Christian Ward screwed up the cabinets. An honest mistake, but one which caused him to take a long look at his ideas of what it meant to be a man.
“If the image one holds of one’s self contains elements that don’t square with reality, one is best advised to let go of them, however difficult that may be.”
― Sidney Poitier, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography
I screwed up the cabinets. It was a mistake any novice could make. Only it was me.
My wife and I have redesigned our kitchen. We replaced the counters and in the process decided to change out our mini-dishwasher and too-large sink for modern updates. We also replaced all the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. We went to a big box lumber yard with her step-dad and picked out beautiful sheets of birch plywood. He and I then cut them to size in his wood shop using my measurements. (Hint: this is where I fucked up). An Amish craftsman finished them. We picked up our new doors and drawers a week or so ago.
“They are absolutely beautiful,” I told her step-dad.
It is an incontrovertible law in my history of do it yourself projects that something I do goes wrong. Many mistakes are minor and easily handled. Yet I seem always to encounter some larger challenge that is my fault. One that perplexes me. Makes me want to pull my hair out. Fall onto a sword. Jump off a cliff.
This latest project is an example. We wanted the doors and drawers to present a seamless, clean look. The kind of professionally done, modern work we see in our favorite magazine atomic ranch. None of the cabinet faces were supposed to be showing.
I measured the doors for this. But when I attached the hinges, I put the fitting for the hinges too far on the edges. Hence, every door was too large for its designated spot. So all 15 doors had to be cut down.
There are certain areas of competence and awareness I believe are central to being a man in our culture. One is being able to change a tire. Another is picking out clothing yourself that is more sophisticated than sweatpants and running shoes.
Being able to do some of one’s own rehab projects is also high on the list. I have friends who hire out every job around the house to pros. Replacing a faucet. Fixing a leak. Replacing and re-wiring outlets. Putting in a new dishwasher or replacing the garbage disposal. Re-hanging an outside door. Landscaping.
There are times when it makes more sense to bring in a licensed and experienced expert. When an explosion, flood or fire is possible, I can see a phone call to a pro. It is sometimes better to spend the money and circumvent disaster.
I have enlisted the help of professional plumbers, electricians and builders. But when I did, I used every opportunity to learn. I have had more than one show me how to fix problems when they are small so I don’t have to hire someone.
There are certain things I don’t expect to be able to do: I won’t run lines into the main electrical service box. I won’t mess with gas lines. That leaves a universe of possible simple tasks I should be able to do.
Like correctly measuring cabinets.
In Sidney Poitier’s autobiography, The Measure of a Man, the actor reflects on what it is to be a man. He was taught by his father the only thing that matters in this regard was taking care of your children.
I may not meet Poitier’s standard as my struggles with raising my children are well documented. Yet it is the effort and care I put into raising my kids that I retreat to, even if I screw up. Competence in parenting is hard-earned and ephemeral. We parents don’t get to see the results of our work until our children also reach adulthood, although they also give us pretty good hunches along the way.
Still, being totally clueless in any number of areas that help define a man is not acceptable either. Manners. Integrity. Willful struggle and effort. These define a man in my world.
So does holding the door open for the women in your life—or anyone else behind you. Being able to speak your mind. Fighting fairly with your wife. Listening, really listening. Admitting when you are wrong without anger and recourse. All of these count too.
Sensitivity? That, too, is part of being a man. Far from sensitivity or empathy being questionable characteristics of a man, a compassion to feel for others and express genuine emotion is central to being an authentic man.
I often observe non-chivalrous behavior among my fellow males. Even ugly, inconsiderate, and conduct I consider worthy only of primates. I know of a couple ex-spouses who treat their former wives so insensitively and with such disrespect I am embarrassed by my gender. I am nearly certain my ex would place me in this same group.
“Me cave man, ug.”
My ex-wife’s boyfriend impresses me with his genuineness and kindness. I don’t know if he took a course in manhood, but he exemplifies the kind of gentleman I think of here. He seems a good fit for her. He and I are not alike in most ways, yet he appears truly a kind, respectful man’s man. I would put him in Poitier’s club of men without question.
You might think that I should feel fierce rivalry with this man who has moved into my old house with my ex-wife and who spends more time with my daughters than I get to.
Actually, I feel safer with him in the house than I would with some guy with anger issues or questionable character. I don’t get a say in his relationships with my girls and that is okay. I sleep better at night knowing he is watching over my children.
The roles we men play as husband, father, friend provide rich fodder for my ruminations. Comparing how I support my wife and my children to some ideal is like a compass directing my journey. Most often I fall short. My wife reminds me that we rarely if ever meet these high expectations of ourselves. But she also says that just because we don’t reach the highest idealized standards doesn’t mean we fail.
Maybe the ideals that Poitier talks about and to which many men aspire are supposed to be impossible. Could it be that if we always meet our expectations of ourselves we have aimed far too low?
The reason I seek awareness rather than perfection is that I hope I do better most of the time. That I become a man my daughters and my son can see as a worthy model, even though they might also see my flaws.
I look around and realize life is a lot like the rehab projects I take on around the house. They don’t always turn out perfectly, but the labor is certainly worth it.
A man in full knows he won’t be unblemished, yet still gets out of bed everyday because the people he loves depend upon him to make the journey.