Today, all of that is out the window. Now if you're a boy, it's important that you be in touch with your emotions -- in fact, it's mandatory. It's okay to admit fear, and crying makes you the envy of your peers. Violence is never necessary. And when you reach manhood, it is perfectly fine to be a househusband and take care of the children as your wife goes out to work. Of course, boys and men are totally confused by this, since old roles die hard.
Actually, things are much clearer today for girls and young women: You start reading at age four; you excel in school from kindergarten on; you go to college and perhaps professional school, where you do quite well; and you get a good job so you don't need a man for support.
Yes, today's girls and young women have a clear track, whereas boys and young men are pretty much trackless. And I feel sorry for them. Along with their other problems, in today's suburbanized and car-centric world so many young males are missing out on one of the emblematic joys of boyhood: that urban jungle known as the schoolyard.
When I grew up, there were no sports leagues organized by parents -- at least not in my neighborhood. If you wanted to play ball, you and some friends got together and went to the schoolyard. And you would proceed to play your game of stickball, or punchball, or any of the other games that were considered harmless enough for our Jewish parents to allow us to play.
Incidentally, for those who don't know, punchball was a game modeled on baseball, but with no pitcher. The "batter" simply threw the ball up in the air and punched it onto the playing field.
You know that expression, "They're playing hard ball now"? That's using baseball as a metaphor for getting tough with someone. The ball used in baseball is indeed hard; guys have been seriously injured, one even killed, by a ball in major league play. In punchball, we used a soft pink rubber ball. How different it sounds if you say, "Well, they're playing rubber ball now!"
You kind of found your own level, and, as a small and skinny kid, my level was not a high one. Even among my relatively nerdish friends, I was not a star. When it came time to choose up sides, I was inevitably chosen last or close to it. If there were an odd number of boys, often the team captain with the last choice would yield to the other captain, thus giving him an extra player, i.e., me. It was hurtful that having me on the team was considered enough of a deficit that it didn't make up for having an extra guy on the field. But I knew that after the game was over, I could go home and do what I knew I was good at -- reading!
But a bigger insult often occurred. Let's say I was playing shortstop in a punchball game. An easy ground ball came my way, and I bobbled it, allowing the batter (well, puncher) to get to first base. There would be groans all around from my teammates. Then, to my horror, a pop fly came my way. I got under it, got my hands ready, and dropped it.
Now from our team captain came the words I dreaded: "Sherman, you're chucked!"
Yes, I was off the team. It was better to have one less guy on the field than have me. This was bad enough when I was the extra guy. But it even happened when this made us one player short.
Sometimes, though, our whole group faced a crisis. There was not enough space in the schoolyard for all the boys who wanted to play their games. So without adult supervision, in our "Lord of the Flies" world, it was considered perfectly good form for another group of boys looking for a place to play to arrive and announce, "We challenge you!"
We all knew what this meant. We had two choices: Either we could now play a brief game against this new group of boys, and whoever won kept the playing space, or we could immediately relinquish the space to them. Given that challenges rarely came from other athletically ungifted nerds, but rather from big and tough boys, we would typically pack up our "Spaldeens" (the common pronunciation of the Spalding rubber balls we used) and go home.
Yes, we would go home to read and study and dream, not of playing major league baseball, but of becoming doctors and lawyers. And some day those bullies who had challenged us on the schoolyard would be coming to us to fix their wounds and redress their grievances, just as today's young bullies (the few that are left) will someday be coming to our daughters and granddaughters for their medical and legal needs.
As the late great Louis Armstrong sang in 1968, what a wonderful world!