figuring it out

i believe in your victory

Adversity toughens manhood, and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempt from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.” –Patrick Henry

Vin Diesel smirks from the cover of a recent Men’s Fitness magazine. He is all biceps and muscled shoulders. His white t-shirt is too tight. Under the title, “Diesel Strength: Vin’s Max-Your-Life Secrets”, he reveals what it means to be true in one’s “man-ness.”

Of all the more important things one could think about–including the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent momentous decisions–I find myself pondering what it means to be a man nowadays.

It is a running joke between my wife and I how manly I am compared to the average guy. On one end are men like Vin Diesel or her perennial favorite, Matthew McConaughey, once her gold standard in masculinity. On the other end are gay men in film and entertainment like Anderson Cooper and fashion icons like Tom Ford with more style, class and something else essential in the rubric of manhood, authenticity.

My wife kids me that she wants me “just this side of gay” which is not meant to be a slur. Quite the opposite in fact. To she and some of her friends, gay men embody more style, have better grooming than the average “manly man”, are funnier and are generally more authentic with their feelings. Gay men are not caught up in appearing tough.

To be a real man, I must be as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever…

You might see the enormity of my challenge. To be a real man, I must dance along a line: as cool McConaughey, as bad ass as Diesel, as stylish as Ford, as funny as Key and Peele, all while maintaining the sensitivity of a golden retriever.

Between us, my wife and I have four daughters and one son. It is important for my daughters and for my son to see what authenticity looks like in a man just as it does in women. This includes kindness. I am trying to teach our kids the right way to treat people under all conditions. My wife and her friends sometimes chide me for being a softy. My demeanor is deliberate; Kindness and sensitivity are just right. They are as masculine as strength and grit. 

I want my children to grow up with a sense that chivalry and equality can exist in the same household.  In a world of rudeness and self-absorption I want them to see that kindness and style are cool. That women don’t have to always be feminine and masculine at the same time in order to compete with–and attract–the manly men they will work beside in their careers.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the tough guy heroes actors like Diesel play. In fact, one of my favorite movie roles is Diesel’s Riddick. Don’t even get me started on Fast and Furious. Car movies rock. 

There is, however, something in our DNA as a culture that speaks out of both sides of its metaphorical mouth: We say it is cool for men to freely express their feelings while in the same breath we make fun of it as weakness. It’s okay to have style that stands out but too much attention to dress and we’ll call you gay.  Not in a complimentary way. We want strong heroes but we say men who exhibit too much strength “need to get in touch with their feminine side.”

No wonder it’s so hard.

It is not beyond me to be sensitive. I can cry. Really. This made me cry: Drew Lynch: Comedian with a Stutter Wins over America’s Got Talent Judges  Ondine, a beautiful movie with Colin Farrell as a down-in-his-luck Irish fisherman who catches a mermaid in his net, made me ball. In fact, I have a reputation for being really sensitive.

Like some gay men might be.

Before you dismiss me as a whiny, confused baby boomer, you have to consider I also do guy things:  I mow the lawn. My puny biceps, built from years as a runner and cyclist, bulge as I wield the Craftsman weed whacker like a maestro.

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I go up on my roof to clear leaves. I know which end of the hammer to hold. I build with the focus and skill of an experienced contractor. (okay, I’ll admit this is an exaggeration. I’m more like those DIY’ers begging the guy at Stadium Hardware to help me out of a jam I’ve created in a home renovation project gone awry).  I am pretty competent around power tools, though those who know I had a little accident recently and there is now one less power tool in my quiver (see Everything Seems Like It Used To Be Something Else).

Just like Diesel, only me.

In recent years I have upped my fashion game. Deliberately. I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room. Even if I’m only slightly better dressed than other guys, that’s okay. I notice the nuances of how guys dress and where they go wrong.

I have a rule: Never be the worst dressed guy in the room.

I check out men’s fashion on Pinterest and in magazines. When I dress for work I choose specific combinations of pants, shirts and ties, even socks and shoes so that I can convey a certain look. Is my deliberateness in choice of dress gay?

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To me, a sense of style, sensitivity and kindness are the badges of an evolved man. They have nothing to do with sexuality. Displaying kindness even in the face of the judgement is as masculine as muscle.

Kindness is opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).  I participate in folding the laundry and doing dishes, vacuuming and cleaning and thank her in front of them when she does all those chores. I am not saying other men don’t do these things and more. I am not better than anyone. And I know my daughters have other male role models in their lives; my ex’s husband appears to treat my daughters’ mother with kindness and respect.

I show my kids simple things like opening the car door for my wife, listening when she speaks, giving her the last Oreo (most of the time).

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”. Can we appreciate an individual’s approach to style as well as their emotions without questioning their sexuality? Can we as a culture disconnect sexuality from a judgement about masculinity?

When I cut off my middle finger in a table saw a couple weeks ago, the pain was off the charts. I didn’t cry a tear. Is that manly enough?

Ultimately, it’s about not judging people on their appearance, but on their Behavior with a capital “B”.

I smile when my kids notice my efforts. My stepson regularly opens my wife’s door, his sisters’ doors and mine. One moment he rushes ahead to hold the door and won’t relent until we pass. The next we discuss his favorite tool brands (“Dewalt is my favorite, then Porter-Cable, then Kobalt,” he tells me.) This lesson has stuck.

To me there is nothing more powerful than a man living his truth. I only know Vin Diesel the actor not the real man inside. So he can punch harder, kill more aliens, and drive faster than I ever will. He is a man’s man. I will never have his biceps nor his six pack. I’m okay with that. As long as I earn the respect of my wife and my kids for the kind of man I am, I can live with not being a super man. A gentle man is just fine.

“This is the test of your manhood: How much is there left in you after you have lost everything outside of yourself?” –Orison Swett Marden

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