some of the boys twist the old, battered doorknob violently, as though they were breaking the neck of an intruder.
others’ hands begin to shake, slightly, imperceptibly, then audibly, betraying the hollowness of the bravado that sustains them on the street.
their ways of opening the door are as colorful and revelatory as they are varied, each slightly exaggerated in the way so characteristic of teenagers.
every day they try on new identities, new comportments, new ways of apprehending the world, with all the grace and aplomb of a teenager stepping on the gas for the first time.
the cocky one torques the doorknob just as he’ll slam on the pedal in a couple of years, pressing his passengers into the seats and mistaking their trepidatious bewilderment for awe.
the hesitant one tries to twist the doorknob softly, hoping to slink unnoticed into the gym, but the rusty old knob and plate announce his presence in their unmistakable basso profundo — just as the car will jump and buck under his unsteady foot three years hence.
they are as energetic and dynamic as they are errant and unschooled.
they are full of piss and vinegar, but the piss is, more often than not, splattered all over the toilet seat, sprayed across the walls, and trickling onto the floor.
i was one of them, once, not long ago.
unlike many of my peers who view them with suspicious eyes, i have not forgotten.
and so i am here.
gentlemen, meet our newest fighter.
the bright california sunshine is no match for the dank, musty air of the gym, and is swallowed into a thick and impenetrable veil of darkness — a darkness so thick that it can be felt.
with it are swallowed pretentions, pretexts, bluffs, and fronts.
as the boy’s eyes adjust to the relative darkness, he finds that he has left flash, sound, and fury outside, and that this is it.
the boy snaps to attention with a mixture of respect and angst. by using his surname, i evoke in his mind’s eye vivid images of both the coaches and teachers who have helped him grow, more often than not against his will, and the officers, judges, and bailiffs that have shoved him through california’s one-size-fits-none juvenile legal system.
go stand in the doorway.
one foot in, one foot out.
even god only helps those who help themselves. and i am certainly no god.
if you are willing to be knocked down, defeated, bested, broken, and beaten, and you will keep getting up and fighting, then step inside.
if you step inside, you’re family.
if you find yourself with nowhere to go, and nowhere to turn, you have a new home.
if you would rather not be knocked down, defeated, bested, broken, or beaten, then step back outside, and close the door.
which way are you going to step?
the boy stares me down, waiting, testing me, looking for the punch line.
our eyes linger on each other. were i his age, even half this much direct eye contact, with neither side deferring even momentarily, would already have instigated a fight.
never taking his burning gaze from my eyes, he gathers up the last bits of his bravado, takes a slow, deliberate step inside the doorway, grasps the battered old handle from the inside, and shoves the door shut.
i reach out and grasp his hand. coming from a world where straight handshakes are often laced with straight razors, the boy is hesitant at first — he breaks the stare, a gesture of deference i’ve no need to point out explicitly — but then he slams on the proverbial pedal, meeting my eyes with renewed vigor as he clasps my hand and wrist in an overwrought, but gentlemantly, grip.
for the next two years, neither boxing nor life was good to the boy; both dealt him countless numbers of knockouts.
once, he decided he was just done; he threw his gloves into the floor, tears streaming down his cheeks, and stormed to within inches of the door.
and then he stopped.
and looked at the door.
which way are you going to step?
he turned around.
he met the stares of the other boys, who had all once been in his place.
some dared him.
some encouraged him.
some dismissed him.
some scowled at him like disappointed fathers.
he picked up his gloves.
and his heart.
one more round.
what keeps us coming back, in situations when our rational calculus tells us that the costs have begun to outweigh the benefits?
what keeps us fighting through fatigue, ennui, conflict, injury, heartbreak, disillusionment, anomie, and betrayal?
many things, to be sure.
but, often, rites of passage — symbols of commitment, which in times of trouble can pull more weight than can commitment itself — are the carbon-steel rebar that keeps the whole structure from crashing down around us.
for those men who deserve to be called men, word is bond.
and actions speak even louder than words, so ritual actions are superglue.
when words and actions are combined to create ritual, men become bonded for life.
which way are you going to step?
with these words, the door comes alive with persuasive force that few boys can resist, no matter how intractable they are in other areas of life.
they won’t leave, unless they are bloodied, beaten, disillusioned and broken. and, often, not even then.
do you promise to be to her a loving and loyal husband, to cherish and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, to be faithful only to her as long as you both shall live?
with these vows, the man’s wedding band comes alive, with the same persuasive force.
he won’t leave unless his life is sucked out in its entirety. and, often, not even then.
and so it is, too, with women — put through, and schooled with, the proper symbols and rites of passage, they will cleave to their relationships with intense ardor.
the fatal mistake, though, is to attribute to women the same degree of agency so often shown by men who take vows and undergo rituals — to assume that women’s minds will construct the same schema of loyalty, devotion, and duty around those rituals as will men.
ain’t gonna happen.
as with so much else in matters of love, it’s best when men lead, and women follow — when men move women, and women are moved by men.
the same is true for rites of passage.
women can be as compelled by ritual to stay in their relationships as can men, but they won’t by themselves transmute word into bond, or actions into superglue. that has to be done for them, by their man.
take the wedding bands again.
to a man, the wedding band speaks in its own voice, animated by the matrimonial ritual; he internalizes the symbolic significance, and therefore transmutes word into bond all by himself. hence why he doesn’t need to be reminded, and why constant “reminders” from his woman are at best nagging, at worst domineering behavior, and always pernicious in their effects on the relationship.
to a woman, the wedding band doesn’t have a voice of its own — it will only speak in her man’s voice. its symbolic power will only be actuated if he instills it in her, if he transmutes word into bond for her, as though leading her through the steps of a dance.
it’s his job, when he grasps her left hand, to meet her eyes, stare her down, and tell her, this ring means that you’re mine.
i own you. you’re my property.
over and over.
again and again.
until he has successfully transmuted word into bond, without her even noticing, and she now hears his voice emanating from that ring.
and you don’t need a wife, or wedding bands, to make this work.
any symbol will do.
a cheap bracelet or ring that you bought her at the beach.
a necklace or bracelet that claims her as yours, which you can lock onto her body and keep the key if necessary.
a tattoo that she gets for you, in a location that others may or may not see.
the way you look into her eyes, making both of your jaded hearts burn with passion, with love, when you fuck her.
women end relationships more often than men do, but only because men don’t bother to ignite them.