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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All-Men Issue

Four lessons for boys who want to become men

February 1st, 2011

BY TERRY ROSS

Today I am a
man. On Monday I return
to the seventh grade.

— Jewish bar mitzvah haiku

For this All-Men Issue of Black Lamb, I received a typically various bunch of essays from our columnists. In our page 2 feature, Beren deMotier admits — no, affirms — how much more she began liking men once she had stopped dating them. On page 3 John M. Daniel narrates a young man’s rite of passage, a failed attempt to savor the masculine world of a would-be Jack Kerouac out On the Road. Dean Suess (p. 4) remembers his penitentiary days and the bizarre attempt of one fellow inmate to get in touch with his true manhood. On the same page, Benjamin Feliciano paints a partial yet affecting portrait of contemporary young men. Ed Goldberg (p. 5) reflects on the differences, real and imagined, between men and women, as does Toby Tompkins in his essay entitled What is a man? (p. 7). Elizabeth Fournier (p. 6) takes a page or two from her book on blind dating to describe some of the sorry slobs she encountered in her quest for true love. Greg Roberts urges men to get out and be hunters — literally or figuratively — if they hope to win fair maidens. A passage from Lorentz Lossius’s Turkey diaries (p. 6) shows us men of a culture different from ours in the West, and Dan Peterson recalls an Italian man among men.

All of these essays, with the exception of John’s and Ben’s, are, in a way, almost as much about women as about men. (We’ll have an All-Women Issue in April.) They consider men, and men’s abilities and responsibilities, in relation to women. Which makes perfect sense. But in my own essay below, speaking as man, I’ve chosen to focus on a few things that in the past fifty or sixty years, at least in America, have pertained chiefly to males, young and old.

Lesson No. 1: You’ve Gotta Be Tough.

Physically tough. Tough enough to take a jab in the nose or a whack on the ear and not cry. Tough enough to mix it up, lick the blood off your lip, and punch someone in the face. Tough enough to endure pain in order to administer pain. To make that crunching tackle on the football field, to use your elbows on the basketball court. To hold your place in line when people try to cut in. To hang onto your stuff when others want to take it.

Skinny and underweight? Tough titty. Suck it up, kid. I remember being a skinny and underweight boy and being in more or less perpetual low-level fear of bullies. In my fantasy world, I was a tough boxer; I used to lie on my bed manipulating toy soldiers and cowboys in extended punch-outs. But on the street and in school, it was a different story.

And it didn’t change very much once I got into high school, either. There, the sadistic physical education teachers seemed to get a kick out of trying to toughen up the boys, like me, who didn’t like sports where you’re always bumping into people: football and wrestling, especially. It wasn’t until I was out of high school that the daily anxiety disappeared, but even then there was always the background hum of violence: tough guys looking for trouble, angry people spoiling for a fight. As a male, you were expected to be able to hold your own, to want to hold your own.

Lesson No. 2: Can you fix this?

Then there were the things males were expected to know about. Cars, for instance. Even in my semi-ignorance, I learned about carburetors, u-joints, exhaust manifolds, tachometers. You were expected to know how to change a tire or the windshield wipers, even replace a fan belt, to push-start your car or rock it out when it was stuck in the mud. And you had to be enthusiastic about cars: the latest models, the classic older ones, the dual carbs, the seat covers, the gear shift knobs, the chromed exhaust pipe. If you were helpless before a car that wouldn’t perform, there’d be some older guy looking at you and shaking his head. “If you can’t fix it, don’t drive it.”

Same with carpentry, plumbing, rototilling — tools in general, anything to do with fixing stuff. “Jesus Christ, not that way! You’ll cut your finger off!” The ideal man was, in addition to everything else, a handyman. Not that everyone achieved this level, but it was admired and, in a not so subtle way, expected.

Lesson No. 3: Make some money, for God’s sake.

No lolling around during those summers away from school and college; get a job, any job. I worked in canneries, a mushroom farm, warehouses, and a crafts store; I washed dishes, slung hash, picked weeds, and swept construction sites, all the while struggling to find myself a “career.” Later, married, a father, and still a student, I interpreted heart monitors in a hospital, managed more than two hundred apartments for a slum landlord in Berkeley, helped a doctor launch a business selling cardiac gadgets, and became a capable waiter in a number of restaurants.

Yet still later, I became a journalist, an orchestra manager, a health insurance drone, a waiter again several times, a disc jockey, and, finally, a magazine editor. An actual career seems to have eluded me, I suppose. Either that, or I’ve had a number of careers. But the financial push has always been there, nagging me into action. Always will be.

Lesson No. 4: Forget Lessons 1-3; be a mensch.

You’re gonna have to be a husband, a dad, an uncle, a grandfather, a friend. It’ll all go better if you learn to be patient, charitable, open-hearted. And start now trying to figure out, in dealing with females, how to tread the treacherous path between being a sexist jerk and a weenie.

Now that all the paths of endeavor once reserved for men are being thrown open to women, men have to look deeper to locate their identities as males, and to ask themselves if it’s even advisable to have an identity as a male, and if so, when. When a door needs to be taken off its hinges? When the car needs a quart of oil? When the baby needs to be comforted? When the Christmas cards need to be sent out?

It was easier fifty years ago than it is today, easier for men, anyway. When rabbis and priests were men; also coaches and weightlifters and truck drivers and pilots. And just about everything else.

Not anymore. I’ll let P.J. O’Rourke have the last word:

Having acquiesced to feminism, most men are adjusting to present realities. There have been no mass suicides among professional ice hockey teams or other all-male groups, and so far very few of us have been rounded up and placed in camps other than the usual fishing ones. But what does the future hold? What part will men play in the society of tomorrow? Well, women have taken our jobs and homosexuals are wearing the parkas and flight suits, and that probably means we’ll be sitting around the house in our underwear watching NFL football.
Yet there’s still a place in the world for men. Women want to be a lot of things traditionally considered masculine: doctors, rock stars, body builders, presidents of the United States. But there are plenty of masculine things women have, so far, shown no desire to be: pipe smokers, first-rate spin-casters, wise old drunks, quiet. And there is one thing women can never take away from men. We die sooner.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Men Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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