Bedlam in Boyville

Fart jokes, spitting contests, gunplay. How did a houseful of boisterous boys happen to bookish ol' me?
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Boys Will Be Boys

Henry on rope swing
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Henry, age 10, tempting fate
on the front-yard rope swing.

Sometimes I think about what life would've been like if I'd married Henry VIII. As the mother of three sons, surely I'd have kept my head -- I'd have been revered, in fact, even worshipped. Wherever I trailed my ermine-trimmed robes and cast my benevolent eye, adoring crowds would roar with admiration: "Hail to thee, o beautiful one, mother of an heir and two spares!" But much as I like to fantasize about being surrounded by adulators, in real life I am no one's queen. I am the dorm mother at Animal House.

And the thing is, I never saw it coming. My father was the original enlightened man, cooking and cleaning and diapering back in the '60s, even before coffee klatches turned into consciousness-raising groups and suburban moms began to demand such participation from dads. My only brother, now an artist, spent his childhood doing the same things I liked to do: reading books and building little boats out of pine bark. It never once crossed his mind to tackle another kid or pick up a stick and pretend to shoot a bird. Later on, all my male friends were art or philosophy majors, and the first time I ever laid eyes on my husband, one cold Super Bowl Sunday, he was reading a book of poetry instead of watching the game. My first full-time job, teaching literature at an all-girls school, certainly didn't acclimate me to high doses of testosterone.

Not one thing in my life prepared me for living with a bunch of garden-variety little boys who can burp their ABC's, cut high-volume armpit farts, and out-spit a camel, and whose extensive arsenal includes 27 toy rifles, muskets, six-shooters, cap pistols, dart guns, and something called the Big Kahuna. A gun for all seasons.

Truly, my sons are very sweet boys and they all have their tender, cuddly, I-love-you-all-the-way-up-to-the-moon sides, sides they indulge daily and reveal without shame (at least in the privacy of our house). It's their hey-let's-see-who-can-climb-that-tree-the-highest sides that bewilder me. But Haywood is right there, egging them on. Fatherhood has inspired my guitar-playing, poetry-loving husband to get back in touch with his back-country Georgia boyhood of creek-jumping, bike-racing, tree-climbing, river-tubing, fence-scaling fun. Fifteen years ago, a neighbor called to say she'd just passed Haywood riding a borrowed scooter down the street with our 9-month-old strapped to his back. Sam was holding on to his dad's hair with both hands and squealing in jubilation.

Thanks to this unstoppable combination of genes and paternal encouragement, the testosterone-related activities at our house began very early. Even now that Sam is a 6-foot-tall teenager, the most popular games in our family are 1) wrestling; 2) dueling with wrapping-paper tubes; 3) waging war with dart guns; 4) sliding down the hall feet-first into an imaginary home plate; and 5) piling all the pillows and cushions in the house into one big heap and diving into them. I buy only wrought-iron lamps, and I maintain a ready supply of iron-on knee patches in every shade of denim. When Haywood and I go out for the evening, we always rent a brand-new DVD and plug the kids into the video drip to keep them from inventing a game that ends only when someone is actually bleeding.

Not that I can always stop them, even when I'm home. Consider, for example, the rope swing in our front yard. Even Haywood agrees it's not a safe swing, so the kids aren't allowed to play on it without an adult present. In fact, we keep the rope wrapped around a high branch when one of us isn't outside watching. But that didn't stop Henry, Joe, and some neighborhood boys from climbing up the tree when I wasn't looking, liberating the swing, and challenging one another to a jumping competition. It didn't last long. They hadn't been outside five minutes when I heard Henry, through two brick walls and across several intervening rooms, start to scream.

Continued on page 2:  A Bad Break


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