Yesterday I wrote about part of the discussion that took place around our Wild Goose Festival panel on masculinity and male identity. A few folks asked about the story I told during the panel, so I thought I’d share it here. It’s a bit long, so I’ll offer it in two parts, with part two coming tomorrow.
I first saw it sitting with the “for sale” sign in the parking lot of the apartment complex where I had a summer job, cleaning out trashed, vacant units. They wanted $3,200 for it, but they took $2,700, which was almost every penny I’d earned for a whole summer’s work. The guy who sold it to me, a bartender with a mullet and a fine collection of sleeveless T-shirts, assured me that I would love that car more than life itself.
He was right, but as I mentioned, it was a completely irrational love. I spent more time underneath that car than I did in it for more than a year, replacing seals, radiators, starters, alternators and a host of other barely-functioning parts I only learned existed as they broke. But when it worked, man, I was transported, both literally and figuratively.
The mustang gave me more confidence too. I asked a girl out I had wanted to hook up with for some months, and after checking out the ride, she readily agreed. I took her to a concert, and on the way home, her smile broadened as she ran her hand seductively across the burgundy interior.
Five minutes later, while cruising down the highway, I threw a rod. We sat in the parking lot of a gas station for about forty-five minutes until my mom got there to take us both home.
I said the love was irrational.
After college, I got a steadier job and moved up to a 1998 convertible Mustang. Though it didn’t hold quite the same romantic appeal, it actually ran every time I turned the key, which was a reasonable trade-off. My now-wife, Amy, remembers the night I picked her up in it for our first date. I wouldn’t say she fell in love with the car, but if there was any question about her interest in me, the car didn’t hurt.
When she got pregnant the first time, it took some persuasion on her part to convince me that we needed a more family-friendly vehicle. I hated the idea of giving up my sports car, but we settled on a four-wheel-drive Xterra, which was still manly enough for me to maintain my dignity.
The problem with manly cars is that they have an equally manly appetite for gas. With gas climbing toward five bucks a gallon a couple of years ago, the Xterra’s fate was grim. Finally, I relented and traded in my off-road bad-ass-mobile for a Prius.
Don’t get me wrong; the Prius is a great car. The mileage is amazing, the safety ratings are solid, and there’s almost no maintenance. But again, all of that falls into the “rational” category of reasons for buying a car, which had nothing to do with my prior purchases. It made sense for where we were in our lives, but I didn’t want to make sense; I wanted to be a man behind the wheel of a manly car. Now I’d gone from a classic Mustang to a Prius, and even though I drove the thing, I was clearly not the one in the driver’s seat.
My gut was right.
Welcome to my life, going left when I know I should go right. Why do I do this? And why do millions of other guys do it?
“That’ll teach you not to listen to the head of the household,” I smirked to my wife, Amy. We have a running joke about how different our relationship is from my mom’s. She and her husband both claim, without reservation, that he is the “spiritual head of the household.”
“Maybe it’ll teach you about listening to the head of the household,” she said with a sideways glance.
I should mention that my wife is an ordained minister and pastors our church. I also helped found the church we lead together five years ago, but I do it as a volunteer. She gets plenty of sideways looks and comments as a female pastor, including guys who feel compelled to tell her she preaches pretty well “for a girl.”
It cuts both ways, too; I get more than my share of “pastor’s wife” jokes. People like to ask me if I bake a mean casserole, or if I picked up knitting when my wife went into ministry. I smile and offer some sort of self-deprecating comment in return usually, but a part of me wants to offer them a first-person view of the inside of their colons.
I’m not alone. Thinking back to the action hero movies of my childhood, guys like Sylvester Stallone and Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger were the pictures of masculinity. Now they’ve been replaced by Tobey Maguire’s bookish Spiderman and Edward Norton as the Hulk. But the sad part is I love those new guys.
What the hell happened to me? What’s happened to men in general? Have we failed as a gender, or are we evolving? Is our loss of power a willing concession or a humiliating defeat?
Somewhere between my father’s generation and me, things changed for men. Big time. But how? Is this a failure of the Y chromosome? Have we acceded to our own emasculation?
Are we still even men? And if we are, what does that even mean?
My friend, Brandon, told me there’s an acronym for guys like me: SNAG. Stands for “Sensitive New Age Guy.” How flaccid is that? The only thing worse would be if it stood for “Sackless No-Authority Gimp.” There are other phrases like “Metrosexual” I’ve had tossed my way, or the more benign “Postmodern male” label. I’m okay with this last one, but I still have no idea what it means.
I guess postmodern male-ness is kind of like porn; no one can describe it, but we all know when we see it.
Of course, as male roles change, so do those of women. And they get heir share of blowback. Take Hillary Clinton, for example. Love or hate her politics, but no one can argue that she’s a strong, intelligent woman. Apparently for these reasons alone, she gets labeled as a closeted dyke, or as hiding some male equipment in those pantsuits.
But for the most part, it seems to me that feminine strength is celebrated and encouraged. As the father of a baby girl, I certainly want to see her grow up to be independent, courageous, and to take zero shit from any guy.
I also have a five-year-old son, and the truth is I’m not really sure what to teach him about being a man. All of the archetypes of what it means to be a man are falling away, and even if they weren’t I don’t know jack about a lot of them. There are guys like Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, but they’re either all dead or nursing colostomy bags these days. If anything, that just serves to show us what men used to be like, in stark contrast about who we are today.