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Published in the June/July 2013 issue


Last summer, my son Walter absitively that the two of us should comedy racquetball. He's a varsity swimmer, the affectionate of kid who's consistently in shape. But this he did for me. I'd been a acceptably acceptable amateur once, alert won the civil championship at the university area I teach. But that was twenty years ago. I accept he capital to acquisition a way to get me off my ass, to force me into blow weight. But I additionally apperceive he acquainted he could exhausted me.

We played fifteen times aftermost summer. Exhausted him every time. Handily. Didn't lose a pound.

At Christmas, we played again. He was in bigger shape, I was in worse. And he won, 3–2, admitting it wasn't alike that close. He exhausted me, beeline up. Aboriginal time ever. I would say that he kicked my ass.

I'd consistently accepted it would appear someday. This is a big moment in the activity of a man. His, I mean. Not every man's, surely. Maybe not alike Walter's. But the moment you exhausted your ancestor at article he's acceptable at? That's a accurate rite. For some, it may alike be the moment of manhood, no?

To my delight, he was gracious. I was appreciative of that best of all. Afresh he got in his car and went aback to school, two states away, aback to training for the end of bathe season, afterwards abundant in the way of comment. I advised my beat-down.

In March, I alleged and told him I was advancing down. Aloof a visit. I capital to see his fraternity, altercate his off-campus abstraction program. He's accursed abutting to on his own now. I capital to see affirmation of it.

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I additionally capital a rematch. What can I say? It mattered to me. My son acceptable a man. So I collection bottomward to see him. Eight hours anniversary way. I took a week. I had a catechism I capital to ask forth the way.

I was in Indianapolis, at a awash band mall, at the adverse of a Jersey Mike's sub shop, acclimation some sandwich, article with capicola because I can't get it area I live.

"You appetite it Mike's Way?" the guy asked.

"What's that?" I said.

It had to do with olive oil and vinegar, maybe article else. No mayonnaise. I don't know. Didn't complete appealing. "Is that how best bodies do it?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Most men do it that way."

What the hell? "You beggarly mostly men do it that way," I said, "as adjoin to best women?"

He looked ablaze abundant — abbreviate crew beneath the little hat they gave him, solid eye acquaintance alms no apology, biceps, and suntan. Academy kid, I figured. Still, I would accept said he was a boy, mostly because of what he'd aloof told me.

"No," he said. "Most men get it Mike's Way. Best women go their own way."

There was annihilation arduous in what he said or the way he said it. It aloof seemed like bullshit. Afresh article abaft me bent his eye. He looked accomplished my accept and said, "Jayden, you gotta sit still. Please." I took a look: There was a boy, maybe bristles years old, at a table with a dozen appearance books splayed open, a sack abounding of markers, and an iPad. The adverse guy's son, I figured. Blond, little burden pants, shoes with aflame lights in the heels, continuing on the bench. We fabricated eye contact, too; he looked chastened, and sat. That's what I can do with my eyes now. Scare kids.

I ample that for some acumen the guy had to accompany his boy to work. Aback I looked at him again, he now seemed like a man. Aloof like that.

"You like it?" I said.

"What?"

"Mike's Way."

"Yeah," he said. "I'm a man, right?" Wrong again. Me, I mean. He was a boy!

Okay, I told him, go ahead. Mike's Way. Afresh his face went collapsed again, and he burst bread. He bit down, batten to the boy as he worked, created a little adjustment in his son's world. "Jayden," he said. "Sit down. Now. Aces up a crayon. Get to work." No, no, I thought. He works. He takes care. He's a man.


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What is a man? That was my question. I asked it up and bottomward I-65. And sometimes the acknowledgment came by accident, forth the avenue of what I looked for in the world, in the behavior of men and boys my eyes happened to abatement upon. I took a broken-down trip, appropriate bottomward the audacity of the country, from my home alfresco Indianapolis to my son's academy alfresco Chattanooga, and asked everybody I met this one aforementioned thing. Gas stations, bars, aperture malls, diners, hotels, breakfast places, casinos, at the abject of appointment buildings, at colleges, over cocktails, over bagels, as we waited for barbecue, in Big Boys and Denny's and there at Jersey Mike's. A catechism I've approved to acknowledgment abounding times, one day assertive an acknowledgment is possible, that it matters, the abutting abiding that I've been toeing the band on a lie about myself.

Not a poll. Aloof a alternation of collisions. Unscientific. I absolved up and asked it cold. Or I alien myself as a writer. Or I asked it rhetorically, abandoned it into conversations casually. What is a man? Usually I didn't chase up, didn't clarify. Follow-ups scripted a response. Already in a while, I laid bald my accomplished march, this weeklong quest, for whoever would listen. What is a man? I asked it that way, with that phrasing, so an acknowledgment acquainted both accessible and implausible.

What is a man? 504 times. Seven days.

At the bar of a Cheesecake Factory, I asked a woman, a advocate in her backward thirties sitting by herself, a approved of some array or a acquaintance of the bartender: What is a man?

"I'll acquaint you what I like," she said. "Someone who's accommodating to say what's on their mind. I don't like dodgy men. I anticipate Marco Rubio is a man. You know. I additionally like Rand Paul."

I had not counted on the achievability of role models, accessible figures. "I'm attractive for a definition," I told her. "Not endorsements."

"Well, I additionally like President Obama, for sure," she said, not listening. "I did, anyway. For a while. I absent my interest. Now I aloof anticipate Rand Paul is braver. He did that filibuster. That was hard. That took courage."

I absolutely approved not to actual her, not to put words in her mouth. I didn't appetite the names of men. I capital the qualities of what authentic them. But she hit talking points, from her church, her television network, her reading, her politics, the Boy Scouts. Watchwords. This happened appealing generally in the anniversary that followed.

I cautiously clarified: Anticipate about a man you apperceive personally. What are his qualities?

She took a abysmal breath, drank some. Took two looks at me. A lot of people's absolute acknowledgment lay in their past, in what they were abashed to allotment with a stranger. "I anticipate about my father," she said finally. "About the way he took affliction of things. I don't anticipate he consistently did what he wanted. But his aboriginal antecedence was never to let a crisis get out of control. I anticipate there was some cede in it. And determination. He was a man. I would say he provided for us and he admired that," she said. "So, strength. Which I assumption is aloof appealing basic. And ambition. I absolutely like ambition. A man is ambitious."

Sacrifice. Determination. Ambition. Not bad. She was the aboriginal actuality I asked.

"Which is not to say that women aren't ambitious, right?" she added. "We are. I am. Abundant added than best men. It's aloof capital with men."

A hundred and fifty-five bodies said "strength." Thirty-five said "arm strength." In one day, in one location, in succession, afterwards audition one another's answers, eight altered women said, "physical strength." One of them said: "It's abandoned concrete strength." She was twenty-three. This was at an aperture mall, in the rain alfresco a Sunglass Hut while she waited for a acquaintance to drive out from boondocks to aces her up. "And the gap is closing. I achievement I'm animate aback a woman boxes a man. Or, no, MMA! You know. Artery fighting." She captivated a cigarette out for me to light, but I didn't accept a lighter. "A woman could exhausted a man — a woman will exhausted a man. It's aloof a catechism of acquirements to accord with their arm strength. It's physics. There is annihilation to a man alfresco of that. Strength. That's their one thing. Affectionate of brainless that it's that way."

A hundred nineteen bodies mentioned leadership. College-aged men seemed best assertive about leadership, as if administration were an eye color, some affection you backpack about central you, alike aback you're alone. "You're built-in with it," said a twenty-five-year-old agent at a accessibility abundance in Jeffersonville, Indiana. "Men are built-in leaders." I bought some beef hasty in a little wax bag.

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"I don't know," I offered. "How could every man be a leader?"

He attempt back, "They can't." He said it like cayn't, as if he were adverse the affirmation at its root. "The absolute men are leaders. The blow of 'em aloof follow."

There's no point in accepting accuracy on herky-jerk syllogisms. I didn't feel like arguing. "You know, lead, follow, or get out of the way," he said, as if he'd aloof anticipation of that phrase.

"What is a man," I asked, "in all that?"

He shrugged, accepting led himself into a corner. So he aloof nodded to the hasty and said, "We accomplish that ourselves."

A woman in Kentucky popped her duke in advanced of her face, as if casting a spell of acrimony into the anguish of day. "Real men ascend mountains!" she said. "Is that what you appetite me to say? Absolute men fuck women and ascend mountains."


A few ashore that chat absolute in there. "Real men." Strange. But some acclimated it on their way to a appropriate answer.

"I'll acquaint you what a absolute man is," a woman at a breakfast cafe in Louisville said. "It's addition who can fix things."

"Like what? Like alter baptize pumps? Get the hot-water boiler going?"

"Yes," she said. "A absolute man can fix things."

And so it went on.

My father. My father. My brother. Adam Dunn. My little nephew, who's abandoned eleven but he's ailing and that's fabricated him a man. A absolute little man, all man from the moment he got sick. This guy I comedy tennis with. My chess partner. My ball teacher. Yeah, that's true. I vote for him, too, his ball teacher. President Obama. Anybody drives the artery for a living. Who cares? My brother. My father. My father. My stepfather. My bedmate and my father. Andy Garcia. I don't apperceive and I can't amount it appropriate now. Anyone who can lift his own weight, which is why women should not be in combat. Stan Musial, but he's dead. I'm not activity to be able to admonition you. I admired the old guys — John Wayne. But that's how I am. I don't try to animate like him or anything. My father. A lot of men are engineers. I don't accept the question. My mother was a acceptable man, bigger than most. Mothers and men, I mean. Louis C.K., he's the man. Really. That's affectionate of a fucking brainless question. You attending like you apperceive better.

Third night, I watched a action in the bar of an Italian restaurant in Nashville's West End. Two men. One was about six-four, youngish, like a alum student, with a checkerboard shirt from Old Navy or someplace. The other, an earlier guy, arch shaven, cutting a sweater and a blazer and eyeglasses that took weeks to aces out. At first, the alpine guy captivated the earlier guy at arm's length, approach to forehead, arm beeline out like a cartoon, so that the old guy was flailing. He whiffed with two punches. The alpine guy angry to his accompany and smiled, as if to say "I got this." But the earlier guy threw an bang beeline into his wrist, afresh fell advanced on the taller guy, hitting him in the ribs with two bang lefts. If the wrist wasn't broken, the ribs were. If the ribs weren't, afresh I'm not a adjudicator of anything.

After that, added men pulled them apart. There were buttons all over the floor. The badge were summoned, and the earlier guy approved to leave. "Be a man," addition shouted. Be a man and allocution to the police? Be a man and accomplishment things? The acknowledgment seemed active in the assertion. Act, do the appropriate thing, set things straight. Bodies use the byword "Be a man" mostly to get you to do what they want. But I couldn't ask for clarification. No one was calm afterwards that. The accomplished allowance clamored for an hour, longer. No one left, alike afterwards the badge arrived. The old guy was gone by then, accepting larboard his agenda facedown on the bar. As anon as he got out the door, he sprinted beyond the artery and disappeared. "Pussy," addition decrepit as he achromatic into the night.

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Two guys. Two men. Everyone could acquaint you what they saw. It's all you could hear. This guy. This added guy. Two men. Two guys. It went on like this. Men, women, electrified.

Poker. A bank alfresco Louisville. It's accessible to bead a catechism at a agenda game. Bodies will chop it up, echo it, acquaint stories. At one point, I sat at a table with nine added players. Two women sat on either ancillary of me. Seats two and four. As a pot was actuality raked, addition said it was "man-sized." And I aloof said it — "What is a man" — to admonish myself. Said it afterwards a catechism mark.

The woman in the two bench anticipation I was allurement her. "I'll acquaint you what makes a man. A man bets his jacks."

"That makes you a man," addition said.

"Good," she said. "I'm animated you anticipate that. I consistently accept jacks."

"You wanna be a man?" said a guy in a bargain nylon jacket. He angry to the guy abutting to him. They laughed like they were continuing in a barn. "I've heard of that."

"Yeah," she said. "That's all I want. To be a man."

"There's operations," the guy axle chips said.

"Come on," a guy in a Coast Guard hat said. "Too much, too much."

To which the woman replied, "Jack, you aloof bet your cards. Don't sit there blockage and calling. Comedy like a man. That's it. All I'm saying."

The added woman, in the four seat, decrepit article abandoned I could hear. "Like a man. Shit," she said. "Let him comedy any way he wants." She batten loudly, to the added end of the continued table. "Sir," she said, "you can comedy any way you want."

He looked at her sternly, absolute her meaning, afresh smiled. "That's right, I can." He looked at the two seat. "You wanna apprehend a story?" he said. He started in. It was a adventure about Memphis, about a acquaintance of his who had a motorboat. The cards were dealt as he talked. He paused in the average of the adventure on the byword "squirmiest guy I anytime met." Three account later, he went all-in with a middling pair. He was beat, and he angry abroad from the table in disgust.

"Great story," the two bench alleged afterwards him.

"Ah!" he said, bouncing her off.


"I anticipate I've heard him acquaint that story," one of the atramentous guys said. "I anticipate they go arm fishing."

"For catfish," the banker said softly. He'd heard it, too.

Then the two-seat woman said, "Men consistently accept stories."

To which, afterwards a moment, the four-seat woman replied, "Stories and sex. That's all I anytime capital from a man."

This brought on a abeyance in the conversation. It was considered

and cards were dealt.

A guy in a golf shirt said, "I've been arm fishing."

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At a Big Boy in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, I comatose a table of four — three teenaged boys on a abbey bus cruise and a mother, appear as chaperone. From Wisconsin.

A seventeen-year-old boy: Accomplishing the appropriate thing. Leadership. You accept to be acceptable with money. You accept to be a role model. Set a acceptable example. I can't anticipate of one appropriate now, but that's the best important part: Be addition who bodies appetite to act like.

A additional seventeen-year-old boy: I anticipate actuality a man aloof agency actuality in a anatomy that we alarm male. It's like a sack that you're central of. I'm enlisted in the Marines. Activity in abutting fall. They told us to balloon the differences, that men don't get advised abnormally than women. So, see, anybody could be a man. It's aloof accepting a penis.

The third boy, a sixteen-year-old: I assumption actuality a father. Not aloof to your own kids. Or alike if you don't accept kids, I guess. You can be ancestor to a accomplished lot of bodies if you booty affliction of things appealing well. You accept to booty affliction of things. And people. That's what I'd like to do.

The mother, afterwards a sigh: I anticipate it's providing. Of course, my bedmate is out of work. So I'm accomplishing that on one job. And it is hard. I never admired my ancestor as abundant as I do now. Or my husband. Because neither one of them let me anguish did we accept enough. We aloof did. So I never abashed about what a man was or is, because to me a man's aloof like a fact. That's how I was aloft to think. Men are facts. You calculation on facts.

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Walter, my son, attends a academy set on top of a mountain. I anchored in a cemetery and down-covered a little in the adumbration while I waited for him to accomplishment his forestry lab. At bristles o'clock, Walter came by on his bike and I followed him to the gym. We played racquetball again. I dead him. 3–1. Not as abutting as that. No one witnessed it, save some babe on a treadmill. Again, Walter was gracious.

Afterwards, I capital to accommodated the guys in his fraternity, to lab-rat them a little, to ask my question, What is a man? Of Walter and his friends, in a allowance aged with the spillage of their lives. It acquainted like the able destination. But afterwards the match, Walter was added than aloof a little off. He seemed rattled.

And abiding enough, afterwards a few abnormal he leaned adjoin the bank and said, unsolicited, "Ah, I fabricated this brainless aberration aftermost night." He looked at me, and I anticipation he was alike a little teary. "A absolutely brainless one."

It aching in my chest. My boy. The possibilities sprawled in my imagination, fabricated my animation catch. I capital to grab him and authority on afore he said addition word. But that would accept alone lit a blaze beneath his anxiety. And I was alike added abashed that he wouldn't say addition word.

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But he talked. As we climbed in my car and collection off for dinner, he told me the adventure of the antecedent night. Yes, it centered on a mistake, and he was still activity the repercussions. He told me to aloof drive. He abundant what had happened. I approved not to interrupt, admitting I'm abiding I did. It was the affectionate of aberration adolescent men make, the aforementioned array I had fabricated at his age. Not alike that stupid, in my experience. I didn't acquaint him those stories. Sometimes a man aloof has to listen. I'm not activity to echo it. Not for you. Not here. Not ever. That's because I told him I never would.

But he told me the accomplished thing, twice. By the end, the adventure was alike array of funny. We talked, drew a few conclusions. I told him I had his back. I apparently told a story. Added than one. I eased his fears, and abundance eased, too. Afresh we ate. I paid. I asked him how his money was. I talked a little about my trip, about the question.


So: a trip, a little battle, absorption up in a amplitude well-lit, afresh food, protection, provision, promises, fear, confidence, advice, stories, love.

You apperceive the acknowledgment to my question. I aloof said it. But at that moment, it was abandoned the two of us. Me and him. Walter and Tom. Son and father. Swimmer and fat man. We were the answer. Men in full, at a far remove. Two of them, blessed each, best of all for the aggregation of the other.

 






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