Loco Parentis: The Letter Man Show

It’s just a jacket. Why has it taken on a life of its own?

I whine a lot, it struck me — while I watched Jake attack the enemy, holding my breath — about how hard it is to be female in America today. Still. About the battles I fight, and my daughter has to fight, against gender discrimination and glass ceilings and wolf whistles. About the who-vacuums wars.

But ours are mental battles, the ones she and I wage. Until I watched my son line up against the enemy in those camps, I never thought much about how hard it is to be a man — to go out onto a football field and ram into a big, strong, scary foe without flinching, with your eyes never leaving his eyes. Why would I? All my life, I’ve been framing male/female relations in a Ms. magazine way. Did the Sabine women lose sleep pondering the feelings of their oppressors? Did Anita Hill worry whether Clarence Thomas harbored secret puddles of vulnerability?

And Jake doesn’t make it easy to empathize with him. Everything in his life right now is exaggeratedly masculine: the thumping rock music, the frenzied weight lifting, the war games on his computer and Xbox, the way he snaps out at me for nothing, as caricatured as Ralph Kramden dressing Alice down. There isn’t any of the nuance I’m hoping for, no sign he may become an enlightened male, because he doesn’t know how to factor gentleness or compassion into the Jake = man equation. He’s new at this, and as is the way with recent converts of all sorts, it’s everything or nothing for him. His greatest fear is to be thought soft or girly or God forbid gay in any way, through any behavioral crack.

And I represent only softness. In my eyes, he still sees reflected the colicky infant I rocked for hours every night, the couldn’t-wait-to-walk baby, the toddler who was an adorable pumpkin for Halloween. He sees them because they’re still there. Is it any wonder I don’t want to discard them, replace those boys who needed me with this one who doesn’t? Yet this is why he can’t stand that I hover, that I remind him again to do his dishes, that when his alarm clock rings and rings in the morning, I call to him cheerfully: “Jake! Time to get up!” In his mind, he’s already Tony Romo, living on his own, dodging paparazzi with Hollywood starlets. Tony Romo doesn’t have a mom.

THE LETTER JACKET is tangible, shorthand proof of Jake’s manliness. That’s why it’s so important to him … and to me. As Marcy and her friends prove in my living room, shrouding themselves in Jake’s jacket, something compelling, something primitive and tribal, celebrates the butting of head against head. It’s in me, too; it’s why I gladly paid for the jacket — and have contemplated buying a backup this year. What can I say? He’s careless with his things.

Yet it’s double-edged. Like Marcy, I’m so pissed at him for this charmed life he’s living, for the free passes he gets because of that damned jacket, for the way it subverts what I’ve tried to teach him about What Really Matters. Isn’t that precisely what’s so seductive about it? It symbolizes the droit du seigneur we all secretly wish was ours, the rank we feel we deserve but that others, for reasons that thwart and confound us, have been blessed with instead.

I watch my son face off against his enemies in wonder. I wouldn’t have been good at that, at physically taking on foes, back when I was 16. I think I would be now, though, with half a century of rage built up inside me about how the more things change, the more they never do.