What is a man?

Recently, there has been a lot of controversy in regards to something known as “toxic masculinity.”  I have seen a lot of this kind of talk in recent years.  Some in regards to “mansplaining” and others in regards to what is known as some sort of male hierarchy of “Alpha males”, etc.

If I were to go by the rules set on social media, it seems that as a male, (I’ll get to that in just a bit), attempting to put in my two cents is going to be regarded as “mansplaining” which in recent years, I think is pretty much any time a male enters a conversation about him, that is also excluding him.  It reminds me of Victorian conversations on physiognomy, race, and origin, in which women, minorities, and people of different faiths and creeds were discussed at length and never did anyone stop to consider what their take on segregation, racism, misogyny, or even slavery meant to them.

“Quiet.  The adults are speaking.”  I have heard something like that a lot on social media.

Today, since this is my soapbox, I am going to share my opinions and thoughts on the matter, in regards to the Gillette ads, social media, and pretty much anything else.  It could get weird.  I don’t know.  What I do know is when you express yourself in writing, your words tend to stick and can’t be taken back.  So here goes.

The Gillette Ad.

I watched it.  I really wasn’t offended.  I think 2,000 years ago, a man who walked for a brief period of time on this planet might have thought being kind to others and standing up for the weak might have been a good thing.  Depending on your perspective, this could have been Jesus Christ, or it could have been one of the Stoics.  They share a lot of the same beliefs.  Don’t be a dick to other people.  My only concern about the ad was that the man who stands up to the bullies and defends the weaker kid, while all the others chant “Boys will be boys” learned how to stand up to injustice at some point.  He learned somewhere that at some point, a man has to stand up and yes, sometimes he has to intervene.

We have left an entire profession to do our standing up for us: The Law.  If we see injustice or danger or something that isn’t right, we–as men–are encouraged to rely on other “men” to correct the situation.  The reason I use “men” in quotes like this is because law enforcement can be men or women, but really, it is legally sanctioned brute force with the support of the law behind it.  If you see someone picking on an old person trying to walk home, you call the cops.  If you see someone taking a woman home from a bar who might be drugged or too drunk to give consent, you call a cop.  If your neighbor is throwing poisoned meat into your yard for your dogs to eat, you call a cop.  If the infraction against you isn’t technically a criminal offense, then you call other “men” to fight your battles.  You get a lawyer.  You take the offending party to court.  In the court system the end game is less justice and more a marathon to see who has the most money to keep a lawyer on the case for “justice.” The first one to blink loses.

So why are these infinite grilling dads just saying “boys will be boys”? Because little kids smacking each other isn’t criminal and it isn’t worth paying a lawyer to stop.  Because as men, we have been told intervention isn’t our place anymore.  We pay others to be masculine for us.  Professional athletes make millions of dollars to be our heroes.  Soldiers go to war and fight and kill and return home with a strange differential that the training they received to push themselves to the limit is not something civilized modern men do.  We watch “men” like John Wick and John McClane shoot terrorists and bad buys to bloody chunks, and we are reminded quickly that these are fantasies once the credits roll. In reality, we are powerless to correct injustice.  It’s escapist fantasy. We hire actors to be men.  Dads are buffoons in sit-coms, they aren’t men.

Men are relegated to a few things that are “manly” in our society.  We are expected to pay child support for children we never get to see, we work long hours to provide for our families–and yes, women also work and often support families as well, but men who might find themselves being the stay-at-home dad are considered lesser by our standards.  We aren’t expected to voice our opinions either, or else we face criticism as being part of “men’s rights” coalitions, “whining” about things that have been off balance for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Sorry, but stopping a conversation and saying “this isn’t cool” is not sexist.  Women were called “women’s libbers” for saying they should be paid for the job equally back in the 60s and 70s.  It is stifling either way.

I am a single dad.  I work full time. Two jobs.  I cook. I  clean.  I band-aid skinned knees and chase away monsters and hold my kids when they cry and tell jokes to make them laugh.  I was never a very good athlete in school, but I try to stay healthy (which is more than can be said for a lot of athletes I did know over the years), because I want to live for a while as well as I can.  I was never a guy who someone would consider “toxic” in my masculinity.  I read. I enjoy poetry.  I am emotional.  I cry sometimes when I am happy or see something beautiful.  But I can shoot straight.  I can make fire or sharpen a knife.  I can fight if I have to.  I face my fears, but am aware I have fears.  I flirt. I am fiercely loyal to someone I am with.  I love the smell of wildflowers and tobacco (not burned thankyouverymuch).  I have never been to war, other than the one I fight every day with myself.  I am a writer, so I look inside and I pay attention to what is going on in the world to piece the stories together that I see every day.  I work hard, but sometimes I am a lazy man.  I am aware of my faults, my hubris, my ego.  I have been hurt, but I keep standing up to go another round.  I don’t handle my liquor very well, so I don’t drink often.  I know my limitations.

When I saw that ad, I thought, the worst thing a man can be is complacent.  Just accept the checked shirt, dad-pun role he has been assigned.  To accept labels.  To keep his opinions to himself because his “privilege” is the only voice he needs.  Do you think I like being lumped in with the viewpoint that men are aggressive, sexual predators?  Do you think I need someone to tell me to be better?  No.  And I don’t need the privilege of hundreds of years of men being in power to be my voice either.  Anymore than I need a bad movie about people chasing ghosts to be considered a good movie just because it features an all-female cast.  It’s still a bad movie.

I don’t need a razor company to speak for me, mostly because they have contributed to what ad makers in New York have done to men and women for a hundred years: prescribed masculinity/femininity.  The same people who have told women through magazines that they aren’t good enough are doing the same thing to men.  They always have.  It’s not new.  Real men smoke Marlboros, real men drink Lord Calvert, wear this shirt, drive this car, eat this food.  It is equality in manipulation.  Though I really didn’t disagree with the message they were sending.  It just felt a little like “ad-splaining”.

I used to read the Art of Manliness website. I don’t know if some would consider it “toxic” masculinity.  I really don’t care if they do.  I liked the site because it embraced things that men could relate to. Things they should relate to, but often miss. Things from how to tie a tie to how to shave with a razor.  How to survive a night in the woods or how to survive a dinner party.  These are things that men used to learn when they were boys, but now men have lost the way.  Nowhere on that site did it say, “treat women like shit” or “you can’t cry while watching the Fox and the Hound”.  Though I know of some dads (and moms) who have told their kids that.

I liked the site.  But I got to learn things about how to be a man from being in the Boy Scouts as a kid. I was lucky.  My dad was doing what he had to do, by working 60 hours a week to put a roof over our heads and me through college. He knew I would figure it out.  And moms…well, moms tend to appreciate their boys as boys until their 60s.  Being a man is much like being a woman, I would imagine.  It’s about making decisions.  Standing up for what is right.  Working hard for things that are important.

I see Atticus Finch as being more of a man than Chuck Norris.

I see a man standing over his grill at a family BBQ as more manly than his sister’s boyfriend the quarterback, because the man at the grill might just be holding on for dear life, he might want to die because he is spending his years at a job that sucks, paying for kids who don’t even know him. He might have found a lump on his left testicle just the other day. But he is wearing a “Kiss the Cook” apron and turning the hotdogs while Johnny Football hero gets to talk about how many 300lb reps he can bench. The other is a guy who got puked on and stayed up most of the night because his kid had a fever and he was holding the bucket for them while they threw up.  He’s the guy who went to work the next day on two hours of sleep too.  He is showing a lot of restraint in putting up with his sister’s boyfriend.  That is a good quality to have when you are a man.  Restraint means you won’t have to call your parents from jail in the middle of the night because you pushed a guy with cauliflower ears when you had too much to drink, or 2am calls to your best friend to help you with impromptu burials of douchebags who treat your sister like garbage.

But then again, grill guy is a man too.  He doesn’t need to brag or prove it.  He just shoulders his burden and keeps going. He lets other people take center stage when they need it–if they are that insecure. And eventually, if he has to say something about it, he will.  Maybe “boys will be boys” also means, “if my kid doesn’t figure out how to defend himself now, he’s always going to let someone bully him.”  “Boys will be boys,” as far as I know, has never meant to abuse women, just to make that clear.

Alphas are only such because they are boys playing at being men.  They swagger.  They belittle.  They brag about their masculinity.  They push others down, instead of holding them up.  When they can’t get a woman’s attention with sincerity (because they don’t know what that is), they use aggression.  They might go home with the prettiest girl at the bar, but they won’t appreciate her as anything more than a conquest.  They talk about all the “pussy” they got in High School.  They never stuck around to hold the woman whose feelings they hurt long enough to know how to make things right, or when to let her go.  They never got to know her, because they are afraid of knowing themselves.  They will punch a guy in the teeth for calling them out on something because they can’t accept they might be wrong.

There are gradients in between.  There is no right formula to being a man.  Other than acting with honesty, humility, compassion, loyalty, perseverance, faith, and a whole lot of other things that are “hard.”   Basically strength of character.  Men and women both require character, of which this world has found itself in very short supply.  In short, we as men, are doing what we can.  The rest of the boys need to catch up.

As far as “What is a man?” That is a loaded question.  It’s a lot of things.  There are no right answers, but there are a lot of wrong ones.

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Things I lost in the fire

More than a few of my posts on this blog account for some of the experiences I have had since my divorce in 2014.  Only 4 years out, I sometimes feel like those years of marriage were a lifetime ago, sometimes, they feel like they were only yesterday.  And worse still, in some dreams (nightmares really), I am still in the process of escaping a very bad situation.  I write about these times less as a therapeutic reason, but more of a way to help others who read this blog to process their own experience.  You see, when I was getting divorced, there really wasn’t much out there in the realm of what to expect.  So, maybe this is my way to help guide others.  To be a friend you never knew you had.  Or maybe as a writer, I just have to vomit forth stories that are constantly churning in my mind.

I’ll let you decide.

Recently, a cousin of mine, who is recovering from getting run over by an angry heifer had the opportunity to go through boxes of old pictures at our grandparents’ house.  He started posting them on Facebook and it was great to see.

The reason for this is when I left my marriage, I had to leave behind so much of my own personal history.  Due to malice, immaturity, or vindictiveness, things that were mine from before the marriage were never returned.  This included family heirlooms, pictures of my childhood and growing up, and even pictures of my own kids from when they were little.  When I started off on my own four years ago, I had little more than a car load of belongings and whatever family and friends cared to donate to me to get my life started again.

It was like I had experienced a house fire, and anything that was in that house was lost forever.  It’s strange to know that these things still exist, but they will never be yours again. Of course, they are just things, but so many of these mementos we gather are ways we bookmark our past experiences.  The human mind can only hold so much, and 90% of what we have experienced is archived.  Often we access those pieces of our history via triggers.  It could be a smell (possibly the most powerful recall trigger), a sound, a word or phrase, but more commonly it is through visual stimuli.  Photographs.  Trinkets.  Letters.  Objects.

Like any traumatic event like a fire, sometimes it is difficult to look past that moment.  The focus of your life becomes a reaction to that trauma.  It begins to define you.

I had lost all of mine, other than the few pieces my parents had, which to be blunt, pretty much stopped when I was 14 and became an unbearable teenager.  My parents have photo albums filled with pictures of sunsets snapped on 110 film, or random relatives I don’t even know the names of. Packets of photos of thumbs, long stretches of highway shot over the hood of a moving vehicle, or blurry shots of deer, zoo animals, etc. There are no pictures of my Prom, Homecoming, or much of my High School or College years.

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A rare pic of me shortly after graduating college

I grew up in the time before camera phones.   The friends that might have taken the rare snapshot on a disposable camera have drifted away, or have all of their past sealed away beneath piles of boxes in basements across the country.

So when I saw these pictures, it opened up a whole bunch of old memories.  Times and events I had forgotten about.  In my healing mind, there was little depth.  Much of my adult life had been dedicated to simply surviving.  And unless the stories were the same old ones recounted by friends I have reconnected with, much of it was gone.

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The Harris men (me with hair)

This was like finding old archival footage of a different era. It not only brought back some old memories, but it also restored some of my identity as well.  After all, we are the culmination of our experiences, good and bad. But it also gave me a way to look past the trauma of my marriage and divorce.  To see into a different time when I was growing up, when I was just a young man with a blue car starting out on his journey of adulthood.  A time when I had hair!

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So. Much. Hair. (Me at 16 with my first car).

It gave me perspective, to look across–no, to look through the storm of that chaos of all those years to before.  Back to a simpler time, even though I didn’t know it then.  A time of innocence.  Possibilities.  A time I get to reclaim and own once again instead of feeling as though it is being held hostage.  It gives my life provenance. I am no longer feeling like my life ended at my 10th birthday and resumed when I was 39.

I for one am grateful someone kept all this old junk around.  And I am grateful for my cousin for being banged up and bored in the house for the last month!

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Right to left: Me in the ears, my cousin Jason, and my cousin Cory