Toward a New Economy of Work

I am a Stay-at-Home-Dad. That is what I do these days. True, I have a part-time job at a restaurant, one which allows me a much needed escape into a world of larger social interaction, of time spent with people my own age, and one which puts some cold, hard cash in my back pocket; but, by and large, I stay at home with my 11 month old son.

I stay at home with him because it makes sense on many different levels: financially, it’s much more tenable than paying for childcare in the city; economically (the economics of efficiency of movement), it’s far easier than driving somewhere to drop him off for the day, or having someone drive to our house to stay with him during the day. Not to mention that I don’t have to commute anywhere during the daylight hours in order to arrive at some work destination. Emotionally and psychologically, I find it to be far superior than allowing some third (probably non-familial, strange) party to raise my son for me. Even the best nannies have off days, the gentlest disciplinarians their downfalls: I never have to worry about that because I am the one with the occasional off-day, and I know how my son is being treated during this time period. Developmentally, also, it makes more sense for him to be connected directly with a parent-caregiver. I have, I could only imagine, so much more invested in him as a person than someone I pay by the hour to clean up after him. In the state of Georgia, babies his age who wind up in day-care centers (the least expensive option) are tended to by workers who are, as mandated by law, required to care for no more than 4 children at one time. Over the course of an 8 hour day, this means my son would receive approximately 2 hours of direct care and interaction. Over the course of an 8 hour day at home with his dad, he receives approximately 8 hours of direct care and interaction.

But I’m not here to harp on the myriad benefits of the stay-at-home life. I wanted to talk a little today about work.

Work. What is it? Who does it? Does it always result in a paycheck?

To me, work has undergone a radical shift from the time I began working to the current moment at which I find myself writing this article. The first job I ever held was at a summer camp in northeast Ohio, where my family hails from. I was 12. I recall making (what seemed at the time) the laborious, near-impossible hill climb on my mountain bike – I’m sure the tires were far underinflated, my long-range muscles years from being truly developed. Hell, it was only a distance of 2 miles, but it seemed like an ironman. I pedalled to Camp Burton, where, with the help of my dad, I had set up an “interview” with the camp’s director – a mischievous, bearded man from the mischievous, tree-bearded hills of Pennsylvania (a place I have called home on a number of occasions, a place, indeed, that happens to be where I entered the world). I don’t have the foggiest what actually went on in that “interview” any more. I do recall sweaty palms and a faltering pre-pubescent voice answering myriad questions aimed in my direction. Most of them probably had to do with “what sort of women I liked.” The camp’s director was a shameless scamp. It was shamelessly uncomfortable. Dan was always good for that: making a person feel both at home and scared shitless, all in the same moment. I got the “job.” Two hours per day, Monday through Friday, during the summer break from school. I was the “lawnmower man.” I walked behind a push mower whose self-propulsion system had seen better summers. I walked the shit out of that mower, my sneakers, and the camp’s vast acreage. I worked there, actually, many consecutive summers, increasing my responsibility and roles with each passing year. Years later, I would scratch my head in wonderment: why had I been tasked with push-mowing lawns that could easily have been mowed with the camp’s various riding mowers? (And, indeed, often were.) It wasn’t until recently, very recently, that I once again visited the subject with something approximating an iota of mental fervor. And I came to a simple and obvious conclusion: I wasn’t there to mow lawns at all; I was there to figure out how to be there. At work, that is. I was there to learn to begin the long journey of appreciating all the various forms of work available to humans – in all work’s iterations, roles, responsibilities, bosses, co-workers, etc. I learned how to make straight lines across swaths of green, true; but I came to understand a little bit about what it meant to leave the house for part of the day (and that I needed to leave by a certain time, which meant I had to be dressed and fed and rested and ready to leave at that time, which meant I couldn’t stay embedded in the couch cushions thumbing a Nintendo controller until the absolute last second – though, I know people who, after decades of doing life, have still not figured this out). It was transformational. I felt empowered. I felt important, needed. I received an actual paycheck. I paid taxes, for crying out loud. I opened a bank account and began watching numbers pile on to of each other (small ones, mind you). It felt great, and I was meeting new, interesting people all the time. Yes, including some cute girls. The gig was solid. I was 12.

It’s been almost 20 years. I’ve worked many different jobs. I’ve done a lot of different things: landscaping, disaster restoration, camp counselor, tutor, teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, international development, landscape design, kitchen worker, waiter, construction worker, farmer. Some of these have been relatively lucrative – sometimes in terms of financial remuneration (relative to effort expended), sometimes in terms of intangible reward, sometimes in terms of both (but not usually).

And now I’m a stay at home dad. And no one pays me jack.

And it’s at once the easiest and hardest job I’ve ever held. The boss is unpredictable, the hours long, the work repetitive and sometimes physically demanding, the mental/emotional toll rather high at times. It’s the best and worst of life, balled up in one rather awkward cocoon. And no one pays me ni un peso to do it. And I love it (and hate it, too, sometimes).

So, in my thinking about work lately, I’ve realized something important: work looks different from different angles and to different people. It’s not a static thing. Work is not only “I leave the house at 7:45 and return to the house at 6:15.” Though, of course, for many people it is just that. Work can be not leaving the house, hell these days, not leaving the couch. And it can be watching your child, and writing novels, and painting pictures of people seen at great distances from rooftops.

And so, when someone says something like “shoot, staying at home sure sounds like a breeze” or “man, you really need to work more and stop being such a bum” it makes me want to punch them in the face. But, then I step back and (once my heels have cooled a bit) take the zen view of things: this person has probably never had a chance to really understand the essence of work. This person has, likely, only one narrow conception of this thing that is work. And it looks something like: leave the house in the morning, slave away doing something you probably don’t enjoy for someone you probably don’t like or respect, return home in the evening, wait for the bi-weekly paycheck, repeat. Just to be clear: there is nothing wrong with this. I have done this, and I’m sure I’ll do it again. But it’s not the only way to do work, or life. The sooner we start understanding this as a society at large, the better.

Kahlil Gibran says this of work:

“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger. And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine. And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.”
Here’s to a world ever-advancing toward a vision of work (labor) that cannot be boxed by corporations.

The World’s Worst Fathers

A few posts ago I wrote about The World’s Most Badass Fathers, meaning best fathers, meaning most nurturing, connected, intimate, loving, supportive fathers. Good men, good fathers, good husbands, good citizens, good human beings. Just overall good guys.

This week, we’re looking at the world’s worst fathers. The degenerate, slack-jawed, ignorant, mean, abusive, downright stupid curs who subject their progeny to the misfortune of their reproductive vicissitudes. Bad men, bad fathers, terrible husbands, rank citizens, awful human beings. Just overall horrible guys.

The quote you’ll find if you click on the About page on this site is the following: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” There are many ways to go about protecting people; one of these is being aggressive about shining a light on the darkness that other humans create. Though I don’t find great pleasure in writing about “the world’s worst fathers,” I do find it cathartic and agreeable to make others aware of a slice of modern Western humanity that is bellicose, belligerent, and all but hidden. Not that I find these awful people agreeable. Rather, I like that I can point a finger and say, “Hey, look at these jerks. Watch out for them. They exist.” Somehow, it feels right to apprise others of the mere fact of the existence of these fools.

I can tell what you’re thinking, rubbing your hands together there with malignant expectancy: heh, what a fool to tackle such a subject, such a politically-incorrect, supercharged issue, such a non-starter of an issue. And you’re completely right to be hand-wringing and smirking to yourself. This could be a touchy issue, one that could land me in some very hot water.

But, I’ll have to let you down: I don’t plan on making an ass of myself by brazenly choosing a specific set of men to lambast. This would be recklessly myopic and ignorant, at best. Choose any race, creed, class of men and you’ll find the world’s best and worst fathers somewhere in their ranks. No, I have no plans to light myself on fire by pointing any fingers. (Frankly, I wouldn’t even know where to begin pointing.)

In fact, (the suspense, the suspense!) I don’t plan on referring to fathers, necessarily, at all. Rather, would-be, could-be, have-the-requisite-reproductive-tackle to become a father type person.

Okay, enough suspense. I’m talking about men who would be the world’s worst dads if they ever had children: proponents of (the arrogantly, absurdly named) neomasculinity, as touted by founder (and apparent neomasculinity deity) Roosh V. I won’t get into the long, sordid history of Roosh V; he’s not worth anyone’s time. Basically, though, he’s a corporate failure cum sex tourist cum travel guide “author” cum outspoken “male rights” activist. He is the very definition of douchebag. Scoundrel, scamp, hustler, dirtbag, pig, misogynist, waste of human space. You get the idea.

I hate that I’m even writing about such a laughable jerk and his zombie acolytes. I shouldn’t be wasting my time on these morons even with an excoriating post; not one deserves anything other than to be wiped on some unseen surface (the underside of a folding chair, perhaps) like a gooey, surreptitious booger.

But, I wrote about the world’s best fathers, and so it felt fitting to me to shine a brief (and hopefully revealing, shaming) light on the world’s theoretical worst. This lot of testosterone-injecting ne’erdowells. This low, villainous rabble of offending brutes.

How did I even find these assholes? Interestingly (and sadly) these “neomasculine” morons weren’t the first I discovered. Myriad web searches have landed me the type of useful, informative, encouraging fodder I use to write my blog posts. Occasionally, inexplicably, I am directed to websites that are just the opposite: utterly useless and infuriating, not to mention violent, hate-filled, and evil. Sites like Return of Kings and A Voice for Men (I’m not providing links to these because I’d really rather you didn’t click on them. It’ll ruin your day. Seriously, these clowns are the worst.) I suppose the “inexplicable” part is a bit of a misnomer: these sites (part of the larger “manosphere”) often include terminology I use in my search parameters – things like “stay at home dad”, “global fatherhood”, “anthropology of fatherhood”, etc. – they include such terms in vitriolic blog posts lambasting men for wanting to do such “unmanly” and “pussy” things as staying at home with their children while their wives get an education.

There is such a thing as the “manosphere” – a collection of blogs purporting to talk about all things related to “men’s rights.” Again, don’t go looking for this: it’s full of hateful speech, awful language, violence against women (and really anyone who isn’t a white male), and the most base types you’re ever likely to come across. It’s so bad, actually, that many of these sites have been called out for Human Right’s Violations. And the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has most of these sites listed as “hate groups.”

I am flabbergasted. How is it that men (the vast majority white, straight, middle class, American) have convinced themselves that they are being oppressed? Because, let’s get this straight: these men actually feel that they are being actively oppressed. By women, by feminists, by other men who support women and feminists, by legislation that supports women’s rights. It’s all a bit… unfathomable to me. Then again, so are things like the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide and a million other foul, depraved, dark things.

A few articles I’ve read (this and this) seek to set things aright. The long and the short of their response to the manosphere’s “we’re being oppressed!” is: take a long look around you and tell me again that you’re oppressed. Men have ruled and still do rule the roost. Sure, some concessions have been made in recent years, allowing women the right to not be a man’s property, to vote, to go to school with men, even lately, to run for political office and make decisions. Fear-mongering male WASPS see this “rise” in the fortunes of women as evidence of nothing less than the emasculating, castrating capitulation of men to clawed matriarchs with flaming whips. That men are becoming enslaved, shackled, and denigrated by women by allowing women some basic human rights that men have always received.

This article puts it well:

“The men who frequent A Voice For Men and similar MRA communities are not interested in equality between humans as they claim. Their agenda is not to restore ‘human rights’ for all but to re-establish the dominance that has historically been enjoyed by men both legally and socially.”

There’s a lot more to read about the movers and shakers in this nonsensical, dangerous, entirely ass-backward movement. I’m not and never was trying to write an elaborate, all-encompassing post on the topic. I just thought it worth sharing. The reality is, despite the good I have been running into while researching for this blog, I have managed simultaneously to unearth new swarms of putrid, fetid human rot. Let’s just hope the likes of these contemptible degenerates stir themselves into a froth-mouthed paroxysm of self-immolation that destroys itself from the inside. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that these “manly men” will forget just how to use their private parts.

Sources

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-19/ford-a-lesson-for-mens-rights-activists-on-real-oppression/5533412#comments

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/reverse-oppression-cant-exist/

Walking

On a whim, I bought myself a slackline for my birthday. I make very, very few impulse buys, but I’m grateful for the occasional minor rust-spot on my otherwise sterling consumer reputation. (On the annual family beach vacation, I remember shielding my eyes from low-buzzing biplanes dragging fluttering advertisement banners in their stream: “I refuse to be advertised to!” I would declare imperiously to my siblings.)

The slackline has proven to be a lot of fun, good exercise, and a hell of a challenge.

Almost as if by magic, my son (nearly 10 months old now) began firing up his pistons and leg-pinions the very same day I bought the slackline. He took a single step that day, then a couple the next, and now a week later, he managed to take 11 steps in one go. Not that he’s covering any great distance, or making it look particularly easy. He actually looks like he could pitch headlong at any moment into the surface of the earth he’s attempting to conquer. He kind of looks like a zombie, truth be told. But, it’s beautiful, it’s hilarious. And it’s a bit nerve-wracking.

The funny part is, I realize how utterly disjointed and absurd I, too, look on the slackline, attempting, as it were, to walk for the first time: a fully grown man legs akimbo, arms and hands wildly weaving about, pitching headlong to the ground at random intervals. Quite frankly, I underestimated the amount of patience and focus and time it was going to take to learn how to use this two inch wide length of webbing. Strung between two tree boles. Hand-tightened, taut yet reeling. I feel as if I’m walking for the first time. I can relate more closely with my son as he shakily lurches, first one foot then the other, toppling backward, forward, sideward, irreverent supplicant he is, diapered, drooling, grinning with two sharp teeth.

Another whim (no money was exchanged in this transaction, no consumer guilt clouding my sights) led me to search the web for “how do babies learn to walk?” I poked noncommittally around the first few results until I found a PDF purporting to be from NYU Psychology. What I found was an article titled “How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls Per Day” by Adolf et. al. ‘Twas an interesting little read, with a few tidbits I’ll share, but I also am deeply ambivalent about this type of research sometimes. Sometimes, certain aspects of existence seem so obvious to me that a battery of tests and millions of dollars seems superfluous, wasteful, idiotic even. How do we learn to walk? By watching others, trying it out on our own, falling a hell of a lot, falling some more, and repeated attempts over enormous amounts of time. It seems rather straightforward to me. So, why the team of doctors? Because we can, I suppose. Because someone needs something to do with all this time we have in our lives. Thankfully, after sifting through the overtly and overly-academic jargon and doublespeak, I landed on a question that actually seemed to be worth asking in the first place: Why do we walk?

At first blush, this question may seem ridiculous, inflammatory even. We walk, of course, because that’s just what humans do! It’s more efficient than quadrupedal locomotion, you fool! Yes and yes. However, the NYU study seemed resolute. Staunchly opposed to such facile rebuttals: even so, why, pray tell, do we walk? They ask: “why would expert crawlers abandon a presumably stable, quadrupedal posture that took months to master in order to move in a precarious, upright posture where falling is rampant?” It’s a fair question. Quite fair, really. My son has at long last mastered (though this is a relative mastery) the art of crawling, only to abandon this mastery – the efficiency of movement, the fluidity, the speed, the confidence and fine adjustments he can make at top speed – for the utterly horrifying reality that is walking upright. (Yes, I’m talking about the slackline, too.) Why bother making the switch?

The NYU team invited a few hundred kids – tiny humans new to the whole walking scene – to come to their lab to do just that: walk. They set the place up with furniture, toys, the works. Just like home. With a bunch of nerds gawking, rolling their ballpoints between calloused forefingers and adjusting their horned-rims. Yes, just like home.

Below are the actual illustrations from the report.

In the first, you’ll see the “ideal” walk by the “ideal” walker: a straight, unveering, measured, metered, casually quasi-professional gait down a long section of carpet. In the second, you’ll see the unholy, all-electrifying reality of little 15 month old humans scrimshawing their way across the surface of the earth.

Screenshot 2015-07-27 at 10.37.35 PM

What we think babies should be doing when learning to walk.

Screenshot 2015-07-27 at 10.37.55 PM

What babies are actually doing when learning to walk.

As you can see, the two pictures are basically identical. There’s this rather annoying strand of what appears to be gigantic spaghetti in the second one, though. Hmmm, I wonder what could be the reason for… Oh wait. That’s right. Kids don’t give a shit what we think they should be doing. Little Tommy was asked to show his walking skills to the grown-ups. They would have been thrilled to see a dozen marching strides straight down the center of the “gait carpet” (that’s what they actually call that thing). Instead, Little Tommy smirked at them, stuffed a fat forefinger with a grubby, ragged nail up his left nostril, and proceeded to ransack the place like a cornered badger. “Children fall approximately 17 times/hour,” the report dryly stated. I am glad for the illustrations: they help to explain why this rate is so high. It’s because kids are fucking maniacs. (That exact phrase didn’t seem to be anywhere in the report, as far as I could tell.)

In another taciturn, bespectacled moment, the researchers stated: “Immense amounts of time-distributed, variable practice constitute the natural practice regimen for learning to walk.” That’s what it’s all about: practice, and endless amounts of it. Again, nothing earth-shattering being studied here. Just like I won’t be shattering anything on the slackline. Oh wait, no, no, I might actually shatter something. Shit.

Not to get too far away from that interesting query from earlier: why walk in the first place? If walking presents such a “precarious” state compared to the relative ease and comfort of crawling, why bother? That is, why aren’t we all still dragging our knuckles on the way to the office or grocery store?

Turns out, after much research, much belabored observation and plotting, charting, graphing, analyzing, reanalyzing, adding, subtracting, rationalizing, theorizing, and analyzing some more, the answer is: crawling is not actually any safer than walking. This seems suspicious, but when “when we normalized fall rate by the difference in activity between crawlers and walkers, the difference in fall rates disappeared and walkers were no longer at a disadvantage.” That is, when the researchers took into account the distances walkers were able to cover compared to crawlers, the number of falls each took were about the same. That is, you might technically take a few more hits on two legs as opposed to four, but the amount of terrain you’ll canvas makes it worth the risk. As the NYU researchers themselves put it, “Thus, part of the answer to “why walk?” is “why not?””

And there you have it: “why not?” Why not slackline? Why not look like a complete fool in my front yard in the time after dinner and before bed? Why not move from a quadrupedal setup to a much more dubious bipedal one? Why not?


I wonder who will learn to walk first? Abraham is a bit ahead of the curve, but he has a long way to go before he’s dashing about synaptically, fearless as the breeze, fall-free and nimble. I managed to take four consecutive steps tonight on the line: seven shy of my infant son. (In all fairness, he’s been ambling about every day, and I’ve missed a few days because of evening thunderstorms.) The distance to my goal of walking comfortably is perhaps on par with my son’s. It may well be that we both end up walking confidently around the same time. And how cool would that be? And as soon as he can walk on solid ground, he’s going up on the line. Give him a head start. By the time he’s having kids of his own, he’ll be doing stuff on a high line that most folks would be afraid to attempt from the safety of their couch. I look forward to that day. I hope I’m not on crutches.


Sources:

Karen E. Adolph, Whitney G. Cole, Meghana Komati, Jessie S. Garciaguirre, Daryaneh Badaly, Jesse M. Lingeman, Gladys Chan, and Rachel B. Sotsky

How Do You Learn to Walk? Thousands of Steps and Dozens of Falls Per Day

http://www.psych.nyu.edu/adolph/publications/Adolph%20EtAl%20HowDoYouLearnToWalk.pdf

Rise of the Ikumen: Cool Japanese Fathers

The elevator rocketed skyward, taking in the sweeping arc of the city on its monorail path to the top. Below – far, far below – the eyes of the city were winking on one by one as the sunlight shed the last of its allotted effulgence. The phone in his pocket hadn’t stopped its monotonous, syncopated vibrating all day. He groped for it now, hand trembling in the gathering dusk. The face displayed on the screen was not the one he had been hoping for. He replaced the machined piece of space-age glass and plastic in his trousers. It always amazed him – the height of the building. How men had clambered up hundreds of stories, course after course, ratcheting steel and glass and concrete in ever loftier formations, sights set on the heavens. It was dizzying. Men used to wash the windows up here. It seemed like a myth. The amazingly fragile, soft-shelled human, dangling 89 stories above the curved and rotating planet, scraping a squeegee along planed glass. The gusts of wind. The creaking scaffolding. The thin-carapaced man in a plastic hardhat scuttling along the sheer verticality. He shuddered. From the thought of hanging out there or the look he had seen on his supervisor’s face he couldn’t be sure.

It had not always been this difficult. The first child was shukufuku – a blessing. The second one seemed more like… noroi. A curse. The back of a manicured hand wiped a beadlet of sweat from his eyebrow. He flung it far from the tailored suit, the one his father had bought him on his induction into the top tier of the company. It bothered the man that the inside of the left front coat pocket had a stain; not that anyone would ever see this. It seemed to him, however, that the stain betokened something sinister. A malediction on his otherwise untarnished reputation; a tarnishing of his silver, something insidiously willing his faux-metallic sheen to wear thin. A revealing of his zirconia core.

Restless, irresolute, he tapped his shoe on the carpeting. A few more floors to go. His palms radiated heat, but his mouth went ever drier. He passed his tongue across the well-formatted teeth there. Bared them at the wavering reflection in the flared glass. Pinched up his tie one final time. He blew a hot breath out through an already vibrato-timbering throat. This is what he had planned for, rehearsed. He would march in there and tell him. March in there and tell him… tell him… A scrapbook of grim, disapproving family members filled his mind. They shook their heads in dismay. His father, standing rigid in an antiseptic office, turned his squared and set jaw. Cast his gaze now far from his one and only son. Would his career ever recover? What would people say? How ready was he – how capable – to nurture a new life?

The world below slowed to a stop. The city, a gridwork of neon, halogen, and flourescent now, glared up, mute as a cipher or a lost temple. The elevator doors shuffled open with a bong.

Ah, excellent, you’re here sir. Mr. Kitahashi will see you now.


I know enough about samurai – a loose, scattershot knowledge, mind you – to appreciate a bit of the legacy left behind on Japanese soil. Words like humility, loyalty, deference, sacrifice, duty, honor come to mind, all falling under the umbrella of chivalry – bushido. (Of course, words like katana, blood, self-immolation, kamikaze come to mind as well, but are less useful in this particular blog post.) Though you might be able to find some of these concepts in play in a military setting in modern Japan, you’re more likely to find them embedded in the high-rise corporate business sphere. A sleek, urban realm, riddled with “corporate warriors” vying for the top rung. Contracts and ballpoint pens instead of oaths and swords.

Returning, again, to Globalized Fatherhood, I thumbed my way to a chapter that caught my eye: “Hiding Fatherhood in Corporate Japan” by Scott North. It was worth the hour or so read.

Here’s the gist of the paper: Despite increasingly family-friendly public policy in modern-day Japan, leave-taking from work remains at a near standstill. A point of clarification: leave-taking for the purpose of paternity leave. In the past couple of decades, corporate restructuring (due in large part to the dizzingly nightmarish complexity of the global economy) has led to massive job cuts in Japan. People – men especially – are extremely reluctant to give up a good thing. The good thing in this case is a full-time job at a large company. Not unlike myriad other foreign workforces, Japan’s masses are composed of humans willing to work absurd (perhaps “abusive” is going too far, perhaps not) number of hours, forego overtime pay, work with few (or no) benefits, forego taking paid time off. And, just to be clear, I do not side with Jeb Bush on this issue: working more hours is not going to solve anything. Well, it may solve some of the human overpopulation problem, as more and more people take their own lives or simply die from burnout, stress, depression, anxiety, pressure, hypertension, etc. (This is known as karoshi.)

The situation is particularly incendiary in Japan because of the manifold concepts of meiwaku – causing others to be inconvenienced, the “corporate warrior” mentality, and something even more deeply ingrained in Japanese culture: language.

The Japanese character for man is an amalgam of “rice paddy” and “power.” If you’re like me, you might be scratching your head. “Paddy power?” But then I remembered something I wrote about in this piece about Vietnamese men. The prescribed historical male role is that of household sustenance provider. Moreover, “fathers were called daikokubashira, the massive beam supporting the roof in the traditional architecture of the multi-generational agricultural households.” Pillars of the home indeed. There is something terrifying about cutting against the grain when it comes to cultural/linguistic mores; mostly, one wonders what sort of hemorrhaging will occur with such bold, deep cuts.

But, our problem here seems perhaps worse than the “shaking pillar” we saw in Vietnam; if a shaky central beam is bad, then taking that support away altogether is positively devastating. As men moved out of the rice paddies and into cubicles, the lexical character purporting to describe men as men became something of an archaic trinket: a nice concept, but hardly tangible, far from true.

Don’t let me go too far down the linguistics path. I might never return…

It’s not that Japanese men are suffering an existential crisis born of a sociolinguistic screw-turn:  It’s that they’re facing an existential crisis born of socioeconomic balderdash. Just like many of us in the postmodern, post-industrial world. (I plan to explore all of this in another post.)

Mostly, Japanese fathers do not take paternity leave. Like, less than 2%. And of that 2%, many have chosen to “keep a low profile.” In practice, this looks like a smuggling of paternity leave under the banner of “sick leave”, “vacation time”, and the ever-ambiguous “personal day.” In a society still tied to a warrior mentality, the thought of taking leave to wipe up drool has not gained a strong foothold.

To combat this, some bold “pioneers” have stepped forward. A “handful of articulate men” who refused to “hide fatherhood behind a corporate warrior facade.” This is perhaps nowhere more vocal or visual than in the Ikumen Project.  The Ikumen Project actively seeks to change the social climate surrounding childcare and gender roles in corporate Japan. To be precise, the project’s expressed purpose is “to change families so society will shift.” (This awkward translation probably looks and sounds much better in the original Japanese.) The Japanese appear to have a penchant for linguistic gymnastics, as the term ikumen is a play on the word ikemen – trendy slang for “a man with a perfect face.” To native Japanese speakers, “this connection between fathering and fashionable masculinity was obvious.”

I was curious to learn more about the Ikumen Project and to see if it had survived the intervening 5 years from its inception. It has. By every appearance, actually, it looks like it has gotten stronger. They’re now handing out the “Microphone Boss Award for 2015.” I read exactly zero Japanese, and I have to take Google Translate’s word for it, but the award seems to be earmarked for a particularly progressive CEO – someone energetically promoting paternal leave among the male cadre in the company. There are personal journals from newly converted stay-at-home fathers, resource guides for how to be a father, and myriad external links to help questioning men make the (right) decision to leave work for a while. There’s even a theme song. It kinda looked like there might even have been a movie. Again, my Japanese is nonexistent.

Perhaps most notably, the “ponytailed dancer husband” of a famous female pop singer symbolized the new ideal of caring fatherhood. His mug was cast on posters and advertisements all over. “Beside a photo of him holding his laughing, infant son, the posters declared, ‘Men who do not raise children will not be called dad’.” On the same ads were striking statistics: notes that reminded viewers that the “average Japanese father spent only seventeen minutes a day with his children.” Yikes.

The numbers are still a long way from ideal: Though over ⅓ of all working men have expressed interest in taking some sort of leave from work in order to parent, a 2012 survey from the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare shows paternity leave-taking at a mere 1.89%. Ouch. Though this is up from 0.12% in 1996 when the survey began, at the current rate of increase, it’ll be another 252 years before ⅓ of working men are leaving the office in favor of the living room. If that sounds ridiculous, remember that cultural change can happen very, very slowly. Hell, last year there was still a segregated prom in Georgia. Glacial change. Though, like actual glaciers these days, multifaceted pressures are combining at ever-expanding rates to produce drastic results. Maybe the total liquefaction of polar ice will coincide with complete cultural overhaul in Japan. Or maybe neither will come to pass. Who knows? In the meantime, I’m personally dedicated to sculpting my own “perfect dad face.” And yes, you can put that on the Ikumen Project dad’s journal if you’d like.


Sources

North, Scott.

  1. Hiding Fatherhood in Corporate Japan.

In Globalized Fatherhood. Marcia C. Inhorn, Wendy Chavkin, and Jose-Alberto Navarro, eds. Pp. 53-77. New York: Berghahn Books.

The World’s Most Badass Fathers

Stalking live prey across the forest floor, the man pauses momentarily to cock an ear in the direction of a murmuring rustle. The cool of the morning mist surges sharply against the moist beads collecting warm-blooded and ovoid on his chest. He shivers. Stops to check his arrows. There is a thumbnail-sized notch in his favorite shaft: scarred remains of an ambush one late afternoon by an elephant flushed from the fanged and fringed underbrush. He caresses lovingly the aft section of the arrow, pulling his short, calloused digits along a mowhawk of feathers freshly replaced. Bright forest birds, caught mid-flight and plucked into bubbling pots over soot-scrawled rock fires. These tail feathers fly the truest of all, rainbow arcs bracing the dart’s swift flight. The man knowingly mumbles the bird’s name in his abrupt tongue, invoking the raptor’s spirit, its essence, the unfathomable. He continues on the trail. The trail. A sprawling jigsaw mitred against the infinite backdrop of jungle: endless, boundless, horizonless. Walk down this path and wind up at the cliffs; this one, the ocean; another, the capital; yet another, Sudan or Cameroon or Congo.

The man knows the lay of the land, knows its rhythms, its respirations, its aspirations. Was it not this very tree where his uncle was hanged? Not that self same rock upon which was smote his first kill? A small, tawny mammal scuttles under vernal foliage nearby. It leaves hasty tracks, indelible inkings printed feather-light on the coolblack mud of the path. Too small to worry about, the hunter gathers his senses back to himself and refocuses on the surrounding wall of green ahead. He knows each plant, each tendril; no amorphous mass of photosynthesized dendrite, this. He bends gently to grasp a frond dripping with morning dew. Humid bringer of life. Cups the open-palmed petiole to his lips, sucks out the forest’s marrowed flute.

Slung to his side, cradled, cupped and swaddled in knotty cloth, a tiny baby. Much too young yet for teeth, eyes sewn shut with deepest sleep, bouncing alongside his father, learning the ways of the hunt. The man glances down at the infant, stifles a gap-toothed grin, palms the tender crescent of forehead showing, and resumes the chase.


From the moment I conceived of the idea to write a blog about fatherhood from an anthropological perspective, I have wanted to write about the Aka. You might say, even, that they were the impetus for the blog itself. Now that I’m thinking more about it, they probably were just that: the reason to start this whole shindig. This might, at first blush, appear to sound like an exaggeration. It is not. They are such badasses, I’m surprised we all haven’t heard much more about them. They certainly put us Western fathers to shame.

Dr. Barry Hewlett, professor of anthropology at Washington State University, has spent countless hours living with the Aka. The Aka are a nomadic hunter-gatherer people, pygmies all, fanning themselves across the southern portion of Central African Republic (CAR) and northern Congo. Dr. Hewlett first went to CAR decades ago for dissertation work. His time spent as a participant-observant in Aka communities formed the basis for his first monograph, now heralded as a “classic” in anthropological circles: Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care.

I contacted Professor Hewlett in early December of last year. I wanted to know if there was any work to be done in furthering the study of the “anthropology of fatherhood.” To my utter amazement and delight, he – a renowned anthropologist – responded quite rapidly to my shot-in-the-dark email. He assured me that there was plenty of work to be done; insisting, even, that since the publication of Intimate Fathers in 1991, there hasn’t been an ethnography conducted with a small scale culture that focuses on fathers. “So, lots to do!” He was equally insistent that I “enjoy the new family” for the time being; something which is much easier to do at the moment than conduct ethnographies in heart of Africa. But, back to the Aka.

The Aka, as documented exhaustively by Hewlett, are rather magnanimous with their children. Infants enjoy almost 100% of their time in the strong, safe arms of a caregiver; rarely, if ever, are they put down. Up to 60% of this time is generally spent in the arms of someone other than mom. Unlike surrounding agricultural tribes, who carry their babies on their backs, the Aka prefer to sling their infants on their sides – allowing plenty of face time with the adult in charge. Aka live in small clusters of 25-35 people, usually a band of brothers, their wives, and their children. Moving on average once per month in search of fresh game, they call home a tightly knit circle of small huts. Their primary source of sustenance is wild game, which is hunted by using nets: a number of people will string up a net, others will flush startled animals into it, still others will pounce upon the tangled prey and finish the job. (Just in case you were curious, the women are usually the ones to do the “pouncing” and “finishing” part of the hunt.) The “village” center is formed by 5-8 circular huts, themselves set in a circular fashion. Though it will seem odd to someone like me who has been raised in the U.S., time spent at home is “public time” while time spent out hunting and foraging in the forest is “private time.” Since material resources are few, and the Aka are fiercely egalitarian, things like shoes, shirts, necklaces, and spear tips are passed around with great frequency. Hey, mind if I borrow your new car for a bit?

We know a little about the Aka now; what of the men?

The men, it turns out, are some badass nurturing sons of guns.

Aka men:

-Spend more than 50% of their time within arms reach of their infants (this is at least five times more than men in any other culture)

-Hold their infants for more than 2 hours per day (compare this to the paltry 10-20 minute per day average in an American household)

-Co-sleep with their infants and children

-Do not designate certain activities as “women’s” or “feminine” and thus, end up sharing holistically in the work load

-often offer their nipples to their infants to suckle when the mother is not available

This is a mere sampling of what Aka men do to help with the little ones. By and large, Aka pygmy men make the average American man look rather small, in terms of fathering. But, what factors are taking place here to create an environment so conducive to being a caring, nurturing, loving father? Is it something bound up in the Aka culture? Are Aka men testosterone-deprived? Is it something in the water? Are their babies just that much cuter than everyone else’s?

The answer comes from decades of intimate study of the Aka in all their settings – the home circle, the hunt, the evening meals, the ritual celebrations, etc. And, lest you fret, ye deskjockey, ye corporate American absentee father, there are specific facets of the Aka cultural milieu that precipitate such an attached, nurturing, affectionate fatherhood. In fact, these “specific facets” are not necessarily proprietary to the Aka, but are boasted by hunter-gatherer societies across the spectrum.

In foraging societies, and especially among the Aka, two things specifically contribute to the molding of super badass fathers: 1) accumulable resources are few; and 2) men are not (necessarily) the primary contributors to subsistence. Why would this matter? First, let’s look quickly at accumulable resources. That is, those things which can be accumulated and stored. Food, clothing, physical “stuff.” Since refrigeration is not super-duper accessible to the average Aka, something like basic food storage (for more than a few days) becomes a non-starter. Clothing is mostly an impediment, so you won’t find Aka popping on over to TJ Maxx for a sporty new button down. The primary “resources” the Aka have are “kinship resources,” that is, their family members, people, humans, peeps. Secondly, among the Aka, survival depends upon skillfully and successfully hunting, capturing, killing, processing, and cooking wild animals. And yes, knowing, searching for, finding, selecting, harvesting, processing, and cooking numerous wild plants. In both cases – the plants and the animals – men and women share in the action. Unlike some other hunter-gatherer societies, Aka men and women rely on each other equally to perform the tasks that bring home the bacon (and beans). We often think of “primitive” nomadic foraging tribes in terms of stoutly divided gender-roled and doled labor bases: women stay close to camp picking berries and leaves while the men tramp far and deep in bloodthirsty mortal combat against the waking animal kingdom. It simply doesn’t work like that for the Aka. Men and women put in equal mileage on a daily basis, and everyone does all tasks.

I guess I still haven’t spelled out why this would make the male members of the Aka worth a wooden nickel as fathers. Here it is. Ready for it?

If Aka men are not concerned with the above 2 concerns that concern the hand-wringing men of most of the rest of the known world, they have a lot more time for taking care of the kids. (Like, offer you my man-nipple kind of time.) What I mean is, if there are few resources to accumulate and men are not expected to be the primary winners of these, it opens up galaxies of time and opportunity for the menfolk to stoop down, pick up a crying baby, and offer soothing whispers. Since Aka men are not stalking off to herd cattle or fly planes or sell insurance or plant rows of corn, they are available to be fathers to their children. Since they aren’t plugged into the rat race of resource acquisition, to the competitive, cutthroat business of fighting other males for limited capital, they are free to spend their time carrying their children on hunts. Kind of like “bring your son/daughter to work day.” But every day. And there are deadly things to watch out for at every turn. And there’s bound to be lots of blood. And evisceration. Ok, so maybe not a whole lot like “bring your kid to work day.” But one thing’s for sure, the men of the Aka tribe are some of the world’s most badass fathers, maybe even the most badass.


Sources:

Hewlett, Barry.

1991 Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal Infant Care.

Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

___________.

The Cultural Nexus of Aka Father-Infant Bonding.

http://anthro.vancouver.wsu.edu/media/PDF/cultural_nexus_fathers.pdf

Some Stray Thoughts

One of the most surprising things about being a new dad – about being a new parent – is how little time there is. To do anything. Suddenly, the most provincial of tasks becomes an insurmountable Everest. Want to go to the bathroom? Nope. Make yourself breakfast? Forget about it. Spend like 5 minutes doing something, anything, that you simply want to do? Nope.

That’s because a little person now controls your life. It’s like having a tiny robotic alien implant. Arms jerk awkwardly, joints twitch akimbo, a magnetic force draws you to itself. You submit. You’re now under the control of Imperial Mind-Lord Abraham. And you thought this was your idea.


This is the 2 month mark. You are simultaneously needed constantly and not needed for hours on end. Stray not far, young man, from the crib. And make the most of your time, ye virgins, when you have it. A diaper will need changing at a moment’s notice, a bottle dispensed. This may occur every four hours, or every twenty minutes. That’s why you can’t rest for a minute. Because if you do, you don’t eat, or poop, or sleep, or work. You don’t get anything done.

Now, there is another way of looking at all of this: this is your work, your play, your joie de vivre. Your raison d’etre. And that’s how I enjoy looking at it: this little poop-producing factorette is all of these things combined.


This is the 5 month mark. Baby has made strides to sit up on his own, grab objects and pull them toward his mouth, roll over, coo and caw and cackle. Things are just getting started, food has become a thing of interest, as has that thin brick of glowing plastic mom and dad are always stabbing at with their bony forefingers.

There is still so little time for self-care. I can barely manage to take a decent poop. Anyone who has ever cared for a child knows what I’m talking about. Anyone who hasn’t, well, they might think like I used to: “Wow. These people [parents] are suckers. C’mon, how hard can a baby be? Just poke a pacifier in that noise-hole and strap them in a chair.” I would love to take a time machine back to each instance I thought or said something like that: I’d slap my ignorant self silly.

The baby is up now. He’s only been napping for 20 minutes. He has a cold, and a nasty, biting cough that keeps waking him violently from sleep. I’m glad I don’t have a cold as well: this whole situation would be nigh impossible.


This is the 8 month mark. He is wandering around the house, a vagabond, a rascal. He crawls on all fours, a flurry of movement and noise and drool. He pulls himself into a standing position on anything his hands touch: knobs, couch cushions, toilet paper holders, kneecaps, shelves, cat doors, the cat, the dog. He is a maniac, investing everything he contacts with a layer of slobber, a serious, critical mouthing over, once, twice, thrice – as many times as it takes to get the essence of the thing. He is a voracious eater of foods of all kinds, he is an absolutist when he is finished with the meal. His tray becomes the palette of some deranged reclusive impressionist painter. I do my best to dodge smashed berries and hummus. He waves his arms about him, screeches incoherently: he is daring the world, the gods to defy him, to defy his magnanimity, his power, his omnipotence. He looks me straight in the eye, grins like the devil, and slams his sweet potato forehead into the bridge of my nose.

When I put him in bed for the night, he fights me tooth and nail. Don’t take me away from this marvelous place, this wonderment earth! Sleep little one, sleep. It’ll be here when you wake up, I promise. We’ll do all of this madness over again tomorrow.

The Encircling Wolves: Co-Sleeping in an Age of Musical Cribs

I am often amazed at the lengths some people will go to in order to prove a point. Take, for example, Dr. William Sears. Dr. Sears is the author of dozens of books on child care and medicine, and director of the popular parenting-advice website, askdrsears.com. When his fourth child – a daughter, Hayden – was born in 1978, he and his wife became – literally overnight – converts to the co-sleeping method. He thought it was so ineffably brilliant, in fact, that he spent night after night studying the unfolding microcosm of mother-infant bonding that occurred after the lights went out. It is a testament to his innate, boundless curiosity as both a parent and a scientist.

I can picture Dr. Sears gazing out on his sleeping wife and new child, statuesque in his corner chair, trying not to make a peep. He probably got really good at taking notes without looking, jotting down observations in the near total-darkness of his bedroom-turned-laboratory. The previously staunch advocate against all things co-sleeping, busily sipping cups of strong black French press café, straining his eyes to see the tiniest of movements between his wife and his newborn daughter. It’s something strange, beautiful, and yes, perhaps, a bit creepy. (I put myself into his wife’s robe and slippers, as it were: awaking to find a pair of loving, yet sternly wide eyes peering out from the dark chair in the corner. It must have been disconcerting, worrisome at times. “Honey, can you please just come to bed?” “Yes, dear. In a while. Just go back to sleep. I need to see what happens with the child when you re-enter your REM cycle.”

Dr. Sears’ findings were at once humdrum and revolutionary.

On the one hand, what he was witnessing unfolding between his wife and their newborn girl was nothing new: humans (like most other animals) have always slept in close proximity to their young. It’s, well, just sort of obvious – something corroborated by the vast majority of the world’s human population: outside the industrial West, people typically share their beds with their children. Sometimes into their teens. I’m personally not invested in this arrangement for the long haul like this, but hey, more power to the man and woman who don’t bat an eyelash when Junior brings his first girlfriend to bed in the family bedroom.

On the other hand, our modern post-industrial society, in its infinite wisdom, has deemed it unsafe, improper, and possibly even deadly to sleep nestled close to children. The collective (and insane) voice crying out against sharing beds with children, demanding that they be given their own cribs in their own private rooms, sees no reason why every individual cannot be just that: an individual, with all their own individual things. This, naturally, should extend to babies as young as a week old. Why shouldn’t little Humperdink get a jump on his peers? Let the kid cry it out! Let him pull himself up by his own bootstraps! You say he’s a year old and still sleeping with mom and dad?? I say he’s bound for community-college dropout status. The lout. Dr. Sears’s observations in the late 70’s came to the medical community at a time of peculiarly intense pushback against all the wisdom of the ages. What he was suggesting – babies sleeping with their mommies and daddies is a good and normal thing! – was tantamount to heresy.

And, in many arenas, it still is. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), along with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, warns against the evils of co-sleeping, bed-sharing, sleep-sharing, and any other moniker attached to the overall notion of sleeping next to one’s helpless infant. “Suffocation!” they cry, and “SIDS!” they prophesy. “Strangulation, crushing, asphyxiation, dismemberment and death!” they preach. (And, in a few cases they are correct in their sermons: you shouldn’t hop into bed with your baby after a bender at the bar with old college buddies; sleep on the couch that night. And you shouldn’t smoke in bed with your baby. Really? Well, shoot. Can I smoke in the living room with my baby, or while giving him a bath? Oh, and don’t share a bed with your baby if you are “excessively obese.” Can you realistically share a bed with anyone if you are “excessively obese”?) In each case, common sense would quickly spell out the best (read: only possible) path. But, as a friend of mine says “you know, the thing about common sense is: it’s not all that common.”

Dr. James McKenna, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and author of scads of articles, interviews, and books on parenting, childcare, and the nature of co-sleeping, has a lot of good stuff to say on the topic. He has spent his career studying these topics on a global level from an anthropological perspective. And he sees absolutely no reason why we should accept the rhetoric coming out of wishy-washy institutions like the AAP.

James McKenna quotes:

“I worry about the message being given unfairly (if not immorally) to mothers: that is, no matter who you are, or what you do, your sleeping body is no more than an inert potential lethal weapon against which neither you nor your infant has any control. If this were true, none of us humans would be here today to have this discussion because the only reason why we survived is because our ancestral mothers slept alongside us and breastfed us through the night!”

Elsewhere, McKenna states: “The solitary infant sleep environment represents a neurobiological crisis for the human newborn as this micro-environment is ecologically invalid for meeting the fundamental needs of human infants.”

That is, don’t put your infant in a cave (or crib) and walk away. We in our modernity are still beholden to the laws of nature. When we put infants in cribs to “soothe themselves” and to “learn to sleep on their own” we are really just inviting the spectre of ancient demons to come and inhabit the lair. Ok, that’s a stretch.

But it’s not a stretch to say that leaving an infant alone to sleep can be dangerous, perhaps even stupid. McKenna again: “Indeed, sleeping alone in a room by itself and not breastfeeding are now recognized as independent risk factors for SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome], a fact that explains why most of the world has never heard of SIDS.” It is prima facie absurd to suggest that allowing newborn humans to “go to sleep on their own” is something we can actually achieve. We may not have packs of dire wolves closing in on our nesting angels, but we do have babies who still have biological, emotional, psychological, developmental needs: needs that are not being met when we dump them in some crib for the night to work it out on their own. We cannot replace ourselves – our innate presence – with something as banal and crude as a plastic, vibrating, battery-operated rocker or crib.

When we attempt such a thing, we are going against the grain of thousands of years of tried and true human nature: the contact, the touch, tenderness, intimacy, familiarity that comes with sharing a sleeping arrangement with our own young – we are in danger of losing this. And with this loss comes a loss of trust and a greater gulf between us and the tiny beings we (rather often purposely) brought into this mess. And to lose this synaptic connection, to snuff out the flame of parent-infant bond at such a tender age, would not just be a shame: it would be a tragedy.


Sources:

AskDrSears.com – “Co-Sleeping: Yes, No, Sometimes?”, http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/sleep-problems/co-sleeping-yes-no-sometimes

Huffington Post: “My Conversation with Co-Sleeping Expert James McKenna, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/james-mckenna-co-sleeping-expert_b_7119782.html

University of Notre Dame. Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory. Safe Co-Sleeping Guidelines, http://cosleeping.nd.edu/safe-co-sleeping-guidelines/