Male Role Models
I grew up in the 1950s. Men were considered “real men” if they were either the strong silent type or the tough, “you-talkin’-to-me?” street type with their ducks-ass hair style and pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up inside their short t-shirt sleeve.
These “real men” played sports and avoided the arts; loved manual labor and hated desk jobs; were hard drinkers; drove stick shift; and dodged commitments, especially marriage (“tying the noose,” we called it), until the 11th hour, after a brief courtship of prom night, drive-ins, street dances, roller rinks, a summer at the beach, and making out in the balcony back row at a movie theater.
A “man in a uniform,” fresh from active duty, always had the upper hand on the street. Women, of my generation, loved a guy in a uniform.
Television, of course, had another narrative of the male ideal. Ozzie Nelson, of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame, was presented to us as the classic suburban husband and father in his button-down white shirts and tie-clipped thin ties. Reticent to a fault, even in his wry humor, he was always pathetically even tempered.
Ozzie Nelson’s passions never went beyond a simmer. He was never caught cheating on his wife, never got drunk, never had any secret agendas, and was never disloyal to his friends and neighbors. Whatever testosterone he may have had was sublimated into the serene suburban life of contented father and husband with a packaged world of obliging teenage kids and an uncomplaining stay-at-home wife, Harriet, who could vacuum the house in a cocktail dress and white pearl earrings.
One never got the impression that the public image of Ozzie Nelson presented on his family television show ever contradicted his private persona. Ozzie was always the nice guy next door, the quiet, never-out-of-control guy who would help you fix your screen door but would never take a neighbor’s daughter for an abortion—ideal 1950s suburban American families, of course, seemed to have reached the pinnacle of moral perfection and rectitude.
1950s suburbia was desperate not to reveal any moral or psychological family scars, especially after the trauma of the Depression and all the casualties of World War II. America wanted another age of innocence, and suburbia, with its quiet tree-lined streets, its two-car garages, its chain link fences, would repackage all of America’s twenty to thirty years of social trauma.
And Ozzie Nelson was made to order for a suburban world that just wanted to reclaim the kind of pastoral life it imagined on the farms and small villages of its parents and grandparents—simple, uncomplicated, nostalgic, neighborly but insular, provincial, homogenous, and, in the end, passionless and intellectually lightweight.
So here I was, a young male teenager living in parallel universes—the real street world of tough males and the idealized television suburban world of matching furniture and emotionally tempered, if not catatonic men, a world where the men painted their houses, took out the garbage, went to their teenager’s football games, helped them with their paper routes.
The suburban male prototype, exemplified by the Ozzie Nelson television character, however, never dug deep on any issue. His suburban house never had a book shelf, the conversations at the dining room table were never about the benefits of capitalism over communism, no one in the Nelson family ever had a psychological meltdown or a spiritual crisis, and the dialogues in the family never made a literary reference to Hawthorne, Poe, or Emerson.
I had entered another male world when I chose, as a teenager, to enter what the Catholic Church called “pre-sem,” a preparatory seminary for high school students. It was in that Catholic high-church seminary life that I immersed myself in “book-learnin’,” as they say. I discovered Latin, World History, Geometry, Theology, and French. And I found myself steeped in all the rituals and icons of Catholicism—confession, Mass, Lent, the stations of the Cross, Holy Communion, Gregorian Chant, the rosary.
I was surrounded with high-school students and freshman and sophomore college seminarians. My teachers were all priests, many of whom, for all I know, could have been dumped into seminary life in the backhills of the Catskills on the Delaware River for other than benevolent reasons. And yet, I would like to believe that they really wanted to teach the next generation of priests.
The priests were of the same Catholic Order (Franciscans) that I had as teachers in a university I eventually went to after I dropped out of the seminary.
I learned a lot from these priests. I learned the value of language, of critical thinking, of working out an ethical argument, of speaking in complete sentences, of community, of self-examination. And I remained friends with one of my priest-teachers for over thirty years.
Father Jerome Kelly. He was Irish Boston-lover who could sweep into a conversation with the gentleness of an Irish setter. He was a natural “story teller,” in his wire-rimmed glasses and his slight brogue, a corn-silk head of soft gray hair, and gentle jowls that seemed to hang from his face like two thin winter gloves. He was a brilliant lecturer who could enrapture you with the elegance of a pause, an energized silence before he glided over to the blackboard to work out his explanations with arrows, swirls, and with the flat, vertical penmanship of a medieval manuscript copier.
Not unlike the so many of the other male teachers I would have throughout my adult like, Jerome Kelly embodied the male scholar-teacher, soft-spoken to a fault, winning you over with a quiet presence, gentleness, and subtle convictions.
And his faith was constant. When he could see that I was moving further and further away from the theology and institution of the Roman Catholic Church, he once asked me, “Where are you with Christ, John.” I simply said, “I believe in the historical Christ, Jerome.” He paused. “It sounds so gray when you say it, John.” He never attempted to win me over with a theological dissertation. He simply loved me and accepted all of my spiritual fault lines.
His framed photo rests on the top of a tall set of drawers in my bedroom.
On my spiritual journey, I have also encountered other male spiritual teachers—Thomas Merton, Robert Bly, Mat Cohen, Osho, A.H. Almaas, Trungpa Rinpoché in addition to an ivy-league progressive Presbyterian minister, and a host of Unitarian clergy. All of them, to a fault, never raised their voices, never slipped into a pulpit evangelical voice steamrolling a do-or-die urgency about faith. They were thoughtful; they were kind; they were gentle; they were intellectual; and some even had doubts.
My journey on the many paths of masculinity continues to be rounded out with constant reminder of how much my own father had influenced me, even ten years after his death. He had an incredibly expansive mind. Even though he never went to college, he was an autodidact, teaching himself to do wall board, rewire an entire house, fix plumbing, put in a new window.
My father painted. He drilled. He sawed. He looked for the right nail as he sifted through the bottom of his tool box full of rattling nails and screws. He read the newspaper. He smoked cigars. He watched baseball. He played pinochle.
And he loved to travel. My God, did he love to travel. For seven years we scoured the East Coast during my college spring and summer breaks—Boston, Portsmouth, Charleston, Washington, Ottawa, Toronto (he was suspicious of Canadians but deferred to my love of Canada).
I learned from him a simple lesson: love life, no matter what. You get one chance at it. Enjoy it.
He was not without his faults. In his younger married days, he was a womanizer. He would avoid a family crisis by withdrawing into a glazed stare of indifference. When the love of his life, his second wife, came out of the operating room and was in intensive care, he stayed about twenty feet away from her bed, unable to move to her bedside. She had esophageal cancer. When she died, my father went into a year-long hurricane of emotions and behaviors—rage, forgetfulness, confusion, indecisiveness, and frantic attempts to pack everything into his life by traveling.
Aside from my own divorce, my father’s reaction to my step-mother’s death was one of the first experiences I had with genuine grief and emotional trauma. To this day, I know that my compassion for those who are uprooted (illegal immigrants, victims of physical disasters, foster children, refugees, among others) could be partially attributed to that time in my life when I saw my dad’s profound reaction to the death of someone he thought would live forever.
My early life growing up in the projects certainly made me aware of the machismo side of masculinity. So many of the men I knew lived hard, worked hard, and accepted their fates without bitterness. Some, of course, did not. They hated their lives and continue to remain bitter about their lost hopes (that is not to say that some of my bourgeois male friends haven’t escaped that same kind of fatalism).
As I look back on my life, I realize that I have chosen male role models to follow whose lives were, and are, intellectually and emotionally full. Although there is a certain male “street” cynicism I hang on to from those pre-adolescent days growing up in the projects, my psyche is more inclined to the optimistic. the expansive, and to the compassionate.
I can, of course, be relentless, even hard-assed, in my pursuit of social-justice issues. But, if I try to give my passion-for-fairness some moderation by remembering so many of my male teachers, I am constantly reminded to speak gently, to walk softly, to be open to the other side.
On a really bad day, when I am tired, when I carry resentments, when I continue to listen to the ramblings of my own mind, when I am afraid, or when I am ill, I often go into this male-attack-and-go-for-the-jugular mode. That is the time, of course, when I make a phone call to a friend or hang out with those who know me, or do some service work. When I do that, my bad-male days always seem to evaporate into irrelevance and I am back to the gentle male teacher and student I know, in my heart, I will continue to want to be.
My personal narrative of male role models is very incomplete here. During my wild alcoholic days and my long period of recovery, I have become very close friends with many men from different cultures, particularly African-American culture. They have all had a profound effect on opening me up to different perceptions of the world. I will honor them all with an extended blog about how much they have affected my life.