About twelve years ago, in the middle of my divorce, my father paid me the greatest compliment I have ever been given. I was at my life’s probable nadir and as an article of comfort he offered:
“You’re a good man, Paul.”
Only recently have I realized how lucky I was in my childhood to be surrounded by positive male role models. I had four really good uncles (and a fifth who later in life divorced my mother’s sister, let’s not count that guy any more) and, from middle-school on, a handful of decent male teachers and coaches. And I have my dad. I’ve written previously, in a kind of offhand way, how I never had “father issues,” indeed I was probably about 30 before I realized that many (most?) people do. But not only did I not have father issues, I didn’t even know father issues were a thing.
Like a lot of men of the Twentieth Century, my dad — and subsequently I — grew up with a certain conception of manhood and masculinity. It is, in the year 2014, kind of retrograde; classist and sexist and boring and old-fashioned. But I think it was for a while the dominant vision of American manhood; I and millions of other American men still subscribe to it, intentionally or otherwise. And I haven’t seen many enduring positive alternatives, so I think it’s worth recapitulating.
It’s like this:
Imagine taking up, or being given, a heavy weight to carry indefinitely. You take up this weight at a young(ish) age — twentyish or thirtyish — when carrying heavy weights for a long period is kind of trivial. Perhaps you even took up this weight by accident. But here it is: a heavy thing you have to carry. Indefinitely.
There are only a few things that heavy weight could be. Military service. The family farm or business. Marriage. Children. Ailing relatives. Community service.
Importantly: none of these heavy weights will usually win a man an excess of plaudits. They aren’t Accomplishments. They aren’t Winning the Big Game or Landing the Big Fish or Writing the Great American Novel or anything showy. They are just kind of Things People Do. And you might pick up more than one of them. But here they are now, in your arms and on your back. You have to carry them until someoone tells you to put them down.
So far so good, right? Manhood is about assuming responsibility, innit? Yawn. But this is where I think most people — most men — go awry. What makes a “boy” a “man” isn’t the act of picking up, it’s the ceaseless act of carrying. You don’t become a man when you get married, or have kids, or join the Navy. You become a “man” slowly over a long period by bearing these things as uncomplainingly as possible — and you lose your “manhood” all at once if you set any of them down.
So here’s this heavy thing, or things, that you picked up years ago. And you carry it and carry it. And you don’t squawk about it, or complain; indeed you maybe rather enjoy carrying stuff. Forever. That’s manhood.
There are other ways of Being a Man certainly. But this is my way of being a man. I like it for a lot of reasons. Foremost because it’s positive — it doesn’t require tearing down women or gay men. It doesn’t require fussy signifiers like a fancy car, or sandwiches with too much meat, or a proud beard, or a great golf game, or a gun collection. It celebrates steadiness, loyalty, and cheerfulness. It is available to anyone with the character to stick with a heavy act forever.
For my entire life my father has carried a great weight: his marriage and his family. As my brother and I grew up, and after Dad entered retirement, we tried to lift some of that weight from him. (Although it was as recently as this year that I had to ask my parents for money…) He bears all this weight without complaint, I have never heard him utter a single word of regret about what he has been carrying for forty-five years. But he has said many times that he’s proud of his sons, and I know what that means. He was carrying the weight of a marriage and a family and a career and membership in the community. And he was carrying the meta-weight of showing his sons how to carry a great weight cheerfully.
When my father said, twelve years ago, that I was a good man, it was with the authority of decades of carrying that weight. It was, by definition, not a light statement. I have tried since that moment to live up to that expectation: that I am a good man. I want to give my kids the kind of role model I have in my own father. I’m glad they have already have one in their uncle, my brother.
My dad is on my mind a lot lately. He has always been on my mind a lot, but I haven’t often realized it. The magic of his Awesome Dadliness is that he made this extraordinary thing — positive masculinity — seem so commonplace, even joyful. Doesn’t everyone have an Awesome Dad? I do.