Shortly after the release of his movie Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood said in an interview that the young men of today comprise a generation of pussies. A generation of men who, without any sort of proper guidance, are pushovers and glad-handers and back-peddlers no better suited to calling themselves men than they are gods or rats.
This got me thinking about a lot of different things, not least of which are my relationships with my father and the grandfathers who have already passed on. That, in turn, brought to mind the all too common question of what defines a man in this enlightened age.
What makes a man? Is it the clothes he wears, or the choices he makes? Is it the relationships he forges in calm weather, or the tatters of his pride left after the storm has passed? Whatever it is, Clint Eastwood, at least, thinks we don’t have enough of it.
So here I sit, Pall Mall Red tucked firmly into the corner of my lips, squinting through blue smoke at the monitor screen that seems far too bright on this cold December morning. My right hand rests easy on the keyboard like sentries on post; the fingers of my diminished left twitch restlessly as if awaiting commands from their leader who is too far behind the line to know what the Christ he’s talking about. I rattle the keys and think of what to say next, and wonder just what exactly a man is supposed to think of himself these days.
We can’t all be war heroes like Walt Kowalski. We can’t all be strong men of few pleasures and many regrets. Some of us are ex-cons or drug addicts or thieves; others are cowards and blowhards whose spent wind could power the whole Mid-West if harnessed. I guess that puts me somewhere in the middle.
What makes a man? It’s not how he holds himself or how he relates to people. It’s not what he thinks of himself on those endless nights when he imagines all the things he could have, should have done. It’s not what he does or doesn’t do in his lifetime.
I’m a writer, it’s something I’ve done for as long as I could string sentences together. I’ve also been a machinist, a construction hand, and a drug dealer. I’ve been a carpenter, a clerk, a lover and a fighter. I’m an artist, a poet, and a liar. At various times throughout my life I’ve been a stupid hero and a smart coward. Am I a man?
It might interest you to know that I value none of the good things I’ve done any more or less than the bad. Then again, it might not, but if that makes a difference to me, I can’t tell. What I can tell, what I know, is that everything has a value. If we all meet up in front of Christ Himself, and he weighs our deeds against each other, I’m not sure how the balance will tip for me. It’s been too long and too wide a road for me to remember all the pot holes and rest stops. But I’m sure I can account for every debt owed and kindness paid, and that’s something.
One of my uncles recently confessed to me that the family always assumed two definite outcomes for my life. I’d either end up a master criminal, or achieve greatness in some unnamed but more virtuous pursuit. Honestly, I don’t know if either of those things are accurate. I’m no master criminal and so help me I can’t think of a single purely virtuous thing I’ve done all goddamn year.
What makes a man? I guess it’s a matter of how the balance tips when you’re done playing. When the full weight of your iniquities and good deeds are brought to bear, when your chips are cashed in and you’re no longer there to claim the winnings yourself, that’s when it’s finally decided. Maybe by God, maybe by your fellow men, but rest assured it will be decided.