American society has been in the midst of a culture war over manhood going back at least as long as I’ve been alive. But I’m choosing not to fight in it. I’m choosing a different kind of man to become.
Men are an easy target in the culture war.
Part of the problem by my reckoning is that we lack a coherent social comprehension of what it means to be a man. With the notable exception of Star Trek’s Captain Picard, I grew up on TV that portrayed men as lazy buffoons, emotionally volatile commandos, or sex addicted man-children. The cultural left ran with these men as gospel truth — and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been lumped in with “you men” whenever someone with a penis does or says something stupid.
While the cultural left focused on their perception of who men grew up to be, the cultural right countered with a reductive insistence on dead-ending manhood at being born with a penis, having a wife, and being the sole breadwinner of one’s family. Great, I suppose for men that describes — pretty emasculating for everyone else neither in the economic position to be responsible for a family nor interested in joining the millions in shitty relationships no one is interested in repairing anymore.
As a teenager, I considered John Muir one of my heroes — the kind of man I wanted to become. My eyes would always linger on the works of Ansel Adams. And once, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was moved to tears by the crisp and lonely American imagination captured in Edward Hopper’s painting Office in a Small City. I couldn’t tell you anything about their penises, their wives, or their income levels at any point in their lives.
And likewise I don’t know if any of them were toxic beer-gutted slobs, jacked gun-wielding renegades, or serial bachelors whose legs dared to accommodate external genitals when sitting on a public bus.
I do know one thing — and that’s that America’s culture warriors don’t think about men the same way I do. It took me into my thirties to realize that this doesn’t make me (or the men I look up to) queer. I don’t have to jump through the minefield of obtusely academic technobabble to “reclaim” my heroes or to qualify my manhood with an unceasing litany of proclamations about things and behaviors I am not. Nor do I have to reduce manhood to the most skeletal relationships of having a body, being a husband, and being a worker. I don’t have to play any of these games.
The kind of man I want to become isn’t fazed by culture war fanaticism.
He’s neither a willing punching bag for everything the left hates about the world and apparently hopes to change without about half the human species, nor is he some unfinished vessel waiting to be red-pilled into identitarian Christianity by some valorous mentor on the right.
The man I am becoming is already living on the frontier apart from these ideas. He sees clearly the hypocrisy and longings of society, and fulfills himself in the majesty of his own curiosity — increasingly among the poplars, and less among the populists.
He is neither a penis obsessed right-wing essentialist, nor an identity obsessed left-wing essentialist. He was neither born a man, nor has he always been one. Manhood is something into which he is becoming. Its meaning to him is not something always retroactively apparent or obvious when examining his past, but something into which he is growing, a future state to which he aspires and yet could fail to achieve, a present path across the wilderness he is making.
His waypoints are neither biology nor biography alone, but the Great Things in the world he explores, and the Great People in whom he sees a part of his soul. Like Muir, like Adams, like Hopper….
When I sat down to write this, there was a photograph that came to mind of the kind of man I want to become.
The man is my second great-grandfather, Hezekiah, and with him are his grandchildren (including my own grandfather) as well as his grand-dog. If you detect a sense of melancholy, it’s probably because this was taken around the time that the children’s mother died suddenly. There’s an unabashed closeness in the way they sit together, and a hearty dedication to preserving the family evidenced by the photograph itself which seem to wrap around this tragedy with the careful, intentional bonds of a family.
To paint a fuller picture here, I don’t know much about Hezekiah beyond this photograph. I don’t even know his father’s name. He’s the oldest known patriarch of one line in my family.
But what I see in the way he carries himself, what I know about life in Appalachia, and what I know of his impact on the family through the brief time I shared this earth with his grandson — it’s enough to aspire actual greatness. I want to be that source of grandfatherly comfort to any family I have years down the line. I want to be at home on the edges of society. I want to have the kind of character attested to by a loyal dog.
It’s taken me more than thirty years to say plainly that I want to be a man. There’s nothing wrong or toxic about that. I don’t have to qualify it or tamp it down into someone else’s narrow understanding of what being a man means.
For once in my life, I finally have an idea of the kind of man I’d like to become.
He is who I am becoming.