Monday, April 03, 2006

Men's (Mental) Health

Over the weekend, I received an email from an old college chum who’s now doing part-time editing for a men’s magazine. She noted how truly awful, insipid and beyond repair the writing was, mainly in terms of subject matter – men’s magazines are like women’s magazines in terms of attempting to get their male readership to feel as bad and weird as possible about their minds and bodies, to keep them coming back to slowly unravel the mysteries of life one obtains from having six-pack abs. Or just reading about them.

I told her the truth about men’s magazines – that any straight guy reading them is in bad need of an attitude adjustment, and any gay guy doing the same at least has good spank material for the bathroom. I recently had the displeasure of having to go through dozens of women’s and gossip magazines on a work assignment, and reading them was pure torture. Invariably, there’d be a picture of a skeletal Nicole Richie on one page, making fun of her, and on the next would be a picture of a model in a fashion spread who made Nicole look like a circus fat lady. Followed by an article about the wonders of chocolate. And then an advice column on how to handle a penis (as if it were a flute of fine champagne … be careful when popping the cork). And all around this, bit and pieces insinuating that if you weren’t spending a fortune on meaningless style accessories, from jewelry to homes, then you weren’t living right.

It made me want to cut my wrists, and I’m a man; women must go totally apeshit after reading this depressing junk. Then again, plenty of readers must be lapping up this soul-destroying nonsense, because these magazines are a raging success. But the men’s magazines simply underline an ongoing, strange war in our society to make men as feminine as possible. I don’t quite know who’s waging it or for what reason. I’d gather it’s simply women who want to control men, and men who recognize some financial gain from this occurring.

All I know is they aint getting me! I’ll have friends joke with me about this, but I’m hardly a macho man – “regular guy” would be more my territory. I don’t beat people up (as much as I’d like to on occasion). When I go to a bar, I don’t launch tirades against whatever racial/ethnic group must surely be the root of all our problems. I treat women like human beings. If you meet me, you’re not going to get the vibe that I’m trying to get over on you in any sense – because I’m not. In terms of male bonding, I’m leery of any guy who lays that stuff on too thick.

By the same token, I’m a guy’s guy. If you hug me, you better be picking my pocket; either way, we’re going to have some immediate issues. I like sports – Penn State football is the only one I live-and-die for, but I have no problem spending a few hours watching football or baseball. I’m not worried about my body. I work out just as much for my mental health, which I recognize as being tied into my physical health. I like hanging out with other guys who recognize that being a guy has its merits, and it’s cool to relax and cut loose in that atmosphere. Don’t care if they’re gap-toothed rednecks or prissy metrosexuals – if they understand that guys having a few beers and getting shit off our chests is healthy, then we’re good to go. We don’t need Iron John drum circles and shrinks to figure this shit out.

Then again, some guys obviously do. And I think that’s because they’ve grown so distant from any vestige of manhood that they simply don’t know how to act, or don’t understand that being a guy is acceptable. Like I said earlier, not quite sure how this happened. I blame a lot of it on political correctness in the 80s (and still going strong today), which served a necessary purpose at the time, but quickly became more fascistic and smothering than whatever societal issues it was hoping to influence.

Having worked with investment bankers and such, in financial environments where the presence of women is rare, I can say there’s one strange quality I noticed about many of these guys. And it was that they seemed to be a lot more open-minded and freewheeling than anyone gives them credit for. I could do without the rank greed. But their general attitude seemed to be: “I don’t care who you are, how you do this or what you believe in – if you can help us make money, we'll get along fine.”

Whereas I’ve worked in many places that weren’t male-dominated, and it was nonstop head games, preachy rules and constant bickering all day long. I’ll never forget doing work for a university and having a sit-down meeting with the Dean because I wrote “Merry Christmas” in an email to someone who was a Christian, three days before Christmas. She turned me in … to the fucking Dean. Who proceeded to lecture me about the importance of cultural respect, which still makes no sense to me as I was more than willing to wish a Moslem “Happy Ramadan” or a Jew “Happy Chanukah.” (Their policy was geared more towards quashing reference to any religion, instead of allowing references to all religions – which would seem a better policy to me in terms of encouraging diversity and freedom of speech?) It wasn’t so much the Dean, who was just doing his duty however misguided it was, as the woman who viewed a simple, heart-felt greeting as a moral affront – what did she gain from all this? (P.S. I had a turd wrapped in a blue bow ready for her if I had gotten her in the Office Santa … oh, wait, can’t have Office Santa in this environment, lest we offend those who don’t believe in Santa, i.e., that awful white male authority figure.)

Situations like that have risen occasionally over the years in places I’ve worked. The only places where I’ve never encountered this creepiness? Any sort of high-powered financial institution. These places are hardly a picnic, but it seems like the confrontations there are more direct. And that’s simply because it’s mostly guys, with very large egos, and they’re going to lock horns like rams instead of making an end run via archaic policies and loopholes. Plenty of women “get” this, too, in corporate America – and I like working with them, probably better than I do with guys. But plenty of women, and now men, see some greater merit in manipulating whatever mini-institution they’re part of to take out their hostilities on each other.

Thanks, but no thanks. You have a confrontation with me, you won’t have to flail your arms, trying in vain to reach the knife firmly implanted in your back. I’ll take it straight to you, and there will be no gray areas. Because this is what guys do!

Another thing I’ve noticed recently, thanks to the success of Brokeback Mountain, is the discourse on men and their emotions – namely the “problem” Heath Ledger’s character had with expressing them. I recall Andrew Sullivan commenting on this, to the effect of how “tragic” it was that Heath’s character was like this.

Tragic? God bless that gay, stoic shepherd! That’s a true guy, and I tip my cap to him. It’s perfectly all right for guys to be this way. Don’t like it? Then find guys who are “in touch” with their emotions, whatever that means, although I’ll take it for shorthand as “guys who cry.”

I don’t cry. Or more accurately, I cry on the installment plan. Every now and then, I’ll come across a hard emotion, like my father’s recent passing, and I’ll get choked up. My eyes get watery, but tears don’t fall. A really hard attack, I’ll have to wipe my eyes. But generally, a few minutes later, it’s gone. This often happens on the subway, when I’m listening to music on my MP3 player, and some song will strike a chord like that. I’ve been like this for years. Last time I can remember crying was when I was 12, and my dog Butch:

Died, coughing to death on the kitchen rug early one morning as Mom and Dad tried to save him. (It was his time – he was very old and had been in bad health for a few months.) I recall running up to Mom, grabbing on to her arm and just weeping uncontrollably. Didn’t feel any better afterwards. There was no sense of release. Butch was the best dog I ever had. Mom found him, abandoned, beaten and left to die in a cardboard box in a supermarket parking lot, one winter night in 1971. We took him in, and he was simply the most gentle, even-mannered being I’ve known.

And since then, it’s been hundreds of those choked-up moments. I feel fine. And I get plenty of emotional releases all the time – through moments like that, through boxing, through music, through writing. These things come out, one way or another. And I have nothing against guys who cry – if that’s how they’re wired, so be it. But this asinine idea that men who take more control over the emotions need to change to fit in to some nonexistent, more palatable portrait of how “real” men now are is just so misguided. Even more misguided than whatever John Wayne-inspired notion that men who cry are a bunch of pussies.

The last time I talked to Dad, I had no idea it was the last time – two days before he died in his hospital bed. Looking back, I should have known by the verbal hints he was dropping, all of which had an air of finality about them. He looked awful – he had dropped at least 100 lbs. from his regular weight, was wearing an oxygen mask and was so weak he couldn't get out of bed. I immediately recognized he was on the ropes, but also had a mind that maybe he could beat this bout of pneumonia and hang in there.

(He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the late summer and had contracted pneumonia from his radiation treatments in late October. Thanksgiving, he was living at home and a bit weak, but we had to take him to the hospital that afternoon after a severe coughing spell. That’s probably where his death spiral began, although he wasn’t fully admitted again until mid-December.)

If you haven’t gone through seeing one of your parents, especially your father, that physically wasted, it’s a fucking terrible experience. But given that, we had a normal conversation: Penn State football, the weather, stuff around the house. Nothing earth-shattering. I was there about an hour. At the end, I said, “Well, Dad, I’m home for the week (this was December 21st), you want me to come by tomorrow?” He said, no, you don’t have to, come by the day after if you want, that would be fine. As I got up to leave, he reached up and grabbed my hand, shook it.

And that should have been my sign that he was saying goodbye, because he never did that. I don’t think I’d ever shaken his hand before that. Riding down in the elevator, I thought it was odd. It was an emotional moment, too, although I guess in its own quiet way, so overwhelming that I didn’t want to admit that Dad had just said goodbye to me. Sure enough, he was gone two days later, and I’m certain he had reached a point in his mind where he knew he wasn’t coming back, and he willed himself to leave. (The nurse on duty that morning later told us he had gotten up the morning of the 23rd, told her he was going to die later that day. She asked if he wanted her to contact us. He said no, they’ve been through enough, so have I, just give me an extra dose of morphine and let me go back to sleep.)

Back when he was healthy, basically the first 77-1/2 years of his 78-year life, he had gotten in the habit of taking me to and from the bus station when I came back to visit every six weeks or so. This was good, because all we’d do is bullshit about whatever was going on back home, which we really hadn’t done much of when I was growing up. Those last five years or so, we grew a good bit closer based on these car rides alone. And the same thing would happen every time I’d leave. He’d watch me get on the bus, take my seat, and I’d make sure to sit where he could see me, and as the bus would pull out, we’d look at each other and wave. No tears or grand farewells – just a simple wave.

And I guess that’s how I felt leaving him in the hospital room, feeling in some sense that our situations were reversed, save he was taking a ride that wouldn’t bring him back, and one day, I’d take the same ride. Weepy goodbyes? Men getting in touch with their emotions? Sorry. For either of us to indulge in that would have been so far out of character, so strange, that both of us would have thought, “What the fuck, I wish he’d get a hold of himself. This is embarrassing.”

The best way to note the after effect of a parent’s death would be to watch a green field on a windy, partly sunny day in March. Notice how the cloud shadows sweep over the field. Picture those shadows as memories, and feel them sweep over you. Sunny one minute, cloudy the next, but neither for too long. They come and go. Am I in touch with my emotions, regardless of whether I cry or not? It’s such a stupid question that I don’t even have to ask it, much less answer it.

But doesn’t it seem like a good topic for a men’s magazine article?

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