On Being Men: Letter to My Grandsons

Dear Jake, Eli, and Jack,

There are so many things I’d like to share with you.  Some will have meaning now; others are for later as you grow into manhood.  Here’s one.

Did you know that the majority of men in this country prefer Donald Trump to any of the Democratic candidates for the presidency?  For me, that fact feels like the betrayal of the American ideals and, more personally, the values I was brought up with.  Our elected president is dishonest, cruel, bigoted, and corrupt.  He’s a braggart, a misogynist (that means someone who disrespects and probably dislikes women), and a cheat.  I could say more but you get the picture.

Yet men in great numbers keep choosing him.  Instead of just dismissing him and his followers, though, you and I need to ask ourselves as honestly as possible what makes him so attractive to so many.  The temptations to join his crowd are greater than you might think, yet it would sadden me beyond measure if you yielded to them.

I think I can boil down Trump’s appeal to a simple message: people (immigrants, people of color, the “elite” (people who are well educated), and women are taking away our power.  Men must be strong and reject their takeover.

What kind of takeover are we talking about? Here’s how the Trump voters see it: “They” are taking our jobs.  They are taking our culture (this is code, meaning a diverse society that no long puts White men and especially those of northern European ancestry on top).  They are taking our homes—men are no longer the kings of their castles but must share power with their wives.  In other words, White men are no longer the automatic center of American society.  Hoards of immigrants, Black and Brown people, women, and Eastern intellectuals are attacking our traditional ways.

Not only is society changing but we can’t seem to do anything about it.  There is a tidal wave washing over us, overwhelming our efforts to maintain our way of life.  What’s worse is that all of this is happening in spite of us.  We’ve got to stop acting like helpless victims—like women.  We need to take back what rightfully belongs to us.  If we have to do that by bullying, by stealing votes, by keeping those “others” poor and powerless, we will do that.  Thus the big, orange-haired man, bellowing at the rallies, insulting all who oppose him, sneering and snarling at all opposition—that’s who we want to be.
Warriors. Big and strong, our anger released. He makes us feel more like men.

This, of course, is not even close to the kind of man I want you to be.  It’s not who your parents want you to be.  It’s not who you are.  I already see that plainly in you, Jake, at 18.  I can even see it in nine year old Eli and six year old Jack.  Your parents have taught you well.  But let me say a little more about the forces that have brought on this backlash to a century of social progress.

Trump and the White men are right: we have lost some of the power that men have had over the centuries.  Woman now vote.  Women now work out of the home and will soon earn equally with us.  Black and Brown people vote, too, and they are finding good jobs. Immigrants from around the world, people of all colors and nationalities, have entered our country in search of freedom and economic security.  Women and men, often working twice as hard as we do to earn a living for their families, often laboring at jobs that White people don’t even want to do.  I get goose bumps watching them rise.  Isn’t that the American dream?  It sure is mine and I’m happy to share.

And here’s some of the positive sides of change.  In the old days, men had to always seem, even pretend to be strong, even when we felt tired or frightened or depressed.  We couldn’t ask for help.  When I was young, cultural norms warned us not to share our feelings—bad feelings, of course, but even good feelings, like love and delight—for fear of seeming weak. We don’t have to be that way anymore.  We don’t have to act like cartoonish stereotypes of men the way that Trump and his followers do.  We don’t need guns to make us feel strong, to make us feel like men.

We can join together, share work, share feelings, share triumphs and losses, fears and loves.  With each other.  With women and children.  We can be playful and sweet.  Not always rough and tough.  We don’t have to hide behind gruff voices and threats and guns.  We can be obvious.  We can be who we are, each moment, and over the long haul.  You can’t imagine how much more energy comes from breaking the old taboos, from the ability to express all sides of our character.

By tearing down the shell we built to protect us from feeling weak, we are free to love.  To be open and close with our wives, our children, our friends.  And to feel loved.  Something that so-called “real men” rarely feel.  We can let it in and be warmed by it.  Gain confidence through it.  Find ourselves able to love others more because we feel loved.

Maybe the most extraordinary prize for the new men among us is the ability to be close, loving fathers.  We don’t have to hand the job over to mothers.  We can share.  We can begin by holding our babies, by playing with our toddlers, hanging out with our older guys (and girls).  For me, there was no deeper and no more challenging experience than raising my daughter—your mother and aunt—by myself for a while.  It made it so much easier to understand women and children.  And that made me stronger and—pay attention—less self centered.  I had to pay attention to her first.  Not something that many men have had to do.  Not something that came naturally to me, either.  But I learned, and, when you care for your little ones, you will learn too.

Getting outside ourselves, being caretakers—not just by paying the bills but, like your fathers, by changing the diapers—will make (modern) men of us all.  And I will be so proud that you are my grandsons.

Speaking Through Letters

Blogs are so different than books.  When you write a book, it may be several years between conception and reception.  The response to a blog ranges from hours to days, and I am grateful for the greater immediacy in the feedback.  There is even a community, however attenuated, that emerges.  I love that, too.  Even so, writing can be a lonely business.

When I write essays, it often feels like I am reaching into a large, open space that is almost devoid of human life.  And I find myself wishing there were someone real, someone specific, to receive and respond to my words.  When Franny or my friend, David, is around, I sometimes ask: “May I read this to you?”  I love reading to people, adults as well as children.

But, of course, most of the time there is no one around when I write and even if they were, I’d ask them to leave because I need the quiet and the privacy to marshal my thoughts.  To give room for images and feelings to turn themselves into words and thoughts, and to have those thoughts creep into consciousness.

There is one form of writing that brings together the intimacy of reading aloud and the privacy of a journal: letter writing.  It has been a long time since I’ve written letters — ever since email emerged — but I remember it.  I remember writing a letter to someone important, then sending it off, knowing that it would take two or three days to be received and, even if my friend or lover wrote back immediately, there would be another three days to bring their thoughts back to me.  That meant six days of anticipation and suspense, especially if I had confided something very personal.  Whole scenarios would play out in my mind.  The extended time heightened everything.

There is nothing like this intensity in the exchange of emails or texts — or, for that matter, in the essays I send out through my blog.  So I have been searching for a way back to those letters or at least, to the intimate experience they brought.  In my experimentation, I have discovered that writing letters, even to imaginary people, brings me closer.  And, if I have a real person I’m writing to — a grandchild or a close friend, for example — I’m almost there.

There are big topics I want to write about, like what it takes to be a man in our current society, how to live a moral life, and how to face old age, but I have grown tired of talking into the void that essays call forth.  So I have begun to experiment with “letters” that speak through my relationships with my children, grandchildren, brother, sister, and friends, and let me speak in a more personal voice.  Often it’s not solely or even precisely the persons I name in the letter—my brother, my son.  Rather the feeling of speaking to them allows me to speak to similar others—parents, children, siblings … you get the point.  I hope it works for you, too.

As you’ll soon see, the first letter, speaks to, and through, my wishes for my grandsons.  I want them to grow into good men.