Be a Man: The Hidden Truth of the American Male

As a nation, events are forcing us to ask some important questions about who we are, who we should be, and how to reconcile the two. As men within this nation and her culture, recent events revolving around the treatment of women and the #metoo movement should inspire the same introspection. How could this happen, and why is it a revelation to us, but not to the women we claim to cherish and respect? And when we answer that, how do we become the kind of men we can respect, and that they deserve? What should it mean to be a man? There is an answer.

Because San Francisco has a diverse native population and is also an international tourist mecca, the days since my wife and I rode in on “the 101” (in California parlance) have afforded a wide range of stories and varied looks at what it means to be a couple and a family in today’s America. What’s really struck me about this though, are the many ways of being a man here. Sitting in the prototypical San Fran hippie coffee shop (we seem to spend a lot of travel time at funky events, and in cemeteries and coffee shops) I watched with amusement as a visiting soldier father played with his toddler son. Their game involved a small toy truck and dinosaur and featured lots of pretend chases and growling and giggling. Since, I’ve enjoyed contrasting that simple scene with a muscular gay fellow’s good-natured insults over his mates’ basketball team choices, an elderly Chinese father tossing coins into a fountain with his granddaughter, and listened as a young black shop worker we interviewed for a man-in-the-street perspective in Haight-Ashbury got a little choked up as he told us he loved everyone - and actually meant it. As Toni and I have discovered exceptions to every rule in love and relationships, it got me to thinking about whether there are any consistent and unwavering rules about how to be a man. What does it mean? Looking for an answer, I had to go back a ways.

For a time as a kid I thought I knew what being a man was, as I grew up for a while around motorcycles and bikers. Before he left and eventually drank and smoked himself to death, my father went through a period where he loved dirt bikes especially, screaming up and down the nearby foothills on a bright red Hodaka Super Rat. Joe Murray, his drinking and riding buddy next door - a man often referred to by the Lakewood police and others as “Jesus in a dirty t-shirt” - preferred chopped BSA’s and Triumphs, the occasional Harley panhead making an appearance in front of his garage-turned-shop-and-drug-den. There was a fellow named Rex up the street, who seldom visited, but was held in something like reverence by the shop denizens because someone said he used to be a Hell’s Angel. Even at seven or eight I knew that was a dangerous big deal. It was the age of Bronson and Vietnam, Saturday’s started with Thunderbirds and All-Star Wrestling, finished with Gunsmoke and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., while in between we played lawn darts and army, pelting one another with BB guns and throwing dirt clod grenades, mimicking what we thought real men did. That summer, Joe Murray blew himself ass-backward over our fence while slugging Jack Daniels and throwing M-80’s into the street. He just waited a little long on the burn of that last one. The next week, he dumped his BSA on the twisty highway coming down the mountain roads from the old Central City mining town. He was a walking scab for weeks as the road rash made him look painfully like The Amazing Colossal Man after the atomic blast had peeled away his skin. Joe never became Colossal, though. Probably better for everyone.

I thought they were all tough guys, real men, and that a lot of people lived that way. Life’s like that. What we get used to becomes, by definition, normal, and what is normal must be the way life is for other people too. So, I figured all men were like that normally. A few years later though, mom decided normal needed to change, as she wearied of dad’s violent chaos and liquored-up antics. The bullet he put into Joe’s house as he drunkenly chased her across the yard was the last straw, I guess. You gotta draw the line somewhere. It took a lot of courage telling him to get lost afterward, a bravery I don’t think I’ve ever told her how much I respected. I guess I got used to Mom’s courage until it simply became normal to me too. It was a while later that I saw how she was more of a man than he’d ever be and more of a woman than he’d ever deserved.

So, after Dad left, it started to become pretty obvious that life hadn’t really been normal, after all. Turned out some of those “biker” dudes weren’t actually Charles Bronson or Peter Fonda. (Now I see they weren’t even really bikers.) Most of them were just boozy assholes with something to prove, though they didn’t know exactly what. It was about that time that I started really paying attention to other people’s normal and how their men acted. I worked out that the Apollo astronauts weren’t just storied television heroes, but might be flawed men like all the other ones I knew, they just worked a lot harder and saw things a little clearer than dad’s drinking buddies did. It was a sobering realization and I started to apply my new reality scale to everyone. My view of what being a man meant began to change, but without a new model to replace the old. Meanwhile, body bags came home from Vietnam on the news in the evening and America actually lost a war, no matter how soothing bullshit like “peace with honor” sounded coming from Walter Cronkite. Then the president resigned, even though he “wasn’t a crook.” As it turned out,  the men in charge of things were capable of sucking and conniving and licking at human souls in a way I’d never dreamed before, and I felt like I was the only one my age who gave a shit sometimes. And so, I discovered cynicism before I even knew what the word for it was.

Then something truly epic happened. My mom married a cowboy. Well, she didn’t marry him all at once. She dated him for a while first. Did you know your mom could date? That was a new one for me too, but I was willing to give it go after she brought this fella home, and for some reason I started talking to him. I showed him a model of a T-34 jet trainer, and talked to him about the disappearance of the wishbone formation from football, and asked him about trucks and stuff I figured men talked about. He looked at my mom and said, “There’s nothing dumb about this kid.” I liked that. As I moved into my teenage years though, I dissed him pretty good too, because he was a redneck and I was a longhair and that’s just the way it needed to be because everybody (meaning I) knew I was smarter than him and everyone like him. Like most things, that changed too. As I got older, the distance between us grew closer until I could finally see both of us for what we really were. Two men trying to do all any of us can - our best to make sense of it all. I wonder sometimes how my grown kids think of me knowing what they do now about me, and life, and what’s “normal.” Now that years have passed and my Dad pedestal may have cracked and chipped a little around the corners, I hope that they see me as a person, as well as their Dad, and that they love both. I hope I’ve earned it. I know that my seeing the cowboy of my youth for the man of simple integrity and humble wisdom he really is has made me love him more than I could if I had simply kept on idolizing or foolishly dismissing him. I consider myself blessed to call him Dad with a capital D. I’ve heard it said that the greatest gift a man can offer his children is to love their mother, and his doing that made him my new model for what a man should be. It was a good choice, and set me up fairly well for passing along that same gift to my kids.

And there I found my answer. As I’ve considered the different men I’ve known, and those I’ve met along the Lovin America road, I respect most those with strength, integrity, and a sense of honor and duty. But the thing that defines the best of them as men is the same thing that makes the best of us as all humans - a deep commitment to love. Love of our children, of our wives, of our country and of one another. What’s in a man’s head, his shirt sleeves, his garage, or his wallet doesn’t define a great man. It’s the dinosaur game on the floor, the opening of a door for a lady, and the patience he takes while other men learn what he already knows:

A real man loves.

Contributing Editors: Scotte and Toni Burns

"It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  As motorcycle “longriders”, Lovin America storytellers Scotte and Toni Burns live by this expression. Their delighted search for America’s thoughts about life and love follow that same road. Lovin America doesn't offer advice or the 10 Easy Steps to anything, but instead, brings out the wit and insights of love's diverse expressions, as told through American history, culture and the people they encounter along the American road. What does it mean to be in love in America today - with our mates, our lives, with our deepest passions for place and purpose? These are the tales of being love in, and in love with, America.  Riding along on this quest, readers and listeners also learn the wonders of the American highway - who makes the best chili, the worst drivers, the most profound memorials and the funniest local events? Be renewed, as Scotte and Toni constantly are, by the inspiring power of Lovin America!

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