t care” really means, “I have lost hope, and I don’t think anything I do will actually matter.  So, I’ve given up.”  It is a crisis beyond education and employment.  Our men are in a crisis of hope, and a lack of hope makes a person’s heart sick.  Sick hearts don’t produce healthy lives.

They lose hope when they aren’t involved in things that they see as making any lasting difference in the world.  They lose hope when we hold up feminine qualities as good, while simultaneous saying both that any good male qualities are expressed equally through women, and that most male qualities are actually negative.  They lose hope when they have no true heroes that express virtuous male qualities.  Why should they have hope?

The message is, “Just be a like the good girls.  Sit down and be quiet.  Try not to be such a boy.”

In our church’s youth ministry, one of the things that we instill in our leadership team is that our job is not to fill buckets, but to light fires.  This means that we don’t want to just teach students not to “smoke, drink, or chew, or date people who do.” Instead we want them to know mostly that God built them to do great things, that He put destiny in their hearts, and has an awesome future planned for them.

The only way for them to really see this completely fulfilled in their lives is to be in close relationship with the God who created them and loves them dearly. When they fall in love with that God, they will want to know how He wants them to live their lives and will want to live according to that.  Expecting them to follow His rules for any other reason is like expecting people watching a soccer game on TV to also not use their hands during the match.  The spectators are not on the field and haven’t committed themselves to the game, so why would they commit to following its rules.

So we believe that when the teenagers fall in love with Jesus, and commit themselves to Him, then they will want to passionately follow what He tells them He cares about.  They will try to do less of the things that hurt that relationship, and more of the things that deepen it.  Their actions will be fueled by the passion inside, not just from some list of dos and don’ts.

Remember High School Algebra?  At some point in the semester a student raised his hand (it was almost always a boy) and asked the teacher, “When will I ever use this in real life?”  Our boys are asking that question of almost everything, and our response is to tell them to be quiet and let us put more in their buckets.  It is obvious that as a society, we aren’t lighting our boy’s fires.  We are just trying to fill their buckets, and they are responding accordingly.

So back to the wall…

What happened this summer is that a bunch of boys got to invest their time in activities that are inherently manly (yes, there are other manly qualities that don’t involve shoveling).  They built things that will hopefully last far into the future, and they saw immediate fruit from their labor.  They got to work with an adult man who not only cared about them, but also modeled certain qualities, and told them that what they were doing was good and important.  And they were also told that they were good at what they were doing, and were thanked for their help.

They left feeling accomplished and good about themselves. These were boys that for a while at least, didn’t say, “I don’t care,” at all.  They seemed to care about something a great deal.  They left fired-up.


[1] Arum Kone, a regional labor economist for the Washington state Department of Employment Security, as quoted in The Spokesman-Review. February 13, 2012.