howmanybeards

Tag: dad

079: Be A Man

“Be a man.” All Things Considered posits that these are possibly the 3 scariest words a boy can hear. Part of me tends to agree. Part of me thinks they’re scary for grown men too. Part of me also hears it as a call (a challenge if you will) to be better. A reminder that, in our time, masculinity has been warped through commercialization that is pressed on us non-stop both directly and subliminally and that we must find a way to lift ourselves up from this. 

If it truly is a calling, then it is a lifelong calling. It is something which must be worked at, honed, and exercised. One must create a muscle memory if you will, so that it becomes reflexive from repetition. From my experience it is not something that comes naturally. Rather it is born at best through the teachings of your family and community and at it’s hardest through a sincere effort to improve one day at a time through learning and action.

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family and community with strong male role models who represented some of the best qualities of a man – leadership, work ethic, morality, physical strength, emotional availability. Chief among these was my own father, but there were plenty of others as well – uncles, friend’s fathers, teachers, coaches, etc. Yet, somehow when I reached the middle of my college career I found myself seeking out knowledge about manhood, masculinity, and what it meant to “be a man.”

I am sadly part of a generation unwittingly forced into Prolonged Adolescence by many compelling societal and economic factors, so when I first looked to my peers I found them to be, on the whole lacking. Many of my closest friends contained the potential to be good men. Diamonds in the rough, if you will, but for most of them those parts of their character were overwhelmed by other aspects. This led me to look elsewhere. I found it in some of my male professors. But I found myself mostly drawn to the early writings of Brett McKay. Brett is the creator and chief author of the now deservedly popular Art Of Manliness.

Admittedly my early fascination with Art Of Manliness was quite in line with my priorities at the time – materials. I was fascinated with articles on straight razor shaving, pocket notebooks, knives, and how to dress myself. Yet over the years it has been the in depth articles on the more philosophical aspects of manhood that have truly captured my attention.

The question of manliness, of “being a man” lingered on in my mind for years, especially during my year long sabbatical in Korea. However, when The Wife and I found out last year that we were expecting our first child, the question returned to the forefront of my mind with great passion. Suddenly I was looking on the matter from a whole new perspective – fatherhood. In my early panic about whether or not I would be a good father, I found myself looking back more and more on those role models and teachings I had found years previously, my father, my professors, the writings online. I found great solace in the parable of Hercules – that a life of ease is no life, and only through toil can we find success and joy – and also the writings of Seneca on stoicism. I made changes in myself. I made choices in my life. I chose to cut the fat, and live a healthier existence. 

And then over the last couple of days I came across two things that made me want to talk about all this. 

First, was a piece I found a few days ago over at what is possibly the blog most responsible for me being able to dress myself like a respectable adult. The fine gents at Put This On posted about a piece they had read. It was written by Andrew W.K., who apparently has his own advice column, in which he talks a good deal about what it means to be a man but from a wonderfully different place. I actually recommend reading the whole thing. Sidebar, a decade ago I thought Andrew W.K. was a total wacko, but have since come to really appreciate his approach to life.

Then today, while driving home with Scout sleeping in the back, I was tuned into NPR and this piece from All Things Considered came on. It’s an interview with former NFL player Joe Ehrmann, about what we as a society are doing and messaging to young boys and young men and what affect it is having on them long term. Mr. Ehrmann couches it in terms most familiar to him – his experiences with coaches and players on the field and the different types of relationships they have. Most importantly though he uses two terms in reference to those relationships, “transactional and transformational.” He goes on to talk about the crisis he sees facing manhood and I have to say it really resonated with me. I won’t go into terrible detail about what he says, I think you can find the 7.5 mins to listen to it.

At the end of the day, the core of both these pieces is essentially this – that being a good man means being good. However, there still seems to be a line drawn in the sand between being a good human being and being a good man. So what makes the two different? What constitutes that line? And how does it remain in our modern society where so much work has been done to erase the barriers between genders? Is it that men still hold an assumed position of power and strength? And through that are we held to a higher expectation of decency not to abuse that position? This seems to be the next line of thinking I have to pursue on this lifelong journey. Let me know what you think in the comments.

 

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074: Somewhere You Can Finally Work 7 Days A Week

Today marks one year since my father passed away. He went so peacefully that honestly, at first, we didn’t even realize he was gone. If anyone had ever earned a peaceful passing it was him. A man who worked non-stop from the moment someone let him start. He worked a host of jobs as a teenager and young man to help support his family after his own father passed away, and took on many responsibilities in the house as his mother faltered under the weight of her own battle with cancer. He then went on to own and operate a company that at one point employed over 100 people. A company that still persists to this day in a much reduced form, but that managed to weather even the depths of the recession. He got up early to work and stayed up late to work. He would leave his chemotherapy appointments and go out and go to work. Most of us work to live. My father lived to work.

He worked for good reason, because he worked to provide for all of us. Not just my mother and brother and I. But his family, his friends, co-workers, employees and acquaintances. He worked to provide ease of living and peace of mind. He wanted to know that if he decided he needed to get up and go to Wal-Mart at 6 am and buy a third pair of work boots that it wouldn’t be a problem. Or that at the end of the year when it was time for a little extra cash in the envelopes for his people he didn’t have to check the company’s cash flow.

This is one of the most important lessons he ever taught me. It has taken me a while to learn, but I have learned it whole-heartedly. And that is because my father never taught by telling, but simply by doing and by being.

Only, I wish he were here to continue teaching me. And that’s the problem. I miss him. I miss him in a way that is so frustrating that it borders on anger and then that makes me feel more upset because it feels petty and cheap. One of the best things someone said to me after he passed away is that one shouldn’t mourn a life well lived. And if his life wasn’t well lived than no one’s is. And I don’t mourn him. I simply miss him. I miss that he won’t be here to continue celebrating life with us. That he won’t be here to see my baby girl when she comes into this world and he won’t be able to cherish her the way I know he would.

But missing him is perhaps the best honor I can bestow upon him. It means I haven’t forgotten him or what he tried to teach me. And so when I do miss him, I remind myself to be like him. And that he is in a better place, somewhere where, as I told my mother, “He can finally work 7 days a week without anyone bothering him.”

Rest well, dad.

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069: Pancakes

PANCAKES

                Have you ever made pancakes for one? You look at the back of the box, pick out the recipe with the fewest servings, measure out the mix and you’re on your way; simple enough. So, there I am leering over the counter trying to figure out how many pancakes is this really going to make. 6 little ones, 4 mediums, 2 larges and a runt, or should I just fill the entire cast iron pan with mix and see what comes of it. My head swims and I am reminded that I am in fact making these pancakes to fight my hangover. A hangover which should have been abolished by the tall Tervis Tumblers full of water and the b-12 vitamin I drank before bed last night. I am convinced that these pancakes will cure what ails me.

                The pan is already out. It’s kind of always out. It lives on its burner. A silent sentinel: too heavy to be easily lifted and too large to be easily stored. I scoop a dollop of butter (note, it’s not real butter it’s Earth Balance) into the center and start to spread it around as the pan slowly eats the heat from the blue gas flame beneath it. All of this is done in the near silence of bare feet scuffing on wood floors and utensils and instruments being gently placed on glass plates and Formica counter tops as it is only 7:30 on a Sunday morning and the wife likes to sleep in. Finally (at least for now) I begin to pour the batter. You always start in the center. Then I slowly spiral outwards into a nice, roughly 4 inch cake that would make dad proud.

                And then you wait. You scan the front page, nothing interesting there. Find the sports section and follow the jump on a story about the Seminoles, then change your mind about finishing it and move onto the classifieds. All the while keeping an eye on the bubbles working their way up through the uncooked dough, making sure the timing is right and gently pushing under the edges to make sure there won’t be any problems with sticking. Turn back to the classifieds, peeling back the first page to reveal the full breadth of the Sunday crossword. Another quick glance, still bubbling. I scan the first few clues (none of which I know) as my palm and gravity work in concert to sink the plunger on the French Press. A final look reveals no more bubbles and I grab the spatula for the flip.

                I am 6 years old. I am standing on a chair from the kitchen table. Despite the boost I am still shorter than my father. We are both pressed against the light pink Formica counter; I’m mixing the batter (make sure you get out most of the lumps) and he is fiddling with the temperature on the griddle (always cook at 350). He then carves out a hunk of margarine, drops it on the black surface, and hands me the spatula. Now it’s up to me to successfully push that golden yellow nugget around like Wayne Gretzkey and make sure every inch is greased. I always make sure to take as much time as possible, because after this I take on the role of a mere observer. It would be many years before I would be allowed to help with the actual process of pouring and flipping.

                Dad would patiently pour the batter on the boiling black griddle, carving out uniform 4 inch circles, one after another. And then it was a waiting game. The exposed batter gurgles slowly bubbling and popping like a boil stained teenage face. We had to watch closely. When that last bubble popped you had to be ready to flip. When that last bubble popped they were very close to done.

On the night of Sunday, December 9th we went to dinner to celebrate my brother and I’s birthday. As we left he and I stood to take a picture with dad standing between the two of us. He placed an arm around each of us and I could feel them shaking from the strain, but they remained still strong and defiant. That night my mother took him to the hospital. The next night I was at their house. My father could no longer stand on his own and my mother could not lift him. I saw it the first time I lifted him out of his chair. His pants had sagged low on a frame eroded by 17 years of tight lipped rebellion against death. The tumor in his bladder had grown so big it threatened to burst through his skin, a final bubble waiting to pop.

So there I am, alone in my kitchen at 7:45 on a hung-over Sunday morning flipping pancakes and hoping my sadness will one day be replaced with joy when I teach my children how to mix, and butter, and wait and flip. And I hope they’ll appreciate the lessons I teach them, lessons I learned from a man they’ll never meet.