Originally posted on Open Salon on May 8, 2011:
Last week I was in an department meeting when the topic turned to families in the 1950s. One of my colleagues remarked, “Yes, well, that was when men were men.”
Attention immediately shifted to me, the only man in the department. “No offense, Paul. I’m not talking about you,” said my colleague. “It’s just that most men are not what they seemed to be when I was a kid.”
I told her that I took no offense at all, and we all enjoyed a brief digression about how adult males, particularly fathers and male teachers, have evolved over the years. Within moments, we moved on to the normal topics of textbooks and curriculum, but for the rest of the day, I found my mind returning to the notion of manhood.
It was at age three that my father told me I would one day grow up to be a man. I was astonished. I had not up to then imagined being anything other than a small child. The idea of being able to handle hot things and understand what grown-ups were saying was exhilarating, and I asked my father when this transformation would occur. I remember distinctly his reply: “In a very long time.” In response to a barrage of eager questions, he revealed that, yes, I would indeed grow big like he was, I would wear big clothes and big shoes like he did, and—like he—I would go each day to this mysterious place called “work.”
From then on, I began to observe more closely all kinds of men. I soon learned that one of my grandfathers was my father’s dad, and the other was my mother’s. Before long I understood that little girls grow up, too, and that both my parents had once been children. I wondered what they had been like, and I became intrigued with the figure I might one day cut as a full-grown man.
Extended family gatherings had lots of adults, but I could rarely get close enough to observe the men closely because all of the kids were told to go play. From a distance, I could see my father, his uncles, and his cousins drinking beer and pitching horseshoes. This all seemed so different from the noisy, boisterous play of my cousins and me. Sometimes the men would pop the hoods of their cars and huddle around. I looked forward to the day when I would be allowed to join them, and I learned to resent being little and excluded. At one cookout, it began to rain, and everyone rushed for cover. We kids ended up in the kitchen with the women, and I remember seeing through the heavy rainfall my father and the rest of the men standing in the large doorway of the garage, beer bottles in hand, waiting for the rain to stop. The wet lawn seemed a forbidding divide. At times like this, I had difficulty believing I would ever cross it.
The small parties my parents had at our own house didn’t make me feel any better. Couples would arrive at our house on a Saturday night close to my bedtime, my father would put on Herb Alpert or Sergio Mendes, and there were bowls of potato chips and pretzels in the living room. Sadly, it would only be moments before my mother put me and my brother to bed. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of the dining room with little fondue pots heating over Sterno cans. It seemed I would always be too little to get to be with the grownups.
But the years passed, and I grew. As a teenager, I began to wonder at what age boys became men. Eighteen seemed a reasonable age, as joining the armed forces and voting were sure signs of adulthood. Then I turned eighteen and didn’t feel I fit the bill. Well, I thought, twenty-one must be the number to make it official. I could stand with a horseshoe in one hand and a legal beer in the other and proudly call myself a man.
Sadly, it was not to be. At that age I found myself coming home from college for holidays and summers, still dependent on my parents. And though I started to understand this “work” realm to which my father had disappeared every day when I was a child, my experience of it thus far was seasonal, and the remuneration rather disappointing.
Twenty-three, then, I thought. It must be twenty-three. I’d be out of college and working for real. I’d move out on my own and support myself like I figured a man ought to. That, I told myself, would seal it. So I moved into an apartment in Pennsylvania with two friends I had known throughout college. We had parties—and beer. No one told me to go to bed, and I could stay up as long as I wanted, only there was no Herb Alpert and no fondue. There were still summer cookouts with my relatives, and I did get to play horseshoes, but it wasn’t the dignified pitching and measuring I remembered. We were not wearing slacks and short-sleeved shirts with collars. We were shirtless and had shorts on. Our hair had no Vitalis or Brylcreem; it just kind of flopped or blew around. Something was missing.
Twenty-seven? Nope. OK, then thirty! It must be thirty—now that’s old. I’d have to be a man by thirty. Wouldn’t I?
Well, let’s just say I spent a lot of time after thirty watching movies that starred Cary Grant and William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. I’d sometimes realize that I was older than these actors when they appeared in the films, yet they were clearly men, and I was just a guy. And my girlfriends weren’t Myrna Loy or Barbara Stanwyck, either. They just seemed to be girls who happened to be in their twenties and thirties.
Perhaps, I thought, it was our era. My concepts of manhood and womanhood were simply old fashioned, and I had a life to live irrespective of my disappointment. Full-fledged man or not, I should just focus on being a grownup—a competent teacher, a kind friend, a loving husband, and a genuine person.
Then one day I received an email from one of those college friends I’d roomed with years before. He and a couple of other married buddies were getting away from the wives and kids for a weekend, and I should meet them in Baltimore. We’d get a hotel room, catch an Orioles game, go out for a few drinks, and talk about old times. I agreed to meet them.
On the long drive down, I laughed to myself. It seemed so strange: we were adults. Some of us had kids. We had mortgages, careers, and responsibilities. In our own way, we were men after all.
A few hours later, I was sitting in a hotel room with my old buddies, admiring the view out the window overlooking the Inner Harbor. In a few moments we would walk to the ballpark, but this moment seemed to possess a significance I had sought for years. I could hear one of my friends talking behind me to his wife on his cell phone. He sounded almost like Danny Thomas when he told her to kiss his little boy for him. He clicked his phone off, placed it on a desk and hurdled over the back of the chair he would sit down in next to the rest of us.
Then he lifted a leg and ripped a fart, much to the amusement of my other friends. I dropped my head down dejectedly. The ensuing contest rendered the room quite hostile to human life, and off we went to the ballgame. By the end of the evening, any gains on the man scale we had made since college seemed illusory at best. I was criticized a few times—in a facetious way—for being kind of quiet. I didn’t think I should bring up what was on my mind.
I was never invited for another gathering. I don’t feel left out, though. And I don’t think I should be one to criticize or judge, especially not knowing for sure how mature I can claim to be. As a matter of fact, my disappointment in modern manhood stems not from what men are on an essential level. It is simply a matter of outward fashion—and perhaps my own frailty in needing a bold, masculine, and outmoded construct of manhood to which I can associate myself.
Men are definitely not what they used to be, and I am beginning to suspect that outside of my own illusions, they never were.