I was standing in the back of the dimly lit theater space, holding court with a handful of friends while I glanced at the stage intently, as the house lights shone ever so brightly on my son, Tyler. He looked and looks every bit the teen heartthrob, and without bias, he has that certain “it-factor.” The crowd of teenagers, an equal mix of boys and girls, watched and reacted to his every gesture and, when prompted, sang the words to each song. This was Tyler’s album release party: 10 songs he wrote the lyrics and the music to, and he’s the singer. I was equal parts ecstatic and angry; not just general anger, but simmering-about-to-bubble-over anger. Why? That’s your question, right?
Allow me to go back in time to give this proper context — back to my childhood. I was raised in a military family, with a father who was a combat veteran and a mother who was loving, but void of noticeable power. My formative years were largely spent in Europe, before coming back stateside well into my teens. From an outsider’s viewpoint, our family was the picture of serenity, but perception can many times be misleading, and it was in our case. If I had to compare the atmosphere in our house to a restaurant menu, emotional distress and physical violence would have been the main course.
I was always fearful, quiet, and rail thin as a kid, which made me a bully magnet in school, so it was a place I dreaded. I recall one distinct time on the school bus; my stop was in view and two kids seated behind me were taking turns slapping the back of my head and threatening to beat me up. When my stop came, I bolted to the door and ran as fast as I could, which was pretty damn fast. The two kids gave chase but I excelled at running, especially when it was to avoid a beatdown. They were a good distance behind, so I felt a sense of relief. I was a few feet from my front door when I caught a glimpse of my father’s car by the garage, outta the corner of my eye; he was home early. The door flew open and he stood blocking my way. He peered over my head and saw the classmates, who had stopped in their tracks off in the near distance.
My father beckoned them to come, then bent down eye-level to me and said, “You better kick their asses!” He gripped my shoulders, whirled me around to face them, and followed up with a violent shove in the back. Did I win, or even put up a good fight? Well, it wasn’t a Hollywood movie; it was reality, and the aftermath saw me punished due to not putting forth a winning effort.
Meaning I got my butt beat.
That story laid the framework for my desire for two things: to learn martial arts, and to get bigger, like bodybuilder huge. These goals would have to be pursued on my own, as my parental support was null and void, and not for a lack of asking.
As it relates to Tyler, he never had to ask; I started him in karate when he was 3 years old; it was called “Kinder Karate.” He stayed in karate until he was breaking boards, and then it was time for a new challenge: Muay Thai kickboxing. The kickboxing academy was an old-school place where the level of intensity was ratcheted up so high I got increasingly nervous for Tyler’s well-being at the beginning, middle, and near the conclusion of every class. When he was at the ripe age of 6, I took Tyler to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) class, a martial art that focuses on grappling with submissions. BJJ is where Tyler found his place, where he excelled, as the art places an emphasis on technique, and size and strength are nullified for the most part. It also gave him a strong foundation to build on in terms of goal-setting, problem-solving, and giving back.
I took him to train at several different BJJ academies and arranged for him to spar with some of the best instructors and competitors worldwide. But when he entered his teens, specifically after he turned 16 and was promoted to blue belt, his attendance on the mats greatly subsided. Those actions or lack thereof led to a one-sided conversation, with me doing the talking. The conversation went something like this: “Do you have any idea how much money I have invested in BJJ all these years? You want to stop now, as a blue belt, when you are a few years from getting a black belt? You do know you could make a lot of money giving private sessions when you’re in college, right?” Those rapid-fire, rhetorical questions were deeply rooted in my past; I was projecting at the highest level.
After I’d survived that beatdown in front of my father, which was not the first, nor the last, I would receive, I became a monthly subscriber to Black Belt and Kung Fu magazines. I read them cover to cover, and I literally worshipped Bruce Lee; I didn’t just watch his movies, I studied them with a notebook and pencil in hand, jotting down notes after each fight scene. All that research, combined with my sparring against imaginary partners in my room, actually gave me a false sense of security. Soon the time came for me to stand up to the main school hooligan, whom I had history with. Case in point, one day while waiting for the school bus, he demanded I give him my new pair of tennis shoes, and without any pushback, or any semblance of standing up for myself…I did (damn, that still stings after all these years). I recall walking off the bus to my house, praying that my dad would not be home to see me walking in with just my socks on. Anyway, back to my newfound martial arts confidence: I headed into the lunch room with a purpose, as it was a haven for bullying. It didn’t take long before he made a beeline for me; he towered over me and simultaneously reached down to snatch my sandwich. I adroitly reached out and gripped his wrist, much to his shock (and his entourage’s shielded delight). It was officially on, as he made a vociferous announcement that “Sad Sack” would be getting his butt kicked by the busses after school: “Everyone be there.” Oh yeah, I forgot to mention my nickname, which I resented, but felt compelled to answer to due to extreme fear: “Sad Sack” was a popular comic book back in the day, and the title tells you all you need to know.
The school day came to an end and there was nowhere to run. It was time. My legs trembled uncontrollably with each step. I faced off with him, and tried my best to embody an “Enter the Dragon” mindset, as everyone hooped and hollered in anticipation of the slaughter. I breathed deep and got in a Kung Fu stance, which to my surprise spurred a few kids to yell out, “Bruce Lee in the house!” He loaded up with a looping right headed to my temple; I ducked and his momentum made him stumble off balance. Instead of attacking, I waited for him to square back up. I timed it perfectly, and whirled around with what I believed to be a fight-ending roundhouse kick that in the movies always landed squarely on the opponent’s jaw. But my base foot slipped, I landed hard on my side, and then he proceeded to mount me and pummel me until some teachers came and put an end to the carnage. Was I hurt? I was hurt emotionally more than anything else, and when I got home I tossed every magazine in the trash, and ripped down the Bruce Lee posters which adorned my walls. I decided at that time I would have to move on to my second goal: I had to get some muscles. Had to put on size.
Putting on muscle is also something Tyler covets, as he is tall, nearly my height of 6’1”, and lanky. He asked me when he was about 15 if he could start going to the gym with me, and I gladly obliged. I remember when I had to help him bench press the 45-lb. bar, and when he had all kinds of trouble lifting 15-lb. dumbbells. One of many things I admire about him is his desire for knowledge: he is a sponge. He soaks up information about every exercise, how I put the routines together, what we eat, everything. It took me awhile to get use to his questions, which to me at first were super annoying. They are usually based in physics and high-end mathematics, both of which are nowhere near my strengths. Questions like, “Dad, the angle of that last exercise was not perpendicular, how does it work the pectorals compared to the angle of the previous exercise we did?” The first few weeks, he took notes while reading the directions on the machines, all the while asking me my thoughts on what was written. Fast-forward to Tyler being 17: He recently used 60-lb. dumbbells for the chest press, and truth be told, he is very close to some of the weights I use in more than a few exercises. He has also gone from 135 lbs. to 160 lbs., and his muscularity, which has come with hard work and consistency, is noticeable. I have to start preparing my ego for the inevitable power shift.
For me, the gains did not come quite so efficiently, and the level of instruction was nowhere near the level Tyler receives. I was determined not to fall victim to the same defeat I had experienced with martial arts; I would take a hardcore approach. I started with the cancellation of my martial arts subscriptions, and an immediate subscription to Muscle Builder magazine (now titled Muscle & Fitness). My walls were newly plastered with Arnold Schwarzenegger posters. I also developed a cult-like fascination with the musclebound adventurer, Conan the Barbarian, of which I own 100+ comics to this day. My exercise routine consisted of pushups, sit-ups, and using my school books stuffed in pillow cases for weights. But when my dad purchased a weight set and a weight bench for me one Christmas, I was not overly ecstatic…
You see, he was notorious for getting ME presents that he wanted, so they were never really for me. Which meant I had to sneak around to use the weights when he was not home, and I had to make sure I put everything back exactly the way it was before he’d left. To be honest, my exercising was hit or miss up until I went to college and joined a local gym, the San Marcos Athletic Club. I made friends there that I am still in contact with to this very day; shout-out to my dear friend Alan “Poodle” — RIP. It was there where I grew; it was there where I lifted with beasts and became a beast myself, as my weight went from a 155-lb. high school senior to a 270+-lb. college junior. I learned a lot by trial and error, and suffered a lot of injuries, as my mentors, l would later learn, were figuring out things, too. I still have pain and range of motion issues due to lingering injuries from brutal and unsafe lifting practices of years gone by.
All things considered, I did get the bodybuilder muscles I so desperately wanted as a teen, albeit with a lot of supplementation, over the counter, and otherwise.
One key question I had yet to answer was, What are my life goals? Or, to a lesser extent, What would my major in college be? To be honest, I was lost: I had zero direction and had no idea what I wanted to do. Now, when I was younger I showed promise in two things, one of which was art. I had artistic talent, and at one point had entered one of my drawings in a local art show competition and won 1st place. I was super happy, only to have my dad show utter contempt for something as unmanly as art. Venture over.
The other thing I showed promise in was writing. Many of my essays and poems garnered a certain amount of acclaim from teachers and the like, and this was prior to middle school. A specific poem of note was titled, “Death is the Answer to the Problem of Life”, which my teachers should have noticed was more a call for help than something to be marveled at. At home, my father’s response was more colorful, so to speak, as he let me know in no uncertain terms that writing was for “soft” people. He demanded that I play sports; only I was not athletic, and I was very much team-averse. It would be safe to say I stumbled from dream to dream during my late teens well into adulthood.
Tyler, on the other hand, has entered his last year of high school knowing with certainty what he is not only good at, but has a serious passion for, and that’s music. I do everything in my power to provide the resources and find and or create opportunities for him to showcase his talent and be in a position to grasp success. He started off playing the saxophone. I had zero idea there was more than one, but I was quick to found out. But why did he have to play the baritone saxophone, which happened to be the largest and most expensive? When he switched to the guitar, it was a financial blessing, and I was hyped that he might be playing things I actually liked, such as AC/DC or the like. No, he gravitated toward all things jazz, and I’m talking total immersion. I am not into jazz, not even a little bit, but I made sure to find him the best mentors in the field, and I went to all his performances. After every performance, we would have the same conversation: He would ask if I liked it, and I would say, “I love you son, I don’t like jazz, but I love you.”
As he has gotten older, his writing and producing has expanded, and with his first album, titled “Prom Night”, his sound, although jazz-infused, has landed squarely in the indie rock genre, which is more to my taste. I have watched him make strides, massive strides, and all the while I have battled my past, which started creeping into my present with persistent and damaging regularity. My biggest challenge had been to cease projecting unto Tyler. With every opportunity, every resource, every guitar or amp I purchased for him, I would think of what had not been done for me. I would lash out at him, “My dad NEVER did any of these things for me; you better appreciate this!” Am I ashamed of feeling this way? No, but I would be if I had not recognized it and realized that my childhood experiences molded me into the person I am today.
My extreme ability to be present for Tyler, to provide at all costs and to make sure he is happy, is a direct result of my not having had those things. As mentioned, I’ve been able to get him involved in martial arts, and I take an active interest, to the point of starting BJJ myself. I am now a purple belt who shares the mats with many who are half my age. I have been able to teach Tyler how to use weights the right way, and in doing so stay strong and in relatively good shape while ensuring he gets results far and above his classmates and keeping him injury-free.
My childhood clearly had aspects that could have led me down a path of destruction, and in some specific instances it did, but with little doubt my son is the beneficiary of the many life lessons I was privy to. I am blessed, I am blessed, and yes, I wrote it twice because I found what I am good at, it may have taken me damn near a lifetime to circle back to those early years, but I am a writer. The passion Tyler has for music, I have for writing, something I had always been reluctant to acknowledge and go fully all in on until the conclusion of collaborating with Tyler on writing a book: “Chronically Positive: My Son’s 5-Step System to Staying Positive!”
This book not only chronicles his ability to stay positive while fighting his decade-plus battle against kidney illness — a battle I intentionally have not mentioned thus far, as it was but a small distraction in his journey — it has allowed me to accept the fact that I can learn from my son. I use the 1st step in the book, which is to set an expiration date on a when-needed basis. His use of this principle helped him to stop feeling sorry for himself when his medications were increased or his hospital stays extended; my use of it was to put an end to allowing my less than favorable childhood experiences dictate my present reality. I had to stop the internal battle over being happy about being the best father I can be while being angry as hell for not having a father that set the precedent. An addition to that expiration date was to forgive, but not forget, my father’s actions, as the pain and anger have a way of dragging a person down. As a byproduct of the aforementioned positive actions, my previous and constant projecting and demanding appreciation halted. I even came to terms with a very difficult thing to acknowledge, and that was that my desire as a youngster to get big enough to challenge and beat up my dad was not my real, or even true, desire. My desire then, and to a certain extent now, has been to feel loved by my father, to feel that he was proud of me. I am aware those things will never happen, and that is okay. It’s okay, because there is not one day that goes by without my son knowing that I love him from my actions and my words — telling him I love him is something I will continue to do until I can no longer talk, then I will write it to him.
My son is indeed living his dream, and I am living mine. Oh yeah, about that simmering internal anger I mentioned at the onset, while I watched him perform at his album release party…
It dissipated as quickly as it reared its head, for that battle is over. My heart was and is filled with an immense amount of joy and pride over Tyler’s musical prowess, but more so over who he has become as a young man. It should be noted that I, too, sang along when prompted, as I know the words to all his songs.
By Marlon Ransom
Marlon Ransom is a single father, aspiring coffee connoisseur, Bjj Purple Belt and a writer. Follow his son, Tyler on Instagram @tylerransom, tylerransom.com, and check out his book “Chronically Positive: My Son’s 5 Step System to Staying Positive!” on Amazon.