Friday, June 6, 2008

Male Initiation, Part One

This is the first of several posts I want to put up on male initiation. I had intended to begin with a look at the anthropology of initiation rites, but then I found this post from TC at T-Nation that sort of does the same thing, but suggests introducing boys to the gym as a modern initiation.

One of the downsides of modernity is the loss of masculine initiation rites. When formalized rites are absent, boys express the unconscious need for initiation in a variety of ways, many of them unhealthy -- hazing, gang initiation, drinking or drugs, and so on.

Maybe joining a gym is a good alternative. Certainly gathering with other men to hear and discuss their experiences as men, and what it means to be a man, along with the gift idea, are also valuable options. [More comments below.]

In Love With Machismo

I spent part of the morning with a miniature Barbie doll stuck up my ass.

Let me explain. Let me explain quickly.

My shower isn't working so I had to take a bath, minus the Calgon, thank you. As I sat down, I felt a sharp pain in my keester, literally in my keester, if you catch my drift. I jumped up and looked at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and saw the problem: sticking out of my ass was a ball-gown bedecked Barbie.

That's when I remembered that I'd bought my daughter, Gucci, a set of 4 "Barbie Soaps." Each bar of soap is made of mulberry scented glycerin and comes with a tiny Barbie embedded within. The glycerin had worn largely away, but there was just enough slippery soap on her head to make her a viable substitution for Richard Gere's gerbil.


As I looked at my reflection in the mirror across from the tub, I thought, "That really doesn't look very manly. Come to think of it, that doesn't make me feel very manly."

These thoughts set off an internal dialog on the nature of manhood in America.

Is appearance related to masculinity?

What is the nature of manhood?

The answers don't come easily to me. Part of the reason is because things seem to have changed in the last few years. I once wrote that I didn't think that the events of 9-11 had changed squat in America, least of all the attitudes of Americans towards each other.

Boy was I wrong.

Americans, particularly young male Americans, are permanently pissed. Oh, they've always been pissed about one thing or another — which isn't necessarily bad — but 9-11 made them feel more than a little frustrated, at least subconsciously, because they don't have a way to channel their aggression.

They want to show that they're courageous, but courage has become confused with violence or the promise of violence; manliness has become confused with aggressive posturing. They've fallen in love with machismo.

You know one of the reasons why the majority of men voted for George Bush? I think it's because he swaggers when he walks and he told the terrorists to "bring it on."

I'm sorry, but tough talk does not necessarily a man make. Personally, I don't think a guy — any guy — who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth can truly be a tough guy. Nope, I think you need to have been born with an old, rough-edged steel spoon in your mouth; I think you need to have tasted a little rust and a little blood to be a tough guy.

And looking or acting tough? Got nothing to do with anything.

The three toughest people I know or knew don't fit any stereotypical image. The first is my wife, who once, with her appendix about to burst, dutifully prepared for work (lying down on the floor while blow drying her hair because she could barely stand up), drove to her job at the hospital and attended to her first patient. When the second shift tech showed up to replace her, my wife staggered into the E.R. and collapsed. They wheeled her in and did an emergency appendectomy.

Why'd she do that? She didn't want to let the patients down, many of which had waited weeks for an appointment.

The second tough guy I knew was named Dr. Michael Dullnig. He was a gay psychiatrist with AIDS...before there were anti-virals and many of the other drugs that now make the disease somewhat manageable. While he had managed to fight off the wasting effects of the disease with anabolic steroids, he developed CMV retinitis, which would have ultimately led to blindness. Almost worse was the maddening, constant, insufferable itching caused by the cornucopia of drugs he was using.

So this brave man cheerfully decided he wanted to die.

He made the decision about as easily as you or I might decide to leave a party that had gotten a little boring, and he didn't make it because he was scared or depressed. He just wanted to go check out the next life, dimension, or whatever lies waiting for us beyond this plane of existence. He wanted to go to the next party and see if it was a little livelier. He was genuinely curious.

But before he checked out of this life, he threw his own little real-life party, a party with champagne, music and most of his friends in attendance. He danced, had some fun, posed for pictures, and then walked upstairs to his bedroom, stopping once on the staircase to smile broadly and raise a glass in a silent toast. He went to his bed, lied down, ate a yogurt laced with Nembutal, went to sleep, and never woke up.

No sadness, no tears, no regrets, no doubts. If that ain't tough, I don't know what is.

The third toughest person I knew was my father. He didn't do anything classically heroic, but he kept the same shit factory job for most of his life, working 6 or 7 days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day (for the overtime), and never called in sick no matter how rotten he felt. Did he hate it? Maybe, probably, most certainly, but that didn't matter. He had work to do and a family to support. He didn't agonize about what he coulda-shoulda done with his life.

I probably would have done things differently than all three of my examples, but having convictions and will is something I admire, pretty much regardless of the reasons or the consequences. Clearly, toughness — real toughness — can come in any guise, as can bravery.

But Americans, particularly young Americans, think toughness begins and ends with calling someone a shithead and threatening to "bust them up." They're little boys who never metaphorically graduated from wearing short pants. It's not all their fault, though. Unfortunately, unlike some cultures, we have no rites of passage into manhood. As such, young men blithely go on skirting responsibility, avoiding hard work and throwing frequent violent temper tantrums because they're still little boys.

Pundits and preachers and politicians claim that the solution to all this is a nation-wide return to "family values." I don't even know what the term means. When I think of family, I think of husbands and wives fighting, brats screaming and picking boogers out of their nose, grandma gumming her food, and tame Saturday night, roll-on roll-off sex followed by a nice nap in church the next morning. Since when did having a family place the mantle of virtue on some Neanderthal's sloping forehead?

I know, I know, they're talking about traditional family values, which means supporting a family and busting junior on the head when mom finds stroke mags underneath his mattress. Sorry. Family values are a little too estrogenic for me. Give me male values, traditional male values.

Walter R. Newell, in his book, "The Code of Man" advocates just such a return to traditional ideas of manhood. He writes that through the ages, courage and pride were about "the struggle to defend and extend justice and to overcome our baser instincts," but he laments the fact that somewhere along the way, traditional manhood gave way to false machismo and violent behavior.

How exactly do we reestablish these traditional male values? I'm not sure. It's a tall order. I know some cultures send their boys out into the jungle or the wild by themselves. When they come back — if they survive — they're pronounced men and treated as such. Americans? We send our young boys to Daytona Beach, or maybe the Bahamas! Or even — Junior will like this — snowboard camp! It's a reward for having the incredible tenacity and ability to make it through... high school, or even junior high school.

When they come back, they're not men; they're still arrogant, disrespectful punks, albeit with nice tans.

I'm not just being an old coot. I thought this way when I was 20 and I think this way now, but current times have strengthened my convictions on this topic.

I've got an idea. Do you have a son? Do him and yourself a favor. When he reaches 16, get some adult male friends — role models — together and throw the boy a ritual, a manhood ritual. Tell the women to stay home.

Then, have each friend stand up, tell him what it means to be a man, and give your son some small token of manhood or masculinity, whether it be a jackknife, a set of dog tags, or a special book. They'll serve as talismans to both remind him of his new station in life and to ward off weakness. Tell your son that he's a man now and expected to act like one from now on. And if he screws up? Well, he's now got a whole tribe to answer to, any of which forever have the right to smack him in the back of the head when childish behavior creeps back in.

Seal the deal by eating some bloody steaks.

As part of the ritual, I'd take him to the gym the next day and introduce him to weightlifting. Weightlifting is where he channels his aggression. Weight lifting is how he builds self-confidence and pride and prepares himself for the physical challenges to come. After all, defending and extending justice is hard work. It takes a strong back.

Beyond all that, America has to stop loving merely the facade of toughness or masculinity. The virtues we hold dear — the virtues that truly reflect masculinity, traditional masculinity — come in different, often unexpected guises.

That being said, the embedded Barbie doll still isn't a very manly look.


© 1998 — 2008 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I'm seeing more fathers with their teenage sons in the gym, especially in the summer. It warms the heart. Boys can learn to be men in the gym -- learning about the rewards of hard work, the discipline to reach a goal, the value of being with other men who also are working hard to reach their goals. The courtesy of sharing equipment is also a big thing that many could learn -- that a little kindness goes a long way.

Not only that, but building the body also builds self-esteem and self-worth. Achieving goals helps build the strength to chase bigger goals. Learning to be embodied (the mind-muscle connection lifters talk about) gets us out of our heads, helps us learn to listen to what the body is telling us. The more embodied we become, the more access we have to our emotions.

I think that introducing boys to the gym (at between 13 and 16) is great form of initiation and father-son bonding. TC got this one right.

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