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THE THINGS MEN CARRY: SOME NOTES ON BEING A MAN


by Gary Percesepe


For twenty years I taught philosophy at private colleges in Ohio. I enjoyed teaching.

My favorite time was the first day of class. My favorite course was Introduction to Philosophy. I enjoyed teaching upper level seminars too, loved teaching the history of philosophy, epistemology, logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics—but Introduction to Philosophy was my favorite because of the first semester freshmen. Most were eighteen, some away from home for the first time.

Before handing out the syllabus, I would ask everyone to tell us their name, where they were from, whether they had sisters and brothers, and to say a word about their shoes—where they got the pair they were wearing, and how many shoes they had brought to college.

They loved to talk about their shoes. Even the shy ones came up with something. They lifted their shoes up in the air, suddenly shoe models; they propped them up on their little desks for us to inspect, waved them around, thrust them into the aisle, took them off and spun them on proud fingers. They modeled flip flops, clogs, sneakers (“tennis shoes,” my Midwestern students insisted on calling them, while the east coast students in the room groaned with me), Birks, crocs, loafers, heels, you name it. It was fun.

Philosophy was hard, and in the months to come it would make their lives more difficult, not easier. That's the thing about learning to think critically, for oneself, at any age: It will always cost you something. The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates is reputed to have said, and over time, in class, we would argue about that too. We'd learn how to construct philosophical arguments. We'd argue about justice and fairness, about goodness and truth, about democracy and whether we were living in one, really, about sex and gender and beauty, so called. About the difference between knowledge and mere opinion, and whether knowledge was even possible. But on that first day of class, before any of this, the students talked about their shoes. They used their distinctive human voices. We listened to everyone in the room. Everybody had a shoe story. What we were learning, I suppose, is how to be friends. It starts with everyone being heard. When someone feels they are listened to—oh, listen! Anything can happen. Even in a philosophy class.

I tell you all of this because of what happened next.

I handed out the syllabus. And asked the class to read with me, “The Purpose of the Course.”

Which was simple: “To become more fully human.”

Hey, I said. This is a course in the humanities. And every now and then a professor ought to profess something. So look, we're all born homo sapiens. But we have to learn what it means to be human. We all have the potential. Sadly, some don't progress very far. Hitler. Stalin, sure. Pol Pot comes to mind. Margaret Thatcher and Leona Helmsley, though some would want to argue about that. The point is, we are all socially constructed beings, works in progress, and if you think of your life as a painting, how's it coming along? What is its shape, or form, can you see the line you are working with, what colors and accents will you choose, what is your texture? What is it that you are hoping for? While it is important to make an effort to see how others view you, do you understand how important it is that you do not abandon your own judgment?

I searched the room for signs of intelligent life.

Then I would say, in the same way that we are all born homo sapiens but have to discover what it means to become more nearly human, some of us are born male and some female, some hermaphrodite, but we must discover what it means to be a man or woman in this culture. Masculinity and femininity are not fixed essences. To say nothing of gender identity and expression. The point is, we are all embodied, we are always already situated, thrown into history, in time and space. We are some-body, now. What will we make of ourselves?

♦◊♦

Talking about the shoes on our feet in philosophy class had individuated us. But weirdly, it had also contributed to a sense of community. Before tacking the universal, we had to begin with the particular. We all had shoes. They looked different on our feet, they came in all shapes and sizes and colors, they had walked the earth in different places, but they were still shoes, and we each had them. We all had stories. We all had voices. And we all found it possible to listen to one another's stories.

♦◊♦

It still happens. One can discover the wisdom of Aristotle's insight, that man is the laughing animal. Already in the 5th century BCE Plato joked of a philosopher named Thales, reputed by some to be the first philosopher in the western tradition, who was studying the stars one night, deep in thought, and fell down a well. Unfortunately, Thales' misadventure was recorded by a sharp-witted observer, who joked that Thales was so eager to understand what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet!

Once, I was teaching a philosophy seminar called “Friendship, Love & Romance,” and a young woman shared that her dad her given her a Dave Barry book for Christmas, to help her with guys. I asked her if she had found the book helpful, and she said yes. She volunteered to bring the book to class.

The book was titled Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys: A Fairly Short Book. It starts like this: “For thousands of years, women have asked themselves: What is the deal with guys, anyway? What are they thinking? The answer, of course, is: virtually nothing.”

The south Florida humorist goes on to say that, “If you're a guy—or if you're attempting to share a remote control with one—you need this book, because it deals frankly and semi-thoroughly with such important guy issues as:

  • Scratching
  • The role of guys in world history, including the heretofore-unknown relationship between the discovery of North America and golf
  • Why the average guy can remember who won the 1960 World Series, but not necessarily the names of all his children
  • The Noogie Gene
  • Why guys cannot simultaneously think and look at breasts
  • Secret guy orgasm-delaying techniques, including the Margaret Thatcher Method
  • Why guys prefer to believe that there is no such thing as a prostate.”

Barry makes a distinction in the book (between strategic placement of the words goober and fart) between men and guys. And, of course, women. He does this in a memorable story that in my addled memory has something to do with three people taking in a lovely South Florida sunset. The woman remarks, “Oh, I don't think I have ever seen a lovelier sunset over the bay.” The man proceeds to explain particle and wave theory, and the refraction of light. The guy says, “Hey, how cool would it be to take a whiz off the end of that pier?”

To laugh at oneself takes courage as well as imagination. Stereotypes, sure. But still.

When I was helping to rear my two children, mindful of all the possible ways to go wrong, I tried to remind myself daily that the most serious tasks require the lightest touch.

Writing on masculinity, all I can offer you is my story. I'm white, middle class, hopelessly hetero, a native New Yorker living in exile, divorced, with many regrets.

I'm wearing black Chuck Taylors, hi tops.

♦◊♦

So I will tell you that I am writing a memoir, and it is the most difficult writing I have ever done. Memoir, to be effective, has to read like a novel. Like a novel, there are characters to be cast. One of the characters is you. As a writer, one tries to be fair to all of the characters in a memoir, many of whom are family members and friends.

The hardest person to be fair to, I am discovering, is oneself.

♦◊♦

I had been working on this memoir for several years, in fits and starts, when I came to the realization that a question had formed in my mind, and that I was writing a memoir in the hope of shaping a response to this question, which is: how does one learn to become a man in this culture? More specifically, how did I learn to become a man?

I'm going to stop here. Because I am already at 1,500 words, and attention spans on the Internet are short, even at fine sites like GMP. I could insert a joke here and say, “To see how it all turns out, in the end, read my memoir.”

But what I most want to say, what I was coming to, is this: I think that I learned how to be a man by observing other men.

Locker room banter, sure (I was a basketball player in school), but principally, my father. But also, this: I learned how to become a man by shaping my life in response to women I cared about. In flight from my mother during adolescence (as part of what I will term “the masculine socialization process,” discussed brilliantly in philosophical terms by Susan Bordo in her book, The Flight to Objectivity, which casts the entire history of western philosophy as a flight from the feminine), and then, later, in flight away from myself, as I discovered the predatory power of the male gaze, to isolate, idealize and appropriate women one desired, as a way of feeling through them, and the history of love in the western world as the history of a certain kind of male abandonment.

So, first my father, and then women and desire, and that will be it for now.

From my father, I learned that men carry things. The things they carry are many. In my father's case, his son, dead, in his arms, at nine years of age. My eldest brother, Tommy. Who was asphyxiated in the family car one February morning in New York. My father discovered his body and carried him into our apartment. Where I got to watch him die. And then watched my father, decades after this event, still carrying things. His wife, my mother, who, I suspect, suffered a breakdown. His own grief. Which he carried, alone. He never talked to me of my brother's death. Men, I learned, just carry things. Most of it is unspeakable. I'm saying I learned a certain kind of manly reserve, a reticent stoicism. My father had been a soldier during World War II. He never spoke of those years, either. I learned that my father was in the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, going up the beach behind the Rangers. His friends and his companions on the stormy ride across the English Channel, many of them, lay cut to ribbons, their blood darkening the French sand. Somehow, he kept moving. From my father I learned to man up, to carry it, to stop whining, to carry your brother if necessary, and to remember, as on the Titanic, it's women and children first, and you are obligated to go down with the ship. Men are drones, easily replaceable, they have their short season, and they die. So love wisely, and well. But remember, everything ends. My father died in 1994, fifty years after D-Day. I miss him every day.

From the many women I desired, and all the ways that I failed to live into the meaning of love and constancy, this is too short a space for so long a tale. But I will tell you that there is a moment when I was crossing the street in Tribeca, in the dead of winter, and a woman I cared about placed her arm willingly and unexpectedly in mine. We were friends, and maybe something more, but the more gave things an edge, and I smiled when she took my arm like that, and felt like a man.

And there is another moment, this one recurring, when I will myself away from the company of women for one week a year, and ski in the Rockies, generally at Telluride. And for me, being a man means picking a line of descent on a steep narrow slope, and moving fast, then faster, in a world that seems remarkably simple and free of complications, just you and the mountain and certain death if you make a mistake.

But then returning to this woman I met this year, who somehow knows just the right time to call to offer support, who is tuned in to my every mood and to the tone of my voice. I love how she says my name. I love how each time she calls, my life restarts. I love how she tells me all the little things about her day—about fiber, about diet, about kickboxing hand wraps, about her daughter's nap or no nap, about what's in the attic, or about her dog's funny nipples—how she tells me the most mundane things about her day as well as the big big stuff—all equally important to her, and I get it. And that makes me feel like a man. I love how we are able to validate each other's experiences and calm the inner demon voices, so we don't feel like we are the only one to ever feel this way, or that we are crazy, and too, how we settle each other, how we offer comfort, the comfort of someone who gets us, who isn't thinking of their own shit only, and how we put each other's needs as equal to our own. I love how we are able to give to each other, then, without the feeling of, oh, what am I gonna get in return, or what's in this for me, or when it is my turn to be cared for—because right from the start with us, there was full emotional equality. I love how we are not tracking points for things done right or points subtracted for messing something up—how we practice forbearance, based on mutual respect and a history with each other of almost one year now—which is not long, and yet is long enough to have established a deeper level of trust, a reservoir of good will. I just love the tender way we talk to each other, and how there is no competition, or grab for attention, or a mental checklist of needs met or things failed, or tests not passed or silly stupid games, or invidious comparison, or needy clingy fear-based behavior, or possessiveness or jealousy or envy or fraud or blackmail of the heart. I love how I wake up and never have to worry about where we are “as a couple” (ugh) or whether she is my friend or doubt for one minute that she cares, utterly. I love how we do not have to say everything that we feel, but still know those feelings are there. And all of these things make me feel like a man.

I love how I love my daughter Jae, and my son, Vinny, and all the ways that they love me. And how my love for my daughter feels so uncomplicated and pure, how it seems to flow from a place in me that I rightly know as my core. And I confess that my feelings for my son are the same, but come from a place that remains hidden in me, because I am a man, and he is my son, and it's complicated. But I will tell you that when I think of him, I think of the way it was with me in those days, with my father, the things he carried, and something cracks open in me when I think of my son, and the things he carries now, and the realization that part of what he carries is me, and this is what is most uncertain in him, too. And all my life and to the end of my days, I know I will wonder what he thinks of me, and of himself. And I hope that one day, in response to his most persistent question, a response will take shape in him, and that it will be a yes. Yes, I am a good man. And my father was a good man.

 

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