Thursday, May 16, 2013

Real Men and Me

Some years ago, in the early eighties, a book title made it into popular culture: Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Well. Just how do you define a real man? Obviously many worried males wanted to know, judging by the continuous laughter. At the time there was a Sally Forth cartoon (my memory is imperfect) where the daughter, holding a toy tricorder, walks into the kitchen where her dad was eating, saying to him, “My wimp meter is reading: Someone is eating quiche.”
Sally takes her daughter aside, “Don’t say that; now he’ll do something silly like take up hang gliding.”
Daughter: “Does this mean I should take back the pink sweater I’m getting him for Christmas?”

At the time there was a fad for men wearing pink shirts; but I suppose the color is again out of fashion—not-that-I-pay-attention-to-men’s-fashions, because hey, I’m a real man… During most decades gender differences are something you “just know,” but don’t explicitly analyze. If feminism has ebbed it’s because of the big problem associated with digging into the truth of these things: “The truth shall set you free, but first it shall make you miserable.”

As a teenage boy, as best I recall, none of us were into learning something as abstract as “women’s liberation.” At most, we merely thought “liberation” meant “jobs” for women. I had no nerd peers back then, so maybe I missed a small part of teenage life, but still, I think I can speak for average teen boys: We weren’t ready for philosophy yet, not until the post-secondary years. I did carry one nugget off to college: While reading a war nonfiction book in high school, I found a sentence from the volunteers of WWII: “Most of us (civilian volunteer) marines felt Hemmingway was a bit too hairy chested for real life.” I knew the name, of course, but I had never read him. I filed that sentence away as just one more thing I wasn’t able to understand yet.

Off at community college, no longer trapped school kids but instead volunteers, of the age to have our peer’s permission to think deeply and critically, we took two works of Earnest Hemmingway, a short story and a novel. I stuck up my hand excitedly to say, “Wow, this is exactly what I somehow gleaned a real man was like!” (OK, I didn’t say “gleaned,” but I was sure excited) As I recall, the class thought Hemmingway hadn’t influenced society so much as captured what was in the air.

Around that time I remember feeling relieved to read the science fiction of Larry Niven. His bachelor characters, like Hemmingway’s, might wear shirts with breast pockets and epaulets, but in Niven’s universe, where war was not practical, there was no traction for the military virtues. And Niven’s characters rarely knew anyone who hunted. Most importantly, to the young man I was, Niven’s characters were shown as understanding science and being “articulate”: the exact opposite of being "strong and silent." In other words, in Niven’s eyes, I could be a storybook hero even if I went to university and was smart.

This I needed to know, lest I “soak up self-hatred from my culture,” a risk the feminists knew of all too well. Hey, I couldn’t help being smart and liking books and wearing glasses. I wasn’t the only young man trying to understand our culture: A US Marine rifleman during the Korean War noted in his diary that his young peers couldn’t laugh with a natural giggle, only an Homeric roar. That same young man raised his status by saying he had gotten into a fight in town, and won—this after first thoughtfully scraping his knuckles back and forth on the sidewalk to add verisimilitude.

As for Hollywood, everybody knew, back in my pre-Vietnam childhood, that the classical American hero was “the duke.” A broad shouldered plainspoken man, he appeared in classic westerns and war movies. His very name was plain and simple: John Wayne. But here’s the thing: I caught a telling scene late one night on TV (probably Rio Bravo) where John Wayne was the sheriff. It was an office-jailhouse scene: Someone starts playing a guitar and singing; others sing too or keep time clicking spoons or tapping mugs; a real good time is enjoyed by all. During all this our strong hero just smiles. He isn’t a spoilsport who would make the others feel unmanly—but he doesn’t quite join in, either.

In the duke’s world, it’s as if real men can whistle but not sing. They can’t be too graceful at dancing, or too artistic, or—of course in reality they were: I’m only talking about the cultural ideal. ’Tis a culture unhealthy.

I’ll never know how many men, like those young guys in Korea, put their actions where their beliefs were, men like the hero’s friend in the novel Revolutionary Road. (Later a Brad Pitt movie) During the conformist 1950’s the poor guy deliberately evades any cultural growth, tries not to ever grow verbally skilled, and marries an uncultured wife. What he might call “trying to be a regular guy,” trying to do the right thing, I would call “destroying his character.”

As for Earnest Hemmingway, such a sensitive gifted writer, he ended up, as writer Rita Mae Brown notes, needing to have his picture taken standing beside dead animals.

On the other side of the “real man” coin was my first hero of my adult years: a fellow essayist with the pen name George Orwell. (Eric Blair) While Hemmingway drove ambulance in the Great War, Orwell, just a shade too young for that war, was a volunteer seeing combat in the Spanish civil war. Hemmingway had no college but he spent much time at Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris. Orwell had gone to a tough boarding school that produced tough imperial administrators, later to Eton—“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”—and then gone on to join the imperial police force in Burma. At last he threw it all away—rejecting imperialism, resigning his commission—to go investigate first hand what it was like to be Down and Out in Paris and London. In his own way, he too was trying to do the right thing. He was one of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Today we might say Orwell worked on “becoming liberated.” Truly, I think Orwell was manly enough, even if he could recite poetry. (So can I)

During WWII various G.I.s, wanting to meet Orwell, made their way his flat; meanwhile, Orwell made his way to Hemmingway’s quarters. Entering the room, he quietly put out his hand, saying, “Hi, I’m Eric Blair.”
Hemmingway yelled something rude, like “Who the hell wants to know?”
Orwell tried again, quietly. “I’m George Orwell.”
Then Hemmingway was again rough and manly, saying something like, “Hi! Have a snort!” and reaching under his bed to hold up a jug.

Looking back on poor Hemmingway, I think he trapped himself into writing characters who have no wife or children in order to maintain his belief that a “real man” is rude and inconsiderate. Meanwhile, the characters played by the duke could be married, or get engaged at the end of the movie. John Wayne was never a jerk, and we all liked him.

Lately I’ve been thinking about two men of the Conroy family. The father was a US marine officer who flew fighter jets. The son, Pat Conroy, was never a manly marine, but he was the next best thing, by our cultural indicators: He attended a military college, (with harsh hazing) played varsity basketball, and in later years was invited to speak yearly at the coast guard academy, years when Pat was a successful novelist. Pat stands as yet another reminder not to take our culture’s “real man” totem too seriously.

Pat’s father, unfortunately, was not a good human being. In fact, he was lucky not to be criminally charged and drummed out of the service, but his secret was never uncovered… He was an horrific abuser of his wife and children, unbelievably horrific: Pat seriously thought none of his brothers and sisters would go to the old man’s funeral. How strange: When the man died, the children attended and the town had a big funeral. People liked the old colonel. What had happened was this: Pat wrote a novel where he made the father sympathetic enough to read about, The Great Santini. (Later a movie starring Robert Duval) What happened next was the father tried, and succeeded, to live up to the good character in the novel. He changed.

When people such as a marine colonel and a colonial police officer are willing to change it is so wondrous—this proves liberation is possible for the rest of us too. Truly we may change… as individuals, and as a culture. It was entirely appropriate for the women of my youth to go seeking liberation for us all. We might associate change and growth mostly with our college years, and rightly so, but Orwell had been all finished school when he sought a new path, and “Major Conroy,” who as a middle aged father got college grades of C-minus, did his personal growth after his eldest son Pat had finished college and become a writer.

My platoon sergeant had no college—he went straight to the forces from secondary school. I can still picture him as a middle-aged man of high morale in a big tent during winter warfare. There he once pulled out a paperback, with some silly title about men’s issues, to say laughingly, “You guys are all going to die early because you don’t face your manhood issues.” He was, he told us, giving the matter intense study.

Only a live fish swims upstream: While it’s OK for most folks to live a life on automatic pilot, it’s more fun to be thoughtful about the world around us.

Sean Crawford
Wearing a pretty pink vest and capris to work for a late-winter "Beach Day,"
And then getting a laugh by saying,
“Hey, I’m secure in my sexual identity.”
Spring, 2013

~In the forces it was common knowledge that statisically we would die five years after retirement....
In an Army Journal in the 1950's an officer noted that the combat arms had the shortest life span in retirement and speculated that it was from these arms having less sleep. Today the theories tend away from the physical and more towards southern California psychology: That people need a reason to be busy, need a life of meaning.

~The Eton quote, of course, is from the Duke of Wellington, after leading the allies at the battle of Waterloo

~If people of the terror-exporting nations are standing sadly on the shore while the river of progress rolls on leaving them behind, it is because, seeing themselves as "victims," they lack self confidence to change… easier to look backwards to a seemingly golden sharia past.

~The enthusiastic US marine diarist was Martin Russ, for The Last Parallel. One day in broad daylight, safe behind the lines, he timed how long it took to cover ground while walking silently at the same speed as one of his night patrols in no man’s land. Very slow. As a boy I tried it too. While deer can slide their hooves silently under old brown leaves, I could never tread old leaves without noise.

~Joan Didion once did an essay about her girlhood love of John Wayne.

~My knowledge of Pat Conroy comes from his excellent philosophical memoir My Losing Season. He had a love of learning basketball, of academic learning, and of reflection on what he was learning, loves that I suspect those who attend college merely “to get a job” will never know.

~One of the Austin Powers spy comedies referenced The Great Santini: The scene where the villain comically bounces a light inflatable beach ball globe off a guy’s head saying, “Are you gonna cry now?” In the Santini movie it was a heavy basketball, brutally bounced repeatedly off the back of the boy’s head as he kept walking away. Watching Austin Powers, I was glad to see the old Oscar-nominated movie was still remembered, because when it came out (1979) I think many people stayed away as it was too soon after Vietnam.

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