I. This One Time
A. This one time at my buddy ____’s high school graduation party I came outside of myself. One moment I was playing volleyball in a grassy yard, flirting with a girl with pink hair and a pierced tongue who had the habit of looking over her shoulder and winking at me, which for a horny nineteen-year-old boy back from his first year of college, (his first time apart from Chicago, lonely and displaced), that simple shoulder and wink, that pink-haired girl, drove me mad with desire; and the next moment I stood face-to-face with a boy who was as tall as my chin, stocky and thick, wearing a baseball cap with a frayed brim, and behind him stood a group of other boys in more baseball caps (See: Group), all of whom had driven en masse to “have a word” with my buddy, who was falling in love with a girl who was falling in love with him but was still involved with a dude who also wore a baseball cap but did not come out of the car but instead sat in the shadowed backseat of a Ford Taurus.
1. What Was Felt
a. A tunnel vision of heat. At the end of that tunnel, which was as long as the length of my arm and ended in a fisted hand, was a face without features.
2. What Was Heard
a. At first guttural noise. Like apes. Like gray-back gorillas in dominance rituals.
b. Then incoherent sound. Like the jumbled speech of every adult in Peanut cartoons. But sound contains motive, and the motive was clear.
3. What Was Thought
a. I could kill you.
b. You are small. I am big.
d. I hope pink-haired girl is watching. I hope I get laid tonight.
e. What if I rose up only to be knocked down? This guy looks like a bowling ball ready to obliterate any pin.
f. Maybe this was a mistake. And now what? Fuck.
g. My mother.
h. I can’t back down. Even if I want to. I’d be a pussy. A Sally. A Nancy Boy. A rep like that sticks with you. Like Joey who peed his pants in the third grade. He’s called Wetter, ten years later. There is one way this can go down. I got too much to protect. (See: Pride.)
4. What Was Said
a. “This looks like a fun party. Why weren’t we invited?”
b. “You got be this tall to enter this ride,” I said.
c. “Haha. You a funny guy?”
d. “I look funny, but I’m not funny. Not today.”
e. “I’m looking for ____. I hear this is his party. I want to congratulate him.”
f. “I’m ____. Congratulate me then.”
5. What Was Heard
a. “Dude, ____ is bigger than we thought.”
b. “Ira, stop,” said someone, an older voice, a mother or aunt.
c. “Fuck him up.”
6. What Was Felt
a. A hand on my shoulder. A pulsing squeeze, like a rushed heart.
7. What Was Heard
a. My name said again, this time as if through a wall of water.
b. My buddy’s Scottish terrier barking from behind a fence.
c. The rumble of cars on the busy street.
d. Other dudes saying dude things.
e. C + C Music Factory’s song Things that Make You Go Hmmmmm from speakers in the garage.
f. Someone’s breath on my ear.
8. What Was Said
a. “You look like a tough guy,” he said. “You a tough guy today?”
b. “I’m a tough guy every day,” I said.
9. What Was Thought
a. That was the coolest line of all time. Clint Eastwood shit, Charles Bronson shit, like “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact, 1983) or “Do you believe in Jesus? You’re gonna meet him” (Death Wish, 1974). (See: Entertainment).
b. Did pink-haired girl hear that?
c. Does she think I’m cool?
d. Guy, are you scared?
e. I’m scared. But something else, too. Joy. Joy?
f. You can just back away, guy. I won’t think badly of you. You and your buddies can go. And I can go back to playing volleyball. I can go back to eating graduation food, and getting messy with the Italian roast beef sandwich sopping with juice. I can drink the beer I shouldn’t be having. I can take up all of pink-haired girl’s time.
g. My mother.
h. I will kill you.
10. What Was Felt
a. Adrenaline, starting in the chest and spreading throughout the body. And it felt good. Felt like a euphoric rush. Like a good toke of weed that numbs and tingles.
b. Fear evaporated.
c. So does doubt.
d. So does reason.
e. I was outside of myself.
A. The Pressure Men Put on Men
1. I remember exactly when it happened, that moment when being a man was equated to power and powerlessness. It was in Mr. Rein’s Social Studies class in the 7th grade. Rob, Abad, and I sat next to each other. Rob had the habit of flexing his forearm. He’d say, “You see this? Beautiful, ain’t it?” Abad and I—we’d flex, too, showing off our mini-boy muscles. (See: Penis). One day, Rob pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper from his back pocket. On the paper were names of some of the boys in our class. “This is the list,” Rob said, “of the toughest boys in school.” I looked at the list. Rob was ranked second. Of course, he was. He made the list. First was Doug Ulate. This was indisputable. No one was tougher than Doug Ulate. Doug Ulate was in a different category of tough. So tough that he was known only as Doug Ulate, never just Doug. My name appeared at the fifth position. Abad was in ninth. Abad was not happy. “Ninth? Dude, I can totally beat up…” and he went on to name the people above him, including me. Rob shook his head. Only way to climb up the rankings was to beat up the person above you. Later that day, Abad picked a fight with Doug Ulate. The next day, Abad’s name was off the list. The next day, Abad didn’t come to school. When he returned, his face looked like a softened peach.
a. There were other lists, too. Like one for the hottest girls in the class.
b. And hottest teachers.
c. And celebrities we’d like to put it in.
d. And we’d say put it in. And we said cruder things we’d like to do.
e. Because our bodies were changing. And our voices, too. And a sense of invincibility that happens to boys in puberty. Or in heat.
f. Sometimes we were forced into situations because we feared the alternative. Because we feared. Like when Bob Shelton, 8th grader and second toughest in his class, told me, a fifth ranked 7th grader, to fight Dan Dearman, unranked classmate. “After school, I want you two to duke it out. If you don’t you’ll have to fight me.” No one wanted to fight Bob Shelton. Bob Shelton was crazy and did crazy shit. Talk circulated around school about him. He tortured cats. He stuck himself with needles without showing an inkling of pain. He snapped a tree in half with a single punch. So, I waited for Dan Dearman behind the Dunkin’ Donuts. A group of boys gathered around. Fights were a spectator sport in south Chicago. (See: Entertainment). Dan arrived on his bicycle. He took off his helmet. Sighed. Said, “Let’s get this over with.” It was quick. Like ten seconds. But this is what I remember; this is what haunts. When I punched Dan in the face, and he said, “Enough,” and I backed off, there were men gathered at the Dunkin Donut window, clapping. Men who were thirty, forty, fifty. Who wore frayed baseball caps. Who I couldn’t hear but was able to read their lips. “Fuck him up.” “Punch that bitch.” And there was one man, behind all these other men, who met my eyes and shook his head, his face full of disappointment. I turned around and went home. I wanted to cry, but didn’t know why. Why did I want to cry when I won the fight, when the next day news spread and I moved up two spots in the rankings? When Bob Shelton heard about the fight, he tilted his head and said, “You actually did that? I was just messin’.”
B. In Packs We Are Mighty
1. In my younger and dumber days, the dudes would gather about once a week and drink and talk about the violence we’d committed. These gatherings were usually in someone’s basement. There’d be a lot of posturing. A lot of one-upmanship. A lot of talk that started with “This One Time” (See: This One Time). As the night grew darker, we got drunker. And when we got drunker, we got dumber. And then someone would say, “Let’s go break shit.” Someone would say, “Let’s bloody our knuckles,” and then the concurring sounds of gorillas. We’d drive in three or four cars to a party we knew of. We’d knock on the door, and if they let us in, we’d wreck the place. Trash it like rock stars in hotel rooms. We’d impose our dominance because we were a “we” and a “we” is not as lonely as an “I.” If we weren’t let in, we lit driveways on fire. We smashed car windows. We picked fights with a random dude, emasculating the hell out of him. Shattered his pride. (See: Lose Face; See: Fragility). What was he to do then but confront us, we who were itching to hurt, to tear apart? We were one collective mind of violence, and to deviate from the collective, to doubt—well then—you’d be a “pussy”; you’d be seen as uncool.
a. I doubted. I always doubted.
b. But I never voiced it.
c. It is easier to throw a punch when you have others behind you. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying it’s easier.
d. This one time at my buddy ____’s graduation party I threw a punch because I had friends behind me.
e. This one time at my buddy ____’s graduation party someone punched me because he had friends behind him.
f. Now, my male friends and I do not go out and wreak havoc in the world. We are white collar academics. But the talk we talk is sometimes similar to those talks in the basement. We cloak it in big words and over-intellectualism. We quote scholars, always males, and writers, always male. We beat our chests at our own brilliance. This feeds our collective ego.
g. Which is fragile like an eggshell.
h. Really, we fear our penises are too small.
C. What Men Have Done In the Name of Women
1. Dear Helen of Troy, We started a war for you. We died for you. Our pride was twisted up in you. It was not your fault. It was ours. We couldn’t think straight at the sight of you. We killed poor Hector and dragged his body by chariot through the dust of camp. We built a wooden horse and filled it with soldiers, a ruse for your kingdom to open its doors. We shot an arrow through the tendon of Achilles’ heel, rendering him mortal, leading him to his demise. For you, Helen of Troy, we have put away reason. For you, Helen of Troy, we stopped at nothing short of victory. We must show you, Helen, the greatness of men.
2. Dear Mom, You don’t know this, but I have done terrible things because of you. Because I’m a Mama’s boy. I’m proud of being a Mama’s Boy. Proud to be your son. (See: Pride). You taught me no one should talk badly about family, and if they do, you teach them a lesson. One time someone said a “Your momma” joke and I threw a chair at his head. One time someone made fun of your Thai accent, and I waited behind a tree and then side kicked his head. One time someone said you were ugly, and I drove to his mailbox and blew it up; when a new one was put up, I blew it up again. I did this for you, Mom. I protected your honor. I protected you. I am a good son. A good son. Right?
3. Dear Pink-Haired Girl, I won’t lie. That punch was partly for you. My knuckles, the four of them, contained each letter of your name. I did not love you, or even like you. But I desired you. I lusted for you. I thought you would want me too if I proved myself somehow, if I showed I was tough and cool and strong. This was what you wanted, right? This is what all women want, right? A man unafraid to throw a punch. A man unafraid. A man. I’m a man. Your man. Man?
D. Violence Men Have Done to Women Because They Are Men
1. Too, too, too many unconscionable things. This outline cannot contain the idiocy of men. It can barely contain the idiocy of this man.
III. Pride Kills Logic, Kills Rationality, Kills
A. Losing Face
1. This is an Asian concept, something my mother impressed upon me at a young age. Most Asians—men and women—live their daily lives in protection of their face. Not from a punch. Not from anything physical. Face here is a metaphor. It is pride, honor, dignity, and reputation. To build face is to increase social standing. To save face is to rescue oneself from embarrassment. You do not, under any circumstance, want to lose face. To lose face is a personal insult in a public manner, is to be stripped bare in front of others, is one of the worst offenses in my family. This concept is not exclusively reserved for Asians, however. Men in America are always worried about their face. Losing face chips away at the psyche, and to find or save face requires an immediate and sometimes violent response. Revenge. Pride. The two are inextricably linked. The South Chicago Boy mentality: He talked shit about me, so I need to blow up a mailbox or light a tree on fire or worse; she cheated on me, so I have to degrade her or hit her or worse, much much worse. In ancient Japan, if one lost face, one committed suicide, an act that saved face, an honorable and selfless death. Here, if you lose face, as a terrible acquaintance of mine used to say, you “hit a bitch.” Bitch in this example is genderless, yet no less feminizing and dehumanizing.
a. Sometimes, I imagine my face as an infinite amount of masks. If one face is lost, then there is another behind it, and then another, and then another. There would be no need for embarrassment that turns to anger that prompts idiocy. Because my face is my face is my face.
b. When my father cheated on my mother and the Thai Buddhist temple in Chicago learned of his infidelity, rumors spread like the fall of dominoes. My mother lost face. She stopped going to temple. She stopped answering phone calls from former friends, who wanted to gossip, instead of console. She entered a deep dark depression.
c. Her depression turned to anger.
d. She beat my father with a metal lighter used to light fireplaces. The lighter was over a foot long. One day, I came home to find it bent in an “L.”
e. On an episode of the podcast Radiolab, host Adam Cole begins the show aptly named “The Bad Show” with a story about a man who wanted to kill his wife. The man’s friend recounts the story. How this friend was not a killing type. Was never angry. Was conscientious and courteous and kind. Except for this one day when his friend admitted to him that he wanted to kill his wife. What caused this extreme reaction? His wife made fun of his shirt in front of friends. He lost face. He was going to kill his wife.
f. The man didn’t kill his wife, but disappeared for months in fear that he would.
g. The rest of the show went on to illustrate that this desire to kill, this need to commit murder, is in everybody.
h. But mostly men.
i. Because somehow men think killing is a right.
i. In Rodney Jones’s poem, “The Troubles That Women Start Are Men,” the speaker of the poem, a boy who is watching the small talk between his father and Bill Winkles, a man who just committed murder and is waiting for the police to come and arrest him, reflects on the casualness of it all. “How strange, I thought, that no one prayed, /And strange that I was there, actually there, / With grown men, not sad or happy, but proud….” In this poem a woman never comes on stage. Never gives voice. She is merely a mention, a glancing tidbit of causality. The act of murder becomes an expectation. A right. And because it is a right, it is something to be proud of, something to protect.
B. Synonyms of Pride—the bad type—as in: the Author’s pride prevented him from apologizing to Dan Dearman for punching him in his face, and it was his pride that made him embrace the adulation of his fellow boy peers for his violent act, and it was his pride that made him do other idiotic things in his youth and thereafter, like blowing up mailboxes and getting into a brawl at a buddy’s graduation party.
1. hubris, arrogance, ego, egotism, narcissism, superciliousness, self-love, conceit, vanity
a. Lesser known synonym: Penis
i. It is where pride is stored, worshiped by men like an idol. The ultimate symbol of male-dom.
• Just heard a man catcall a woman on a busy street: “I got a big one for you baby.”
• Woman does not look up to acknowledge man. She makes a snipping motion with her fingers.
• The man flinches.
• I flinch.
• The penis is collective fragility.
1. Pride in men is so fragile that if we shatter it into a million little pieces, watch us scurry to put it back together, this imperfect puzzle, this prize we guard with our life. Watch how desperate we become.
a. A desperate man is a dangerous man.
IV. In the Name of
A. The Bible and Buddha
1. The Bible
a. A dude knocked on our door and wanted to talk God. No one was home but me. I was ten. So instead of having a conversation with a boy, he handed me a book and said it would save my soul. I wasn’t sure what soul was but I wanted to know why it needed saving. So I began reading, and it didn’t take long for confusion to take hold. Why were there two creation stories? I hadn’t studied the fine art of narrative yet, hadn’t taken any creative writing courses, but I knew there wasn’t supposed to be two beginnings to a story. These two beginnings were at odds with each other. The first one God created everything and then man and woman at the same time. In the second one, woman is created from man’s rib, almost as an afterthought. Beyond these stories, the Bible was wicked violent, like watching a never-ending horror movie. Murder. Sodomy. Wars. All in the name of a man.
i. That’s if you choose to believe God is a man. He can of course be a woman or genderless.
• But in the Bible, God does idiotic things, which leads me to believe he has to be male.
b. I’ve asked a lot Christian friends about these two stories and have yet to find an answer that satiates my curiosity. Most of the time, I get, “The Bible was written by a man.”
i. Or a lot of men.
ii. From an atheist friend: “The Bible is one letter away from bile.”
c. In the Old Testament, God is so Asian. He never wants to lose face.
a. I’ve always wondered why Thai monks were only men. I never met a lady monk. When I’d go to Thailand, no lady monk walked the streets for alms. No lady monk led afternoon prayer, and no lady monk delivered the sermon that would follow. A monk cannot look a woman in the eye. It’s one of 227 rules. (By the way, Buddhist nuns have 331, one of which is to not arouse “the desires of men.”) If a woman gives a monk an offering, a monk cannot take the offering by hand but rather the offering is placed on a piece of yellow cloth and pulled in.
b. The biggest scandals in Thailand are when monks are found to have inappropriate relations with women. Front page stuff. On the news, the monk’s face will be everywhere because he has lost face in the biggest way. The woman’s face, however, will be blurred to protect her identity. But really, she is just another woman. Her identity—as seen by her culture, as viewed through the lens of Buddhism—is in blur.
i. There’s this tale of a monk who breaks his celibacy. Buddha got wicked pissed. He told the monk, “It is better for you to have put your manhood in the mouth of a venomous snake or a pit of burning charcoal than a woman.” Oh. Snap.
c. Once, while I was visiting a meditation center in the mountains of northern Thailand, I learned that the nuns were required to cook and serve monks their morning meal. The nuns swept the grounds. Cleaned up after the monks. My family said the nuns were providing a great service. They were accruing good karma for the next life. I did not say what I thought.
d. I don’t know why I’m Buddhist, but I’m afraid to be nothing.
i. I don’t know why I call myself a man, but I’m afraid to be nothing.
B. Religion Does Not Care About Gender Equality
1. Quite the opposite. If we look at some religions for guidance, then we are looking at gender disparity, and gender disparity is a system of inequity, and a system of inequity is about power—those who have it and those who don’t—and when there is power there is always the abuse of it.
a. Mostly by men.
b. I know more atheists now.
i. I understand why.
c. Too many men have killed in the name of religion.
V. This One Time II
A. This one time I hid behind the laundry bin on the second floor landing and watched my parents fight. Their marriage had unraveled. My mother’s scream woke me up, and I snuck out of my bedroom and peered over the bin. It was the middle of the night. The streetlight was bright outside, the curtains wide open. I wondered if there was anyone looking in, like a TV show. The touch lamp on the side table cast shadows across my parents’ faces and into the family room. It made the green carpet the color of a forest at night. At first my mother’s voice was shrill and piercing. She pushed her voice to its limits, getting hoarser and hoarser, so hoarse it became an angry rasp. I did not hear my father. I did not hear him because he said nothing. My mother paced the living room with the intensity of a predator. Back and forth. Back and forth. Her steps were loud on the carpet. As loud as her voice. But there was something even louder. Something that burrowed deep into my brain, like a cocklebur, impossible to get rid of. The sound of her slaps. On his face. On his chest. The top of his head. She did not hold back. She hit my father with all she had. She was outside herself. She had become someone else entirely. My father aimed his eyes at the china cabinet, at my golfing trophies in the china cabinet. He did not retaliate. With each hit, he sank into himself. It looked as if he were melting into the plush of the chair.
1. What Was Thought
a. Why is this happening?
b. Is this my fault?
c. I’m scared.
d. Of my mother, who is not my mother.
e. Why does he sit there?
f. Why does he take this?
g. Hit back. Hit harder. Yell louder.
h. Be a man.
2. What Was Heard
a. “You have destroyed us.”
b. “You are a dog.”
c. “That thing in your pants.”
e. “Unfaithful dog.”
3. What Was Felt
a. The vibration of my mother’s walk, a tremor in the entire house, that trembled the Buddha on the wall.
b. Carpet lint gathering under my nails every time I opened and closed my hands.
c. My fingernails digging into my palms, leaving crescent imprints.
d. A tightening of the throat.
e. A breath stuck in my chest.
f. A scream about to leave the mouth.
VI. Apathy and Violence: Two sides of coin
1. I keep coming back to the image of my father and his helplessness. And my mother and her anger. If the roles were reversed, if my father were the abusive one, it would have been another example of violence against women. But he didn’t. He just sat there.
a. As boys, we are taught to hold on to these notions of what is man and what is woman. We are taught to never wear pink. Never play with dolls. Do sports because men do sports. As men, we are taught that our physical power is an imposing force; it is what separates the sexes. It is what makes us masculine.
i. Masculinity is false. Has been a cultural excuse for the idiocy of men.
ii. No one talks about Apathy. No one talks about the opposite end of violence and the negative effects it has. Apathy is another type of toxicity. Apathy is what my father suffered from. The failure to act. The failure to stand up. The failure to care. There are as many apathetic men—perhaps more?—as there are violent ones.
iii. These apathetic men allow the violent ones to happen.
2. In Mary Karr’s memoir The Liar’s Club, Karr and her sister Lecia sit in front of their stepfather, Hector, when their mother pulls a gun on him. They don’t care about Hector, but fear what would happen to their mother if she were to pull the trigger. Karr describes Hector as useless, a deflated balloon. “So I sank into him, the softness of him,” she writes. Hector goes on and says: “I ain’t never been worth a damn.” We hate Hector for his uselessness. We hate him because he is spineless. People have said that Hector is not a man. But I think he is. His apathy is his masculinity.
a. Hector reminds me of my father sitting on that chair as my mother beat him.
1. Defined. Violence is a learned behavior. Behavioral studies have shown that boys learn violence from their primary social groups, like the family or close group of friends (See: Group). Boys see abusive fathers and become abusive men. Not all the time. Sometimes these men, because of their violent pasts, become apathetic men. But violence is a dynamic act; apathy is static. Violence scares because of its physical implications. Violence is reportable. Violence, also, to no one’s surprise, has become the main attribute of men. Men are violent. Over and over we prove this. But really, violence and the capability of violence are genderless.
a. I did not learn violence from my father. I learned it from my mother.
2. Entertainment. My secret vice: I love watching fights. My father and I used to watch them when I was a kid. We’d stay up late at night to catch the Mike Tyson fight that would last a few minutes. Even more than the fights, I enjoyed the press conferences before the fights. Where men talked shit. Where they faced off. Where everything was an overblown act of masculinity.
a. Conor McGregor is one of these men. He’s the big thing in fighting now. His notoriety—his nickname coincidentally is the Notorious One—is his gift of gab. He embodies the grandness of being a man. Most of his talk ends with “bitch.” Such as, “Get ready—I’ll slap you like a bitch.” Or, “I’ll make you beg, bitch.” Or, “I’m going to kill that bitch.” Some of McGregor’s famous lines:
i. “I’m cool with all the gods. Gods recognize gods.”
ii. “The double champ does what the fuck he wants.”
iii. “I just have a confidence that comes from my big ball sack.”
iv. “Never put the pussy on the pedestal, my friend. I just want to see it.”
• I want someone to knock him the fuck out.
• His talk draws a violence out from me. A violence that I have silenced for years, since that last brawl at a buddy’s graduation party.
• This violence is strangely exhilarating, though. It was exhilarating then, too. A joy, in fact. Joy?
• It isn’t born from anger. It is born from someplace else.
• From expectation.
• And right.
• And history.
• Which is idiotic.
b. Once I watched the cult classic The Toxic Avenger with my father. I was really young, and I don’t think my father knew what type of movie it was. I don’t remember the movie. Not one bit of it. What I remember was my father’s hand over my eyes, the bubbles of calluses at the base of his fingers. I remember him saying I should never do these things. I should be gentle. I should respect all people. And finally, this is not a good movie.
i. But my father loved Chuck Norris.
ii. And Clint Eastwood.
iii. And Charles Bronson.
iv. These were the men you were supposed to be.
• In their movies, these men killed a shit ton of people.
c. Once at a tennis pro shop, I waited to get my racket restrung. The stringer, this wild haired version of a younger Andre Agassi, strung my racket absentmindedly. His attention was on the TV in the pro shop. His mouth was wide open. On the TV was Brittany Spear’s newest video, “Toxic.” Brittany Spears was in full seduction. At the end of the video, the stringer looked at me and said, “I’d put it in her, and she’d like it.”
i. I bring this up only because it was the first thing I thought about when I thought about toxic masculinity.
ii. I bring this it up because it was not the first time I have heard this.
iii. I bring this up because this is yet another example of dominance.
iv. I bring this up because I am guilty for not having said anything, my apathy stopping me. It is the reason I keep thinking about this stupid blip of a memory.
3. In the same chapter of The Liar’s Club, Karr and her sister return to their biological father. The father cries. We like that he cries. His crying endears him to us. He cries because he wants his family back, a noble fatherly want. In the chapter, Karr’s father also delivers the most vicious violence. He takes apart soft-willed Hector. “After he’d knocked Hector down once, he pulled him up to stand again, only to knock him down again.” And later in the paragraph: “Then Daddy did something I’d never seen him do before, which was to keep beating a fallen man.” Yet, we want it. We cheer it. We love the father for the beating he delivers. We see this violence as necessary.
a. What violence is ever necessary?
b. And why do men feel compelled to it?
c. This is not rhetorical. I’m really asking.
VII. The Raising of a Man or Why I’m Scared
1. I was raised by a strong-willed woman. For the first fourteen years of my life, my father chipped in as best he could before he disappeared. My mother was born in 1930s Thailand, before WWII and Japanese occupation of most of Southeast Asia, born in a time of political change, a forward tilt towards modernization, a shedding of Thailand’s polygamous identity. The King decreed in 1935 a man should marry and remain married to only one woman. Still, Thailand retains the overtures of polygamy, and it is this practice that my mother grew from. She existed in a world where men did as they pleased, slept with whomever they pleased. Had multiple families. Had multiple wives. Had a slew of children. My mother lost my father because he followed his libido. My father had another family in Thailand before he met my mother in America. My mother became self-reliant. She could not depend on men. Men were useless. Men hurt. Yet, with my arrival into the world, she adhered to gender stereotypes. She paid reverence to the birth of a man, had an expectation of greatness by way of kings. By simply existing, my gender dictated that I should be served, that I deserved more freedoms in this world. That I should exhibit all the virtues of a man.
a. Virtues as Taught by My Mother
i. Confidence—When I turned four, my mother made me communicate with English speakers. When we went to the bank, I handled every transaction, even when I did not know financial terminology. If someone called and spoke English, she handed me the phone. At department stores, I corresponded with salespeople about bra sizes. My mother would instruct me on what to say and how to say it. She feared the world, but didn’t want to pass this fear on to me, a son who must make a life here in America. I must be an American man, like the ones posted on billboards along Cicero Avenue, ones in cowboy hats and wrangling rope. To be an effective man, I should be able to get what I want anytime I wanted it. I should walk into any room and become the attention of the room. “You can do things I can’t,” she would say. “You were born better.”
• Truth: I am shy. I have little confidence. I escape into bathrooms in social situations and count long seconds in the stalls. My bravado is an act. (See: This One Time). Over-confidence for men covers up insecurity. Men are a well of insecurity.
ii. Honor—One summer day, while my mother watered her bitter melons in the garden, the neighbor kid, Jason, about four-years-old, called her a son-of-a-bitch. He didn’t know what the phrase meant, I’m sure. I’m sure, too, he heard it from someone in his household, and he thought this was what tough men said. The next day, I was enrolled in martial arts with the sole purpose to beat this boy up. To restore honor. (See: Pride). I was six. I did not beat up Jason. But I did threaten him years later, in high school, and blew up his mailbox with a quarter stick of dynamite. I don’t remember why. Maybe it was because of what he had done when he was four. Maybe just because. Sometimes there is no reason for violence (See: Violence). Eventually, I received a black belt. Word got out. And then everyone feared me. And were in awe of me. Sometimes I only needed to say something tough for people to back down. Sometimes they didn’t.
• Truth: I hate physical altercations. I quit the martial arts after breaking a boy’s jaw during a sparring session. I remember changing in the locker room, distraught and close to tears, and one of the other boys, a kid with crazy blonde hair, patted my back and said I was awesome, said the incident was the funniest thing he had ever seen, a boy suffering from a broken jaw. I punched him in the stomach. A punch never felt so good.
iii. Winning—The chorus echo of my mother: You win at all cost. If you do something, you do that something to the best of your abilities. There is no medal for losing. You can’t afford to lose. Men don’t lose. Men win. You are a man. By nature, you are born having won.
• Truth: The competitive side of me is ugly. It is mean. I shit talk like the best of them. I belittle. I poke and poke and poke. It’s automatic. There is power in winning; there is even more power in knowing you are a winner. Once, my best friend and gentle soul called me out. I had been dogging him in a game of disc golf. After a while, he was fed up. He turned to me, and in a calm voice, said, “You’re better than this.” I haven’t said a mean thing to him since. It’s been ten years.
• I love my best friend because he doesn’t let idiocy slide. He will call an idiot an idiot. In the example above, I was an idiot.
2. My mother is a scared woman. She carries these fears with her, shoulders them each and every day of her life. These fears weigh her down, propel her into a future she does not like, a future that is bleak. Sometimes she starts sentences like this: “I fear for the men in America.” Or this: “I fear for the women in America.” It is true fear, one that keeps her sleepless and raises her blood pressure and turns her red and tight-lipped. Her fears informed how she raised me. And it was her fear that often turned to anger. I remember my mother’s anger. How it could unleash itself in uncontrollable fury.
a. I inherited my mother’s anger.
b. I inherited her violence.
c. I am violent because of my mother.
d. I am scared of her.
e. I think of her every time I find myself tense up in anger.
f. She is not angry anymore. She is 82. She likes to count the petals on flowers. She likes to talk about the rain. Recently she said, “I’m sorry for all I’ve done. I am just so scared.”
1. My father never punished me. The only time he was physical with me was when I wanted to show him my new martial arts moves. I wore my uniform with a newly earned yellow belt wrapped proudly around my waist. He wore what he usually wore—slacks and a polo. I went to kick him. He raised his leg and blocked my kick with his shin. I crumpled to the floor. I had never hit anything so hard as my father’s shin. It was stone. It was a wall of stone. He lifted me up and rubbed my leg until the pain went away. But I remember that moment. He became legend. He became the stories I told to my friends. “This one time my dad fought off gorillas.” “This one time my dad rescued me from a pack of hyenas.” “This one time my dad nearly broke my leg.”
a. My father wasn’t a violent man.
i. I wanted him to be. I wanted him to be like other fathers.
ii. I didn’t know what other fathers were like. I knew some beat their sons and wives. I knew some looked the part of tough—unshaved, in T-shirts and jeans, and shit-kickin’ boots. I knew some played football with their sons and taught them how to fight.
iii. My father played golf.
b. My father eventually left the family. He disappeared for a couple years. It became just my mother and me. He left. It hurt. But it wasn’t surprising. There were already countless narratives of fathers leaving. It’s just what they do.
i. I never forgave him, though.
ii. We should never forgive the men who leave or the men who hurt. But that’s me. I still have a lot to work out about being a man.
c. Sometimes, I imagine the man in Dunkin Donuts, the one shaking his head in disapproval, to be my father.
1. Before my son’s emergence into the world, when he was just a positive line on a pregnancy test, before my wife and I knew what gender our future child would be, I suffered a crisis. Still suffering. Will continue to suffer. If my child is a girl, how do I protect her from the violence of men? If my child is a boy, how do I raise him so he doesn’t become a violent man?
2. My son was born a few days after the Pulse tragedy when a man walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando and killed forty-nine people.
3. My son is born into a world filled with men, whose sole purpose is to do harm. To hurt.
4. Or do absolutely nothing about it. Say there is no problem. Adhere to the adage that boys will be boys.
a. There is something worse about that.
5. My thoughts are scattered. I’m sorry. My son has me spinning. Hence, this silly outline—a way for me to organize my thoughts, compartmentalize this messiness. I need help understanding why we—men—do what we do. Why we’ve done what we’ve done?
6. What I’m saying is I need help raising my son.
7. Because my son, who is two, is beginning to learn his body. He tests the limits of what he can do. He is beginning to understand that the limbs he possesses have various capabilities. Hands can clap. Hands can hold a lot of crayons at once. Hands can also be made into fists. And feet. Feet can jump. Feet can climb anything and everything, including fathers. Feet can kick. It is my son’s feet that go for the dog, this Shih Tzu, who wanders in front of my son’s path. My son, who has also discovered the nuances of voice, says shrilly, “Daisy, go away,” and lifts his foot and pushes—his version of a kick—our 14-year old dog out of his path. I see this. A breath gets caught in my throat.
a. A violence begins.
i. I tell him no. We don’t kick. We don’t hurt. We are gentle. We don’t do that to dogs. We don’t do that to anybody.
ii. And he looks at me.
iii. He doesn’t understand.
iv. I am without words.
v. I am disarmed by fear.
vi. Which edges to anger.
vii. But instead, I pull him into me. I kiss the dome of his head, the galaxy swirl of his hair. I hold him tight. I want to cry. But don’t.