What makes a man? I usually ask this question when sitting on a couch, watching a football game, drinking a beer. Sometimes, I can’t help think how the definition of manliness keeps evolving like the time an office manager swung by work area.
I found him to be a sharp dresser; never a hair out of place. Once, I stopped by his office and caught him polishing off the road salt from his Italian leather shoes. Living in a respectable suburb, married to a college sweetheart, I would call him a regular guy. But then he dipped into my supervisor’s cubicle. She wasn’t around. So, I asked if there was something I could do to which he replied, “No.” He was just looking for a pair of clippers to remove a hangnail, which at the moment appeared to be driving him perfectly insane.
I gave a slight nod like I understood, but I wondered why the front teeth would not work. Maybe such barbarity is now unacceptable. But what kind of men have we become where one confides in another about his nails? Are we even related to the forefathers who fought the Redcoats, built the Empire State Building and stormed the beaches of Normandy? Do you think Crazy Horse worried about his hair when he raced down on Custer? Do you think Lewis and Clark brought enough lotion to keep their skin from chaffing? Do you think General Douglas MacArthur hoped his teeth were white enough when he said to the Filipinos, “I shall return!” (Probably!) I’m not even sure I can pose these questions from the comforts of this couch. After all, I:
- Still have yet to sport a proper mustache
- Still need to do a Vision Quest
- Never hunted big game
- Never wrestled a bear
- Still need to throw my fists in a donnybrook
- Still have to stand on an empty street at High Noon with a cold pistol in my hand
- Never been bucked off a horse
- Never said, “Get along little dogie”
- Still have to work on the iron range and wade in a cold creek panning for gold
- Never won big in Vegas
- Never lost big in Vegas
- Never dated a supermodel or even one of her friends
- Worst of all, I never realized a childhood dream
I once practiced the martial art of Tae Kwon Do (Korean for “throwing out one’s back”). Most of the class was filled with women and most of the women were teenagers. And even though my skills enabled me to defeat most of my female counterparts, it still had to be one at a time.
The teenage years, isn’t that where it all starts? Isn’t that where the first steps of manhood are tested? I remember such a test at the Minnesota State Fair. It was at the midway. I caught an off-guard glance of a teenage couple in a full embrace. The reason? Probably celebratory for the teenage girl held a stuffed penguin in her left hand – a prize that the teenage boy won for some manly feat like shooting a BB gun, throwing darts or slamming a giant hammer onto a scale without hitting his toe.
Even though the moment involved two gangly teens, it was picture-perfect: the black and white penguin dangling from the girl’s left hand, her back arched, right hand around the thin nape of the boy’s neck like a WW II photograph where the first kiss maybe the last, as if the teenage boy was going to climb into a faulty bungee-cord ride and accidentally launch himself into the setting sun.
It is scientifically understood that girls develop at a quicker rate than boys. In my case this fact was amplified. The girls in my junior high class already had full figures. A few of them were working on their second marriage. Around them I always felt like the annoying friend of their little annoying brother, catching quick glances as they stretched in their classroom seats. I was a tadpole swimming among mermaids. And the only emotion I could express in their presence was muted paralysis. And this stoic silence began as guarded caution when it came to Sandy a few years before.
Sandy was not only 4th grade classmate. She was also a neighbor. She was a foot taller than me, a towering figure, like one of those Amazon women in a B-grade movie.
She was so tall, she was taller than her older brother, which pleased Andy none. I’m sure he tortured Sandy, letting her know that he didn’t appreciate ending up in the short end of the gene pool.
For some reason Sandy focused all of her aggression on me. Besides the proximity of being neighbors, our inverted sizes and me being new to the north side of town, I don’t know why Sandy zeroed in on me. I don’t think she even knew. I never said a word to her. I never teased her about being a walking ladder. Maybe she was acting out a deep-seeded battle with her brother. Or maybe Sandy was feeding off my own inability to grow and turn the scene around.
It definitely was an embarrassing affair to have a girl trying to pummel you. Every time Sandy started to make her move, I made sure to keep three steps ahead. What else could I do? It was like a tree was coming at me. How do you fight a tree? So, I ran, more of a jog. There was no urgency. Not in a million years would Sandy’s lumbering gait ever overtake me. So, I trotted, giving the appearance that I wasn’t so much running away, but heading home. It may have looked that way. I could have even convinced myself that it was. But in the end Sandy knew and that’s all that mattered.
This lack of machismo didn’t end there. It carried on through junior high and on towards college. After all, there was no magical transformation where a burly forest of hair sprouted from my chest, my voice dropped an octave and everybody started calling me Earl. No, it was more of the same, but this time taunts came from those who were much older.
I had a work assignment in the college’s cafeteria. And when one is employed as a student worker, the person is going to get the jobs the regular staff does not want to do, namely the washing of dishes. I’m not talking about the plates, glasses and silverware that you run through a machine and call it a day. I’m talking about the industrial size pots and pans covered in grease and caked in grime.
This was my charge. But before I touched one pan, I donned on as much insulated rubber as I could find to protect myself from the scalding water needed for the assignment. And as the boiling steam rolled up from the stainless steel sink and fogged my goggles (to prevent the soapy water from stinging my baby-blue eyes), I tried to ignore the caustic laughing from the cooks.
It was definitely a shot to the ego to be laughed at by a bunch of grandmothers. To most of them hot was a term they used whenever one of the basketball players passed through the serving line. Hot as a temperature held no meaning. I discovered this on the first day when one of the cooks (I’ll call her Midge) yelled at me for using water that I described as lukewarm, but she called “Baltic Sea Snot.” She quickly drained the sink and turned (H) all the way to HELL. And after dumping a cup of industrial soap, she plunged her right hand deep into the steamy foam, pulled out a pan and said, “That’s how remove grease.”
My heart jumped out of my body. I expected to see her hand pulsating red and purple, but the craggy paw looked no worse as she waved a clean pan in front of my face. Obviously, every nerve from her neck to fingertips was dead from years of handling boiling, steaming and burning heat. And though Midge had the hands to mold lava and I had the hands to fold satin sheets, there was no way I could let her set the tone. So, without hesitation I plunged my right hand into the foamy waters.
I don’t think the tip of my middle finger cleared the twelve inches of foam before every synapse in my body told me that I was being burned alive. I snapped my right hand out of the foam, looked over to Midge and with a slight chuckle said, “My writing hand.”
Midge looked back at me with no other desire than to hold my head under water.
I knew what I had to do and I knew it would bring a significant amount of pain. I took a deep breath, clenched my teeth and plunged my left hand into the foam. Even though every natural instinct told me to stop, I plunged my arm further and further into the suds. I was absolutely determined to grab something. At this point in my college career, embarrassment at the expense of the cooks’ laughter would leave a far more lasting scar than a trip to the emergency room. But no matter how brave my attempt, I knew that my body’s natural instincts would override my idiocy. I knew I had about .00356 seconds to find a pot or a pan.
My left hand hit the bottom of the sink and furiously searched for a handle. And when it latched on the rim of a red-hot, cast iron pot, any definition of what I believed to be hot wildly exploded as I retracted my left arm 897% faster than .00356 seconds.
“Mother F#@&er,” I screamed.
Midge shook her head and walked away.
It was a hard fact to dispute. At that moment I was not living up to the word manly.
As I sit on this most comfortable couch and sip a domestic beer, I wonder where it all went wrong. Was it poor genetics, lack of effort? As a kid, I played a lot of sports but never really trained. By the time I entered college I had the body to prove it. I weighed no more than a broom handle. I had the external fortitude of a late October scarecrow. An afternoon breeze could have knocked me over as I hobbled on crutches to my freshman class.
A summertime soccer injury sidelined me for the year, but I still wanted to stay active. Since any sport involving running and jumping was out of the question, I decided to take up weightlifting.
I signed up at a local wellness center and had my choice between lifting free weights and using the Nautilus machines. Nothing but a few feet separated my choices, but the difference was lifting weights and thinking you were lifting weights. Free weights produce results immediately. Nautilus gets you back in future installments.
Since I was in no hurry to bulk up, I decided to go the Nautilus route. So, I dedicated myself to a daily routine and went in early. (Early for a college student was anytime before 3pm.) I was determined to eliminate any distractions and give the workout an honest effort. With machines that worked the arms, back, legs and chest, I wanted build myself into a Norse god before the holidays.
I may have gone in with good intentions, but I was by no means a match for the equipment. The Nautilus machines caught me off guard and started to fight back. Immediately, my workout started to become a bargaining session. If I wanted to do twenty reps, but the machine only wanted to give me ten, I was more than happy to do eight. I’ve always been an ebb and flow man. And resting on the Nautilus machines with the early morning (2 pm) sun shining on my face, I was in too good a mood to argue. I did the routine the machines were willing to give. It may have been a workout that saved the wear and tear of the equipment and helped clear my mind, but my body never benefited from the negotiations.
A trainer keyed in on my lackadaisical effort. At the moment he was preparing to enter the Marine Corp. and he saw an opportunity to spread some “Ooh Rah!” Before I knew it, he was in my foxhole barking for me to do ten more reps when I was perfectly fine with five. Instantly, a peaceful workout turned into an unrequested boot camp. No longer did I reside in a tranquil world of pretending to lift weights. I was in a firefight as I kicked, groped and tried to come up for air. I was acting out the role in a B-grade movie, except the Marine-to-be was no officer and at the moment I felt no need to be a gentleman.
As the workout continued, I slowly began to feel that my body would not. My muscles were not becoming big and bulky, just inflamed. Every joint ached. I had serious thoughts that I would not survive. Some course of action needed to be taken before I was reduced to the physical activity of a baked clam. So, when the Marine-to-be shouted for me to commence on the bench press, I asked for a brief leave. I was granted a five-minute water break and pealed myself off the machine. When I reached the hallway, I hobbled past the water fountain, found the nearest exit and headed out the door.
I guess some part of me was grateful for the Marine-to-be. He really wanted to help, but we had different workout philosophies. He believed in an all-out attack. I believed, like shuffleboard, working out should be easy enough to do all day. Of course, the Marine-to-be had better philosophy and body to prove it, but what about me? It was unfortunate that I wasn’t born into a more imposing stature for there was only one trade I wanted to join.
Every kid has a dream about what he or she wants to become as a fully insured adult. Most kids dream about becoming a fireman, a doctor or long-range weather forecaster for NOAA. My dream never reached this level of grandeur. I wanted to work for a moving company. I wanted hands the size of baseball gloves. I wanted wrought muscles that extended into my fingertips. I wanted an iron rod for a spine. I wanted a chest big enough to lift a solid oak table above my head. I wanted the physical grace to move a piano so carefully it remained in tune. I wanted to drive down a flat, prairie highway in a cab so high, I could see the Rocky Mountains. I wanted to pull a haul big enough to fill the Smithsonian. And I wanted to treat each and every possession like a precious heirloom, even the twenty-year-old Etch A- Sketch. I wanted the responsibility. I wanted the action. I wanted to get moving.
Unfortunately, most moving companies did not hire right out of kindergarten. So, I had to bide my time. To prepare myself I practiced rearranging items around the house until my mom got tired of finding the TV in the kitchen and the microwave on the TV stand. So, I had to subdue my passion and wait for any school event.
Whenever there was a school assembly, volunteers were needed to move folding chairs from the storage closet to the gymnasium. Even though I was the size of a house plant, I was still the first to jump in line. I grabbed a metal folding chair, hoisted it above my head and walked it down the long hallway into the gymnasium where the instructor pointed to a spot where I quickly opened the chair with a CRACK and planted the chair with a BAM.
Throughout the years these moving assignments became my happiest days in school. No longer sitting and learning. I was up and moving. The experience brought an electric charge. I felt alive. I was meant to do this.
And as I made my elementary ascent, I started to move two metal folding chairs– one under each arm. Although not impossible, carrying the two chairs did provide a challenge. No longer was I able to dash back and forth with a CRACK and a BAM. Instead, a deliberate pace was needed for I did not want to lose control and crash into one of my co-movers. I needed full concentration to keep the chairs nestled underneath my armpits as I walked, almost on my tiptoes, to prevent the hard rubber stoppers from the chairs’ legs from squeaking against the highly polished floor. But eventually my muscles would tire, my shoulders would droop and the rubber stoppers would SQUEAK and SCREEEEEEEEECH, causing everybody to look and see the chairs were not so much being moved as propping me up like a pair of rectangular crutches.
By the time I reached junior high, the moving of the metal folding chairs kicked to another level when a few of my classmates started putting two folding chairs under each arm.
In one swoop, they doubled their workload and made the rest of us look obsolete. But how could that be? Was it not my desire to become a professional mover? How could that be if I could not perform this simple task? Still, I had to try.
I eased one, then two folding chairs under my left arm. And with a little luck, I leaned the other two folding chairs under my right. Then with pure adrenaline, I lifted the four chairs off the ground without the assistance of an illegally banned substance. I darted out of the storage closet and into the hallway. But as quickly as the burst came, it dissipated. My arms burned. My shoulders drooped. Already on my tiptoes I gingerly negotiated each step like I was walking through a minefield. But there was no way. I was not going to make it. I pulled my body to the side and leaned the chairs against the wall.
Calamity had been avoided, but devastation remained. Certainly, no homeowner would let me touch an antique china hutch if they knew I couldn’t move four folding chairs. Even though I was only in eighth grade, there was no way my body could cover that much ground. My destiny was set. My vision had a limited arc. Right there in a long, darkened hallway a new reality settled in. My mind wanted to move freight trains. My body was telling me to get excited about selling men’s clothing.
Well, I didn’t become a haberdasher. Instead, I have mostly worked at a desk and stared at a computer screen. I can’t say this destiny was my dream, but I can’t say my dream fully died. For little did I know how many opportunities I would get to move family and friends for FREE!
Although far from a profession, I still leapt at the chance to help people move. I even felt an electric charge when I saw the moving truck. After all, cannot one dream on a smaller scale? Cannot one feel like he is helping change people’s lives as he grabs one leg of a sofa? Cannot one feel like he’s on top of the world when he climbs into a broken-down rental truck? Cannot one still feel a sense of manliness that connects him to his ancestors when he lifts a box of linen above his head and eases it out the door?
As I try get up from the couch to get another beer, I find the urge to move things still remains, but maybe it was best it never came to full fruition. My shuffleboard philosophy may not have bulked me, but it has kept me from chasing pills of vicodin with off-brand vodka. Physical moderation throughout the years has kept me in good shape and pain-free. That would have never happened if I didn’t listen to my reed-thin composition and pursued an all-out attack.
And as I begin my slow descent of becoming a tinier and flintier version of myself, I have started cutting back even more on manly feats that may land me in the emergency room. Now I am more than willing to say no to:
- Sowing 40 acres with a plow and a mule
- Moving a walnut dining room set across town
- Shoveling wet cement onto a driveway
- Ripping off terracotta roof tiles
- Pushing a stalled car through a flooded street
- Canoeing dried goods across a stormy lake
- Building a medieval church
- Welding a towering skyscraper
- Fighting off a pack of wolves
- Branding a Brahman bull
- Also, don’t call me Earl