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.

A couple different reasons why

Sometimes my blogs and my writings have been said to be too personal.  I learned a long time ago that no matter how personal something seems to be, as a writer, that still isn’t the core of you.  It’s just another layer you have chosen to show others.  It might actually be a layer or three you have put between yourself and the audience.  They may look at it and see absolutely nothing that is you.

Today, I want to share a story about achievement.  How to measure it.  What it means.

Four years ago, I started a new journey in my life.  It might sound cliched, but I had decided to take the necessary steps to end what could be simplified into an “unhealthy relationship.”  I had tried for fifteen years of marriage to make things work.  I had compromised nearly everything I was, sacrificed my friends and extended family, and endured what I would consider a hell on earth.  I was lucky enough to get out of it with the help of my family and very supportive friends.

After leaving, it took a year for the divorce to be finalized.  We had nothing except exactly what we had during the marriage, which was constant conflict and chaos. Only now it was sublimated into a new battlefield: the courtroom.  When the divorce was done, I decided to set my course to a new horizon.

As an employee of my day job, I can take up to 9 credit hours per year of Graduate level courses; I just have to pay for the books.  So I applied for and was accepted to the English MA program.  I started my first course.  It is hard for me to admit what happened next.  In many ways, it resonates with a lot of my regrets, but in other ways, I have gained from it as well.

As a kid, school came easily for me.  I was always on the Honor Roll, and struggled briefly in High School, but mostly because of hormones, depression, and some teenaged angst and rebellion. I excelled at academics, such as band and knowledge bowl, but quit track.  I didn’t play sports.  My friends and I were outcasts who used to fight with swords in the park in the middle of the night.  We were often considered “at risk.” I graduated 3rd in my class and got almost no scholarship money.

I did about the same in college, never really having a hand on the tiller of my own life.  I picked the college I went to because it was close to a girl I was dating, and just far enough from my parents to not warrant visits from them every weekend.  The tuition was also affordable–unlike the California colleges that offered me the moon and the stars for a liberal arts program.  I picked English as a major because it required the fewest credit hours for graduation.  I didn’t really know what else to do. At the time, all that mattered was getting a BA and the rest of the world was open to you, or so I thought. I went through my classes, did fairly well, A’s and B’s. I discovered beer during my senior year and was out at least three nights a week.  I nearly failed two of my courses because I never bothered to show up.  I was burning out. I no longer cared about college or grades. I had broken up with the girl I had been seeing.  My friends had all shifted to other social circles, and I found myself living alone and depressed.  My goal of being a self-taught artist had shifted to being a self-taught author.  Mostly because the only art class I took during my college experience told me how much I sucked.

But writing…writing was something I was good at.  Or at the very least, something I loved working at being better at.  (Yes, I did just end two sentences with prepositions).

Fast forward to a newly divorced single dad 17 years later.

I decided to take advantage of the Master’s program. (Btw, going back to grad school is another divorce cliche).  At the pace I could afford, I could finish my degree in about 4 years.  The first course taught me a lot about myself.  It was “Literary Theory and Criticism.” Though the other students in the class seemed to think my answers were brilliant and thought-provoking, my professor usually just eyed me with contempt or would flat out tell me I was wrong.

Taking this class had two effects.  First, I was reminded of all the bullshit, Marxist inculcation that I had slogged through during my undergrad years, which usually lost the coin toss to closing down the Smiling Moose on a weeknight.  And second, I realized that maybe the time had passed me by to go through a program like this.  I am a father of three, I had worked in the private sector, and then academia, and I had just finished the most grueling and stressful challenge of my entire life.  I was befuddled by the assignments and even the way to post my work on “Blackboard.”  There was so much reading.  Then the hours of lecture each week.  After half a semester, I decided this wasn’t for me.

You know those dreams you used to have of being late for class in High School, or you don’t have any pants, or maybe it’s a college dream where you forgot to attend for an entire semester and OOPS!  it’s now the final exam and you need to take it?  Those dreams come back when you are a non-traditional student in an Master’s program.

The only thing that kept me hanging on was the words of a dear friend, who said, “An education is something no one can ever take away from you.”  This is true. I felt like I had let them down.  Let myself down.

Years later, that sentiment was slammed home by a psychologist, who said to me, “You have a high IQ, you are a smart man.  Why is it you aren’t doing better than being a guy with a BA who works as an administrative assistant?”

To this day, those words hit me in the chest.  Considering what I have lived through, and how far I have come, those words are an unfair value judgement on my life.  Summed up nice and neat for someone who didn’t really know me.  They weren’t a wake up call.  They weighed down on me like cinder-blocks tied around my ankles just before I was tossed into a lake.  I was in my 40s and compared to where I should be, I wasn’t up to snuff.  I was a failure.  My ex-wife was right all along. I was a loser! Maybe I should have stayed in the Master’s program.  I wasn’t capable of following through with anything, just like my high school track coach warned.  “You’re a quitter, Harris!”

Feeling like that, wondering why I couldn’t continue through a program most twenty-year-olds sleepwalk through, it hurt and it was frustrating.  Something had blocked me to where I would have done almost anything other than sitting through another minute of that class.  But my value as a person who lives in their head and works with words, was assaulted by this.

Worst yet, the dark corner of my mind told me, “You are a fraud.”

***

Grad school isn’t for everyone.  I am at peace with that notion.  I am at peace with knowing too that my day job doesn’t define me as a man.  It’s something I do to pay the rent.  It doesn’t make me any less of a person, or less of an intellectual to realize my own limits.  It wasn’t for me.  I learned that.  Some people go through an entire PhD. program before they come to that realization.  I figured it out five weeks in.

When I write, whether it is paid blogs, journal entries, chapters in my books, poems, etc. I feel a sense of fulfillment that graduating from college never gave me.  Constructing plots and filling worlds of my own creation with characters beats anything I could have written about the criticism of Altrusser or Barth or Marx.  What I did get from college was the practice of typing.  A few profs helped me with critical thinking as well, but that is either something your brain eats like candy or it doesn’t.  Mostly it was just the typing.

Two out of four years of my degree could have been accomplished by reading “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

I don’t know exactly why I didn’t want to continue on with grad school.  Sometimes I wonder how things would have been had I stuck it out.  But to find peace in this, I needed to come to terms with the fact that I had made a decision.  I hadn’t just gone along with what I was supposed to do, as I had nearly my entire life.  I was protagging.  I was calling the shots and making my own decisions.

That also had value.

Maybe if I had stayed, I would have been a bigger fraud.  Just like with my BA, I would have just been going through the motions and feeling disappointment when my degree didn’t open doors for me automatically. Like many of us foolishly believe (myself included).

At the end of the day, you can feel depressed even if your life is “on track” on all accounts.  I recently watched a video that inspired this post.  It showed me that you can be doing what you are supposed to do and on the outside it can look like you have the world on a string.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, for some of us, those demons of depression can gnaw away at us.

I know now that getting an MA wasn’t going to solve my problems.  It wasn’t going to give me joy.  Following my dreams will.