When my son was five and just learning to read, he liked to call out the words he saw on roadside signs. One day out of the blue he announced from the backseat, “Be a man!” We were driving down West End, on the way to his school.
“What?” I said.
“Be a man!” he said, grinning at me in the rearview mirror. We had just passed Beaman Pontiac, one of several car dealerships in Nashville owned by the Beaman family.
This became a joke between us. Whenever we passed a Beaman sign we called out together “Be a man!”
This father-son interplay touched a chord with both of us. My son, not yet a man, was intensely interested in the concept, at some level sensing his trajectory towards maturity. As a young father, midway on the arc of life between my father and my son, my unfolding notion of being a man loomed large. My five year-old son and I didn’t have deep conversations about what it meant to be a man, or the complexities of masculinity in modern American culture. But we were celebrating the deep resonance of this primal challenge: to fully inhabit one’s (gendered) being.
Being a man (or a woman) is not a simple matter. Gender identity lies at the nexus of nature and nurture, where biology meets culture and history. When I was growing up in the fifties in a small town in Texas, being a boy meant wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and cowboy boots, and packing a cap gun in a holster. Later it meant learning to shoot a real gun. It was important to open doors for women, and call them “ma’am.” Sports and hunting, work, dogs, cars, being a Boy Scout, driving a nail straight and true, changing a tire, learning to tie a tie, adding a string of numbers quickly and correctly, mastering the rules of poker – all were facets of the mystery of learning to “be a man” in that time and place.
My father was my model for this complex endeavor. He was a charming, hardworking man, who rarely expressed any emotion other than occasional irritation. An Army Air Force major, he commanded the 365th squadron of Thunderbolt fighters in World War II. He was seriously wounded by antiaircraft fire over France after D-Day, yet managed to lead his squadron home safely. He never talked openly about his war experiences, but I knew he kept his medals (Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Bronze Star) in his top dresser drawer. He was a quiet hero, gallant with my mother, responsible and disciplined. He hunted deer in the fall, watched sports on TV, and read mysteries. He became a dedicated leader in my mother’s fundamentalist church. He handed me a book about sex when I was fifteen: “Let me know if you have any questions,” he said. I was as embarrassed for him as I was for myself.
Well. The model for masculinity I grew up with had limitations. (There is, of course, no perfect parent.) How was I to learn how to express emotion, or find ways to embrace my aesthetic sensibilities, or explore my sexuality? Every boy of necessity must find additional models to learn from. It is his challenge to courageously explore his world, learning by trial and error how to be a man – his way.
There are as many ways to be a man as there are men. Cultural memes, personal experiences, and biological parameters form the foundation for our development. From these materials each man creates his own expression of masculinity in his world.