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Monday, July 19, 2004 

The jock ethic revisited

"What about the jock ethic?  You know, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing..."

"That's not the real jock ethic, that's the jock ethic that people who don't know a hell of a lot about jocks believe.  The real jock ethic's a lot more complicated."
"My, we're a little touchy about the jock ethic, aren't we?"
"I didn't mean you," I said.
"Maybe you haven't outgrown the jock ethic yourself."
"Maybe it's not something to outgrow," I said.
- Brenda Loring and Spenser in Robert B. Parker's Mortal Stakes

Dave Matthews Band's Live at Fulsom Field was playing in the background as I opened the freezer door and took a package of chicken breasts out.  A quarter filled flat bottle of clear liquid lay behind where the chicken breasts had been.  It's been collecting frost for a while.
In my family, men have a drink while cooking.  Which isn't often.  My dad cooks if the meal involves venison or a barbecue.  But that's about it. 
After the chicken thawed I put some rice on to cook and peeled three cloves of garlic.  These I sliced up into thin pieces.  Into a pan went the garlic, the chicken breasts - each of which I'd cut in half - and a tablespoon of margarine.
I had the place to myself.  Shokes had gone to the gym.  I love it when I have the place to myself.  Maybe I'm odd, but I'm very comfortable by myself.  Three years ago I lived alone for four months while the woman I'd been seeing and living with had been on a co-op term at the neutrino observatory up in Sudbury.  I loved it.
In a bowl I combined lime juice, ground ginger and crushed red pepper.  The recipe calls for finely grated lime peel.  I'm too lazy for that.  
I looked back at the pan when it started sputtering.  I swore loudly, flipped the chicken, stirred the garlic up a little and added some more margarine.  It had all been on the verge of burning.  I'm forever doing that. 
I was surprised to find that the chicken was done by the time I'd peeled an orange.  Time seems to go faster when I'm cooking.  I took the pan off the heat for a moment, cut the orange lengthwise in half and then sideways into slices.  The slices went on the chicken and it all went back on the heat again, covered, to cook for another minute or so.
There's a question that has been occupying my mind for a while.  Lately, I've been thinking about it a lot. 
How am I supposed to be a man in today's world?
Sitting down to eat the meal I'd cooked myself, the question bubbled up again out of wherever such thoughts come from.
It may not seem like that significant a question.  Indeed, to many men I suppose it's not.  But I can't speak for them or about their experience.  Because we don't tend to talk about this.  I don't know why other men don't talk about it.  I know why I don't. 
These days if you're male and openly questioning what that means, then it seems that you have issues with your sexuality or your gender identity.  So to openly wonder what it means to me to be a man feels very risky, because I don't have issues with either of those.  I'm comfortable in my attraction to women.  The gender I identify as is the same as my genetic sex.  But what I'm less sure about is what it means to be a man.
I have my opinions, but to voice them I have to risk people misunderstanding me for other reasons.  I have to risk you thinking that I'm talking about how "real men" should act.  Yes, homosexual and bisexual men are "real men".  No, I'm not saying a trangendered person isn't a "real man".  To me, sexual identity and chromosomal sex don't make you a man or prevent you from being one.  I'm interesting in how a man acts.  Not all men, or some men.  Just a man.  One man.  Me.  
That's important.  I'm only talking about me.  I'm not saying that other men should live the same way.
One of the most basic beliefs I hold is that there is no one right way to live.  As a consequence, I also believe that there is no one right way to be a man.  There are as many ways to be a man as there are men.  Which is why the question is so important to me.  If I can be any kind of man I choose, then I'd better be happy with my choice.
In addition, it's not as clear as it used to be.  It used to be that a man's path was practically etched in stone.  Finish school, get a job, get married, have kids, make money and give your kids a better life than you had growing up.  For all intents and purposes, we were bound to that path with chains.  That's not to say I don't want a family.  I do.  But when I have one, it will be because I choose it, not because I think I should have one.  I'm not bound to that path.
It was my dad's path and he has walked it well, never flinching from its hardships or complaining about them.  That - toughness - is a part of the old path too.  Don't show pain.  Don't show fear.  Don't show weakness.  Be strong for your family. 
Men defined themselves by their relationships.  Husband, father, provider, protector.  They didn't define themselves in terms of themselves.  Sound familiar?
But the old path doesn't work anymore because the world has changed.
The women's movement changed everything.  For the better, I feel I must add.  But the women's movement hasn't been followed by a corresponding men's movement.  Women have redefined what it means to be women, but men haven't done the same for themselves.  For the most part, we men are still working with the old paradigms even though the world has changed.
I'm not calling for a men's movement.  I'm not calling for anything.  I am nobody to tell others how to be men.  I'm just trying to find my way in the tangle. 
In my life, three men have taught me what I know about being a man.  The first was my dad.  A jock, a hunter and a family man, I learned what he had to teach me.  But even in the small rural town I grew up in, I knew that I needed to learn more. 
The second was my sensei.  A classically trained martial artist, he taught me more than just how to defend myself. 
The third, oddly enough, doesn't exist anywhere except in the heads of a few.  He's a fictional character created by Robert B. Parker.  He's a private detective - of all things - named Spenser.  A former boxer who likes to cook.  A former cop who wanted to do more than just throw people in prison.  A thug who can quote the classics as well as an English professor.  In one book - I can't remember which - he says something to the effect of, "It's not the ends that matter.  It's the means."  Spenser features in over thirty novels and I had read every one in print before ever going to University.
The common element in each man's life is a code of behaviour.
When cleaning out my room at my parents' house a couple weeks ago I came across a page covered with my scrawl.  Across the top was written: How to be a man.  The page was a bulleted list.  Of rules.  A code of behaviour.  Most of which is still relevant now.  Most of which I left behind when I went to University and have only started to return to in the last year or so.
I've spent most of the last five years of my life scheming and planning.  Trying to figure out how I can make the world a better place.  How I can do my part to save it.  From crime, from societal collapse, from environmental catastrophe.  I spent a long time going nuts trying to figure it out.  Finally I had to admit that whatever I did, it would never be enough.  One person cannot make such a difference.  What happens to someone who builds their identity around saving the world and then is forced to admit that nothing he does will change what will happen?
He becomes lost.  He questions what he should do.  How he should act.  Should he fall back on what his dad taught him?  On how to be a man?  That won't do.  But is there something to that?  Is there something to living by a code?
There's an episode of Angel where the title character says, "If in the end nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do." 

That line has stuck with me for years, even though I didn't consciously understand what it meant when I first heard it.  It rung true, but I didn't know why.  In thinking a lot about this sort of thing in the last few months, it finally started to make sense.

To me, that's what it comes down to.  To paraphrase Parker, behaviour for its own sake.  In a word, honour.
The word sounds so archaic.  I guess that is so because we identify it with antiquated traditions.  With chivalry, with sportsmanship, with the old path of manhood.  It's gotten such a bad rap, but the concept is still a noble one.  Despite how it is sometimes used.  "She dishonoured the family," is a common excuse for abuse in certain countries overseas.  I know nothing of these men's honour except that it isn't for me. 

I want to reclaim the word.  I want to be able to proudly say that honour more than anything else is what has guided most of my behaviour in the last year and a half, even if I couldn't have articulated that at the time.  I can truthfully say it, but not proudly. 
To be honest, I'm embarassed.