Bring Back Masculine Etiquette

The following is an edited, updated version of this website’s blog “The Man From Snowy River”, originally posted as a featured article on the Good Men Project website (http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/bring-back-masculine-etiquette-shfr/) on April 25, 2016.

I’m still in high school when my father leaves to begin a new life with a different woman, and I suddenly find myself in a house with a hurt, angry mother, an older sister who sympathizes with her, and a younger sister who understands as little about this whole mess as I do. My home life in 1970 becomes the world of women, where baseball gloves collect dust on closet shelves and grounded male energies simply do not exist. Dad passes away nine years later from a heart issue just as our reconciliation is getting underway, and I take to wandering my existence without a map or a guidebook, in search of what to do with my fatherless life.

Twelve years pass. I’ve become a SNAG – a “Sensitive New Age Guy” – a soulful, health-conscious musician who feels things deeply and is oh-so-much-more comfortable in the presence of women. I know nothing about home ownership, hard work, or planning for the future; I know quite a lot about backpacking, writing in journals, and making the best of whatever life happens to be serving up on any given day.

There is no adult male in my life I feel admiration for.

Then, near the end of 1982, along comes The Man From Snowy River, a movie about a young man, Jim, learning to find his way in the world after the accidental death of his excellent father. Raised in the mountainous Snowy River range of Australia in the late 1800’s, his skill set and abilities come from having lived and worked close to the earth. He comes down from the mountains in search of a job, and his efforts to prove himself to be a dependable hard-working lad on a cattle rancher’s farm sets him on a character-building path where he must address issues of manhood and masculinity, keeping one’s word, standing up to bullies, doing what’s right, and not giving up in the face of hardship or discomfort. I don’t know it at the time, but this will become the most-watched movie in my life.

It took several viewings of this movie before it dawned on me just how little time I’d spent in the company of adult males since the loss of my own father, that I too had abilities and talents in need of recognition, cultivation, and a direction to point them. I too wanted my worth and mettle witnessed and blessed by not just older men but men of strength and character, men I could admire and look up to. But I was to never meet such men in the vacuum of the self-isolating life I’d created — a life of journal writing, quiet hikes in nature and part-time jobs working alongside pretty girls. With nothing hard to push against and no one asking more of me than I was comfortable giving, why should it surprise me that I became a passive, sensitive man, feeling distrust and unease in the company of strong-willed, confident men?

With every viewing of this movie I became more intrigued with the depiction of solid, earthy, uncomplicated men working together and relating to one another, especially the way young Jim conducts himself as he goes about his new duties at his new job. Everything asked of him is done well, done thoroughly, and without complaint. He knows his place; he knows to show respect to the men in leadership positions because those men are tough but fair, communicating with such unambiguous clarity they could not possibly be misunderstood.

I was the same age as Jim– twenty-seven – when I first saw this movie. Yeah, yeah, he gets the girl in the end but that’s not what got my attention. What interested me was young Jim’s masculine etiquette: doing what was asked of him with dignity, determination, and accountability. In time he earns the respect of the older men by having respect for himself, speaking his truth and standing firm in his beliefs when push comes to shove. In my own life I gradually became aware of how often I took the least-restrictive, least-confrontational path at every opportunity, choosing cruise control over self-control, accepting the life I had instead of making an effort to create the life I might want.

My VHS copy of the movie was good and worn before my attention turned to noticing Jim’s level of comfort and self-confidence in the presence of harder, older men; by the time a DVD version was in my hands I’d already attended my first-ever all-day men’s event, led by some poet guy named Robert Bly and his mythologist friend Michael Meade, whose yearly men’s retreats would change my life forever. The unexamined father wound I carried for so many years turns out to have been exactly the right kind of irritating grit that helped form the pearl-like quality of my adult life. I did not enjoy putting an end to my toxic, dysfunctional marriage, but I’m certainly enjoying the loving reconciliation taking place between myself and my twenty-two-year-old daughter who is soon to graduate college.

The Man From Snowy River introduced me to “masculine etiquette”, depicting too many small moments of honor, respect and character-building to name. To this day, with every viewing, I feel nourished in some way. The excellent life I now lead arose from the ashes of difficult-but-necessary life changes I feared to make for many years, but once I aligned myself with fictional and non-fictional men of good character, the best of what I saw in them called up the best in me.

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It Depends On How I Feel: Reflections on Being a Moody Man

This story was first published as a featured article on the Good Men Project website (http://goodmenproject.com/author/mark-mathias/) April 29, 2016

 

I am, as Lisa so eloquently expresses it to her girlfriends when I’m not around, “one moody motherfucker”.

 I once left her place on a Sunday night after a happy chatty weekend together, went to work Monday morning feeling inexplicably dark  and unsociable, and refused to answer my phone for a couple of days. Why? I dunno; I didn’t feel like it. At times like that my phone can get downright constipated with voice and text messages from her, which I may or may not pay attention to — depending on my mood.

I’ll snap out of it eventually, after which I’ll have some explaining to do, but only after I’ve gotten an earful from her about how she went from patient-but-confused to what-the-fuck? somewhere around the end of day two of not hearing from me. I’ll want to know what the big deal is; she’ll explain exactly what the big deal is, and only after a lengthy conversation about needs and expectations do things settle down enough for our typically groovy kind of love to start flowing again.

When wanting to understand what’s behind a mood swing I’ll sometimes pull a Tarot card, toss coins for an I Ching reading or — depending on my mood — just withdraw from the world without giving notice and indulge in the mood; drop into it without trying to understand or analyze it, in the privacy of my home, just to see where it will take me. Mine is not, by the way, the “off-his-meds” version of mood swinging; mine is the “too-much-in-his-head” version, where I’m prone to unconsciously bum myself out with whatever self-defeating  judgmental story I’ve concocted in my head, a story which may or may not even be true. Typically, though, a series of quickie, dark micro-thoughts have come and gone over a period of several days but under my emotional radar, until I wake up one rainy weekday morning and cancel out on work so I can stay home and write in my journal all day. For example:

Not long ago Lisa and I are having a lovely Tuesday evening at a gig where I play drums with my favorite pro-level music buddies, all of whom fawn over Lisa’s irresistible combination of hotness, humor, and genuine appreciation of musical talent. The band pulls off a ninety-minute concert-level performance and an hour later we are all sitting together in a nearby diner, having a late night meal and recapping the highlights of the gig. Everyone is chatty, happy, and optimistic. Great show, great friends. Then, finally, hugs and warm goodbyes before everyone drives off for home . . . in a good mood.

The next day, Wednesday, Lisa and I spontaneously spend a rainy day at my place: morning tea and coffee, nutritious breakfast, good conversation, movies, popcorn, more rain, blankets and snuggling, red wine, excellent dinner, another movie, more rain as we suck on milk chocolate chips for dessert. We fade, we doze, and we go to bed, capping a fine, fine day.

Thursday morning, because of my weird four-to-six hour sleep cycle, I’m up and about at four-thirty, setting the kitchen table for my cherished tea-and-journal ritual of sitting in deep, pre-dawn quiet to write. More rain is predicted, putting my remodel business on hold for another day and allowing me to sink long and deep into a blissfully quiet writing session. Not wanting to wake Lisa, I forego my customary routine of having dreamy acoustic guitar music playing softly in the background on a favorite Pandora station.

I settle in. Everything is awesome . . .

Ten minutes later Lisa appears, squinting in the light, drawing my heavy bathrobe tighter around her to ward off the chill. After saying our good mornings she sets about grinding coffee beans and gathering everything required to prepare, doctor, and consume a nice, fresh cup of coffee — at four forty-five in the goddam morning, an ungodly hour for anyone but me to be up and about on a rainy mid-week day.

It will be nearly twenty-four hours before I’m able to put my finger on why this morning will be inversely disproportionate, in all of its passive-aggressive ways, to the fun and lovely previous morning. I am not aware, for example, of my slowly-growing irritation at having to stop writing and concoct an answer to a question she has just asked me, nor do I realize that I’m only pretending to listen to her comments about Rick Steves’ excellent tips and advice about traveling in Italy, which she is reading aloud from her Kindle between slurpy sips of coffee.

Her need is to chat, to communicate, with me, right now, at five in the morning, my morning.  She’s excited about our upcoming trip and is clearly enjoying her coffee-and-travel-tips moment. This goes on for twenty minutes until I give up, close my journal, and get up to make us some breakfast.

From this point on, for these last few hours of our morning together, I will grow increasingly quiet and only partially interested in whatever she has to say or wants to talk about. When sitting across from her I’ll make an effort to look at her when she’s speaking, otherwise I’ll be gazing at my hands, tugging distractedly at my hair, or looking off to my right at the empty space between myself and a microwave oven in the far corner of the kitchen.

When the topic shifts from our Italy trip to preparing for an upcoming book talk, I’m good for ten minutes-worth of actually contributing to the conversation, but by minute eleven I’m feeling maxed out by the pressure of my hours-old, yet-to-be-understood irritation. Book talks are an important topic, but my pretending to care is a poor choice of coping strategies; we draw the topic to a close when it begins to dawn on her that maybe what I really mean by repeatedly answering with “sounds good” or “sounds great” is: please stop talking!

At some point she moves to get dressed as I begin to tidy up. She returns to the living room and plops down in the corner of a Mission style loveseat where I can see her from the kitchen. When I glance over at her I see in her face something I’ve rarely seen in the thirty-four years I’ve known her. I’m sure others have seen it – the ex-husbands, the misbehaving son, the hardhearted sister – but not me, not when we are together do I see what I’m seeing now . . .

She is unhappy. She’s staring straight ahead at what I know to be nothing, with a look on her face that tells me something is most definitely up, something is bothering her, something is wrong.  Still clueless, I feel compelled to ask:

“What’s wrong?”

She snaps out of her blank stare, quickly throwing a fake smile on her face.

“What? I’m—what? Nothing! I’m fine! Why?”

I study her for a moment, debating whether to play along and pretend to believe her or give her another chance at telling the truth.

“You look upset.”

A denial and a false excuse later, I let it go. We move on, neither one of us admitting that I am the problem; I am the cause of this effect. From the moment she began grinding coffee beans I’ve grown increasingly quiet, increasingly irritated, and increasingly indifferent to whatever has been interesting or important to her . . .  but I don’t know why.  I’m in a mood, you see, and it is my style to be in it long before I understand it, a behavior commonly associated with having been born with a penis.

By now the only truth I’m willing to admit to myself is that I want her to go home; I want to be alone in my own place, to try and recapture some of the rainy day tea-and-journal thing I was so looking forward to. Instead of mentioning this in some mature, sensitive way hours earlier, I’ve grown increasingly moody. As the air between us grows heavy and dull with unspoken truths, undeclared feelings and unmet needs, I continue putting on an air of patience and false contentment until, finally, going home becomes her idea. I walk her to her car, both of us wholly dissatisfied with the way the morning has turned out.

Before she gets behind the wheel I know I need to do something to reassure her that, in spite of the funky, atypical morning we’ve just spent together, I haven’t forgotten our night at the upbeat gig, the joy of sharing a meal with dear friends, and the lovely, spontaneous pleasures of yesterday. Before she drives off I want her to know that I care, that she matters, that I’m sorry for the shitty morning.

I pull her to me and kiss her — long, deep, and hard.

We step back from the kiss, smiling weak smiles at one another. She climbs into her car, and drives away.