Last winter I started dating a gentleman who had been in his chosen profession about two decades, was quite successful, financially solid, well-educated and well-spoken, courteous to a fault. He refused to permit me to pay for a single dinner out, not even once we’d gone on a few dates. Perfect, right?
I guess the first thing that struck me was when he gave me a tour of the new home he had purchased. When I inquired as to the residence’s heating and cooling system, he presented a blank look. “Is it a heat pump?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“How efficient? This is a pretty big house,” I continued.
He smiled a little nervously. “I’m not sure.”
Before I embarrassed him further, I declined to ask about SEER ratings. I mean, what was the point? He wouldn’t know the answer.
Granted, I’m a builder’s daughter and a sometime home and commercial construction writer as well as being an only child raised with all the practical skills one might typically think of a father bestowing on a son. And yes, I grew up outside a small southern mountain town where…you know…men were men. There was no such thing as a man who didn’t know how to drive a stick shift or a tractor (and plenty of women, myself included, counted these among our skills as well).
I could dismiss the above as a case of encountering a city-bred gentlemen of means who had grown up in a family of means where men’s hands remained soft and delicate as a painter’s or a pianist’s.
Only…my dad was a bank president’s son who grew up in town. And I honestly can’t think of anyone on the planet with a more practical set of skills and problem-solving ability than my father. He can repair a backhoe, build a house, and split firewood with gusto in the company of men less than half his age. He can also do trigonometry with a pencil on a block of wood and multiply fractions in his head.
I knew a lot of men like this growing up—my maternal grandfather, my great uncles, neighbors, friends’ fathers. You wouldn’t catch any of them not knowing how to change a flat tire or fix a broken fence…or apologizing for their outlook on the world. So I grew up with the idea that men should be strong, brave, practical, and smart… because I came of age surrounded by men who were teachers, mentors, fixers, and servants to others.
I know I’m going to get serious flak for saying this, but heck, I’m going to say it anyway—the emasculation of men is becoming the norm in our culture (and not just because there are a fair number now who not only wouldn’t deign to change a tire but don’t really know how anyway). And, well-educated, tolerant, capable feminist that I am, I don’t like it, not one bit.
Forgive me, but I think men should behave like men—they should know how to handle life’s basic troubles without blinking or blushing, have a sense of duty toward those they love, be capable of rationally defending themselves and their views, exhibit some emotional courage, and avoid being wishy-washy in the face of conflict or discomfort.
My mother calls my taste in men “fussy.” Fine, whatever. She’s married to my dad after all. She has it pretty good.
What I don’t like is a fussy man. Yeah, so I also recently dated a guy who spent more time styling his hair in the morning than I did, and along with that perfect coif came the most finely pressed and expensive clothes—clothes you’d never dream of wearing while changing a flat tire or having a spontaneous picnic on the grass. And while we regularly received compliments while about town on what a handsome pair we made, I couldn’t help but find something problematic in dating a man I could not possibly imagine ever setting foot in the woods or starting a campfire.
I’ll take the “post-kegger” look any day over activity-inhibiting wardrobe drama.
Perhaps even worse are the men who are so polite and agreeable, fearful of ruffling anyone’s feathers, that they’ll smile and nod at anything, no matter how inane, just to prevent anything remotely looking like conflict…or remotely looking like lively repartee either. And so I order a Manhattan in hopes that doing so will enliven the far too pleasant conversation and then get a look like I’ve just fallen off the moon.
Did I mention a man also ought to know how to drink a frigging cocktail that doesn’t contain pomegranate?
But if I am to be completely frank, these complaints only scratch the surface because modern life seems, if not to favor, at least to tolerate men who fail to support the children they helped bring into the world (does anyone remember the days when such a man would have been shamed into doing his duty?), who feel no particular obligation to do the things they said they were going to do (hence, why I don’t follow politics), and who don’t mean, or regularly deny, the words they speak (though this becomes increasingly harder to do in the age of instant-recording smartphones).
I’m not sure when parental responsibility, keeping one’s word, and telling the truth became optional, but it must have been sometime about 20 or so years ago. Either that or I grew up in a time warp where a kid wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably for a week if he was caught lying. Or maybe, as was the case with me, he or she would just hide in the woods for hours until Dad hopefully “forgot” the lie or the lack of follow-through on a commitment.
There was no shirking responsibility, hard work, or honesty in the world where I was raised, and men were expected to toe that line particularly hard. And to know how to fix shit (by which I mean tangible shit, not the tears of women). And to stand up for themselves. And to sacrifice when the need arose for family, for friends, and for principles.
These days “sacrifice” is no longer part of the language of love, and we fling the word “hero” around so much, it has become virtually meaningless.
Before you suggest I was raised on a steady diet of fairytales, let me point out a few things: Winston Churchill was known to walk the streets of London during the Blitz; the Little Rock Nine endured confrontation by National Guardsmen, taunts and spitting by angry whites, and death threats in their commitment to attend Arkansas’ all-white Central High School in 1957; over 400 emergency services personnel sacrificed their lives trying to rescue victims of the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.
These people were heroes who also knew a thing or two about sacrifice. People who undergo a sex change are not heroes; they are just people undergoing a sex change. NFL players are not heroes; they are just guys who play ball really well and make a lot of money.
But as a culture, we are so quick to make everyone feel good that we toss the word “hero” and “winner” around into a million situations where it’s unwarranted.
And then we demand apologies from anyone who says anything another person or segment of society might find offensive, as if we as a culture no longer honor diversity of viewpoint or freedom of speech. Our insistence that everyone is a hero and that we all pretend to get along by at least talking the same talk not only emasculates men (who tend to be the ones doing most of the apologizing); it emasculates American culture; it castrates the ideals of individuality and freedom of expression upon which our country was founded.
Is it any wonder so many boys today never grow into men? They are coming of age in a culture of low expectations, of minimal hardship. In this context, it should be no surprise young combat soldiers come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. What’s it like to watch your friends blown to bits by IEDs and then return home to a place where young men are so glued to their smartphones they can’t even make sure their kids are safe and sound on the playground much less have any concept of what it’s like to save someone’s life or watch someone die.
Courage, conviction, and commitment are in short supply because we lack the outlets to exercise them. This is particularly the case for men, many of whom are no longer raised to see themselves as future providers and protectors. (And I’m not saying women can’t be providers and protectors, too, but mainstream American culture isn’t interfering with the social imperatives that encourage female valor.)
A few years ago, when a friend of mine was considering marriage to her then boyfriend, a second friend of mine asked her pointedly, “Do you feel womanly in his arms?” And in case you’re a man reading this and wondering what that means, it basically translates into, “Do you trust him? Do you feel safe and cared for? Do you feel like he’d protect you?”
It’s a valid question for women to ask before they tie themselves to a man in this brave new world. Because who wants an untrustworthy, unmotivated coward for a mate? A solid bank account and soft hands don’t cut it in the grand scheme of things. Life is hard, and one shouldn’t make it harder by dragging someone into it who requires a lot of take and has very little give other than cash.
And in this country, we’re supposed to give. We have historically been the nation that steps in when no one else will. Our men (and women, beginning in World War II) have repeatedly answered the call to arms on behalf of beleaguered republics and social democracies as well as on behalf of the disenfranchised and tormented.
But it’s easy to let the disenfranchised here at home carry the burden of sacrifice. Service is no longer a rite of passage in this country; it is less and less a value passed from parent to child, teacher to student. Fewer and fewer of us will know men who keep old uniforms tucked in the backs of closets, who will carry the groceries of old women, or give up the materialism of American holidays to work in a soup kitchen.
In our uber prosperous American culture, too many young men come of age without any awareness that everything could change in an instant…and zero practical preparation for it, much less any preparation for being good fathers, husbands, and citizens.