Paul Kidwell meditates on some of the things that make men worthy of love.
It’s Valentine’s Day and I have ordered flowers for my wife and made plans to cook her favorite meal. She knows I love her year-round and does not need the commercial gestures of February 14, but she likes it that I remember her her in this way. With those traditional details taken care of, I thought I’d try something a bit more non-traditional and also talk about the great fondness I have for men on this celebrated day of love. As I have matured as a man, I have gained appreciation for the type of person I have become and also see traits of other men that I find attractive. Trust me, there are more than eight, but this a good place to start.
My mother had a saying and credo by which she raised her children. “Courtesy is the only thing I expect from you; everything else is negotiable.” Of all the things she taught me and my brothers – and what we learned from both Mom and Dad could fill a couple of oceans – this is one of the most important remembrances that I have brought into my life and have passed onto my son, so he can also pay it forward. Now, the arcane vision of a chivalrous man, to me, is not antiquated at all and very apropos in today’s polite society. Chivalry is just a dressed-up word for courtesy and need not indicate grand gestures only relegated for those interactions between a man and a woman. Being polite is an equal opportunity activity and non-denominational in nature. It’s mostly hidden in the subtleties of a man’s demeanor and rarely noticed, until it is lacking.
At the heart of a chivalrous man is a sense of selflessness that I find attractive. I am always drawn to men who think of others first and exhibit selfish behavior judiciously. When a guy opens the door for others behind him, helps his elderly mother on with her coat, stoops to listen to his child, or slows down so he can walk side-by-side with his aging father. These are the actions that tug at my heart and I often think that these men would be worth knowing. Asking before taking, listening instead of talking and saying please and thank you are all CV-worthy attributes in my book.
Men Who Hug
Men don’t merely hug. They don’t just embrace. No, a man, when he shows what’s truly in his heart and is moved by an inner love or emotion envelops; almost swallows the other person with his arms. It’s not one of those fake girly, Hollywood hugs where the hands barely graze the shoulders and the chest and lower torso of the bodies resemble the top part of a question mark, so you could literally drive a team of Clydesdales between the two bodies. If a man is going to take the time, energy and emotion to reach out to another person – be they man, woman or child – they will give it their all and the huggee will walk away knowing that they have been hugged in extremis. Genitals to genitals, nipples touching nipples, and each other’s hand deathlocked around the other person’s neck, it’s the most incredible physical gesture in our entire human repertoire, and the one gesture that you cannot give without getting hugged back. When a man hugs you, he wraps two hearts into his arms and the person he hugs feels the aftershocks after the hug has stopped and he stands there still quivering after the hugger has walked away. As a man who prides himself on the Olympic-quality hugs I disseminate, I love them for what they tell the other person without fumbling for words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a hug has got to be in the neighborhood of a million.
Last year I contributed an essay to GMP that chronicled my experience with a group of friends who, like me, had a weakness for chick flicks and how at times, these movies would touch our hearts and make us cry. The notion of a man crying, especially in public, continues to draw heated discussion and diverse opinions from both sides of the aisle, among men and women. Is it a sign of strength or a weakness? Do real men cry or do they “suck it up” and mask their feelings, lest they invite public scrutiny into their inner soul? I suspect we will never come to a definitive conclusion or consensus – right or wrong; good or bad; manly or less so – when it comes to men and tears, but personally I usually get choked up or can be easily moved to tears when I see another man cry.
To me, crying and the ability to move through emotions by shedding tears comes with the emotional landscape of a life well lived. The more of life’s slings and arrows a man experiences, the easier he is to show his emotions through crying. A man who cannot cry has not opened himself up to life’s many joys and heartaches. That’s why most young men choose to remain stoic, not show emotions; and feel embarrassed if they cry in public, while men of experience like myself are comfortable in our emotional skin and do not balk at shedding tears if the occasion arises. There’s an old saying about how we don’t get to choose the life we live, but can be involved in how we live it. I choose to cry when my heart breaks or is filled with joy, and appreciate others men who do the same.
There is something so pure about a man’s singing. Pure and unbridled. I’m not talking about professional singers who have studied their craft and trained their voice to perfection so they can turn on a dime and reach the balcony’s last row or easily move into a falsetto. I happen to be quite fond of opera and country & western music, which have vocals—many of them coming from male singers—at the heart of each genre; so as singers, we men have precedents established for us. Of course, the type of singers that make me most proud to be a man are the unabashed, off-key and mostly too loud warblers who are moved beyond society’s restrictions and absolutely burst into song when they feel the urge; usually accompanied by a beer or two. These men don’t give a fig about tune or lyrics, and in fact, usually get both wrong at some point in their singing. Listen closely to the man standing within earshot of you at the basketball game during the singing of the national anthem, and you’re likely to hear something like this:
And the rockets red glare,
The bombs bursting over there,
Gave proof in the light
That the flag was down there.
Or the next time you are at a karaoke bar and a guy leans into his rendition of “Stairway to Heaven”:
There’s a lady in there, and the zipper’s on gold,
And she’s trying a stairway in heaven.
While she’s there, and she knows,
And the stores can’t come close,
From the bird she can come here and get it,
Oh, yeh, and she’s climbing those stairs up to seven.
So, the next time you see a guy rock out to “Lady Chatelaine”, “The Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, “Rocket Man”, or anything by Blondie, don’t cringe like most will do and wish he would stop his caterwauling. Do like I do, walk up to him, give it an eight count and join him in song. Loud and off key.
Man and Kids
Not unlike the majority of adult men in their 50s, I had a relationship with my father growing up that could have been closer. I don’t blame him for his lack of involvement as he was a victim of his generation and poured most of his time and energy into work and left the touchy-feely nurturing to my mother. When my brothers and I needed a band-aid to fix a cut or a hug to warm a broken heart, it was Mom and not Dad who took the time and had the instinct to heal her sons. If Dad had the relevant DNA to nurture and took the time, I am sure he would have done a fine job, but, again, it was a different time and place, and fathers of the 60’s were different than modern fathers who I see much more engaged with their kids, and, of course, I experienced myself in raising our son. I was committed to not falling into the same trap as my father and took an active involvement from day one. What I love about my own experience being a primary caregiver and parent is what I am sure most men find attractive about the experience. Whether carting him to and from school, waking early each Saturday for violin lessons, attending parent-teacher meetings, school open houses, swim meets, or orchestra concerts; or arranging college tours, scheduling doctor/dentist check-ups, not to mention waking him up each morning before school and dragging him – with love, of course, into the shower, I was an active and very willing participant in his rearing. And after having gone through all those years of involvement, I shudder to think of how empty my life would be without those experiences; which is the main reason we men make the effort. We don’t want to be like our fathers who missed out on so many opportunities to share in their kids’ growing up and we do want those memories.
The Non-Prodigal Son
Whether you are a Bible scholar or not, most of us have some familiarity with the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s he story of a father who has two grown sons. One asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive and goes off to live a life of debauchery; squandering his father’s largesse. The other son stays home where he helps his father run the family household. When the prodigal son returns home and asks his father’s forgiveness, to his surprise he is met with open arms and a loving embrace by his father who celebrates the occasion by killing the fatted calf to herald his return. The non-prodigal son, who has faithfully stayed by his father’s side and supported him without expecting anything in return, is justifiably miffed at this incredible favoritism and resents the favor and attention given his brother.
It’s a familiar story that plays throughout our culture. We are a land of redemption and second chances, and we have witnessed other celebrated returns from the abyss by men of fame; be they actor, musician or athlete. In fact, the founder of this publication has his own inspirational story of a life worth saving. These men and their courage to turn their lives around, like the prodigal son, should be congratulated. But, as we hold them in esteem let us not forget the majority of men who have displayed their own brand of strength by never giving into these temptations and lived their lives according to a moral and ethical (not to mention legal) code that is worthy of its own fatted calf. Less sexy and flamboyant? Absolutely. You’ll never see a movie made of any of their lives, an existence of normalcy that may include getting up each day for work, taking care of home and family, and maybe an occasional beer with a friend.
If I was the non-prodigal son, I’d be angry at the clamor made of my ne’er-do-well brother’s return, but only for a moment. After all, I’ve got things to do.
Men of a Certain Age
For far too long and perhaps for all the wrong reasons, men have taken it on the chin; whether deserved or not. My father’s generation was victimized by old and outdated standards of living and how a man should act. Perhaps the last generation who did things because that’s the way they were always done without considering an alternative and perhaps more enlightened form of thinking. My generation that came of age during the 60s and 70s had our minds expanded by a Vesuvius-like social climate colored by unprecedented activism, setting the stage for future change that continues to reverberate. Men had to become different in order to survive and contribute to our future. If we didn’t learn from our father’s mistakes, life would pass us by and we would become a postscript in perhaps some of this country’s most dynamic decades. We loved our fathers, but wanted to be something different and more engaged, recognizing that the work needed would be often painful and frustrating. Works in progress are never easy.
What men have done right, however, is raise our own sons to watch and learn from what we do right, make note of our failures, and create in you a generation who finally gets right what it means to be a man. Recently, my son turned 21 and when I think of he and the male counterparts of his generation, and this splendid melange of heart, brains, ambition and strength, I am well pleased. They are quite something these boys. Far more mature than I was at that age, centered in their life goals and with an ability to comfortably navigate and adapt to the realm of emotions it takes to live a life well. Former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw wrote a book he titled, “The Greatest Generation,” about the those men who fought in World War II. I have been to Normandy and walked the beaches like Brokaw and was also moved by what these men had done. I have also walked among the young men in their late teens and early 20s and am equally touched by their humanity, and wonder who will write the book 50 years from now about the greatness of this generation.
Men who Cook
The preeminent American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, once said: “I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that, I, with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a story or a stew, a rarity of a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
When a man cooks his approach is not unlike how he handles most things in his life. Heroic. To me, preparing a meal—whether it be a snack or light meal for myself, or a full-on family dinner with all the fixins—brings two types of nourishment. Physical and spiritual. There are few greater examples of showing another person love than by cooking for them. The melding of body and soul when bread is broken and wine drunk is everyday magic, and made more magical when the food is prepared by a man for his family. When I travel for business I always seek out a restaurant with an open kitchen and request a table with a direct line of sight into the kitchen. No matter the cuisine, I am more interested in watching the chef and his cooks hustle out meals to hungry diners. Amidst the hot sauté pans, pots brimming with sauces and once-empty dinner plates now artistically adorned with glimmering steaks, shimmering asparagus and plump kernels of rice, usually stands a man with a pan. Ask most women, and they will tell you that men who cook are sexy, confident and terribly cool. As one of those men, I concur. I will say; however, that when I think of a man cooking the image of someone who is both artistic, creative and a nurturing soul comes into view. And that image I like.