THROAT CLEARING… MOVIES IN THE GRUNGE ANIMAL HOUSE… THE SELF-HELP GURU THAT WASN’T… WHAT WOULD GRANDPA DO?… THE INEXPERTLY SOCRATIC POINT OF THE EXERCISE
I was living in a house in the east end of Toronto in the mid-’90s with four other guys. It was like a grunge version of Animal House: we had cigarette lighters hanging from the ceiling by bungee chords, a four-track recording studio in the basement, a cabinet full of weed in the living room and a room virtually full of cases of empty beer bottles. One Sunday we all emerged from our rooms at the crack of 2pm to find the kitchen swarming with flies so thick the place sounded like a speedway. We closed the kitchen door and went out for brunch. Good times.
By the standards of my father’s generation, we were a pretty sad-sack bunch. A hopeful writer or two, a wannabe film director, an aspiring actor, a musician. Two of the guys worked as night security guards (“If I ever find someone robbing the place, I’m gonna turn around and run,” Brett told me of his dedication to the job). Another one may or may not have earned all or part of his money as an unlicensed pharmacist. I had been the early success story of the bunch, until the waste management trade magazine I was editing was bought by a gang of scam artists who drained the company of cash and defaulted on all our salaries—eventually I suffered the indignity of a not-brief-enough encounter with the welfare system (that room full of refundable empties came in handy, then). Ken, whose room shared a wall with mine, had a girlfriend when we first moved in whose moaning would keep me up at night. When she left, he went into a deep depression (clinical, though the drugs didn’t work), lost his day job and spent months despondently staring past the TV.
Then one day we watched The Godfather for about the thousandth time. I was drunkenly obsessed with the thought that in the hierarchy of my own siblings, I might somehow turn out to be Fredo (The guys insisted that I, the oldest, was Sonny, which meant I’d be bumped off by my enemies rather than by my own family, a suspicious reassurance). Ken fixated on something else. “You know that scene where Johnny Fontaine can’t get the movie part he wants and he goes to the Godfather and cries, ‘What can I do, Godfather, what can I do?’ and Don Corleone stands up and says ‘You could ACT LIKE A MAN!’ and smacks him? That’s what I need. I think I just need someone to smack me and shout ‘ACT LIKE A MAN!’ That might knock some sense into me.” 
That, of course, is one of the great movie slaps of all time Here it is:
My advice to you, Deep Funk, is the same as The Don’s — you could act like a man! I’m gonna write a self-help book for all the people like you who are always coming crying to me — “Oh, Angry Man, my parents were mean to me and now I’m screwed up.” “Oh, Angry Man, I’m depressed and I can’t leave the house.” “Oh, Angry Man, I’m addicted to heroin and I can’t stop taking it.” “Oh, Angry Man, I started a war in Iraq and now everyone knows I’m evil.”
Here’s my three-step recovery program: 1). Act. 2). Like. 3). A man. Stand up, leave your house and get a job you hate. Go there every morning and spend eight or ten hours doing meaningless, mind-numbing work. Come home at night and stare blankly at the television and have mundane arguments about money and toilet seats with your wife. Then make love to her while you imagine she’s Anna Kournikova. Sleep fitfully. Repeat every day for thirty-five years. Work up a powder keg of resentment and stew in quiet desperation. That’s what your father did. That’s what your grandfather did.
So cheer up, Deep Funk, and act like a man. Oh, and if your girlfriend tries to kick you out, decapitate a racehorse and leave the head in her bed while she’s sleeping.
It was a joke, of course. Deep Funk’s girfriend didn’t even have a racehorse. But the rest was a joke too. The beauty of it was that I could make fun of whiny disease-model self-help blowhards and also mock up-by-your-bootstraps reactionaries and traditional male gender models all at the same time.
Except, you know, it was only partly a joke. Because maybe once, after dismal circumstances forced me into the late-20s generational cliché of moving back in with my parents, I did actually put a post-it note with the phrase “ACT LIKE A MAN!” written on it on my bathroom mirror. And maybe for all my pro-feminist awareness of destructive gender straightjackets and patriarchal blah blah blah, I did deep down think that what my pothead friends and I really needed to do was stand up and take some responsibility for the direction of our own lives instead of whining that The Man was keeping us down and ordering another pitcher.
It’s one of the dubious beauties of ironic humour that you can have your retrograde politics and laugh at them too (see: Anchor Man, “ironic racism”). Is it funny to call someone “retarded”? Sure, the thinking goes, as long as the person you’re talking about is not actually mentally disabled and the way you say it makes it clear that you’re playing with a p.c. language taboo and sort-of mocking people who would use such a retrograde term in the first place. But really, too—you get to say retarded and conjure the image of that poor helpless down’s syndrome kid you thought was such a laugh in grade three, and you get to laugh about it, and get away with it. How cool is that?
And, of course, as many have said before me (the first I read it was in a Glasgow Phillips essay in Might magazine called “Shiny Adidas Track Suits and the Death of Camp”, though it was probably well remarked on before then) there’s a problem with irony as a prevailing cultural lingua franca beyond the often offensive subtext. It’s summed up in that famous scene in The Simpsons:
Teen1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen1: I don’t even know anymore.
I don’t even know anymore. This could sum up the entire foundation on which is built the worldview of nearly everyone under 40 in North America. And it certainly sums up how I feel about my gestating self-help movement.
And then there’s this, too: in the five years I’ve been married, and especially in the 22 months since my son Colum was born, I’ve come to realize more and more that I don’t even really have a clear idea of what the phrase “act like a man” means. The zeitgeist definition of masculinity, summed up in the oeuvres of Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller and the Farrelly brothers (and underscored less amusingly by Maxim magazine and a slew of Budweiser commercials) is a moronically-if-kind-of-harmlessly sexist, indefinitely suspended adolescence in which playing video games in your parent’s basement replaces getting a real job and women are universally cleavage-bearing Mommy Dearest stand-ins who will tick (and nag) you into a suffocating life of boredom and responsibility, to be drooled over from a distance but feared like a high school principal in person. Sad? Maybe. But not entirely inaccurate.
Neal Pollack, who made a living for a bit ironizing The Great Man of American Letters, wrote in his (actually quite earnest) book Alternadad about learning — in his early thirties — that his wife was with child:
The reality of permanent adulthood loomed before me, an endless plain of responsibility and difficult decisions. It was frightening, and I come from melodramatic, slightly manic-depressive stock that tends toward needless panic. I banged on the dashboard, clawed at my eyes, and tugged at my hair.
“You’re pregnant!” I said. “Damn your damn cervical fluid chart! I knew it! I knew it! You tricked me!”
“Shit, shit! Fuck, fuck!”
Which, you know, is not all that different from how I reacted (silently though, in my case) when I was told I was going to be a Dad. And somewhere from the great beyond, my grandfathers—one of whom dropped out of high school to support his mother and siblings after his Dad died and had five kids by the time he was thirty-three (and nine altogether), while the other dropped out of elementary school to find a job and left a leg on a battlefield in France fighting fascism before coming home to support a wife and four kids working as a manual labourer—must have thrown up in their mouths a little bit.
But then what about those grandfathers? They knew how to be men, right? Back in the Greatest Generation? I dunno. I can’t even really type the word “manly” without giving in to the urge to put it in scare quotes. Those old-fashioned ideas of manliness don’t have too good a rep these days, and I’m not jumping all over myself to stand up and revive them (at least not the ones listed if you follow that link). I don’t want to romanticize the man of emotionless, aggressive chauvinism. But there was more to it than that. Can we talk about things like honour and valour and prudence and courage and temperance anymore without giggling? Only if we’re writing about sports or running for office as a US Republican, I think.
Still, I’m not sure those things are without value. In fact, I’m not sure the feminine virtues of faith, hope, charity, sharing and caring are an adequate substitute. Seems like both sets of qualities may be needed in the world. In other words, as my joke guru message implied, I’m not sure acting like a man hasn’t gotten a bad rap. If only I could figure out exactly what that even really means.
So: this project is an attempt to try to sort out some of those questions. To look manliness square in the face and try to sort the good from the bad, the juvenile from the grown-up, the good-old-days from the good riddance. I’m not an academic and, to be straight up about it, I really don’t care much about the raging debates about biological determinism. Well, maybe I care a bit. But I’m not an expert. I’m approaching the subject as Socrates approached all subjects, taking the question “what is” and posing it far and wide. What is manliness? I’ll be asking people who are likely to have well-thought out (or at least interesting) opinions on the subject, looking at movies and books and popular music to see how they may answer the question, and probing my own experiences a bit to see if they shed any light. That, and maybe I’ll have a few laughs, too. And, of course, there’s a comment section below, where I hope you’ll join the conversation.
 And I had my notebook open? No. This and any other quotations regarding scenes from my life are paraphrased from my fallible memory, unfortunately the only record of these events I have access to.[back]
 In Glasgow’s essay, the key exchange is slightly different than in The Simpsons. Here, Glasgow asks a teenage girl if she really likes the outfit she’s wearing or if she likes it because it’s campy. Her response is “What?” The essay is not, as far as I can see, online, but it was the title piece in a collection of Might magazine stories that may or may not be still in print. The book’s worth reading as an 1990s period piece. The Dave Eggers legion will appreciate his otherwise unpublished essay “Never Fucked Anyone” and Ted Rall’s two essays — “Quit Your Job, Work is a Sham” and “College is for Suckers” — are worth the price of admission.[back]