Throughout his everyday routine, Cameron Conaway uncovers discussions of what it means to be a man.
Let’s head back to Bangkok’s BTS Skytrain. Our first visit occurred in The Power of Then, but this morning there was a unique juxtaposition of conversations between men, and I feel compelled to share them. Let me preface by saying that I’m often the only foreigner on the BTS in the mornings, and I’m usually so preoccupied lugging my laptop and my Muay Thai gym bag that I’m in my own world. However, when I hear English my sense of hearing hones in on it—call it an attraction for the familiar or maybe just eavesdropping to hear what another English speaker is doing—but there’s a lot to be learned from unexpected listening experiences. Poets often call the work generated from experiences like this “found poems,” snippets of things (conversations, situations, etc.) that are found out in the world then brought back and kept more or less intact as they are translated to the page.
A quote from one guy who looked to be a personal trainer to another guy who I took to be his fitness client/apprentice:
Man 1: “Dude, we just need that big break and this thing could take off. We need to get on Ellen. I want to be on The Ellen Show.”
Man 2: “That’d be sick. Can you imagine that?”
Is there an aspiring writer in a coffee shop, or a small business owner trying to get started, or a recent college graduate already crushed with student loans, who would answer the phone and say to the Ellen DeGeneres rep:
“No. But thanks anyways. I think I’ve got a few other things planned for that Friday.”
Aside from the obvious life-changing opportunities that could come from being on The Ellen Degeneres Show, this man’s statement got me thinking about all sorts of ideas during the 10-minute train ride. In many ways, Ellen has become the new Oprah in terms of “making it big.” She’s got the same sense of generosity, a similar celebrity power, and she brings an energy much more 21st century. Then I wondered if this muscularly ripped personal trainer consistently watches Ellen, or if he just knows the pull she could have on helping grow a career. I wondered just how serious he was, if he was actually pursuing something like that, if it’s even possible to pursue it, or if it is something that only comes to you when you’re lucky. I wonder how many men watch Ellen or care about anything she does. I’ve talked to several of my gay friends and they love her, but it occurred to me that Ellen was never brought up in conversation with my straight friends. I wondered if they or I just weren’t interested enough or if the show was in this unwritten list of topics about which straight dudes don’t talk to each other. I noticed I was picking my nails at this point, and that’s usually a sign I’m off into La-La Land, thinking deeply.
A voice straight out of Westminster snapped me out of it:
Teenaged Boy: “My girlfriend just sent me a message,” (he fiddled with his iPad). “She said that since I’ve been gone she just wakes up in the morning and cries, she says she feels depressed all day,” his smile broke into all-out laughter. When he caught his breath he said, “That’s hilarious.”
He was surrounded by a few other boys his age, and I sensed this news from his girlfriend troubled him. I sensed that he cared for this girl greatly, that his laugh was forced to show “the crew” that he’s a man, that he doesn’t care about that stuff, but, also, that he’s a man because he has a woman, a woman who struggles when he leaves, no less. I wondered if his MANnerisms and words would have been the same if he had been telling his mom. What about his dad? What if he forgot to hang up the phone and his girlfriend heard his laughter and his, “That’s hilarious”? How would the ensuring conversation between the two have gone down?
I suppose this is all to say that as great a forum for intellectual and thoughtful maleness as The Good Men Project is, there are also plenty of other, nontraditional ways to learn about the dynamics of men out in the real world. One way is through simply listening and not taking that moment or the words you heard at face value. Contextualize it. Did it occur around other men? Was there something unsettling in his voice, posture, or actions that didn’t match up to his words? When we hear a man say he wants to be on The Ellen Degeneres Show, why might that be? When we hear a boy say it’s hilarious when his girlfriend is depressed, why might that be? Of course, we can’t know the entire situation—especially in “found” situations like these—but there’s much to be learned from trying, from not just finding something but looking for the perhaps unknowable truths and histories out of which those things grew. Many of us judge the children in juvenile detention centers as screw-ups until we learn the context of their crime, their history. Often, we realize that they screwed up. Being a screw-up and screwing up seem similar, but they are wholly different. Everything both is and isn’t what it seems.