I am not particularly manly, as you know from reading my work or talking to me or seeing my picture or knowing what my name is. Cars? Sports? Camping? Hunting? No thank you. The overwhelming majority of my tentative forays into all those elements of ruggedness have ended badly.
But a few distinctly masculine traits do surface in my behavior now and then. For example, there is no artwork hanging in my apartment. There never has been, except for a period of time when I had a portrait hanging up that I’d bought at a thrift store for 50 cents solely because the man in it looked like (but wasn’t) Walt Disney. I’ve just never seen the need to decorate. People are amazed and appalled at this, and they think my apartment feels like a prison, with its bare white walls and the constant threat of being stabbed. And while I like the idea of having some lovely artwork or decor brightening up the place, every time I’m about to buy some, I think: Shouldn’t I spend this money on food? Decor just isn’t practical.
So that’s pretty manly, not caring what my environment looks like. Another example is the amount of time I wasted recently when they were tearing up the sidewalk and part of the street outside my apartment. They’re trying to make this section of town more pedestrian-friendly and neighborhood-like by putting in nicer sidewalks and old-fashioned street lamps, in the apparent hope that this will, by itself, result in fewer murders. It was going on right outside my window, and I was endlessly fascinated by all the tractors and machines and implements, and that made me feel manly — or, rather, like a little boy, which is pretty much the same thing. I had no interest in performing any of the labor myself, of course, but I loved watching the equipment and wondering where it comes from and who makes it. “What do you do for a living?” “Oh, I work at a factory that makes the long metal poles that construction guys use to draw the straight lines in freshly poured sidewalks.”
The most fascinating piece of equipment to me was the curb machine. I’d never seen anyone make a curb before. I guess I’d never thought much about it. It turns out they put the curb in before the sidewalk, which surprised me — real men right now are saying, “Well, duh” — and they do it with this vehicle that drives very slowly down the street while smoothly and steadily excreting cement in the shape of a curb. It looks like the Play-Doh Fun Factory, or like the time I had food poisoning.
And then I went to my parents’ house for Christmas, where my dad and my brothers are always engaging in manly behavior. My dad got an air compressor for Christmas, and he was very happy about it. I don’t even know what an air compressor does. I mean, I assume it compresses air, but for what purpose? Apparently it’s used for inflating tires, and other projects where a sustained, powerful blast of air is needed — which makes it redundant, because my dad can do that himself. (BOING!)
I have told you before about crotchball, a manly (i.e., imbecilic) game that my dad and my brother Chris play. This year a new pastime was devised, and it’s called: Shooting Each Other with a BB Gun.
My dad has had this BB gun for decades — I remember it from my childhood — and it’s recently been returned to active duty as a way of keeping rabbits off the lawn in the backyard. It sits next to the sliding glass door in the kitchen, where it’s handy if Dad sees unwelcome critters eating and pooping on his grass.
Somehow the handiness of the BB gun led to Chris wanting my other brother Lane to shoot him with it, just to see how bad it hurt. Now, already you will have identified this as a male trait, this desire to know how painful something is. Women are OK with not knowing. If you tell a woman something hurts, she’ll take your word for it. She does not need to quantify it.
So Chris stood at the edge of the backyard, about 30 feet away, and Lane shot him in the back. Chris’ response was to leap around hollering while the rest of us fell into fits of hilarity. Then this conversation ensued:
CHRIS: Can I shoot you now?
CHRIS: Then do you want to shoot me again?
With those being his options, Lane chose to shoot Chris again, this time hitting him in the buttocks. Well, probably just one buttock, I guess. More leaping around and hilarity followed. And as stupid as the whole thing was, I was overwhelmed by a primal male urge to find out for myself: How much does it hurt to get shot with a BB gun?
Chris was more than happy to help me find out. The rule of this new game was that the subject got to choose where on his body he wanted to be shot, and I figured my butt would offer the most padding and protection. Chris aimed and fired and a fraction of a second later I had my answer: It stings, but it’s not terribly painful. I think Chris was overreacting with his jumping around. Or maybe I’m just more of a tough guy than he is. Or maybe I just have a fatter butt.
In the final round of this bit of family merriment, Chris ran back and forth against the retaining wall at the edge of the backyard, like a duck in a carnival shooting gallery, while my dad fired shot after shot at him as fast as he could. He hit him three times, which was enough to win the stuffed bear. My mom watched the whole thing, no doubt feeling especially grateful that she has daughters, too.
My occasional bursts of manliness have been addressed in this column before, notably in the 2004 entry "A Guy Old Time." In a way, the very act of writing -- expressing one's ideas and feelings -- is inherently un-manly. And yet how do you explain Ernest Hemingway, the manliest man who ever lived? We men are a mystery.
If you think about it, the effects of food poisoning are not at all similar to the sight of a curb-maker squeezing out cement. For that reason, it is best that you not think about it.
Oh, and the post-script to the BB gun story is that a few days later my mom shot Chris in the back and drew blood. That's why girls shouldn't play sports.
The picture that looked like Walt Disney but wasn't was a black-and-white photograph of Mormon church patriarch emeritus Eldred G. Smith, taken in about 1955 when he was in his late 40s. I don't have the picture anymore, but a devoted reader named Rick had, for some reason, a digital copy of it and sent it to me. That's Eldred on the left, Walt on the right.