Friday, October 3, 2008

A New Kind of Man

Unlike most people, I don’t believe that gender roles have ever been written in stone. I don’t believe there has ever truly been a time when “girls were girls and men were men.” I definitely believe there has always been misogyny. I just don’t think that all our forefathers were John Wayne and every woman, June Cleaver. Within every relationship there is negotiation, and I’m sure within every marriage there has probably never been a strict delineation of who did what every and all the time.

Despite what conservatives say, identity politics is nothing new. There has always been cultural battles over what a “real” man and “real” woman were. I once read about one cultural critic excoriating WWII vets for being too effeminate, letting their women work in the ‘50s. And of course, there are the Platonic love codes that told us “real” men could never love an “inferior” woman—best to go with little boys.

Personally, I’ve never bought any of it. Who are you to tell me what a real man is? Besides, I’m an artist and a proud nerd. While no Alan Alda, I’ve never been a “man’s man” (still trying to figure out what that means). Sure, I played sports as a kid, but flat feet and asthma led me to the books. I chased the P like any other fine, young gentleman. While in the Czech Republic, I drank and fought so much that they deported me and prohibited me from reentering the country for seven years. And when I worked on a loading dock, I did have to tone down my aggression levels, but I’ve never been hard, a “gangsta,” or a “thug.” Nor have I ever wanted to be. But I’ve really never really been a softie, either.

All that changed a year ago with the birth of my daughter. As soon as a lock of her hair popped into the world, I was flooded with so much emotion, I damn near cried on the spot. And the sappiness hasn’t really stopped. Now, I know a lot of this is natural: our levels of testosterone drop as we age; and my wife read that a baby’s caregiver’s estrogen levels increase (I guess so we don’t leave them in the woods or ingest their heads, or something). Since I spend at least 11 hours a day taking care of Poohbutt, I guess mine remain pretty high.

But damn, it can be annoying sometimes. I used to be fairly cool and detached. My Dad used to chastise me for being too “cavalier.” But now, it’s all switched up on me. Things that I used to scoff at as corny now tug at my heartstrings. Watching an old episode of Freaks and Geeks, I choked up when Bill had a heart-to-heart with the gym teacher who was dating his mom. When friends now close an email with “Love,” I don’t go like Riley with an, “Ooh, you gay.” Instead, I think (earnestly, no less), “Yeah. I love you, too, man.” If there’s a loving scene with a father and daughter, my chest gets all warm and fuzzy. I can’t stand hearing about dead children. I used to hate the local news because all their “special reports” are designed to scare parents. Now, I can’t watch the local news because all those “special reports” scare me. It’s so bad, I’m sure if Bambi came on, I’d run from the room screaming and crying.

Last night, during the debate, was no different. Joe Biden got me when he started talking about losing his wife and daughter in a car accident. My eyes genuinely started steaming. Then, when he said that “Don’t tell me I don’t know what it’s like to raise a family because I’m not a woman” and he had to stop because he was about to cry, I damn near lost it myself.

My wife and I often talk about gender (gender analysis is part of her job). Right after that moment, she was champing at the bit, wanting to discuss it. “How interesting,” she said. “That’s something Palin couldn’t do.”

Intellectually, I was ready to respond. After all, this past year has been choked with race and gender politics, hasn’t it? If I’d been capable, I would’ve said, “Well, Hillary choked up in New Hampshire, and that worked for her. But Ferraro, Thatcher, a Golda Meir or Indira Ghandi, I think they would’ve been crucified as soft or mentally unstable.” Then I probably would’ve gone on: “This evolution of men and crying is interesting, though. I mean, Edwin Muskie’s political ambitions were dashed when he choked up. Bill Clinton had that biting-the-lower-lip-“I-feel-your-pain” schtick. But this…”

But that Biden moment had me. I don’t tknow if it was manufactured or not, but the Senator, at that moment, seemed so real. So vulnerable. And I (the punk I no doubtedly am) was just caught up in the speculative horror of losing my wife and daughter. And he had two injured sons he had to care for at the same time. Damn. I couldn’t imagine it. Yet, I was trapped doing just that—all misty-eyed, and shit. Annoyed, I didn’t know whether to go to a bar, down a couple of shots, and slug the next guy I saw or just grab my daughter and let her fall asleep on my chest. Damned estrogen. Of course, I chose the latter.

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