The trouble with men
The 1940s gave us men to fight a war for ma, li’l sis and apple pie on a check tablecloth-covered picnic table. When Johnny came marching home again, he grabbed the first dame he saw after he got off the train and gave her a big smooch..and she dug it. I think it goes without saying that this ain’t the 40s. Women are pretty picky about who smooches them after a war now, and I haven’t met any who appreciate being called a ‘dame.’ Meanwhile, men are torn between sensitivity, homophobia, and the expectation of being larger than life.
Before I try to express what it’s good for a man to be, let’s look at what men are currently. There are a few competing philosophies of manhood at work today, described below in all their stereotypical insanity:
Beer and buffalo wings: This is the traditional midwest state-college alumni. He meets his friends at the local pub after putting in his union negotiated 8 hours, high-fives after a touchdown, puts on the boots and straw hat on Saturday to go dancin’, and drinks himself into multiple ulcers and liver damage. He tries to be insightful and fails. He still listens to Bob Seger and Skynard. He’ll go home to his woman when he’s damn good and ready. He spells badly and can’t remember when to use “their” or “they’re” instead of “there.”
Ladies’ Man: Smooth clothes, 5.0 Mustang, a smile slightly too wide, excited conversationalist that is less listening to his date and more waiting for his turn to talk to continue bragging. He’s done all sorts of dynamic and superlative things, especially back in the good old days. He tailgates. He plays his music loud. He never works out without his black muscle shirt and gold chain.
(Note : I work with many men who have deep religious convictions, and find most of them respectible. Once in a rare while I’ll find one who is just a little too on edge for his own good…)
Bible Thumpin’ Pansy: Says “praise the lord” a lot with a vacuous look in his eyes. Wears pink sweaters. Married to a petite, mousy woman with equally empty-looking eyes who understands her place in a household. He’s home on time. He tries clumsily to feed the baby and change the diaper, which his wife finds adorable, but doesn’t ask him to do often. He holds his wife’s hand on the couch every night when they watch TV together. He calls her “dear.” Every other Saturday they have sex, but leave their pajama tops on.
Right Wing Lunatic: Similar to a BTP, but with less emotional security and good-naturedness. His wife looks defeated and obedient. He knows what God wanted men to be. He debates with his workmates about gun control. He desperately tries to lead by example. He annunciates. He kisses his wife when protocol calls for it, but it’s clear to the casual observer that doing so is awkward and contains no real emotion but seems instead completely falsified – much like the falsified spirituality he gets from his church. He’s a homophobe. He’s also gay. (and speaking of which…)
It’s Pat: Just bordering on effeminate. If he told you he was gay you’d sigh in relief, having another mystery solved. On the other hand, he’s married..but that doesn’t necessarily mean..oh! I’m so confused! He’s not an overly interesting person, most of his energy is devoted to either trying to sound gay or trying to sound really comfortable with his sexuality no matter what they all say about him behind his back. [Since this will be about men and how they relate to women, I'm opting to not include the various stereotypes of non-closeted homosexual men here as they, obviously, relate to women differently than other men do.]
Sarcastic Bastard: By far my favorite category since I usually fall into it quite nicely. He holds the world in disdain. He spins an angry monologue on top of TV broadcasts, complete with “pff”s and “mm-hmm”s. He wants to convince you of how stupid other drivers are. He knows “they” have something up their sleeves. He answers the phone “J. Edgar Hoover sucks big fatties” and just let someone TRY and make him stop and see what happens, buddy! He points out all the violations of police procedure on “Cops.” He writes web pages full of incohesive ranting.
Uber-consumer: Close cousin of the Sarcastic bastard. He needs to show you how much cool stuff he has. He lives well beyond his means and half of his outgoing money goes to interest payments. He talks on his cellphone a lot, and would never consider going to a quiet area so he can better hear the caller – her prefers to be where people can see him being cool using his cool toy. His stereo has a remote control. His computer is never more than 6 months old. He’s running out of room to put new DVDs. He actually paid the $500 for the underbody coating for his new SUV. Service is never good enough for him. He complains at every restaurant he eats in that he’s never going back again, which will ultimately cause him to become a world traveler, starve to death, or admit being a liar.
Anal Retentive: He would be happy to point out that just saying “Anal” doesn’t mean anything since it could also be meant to express “Anal Expulsive,” which would be the rough equivalent of “Beer and buffalo wings” from above. If you mean Anal Retentive, SAY Anal Retentive! He abhors “Winblows” based operating systems. He sent Linus Torvalds a congratulations card when his new daughter was born. He has all the Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes on Super Beta Hi-Fi. He has all the boxes and receipts to his electronic equipment. Scripting commands in a batch file rather than typing them all in by hand is beneath him. He, above all, hates the other types of men since they get so much of what’s important wrong.
As you can see, men have their share of problems, even discounting trying to relate to the fairer sex. Part of it comes from living in post-90s America. We’re well fed, we have lots of free time with which to invent crazy mentalities, and we think the world owes us. In fact, the world DOES owe us. It owes us its complete and utter indifference.
Each of these stereotypes comes from real world examples. Each of them has a lot of emotional weight which would be better discarded than reveled in, but each also has qualities worth saving. Beer and buffalo wings man displays the natural, abrasive strength of men. So does Ladies’ Man, but in a more personal rather than group centered way. BTP participates in has family. Right Wing Lunatic is principled. It’s Pat abhors the idea of displaying bravado for the sake of being thought manly by his peers. Sarcastic Bastard will say what he believes even when it is clearly prudent not to do so. Uber-consumer participates in his society. Anal retentive man takes small details seriously and believes the world could be made better. If one man had all these qualities I don’t think I could dislike him. Of course, very few men do have them all.
It’s very difficult in a world chock full of the above examples of manhood for a man to gain balance and a good sense of self and purpose. Ultimately the shallowness of consumerism will fail him. Cultivating his looks and flashing his money will give him only short term pleasure. He will attract only those women who follow good looks and money, and neither the money, the good looks, nor the women will last. A life of sarcasm and anal retentiveness will eventually drive away those who would be his friends, so those aren’t good choices either. The Beer and Buffalo Wings will either kill his liver, die in a car wreck, or have his wife leave him since he’s out with the boys all the time. None of the stereotypes here have much that is truly valuable to offer.
Women add to the problem, through no fault of their own. Women are torn between stereotypes themselves. Being dainty and in need of comforts and pampering battles with being strong and seeking equality in the working world – all of which is just a warm-up to women’s collective psychosis concerning what it means to be a good mother. Women end up being part dainty, part strong, and also conflicted personally about motherhood, all of which gives the men trying to court them no end of hissy fits trying to sort it all out.
I believe that when all things are settled, a woman wants the man she is with to be the man of the relationship, no matter how she carries on about relationship dynamics. That statement smacks of the profane mantra “when a woman says no she really means yes.” That kind of statement I find distasteful, and I’m definitely not in favor of assuming that any woman I want to sleep with also wants to sleep with me despite what she says. On the other hand, statements like that don’t originate from a man’s sex drive, they come from years of failure at applying reason to what women say.
Instead of the above locker room talk, what really should be said about women is this: A woman sometimes hides her heart behind her words, and sometimes shows her heart through her words, and it takes practice and patience to know the difference. That sounds like the archetypal mysterious and romantic woman, but in practice women consistently fail to achieve happiness with this sort of emotional dishonesty. When a man sets out to choose how he relates to women, he must choose to either accept the rules of communication as the sword and shield of a woman’s heart, or he must resign himself to a life of solitude and misery.
So, now that we know what we’re up against, let’s pick some good qualities for men to strive for. Here are, in no particular order, my top 3:
1) Correct use of force
One of the more common trials of manhood is dealing with violence and potential violence. Violence is rooted in the survival instinct, and because of that it is a difficult beast to tame. Most men are quick to anger, but few actually engage in violence regularly. Because of this many adult men do not know how easy it is to permanently injure someone. To boot, many men take the “make the other guy back down” game from high school into the adult world. When the other guy doesn’t want to back down, someone gets hurt. The issue that caused the conflict is usually resolvable to everyone’s satisfaction without the use of force, and barring that could also be left in disagreement without physical conflict.
The one good use for violence is in defense of yourself, loved ones, or the abused from existing violence or the threat of violence. When a fitting situation arises, a man should not hesitate to use any means necessary to dispose of the enemy. Other than that, conflict should be resolved with brain and voice, or left unresolved. A good man lives prepared to fight, but will most likely not find a good enough reason to. Not injuring people over trifles is not the same as ignoring true feelings; anger should not be suppressed. If you are unhappy with someone it is better that they see it than not know about it. You can express anger without shaking your fist, and over time things will anger you less.
2) Attentiveness to loved ones
This is an area very lacking in most men, stemming from a need to appear strong. Men rely on their women to discipline and educate their children. Men stop investing in their relationships with their wives the day after the wedding bells. They bring home a paycheck, change the oil in the car, and mow the lawn and see that as showing their love. If saying “I love you” when it’s called for is the only way you say you love her, then, as Paul Simon would say, there’s no tenderness in your honesty.
I think the easiest argument against that thinking is this: Your family looks to you for support and direction, and they get neither if you aren’t truly involved. Setting the good example of manhood in your strength and stoicism is the same as ignoring the lives of your loved ones for the sake of harvesting your image. You need to participate in the lives of those you love, and you need to look closely to see what they need. Remember that life is just a series of the little things. Try to get as many of the little things right as you can.
Sometimes being less than perfect is hard to do. Men sometimes get the impression after years of observing their fathers that if you screw up, people stop respecting you, and respect is all a man has. This reminds me of a conversation I had with my daughter a few days ago. We were talking about what it was like to be brave and we decided that meant that you did something that you were afraid of. I told her that people who weren’t afraid of anything didn’t know what it was like to be brave because they never experienced overcoming fear. A common fear is the fear of failure, and it can never be overcome if you don’t first admit to your own errors. If you can make mistakes and see them and make attempts to correct them, only then can you grow, and only then will you know what success is. If you insist that all the things you do are right, you miss the intimately human experience of making something right despite yourself.
If you don’t break the pattern, your children will learn it from you. There is nothing to be gained by appearing superhuman and flawless to your children. It is your job to teach them as much about the world as you can, and if you start out by pretending to be something that you aren’t, you are starting out on the wrong foot. If they can’t see that you are fallible now, they will see it later and it will be harder on them. Your children should see you as dependable, but human. If nothing else they will love you more for being honest with them and for knowing that it takes effort on your part to get things right. The things you do for them will then have more value.
There are other lies in a man’s life than the lie of perfection. One of my favorites is the lie that nothing is wrong. The quickest way to close down relationships is to hide what you feel. Anyone close to you knows your ups and downs, physically and emotionally. They can tell when you’re sick, and they can tell when you’re angry. If your words don’t match your body language, those close to you are put off, and the problem gets worse. It gets worse for two reasons, namely you aren’t facing the problem and you are also lying to someone who knows it. You absolutely can not resolve any problem by toughing it out and waiting for it to pass. The only way to get rid of a problem is to face it head on. “This too shall pass” doesn’t mean sit and do nothing about it, it means keep up your struggle. Do that and in the end you will be happier.
If there is a point to all this rambling it is that manhood takes effort. It is less about sticking out your chest and posturing and more about facing life’s real challenges as best you can. It is about being honest with yourself and with the people around you. It is about cultivating a rewarding life rather than pretending that you’ve got all the bases covered. Lastly, it is about transcending boyish desires of fame and power, and working to reach the end of life satisfied with the way you’ve lived.