Monday, October 15, 2007

The Bastard on the Couch, edited by Daniel Jones

I bought this book because of the subtitle: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom. I used to read Details magazine for just this thing: men explaining themselves. I don’t think I’ve gotten as much from reading this book as I did from those Details articles, though, and I am not sure why.

The writers in The Bastard on the Couch and those who pen articles for Details have a similar profile: they are generally upwardly mobile, intelligent and intellectual (else why writers?), tend to be thirty-something or forty-something (with a few exceptions), and they are concerned with women. It’s probably the profile of the generation that’s running this world.

There are 27 essays, divided into four sections (parentheses are mine): Hunting and gathering (could be called “the early years”), Can’t be trusted with simple tasks (could be called “housework?”), Bicycles for fish (could be called “making a home”), and All I need (“being without”). As I look over the titles now I can see why they were divided this way, but as I read the book I felt that many can be boiled down to one thing: whining about fairness.

Most of the whining goes this way: I’m a modern man, I want everything to be fair, and so we split everything equally, and this is the thanks I get.

Worst of the whiners lot: The Dog in Me, by Kevin Canty. Kevin goes on endlessly about what the dog in him wants or thinks or does. He holds forth on the subject of how to split the work and the roles in his household and he can’t seem to get past a yearning for “simpler times”, when men were men and…well, you know how that goes.

He says “…we find ourselves scrambling to adapt to new ideas of equality and democracy, to find new roles that seem to make sense….In reason and equality we will proceed together into a new, bright future.” And then: “…But the dog in my can’t help noticing that I’m still paying for everything. The dog in me wonders if this isn’t just a way to make me take care of half of your business while I’m still taking care of all mine”.

In other words, he is using that “dog in me” shtick as a cutesy excuse for justifying his unrelenting and unchanging view of the world. I’ll be damned if I’ll make a real effort to grasp this “equality” thing.

Many of the essays are about that subject: equality. And most portray it the same way: as if men are getting the short end. As if in this new world everything should be split exactly down the middle, no matter how little sense it may make in a particular situation (like pregnancy). Their take on feminism: they tried really hard (look at the subtitle) and tried some more but there’s something wrong with it. It didn’t work the way I wanted so I’m going to do what I want. Or at least think what I want and be resentful about what I’m not getting.

Let’s look at another dog one: The Dog’s Life, by Thomas Lynch. Thomas wails about how he is constantly told that he “just doesn’t get it”. He shrugs and tries for the good-humored aw shucks approach but it fails because of the bitterness. He’s right, they’re wrong, says the subtext, and they just don’t get it.

I don’t doubt that many men have experienced unfairness in their dealings with the “modern women” in their lives. I have boatloads of understanding reserved for men who have been victimized (I really do). Here’s what gets me about the whiners: they generalize. They assume they represent all men and that the women they’ve known are like all women.

In I Am Man, Hear Me Bleat, Fred Leebron distills the basic conflict:

For better or worse, we’re expected to embrace our feminine side and domesticity, to express our feelings, to take care of our children when our wives are working, to do the housework, to cook, to be endlessly patient while our kids scribble on our upholstery and puke over our shoulders. And so we try to do these things, but what husband hasn’t stood in the doorway of the typical scene of domestic tranquility (kids and wife sitting shoulder to shoulder on the carpet, playing “tea” or building with Legos) and wondered – just how the hell do I fit into all this?

When our first child was born, a nurse took me aside. “Don’t try to copy your wife when you handle your child,” she advised. “It will only confuse the baby. Be yourself.”

But I thought this was the era of gender neutrality. I thought we were supposed to pain the girl’s room avocado and the boy’s room mango and give girls trucks and boys dolls. Now, after all that, I’m supposed to figure out how to appropriately manifest my masculinity yet again?

Fred generalized and simplified and therefore did not grasp that so-called “gender neutrality” does not mean we don’t celebrate our honest differences. We are all individuals. More than anything, this is what the women’s movement (which, contrary to most of the opinions in this book, is not over) is really about. Not putting people in boxes and making assumptions about their qualities and abilities based on sex.

In the generalization category, one essay stands out: Why Men Lie (and Always Will), by Vince Passaro. I do not doubt that in Vince’s circle the reasons the men give for lying may seem appropriate responses to female questioning. I’m suspecting, though, based on many men I know and on my own nature, that there are a great many men who would find these reasons just plain ridiculous. It’s a cute essay but don’t look here for insight into most of mankind.

Lest it appear that I am taking too harsh a turn here, I’ll point out that there are some good and even excellent essays in the bunch.

Ward and June R Us, by Rob Spillman, offers a simple, ingenious solution to the fair splitting of household tasks for those who have the flexibility that Rob and his wife have. Father of the Year, by Trey Ellis, is a genuinely affecting story of a man dealing with the loss of the love he thought he had forever. Quarantined Behind Concrete and Steel, by Benjamin LaGuer, speaks eloquently from behind prison walls. She Didn’t Want a S.N.A.G.; She Wanted Me, by Elwood Reid, lets us into the mind of a bouncer with aspirations and the ability to match is “more sensitive” male friends.

Read the book. Sometimes the insights are not on the page; they are what’s left out.

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