S. Grady Barrett has dug trenches three-feet deep and been propped up in a titty bar on Sunset Strip. He still wonders what it means to be a man.
At some point in recent history, the chosen advice for being a man meant doing only a few things: washing your ass, checking your balls and being on time. Those were simpler times. Times have changed. But the familiarity lingers, like a bedside whisper from an Irish ghost.
Men were once heroes who rode into the frame on glistening steeds, who fought fire and death, to save women from the jaws of dragons that we may have unintentionally awoken. We were told that when the ship was sinking, women and children were first and we desperately tried to obey. Men wore suits and shook hands while looking each other straight in the eye, because when we did that, we worked together despite our differences.
We had large forearms and hairy chests and used chrome-plated tools to fix cars, homes and thoughts. We never backed down from an honest-to-goodness challenge and dispensed wisdom in small, pithy doses, knowing that if we all did our part, everything and everyone would be just fine. A man was measured by a different ruler, where feet, yards and miles had nothing to do with distance, but with the swagger of accomplishment. Maybe that part is still true.
And now, this thing of being a man has changed completely, totally and astoundingly in a way that only pop-bulb flashes can illuminate. I keep looking down at my feet shuffling down the crumbling path my father paved for me. As true as it was and dilapidated as it has become, I trudge along, searching for divergent paths, but they always lead me back to where I began.
I heard a woman shout, “Be a man!” and I briefly wondered why it wasn’t acceptable to slap that bitch, thinking: What the fuck does she know about it? How can any woman ever tell me how to be a man, when her father wasn’t there even when he was in the room, or his spine was removed vertebrae by vertebrae with the soft touch of her mother’s pointy claws? Her shout makes me realize that someone didn’t do his job, which makes us all suffer, so she calls us something she doesn’t understand and we don’t know how to be. Still, her frustration points to a winding path over that way, a place she cannot go.
I listened as women told me about their struggles, their thoughts, and their ambitions. I listened as they told me that men shackled them in chains when I thought we were trying to keep them safe from our demons. I heard them call us all selfish pigs, compare us to dogs and hysterically laugh at the pranks they pulled on our hearts when our hearts were learning to be exposed.
I cared for women who did not have the love or kindness that I was told existed inside all of them and watched as they danced from man to man and dared me not to be jealous. And I found out at an early age that men not only leave women, but women leave men too.
I waited for a woman who understood me and understood that I’m a man, that I’m worthy of the respect I earn but knows that I must constantly earn respect from her and from all those who cross my path. Yet, I do not know how to do this but by being a man. It requires something beyond me that is different from what I am but is inextricably tied to who I am.
I believe work, whatever it is, forges a man’s spirit and strengthens his spine more than most understand. You see, it’s not the hard work, but the productivity, the ability to physically create—To do something!—that keeps men moving, straight-arrowed, through the unknown into the unforeseen.
In this regard, I have been a mover of other people’s possessions. I have dug trenches three-feet deep and I don’t know how many feet long. I have worked out in the rain and in the cold, then woken up in the morning sick with aching hands and returned to do it again. I have played sports, run head-first into opponents, and ached for doing so, then watched as my opponents ran over me with startling ease.
I have tasted the sweetest nectar of the most monumental victory and then turned around and become a Fourth of July fireworks display of failure in front of all the people who care most deeply for me. I might be doing that right now. Still, I have a discernable preference for one over the other, but my preference is not always considered.
I have wandered rainbows of gray cubicle farms and found a pot filled to the brim with gold-plated despair and sparkling frustration, which lead me to leave those trappings behind in search of something that mattered but may never matter again.
I stood in the dark corners of greasy, god-damned bars while soulless specters, who have no care for answers, dance and drink, snort and pop and preen, then smile obscene demands to open ears that didn’t know any better but to listen. I was forced to lead some of those people back out into the street with my own hands, and often without kindness or concern. I took their money too, so that I’d look the other way while they disappeared into unknown doorways to hide their motives but not their faces. I did it because a man needs money—No?—to be a man. How we get it: does it matter?
But I have no concern to hide those things. I’ve been shit-blasted drunk, propped up against a wall in a titty bar on the Sunset Strip, solemnly begging the ladies for one more dance.
I’ve hidden in the stark naked darkness, holding one woman, while another sat alone somewhere else, believing I was hers.
I’ve told women that I love them, when I knew I did not and wallowed in the stupefied enjoyment that came with their belief. I told myself, it’s all they wanted to hear, knowing whatever they said to me, they didn’t mean either.
I’ve never killed a man—in Memphis or any other city—although I thought I might have once. It’s actually a funny story, if told correctly. But now is not the time.
I’ve seen man’s ability to be compassionate, in ways I can never forget. I’ve done good things too, I promise, although I’ve forgotten what they were. What I remember, I cannot discuss. Those are private memories. They serve purpose in my life and give me the courage to say everything I’ve said here and will attempt to say for the rest of my life.
So, I think this about being a man: a man will be a man without your definition; a man knows he will be alone when his days end, as will everyone else; and, above all, a man knows he must continue to ask questions about being a man, with the knowledge that each time the question is asked, the answer will change.
In the meantime, I think it sufficient to read, to think, to wash and check my balls as often as I please, if only because I take comfort in their presence.
This piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. See the entire series here.
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photo: rocketboom / flickr