Lately I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a man. I mean, I've got a penis, so biologically I'm a man, but what does it mean to be a man? My dad says a man knows he's a man by how he feels within himself. I don't feel particularly manly. I feel much more in tune with my feminine side than with my masculine side.
I grew up in a small Southern town somewhere near the intersection of a stop sign and a caution light. It's a place that I jokingly refer to as "Podunk" or "Population 600." It's a beautiful place: country roads lined by fields of corn or soy beans, and homes with big front yards. The churches are many, and the restaurants few. My male role models in this Shangri-la-of-the-Country were churchgoing, outdoorsy types whom I had nothing in common with. They were hunters and fishermen, blue-collar workmen. In my family, the men mark the seasons not by longer days or the changing foliage colors but by what animal it's legal to hunt. They almost all enjoy the solitary peace of casting a line into the water and waiting for a fish to bite. Most of them can fix a carburetor, and many even do their own home repairs. These are the ideals of what it meant to be a man as I saw it growing up in my small town, under the tutelage of a dad who enjoys and can do all of the above.
There are some boys who you can already tell are all-boy when they're as young as 7 or 8. I was not one of them. There was nothing masculine about me. I did not enjoy hunting of any kind. I didn't like shooting a gun. I couldn't shoot the arrow straight from the bow. As for fishing, with the endless hours of sitting in a boat on the glassy waters of some lake, hoping and waiting for a fish to take the bait? Well, let's just say that that bored me to tears. Of course, none of that stopped my dad from taking me on a few of his hunting/fishing excursions. He wanted to teach me. He wanted me to enjoy what he enjoyed. I hated it. We found no common ground. I can't begin to imagine his frustration when he began to realize that he might be raising a gay son.
Moving on to sports... well, that was a no-go too. I didn't like playing sports, and I didn't like watching sports. I played basketball in junior high (because my dad wanted me to), which translated to me warming the bench and keeping my uniform neat and clean. I watched as my older cousins ran up and down the basketball court, scoring points. I watched as everyone cheered for them and patted their backs. I was not one of them. Full confession: I would have been happier being a cheerleader, cheering their victory, than sitting on the bench and hoping that I wouldn't have to be put into the game.
I was the boy who would much rather be inside the air-conditioned house in the summer. Given the choice between playing outside or watching television, I would always choose the latter, especially if it meant watching Santa Barbara or Another World. I didn't want to mess up my hair or my clothes. I didn't want to get my hands dirty. Even when it came to mowing the lawn (my job as the son in the family), I wore clothes that were too nice for the task.
My dad is a good man. He's strong. He's a provider. He's a fixer of broken things, a disciplinarian, a caretaker. I respect him, and I am thankful for him, but I have always felt like I would never be the man he is.
Note to self: Change your way of thinking.
I may not like to do the things that my dad does or be able to repair the things that he can repair, but that doesn't make me any less of a man. I realized during this quest for understanding that I've been trying to define what being a man is, but being a man is open to interpretation. It takes all kinds of us. I've spent most of my adult life feeling as if I've failed at being a man, but that's simply untrue. This badge of (self-proclaimed) failure is something that I gave myself.
One of my best friends gave me his thoughts on what it means to be a man. He said, "I think being a man means having the strength to take care of yourself, the generosity to take care of others, the wisdom to ask for help when you need it, and the humility to accept help when it is offered."
His words resonated with me. They have nothing to do with the images I've carried in my head since boyhood. They're more about integrity, courage, and responsibility.
I will never be a butch man. I am much more feminine than that, but I am a man. I'm a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend. I am a collector of art, a theatergoer, a lover of pop music, a drinker of red wine. I still don't like to get my hands too dirty, I prefer to call a repairman, and I still love Santa Barbara (gone now to soap-opera heaven). I take my responsibilities seriously and like seeing the tasks associated with those responsibilities accomplished. I love my family and my friends. I can be trusted and counted on. I strive to live a good life and to have the courage to change things that aren't working, even though change is difficult. I admit that my pride often gets in the way when it comes to asking for help, but ultimately I've realized that it is a stronger man who will ask for help, and a weaker who thinks he doesn't need it.
So what did I learn from writing this piece? Hobbies and abilities don't make the man. It is our actions. I'm not the same as my dad, and that's OK. I'm me. I'm my own kind of man, one who's smart enough to realize where he learned to have integrity. Maybe it is as simple as what Dad said: It's all about how I feel within.