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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Growing Up Is Hard To Do

I have no business describing myself as a mature adult. The adult part is true enough, but the mature thing, well . . . there’s more honesty in saying maturity is a part-time thing with me. I can be reliable, accountable and responsible when I should or need to be, but if you take me with you when you go shopping I will wander off and go exploring if I’m not on a leash. I watch movies when I should be doing my taxes; if there’s an offshore flow I’ll go to the beach instead of going to work. I’d rather take a bath than a quick shower, popcorn can be dinner, and I will get really, really mad if I’m telling the truth but you don’t believe me.

But neither do I fill egg shells with red paint and throw them out of a moving car on the freeway at night anymore; I was ten the last time I did that. And I no longer steal cassette tapes by slipping them in my socks while pretending to tie my shoe; I gave that up in my early twenties, within seconds of being caught for the first time.

With me, becoming a grownup – a mature adult – took some getting used to. It wasn’t that I avoided growing up. . .  I just wanted to spend my life doing whatever I wanted, whenever I felt like it. That particular brand of immaturity and naïveté had a time-release quality to it, entering my system during my high school years after my parents divorced, spreading through my system with subtle effect until I graduated, then kicking in, full-strength, with one phone call, at the end of my first and only year at a Boston college of music:

Hi mom; instead of coming straight home, is it okay if I fly to Nebraska and drive back to the Bay Area with my girlfriend?”

The pause on the other end was short. . .

You don’t have to ask me for permission anymore. You’re eighteen years old; you can do whatever you want.”

Boom.

After hanging up the pay phone in my dormitory hallway I zombie-walked to the elevator . . .  rode it to the lobby . . . walked outside onto Massachusetts Avenue, and emerged into a completely different world than the one I’d been born into.

The grownup move would have been to work through the summer and return to Berklee College of Music in the fall with some living expense money in my pocket. But I was an eighteen year-old nature-loving male, in full possession of the keys to the rest of my life and a brand new pair of eyes: when school let out I flew to Nebraska, drove and camped my way from North Platte to Fremont across the Continental Divide and through the deserts of the Southwest, feeling as though that spectacular half-a-million square mile area had been given to me.

I never returned to Berklee, but I did grow up enough to get a full-time job, work my up from busboy to head-cook-in-training, and afford an apartment of my own. That was right about the time my dad passed away, another piece of life-changing news involving my mother and a very short phone conversation. My vision of a career in the restaurant business blurred after that; six months later I was making my living as a drummer, heeding the excellent advice from my dad in his last letter to me.

Along with four years’ worth of a successful music career came the weed and the women, which softened me up pretty good. I was well into my thirties, music now a part-time hobby, before becoming conscious of how uncomfortable I was in the company of mature men, or even just guys – dudes who like to have a few beers and talk about guy shit like cars, sports, or women. I began that bit of growing up the night I spotted, from a distance, one of my part-time band mates leaning against the bar during a break at a gig, bottle of beer in one hand, talking as casually as you please to some leather-skinned old guy wearing a grimy cowboy hat – a local, old-school, real-deal rancher, stopping in for a beer and a bit of country music at the end of his dusty, earthy work day.

I felt a combination of admiration and envy watching my band mate casually and comfortably mining life-on-the-farm stories from the old rancher. It made me aware of how reserved and intimidated I typically felt in the presence of anyone with a stronger handshake and more testosterone than me. From that moment on I began making an effort to knock off being such a weenie when it came to hanging out with dudes and, lo and behold, within a few short years of behaving like a regular guy, I got comfortable as could be chatting up anyone with a story they were willing to tell

And, lastly, I’ve grown up noticing how my definition of love changes as the years go by. What I thought love was when in my teens turned out to be way wrong when I hit my twenties, and though by my early thirties I’d learned quite a bit more, it didn’t make me smart enough to see that the majority of my relationships had been based more on mutual use and convenience than love. Sharing rent and living expenses with girlfriends just made it easier to avoid having to work harder and/or longer so I could afford a place of my own. It was shameful and emasculating the way I dragged that habit behind me like a filthy security blanket, from one relationship to the next, up to and including my dysfunctional marriage. By the end of the inevitable divorce my definition of love had taken on an odor of cynicism; I decided it was better to be single, happy, and lonely sometimes than married, lonely, and happy sometimes, a perspective I’ve found to be equal parts truth and poignancy, yet serving me quite well.

Life and love are doing just fine these days, thankyouverymuch. I’ll say more about them later, maybe in a book. Until then, I have a lot of growing up to do.