Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Red Underwear

Jennifer and I sometimes look at one another longingly whenever Tyler now roars out, "I am Superman--to the rescue!" Because it was a brief six months ago that Tyler's favorite show was the quirky, tender, violence-free Charlie and Lola.


Goodbye, Charlie and Lola.

Hello, red underwear.

At Target last week, the three of us giddily shopped the clearance rack in pursuit of a few necessary items: ties and a couple of pants to wear to work, some maternity clothes for Jen, and long pants and shirts for Tyler. As we approached one of the clearance racks in the boys sections, Tyler's whole face lit up.

Red Underwear!

With a Superman logo right in the front!

"Daddy! Mommy! LOOK WHAT I FOUND!" Tyler's who body began to do a dance, and he held the sacred red underwear in his hands as though it were something for which his little soul had been searching all his life. Finally! 

I looked at the price tag, exploring the first measure of a viable reason for saying No. But the price tag afforded me no such easy departure into the land of No-Superman-Status. It read: $1.96.

In my mind (yes, for real) flashed Jackson Katz's incredible documentary Tough Guise, which explores the very dangerous and deplorable ways we teach boys how to be men: through violence, bravado, and toughness. I though of the incredible and momentous readings in Critical Race Theory, which challenge us to explode the myths of equality-already-reached and instead see the severe structural inequalities, dominance, and racism built into our society.

And, yes, I thought of Charlie and Lola.

And I looked down into the bright eyes of my soon-to-be-five-year-old son holding red underwear with a Superman emblem right in the front.

"Please, Daddy? I can rescue people with these!"

And, okay, I caved. It wasn't so much that I chose the macho male route (at least I hope not) but rather that I wanted to allow Tyler to explore everything he wants to explore, rather than trying to hold him at a stage or a place that that brings Jen and I delight and glee.

Immediately upon returning home with the $1.96 red underwear with the Superman logo in the front, Tyler ran to his room, put on his blue pants, and then pulled the red underwear on top of them.

He then ran back out to the living room, "Let's go to the park because I AM SUPERMAN!"

At the playground, we saw two children we've played with before, Inian and Chandrini. They are delightful, kind, thoughtful children, and immediately they asked Tyler if he wanted to play with them. And he did.

I sat alongside their mother, explaining about the red underwear. She laughed and smiled, then said., "My kids don't even notice it, see?"

And it was true. They didn't. The three kids walked balance beams, played tag, played Octopus (a game they made up whereby an "octopus" tries to reach up onto the play structure and gran the swimmers' feet! Ah!), and then created an obstacle course.

I watched my son in the red underwear--watched how he giggled, held hands with Chandrini, giggled some more--when it was finally time to go--gave both kids massive hugs. And something in me calmed down. Just because he's in a Superman stage doesn't mean he's going to start acting tough and cool (and we especially hope not, because, hey, lets' face it: he's got a Dad for whom traditional notions of toughness are about as familiar as rubbing Crisco all over oneself and subsequently taking a trip to the Moon).

At lunch today, Jen was explaining to Tyler that on this very day nine years ago, "Daddy asked me to marry him, so today is our anniversary.

"What did you say when Daddy asked you about that?" Tyler wondered with anticipation and excitement written on his face.

"I said Yes." Jen looked at me and I looked at this beautiful, strong, loving, kind woman. Then Tyler interrupted our little reverie and said, "HAPPY UNIVERSITY!"

The thing about red underwear is that maybe it doesn't have to be what society says it is. Maybe it doesn't have to be about bravado and fighting and a one-size-fits-all definition of masculinity. Maybe it's possible to remake Superman into something other than a fighting machine. Because at some point we come to the conclusion that everything is flawed--all of it. There's no film, television show, book, interpersonal connection, article, essay, political stance that is flawless. There is bias and cruelty and ignorance in everything we create, because there is bias and cruelty and ignorance inside each of us.

But there's also love.

There is incredible love. And what is love if it's not the power to remake something, to rename and recreate and redeem? It happens in the small moments when we take one of the world's symbols and we transform it to mean something different--to allow love to so overwhelm that thing that it ceases to signify whatever it once did.

It happens when Superman becomes a stand-in for gentleness and thoughtfulness, and when the rescuing he's doing doesn't involve intense violence but instead involves intense connection. Maybe it happens when red underwear streams across a playground with giddy giggle and lots of hand-holding.

Transforming and renaming and redefining seems to be what Jesus was all about. You thought religion was about rules and standards and judgment? You're wrong. It's not. It's about grace and surprising forgiveness and love. You thought love was being nice to people who look and act and talk just like you? It's not. Love is hard, love is work, love is bravely caring for someone so hard that your caring breaks open the concrete doors of their own pride, fear, self-righteousness, guilt. Seems like Jesus had a never-ending list of You thought it was like that, but it's really like this. 

Like all of us, I am (of course) still learning how to navigate the cultural messages my son receives--and those that I receive. What to allow, what not to allow? How to explain certain things, how to teach certain things, how to transform certain things--in my own heart and in the world's? And while Jen and I both explore how to do this at each new stage Tyler approaches, we're holding on to one firm hope: that love trumps everything, and that nothing--not even Superman's red underwear--can long resist transformation in the face of love.