All a father wants is a teepee made of armour plating stripped from a stealth fighter. That, and meat.
Inside his undetectable teepee he will watch sport on television and listen to The Eagles’ greatest hits, while his family, uniformly white and female, cook his meat with expressions of religious reverence.
His wife will trail a fingertip over the kitchen counter, much in the same way she trails her fingertip over her collarbone when she’s in the shower or in the mood for getting under an L-shaped sheet.
Then she will smile at her daughters (who are just putting the finishing touches on a cupcake that is a life-sized replica of Nelson Mandela) and silently give thanks that her husband had the foresight to invest in genuine Italian tiles.
Later, as night falls and The Eagles give way to the haunting call of a lone fish eagle, Dad will light the fire in his teepee and reach for a bottle of his favourite tipple, squinting at the label through nerdy-but-sexy Cary Grant reading glasses to see where it was produced. Yes. “Roughly Hewn in Scotland” or “Twinkled Into Existence in Ireland”. Good. Scotland is manly because Mel Gibson and Ireland is uplifting because ‘Danny Boy’.
That’s fatherhood according to the advertising industry. We all know that advertising is a psychopathic parasite that’s embedded itself behind our eyes, endlessly pumping lies into our brains in the hope that we’ll buy stuff we don’t want with money we don’t have to put in houses we don’t like. But still, it’s there and it’s a potent influencer. And as Father’s Day rolled around like a camouflaged Humvee packed with napalm, slippers and Hemingway clichés, it was hard to look past the officially sanctioned view of Western fatherhood.
Forests of belts and ties, hanging like skinned pythons wrestled to death by our Herculean dads; deserts of multi-tools and cigar-related whatsits; jungles of camping gear, ropes and ziplines criss-crossing like vines, small tents gaping open like predatory plants . the malls seemed to be full of everything a father could want. And yet nowhere could I find the one thing I suspect most dads – and most men in general – truly want: love.
As I moved through a landscape of sublimated feelings, where love was buried under leather wallets and model Formula 1 cars that doubled as cigarette lighters, I wondered about our reluctance to say that powerful little word publicly.
Why is it that on Mother’s Day we tell Mom that we love her, and yet on Father’s Day we tell Dad that he’s a survivalist or an international spy or a breadwinner in a suit? Why, when the delicate moment comes when we want to touch the gentle parts of our fathers’ hearts, do we bury it under a pile of movie props? Why do we find it so difficult to put our collective arms around our fathers and say, plainly and honestly, “I love you”?
The other night I found myself physically trapped in the grip of these questions. I had bumped into a man I barely know, and was just about to say hello when his hand shot up into the air and he came at me as if he was going to karate chop me in the neck. But it wasn’t an attack. It was a manly greeting: I was expected to grip his hand and then bump shoulders with him while patting him on the back.
Needless to say I cocked up the ritual as only a very tall introvert can. But what struck me about the greeting, other than the man’s shoulder, was its sadness.
On the surface it was a hearty coming-together of two brothers, mighty hunters back from slaying a mammoth. If I hadn’t ended up flinching and groping it might have looked manly in a sort of American footballish, gangsta-rapperesque, too-cool-to-shake-hands kind of way. But what it felt like was two boys, hopelessly adrift in an alienated city, trying to appropriate all the symbols of masculine belonging without feeling any real kinship.
Instead of pretending we were bad-asses, I wish we could have pressed our noses together, or kissed on both cheeks, anything, really, as long as it was authentic and honest; something that allowed us to say: “Bloody hell, this is a confusing, contradictory world, isn’t it? Do you know what to do? Because I haven’t read the instruction manual and I don’t really have a clue.”
Perhaps that’s why Father’s Day is about respect and gratitude and playfulness rather than love. Perhaps we don’t know how to speak of love with men because it’s a language men are discouraged from learning. And perhaps it’s that very uncertainty that offers an opportunity: that when we feel love, and know it as a true thing amid the confusion, we should say it.