Boys to Men
I spent part of the morning with a miniature Barbie doll stuck up my ass.
Let me explain. Let me explain quickly.
My shower isnt working so I had to take a bath, minus the Calgon, thank you. As I sat down, I felt a sharp pain in my keester, literally in my keester, if you catch my drift. I jumped up and looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and saw the problem: sticking out of my ass was a ball-gown bedecked Barbie.
Thats when I remembered that Id bought my daughter, Gucci, a set of 4 "Barbie Soaps." Each bar of soap is made of mulberry scented glycerin and comes with a tiny Barbie embedded within. The glycerin had worn largely away, but there was just enough slippery soap on her head to make her a viable substitution for Richard Geres gerbil.
As I looked at my reflection in the mirror across from the tub, I thought, "That really doesnt look very manly. Come to think of it, that doesnt make me feel very manly."
These thoughts set off an internal dialog on the nature of manhood in America.
Is appearance related to masculinity?
What is the nature of manhood?
The answers dont come easily to me. Part of the reason is because things seem to have changed in the last few years. I once wrote that I didnt think that the events of 9-11 had changed squat in America, least of all the attitudes of Americans towards each other.
Boy was I wrong.
Americans, particularly young male Americans, are permanently pissed. Oh, theyve always been pissed about one thing or anotherwhich isnt necessarily badbut 9-11 made them feel more than a little frustrated, at least subconsciously, because they dont have a way to channel their aggression.
They want to show that theyre courageous, but courage has become confused with violence or the promise of violence; manliness has become confused with aggressive posturing. Theyve fallen in love with machismo.
You know one of the reasons why the majority of men voted for George Bush? I think its because he swaggers when he walks and he told the terrorists to "bring it on."
Im sorry, but tough talk does not necessarily a man make. Personally, I dont think a guyany guywho was born with a silver spoon in his mouth can truly be a tough guy. Nope, I think you need to have been born with an old, rough-edged steel spoon in your mouth; I think you need to have tasted a little rust and a little blood to be a tough guy.
And looking or acting tough? Got nothing to do with anything.
The three toughest people I know or knew dont fit any stereotypical image. The first is my wife, who once, with her appendix about to burst, dutifully prepared for work (lying down on the floor while blow drying her hair because she could barely stand up), drove to her job at the hospital and attended to her first patient. When the second shift tech showed up to replace her, my wife staggered into the E.R. and collapsed. They wheeled her in and did an emergency appendectomy.
Whyd she do that? She didnt want to let the patients down, many who had waited weeks for an appointment.
The second tough guy I knew was named Dr. Michael Dullnig. He was a gay psychiatrist with AIDS...before there were anti-virals and many of the other drugs that now make the disease somewhat manageable. While he had managed to fight off the wasting effects of the disease with anabolic steroids, he developed CMV retinitis, which would have ultimately led to blindness. Almost worse was the maddening, constant, insufferable itching caused by the cornucopia of drugs he was using.
So this brave man cheerfully decided he wanted to die.
He made the decision about as easily as you or I might decide to leave a party that had gotten a little boring, and he didnt make it because he was scared or depressed. He just wanted to go check out the next life, dimension, or whatever lies waiting for us beyond this plane of existence. He wanted to go to the next party and see if it was a little livelier. He was genuinely curious.
But before he checked out of this life, he threw his own little real-life party, a party with champagne, music and most of his friends in attendance. He danced, had some fun, posed for pictures, and then walked upstairs to his bedroom, stopping once on the staircase to smile broadly and raise a glass in a silent toast. He went to his bed, lied down, ate a yogurt laced with Nembutal, went to sleep, and never woke up.
No sadness, no tears, no regrets, no doubts. If that aint tough, I dont know what is.
The third toughest person I knew was my father. He didnt do anything classically heroic, but he kept the same shit factory job for most of his life, working 6 or 7 days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day (for the overtime), and never called in sick no matter how rotten he felt. Did he hate it? Maybe, probably, most certainly, but that didnt matter. He had work to do and a family to support. He didnt agonize about what he coulda-shoulda done with his life.
I probably would have done things differently than all three of my examples, but having convictions and will is something I admire, pretty much regardless of the reasons or the consequences. Clearly, toughnessreal toughness—can come in any guise, as can bravery.
But Americans, particularly young Americans, think toughness begins and ends with calling someone a shithead and threatening to "bust them up." Theyre little boys who never metaphorically graduated from wearing short pants. Its not all their fault, though. Unfortunately, unlike some cultures, we have no rites of passage into manhood. As such, young men blithely go on skirting responsibility, avoiding hard work and throwing frequent violent temper tantrums because theyre still little boys.
Pundits and preachers and politicians claim that the solution to all this is a nation-wide return to "family values." I dont even know what the term means. When I think of family, I think of husbands and wives fighting, brats screaming and picking boogers out of their nose, grandma gumming her food, and tame Saturday night, roll-on roll-off sex followed by a nice nap in church the next morning. Since when did having a family place the mantle of virtue on some Neanderthals sloping forehead?
I know, I know, theyre talking about traditional family values, which means supporting a family and busting junior on the head when mom finds stroke mags underneath his mattress. Sorry. Family values are a little too estrogenic for me. Give me male values, traditional male values.
Walter R. Newell, in his book, "The Code of Man" advocates just such a return to traditional ideas of manhood. He writes that through the ages, courage and pride were about "the struggle to defend and extend justice and to overcome our baser instincts," but he laments the fact that somewhere along the way, traditional manhood gave way to false machismo and violent behavior.
How exactly do we reestablish these traditional male values? Im not sure. Its a tall order. I know some cultures send their boys out into the jungle or the wild by themselves. When they come backif they survive—theyre pronounced men and treated as such. Americans? We send our young boys to Daytona Beach, or maybe the Bahamas! Or even—Junior will like this—snowboard camp! Its a reward for having the incredible tenacity and ability to make it through...high school, or even junior high school.
When they come back, theyre not men; theyre still arrogant, disrespectful punks, albeit with nice tans.
Im not just being an old coot. I thought this way when I was 20 and I think this way now, but current times have strengthened my convictions on this topic.
Ive got an idea. Do you have a son? Do him and yourself a favor. Get some adult male friendsrole models—together and throw the boy a ritual, a manhood ritual, when he reaches the age of 16. Tell the women to stay home. Then, have each friend stand up, tell him what it means to be a man, and give your son some small token of manhood or masculinity, whether it be a jackknife, a set of dog tags, or a special book. Theyll serve as talismans to both remind him of his new station in life and to ward off weakness. Tell your son that hes a man now and expected to act like one from now on. And if he screws up? Well, hes now got a whole tribe to answer to, any of which forever have the right to smack him in the back of the head when childish behavior creeps back in.
Seal the deal by eating some bloody steaks.
As part of the ritual, Id take him to the gym the next day and introduce him to weightlifting. Weightlifting is where he channels his aggression. Weight lifting is how he builds self-confidence and pride and prepares himself for the physical challenges to come. After all, defending and extending justice is hard work. It takes a strong back.
Beyond all that, America has to stop loving merely the facade of toughness or masculinity. The virtues we hold dearthe virtues that truly reflect masculinity, traditional masculinitycome in different, often unexpected guises.
That being said, the embedded Barbie doll still isnt a very manly look.
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