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Recovering the Manhood Ritual

Lake Schmidell, Desolation Wilderness
After attending the bar mitzvah of a friend of Caleb's earlier this year, I got excited about doing some kind of manhood ritual for him.  It was my first bar mitzvah and I was deeply moved by the experience. I identified two aspects of the Jewish coming of age ceremony where the adolescent male invests in the process. First, he must sing a large section of the Old Testament in Hebrew from memory. Second, he must perform a community service project and present a report during the ceremony. There was incredible symbolism throughout the worship service. Everything is sung in Hebrew and the rabbi did a great job explaining the meaning behind the objects. The Torah is held up and people touch it as it passes to demonstrate reverence and obedience. This ceremony represented the confluence of four distinct identities: spiritual, ethnic, family, and gender. The closet Protestant equivalent is baptism, if baptism were also ethnic and gender-oriented. As a pastor, it was exciting to participate in a religious ceremony from which our faith is derived and witness the myriad ways in which our faiths are intertwined.

Three things impress me about the manhood ritual

1) The status of manhood is conferred by another: Ideally it is given by a boy's father. It can come from other male mentors and role models. But these are all surrogates for our ultimate and intended father God. But the purpose of the manhood ritual is that a male doesn't just declare himself a man one day but that one becomes a man through a rite of passage or manhood ritual. 

2) The manhood ritual involves separation, transition, and re-incorporation: Separation means saying good-bye to your former life and distancing yourself. It means you leave your childish ways behind you. The military uses boot camp and particularly hell week to create separation. Transition is the testing phase. It's where you endure pain and hardship. When you emerge, you're re-incorporated into the rest of the community. You're no longer the person you used to be.

3) A rite of passage is costly: The more a person invests in the process, the more appreciative he is of the new status. In order to make manhood meaningful, something must be given up. The South African tribal tradition of ritual circumcision can result in the death of the initiate. I'm certain it's an experience you never forget.  It helps me understand why fraternities and sororities haze their pledges - the more something costs you, the more devoted you'll be to that identity. After all, you value what you pay for.

I have no role models when it comes to these kinds of ceremonies. My dad is the most non-traditional Chinese person I've ever met as he was born in Hong Kong and raised apart from both his biological and adoptive father. He literally has no rituals that he grew up with. Consequently, he is ruthlessly pragmatic and skeptical of tradition and up until my brother and I started going to school, he never celebrated any holiday including Christmas and Chinese New Year. One year my mom forced him to buy a fake Christmas tree and my brother and I began demanding birthday presents from them at an early age.

Protestant Christianity also eschews tradition and rites of passage because we're so suspicious of anything that might reek of idolatry. Kissing a scroll as a symbolic gesture of faith is akin to burning incense in front of a statue of fat Chinese man. We're scared that anything we do might be construed as legalism. My church background is also dramatically sparse in tradition. A friend shocked me one year when she asked me to dedicate their infant child. I had never attended a baby dedication and had no idea what to say. It turned out to be a significant spiritual event that I am grateful to have been part of.

I'm not throwing Caleb the Protestant equivalent of a bar mitzvah (whatever that is) when he turns thirteen in November. But I wanted him to experience a rite of passage that would mark his foray into manhood and give him memories for years to come.  

Three years ago, I read about how Warren Buffett's father would take each of his  kids (he had three) on a trip anywhere in the country to celebrate their tenth birthday. It inspired me to want to do the same thing for each of my kids. Judy gave me the green light, so when Caleb turned ten, I told him excitedly about my idea. Unfortunately he couldn't think of anywhere to go.

In the past year, one of my friends took his twelve year old son to hike Half Dome. Another took his thirteen year old son on a five-day bike ride down the coast to Los Angeles. Another friend shared the joys he experienced backpacking the John Muir trail for two weeks just him and his dad. So recently Caleb mentioned that he'd like to do a backpacking and fishing trip. We've been backpacking a couple times before but never accompanied by dropping line. Caleb loves fishing. He doesn't even mind when we don't catch anything. I hate anything requiring attention to detail, delayed gratification, and the possibility of rejection. Fishing is all of that but learning to angle has helped build my character and my son wanted to do it. So I started planning.

I picked the Desolation Wilderness area southwest of Lake Tahoe. I went there on a five day fifty mile boy scout backpacking trip after my sophomore year of high school. I have fond memories of the excursion including breaking my finger on the third day while doing trail maintenance. For the rest of the trip I wore a yellow glove like a 1980's Asian Michael Jackson. It was definitely a rite of passage for me. I remember beaming with pride when Mr. Shough, the dad leading the trip, thanked me for helping the group navigate a treacherous snow descent. I felt so freaking manly. 

Disappointed with two pathetic little trout
Not one to have realistic expectations, I looked forward to lecturing Caleb about biblical manhood, courage, the meaning of life, philosophy, gender roles, how to talk to girls, all the kinds of things I'm an expert in. I made a list of of thirty or so ideas ranging from personal hygiene to puberty to understanding women and dispelling the soul mate mythology. I envisioned the two of us gazing at the stars while discussing Plato and open theology.

The first morning I told him we were going to do a devotional after breakfast and he did a half-grunt, half-sigh of resignation. I had barely read Genesis 1-3 when his eyes started rolling back into his head and his body language screamed wanting to crawl down a hole and die. It dawned on me that both the physical pain of the hike and the emotional pain of my lectures might overwhelm him and he might not survive to manhood. I shortened my lecture to cover the finer points of body hair and odor and we got back on the trail. 

We also got caught in a fifteen-minute storm that felt like an hour. We were knee-deep, fishing in a shallow pond when the sky darkened. There is nothing like being caught in a thunderstorm in the Sierras. When lighting strikes in the mountains, the thunder clap is deafening.  Few encounters are more terrifying (i.e. bears and avalanches). Caleb quickly learned to count the seconds between flashes and cracks to judge how far off the strikes were. 

Here's the primary manhood lesson I impressed upon Caleb over twenty miles, 2000 feet of elevation gain, and three days and two nights: As Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once said, adventure is just bad planning. Our trip was unintentionally costly to Caleb. He learned meal rationing because I miscalculated how many freeze-dried dinners to bring. He learned to share light because I dropped and broke my headlamp in the trail head parking lot before we even got on the trail. We couldn't do a proper bear bag because the rope I brought was too short. We ended up hiding our food under large rocks and fortunately, no animals got to it. I forgot cooking oil and open fires are not allowed so we stove burnt the two little fish we caught. My poor planning offered numerous opportunities to overcome adversity. 

Caleb is excited to spend three days with his dad
Caleb is an amazingly responsible, helpful, and reliable kid. He helped with cooking, filtering water, setting up and breaking down camp, orienteering - pretty much everything and often without me asking. He is in ridiculously good shape and has great mental toughness. He did not complain at all even when his eczema flared up and his hand became a big open sore. It will be very different with my other two sons but it's nice to practice on the easy one. 

Looking back, I pretty much failed on all three aspects of the manhood ritual. Caleb didn't get a diploma, certificate or seal as a result of the trip. I doubt he remembers anything I said. The hike was strenuous but didn't cost him very much and I didn't get him involved in the preparation as much as I should have. The separation was limited and somewhat superficial. And we didn't have the deep, profound conversations I had imagined.

But it was a step.
I'm looking forward to taking further steps when I celebrate his next phase of manhood - high school graduation. I'm thinking to invite some other father-son friends to come along so that together we can exponentially multiply our bad planning and thus, adventure. 

When we returned to the trail head parking lot, Caleb turned around and high-fived me. We made this trip happen together as a team. Caleb and I are traveling companions to two different destinations - he strides towards manhood while I stumble around fatherhood. In this journey, if he wins so do I.


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