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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Youth is Well-spent on the Young

Just a couple thoughts I’m going to throw out there for the day.  Hold on.

There are times when our social media feeds overwhelm us.  It’s a skimming of the best (or in some cases, the worst) of people’s lives.  As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, unlike the kids of today, not every moment of my life has been documented with photographic evidence.  In thinking of my first car today, I don’t think a picture of it exists anymore.  Certainly not with me in it, since I doubt I ever had a picture of myself with it.  Back in my day, we didn’t have cameras attached to our bodies all day.

This is why Bigfoot was plausible when I was growing up.  There might be days you saw a baby coyote out in the wilderness and wouldn’t you know it, you didn’t have a camera.  Even if you did, it would have scampered off by the time you dug it out of your pack, took off the lens-cap–gone.  Imagine trying to do that when confronted with an 8ft tall cryptid ape-person!

Today, not only would the kids of today have the picture, but they would be doing a  duck lips selfie with Bigfoot and probably have some kind of dog ears or doe-eyed filter going on as well.

I just don’t think our pictures were all that important to us.  We were left with the feeling of having fun.  We didn’t have the luxury of digital shots either, where we could take a bunch of pictures and choose the best from the lot.  Our snapshots were usually a snap and find-out-later proposition.  When the one-hour-photo returned our pictures, we sorted through them and left them in the big envelope to be lost to history.  We didn’t have a semi-public archive of our lives, accessible from anywhere in the world.

I’ve seen all sorts of cute pictures of people on Facebook, Instagram, etc.  Whether its groups of friends, or the perfect couple pictures, there is a documented phenomenon that researchers have found causes depression.  People compare their imperfect lives with the perfect ones they see online.

But let’s look at it anyone way.  Nobody is causing depression.  It is how a person is responding to that information.  They might just see that happiness or success, that sense of belonging in contrast to an already growing and all-consuming depression.

The perfect pic is something a lot of people try to broadcast.  But there is no such thing as the perfect pic.  There are times when I have seen pictures of myself and nobody would have guessed that at that moment my heart was breaking.  We simply don’t know what is going on based on a picture.

But I do know that I have had plenty of goofy, crazy times, moments of sheer happiness, moments when my true smile comes out.  Not the grin I save for the camera.  Not the smirk I wear when I need to be charming.  Those moments aren’t recorded on film, and if they were, they are long gone now.  But I swear to you they happen. All the time!

But sometimes when the chips are down, it would be nice to see back into a time when those moments were preserved for posterity. For me, though, I’m lucky.  I have my words.  I can go deeper than a photograph and evoke the feeling of the moment in ways that a photograph cannot.  My contrast is doubled when I read something I wrote a long time ago and laugh at how naive I was–or wince at how angry.

When I was in high school, I hated journals.  I used to just write enough filler to get by and get the grade.  Today it is a little more useful.  I got hooked on it when I wrote on LiveJournal.  There was a whole community of writers who shared personal experiences.  It was a good exercise in not holding back when you wrote a story.

Photographer Robert Capa used to say, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  Granted, he died in the early years of the Vietnam war when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol with a group of soldiers.  There are dangers of getting too close.

My process of writing involves a lot of memory.  Converting those snapshots in my brain, the emotions that cling to them, into something viable for a story.  The bad stuff is easy to write about. But the good…that’s a lot harder, because it’s so close to me.  So personal.  So incongruous to any experience all but a few can relate to.

From moments of blindfolded moose, a round shadow on a lake and cows that look like ants, the view from behind a waterfall, kids that can’t keep their shirts on when the sprinklers come on; all the way back to tracking coyotes on a glacier and getting the worst sunburn of my life, jean jackets and dice hats, the Lion King, first cappuccinos, (and the revelation years later that espresso gives me bad breath).

Somewhere in the middle of all that is a powder blue Ford that could go anywhere and do anything.  Like the Road Warrior, it exists now, only in my memories.

For me, all of these memories are like photos found in a shoebox, but when I write about them, I am there again.  Events pulled from my mind which is always young.  Youth isn’t wasted on the young.  It is invested in the young and paid back in dividends later on we cannot put a value on.  Those goofy snapshots, real or recollected, still make us smile when we need it.

So, I leave you with a link that may or may not expire.  This song has followed me for 20 years.  Thanks, Chrissie Hynde.  And to all of you, may you stay Forever Young.

 

Getting into the “Zone”

In conversations with other writers, this topic comes up a lot.  What is the “zone” anyway?  I think it’s that sweetspot of productivity, to where your efforts, even if they are garbage, just seem to cut through time.  You almost sit outside of yourself as you write and everything just comes together.

How do I get into the zone?

Eliminate all distractions.

This is accomplished at home usually over a period of several hours.  Say I decide to spend the day writing and it is 9a.m. I might not actually put my butt in the chair until 1 or 2pm.  I’m working on shortening the time of this ritual, but right now, it’s a system.  Not saying it’s a very good system, but it is a system.

At home, my distractions are generally things like house chores.  Dishes.  Laundry.  Even tedious things I wouldn’t do unless someone put a gun to my head like reorganizing the spice cabinet or cleaning the drip pans on the stovetop.

A few weekends ago, I cleaned the house, reorganized my cabinets, and did a ton of laundry.  Once all of those distractions had been eliminated, I was not only sick of doing them, but during the time I was folding clothes or scrubbing the tub, I had time to think about the story.

In my opinion, thinking about the story is writing, and whether it is sitting with my butt firmly planted in the chair in front of the keyboard, or up to my elbows in Comet, scrubbing grout, I’m working on the story in my head.

Stop Facebooking

Staying off social media is so important.  I cannot begin to express how important this is.  If you need to check Facebook or Instagram, limit your time in doing so to about 20 mintues, otherwise, you will just find you are creating more distractions and perpetuating the act.

Pro-tip.  Limit time on Facebook to when you are using the bathroom.  Let your friends know that if they see you on Facebook, you are probably sitting on the toilet, checking your feed with your phone.  Letting them know you do this will shame you into staying off social media, because your friends don’t want to talk to someone while they are dropping a deuce.

Don’t be afraid to take mental breaks.

I sometimes stop while I’m ahead and grab my notebook and go for a walk.  Or I will take a nap.  Make a snack.  Watch a couple episodes of TV or just stop for the day.  I cannot shift gears yet and work on fiction and then take a break working on paid blogs and other work just yet.

Sometimes I write for about 20 minutes until I hit a break point and then I put on some music for background sound.  That usually buys me another 30 minutes or so.  Sometimes building playlists can inspire me.  Sometimes they are a terrible distraction.

Once in a while, I will actually take the time to bake bread or make a nice dinner.  This might also let the mind wander and pick up new ideas in the process.

No FOMO

Don’t worry about missing out.  It’s the Fear of Missing Out that really gets me.  If I think other people are off having fun, or I shouldn’t be neglecting people, I have to remind myself that they also have the ability to contact me.  If they want me around, they know how to find me.  In the meantime, I am doing something that very few people understand, which is sitting there, dreaming up stories and attempting to put them on paper.  Most people would rather…not do this.