Sean Hogan’s masculinity was ravaged after 9/11, as he watched first his city and then the entire nation, become desexed.
It’s raining again, but at least it’s not a hurricane, which means I won’t have to waste hours of my time in the next few days, acting like a wannabe lumberjack out back with a saw borrowed from my neighbor, tearing apart broken tree limbs to throw in the trash, like I had to do last week. It’s an inside day. My boys are chopping the shit out of terrifying-but-manageable enemies with pixelated lightsabers on their video games. If it ever does stop raining, they’re going to go out in the yard and try to chop the shit out of each other with plastic lightsabers. Unless he’s extremely tired or in that little-boy melancholy that only reveals itself after splinter removals and rare lapses in self-conscious concentration, my eight-year-old refuses to hug me, but he insists on frequent wrestling matches where he can get his arms around my body just so long as he’s also gritting his teeth or yelping in exaggerated expressions of effort.
The further we get from childhood, the harder it is to understand the mentality of boys, but somehow we never forget how to fit little girls into our so-called grownup ideas of gender. I’m far from perfect, but I try to be tolerant. The thought of rabid monkeys constructing elaborate torture machines for unsuspecting squirrels, complete with spewing blood and decapitations, would normally make me sort of queasy, but when it’s shown as a colorful and detailed work of art by my 11-year-old, it’s inarguably precious and wonderful.
The middle school students of mine who embrace the abstract ideas found in lessons on Thoreau and Frost are usually girls. Their responses are easy to encourage. It’s not always as easy to praise or even appreciate the connections boys make in class, which, if they don’t involve vomit, feces, or blood and guts, are at the very least antagonistic and selfish. It’s not easy at all. But it’s necessary. Of course, like so many other “necessary” things around here, we’re failing at it. It’s not like the world’s going to stop spinning if we don’t appreciate and god-forbid try to cultivate the deepest intrinsic motivations of our young men, but it’s not doing us any favors not to.
I’ve always hated these 9/11 anniversaries. I don’t like thinking about that day. I was too close for comfort, and in some ways, I don’t like the idea that I can’t keep running from it. In the years when I was still searching for a sit-down, talk-it-out solution to my issues, before I gave up and started trying to figure it out for myself, the psychologist who caused me the most problems was a huge, gentle ex-Marine with a quick smile and soothing blue eyes. I saw him again a few years ago, walking through the grocery store parking lot, and with all the cars backing out without looking and crossing strange-ways over white lines and out of obstructed spaces, he still moved like he was the gravity center of whatever calm might exist on that crowded blacktop. If anyone bumped into him, they’d probably have done more damage to their car than to his almost thoughtlessly-casual-but-wide-as-fuck lower body.
And that was the problem. He was too much man for me. Or, rather (maybe), too much man for the guilt and insecurity I needed him to help me with. Every time I tried to speak, I felt like a little kid, and like a girl. Eventually, I stopped going. My masculinity was ravaged after 9/11 as it was. It’s pretty tough being the kind of tough you’re automatically supposed to be when noises make you shudder. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone dropping a book on the floor, the hollow buzz of an ultralight flying overhead, or even the sudden boom of a tractor trailer dropping it into low gear and barreling up the hill behind you. Boys in America grow up, after all, training themselves not to flinch when their best friend cocks a fist four inches from their eyes. If you do, you get punched, hard, so it’s one or the other. And stifling the reflexes of fear is ultimately easier than fighting through the shame of looking scared. So it really didn’t matter if we had to run from a collapsing tower or from a feather dropped from a two-story porch. There’s little wiggle room in the male mind for running at all. Things were all touchy-feely for a while there after that Tuesday. Even in New York. Maybe even especially in New York. I remember cops in their best uniforms greeting us with smiles as we disembarked from the commuter ferries back into lower Manhattan. Firehouses weren’t decorated with tight-short-sleeved and finely chiseled man’s men standing outside smoking, they were adorned with flowers and wreathes. When we bumped into each other standing in line or walking on the sidewalk, we smiled and said, “excuse me.”
And that was after ol’ W got up on top of the burning pile of bodies and debris with his balls in his hand and started talking about kicking some fucking ass. But by the time angry New Yorkers were telling Bin Laden to come and get the rest of us during the lets-get-our-shit-back-together NYC tribute concert, the new national swagger had been established. We were now the country of kicking down doors, replacing the WTC with a giant middle finger, and not really giving a shit who stood in the way between us and feeling good about ourselves. The problem was that we kept trying to kick ass but forgot that the goal was to feel good.
Being a divorced father means you have to be a complete parent. My sons have their mother around them, too, but when they’re with me, it’s only me. Sometimes it means playing tackle football or telling them to stop crying already, and sometimes I have to hold them so tight they can’t help but feel the most caring parts of my soul sing to them through the beat of my heart. It’s not as difficult as you might think. It comes natural. The trick is seeing those two, seemingly opposing roles as not different at all. I don’t have to switch from being a father to being a mother and back again. I don’t even have to sometimes be more tender or more rough. I just have to make sure I don’t refuse the ideas coming into my head that make me think, “Is this going to make me seem like a pussy?” That’s really what half of masculinity is—pretending we’re insensitive so people don’t laugh at us for acting like women.
But for the past decade, I think it’s safe to say we’ve erred on the side of insensitivity. It’s nothing new to claim that we were successfully terrorized that day. The plan worked. But it’s so much worse than that. The post traumatic stress disorder we still feel as a nation has turned this already male-dominated society into a walking stereotype. We’ve lost all sense of balance. We’ve sacrificed every semblance of the X chromosome in favor of being as tough as possible on all counts. But man is not supposed to be the opposite of woman. XY is not the opposite of XX, in any sense. We haven’t become more tough, we’ve simply become incomplete.
You can’t lose two enormous phallic symbols from the southern, business end of the toughest city in the United States and expect to come out with your masculinity undisturbed. We lost two big manly symbols, to be sure, but we weren’t castrated that day; we were emasculated. We’ve got balls aplenty, but nothing more. We’ve been de-sexed. It’s possible, I guess, if you’re still into bitter feminism, to see male sexuality as nothing but intrusive and brutal. But the unbiased truth is that it is sensitive—powerful and soft, firm and somehow yielding, like the reed beneath the oak. Compassionate, life-affirming, and generous.
But clearly not indestructible.
If there has even been a political symbol of de-sexed machismo in the U.S., it was George W. Bush. Full of bravado and bluster but utterly afraid of anything resembling the tickles of orgasm, or any pleasure for that matter, other than the childish, selfish kind. There are groups in this country who have always been afraid of what they see as a compromised sense of sex and gender, and of accepting compassion and pleasure as positive, acceptable behavior. But that’s become the national norm, and we’re worse off for it.
It should give us hope that we’re finally able to put up something in lower Manhattan that’s long and stiff and sort of thrilling to see, even if it makes us embarrassed, like most too-tall buildings, to stare at it for long. There’s an anxiety about those things these days, an anxiety that exceeds the simple wobbly height of them. But anxiety is okay, as long as it doesn’t paralyze you. We’ve been far too frightened these past 10 years of doing anything. We’re like the biggest asshole in the bar, mouthing off to everyone he sees, throwing his weight around like it really, in the end, might mean something, but as far as romance is concerned, not to mention acts of caring, or maybe risking a little vulnerability in the hope of improving our lives, the very thought of either letting loose or giving a shit what the other person wants makes us hyperventilate with panic. But we can’t brag our way out of this hole we’ve dug. We have to feel and build our way out of it.
I still have some time to make up myself. I haven’t gotten as far in the past 10 years as I’d have liked. But I’m proud of a few things. My sons, I think, are tough enough to both do something that might hurt and cry about it when it gets too much. I need them to learn that it’s only when we accept our own pain that we can understand someone else’s.
And it would be far too lame of me to try to explain that I’m more compassionate than I used to be, that seeing what I saw that day and doing what I did made me soft instead of hard, made me loving instead of angry. But I will admit that for a while I wanted to do nothing but kick some ass, and it feels a lot better and makes a lot more sense to not want to do that anymore. There’s a reason we should count to 10 when we’re angry. So that’s the only reason I like the idea of this anniversary. I’m still a little superstitious, and I’m hoping we’ve been counting in years, and that we can finally take our attitude and do something thoughtful with it again. Doing anything at all would be an improvement.