Many people blindly follow the beliefs of their parents without ever truly thinking for themselves. The full expression of such passivity occurs when someone succumbs to the pressure of those around him, biting his tongue and yielding to someone else’s vision for his life. There are those who equate avoiding responsibility with personal freedom, when, in truth, it leaves us in a state of dependence. The emotional toll this takes is enormous. It stands to reason that if we think like a child and act like a child we will also feel like a child.
As a man, as the father of a boy beginning the transition into manhood, and as someone who works with many troubled young men, I felt encouraged to learn the powers that be at Gillette saw fit to publicly evaluate their tagline and ask “is this the best a man can get?” A major corporation known primarily for men’s products, acknowledged the dilemma with manhood in our society and challenged men to be better.
When the ad that many are calling anti-male first aired, I wasn’t tuned in to the NFL telecast. For a week, I waited to watch it. I read op-ed pieces, condemning it as idiotic. I heard criticism from a number of talking heads. I saw social media posts from men vowing to boycott Gillette. This promotion has generated some applause. But, the percussion of the panic-stricken, “what’s the world coming to” aspersions has been much louder.
It’s ridiculous that it’s this controversial for a company to challenge men to be better - to not be assholes. Why should anyone take issue with that? It’s obvious that something has to be done about the way men behave in our society.
The #metoo movement is a beginning. It’s the undressing of a proverbial wound, festering from its lack of oxygen. The condemnation of affluent men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, for their criminally abusive behavior with women, amounts to a quick rinse with peroxide. There’s a lot of healing yet to take place. Women are disrespected and devalued in ways that seem subtle compared to these examples under the spotlight of popular culture. You don’t have to be physically abusive to be an asshole.
Being a divorced, heterosexual man, I have repeatedly met single women who expect men to treat them poorly. It’s not uncommon, on a first date, for a woman to tell me she is not yet ready be sexual, then seem shocked to learn it doesn’t anger me. What does anger me is the idea that men have conditioned her this way. And then, there are the single moms. It has been heartbreaking to meet so many women who are not only single mothers. They are doing all of it on their own. The fathers aren’t negligent. They’re completely absent.
So, yes, there is obviously a multifaceted problem. Yet, seeing all the negative publicity from this ad, I still expected to be slightly offended by it. Not a far reach, considering the backlash. But, then I watched. As it began, I wondered what part of it I would find insulting. When it ended, I asked myself how any reasonable person could be insulted.
The unspoken message from the spot is identical to the one my parents drilled into my head as a boy. “Stand up for what is right.” Bullying people isn’t right. Treating women (anyone) disrespectfully isn’t right. Succumbing to the fear of being judged for standing up for what is right, is not right. There is nothing masculine about looking the other way. Only an asshole would do that.
This month, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an article whose headline reads “APA issues first ever guidelines for practice with men and boys.” Since its release in the APA’s magazine, Monitor on Psychology, this piece has also spawned a torrent of criticism, characterizing it as an attack on traditional masculinity and an outright attempt to erase gender differences in our culture. It was no such thing.
This professional organization, representing psychologists in the United States, composed a set of 10 new practicing guidelines, based on 40 years of research. Then a gaggle of talking heads, who apparently didn’t bother to read the guidelines themselves, went completely nuts. In an effort to condemn the argument for a better understanding of masculinity, the critical pundits with their dramatic and intolerant responses, instead demonstrated the need for it. Why should posing questions about manhood bother so many people so much?
Neither the Gillette commercial, nor the new APA guidelines are attacks on masculinity. They’re attacks on assholes. They’re attacks on masculine stereotypes. They’re attacks on the toxic shame associated with masculinity - the shame we get mostly from other men. No one is telling us not of watch sports. Gillette is telling us not to watch people mistreat others without stepping in and taking action. No one is telling us we should feel terrible for being men, as critics suggest. The APA is telling us that, whatever we’re feeling, we need to talk about it. They’re not telling us how to feel. They’re telling us that, because we keep pretending not to feel, we’re much more likely to commit acts of violence. We’re much more likely to stick needles in our arms. We’re much more likely to blow our brains out.
The problem is not masculinity. And, it’s not necessarily even our beliefs about masculinity. It’s the messages we get about masculinity - the ones we struggle to articulate. We tell men to be something that no one can clearly define. Then, we judge them harshly when we imagine them failing to meet this ambiguous standard. We shame them. We tell them they need to man up. We label them as failures to launch. This is what’s harmful, not masculinity. So, it stands to reason that a some of us turn out to be assholes.
We have no clear idea of what it means to be a man and we are posing the wrong questions. What we should be asking is “what does it mean for me to be a man.” Traditional masculinity, if it fails to honor our differences, is toxic masculinity.
We are terrible at teaching men how to be men. We’re not all the same. It’s harmful to look at men through a lens of stereotypical masculinity and to judge them against it. Yet, the chorus of critics of the Gillette ad and the new APA guidelines would have you believe it’s harmful for us to divert from that stereotype. We all have to summon the courage to identify and evaluate our own beliefs and define ourselves as men, because we can, by all means, be better.
There is nothing masculine about pretending the status quo is good enough. Better men are more masculine. Until we recognize that, they will call us toxic. And, until we do, how are we not?
Despite the hysteria in response to all of this, it’s not a conspiracy to turn men into women with penises. It’s not really a masculinity problem. It’s an asshole problem. If you’re part of the problem, you’re not an asshole because you’re a man. You’re an asshole because you’re not.
None us wants to believe that our parents or siblings have been less than nurturing, nor do they want to believe it themselves. They likely have no intention of projecting their doubt, cynicism, or other internal conflicts onto us. Nonetheless, just as children learn to speak by mirroring their caregivers, so our internal dialog absorbs these negative messages and repeats them back to us.
My dad would have been 92 today.
At the dawn of the Great Depression, he was a toddler. By the time he was my son’s age, his father was long gone and he was pushing a broom at a gas station at night to help his mother feed their family. He went on to provide for eight kids of his own. When he passed, in 2005, he and my mom had been married for 55 years.
I often think about how much he would have loved the people closest to me and how happy he would be to spend time with them. As I think about them, this morning, I realize that I see him in all of them.
They are people with enormous hearts. They’re guided by a clear sense of right and wrong. They are playful and light-hearted. They love to kid around, but deep down they are sincere and trustworthy. They have conviction. They are authentic - when they walk into a room it becomes a different place. And, they love me. They regard me differently than others do.
The customary thing to say is that I miss him. But, the truth is that he’s here.
Today, I’ll celebrate him through the people in my life who carry his spirit. I’ll let them know they’re important to me. And maybe, at some point, I’ll scratch my chin with a potato chip, just like he would when he was in his recliner, watching M.A.S.H, or Big Jake.
Happy Birthday, Pop. I love you.
Love cannot grow in confinement. Nothing good blossoms in the dark. In order for someone to love us completely, we must allow them the space and the light to see us objectively. We mustn’t judge them for asking the questions that are inherent to their vantage point.
Over the past several months, I’ve spent time evaluating my relationship with sadness. Because I know it’s impossible to truly know joy without knowing the opposing force that gives it its meaning, the time had come for me to open the box from which the sorrows I tucked away have always spilled.
It had become painfully obvious that, because I hadn’t truly mourned my losses or properly grieved, the lingering sorrow was seeping out and contaminating my life. It silenced my laughter and paralyzed the part of me that just wants to dance.
By giving myself permission to be sad and ceasing to avoid the grief and sorrow, I’ve learned that it’s not the sadness that’s painful. It’s my resistance to it. And, because I stepped onto this path, I’ve begun to experience happiness and love in a way that was never before possible for me.
I keep this object, the Weeping Buddha, close by to remind me of the decision I made. I’m done swallowing tears.
A couple years ago, my son gave me a cookbook. We’d been out shopping and had seen it a couple times. He knew I wanted it. It was one of those times when you buy the gift so they can give it to you. In truth, you’re doing something for them.
Hardbound and illustrated by Ralph Steadman, longtime collaborator of Hunter Thompson, it was a really cool book to have around. And, it used to evoke joyful memories for me, until a couple days ago.
“Appetites” was written by Anthony Bourdain. Now, it just reminds me of suicide. More precisely, it reminds me of the deep and profound sadness that selfishness can engender.Read More
Sometimes, what people need most from us is to be with them in their pain. In these moments, often the most validating statement we can make to the suffering person is “I have no idea what it is like to feel the way you do right now.”Read More
We are hard-pressed to find a situation where we can’t help somehow. Even if all we can do is offer someone a smile or look upon them with a gaze of compassion and understanding, we’re helping.Read More
I began playing baseball in the tiny back yard of the home where I grew up. It was a small, bumpy patch of grass surrounded by four-foot hedges. I played with my older sister and neighborhood kids, including some my mom was paid to care for, at a time when the Big Red Machine was alive and well. Pete Rose was my hero. Charlie Hustle.
I've loved the game deeply for as long as I can remeber, Now, I'm beginning to understand why.
There are many aspects of baseball itself, that I love. I love the pace - easy and gentle. I love the choreography - fleeting and graceful. I love the sounds - the crack of the bat on the ball and the pop of the ball in the glove; the low rumble of the crowd that erupts into roars. I love the intensity, the urgency, the uncomfortability of the ball in play. I love the emotional engagement between the hitter and the pitcher; that moment when the pitcher is comtemplating speed and location and spin and the batter is trying to guess what will come next. I love the fraction of a second he has to respond. I love the way it feels to get all of the ball and to get lost in that moment, attempting to to run in a complete circle, to come home.
Those are some of the reasons I always knew I loved it. But, now I know there is something much deeper and more significant.
I was born to parents of seven other children, six years after my youngest sibling. There was never a hint of an overt message that I was a mistake, or even the least bit unwanted. But, in a home like that, how could a parent possibly have much time for yet another kid? I felt that. A lot of the attention I received as a child was from my other siblings, who also just wanted to be kids.
Then, we were Catholic. But, we weren't just any Catholics. My parents made a home in our neighborhood so my mom could walk one short block to St. Patrick's to attend mass, early every morning, before we awoke. My dad was a Fourth-Degree Knight of Columbus and had the ring and the sword to prove it. All of the kids in my family attended parochial school at one time or another, except for me.
When I was three or four, my parents stopped going to church, and so did we, who were still under their care. My older siblings were married with kids by that time and they still attended mass every wekend. In our family, the topic was essentially off limits. My parents had their reasons and they said it was nobody's business.
So, every Saturday evening and Sunday morning, from our front window I would watch my friends, my neighbors, my community, my cousins, and some of my siblings walk by our house on the way to mass. I was a Catholic who wasn't a Catholic. And, like every kid, I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to feel like I belonged.
Then, at eight years old, I began playing organized baseball. I was this tiny little kid with red hair and freckles all over his face. Tanner Boyle, of the Bad News Bears, comes to mind, too little for anything to fit him well. Everything was too big. I probably looked like I couldn't throw to the backstop from the batter's box.
But, when those coaches watched me throw the ball, they couldn't believe their eyes. I had one hell of an arm and I loved to use it. I not only threw far, I threw precisely. Although I could never relax enough on the pitcher's mound, I could throw runners out at any base from anywhere. And, they knew it.
Coaches shouted in amazement and disbelief when I threw runners out at third from deep right field, on the fly. Many times it came in the sound of a high-pitched, whistling "wheeeeew!"
I loved it. It felt great. And, I was a kid who needed somewhere to feel great.
After one practice, midway through my second and final season playing with a pitching machine, my coach saw an oppoprtunity. He wanted to show me off to someone before I tried out for the next level. There was another coach leaving the diamond next to ours and he flagged him down.
"Tommy, go out to center field." I wasn't sure what was going on yet. "Deeper . . . Deep! . . . Now Ed, just stand at third base." My coach threw him a ball and a glove and told him to play catch with me. That was the day Ed Hayes first called me Rocket Arm. I played for him, the best coach, of the best team, for three of the best years of my life.
We practiced harder, longer, and more often than anyone else, because we were the Astros. After a season of platooning in the outfield; growing and improving, I earned a place in the infield. I became the shortstop for the team and the coach who everyone despised for one reason. We always won. It was where I belonged. I was part of something great, that was bigger than me. And, I felt proud.
I played well into high school, but always for coaches who were nowhere near as good as Ed. At 12, everyone's favorite teacher told me, in front of the entire math class, that my dream of playing Major League Baseball was impossible, even though he had never watched me play. It is still hard not to resent him for telling me that, because I trusted him. So, I believed him. That and playing for mediocre teams took the wind out of my sails.
My one true regret in life is that I didn't play baseball for as long as I possibly could. I think about the few games when, if ahead in the late innings, I would ask to be taken out of the game because my arm was sore. If I could go back I wouldn't miss a pitch. I wouldn't have stopped playing until someone made me. Back then, I didn't realize that, had I followed that path, I may not have ever played for money. But, I might have become a coach, or even a groundskeeper. And, I would have belonged there.
When I lost that part of my identity, bad things began to happen. Again, I had no place to belong - not good for a kid in high school. Eventually, it got dangerous. But, I survived that.
Now, I know I belong. For the most part, I know where I belong and where I don't. And, more and more, I feel like I belong. I belong helping other people find where they belong. I belong helping them feel like they belong.
Two of my three oldest sisters were divorced before I started kindergarten. The oldest ended the marriage to her middle school sweetheart just after I graduated from high school. Seven of us have experienced the dissolution of at least one marriage. I promised myself it would not happen to me. I knew I wanted to be a husband and a father and I planned to never put a child through that. Yet, I am not the one exception. It happened.Read More
I always wanted to feel closer to my dad. He was always there. Our needs for clothing, food, and shelter were always met. But, there seemed to be an impenetrable barrier between the two of us. We just didn't feel close enough.Read More