COVER/ESSAY

A Man's Life

IAN BROWN January 31 1994
COVER/ESSAY

A Man's Life

IAN BROWN January 31 1994

A Man's Life

COVER/ESSAY

IAN BROWN

Let me give you some idea of the full-figured range of selfdefinitions an ordinary man can encounter on a daily basis at this late stage in the 20th century by telling you about the other day—just a few blissful Los Angeles days before the earth moved.

I spent the morning trying not to watch Lorena Bobbitt testify on television. All the talk of extremities (and sexual extremism) made me queasy. In fact, it was the Bobbitts who convinced me once and for all that Western society’s definition of manhood has changed.

Historically, in all but a tiny handful of cultures, a man became a man when he undertook acts of individual sacrifice for the common good of his tribe. Men risked their lives by leaving home and defending their nations. They risked their health by leaving home to hunt for food. They ruined their friendships with other men by fighting for women in order to propagate. This made them men in the eyes of others.

These quaint customs began to fade after the Second World War. Nowadays, smart bombs defend us; food is always available at the unthreatening Price Club; women earn their own money; reproduction can be handled by turkey baster. Then there is John Bobbitt. What positive social purpose do men serve today?

Such a discouraging conclusion! I was about to succumb, faintly depressed, to the unequivocal simplicity and dirtiness of the Bobbitt trial when my friend Larry called and invited me over to his house. Larry’s an attorney, and he was all twitched up about a new client who wanted to divorce the fourth-richest man in the world, worth $42 billion. “If we can settle for even one one-thousandth of his estate,”

Larry said, “that’s $42 million. I could make five million bucks.” Larry has always believed his social purpose as a man is to get massively rich as fast as possible. Then, he can golf all the time.

In my truck on the way over to Larry’s, divorce seemed very ordinary, demystified in large part by feminism.

An undeniably worthy cause, feminism had nonetheless delivered a further

swift kick to men’s shrivelled sense of purpose. Today’s Mr. Popularity is Nurturing Guy, a fellow who doesn’t goof off in pursuit of enemies and food, but stays home to look after the kids 50 per cent of the time, pal. Then, Robert Bly and the men’s movement—a sure sign of a generation of postwar men having their midlife crises at the same time— confused things even more by claiming no, no, the real measure of a

‘Fm a whitemiddle-

class man, supposedly the all-powerful enemy of the entire world,’ a man once told me. ‘So why do I feel so lousy?’

man is neither his courage nor his nurturing side. The real measure of a man is how much he can grieve, preferably while drumming and dancing naked around a fire with a bunch of other paunchy dweebs.

The problem is that the men’s movement isn’t a movement: it’s a business. “Men’s group facilitators” advertise thousands of workshops every month in San Francisco alone—among them Tantric masturbation workshops, alchemical hypnotherapy fests and weekend-long interpretive sessions for “the dreams of pregnant men.” The shelf of Men’s Books at my bookstore is twice as long as it was last year. You can be a feminist man or anti-feminist; a New Age man or a sexual ecstatic; a gay, a straight or a “degendered” fellow;

Action Man or Mytho-Poet. Some men think men are about to take a huge evolutionary step forward and become neither men nor women, while others, such as one Watts Wacker, a futurist who works with Yankelovich Partners, Inc., in Manhattan, figures guys “ma; become pets.”

This may already be true. The first thing I heard when I walked through Larry’s front door was Henry, one of Larry’s flat mates, trying to decide whether he should let a well-known TV actress buy him a converted van to park at the bottom of her new estate so Henry could have a place of his own when he stayed over. According to Henry, he and the well-known actress are deeply in love. “I’m so in love, man,” Henry said. “It’s scary. She had a dream the other night that she was making love to me. She said she had a penis in the dream.”

“You should buy her one of those strapons,” Larry said. He was ferreting through the TV Guide, mapping out an evening’s worth of basketball.

“She’s got one,” Henry said. “She just hasn’t pulled it out yet. We’re not intimate enough. But we’ve talked about using it.”

Larry and Henry aren’t fringe characters: Larry’s a lawyer, as I mentioned, and Henry sings in a bar band. They’re completely average men with completely average tastes. They do, however, have three couches and no chairs in their living-room. I sat down on the empty one.

g What no man disputes is this: most men feel much less powerful I than women seem to think they are. “I’m a white middle-class man, S supposedly the all-powerful envy of the entire world,” a man once I said to me. “So why do I feel so lousy?” What most gurus of masculins ity have in common, and what drives the lucrative men’s movement, z is the contention that there is an answer to that question.

1 This, I realized on Sofa No. 3 at Larry’s, was where I checked out. I suspect the identity crises men face today are the same problems men have always faced—existential dilemmas inherent in what may be the meaninglessness of existence, particularly if you are not the gender that can (among other talents) grow a child inside its belly. It’s hard to live an emotionally authentic life as a man, and just as hard to live an inauthentic one. The cost of either is severe, to the status quo or to one’s peace of mind. No amount of alchemical hypnotherapy will change that.

But to say as much—to describe men as they actually are, with all their human complications, instead of opining about how they ought

to behave—is asking for it. If the radical feminists don’t bum you down, redneck men such as Howard Stem and Rush Limbaugh will. Garrison Keillor has been stretched on the rack of political incorrectness for alleged misogyny in his recent and hilarious book of satires, The Book of Guys; novelist Nicholson Baker {The Mezzanine, Room, Temperature, Vox) is in such trouble over his forthcoming book, The Fermata, whose hero stops time and uses the frozen interludes to indulge his sexual fantasies with women, that Baker recently took to the pages of Esquire to defend himself—before the book is even released. And those are novels. Imagine what happens when you talk about real men and their quemlous ways.

In fact, don’t bother: I’ll tell you. Last fall on CBC Radio’s Morningside, I described the adventures of a fairly serious womanizer named Spence, one of the real live men in my own nonfiction book about men. Immediately, women began to call the CBC, insisting that I be muzzled. “Get him off the air,” these women said. “Guys aren’t like that any more. He’s talking about a kind of a man who has gone out of style.”

What I want to know is, where exactly do these women live? Everyone knows a Spence. I can understand why a lot of women want to believe he doesn’t exist—he uses women as pacifiers—but that is no reason to pretend he doesn’t exist, and no reason to gag me for pointing out that he still does.

Of course, if you don’t like Spence you’d have hated Rich, who was the next guy to show up at Larry’s, fresh from a weekend in Las Vegas with two pals. Rich’s friends are in fashion manufacturing and real estate, but they’d been in Vegas for the Adult Video Convention, the world’s largest gathering of pornographers, because Rich makes porn films for a living. He’s a very presentable fellow, old money Connecticut, talented tennis player, devoted to his girlfriend and to environmental causes; he just happens to make porn films as well. He resembles the aforementioned Spence, in that he does not conform to the Geneva Convention specifications of Permissible Maleness.

Rich was brimming with tales of Las Vegas. Vegas stories are a literary genre of their own, right next to Vomiting Adventures. Apparently, some young show-off had bet against Rich at the craps table, and won $5,000 every time he did. Rich was so upset he left the table to find Salley from the Valley, a pornographic film colleague, and had her bet in his place against the offending braggart. The lout was so bedazzled by Salley from the Valley, and so intent on impressing her, that he proceeded to lose $65,000 in 45 minutes.

We all had a good laugh about that. Then, we talked about Michael Jackson, the Los Angeles Raiders and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. We did not talk about the Bobbitts, which struck me as somewhat original, considering. Then, we all got up at once to leave, but not before we stepped out into the faint Los Angeles evening to admire Larry’s new car, a reconditioned tomato-red 1969 Alfa Romeo Spider. That was the last year Alfas sported the elegant “boat tail” stern, which makes it possibly the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. And the drive! The ride’s never the same; in that way, it’s what every man seeks, an unpredictable adventure, a voyage whose outcome can’t be foreseen. This is true whether the experience in question is a day at the office, a love affair, a game of craps, a ride in a car or basketball on TV. Then, I climbed into my own stolid truck and drove home to spend the rest of the evening with my wife. I was happy to be going home again, happy to be married and a father, but also happy that there are still other ways as well to be a man.

Ian Brown, a Toronto native, is the author of Man Overboard: True Adventures with North American Men.