I suppose I didn’t set out to raise my three boys to be “men”. I wanted them to be adults, eventually, yes. And, because they are boys, then, as adults, they will be men, by definition. Look it up – www.dictionary.com. Type in “man” and there it is: “an adult male person”.
There are certain characteristics parents want their kids to develop as they mature – honesty, integrity, independence, empathy, a sense of duty, self respect, reverence for their father. I like to think that their mother and I provide a fairly consistent example of what it means to be an adult; what it means to be a man if you’re male.
But no. There is, in our culture, actually a gender-specific thing called Being A Man – an array of personal traits that are found in real MEN. It’s not enough to be an adult and a male person. That may make you a man. It does not make you A Man.
I don’t know how the dictionary.com definition could have missed it. “Man”: an adult male person who kills his own food; uses tools; drinks beer, rye, scotch or bourbon but never a gimlet; changes his own oil, tires and timing chains; owns his own tux; is aloof and distant and has a narrow emotional range which includes, really, only cool indifference and anger. A Man barbecues [meat], sharpens the knives, takes pride in the shine on his shoes, carries cash, carves the turkey, sits at the dining room table on the only chair that has arms, and owns a boat. He is interested in hearing your problems only if you’re interested in hearing solutions. A Man fears nothing, but has many enemies – wild animals, feminists, political correctness. See: Clint Eastwood, Ernest Hemingway, God [Old Testament], Gordie Howe, Hillary Clinton and, especially, Chuck Norris.
That is really only a sample of the manly essentials, as you would know if you spent some time researching “how to be a man” on the internet, as I have. There are a lot of rules, the breach of any of which will put one’s manhood in doubt. There’s also a certain paranoia at play, an awareness of an external threat to the full enjoyment of total manliness.That would be women, of course, who have it in for men – especially the feminists, who won’t stop till men are breastfeeding and having hot flashes. The Manhood concept, then, is somewhat misogynistic. It is also deeply homophobic. In other words, men are wary of anyone who might have sex with them. But, paradoxically, in addition to being homophobic, it is also wildly homo-erotic. Real men are happiest with other men. Manly activity often involves, oh, let’s call it “rough-housing” and frequently includes group showering and hanging around in our underwear in places women aren’t allowed. The manhood concept is also more than a little auto-erotic. Men love being alone and, when alone, prefer to sit around without their pants on.
My three boys haven’t done the research I have done, but have a very firm idea of what it means to be a Man. For them, a Man is a composite being, a collection of characteristics pulled from Ultimate Fighting, professional football, gangster movies, rap music videos, Don Cherry [what he says, not how he dresses], Jackass and video games. The resulting Man is tough and mean and violent, juiced up and muscular. And pissed off, always pissed off. This image combines with the more traditional Real Man concept to produce a creature that does not in the least resemble the only person in their household claiming to be a man. That would be me. I possess none of the attributes my boys see as essential to manhood and, in fact, possess a great number of characteristics that are scorned by real men.
A man is supposed to be serious. A man is not supposed to be making stupid jokes all the time. A man certainly shouldn’t be making self-deprecating jokes [or self-defecating jokes, as I like to call them. Yet another example of my lack of manly seriousness]. Humour is fine, but jokes should have a victim and should be used only in aid of sibling torment. This is sometimes called bullying – a fact of life, the only remedy for which is to “man up”.
A man is supposed to teach his sons about about huntin’ ‘n’ fishin’ [and it must be pronounced just that way]. I have three problems with huntin’ ‘n’ fishin': firearms, sharp barbed hooks and dead things. The first two things are safety issues – my boys use humour to harm each other, god forbid they get their hands on guns and hooks. As for the dead things, this should be obvious. Once you’ve killed it, the fun is over. Gutting, skinning, plucking, filleting? Please.
I helped them with their piano practicing. Cleaner, safer. But not manly.
A man loves his car. I love my minivans. I especially love my very old minivan, a seventeen year old MPV that I haven’t washed, fixed or maintained in about ten years. Son #2 [not his real name] commented when I was driving him to school one day, “Dad, this thing is a piece of shit. A man should have a ‘choice’ car.” Yes, a man’s vehicle says something about him. Mine says, “I have kids and I run errands.”
Power tools. My father gave me a skill saw for Christmas a few years ago. Yes, a spinning, jagged wheel of death, loud enough to conceal the screams of the new amputee. I will take it out of hiding when the boys are safely living in other cities. I have a normal male fascination with tools, especially power tools, but try to avoid having them in the house. Same with loaded firearms, crossbows, samurai swords, explosives or anything hard and heavy and small enough to throw. It’s the logical extension of baby-proofing the house.
Competitive sports – competition generally – is Very Manly, very primal. Triumph or defeat. The victor and the vanquished. My boys have all played sports and we enjoy going to games. My eldest, Number One, took me aside in the gym one night and said “You can’t come to my games if you and Mom are going to do that ‘clap for both teams’ shit. NO ONE does that.” Yes, his mother and I appreciate a good play, whichever team makes it. I suppose I was aware our conduct was unusual. Sports entails some contrived vilification, some “us – them” enmity that is manufactured deep within, where man-instincts reside. The fact that I can’t call it up without a reprimand is shameful.
My boys imagine themselves to be good fighters. The ability to deliver and to take a punch when necessary to defend one’s self and one’s honour is another item on the menu of manly virtues. Whenever my eldest would come home after a fight, I’d first fuss about whether he was hurt [of course not], then about whether he’d hurt the other guy [well, yeah, duh], then I’d deliver an anti-fighting lecture, thus removing any doubt that might have existed that I am anything other than a big weenie man with weenie man values. On one particular occasion, Number One had heard enough of this gender-traitorous talk. “Most fathers,” he sputtered, “would be proud that their sons were tough. They’d wanna hear about how their sons kicked someone’s ass.”
I told him I’d never been in a fight, not even as a kid. Fighting, I explained, even when you win, involves getting hit. And hurt. Who wants that? Why bother?
Why bother? Why bother? Because fighting is what men do. O B V I O U S L Y.
My faint hearted, cowardly, conflict-avoiding advice for navigating the perils of guyworld, is always met with disbelief, then frustration. At one point, during one of our Man-to-Not-Really-a-Man talks, Number One buried his face in his hands and lamented, “It’s like I’m being raised by a lesbian couple”, obviously not recognizing just how very hip that would be.
Years ago, I had Number Three and his best buddy Joe Nothisrealname out in the minivan on the way to do a bit of grocery shopping. The boys were sitting in the back, of course, to avoid death by airbag, and were chanting at me to change the music to something like rock or rap. I had on Jennifer Warnes’ great old disc “Famous Blue Raincoat, a collection of the songs of Leonard Cohen. They sensed its withering effect on their genitals and demanded a change. I resisted. “This is a great album,” I told them. I put on my favourite track “Song of Bernadette” – a song about regret and guilt and forgiveness. I was sure it would get to them. “Listen to this one carefully,” I said, “I guarantee it will make you cry.” [Perhaps I was over reaching? Still, worth a try.] They listened, unmoved. After we finished the shopping, we were back in the car, the song was still on. Joe said “Ross, I don’t get it. What’s so sad about this song?” I guess he was expecting the song would describe the violent death of a loved one or a pet, two things worth crying about.
“It’s not sad,” I said. “It’s touching.”
It was quiet in the minivan for a couple of moments, then Number Three piped up from the back, “Oh Dad, you are such a girl.”
Recently, I joined the church choir – which resulted in a chorus of horror from the boys. I told them I loved singing in a choir and was looking forward to it. This only deepened their sense of betrayal. I came home from my first choir practice and was met by a hand scrawled sign taped to the back door: “Choir. Dad. Really?”
Disrespectful? Of course. But the sign demonstrated remarkable clarity and economy, I thought. I was quietly proud.
The only movies I have seen in the last twenty-three years have been chick flicks. Wife Number Two [not her real name] loves rom coms. She also likes anything with subtitles, which she strongly believes will make me smarter and less coarse. To round out our movie fare, she also enjoys those English things, with tortured female lead characters and a lot of repressed sexual energy and elaborate costumes. The boys will be in the basement watching Russell Crowe severing limbs artfully and I’ll be upstairs with my love watching Love, Actually or anything else with Hugh Grant in it, or Colin Firth, Dylan McDermott or Dermott Mulroney, assuming they are not all the same person.
Maintaining a manly image in the eyes of one’s children requires a certain distance, something a stay-at-home Dad simply can’t manage. I’m too accessible, too familiar, and my role involves too many domestic duties and too much service to others. When twelve year old Number Three Boy was told that his father would be leaving his job to stay at home, he took his mother aside. “Won’t Dad feel emasculated,” he asked, “with his wife bringing home the bacon?” I’m surprised he didn’t ask who would now wear the pants in the family. Here’s a kid who can’t remember a time when there weren’t iPods, but can readily call up attitudes from the 1950s.
Being a Man, it seems to me, is just another version of being “cool”, which I could also never carry off with any grace. Both cool and manly have strict, though utterly arbitrary, rules for demeanor and behaviour, the acceptable expression of emotions and the nature of relationships.
I have a story of my problems with cool that reflects the extreme non-fit-in-edness that also hampers my manliness.
When I was in the middle of grade nine, my Dad was transferred to Swift Current. I was enrolled in a “junior high”. I wonder about the thinking behind putting grades seven eight and nine in one building. Was it just to quarantine the kids undergoing the most toxic stage of personal development, so they wouldn’t infect the rest of the school system?
Grade nine kids in junior high have no perspective. They have a wildly inaccurate view of their status, their maturity, their worldliness. They have no humility. And they’re nasty. They’re obsessed with what is cool, though more focused on what is NOT cool. Because my family moved around a lot [my Dad was a banker] I had a pretty good idea that cool was completely site-specific. There was no Platonic “form” of “the cool”. Plato would have hated junior high.
So, here I was, the new kid. And, in keeping with the normal drill, I was tried on by various groups of kids – obviously starting with the outcasts, who quickly rejected me and felt good doing so. Then, because I sat behind a member of the Very Cool Group in home room, and he thought I was a nice guy, I was given a tryout with the ‘A’ team. Major opportunity. Cool guys, good lookin’ girls, top of the junior high heap.
A couple of weeks into my probation period, we were hanging out in Mary’s family room. Being cool involves a lot of hanging out. Mary’s mother looked in on us and recognized me as a boy she’d seen at the music festival the week before. She suggested that I should play something.
At this point, there was supposed to be a little teen-aged angel on my shoulder, warning me of the importance of the decision I was about to make. I had no angel. I was on my own. Sure, I’ll play something. I sat at the piano and, with a room full of very cool teenagers staring in wonder, I committed social suicide. My mode of self-immolation on that particular occasion was a Chopin Prelude, “The Raindrop Prelude”. I love that piece. I played it very well, I thought. Mary’s mother was pleased. My new friends were stunned into silence. That was the end of my time with them. Chopin had written my swan song.
I told this story to Number Three as he approached his teens, intending that it would demonstrate the arbitrary nature of adolescent rules of conduct and and the importance of just being yourself. What could be more cool than that? So wise, I thought. Number Three knew better. He quickly told the others, who joined in his disbelief that anyone could be so out of touch with reality.
And that’s it, you know. My lack of manliness isn’t the result of weakness of character, lack of testosterone or gender confusion. Nor does it come from any strong sense of independence, a defiance of a societal-imposed norms, a determination to rise above it all.
It’s just that I don’t have a clue.