Pride before the fall

“Dad, we should wait for mom to hang the garland?”

“I can do it.”

“But you have to use the ladder.”

“I can do it.”

Dylan and I stand in the shadow of the front door. I hold one end of a 6 foot length of garland and my son holds the other end. Cindy is out shopping on a post-Thanksgiving afternoon, and under the incessant urging of my only child who still believes with his little-beating-heart Santa Claus is real, I’m summoned to decorate the house for Christmas.

Even before my brain went bad, I’ve never liked putting up Christmas decorations. Call me Scrooge, but the tedious effort has never filled me with spirit or merriment or jolliness. Chapped fingers and tangled cords of frustration do not appeal. The wire reindeer with uneven hooves, the inflatable Santa who tips like a fat drunkard, the blinking icicle lights that refuse to blink. Clark Griswold I am not.

But today it’s unseasonably warm and, knowing this might be the last Christmas with the fleeting “Santa is real” magic, I submit. I slip on my sneakers, do the fatherly thing, and tell Dylan we can decorate.

“Get the step ladder from the garage.”

“But mom can…”

“I can do it.”

Throughout my teaching career, I lectured on the fragility of the male ego. So much of literature, both past and present, exposes the sad male reaction when his ego is stripped and shattered. Macbeth. Death of a Salesman. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Fight Club. If literature is a reflection of history, then the original sin of pride has doomed men, nations, civilizations since Adam ate the apple. Julius Caesar. Napoleon. John Wayne. Donald Trump. Men are hard-wired to hide their inadequacies. We’re not permitted to admit sickness or weakness or failure. When we lose or are publicly embarrassed we often short-circuit. We set fire to cities. Send mean tweets. Refuse to listen to the logical decrees of a seven year old. Men do not know how to handle such impotence. We lie and yell and grow quiet and tell our kid to get the step ladder. In this most vulnerable moment we get desperate. We take uncalculated risks, ignoring potential dangers, to prove to whoever is watching–we’re still a man. To prove we’re okay.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

From the poem “If–” by Rudyard Kipling
(“If–” is one of my favorite poems. Endearing and honest, Kipling offers a set of timeless”rules” for being a good person.)

History is crashed with men who attempted to defy gravity as Dylan drags the step ladder across the lawn I roll my left shoulder like you do before you go bowling.

The day before Labor Day I fell. Hard. I attempted to lock the front door, but before I could reach the door handle my brain hiccuped, I lost my balance and fell on my left shoulder. For a month I suffered. I winced putting on deodorant. Rolling on it while I slept woke me up. I wore hoodies and kept my left arm tucked in the front pouch like a sling. I hid the pain for weeks until reaching for a napkin at dinner. The pain almost knocked me out of my chair. The orthopedic doctor explained my shoulder was not sitting correctly in the socket, an impingement, and physical therapy is the only way to improve it. As I write this, I’m in week 10 of physical therapy. I’m feeling okay.

“Dad, we can wait for mom.”

“I’ll be fine.”

I open the step ladder and Dylan’s big blue eyes look up to me. Son, what you’re about to witness is the stupidity of the male ego. Right now, it’s more than just garland. It’s a primordial weakness. A DNA mutation. Counterfeit initiation into a bogus fraternity. Even if it’s perilous to our health. We’ll take our chances. Test our earthly limits. Bones heal but bruised souls do not. You’re right. This is silly. I should wait for mom. I should ask for help. But Adam ate the apple. Icarus flew too close to the sun. It’s woven deep in our camouflaged mythology. Son, you’re so young. There’s so much to learn. But with a hole in my brain and an impinged shoulder, I will ignore your suggestion and I will ascend this step ladder, toward the suburban sun, and with my one good arm, hang this most excellent garland for the glory of man.

“Dad are you okay?”

My hands choke the sides of the ladder. I wobble up my right foot to the first step. I wobble up the left. Dylan is silent and I’m sure, at some point, the word sad floats by his young eyes.

I’m 6 inches off the ground. My head spins. My heart thumps. Deep breath.

“I’m fine.”

White knuckled, I wobble up my right foot to the second step. Then the left. I’m on the top step. 12 inches off the ground. Flying now. Alone. A man straddling the apex of his mountain.

I’m sure, the male impulse to ignore his own shortcomings and a foolhardy belief he can emerge champion–just this one time–is responsible for many home improvement mishaps. Along with failed relationships, political scandals, and global catastrophes.

Dylan hands up the garland and with my one good arm, I slowly lace the garland across the door trim. The job takes little time. Coming down the ladder is much easier and faster for me. Such is life. Dylan and I step back, admire the garland, and look as if we both know what we’re doing.

It’s too soon to tell the damage done on this warm November day. Yes, we hung the garland. But at what cost? What did I just teach my son? Years from now, when Dylan is faced with risk, I fear he will remember how I appeared poised and defiant and forged ahead on the step ladder. If dad, with his bad brain and bad shoulder can hang garland… .

I don’t want to say this too loud but I struggle greatly with how my health has emasculated me. I had to leave teaching. I can’t play sports with my kids. I can’t walk a straight line. My voice now slanted with slurs and stumbles. I want Dylan to know letting go of my previous life and accepting this new one has been hard. When my son becomes a man he will be forced, like all men, to do the same. Let go and accept. It’s not easy. It’s manly work. To leave the frat house. To go on your own. To trust yourself. To redefine yourself. For the good of yourself. For the good of others.

But old habits die hard and sometimes, when the adults leave me home alone, I regress. Don’t we all? I still have a restless spirit. Don’t we all? And I try to get away with little things, like hanging garland, to polish my glass ego. To prove to Adam and Icarus and John Wayne and every other man in the history of men– I’m still part of their foolish fraternity.

“It looks good dad.”

“It does. Now don’t tell mom.”

Be well,


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Need some encouragement? Some perspective? This hardworking, almost-handsome, suburban soccer dad can help. Subscribe and, like a pizza, get my posts delivered to your door (your email inbox). No spam. Just posts.


Jay Armstrong is a writer, blogger, speaker, and an award-winning high school English teacherDiagnosed with a rare neurological disease that resulted in a hole in his brain– Jay presses on. He hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life. For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:

1. Reading
2. Writing 
3. Exercising
4. Hearing his three children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents and a beer with his friends)

Jay hasn’t had a bad day in quite a long time. 

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