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Tom Pantera

Tom Pantera
Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.
December 22
Managing editor
Extra Media, Inc.
Middle-aged, divorced, liberal; nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter. Pretty much a walking stereotype. By the way, many will deny it but people in Fargo do talk just like in the movie.


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APRIL 30, 2009 10:53AM

Slouching toward manhood

Rate: 13 Flag

I’ve always prided myself on being a good father, but sometimes I just don’t know if I am.  Like any parent, sometimes I realize that I either haven’t done something for my kids that I should, or that I did something I shouldn’t have.

My younger son recently turned 21.  I feel like I should have done something to observe this great marker of final manhood, to show him that hey, once and for all and in every way he’s an adult in this world.

I suppose I could have arranged for him an appropriate rite of passage.  I do have it on my short list of things to do to take him out for a beer.  I’m not sure if he likes beer, but even if he doesn’t, it’ll reinforce for him one of the most difficult realizations of adulthood:  Sometimes, you just keep your mouth shut and swallow whatever you have to, even if it’s unpalatable.  Maybe, when I buy him a beer, it should be a Buckhorn.

Of course, I could extend the ceremony and buy him the beer at a strip joint.  That would have the advantage of introducing not only to how a true adult drinks irresponsibly, but also how a real man sometimes gives in to the more juvenile aspects of his sexuality.  What man hasn’t looked at a stripper and thought:  Hey, it’s a nekkid lady?  Even when she isn’t, technically.

There is, by the way, some precedent for the strip-show-as-rite-of-passage.  It’s deeply engrained in our culture in ways most aren’t even aware of.

The evidence is one of Norman Rockwell’s lesser known works, “A Boy’s First Lap Dance.”  It’s one of his typical evocations of small-town innocence.  The drop-jawed look on the gangly, freckle-faced kid is priceless; you can almost hear him suck in his breath as the dancer shakes her moneymaker in his face.  Of course, that the dancer in question is 70ish, portly and wearing a flowered housedress, and that the moneymaker she’s shaking is a plate of chocolate chip cookies, only adds to the charm.

But in all seriousness, it does sort of make you wonder:  Why is it, in our society, the closest things we have for a rite of passage into manhood center around alcoholic excess and juvenile sexuality?

It’s one of the few ways in which primitive cultures do something important that we don’t.  Some cultural groups send young men off on a vision quest of some kind; others have things like circumcision rituals, although I’m not sure I’d be in favor of that (and I’m only talking about males here; female circumcision is a barbaric, crippling practice that is less about passage into adulthood than control over women).

 Of course, passage into adulthood wasn’t really much of an issue for a lot of Western history.  Until the 19th century, Victorian idealizing of childhood, kids basically were treated as little adults.  But once the 1800s rolled around, and childhood became thought of as a sort of halcyon time, there was more of a demarcation between that period and adulthood.  They were a little fuzzy on marking that line, resulting in things like horrendous child labor, but that’s a different issue; that’s more economic than social.

But when Victorian society drew that line, it somehow missed marking any kind of dramatic point in crossing it.  The closest we ever came up with were laws limiting certain types of behavior, like drinking, to people of a certain age.

As a result, a boy becomes a man in little steps.  There’s the driver’s license, the first job.  There’s the first girlfriend.  For some who are less than wise, there’s that first adult arrest and that first night in a jail other than a juvenile facility.  Not exactly as meaningful as a vision quest, but possibly as dramatic.

Maybe that’s why so many supposedly adult men have a tendency to act so juvenile.  It is possible, in this society, to hang on like grim death to certain aspects of youth.  How many times have you seen a man’s immature behavior excused with the observation that “boys will be boys?”

One has to wonder how many of our societal problems, at least the ones that are largely male, have to do with the lack of signifiers of adulthood.  Some of those problems are pretty obvious.  In large urban areas, where gang violence is a problem, the gangs provide the kind of tribal context for initiation into manhood.  If committing a robbery, or, God forbid, murder is part of one’s initiation into the tribe (and that’s what a gang is), that provides a pretty clear signpost for whether you’ve made it or not.

There are specific parts of our culture where rites of passage are observed, but they’re small, isolated and don’t apply to everybody.  I’ve heard of hunting enthusiasts who mark a boy’s first deer kill in various ways, which is closer to what I’m talking about here but still sort of vaguely creepy.

Shouldn’t there be some kind of rite of passage that doesn’t involved booze, guns or women in g-strings?

Frankly, I don’t know what it could be.  Having grown up in this culture myself, and having raised two boys to manhood, I don’t really have any ideas.

Maybe, given Western culture, there just isn’t a way to do that.  Artificially developed rites smack of a sort of New Age fuzziness anyway and since our culture doesn’t really value that kind of thing, maybe it would be a waste of time.

But still, you have to wonder … how many better men would our culture produce if we let them know exactly when it was time to grow up?

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adulthood, beer, lap dance

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My son hits 21 Sunday and has had issues with booze already. I gave it up three years ago. I am not sure what I am going to do to honor the day. He asked for me to give him a ride home after celebrating and simply said I did not want to think back nostalgically about what it was like to raise him while cleaning up vomit in my bathroom. I think I will take him out to dinner the day after for a quiet conversation about responsibility and adulthood and how much it sucks.
Well written post Tom –

Your summarization of current cultural norms and the ambiguity surrounding a young man’s transition into adulthood was well thought out. I recently watched my own son reach this mythical age of manhood with great anticipation, only to be somewhat disenchanted that he did not undergo any miraculous transformation. As you have eloquently pointed out, the journey into manhood is more a process than an event, and the unique ritual of becoming intoxicated and ogling scantily clad women would seem to be the antithesis of what one should expect in a civilized society. Possibly there is a hidden lesson in indulging one’s basest urges as a rite of passage; or maybe not.

My son went out with his friends on his 21st birthday. He got drunk and went to the strip club, because that’s what his older friends told him he was supposed to do. The group had a designated driver. Although he said he had a good time, he said it’s not an experience he’s likely to repeat any time soon. My son did not like the loss of control associated with excessive consumption of alcohol; nor did he particularly enjoy having anonymous nubile young women flaunting their flesh in his face (That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it).

Lately, I’ve some notice changes in how my son conducts himself. He tends to pick up around the house and the yard a little more often without being prompted. I always make sure to express my appreciation in order to induce more of the same behavior. Although he has voted since he turned 18, he seems more willing to discuss politics and current events with me than he has in the past. Otherwise, he’s pretty much the same person, relatively content with his college courses, his part-time job at the movie theater, his web sites and his video games. While he’d like to find a nice girlfriend, there is no on special in his life right now. One day soon, he will graduate college, get a real job and move into his own place. Although he’s 21, he still has some growing to do, but he is well on his way to manhood.
Good Post. I wrote about this also regarding my son wanting to get pierced for his 17th birthday. A rite of passage that the kids have chosen for themselves since there aren't any rituals anymore. Except for Judaism with the bar mitzvah. Noticed any jewish gangs around lately? Rated.
I agree. We do need more of a rite of passage, especially at that age.
Teach him to tie a Windsor knot. I love a man who can do that!
I've suggested to others a gift that is a little old-fashioned but sweet and useful - a nice watch, a good pen (fountain pen preferred), etc. Marks the occasion, can be a good tradition to start, and is something that, if he's wise, he'll use for a good long time if not throughout his adulthood.
I'd kill my son if he thought visiting a strip club is a good way to become an adult. I'll kill my Spousal Unit if he comes up with it as a way to mark the passage.

I have no brilliant ideas for you. I like the post though.
When my oldest son turned 21, here in Las Vegas, he did the strip club thing. I'm sure it wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

When his brother, Matt, was about to turn 21, I asked if he'd be wanting to do the same. He thought about it for a minute, then said,
"Nah. I might as well go to a bakery and have the guy hold a cookie up and ask me if I want it -- 'do you want this cooke?' 'it's a really nice cookie...' 'come on, you know you'd like this cookie . . .' and then go 'WELL, ya can't have it.'"

I thought that was very smart for a 20 year old.
I've been to strip clubs twice in my life. The experience made watching paint dry seem like an eminently sensible pastime by comparison.

How about going jogging with your son? Afterwards, sit down and talk with him like he's an intelligent human being and somebody important to you.

Sounds more satisfying than a strip club, doesn't it?
strip clubs are awesome. a place to go worship the goddess(es).
I like that norman rockwell painting too. its one of my favorites. its in his Porn Collection. its also called his "blue" period.

seriously, theres some kinda sketchy thinking in this post. you suggest/insinuate that males might be better off and less prone to crime, even extreme crimes like gang violence, if there was some kind of societal initiation ceremony.

how about, just parents who pay close attn to their kids instead of slowly being ground up and run into the ground in the corporate machine?

and by the way, how is it that your son is 21 and you are not really sure if he likes beer or not?? :p
I agree with Cassiopia (sp). My parents gave me my first diamond (teeny, teeny, teeny) for my 16th and a gorgeous opal ring for my 18th. Since 21 is the new 18, a special gift presented at a special dinner would be great. Even if he loses the pen (as I lost the ring), I will never forget it. It was special.
Cassiopia1177 nailed it exactly: a fountain pen.

A nice fountain pen evokes tradition, intelligence, accomplishment, and culture. (See the movie "A Beautiful Mind.")

Rather than a one-time experience it provides a continuing aesthetic experience every time it is used, completely different from using a Bic. It is an instrument, not a utensil. Using it is a pleasure, not a chore.

It can open up a whole new world of journaling, letter writing (remember letters?), inks, papers, and pen cases.

It will last more than a lifetime, and can be a keepsake that he can pass on to his son or grandson.

Check out Sanjuro55's post on fountain pens:

If you're interested in giving a pen, send me a message and I'll give you some recommendations, along with a list of places that will give you the best price.
What remarkable skill you have--writing in such a tender way about your son!
A few years ago, my husband's friend, Ned, was having a get-together, just-the-guys, a few days before his wedding. NOT a "bachelor party" in the old-fashioned way, Ned wanted a real "bonding" experience. So.....he arranged for all of them to together! While this is extreme, and perhaps NOT exactly what one could choose to celebrate their son's-21st -birthday, I think the idea is to SHARE something new, or novel. How about using the gift of the fountain pen(mentioned as a possible gift by several commenters) as a "means" to a creative-writing-class, a poetry-class, or screenplay-writing, if any of that appeals to the son in question? Or a more "athletic" pursuit, perhaps snorkeling, or travel(like a long hike, or an overnight stay in the woods, camping, etc.)?
Surely there are as many ways to celebrate "crossing over" to manhood, as there are young men! Congrats to all young men turning 21--and to their fathers, celebrating with them!
A few moments to discuss what is truly important(your life-philosophy, goals, dreams, etc.--and YOUR SON'S, too!)would be great, too! ;)
Work on cars together? Go pump iron down at the gym? Go on a road trip? Go for a century ride (100 mile bicycle ride), Build something together? Up here, in Maine, men go hunting with their sons - yup guns. At the age of 21, most young people (women and men) should be finishing college in a degree that is heading them toward their passion and being self-sufficient. That is a rite of passage we should have been aiming our children toward all along - living their dreams and being independent. Today is my daughter's 21st birthday and we are on target.
I like that you're questioning our culture's typical rites of passage to adulthood--and that you're leaving the question open. No easy answers. EP well deserved.
Maybe it's because I am a MOM but the idea of my son "celebrating" his 21st at a strip club seems dumber than dumb, especially when I know he lost his virginity at 17 and now has a nice girlfriend with whom he spends a lot of time. I mean, what is the fucking point? (I love the cookie story). Let's see, on my son's 13th birthdy he became a fountain pen (at his bar mitzvah), and on his 21st I took him out to dinner here he "legally" ordered his first glass of wine. Of course, since he had been responsibly drinking with both his parents for years, he has not ever had the desire to get shit-faced drunk--a discussion we have had many times--like some of his classmates, so that did not hold any allure for him. He's not grown up yet, ie., he still has no idea how to handle money, but he's working on it. Yet I have not held any maturation discussions from him until that magical date.l We have been having them all along.
When kids can go into the armed services at 18, vote and get married at that same age, 21 holds no special allure--except for the oddity of booze and sex, it seems, which, Lord knows, they are doing and have been, for years anyway.
For those of you who have had the temerity to suggest that my son already knows what beer tastes like:
Actually, I know he's had beer; what I was saying is, I don't know if he actually likes it. Maybe he's a bourbon man.
In fact, the first time he ever got drunk he copped to the whole thing the next morning. His mother and I were sitting in the living room one Sunday morning when he came in and said, "I have to talk to you guys. I did something really stupid last night." He then proceeded to tell us the whole thing. He felt so stupid that there was absolutely nothing we could do to punish him worse than he was punishing himself (he's always been his own worst critic, which is kind of a drag because he's a really wonderful kid, with a heart the size of the sun).
I'm fairly certain he hasn't been in a strip joint, though. There's only one in Fargo and it's not really a big hangout for people of his vintage. And it really isn't his type of place. He's a bit on the shy side and would be so mortified being in a "gentlemen's club" with his dad (which, if you think about it, would be a twisted experience for anybody) that he wouldn't talk to me for weeks.
Thanks for the kind words, all.
A couple of other things:
I LOVE the cookie story. That's exactly my feeling, and why I've always found strip clubs a fundamentally absurd experience.
The fountain pen is a great idea, but what I was talking about is more of a societal than an individual thing. I think that individual families often recognize the dawning of adulthood -- as some of you have recounted -- but we, as a culture, don't. And I think that sometimes translates to young men adrift.
My son turned 21 in his junior year in college this last November. I'd been preparing for years, worrying about the "21 shots on your 21st", because he's only about 150 lbs. So lots of mom discussions about how much liquor you can drink has to do with your blood volume and the ability of your liver to clear it out of your bloodstream, and nothing else, and he can't drink like he's 250 lbs because he's not, and could die, and so on.

I think a rite of passage for him will be next May, when he's 22 but graduates from college. He will have to find a job, maybe in a different city, his own apartment, etc. That's a pretty big difference from being a dependent student.
"I LOVE the cookie story. That's exactly my feeling, and why I've always found strip clubs a fundamentally absurd experience."
Im confused, I thought the strip club was YOUR idea.
I think you're secretly a strip club lover but dont want to admit it in this family safe area with all the ladies listening.
how about this-- go with your son to the strip club but be sure to enjoy it with a strong sense of POSTMODERN IRONY. as long as you do that, it will be ok. hee, hee :p
Great topic, and one that should be discussed more. You're right,of course, we have no initiations to manhood anymore. Your post reminds me of things Joseph Campbell said in his interview with Bill Moyers. In fact, I think he discussed some of the same things you discuss here.
I think the problem with artificially developed rites of passage is that they miss the point of the historical and cultural importance of the rites. To be blunt, the rite of passage to manhood (and womanhood) should be difficult and hard.
Let me give you an example of what my father did. My father was an outdoor guy. We always camped, all through my childhood. Typically fun car-camping and short dayhikes. When I turned 18, my dad took me backpacking. It was ultra-light backpacking. We spent a week on the Appalachian trail. Very little gear. All the little things he showed me growing up--plant identification, how to purify water, camp sanitation, etc were put to use. He pushed me physically and mentally. He was treating me like a man--an equal--not as his son. I'll never forget that trip.
Shortly after I joined the Navy. Compared to my dad--boot camp was a walk in the park.
Anyway, great topic--thanks.