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PALKO POV: Strength in Family Ties

Proust had his madeleines. I have fasnachts. 

Every year, on Shrove Tuesday (in some circles better known as Mardi Gras), I pull out my great-great-grandmother Mary’s recipe for fasnachts, German immigrant communities' version of the many donut traditions for this feast day. Generations of women in my family have whisked together flour, sugar, sour cream, pinches of this and that, and after a few minutes in hot oil, we are feeding our families puffed up bites of deliciousness. The thing about my family’s recipe is that the donuts it produces are fleeting. As a child, I thought they went quickly because with three siblings’ hands also reaching toward the plate, they were eaten quickly. And this was the only day of the year that my mom made them. All these years later, I’ve come to appreciate the way that the donuts themselves beg to be enjoyed right away because within hours, their lightness has hardened and their taste dissipated.

In the decade plus that I've lived in other parts of the country, “Donut Tuesday,” as we had affectionately nicknamed the day in my house growing up, is the single day of the year that I most miss living near my mother. In spring semesters that I teach on Tuesdays, I bring in boxes of donuts for my students in a small attempt to recapture this bit of childhood. A couple of years ago, my husband gave me an electric fryer for Christmas so that I, too, could make fasnachts. I didn’t realize quite how excited I was to share this tradition with my daughter until we dropped the first spoonful of batter into the oil and a scent I hadn’t smelled in fifteen years slowly surrounded us. I took a deep breath, and I was a teenager back in my mother’s kitchen.

Nora and FasnachtsAbby's daughter Nora and traditional Fasnachts frying in celebration of Shrove Tuesday.

This year, a few days before Shrove Tuesday, our Men's Leadership Project team at the Women's Center hosted Carlos Andrés Goméz for a public talk on Reimagining Modern Manhood. Carlos opened with a poem about his abuelita. As I dropped spoonfuls of batter into the oil, I thought back to the love that shone out of his face as he talked about her. Fifteen minutes into his talk, he told the audience that he purposefully opened with the poem about his abuelita. He asked, who did we think taught him how to be a man? After a tentative guess or two, someone called out, “Your abuelita.” With a look of pure, deep gratitude, he nodded, yes. Then he talked for a bit about how it was the women in his life who taught him how to be the kind of man he wants to be. The men, on the other hand, were too bound by the strictures of hegemonic masculinity – the code that says men can’t cry, men aren’t beautiful, men have no feelings – to teach him how to cry, how to see beauty in himself, how to feel his feelings.

The very next day, another school shooting rocked the news. Among the predictable arguments about guns and mental health, the observation that this generation of young adults has grown up with school shootings has begun appearing. I’d only been teaching for a couple of years when the shooting at Columbine marked a new level of violence. In the decades since, we, as a country, have debated the causes and influences, searching for reasons behind senseless violence with the hope of a magic answer that will prevent another school shooting.

Only recently has the national conversation started to include discussion of the role of toxic masculinity. In a telling linguistic moment, a politician speaking on NPR two days after the shooting in Parkland mentioned “this young m-, person,” clearly catching himself before he said “man” and substituting “person.” But, for the most part, it’s not “persons” carrying out these killings, it’s men. A significant reason that this is a masculine occurrence is that we have socialized men to turn pain outward and inflict it on others.  Women, on the other hand, have been socialized to turn pain inward.

In the wake of this most recent shooting, the ramifications of socially-imposed understandings of “masculinity” play in our culture is moving farther outward from the academy to the most everyday of airwaves. Analysis by J. Reid Meloy, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD and fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, who notes that many mass shootings are preceded by a sense of grievance, has been accessible via press coverage for a few years. But following comedian Michael Ian Black's tweets and NYT op-ed calling for a movement to end the “rigid, outdated model of masculinity” that is breaking boys and endangering everyone, reading lists offered by everyone from the Paris Review to CJ Pascoe are out there on a new level. While the ensuing commentary follows some predictable paths, it IS good to see Black saying to 2 million followers, "Because I’m new to discussing this issue (in public) and new to the topic from a point of view beyond my own experiences and those I know and love, I am going to be doing a lot of reading." 

Women's Center interns and staff with Carlos Andrés Gómez after his performance, "Reimagining Modern Manhood."

In addition to an examination of our concept of masculinity, another factor to which I want to bring attention is the importance of strong family supports and other engaged adult presences to buoy young adults through the often painful years of adolescence. Too many of our public policies and decisions have had as collateral damage the weakening of family structures. Too many families literally don’t have the time to make the donuts together.

Strengthening family ties – not in the punitive way through which those who don’t fit the “correct” model have been shamed and torn apart, but in an open, generous fashion – is one part of healing the deep pain that erupts in these shootings. Carlos attested to the power of his abuelita to guide him into healthy manhood, turning him away from a path that lead to ever-increasing levels of violence. If we want to turn this tide, we have to support families in a multitude of ways and reimagine masculinity.

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