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Road Noise: Chapter Excerpt

Unable to do much since nothing’s open and my arm still needs a lot of babysitting, I’m working on several projects including finishing two books. The following is a chapter in my nonfiction book that’s nearly finished and titled, Road Noise. It’s about the three-month road trip I took years ago with my son who was 11 years old at the time. I’m on the third edit but my goal is to finish it this month. The following excerpt is from ‘Day 71’, Boys Will Be Boys, when we were in Durango, Colorado.

Anyone who took a Women’s Studies course prior to the end of the millennium was told that gender is a social construct—that we, and the Village, train girls from the start to be nice, quiet, social and natural-mommies by dressing them in pink, giving them dolls and allowing them to be bad at math. Similarly, boys are natural born thugs because we teach them to be tough.

I took that seriously. I wanted to raise a kinder gentler male. So, in 1983 when my son was born, his first toy was a doll. Actually, two Cabbage Patch dolls. They were boy dolls—Errol and Freddie—I thought he might identify with them more if they were dressed as boys would be. One was even bald like he was. Every morning I would find the dolls undressed and thrown outside the crib. He didn’t like them, he didn’t play with them and he certainly didn’t want them occupying crib space. That was true for any stuffed animal that was also in the crib except for the stuffed airplane that played Fly Me to the Moon. For whatever reason he allowed the airplane to stay in the crib even though he couldn’t wind it up himself but would hold it out to me and say, “wine dup.”

Despite my attempts at making Steve a kinder gentler male through the provision of softer, nicer toys, his favorite toy was a $1.99 space shuttle with wind-up wheels that made noise when pushed along the floor. In fact, anything that made lots of noise and had wheels was good. He loved insects, getting dirty, never got cold, and would occasionally pee in the yard (even though, to my knowledge, he never saw anyone do that). And, by the way, pushing the dolls on him and making him wear cute socks that I bought in the girls’ department, did not make him gay.

Boys will be boys. Do you know that boys set plastic action figures on fire, jump out of second story windows onto trampolines (!!No!!) and throw dead monitors off the top floor of high-rise parking garages?

The great thing about boys is that you know where you stand. They will beat each other up one minute and be playing together the next. They say it like it is—and it doesn’t change when they get older. “Dude, you really smell, man.” Girls will hold a grudge for years, play coy and innocent, make up stories about you, stab you in the back, not let you in to their sororities for unknown reasons and then pretend years later at a reunion that they were your friends. Maybe that was just me. But I digress.

Boys are unique creatures—animals really. We all know that. Most prefer gross humor and wildlife that oozes some sort of slime. They have little, if any, dedication to personal appearance. Boys also help each other with no expectations—no hidden agenda. They have a hierarchy that is accepted and observed. You don’t interfere with that by demanding they play nice. Unless they are literally killing each other—you let it unfold. There will be people who disagree with me, but they probably don’t have boys. You can try to make them sit and conform—but I think it better to corral them and channel the energy, if possible. Good luck with that. The problem is—corralling that energy is extraordinarily time-consuming and exhausting to the point of collapse, particularly for a single mother with a job. This is why moms reach for the wine (or Dewars) at dinner time, buy boys the blood-and-guts video games and let them eat dinner in front of the TV.

My point, is that throughout this trip Steve has been far more interested in roadside smells, identifying roadkill, the endless search for lizards and other small slimy wildlife and stopping at go-kart tracks. He tolerated the bridges of Madison County (that was only because there were bats in the rafters) and the San Antonio River Walk (which is really just a pretty walk along the river, so hard to blame him for that), he liked Phantom of the Opera on Broadway (probably because it is such a visual show), liked Niagara Falls (it’s just Ripley’s and the wax museum, what kid wouldn’t), seemed interested in the MOMA and tolerated the MET.

Now we were in Durango, Colorado and I thought—horses. We’ll horseback ride in the Rockies! We’ll both love that. And we did and probably for different reasons.

I found Rapp Corral and we lucked out as the riding group was made up of three other boys about Steve’s age. They all hit it off immediately. The four boys, myself and an excellent female guide took off for a four-hour ride through the birch trees and along the cliff tops of the San Juan Mountains overlooking the Animas River Valley above Durango. At times, the trails seemed steep to me and I wondered if the horse sensed my fear. I tried to fake confidence but whatever the horse knew about me, it continued sure-footed down the path unconcerned. The boys seemed naturally confident with the horses—even Steve, who, except for the pony-picture-taking event at his daycare center in Carmel, California, had never been on a horse before.

As suspected, the boys laughed repeatedly about the horses’ various bodily noises, droppings, and smells. The guide and I caught each other’s eye now and then and just let it be. The youngest of the boys (lowest on the male hierarchy in this tribe) was constantly chastised by the others for talking too much, yet they were all there at the rest stop to lend the little guy a hand off his horse and guide him to the lizard locating and poking area designated by the elder tribesmen.

At one stop, we left the horses and hiked to a cave in the side of the hill. We hiked to the end, about 100 yards, and with flashlights provided by the guide, searched for bats and salamanders and even turned the lights out for a minute.

Awesome. Even the boys were quiet.

It turned out to be a glorious morning, sunny, warm, and peaceful. I noted the contrasts between mountains and green valleys, white birch trees and purple wildflowers, nature and our collective boys. It would be such a crime to beat that nature out of them.

I got to thinking about the day. Boys. Horses. They’re a lot alike. Horses respond to the subtlest cues—cues that most riders don’t even notice. Like mothers or parents, tuning-in is so critical and yet so easy to overlook. It’s easier to focus on technique or outcomes that stare you in the eye. Not so easy to notice the tries. Boys, like horses, respond to consistency, predictability and sometimes, letting them run free. We don’t need to fix boys and make them more like girls.

Later that night at the motel, I watched him reading his Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians and I couldn’t help myself. I went over and sat on his bed and fussed with his hair (which was not easy since he was nearly as tall as me) and asked about his favorite part of the book. He quickly flipped to the page with a green tree frog.

“I’ve seen tons of these guys. Can I get a frog when we get home?”

And so we did. How could I refuse?