Sometimes I just feel like a bad joke.
At the time my wife and I were beginning to date, I owned a broken bed. The box spring had a biggish crack on one side, which caused you to feel like you were being gradually swallowed in the night—an effect seriously exacerbated by the presence of a second person. I had not bothered to buy pillows when I moved to Milwaukee, reasoning that old pants stuffed in a pillowcase could not possibly feel that different. I did, however, have a desk, which I had carried from the Salvation Army, a mile and a half, on my shoulders, in August. I should mention here that I have never been what anyone would consider macho. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that I was allowed to live any other way.
My wife now amuses guests by narrating this period in our lives in the sitcom gender-essentialist mode: the silly, uncivilized man; the patiently exasperated woman.11xI borrow this phrase from the blogger Jack Graham, who defines it as follows: “Sitcom gender-essentialism revolves upon the ostensible ‘war of the sexes.’ The men behave badly, the women complain about the toilet seat being left up.” See Jack Graham, “Essential Problems and Dialectical Solutions (‘Deep Breath’ 5),” Shabogan Graffiti (blog), September 4, 2014, http://shabogangraffiti.blogspot.com/2014/09/essential-problems-and-dialectical.html. I defend myself by citing my actual poverty at the time—I was a graduate student with no savings, from a working-class family, for whom a $12,000 yearly stipend was a massive windfall. But she and I are both right: My choices rested on many years of socialization, as much as they unfolded against a background of economic precarity. Were there not buses? Could I not have asked a friend with a car to help me? Who purchases a Riverside Chaucer and a copy of the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane before he gets around to pillows? I would never have put myself through all of that if I hadn’t spent my life believing that it was my job to be, precisely, a man.
As real as I know male privilege to be—and if I forget it for a moment, I have the newspapers to remind me—it is surreal to find maleness, an aspect of my life that I associate mainly with chosen discomfort, equated now, by so many people, with bovine self-complacency. A woman coworker, explaining the different ways men and women move through the world, says to me, “As a man, you never think about how much space you take up.” I nod, because I agree with the point she intends to make, but the wording of the statement is so literally false—I have fretted about the physical space I occupy for most of my clumsy, in-the-way, yo-yo dieting life—that I am still thinking about this trivial exchange hours later. “Men don’t have to think about how they look,” says another coworker, also a woman, and I nod again. Then I realize, days later, that the reason the statement is still bugging me is that I am literally never not sore from the gym, because I am so concerned with looking a certain way.
A Perverse Avoidance of Comfort
“What is it like to be a cis-gendered, heterosexual man?” a friend, a trans man, asks on Facebook. “What is it like to feel at home in your body?” The only answer I can come up with is that I never feel at home in my body. I live out my masculinity most often as a perverse avoidance of comfort: the refusal of good clothes, moisturizer, painkillers; hard physical training, pursued for its own sake and not because I enjoy it; a sense that there is a set amount of physical pain or self-imposed discipline that I owe the universe.
Examples are easy enough to list. I ran cross-country for all four years of high school. I wasn’t good at it, I didn’t get along with my teammates, and I found almost every moment of every race or practice excruciating. (I was still a fundamentalist Baptist at that point and wondered, during races, whether the literal Hell that awaited the unsaved might feel like this.) Yet I never thought of quitting. I had found the little niche where I could contribute my little tithe of unnecessary pain to the universe, and this, I somehow understood, could give me some sort of purchase on manhood that I was too small and uncoordinated to get by winning fights. I still remember the aggrieved scorn with which my cross-country teammates and I responded to the guy who did quit, after two years, for the perfectly sane and healthy reason that he preferred watching cartoons. He wasn’t on the varsity; his absence had no effect on our team’s standing in the state rankings. But we acted as though he’d cheated us in some way—as though he’d left us to do some terrible group project alone. He had.
For years, as an adult, I was obsessed with learning to box. (An anarchist friend of mine was going to teach me, until he left town for vague but important-sounding reasons, as one’s anarchist friends are prone to do.) For a while I gardened, and when my wife and I first moved to Ann Arbor, I’d spend hours working in the yard, always finding the costliest, least productive, most epic way of doing everything. I tried to remove a tree stump with my hands, a saw, and a shovel. I cleaned the gutters with a ladder so short that I pulled a shoulder muscle reaching overhead to dig out the muck. I’d purchased that ladder, too, at a nearby Salvation Army, and had walked home carrying it on my head like a canoe. I mowed the lawn with a series of Nixon-era push reel mowers I’d rolled home from the same place. I enjoyed none of these activities. I did them out of fear of what would happen if I didn’t become, or continue to be, the kind of person who did them.
One does not talk about this imperative, or scrutinize it. “The subject is irritating,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir of womanhood, but The Second Sex is more interesting than any book about masculinity.22xSimone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley (New York, NY: Knopf, 1976), xiv. First published 1949. Manhood resists straightforward discussion even as men stand accused—correctly, insofar as any accusation directed at such a broad target cannot fail to hit—of sucking the air from every other conversation. We do have plenty of talk about masculinity, but talk is all it is, aimless and nonconsecutive, never the sense of anything developing. Sophisticated opinion rarely gets beyond the elementary observation that masculinity is a social construct, or a set of many such constructs.33xBeauvoir had already, in 1949, pointed out the problem with a discussion that gets no further than this admission: “Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract.… To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today—this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality.” Ibid., xv. As for unsophisticated opinion, it is a dank cellar most impressively represented by the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, who bangs the table for logic and reason while basing much of his thought on the ideas of a discredited occultist. Peterson’s reliance on the work of Carl Jung is revealing: If you want to defend traditional masculinity as a kind of slaying-dragons-for-its-own-sake, but you can’t offer a rational analysis of why this behavior is necessary, or why it is good, or why you need a penis to do it, the archetype theory offers you a pretentious and grandiose way of saying “It is what it is.” It dignifies tautology.
Beneath Peterson, deeper in the cellar, are the vitamin-hawking conspiracy theorists, rape apologists, and Nazis of YouTube, whose pronouncements on masculinity eerily combine the commonsensical with the obscene: one video to tell you how to tie a Windsor knot, another to tell you how to beat a restraining order. But they finally impugn themselves. If you need a YouTube video to help you be a man, then in some essential sense simply beingone is already off the table.
What is this thing we’re trying to be? I resist writing about masculinity just as I resist taking aspirin for the headache that has plagued me, on and off, all this week. Even as I seek to undermine the social power that feminism has shown me I have—even as I apologize for interrupting, seek out the role of second fiddle, quiet my ego—my masculinity, in exactly the same moment, tells me I ought not to be babying it by paying attention to it at all. What do I think it is, anyway—some girl?
Ready for a Fight
When I try to nail down what masculinity is—what imperative gives rise to all this pain seeking and stoicism, this showboating asceticism and loud silence—I come back to this: Masculinity is an abstract rage to protect. By “protect” I don’t mean the actual useful things a man (or anyone else) may do for other people—holding down a hated but necessary job, cleaning the toilet, doing the taxes if he happens to be good at it, even jumping in front of a bullet if he is quick enough off the mark. All functioning adults are “protective” of others in this sense, to the best of their ability. Rather, I mean precisely the activities that stem from a fear that simple usefulness is not enough: that one must train and prepare for eventualities one has no reason to anticipate, must keep one’s dwelling and grooming spartan in case of emergencies, must undertake defensive projects that have no connection to the actual day-to-day flourishing of the people one loves. We’ve all known families in which the men putter away at Rube Goldberg schemes for “securing” the family’s financial or physical safety while the women actually carry everyone through every day, anticipating every emergency, meeting every contingency. We’ve all known families in which such a man so exhausts himself in this way that he constantly increases the burden he places on those same beleaguered women, whom he then blames, perhaps, for not being “supportive.”
And we’ve all noticed the way many men seem constantly on patrol, whether or not there’s anything to patrol against. In Self-Made Man (2006), her memoir about cross-dressing as a man for a year, Norah Vincent immediately notices the way men don’t meet each other’s eyes: how we pointedly refuse to look at each other. “There was something more than respect being communicated in their averted gaze.… It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals.”44xNorah Vincent, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006), 3. To put it simply: Every social encounter between men is potentially a fistfight.You learn this in elementary school and never forget it. No wonder, as we age, that we ignore each other, let our friendships wither, cancel plans. No wonder there are recurring expressions of concern about a “male bonding crisis.” (Why spend your precious leisure hours among possible enemies?) And no wonder many of us have failed to see grabby men as a serious social problem for women, when an American boyhood consists of little else but unorganized combat drills, unwanted invasions of personal territory. It’s all grabs, punches, towel flicks, fake homoerotic aggression, threats of unspecified but grim—and, as one ages—increasingly sexualized violence. One night in my teenage years, as I was clocking out of my shift at McDonald’s, a guy flicked my balls, decisively and painfully. We weren’t on bad terms. It was a greeting.
Protect and Serve
The proponents of traditional masculinity scorn many failings in modern men—our failure to do enough manual labor, hold back tears, grip things, stand up straight with our shoulders back, and any number of other failings.55xJonathan Wells, “Millennial Men Have Gone Soft,” The Telegraph (London), March 16, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/millennial-men-have-gone-soft--but-its-not-our-fault. Kathy Gyngell, “Admit It, No Woman Can Find a Man Who Cries Attractive,” Daily Mail (London), March 23, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3506718/Admit-no-woman-man-cries-attractive-today-s-men-weep-drop-hat-isn-t-sexy.html. David French, “Men Are Getting Weaker,” National Review, August 16, 2016, https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/08/male-physical-decline-masculinity-threatened. Tim Lott, “Jordan Peterson: The Pursuit of Happiness Is a Pointless Goal,” The Guardian (London), January 21, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jan/21/jordan-peterson-self-help-author-12-steps-interview. But most of all, they lament our failure to embrace this protective role, which further suggests its centrality to the whole construct. Political theorist and pundit Harvey Mansfield gives us a summation that is, by the low standards of our cultural conversation on masculinity, relatively straightforward: “A man protects those whom he has taken in his care against dangers they cannot face or handle without him. He makes an issue of some matter, engages his honor, and takes charge of the situation either as a routine or in an emergency.… The willingness to take on risk is the primary protection enveloping all other ways of providing for someone.”66xHarvey C. Mansfield, Manliness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 66.
The merit of taking on risk seems self-evident, of course—it sounds, again, like mere adulthood, or mere goodness. Yet culture whispers to us that a too-narrow concern with securing a future for one’s family or one’s lover can go badly wrong. We have the two Godfather films (the only ones that exist), in which Michael Corleone is led, with nightmarish inevitability, to murder his brother—the brother most in need of protection—and destroy his marriage, precisely because he “loves family.” We have the television series Breaking Bad, which takes the Godfather films’ insight a step further. Intended as a show about a schoolteacher who becomes a meth dealer, it turned, under the pressure of Bryan Cranston’s attempt to make the main character psychologically believable, the story of a man who relishes the role of drug kingpin. “I did it for me. I was good at it,” he tells his wife, then leaves. There is, in fact, a multigenerational family of such stories, its lineage running from Othello to He Knew He Was Right to Dom Casmurro to Black Mirror to, God help us, the current season of the Archie Comics–derived series Riverdale, in which men destroy their households in order to save them.77xI’m not kidding. Those for whom actually watching the show constitutes more risk than they wish to take on should read the very amusing article by Eric Thurm, “How Riverdale Turned Archie into a Fascist,” The Outline, March 22, 2018, https://theoutline.com/post/3830/riverdale-archie-fascism?zd=1&zi=evjqpfsy. Securing your family’s future: You can’t even talk about this urge, as I’ve discovered in writing this paragraph, without coming uncomfortably close to the “Fourteen Words” that define the neo-Nazi creed.88xThat creed is “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Just add “white.” Or just acknowledge, perhaps, that it’s already there.
Without quite meaning to, Harvey Mansfield also offers a useful explanation of how the mere desire to bear risks for a loved one does so often drive a person willy-nilly into an ugly politics of dominance. “Honor is an asserted claim to protect someone,” he writes, “and the claim to protect is a claim to rule. How can I protect you properly if I can’t tell you what to do?”99xMansfield, Manliness, 66. He judges the “entire enterprise of modernity,” with its emphasis on Machiavellian foxiness over lion-hearted classical courage, as “a project to keep manliness unemployed,” and sees some limited hope for its revival in the war on terror, still fairly new at the time he wrote these words, which we now call, with fatalistic humor, the Forever War.1010xQuotes from Manliness, 233. On the concept of the “forever war,” see, for example, Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York, NY: Borzoi/Knopf, 2008). Talk about a claim to rule! But the destructive logic that Mansfield identifies here most often works itself out closer to home than Iraq or Afghanistan. It works itself out in those men who have lived mutely at the center of a stage for so long, providing, or pretending to provide, or believing they provide, for a family that falls apart, or that fails to materialize in the first place, whereupon they pick up a gun and bring the curtain down on the whole play. How can they protect you properly if you won’t let them tell you what to do?
For the anthropologist Peter McAllister, meanwhile, the rot set in considerably earlier than Machiavelli. In his 2009 book regrettably titled Manthropology, he cites studies of bone density suggesting that average Bronze Age men were so much fitter and fleeter than even today’s Olympic athletes that the physical condition of currently living men can be quantified as “the worst…in history.”1111xPeter McAllister, Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be (New York, NY: St Martin’s, 2009), 1. Oddly enough, McAllister reserves his jocularly scolding tone for men only, though his own findings regarding Bronze Age women—also stronger, or at least thicker in the wrists and arms, than today’s humans, both male and female—would seem to put a definitive end to the notion of men as the human race’s hired muscle.
Both Mansfield and McAllister are utterly conventional in seeing manliness as a deep-seated biological necessity threatened by modernity. But human nature and male nature, if either exists at all, are Kantian unknowables, apprehensible only secondarily in their manifestations as culture. Our species’ single most predictable characteristic is our refusal to be defined by instinct, to let evolutionary history answer all our questions. Lions can no more tell men to be aggressive than bonobos can tell us to be polyamorists or cats tell us to be orange. Nor am I convinced that this crisis is new, brought on by feminism or modernity or reduced male-bonding opportunities or the shift to agriculture. Our desire to project greater animal simplicity onto the human past has been refuted again and again, by anthropology, paleoanthropology, history, the study of folklore, yet it survives, precisely because it meets our emotional needs. Conan the Barbarian is a modern invention, like radio and Leopold Bloom. One of the only things we know for sure about those dense-boned paleolithic supermen is that they used their enormous wrists to paint some of the most exquisitely observed art ever made.
Guy Stuff and Women’s Work
There are two senses, both far more meaningful than the Harvey Mansfields of the world can afford to realize, in which men actually are failing to protect the people around them. One, many of us commit violence against women and each other, and the rest of us stand accused, with more or less justice depending on our individual circumstances, of letting those guys get away with it. (Feminists sometimes seem to me to exaggerate the amount of power men have over each other. If you’ve marked yourself as the sort of man who objects to casual rape or wifebeating, the men likeliest to do those things tend not to invite you over—but most of us could do more than we do.) Two, we sit around too much. Nothing has informed my understanding of my own maleness—or my fears about what it might allow me to get away with—than chancing to look through the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift when I was in my twenties, and seeing clearly laid out the total combined hours of precious life the average woman loses to home and office. Judging by time use studies from the 1960s and ’70s, Hochschild concludes, “women worked roughly fifteen hours longer each week than men.”1212xArlie Russell Hochschild, with Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York, NY: Penguin, 1990), 3. Reading this sentence made me feel tinier than losing a fistfight ever did. If these numbers were true, then even midcentury men, the so-called greatest generation and their younger brothers, already understood by that point to have attained a height of manly stoicism to which my generation could hardly aspire, were shirkers and slackers who had failed to stand between their own wives and life-destroying overwork. What had these men been doing the whole time, anyway? Shooting, perhaps; hunting deer; puttering with engines: “guy stuff,” in its commonly accepted sense—the useful arts done specifically in such a way as to be drained of immediate usefulness. A more recent study—albeit one commissioned by a grape juice company, so caveat lector—confirms that contemporary men are, in at least one sense, lazy snowflakes: We allow women with jobs outside the home to work an average ninety-eight hours a week.1313xMaricar Santos, “When You Factor in Family Duties, the Average Working Mom Works 98 Hours a Week,” Working Mother, July 26, 2017, https://www.workingmother.com/when-you-factor-in-family-duties-average-working-mom-works-98-hours-week. Even if you factor out women with whom no man is obligated to split chores—women who live with women, for example—that’s presumably a lot of work we men are not doing.
The other inescapable problem with the idea of Man as Protector, even more fundamental than its propensity toward hierarchical violence, or its empirical falseness, is this: Protectors always fail. Stare far enough down the corridors of time—as men do in the watches of the night, in the interstices of the day, while driving, praying, holding a baby—and all you’ll see are threats. Every car is a murder weapon, every bruise a malignancy. The world is the sort of place in which statistical probability reaches down like a giant and swats us and our loved ones away. You cannot be a protector any more than you can be a changeling or a fairy princess.
By this I don’t mean, of course, that we should give up. Men will not stop worrying about their wives, or their husbands, or their children, or their friends and coworkers and dogs, or about the little patches of civilization to which they may feel they’ve contributed. Nor will women, or the nonbinary (a category that I sometimes think includes most of us). Love itself commands us to do whatever we can. But there is nothing specifically masculine about this responsibility. (An enraged mom is a proverbial terror.) It also imposes on men a burden that would drive anyone insane; it ties impossibility to our very identity. Despite what’s been communicated in every action movie ever made, nobody is wily enough to stave off mortality in every instance. Do everything you can about the dangers that are clear and present, but anything beyond this is folly. Simply being a good person is hard enough without the additional burden of being a mythical creature.
Incongruous and Incompatible
But given an acceptance of mortality as the alternative, it is no wonder that old ideas of the masculine persist, in a kind of camp afterlife, transmitted largely via jokes we really mean and ironies that aren’t fully ironic. (Think of the way “beta male” has become a category we all half-believe in, even those of us who rightly reject the notion of “alpha males.”)1414xThe scientist most responsible for popularizing the concept of the “Alpha Wolf,” a category later grafted onto humankind for no reason in particular, has repeatedly retracted his own claims. See L. David Mech, “Wolf News and Info,” http://www.davemech.org/news.html. I am indebted to the writer Saladin Ahmed for bringing this piece to my attention via a widely noticed tweet. Men know, in many cases, that “manhood” doesn’t have a fixed meaning,yet we still feel we have failed ourselves—or, if we take McAllister’s view, perhaps we have outlived ourselves.1515xAs I wrote this essay, I fretted that an argument that seems to reject masculinity as an ideal would insult trans men: Here I am, thoughtlessly tossing aside what they spend blood and treasure to realize. But it turns out that the notion of “men trapped within women’s bodies” has come under fire from within that community as well. See, for example, Andrea Long Chu, “On Liking Women,” n+1, Winter 2018, https://nplusonemag.com/issue-30/essays/on-liking-women. Clearly, we have failed women. (Again, these are accusations that are true perforce, because they are lobbed at such a statistically massive target; still, we see them confirmed all around us.) We react to this knowledge in various ways. Many of my male friends cannot disclose even a fairly serious personal problem to another man, even in a private conversation, without first offering up a short litany of the categories of human beings whose oppression is undoubtedly worse. It is as though they feel they must apologize for claiming the human prerogative to hurt—for admitting that they are people, and not flesh bags containing mostly privilege and water. Other men, especially white and cis men, long, or tell themselves they long, for the dignity of having something real to worry about. In Leonard Michaels’s The Men’s Club (1981), a group of men come together in an imitation of women’s consciousness-raising groups to tell their stories. (They end up having a food fight.) Since everybody—even heiresses and Habsburg princelings—has at least one real thing to worry about, such talk is fatuous, but it tells us how far these men have lost sight of themselves, their lives.
Most of all, we feel like a bad joke. When we’re two or three drinks in, we’ll tell you that we feel like impostors—not merely in our jobs, but in our skins. I stand in front of my English 101 classes and explain what a thesis statement is; at no time do I cease picturing myself as some Ricky Gervais character, covered with flop sweat, flapping his flabby jaws in a travesty of expertise. I clear the dead branches in my backyard, thinking all the while of some Heideggerian peasant-in-the-Black-Forest archetype who would do this job better than I, his head clear, his feet never tripping, as mine repeatedly do, over the downspout. I run and work out a lot, feeling always like a shambling, pale parody of a man who runs and works out a lot. Why, from the top of a nasty gender hierarchy, should we feel so risible? Mass culture represents us badly, of course; one is never at a loss for depictions of men qua human beings in art and literature, but when it comes to men qua men, your choices are generally between stick figures, between Death Wish or Animal House, the Batman of Christian Bale or the Batman of Adam West. But mass culture represents everybody badly, and it represents most people worse.
Perhaps the real answer has to do with the nature of what is funny. Chesterton wrote that humor consists in the perception of incongruity. We laugh when a man sits on his hat because of the inverse relationship between the man’s intelligence, power, and dignity and that of the hat that has nevertheless outsmarted him. Well, a man, consider him however you wish, is all disproportion. Viewed through the lens of feminism, he is a sick joke—he looks like a person, but the crime statistics make you wonder. If we take a more conservative view, a man looks sillier than ever: Here he is, the First Sex, the un-relative being, Adam with all his ribs, playing video games and picking his nose. Being thoroughly modern, of course, and owning a laptop to watch TV on and a smartphone with which to stay In The Conversation, we view ourselves from all these incompatible angles at once.
Some men decide to let us know that they aren’t jokes. They turn sullen and grumpy, like people out of a Frank Miller comic. Or they turn defensive, a trait I cannot really blame in anyone, in a society so bitterly competitive—I particularly cannot fault it in men of color, poor men, and immigrants, whose masculinity subjects them simultaneously to actual serious threat from white men and to the feminist scrutiny that they, along with the rest of us, warrant. But defensiveness has a well-known tendency to make us behave in ways that are laughable. And then a handful of men try to reconstruct a consensus that has decisively gone. They remind me of Bron, the antihero of Samuel Delany’s science-fiction novel Triton (1976), who so badly desires to revive True Manliness in a polymorphously perverse far future that he undergoes a sex change (which, in the world of that novel, is easily procured, free, and painless). Since he appears to be among the last people in the galaxy who still understand that “what gives the species the only value it has are men,”1616xSamuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 231. First published in 1976 as Triton. he will at least find a man who feels as he does, so that they may together revive an ancient sort of love. He winds up alone. Delany’s message is clear: Bron is so silly that he cannot even be allowed the dignity of, in effect, screwing himself.
Evil things, as C.S. Lewis wrote, are always mere inches away from being laughable: “Only by being terrible do they avoid being comic.”1717xC.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017), 35. First published 1960. (I have thought of these words often during the Trump administration.) We are lucky when wounded masculinity chooses only to make a farce of itself.
The Stupidest Thing I Ever Did
As for my masculinity, it has never recovered from the defeat it was handed one night by my wife, the very person for whom I had been, I thought, patiently preparing it. We had had a conversation about chivalry. I thought I could save the idea by retaining the bits of it that seemed to offer the least advantage to men and jettisoning the rest. In everyday circumstances, I insisted, men and women must be understood as interchangeable equals—no more pay gaps, no more devaluing of women’s work as such—but in the world of lurid, bad-movie scenarios, it had to be my job, as the man, to die for her. If we were on a sinking ship, she’d get the last seat on the lifeboat. (She hates sailing.) If we were attacked by terrorists, I would get myself killed stalling them, so she could run away. (Terrorist attacks are not frequent in Ann Arbor.) She laughed this off, but later grew thoughtful. She asked me, very earnestly, why should she want to live with the grief and shame of having failed to save my life? Why should she be automatically drafted for those forms of suffering? If her love for me meant the same thing to her that my love for her did to me, then even my watered-down, break-glass-in-emergencies chivalry was still an insult to that love. It was still, as she put it, “hierarchical bullshit.” I cannot quite accept the emotional consequences of this, but I know she is right.
Nevertheless, I still have moments when I start to wonder whether I should take up bowhunting, or woodchopping, or doomsday prep. My wife will, at these times, remind me of an incident, early in our relationship, in which I did act as her manly protector. We were walking back to that same tiny, pillowless Milwaukee room, when a teenage boy, part of a group of three passing in the other direction, yanked her purse out of her hand. They took off. I ran after them, into a dark alley, where, of course, one of them brandished a gun and relieved me of my wallet.
In other words, my wife reassures me of masculinity by reminding me of the stupidest thing I ever did. What purse, after all, is worth a human life, even mine? And what did I think I was going to do to these poor, drug-addled latchkey children anyway—over, again, a purse? And, worst of all, what of the woman for whose sake I had undertaken the whole pointless exercise, whom I had left defenseless, unprotected and alone, now too many yards away from where I stood, already cursing my blunder, tossing my wallet to the ground? How lucky, in that moment, to be nothing worse than a joke.