North South East West

The subject of manhood has been tackled by many more brilliant people than myself from many different sociological, psychological, and biological perspectives so when I write about it I really only bring my very personal perspective to it. It never really struck me until recently that so many of the things that define manhood for me aren’t really relevant to the idea of manhood for many other men I know.

I must say first however that I do not generally speaking conform to or endorse traditional ideas about gender. When I write about what I think it means to be a man is really speaking about the best way to be a human being inside of the biological traits passed down to me. I don’t want for any of my activist type friends to read this and for me to be pegged as even more of a narrow-minded male chauvinist than I already am.

I am like so many men of my generation in that I look directly to my father for ideas about how to be a man, but I feel like my father’s brand of manhood isn’t relevant anymore. For many years after my father’s death I based so many of my decisions about what I thought my dad would do. Over time I realized this just wasn’t pertinent to my life. I was trying so hard to be my dad that I’m surprised that I didn’t start smoking a pack a day and start wearing work boots.

Boys look to their fathers for what it means to be a man, and so manhood is often defined by ways that boys perceived that their fathers are different from other men. So for me as I grew I began to realize that my father’s most distinguishing characteristics were that he always made people feel comfortable, he was a bit of a sleazebag in an amicable way, he didn’t look for conflict but never backed down when it came, he tried to better himself intellectually, and he always knew how to get places. His sense of direction was impeccable. My father had worked as a cab driver earlier in life so he always knew exactly how to get places. I didn’t get my driver’s license until after my father’s death but after five years of driving it still strikes me how effortlessly he navigated places.

When I recall memories of my father, so many of them involve him pointing and naming streets and cardinal directions.

National Public Radio ran another watered-down story about environmental issues the other day and the correspondent put forth the idea that there was a serious problem with trying to reduce vehicle emissions because of the emotional attachment that people have to their cars. The idea at first seemed idiotic to me, another sign of our superfluous sentimentality and attachment to tradition and convenience that always holds up progress. But the more I thought about it the more I thought that my dad’s sense of direction and affinity to his truck are two of my strongest recollections of him.

I have never owned a car and I never plan to but even I am vulnerable to having my heart strings plucked a little bit by the thought of a beat up old chevy. My dad’s relationship to his truck was such a powerful part of his persona and nearly all my memories of him come back to his sense of direction, his unloading of his tools every night from his truck and putting them in the shed, or him on his back in the street underneath the truck working on some part or another.

I felt the most kinship with my dad when I had a job delivering paint for Benjamin Moore. I got to drive a truck, work manual labor, hang around on job sites, and driving around all day everyday gave me the best sense of direction I’ve ever had. It’s no coincidence that it was my favorite job I’ve ever had. It’s another part of my life that a lengthy legal battle took from me.I worry on a daily basis that I don’t know what kind of man I’ll be. I’m six years into adulthood but I don’t feel any more like a man than I did at 16. I know I’m not going to be my father and that makes me feel like I can’t be a man ’cause really my father is the only idea of manhood that I have. I can drive a stick shift, I can navigate fairly well around my own city but I just don’t feel like a man really.

I try to stray away from ineffable, unquantifiable ideas about manhood like “strength,” “honor,” or “heroism” ’cause really what do those things mean? But the problem I guess is that when I take away all the things that I can’t explain, and when I strip away the fairy tales, and I abandon the irrational and the sentimental, the only things I have left to define my manhood are a road map, four cardinal directions, and a beat up old truck.

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