What Kind of Man Are You?

I had contrasting male role models when I was a boy.  My Mom’s dad sang in the church choir, helped out around the house, read books and listened to classical music.  He was a calm and thoughtful man who took care of others.  The men on my Dad’s side drank whiskey and beer, smoked cigars, hunted and fished, played cards and bowled.  Some referred to cooking, cleaning and child rearing as “women’s work”.  They maintained an allergic attitude toward anything related to the “c” word: culture.  That’s not to say that they were stupid, but more that they liked what they already understood.  Reading a book, going to a museum, listening to a concert seemed like pointless exercises.

The movies I watched as a kid (pre-cable, often in black and white) starred John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner.  These actors represented contrasting styles of manhood.  John taught me to suck it up and endure danger and physical trials with little or no complaint.  Women were to be treasured and protected, but would remain largely unknowable.  Robert showed me that men may act on evil tendencies and can’t be trusted at first glance.  James acted as a jester, as a man who pointed out the absurdities of life.  Running away from a stupidly dangerous situation, not of one’s making, was acceptable.

I’m not like any of these examples, and I can’t really define precisely what makes a man good or bad.  Many men I’ve known drift back and forth between kindness and cruelty.  Most lean hard in one direction, but even the extreme cases have surprised me on occasion.  Some evolve from one form of manhood into another.

I guess that my bases for self-judgment draw on all these influences.  I know who I’d like to be while remaining aware that I fail to meet my own standards.  I try not to judge other men’s lifestyles and choices, but a recent public example of  “tough guy” manhood seems particularly repugnant to me.  I’ll never take that hot mess of hyper-inflated ego, blind cruelty, and pointless domineering as a guide to anything exemplary about manhood.

Here’s what I believe:

  1. A good man accepts defeats and success gracefully.  He doesn’t blame others for his failures and doesn’t claim full credit for his advances.
  2. A good man acts for the welfare of his family and community.
  3. A good man does not denigrate others or spread gossip and slander.
  4. A good man acknowledges his mistakes and sincerely strives to do better.
  5. A good man admits that he feels pain, and does not pretend that he is invincible and immovable.  Stoicism becomes an act of choosing a rational response to hardship, not a denial of pain.
  6. A good man tries his best to follow through on his commitments.  He does what he says he will do.
  7. A good man does not exploit the weak and less powerful.
  8. A good man tells the truth as he knows it, but doesn’t believe that he is the sole and complete possessor of truth.
  9. A good man does not believe that his current good fortune is God-given proof of his higher worth.  He chooses to be grateful for blessings received.
  10. A good man is humble.  He understands that he is a small speck in a vast cosmos.

Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.


Now I Know Why the Enraged Plumber Drinks


A giant of a man from Ferret Plumbing rang our doorbell.  He stood 6 ft. 3 in. and weighed close to 300 lbs.  He held a tablet and smiled gently as Judy and I explained that we needed a new sink installed in our gleaming new kitchen counter top.  He asked me if it would be glued (hopeful raising of his eyebrows) or clipped (ominous rumbling undertone) in.  I shook out a baggy of clips from the sink’s box.  The plumber’s face fell. He gave me a sad look, held up the tablet and said, “Let’s tote up the charges before we go any further.”

Click, click went his fingers for a minute or two.  Sad smile.  He said, “Got a pencil?  You’re going to want to write these down.  Ready?  It’ll cost you $300 dollars for me to attach the faucet to the sink.”

“What?  Don’t you charge by the hour?”

“We used to.  Now we charge by the job.  Let’s see.  I’ve got to look up the next step:  clipping in the sink.  Then there’s connecting the plumbing.”

“Wait a minute.  You’re breaking this up into three jobs?  Is this going to end up costing us $1000?”

“Yep, that’s about right.”

“That’s crazy!  We bought all the fixtures, and you’re charging a $1000 dollars just to put them in?”

“New policy, sir.  From corporate.  We lose money if we get tied up on a job for five or six hours when we could be going out on more jobs.”

(“That makes no sense,” I thought.  But then I remembered that they charged a fee for just showing up.  That was the money they were “losing”.)

“Forget it,” I said.  “Corporate can go fuck itself,” I thought.

The plumber smiled in relief and trudged out to his van.  It was the end of the day and he hadn’t wanted to do the job.  He returned to the front door to tell me, “They’re going to call you up to confirm that you cancelled the job, but they’ll try to charge you for my visit.  Tell them you met me on the porch, didn’t let me inside, didn’t take a quote for the job.  Come up with a reason.”

After the man drove away Judy said, “I can attach the faucet in 20 minutes.  $300!”

We dug out the instructions and made our first attempt.  A part was missing, a spout base ring.  I drove to Home Despot and exchanged our box for another.  The new box didn’t have a spout base ring either, but the lady at the customer service counter pointed to a metal washer and said, “That’s it.”  I noted that the instructions showed a part with grooves on the inner surface, and she replied, “You can’t pay attention to these directions.  They’re not that accurate.”  “Fuck me,” I thought.

I took the box home and Judy and I attached the faucet to the sink.  But there was a problem:  when we screwed down the base plate tight enough so that it wouldn’t swivel, the spigot couldn’t move from side to side.  Judy said, “That part’s missing.  This just won’t work.  We’ll have to get another brand.”

She looked up designs on the internet, found a few that were highly rated by customers, and went to the Home Despot site.  She looked up instructions for different models, and we chose one that required two simple steps.  I went back to Home Despot, got a refund for the faucet (“Why are you returning this, sir?”  “It’s missing a part.  This is the second one we’ve tried, and both boxes are missing a spout base ring.  I don’t know if they changed the design and didn’t bother to change the instructions, but either way this thing doesn’t work!”), and returned home with the new model.  We attached it in ten minutes and saved $300.

The next step was to apply silicone gel around the rim of the sink’s cut out, press the sink into it’s hole, and clamp the underside to the counter.  I fiddled with the clips and couldn’t figure out how to insert the damn screws.  I discovered that they turned lefty tighty instead of righty tighty.  I took one and slid on my back into the cabinet under our counter and said, “Ahhhhrrrrrgggg!” as the edge of the shelf cut into my back.  I reached up and fiddled with the clip, but everything I did, as I tried to follow the vague instructions, pushed the sink up instead of clipping it down.  I began to curse out loud following a family tradition that my father handed down to me:  a high decibel rant that questioned the clip’s parentage and the brains of the dumb**** who designed the goddamned thing as well as the language skills of the (expletive referring to a sexual act punishable by death according to Leviticus 20: 11) moron who wrote the instructions.

Judy remained calm and looked up a video on youtube.  We discovered that the head of the screw in the clip slid into a groove on the underside of the sink.  I flopped down under the sink, said “Ahhhrrrrgggg!” as the lip indented a rib a few sixteenths of an inch, reached up into the darkness, found the groove and slid the clip in.

We applied the silicone, pressed down the sink into the hole, and I began to slide and screw in the clips.  30 minutes later I emerged from the underside of the sink covered in sweat.  My back and arms ached.  Judy put in the drains and sealed them with plumber’s putty. She sealed the edges of the sink on the top side with silicone gel.  I cut two pieces of plastic pipe (tailpieces) using a hacksaw and miter box, and screwed them in place so that the sink drains connected to the drain pipes.  Then I connected the water lines.

Before I opened the water valves I asked Judy if I should place a bucket underneath.  I expected my handiwork to explode under pressure.  Judy said, “What the hell.  Let’s just try it.”

The damn thing worked.  We felt a brief moment of triumph, and then Judy retreated to the bedroom and lay down for a nap.  I pulled out a bottle of whiskey.

Sweet Whiskey

There is a liquor store attached to the Publix in Winter Park. I go there when I’m in a rush and have a little time left over after shopping for groceries. The attendants in the store vary from day to day, shift to shift, but one is an attractive women in her 20s. Someone like her would have been out of my class if I had met her back in the early 80s, but now that I’m 57 I find that I have little trouble communicating as I no longer entertain any hope (or genuine desire) for anything beyond a pleasant chat. But I still found myself feeling deflated when she corrected me one day after I told her I prefer bourbon over scotch. I said,” Scotch has an aftertaste that reminds me of dirty sweat socks. I know that I’m supposed to like the peat flavor, but Kentucky bourbon has a cleaner finish.” She lowered an eyelid and sneered, “Some folks like a sweet liquor, but I prefer the smoky flavor of a good scotch. It tastes more complicated and rich.” That day I had chosen a bottle of Jesse James that tasted neither smoky nor sweet and was a cheap option that fit the funds in my wallet. I slunk away as she stared at me with a fixed smile on her face. When she said, “Have a nice day,” she really meant, “Real men (with cash) drink scotch.”

At the ABC on Semoran the clerks look a lot less attractive as they are all middle aged men, but they are quietly helpful when I go nosing around the whiskey aisle. They’re happy to take my money when I buy bourbon and assume no air of disapproval when I pass by the scotch. The manager steered me to W.L. Weller a few years ago. This whiskey runs from 90 to 100 proof, but my favorite bottle is an aged 90 proof that looks golden brown, has a fierce initial sting, and finishes with a long, mellow release. A couple of sips kindle a sweet glow in my mind that tells me that everything is going to be all right, and that I live in a civilized world where a man can relax for a few minutes and let go of his troubles.

Cooper’s Mark and Woodford Reserve run a close second and third when I decide where to put down cash for whiskey. Cooper’s Mark runs the same price as Weller and has similar strengths. Woodford Reserve tastes more complex than either of the other two, but costs about a third more. I don’t have sophisticated palate, but even I can taste hints of vanilla and perhaps cherry in the liquor. The whiskey is aged in charred barrels for at least seven years, and the product rivals the best scotch in its rich, subtle flavor. I buy it when I am flush or when I feel the need to reassert my dignity as a human being. Woodford is a crutch for my self-esteem when I get turned down for an art exhibition, after dealing with insurance agents bent on taking my money without providing benefits, and after I’ve returned from a physical exam and was told once again, “At your age you no longer can expect to…”

I come from a family who liked whiskey to excess, and am cautious about the amount of drinks I take in a day, week, or month. My wife suspects that I may be following in my father’s footsteps and cautions me that the slope is slippery and steep. I know that booze cannot fully take away grief, aches and care, and that I will have to square up to and face the difficulties of my present situation. Time spent in a whiskey glow is time wasted. But at the end of a day spent in anxious frustration I have an urge to put aside Puritanical worries and to enjoy a moment of release. Prayer and meditation might have the same soothing effect, and I’ve heard that nothing sounds as sweet as the voices of angels. But until I reach nirvana or sit before the heavenly throne, I’ll take time out on occasion to sit in my recliner with a good book, sip a glass of liquid gold and let the words and the alcohol carry me away.

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part IV–Mistake Buddies

Tim was the manager of the restaurant where I worked.  He was a former coworker at Burger King with Jerry, the man who owned the rights to the Godfather’s franchise in the Dayton area.  Jerry did most of the hiring when a new store opened to ensure a good launch, but the individual managers made the personnel decisions once an operation ran for a while.

Tim was a lean man, a bow hunter who stalked deer, and a mean  drunk who looked for a reason, any reason, to start a fight.  He liked to hire dishwater blondes with big chests for the service counter out front, and good old boys who appeared to be none too bright for the kitchen.  He seemed uneasy around the summer job college kids originally hired by Jerry, and acted as if they were lying in wait to challenge his authority.

Dave was one of Tim’s picks for the kitchen.  He was lazy and sneaky and delighted in finding ways to get out of work.  He put a lot of thought and effort into doing next to nothing.  He hid equipment he was supposed to clean, and stacked dishes in  perfectly balanced, 2 foot high columns beneath lovingly fluffed up layers of soap suds.  Inevitably we would need the cheese grater or platters about fifteen minutes after he clocked out, and would find the former hidden behind boxes of cheese and pepperoni in the walk in cooler, and the latter concealed beneath a thick foam of bubbles in the dishing sink.

Dave had no clue about what it took to serve and prepare food safely in a restaurant.  He once dumped a glass full of ice cubes from his cup of soda in my dish washing rinse water, and when I objected he told me that it was all right because he didn’t have a cold.  He was accident prone away from work and often came in with bandages on his hands and arms.  A pizza was returned one night when a customer found a band aid in the toppings, and Dave was permanently assigned to dishwashing after that.

When complaints were made about Dave by his fellow workers he was protected by Tim, who defended him by telling us that Dave “worked hard and was a good guy.”  Jim, our night manager, told us that Dave was Tim’s drinking buddy and that we would have to put up with him until something flagrant happened.

Tim’s big mistake was having an affair with a buxom service counter girl with a big head of frizzy blond hair.  When his wife found out she banished him from their house, and he camped out in the restaurant’s office.  (I was surprised that she let him escape alive:  she was a strong, independent woman who could dress a deer with a hunting knife.  She showed me the blade one time at a company party, and it was nine inches long and very sharp.) His troubles were compounded by his illiteracy. He depended on his wife to write notices for the bulletin board, do the nightly books and figure out the payroll.

Dave’s ongoing mistake was in coming to work intoxicated.  He usually chose a Friday night, when we had the biggest load of work, to drink whiskey from a bottle hidden in his El Camino and pop Quaaludes.  He started bumping into people fifteen minutes into a shift,  and gradually became immobile while the rest of the kitchen crew moved at a break neck speed to keep up with orders.  If I spoke to him and tried to get him to do some work,  he would stare ahead with a blank look on his face and slur a few unintelligible words.  One night when he was reasonably sober Megan told him in jest that he was doing the wrong drug, that he should take some speed instead.  The next Friday he came in so wired that he couldn’t stand still in one place long enough to actually finish a job.

Tim eventually managed to reconcile with his wife by dumping the blonde and begging for forgiveness.  After he was allowed to return home he changed his personnel policy and began to hire brunettes with more average figures. At about the same time Tim gave Dave a warning that he would be fired if he came in high once more.  Perhaps in the fever of his reform Tim was led to evangelize the gospel of responsibility to others.  Or maybe his wife told Tim to lose some of his drinking buddies and sober up.

A few weeks later Dave wobbled in through the doors of the kitchen and tried to wash dishes.  He kept dropping platters and glasses, and while he didn’t manage to break anything he couldn’t seem to get a single thing clean.  He staggered and bounced off the walls as he walked down a narrow hallway between the coolers and the employee restroom, and had to lean against a wall to keep from falling over.  Jim came into the kitchen and immediately noticed Dave’s condition, who by this point was staring off into space with glazed eyes.  He had a mindless grin on his face as if he had just heard a joke that he couldn’t understand, and didn’t respond when Jim asked him a question. Jim didn’t have the authority to fire him on the spot, so he got Kenny to help him walk Dave out of the kitchen, through the dining room and down a hall to the manager’s office. Jim called Tim and spent the interlude waiting for him to arrive holding Dave upright.

When Tim showed up Dave had sobered enough to realize that he was in trouble.  Tim asked his buddy why he had come in drunk again when he knew that he was on the verge of being fired.  Dave didn’t really understand the question and could barely speak, but did manage to verbally slush, “I’m not drunk.  I’m not high,” just before he slumped to the floor.  When he managed to stand up again he repeated his mantra, “I’m not drunk.  I’m not high,” until Jim shushed him.

There was no forgiveness for Dave.  He was fired, but probably didn’t realize that he was unemployed until the next day.  I’m not sure how he got home, but I vaguely remember that Tim gave him a lift.

I never knew what became of Dave and Tim, but I like to imagine that they are still friends and get together for a snort or two when Tim’s wife isn’t looking, that they haven’t gotten into a deadly fight over a top heavy blonde with a big head of hair, and that they go deer hunting together in the fall.  When they kill a buck Dave volunteers to gut and carry it back to the pick up truck, but when Tim goes off into the bushes to take a piss, Dave hides the knives and sneaks away after slicing himself a choice cut of venison.


When I was two or three I had a yellow, plastic pull toy with red, plastic wheels. It was a bunny with large blue and black eyes. The spokes of the wheels were bent so that the toy bobbed up and down as it followed me. When I was studying to be a painter I rediscovered it in the bottom of a wooden toy chest in my parents’ basement. I used it in a series of still lives that I entitled, “Rabbit Season” that also featured a decorative wood and copper duck that used to hang above our kitchen table. (I was a fan of Warner’s Bros. cartoons.) The rabbit helped me to put some emotional juice into the paintings, which can be difficult to do with still life, by helping me to remember nearly forgotten moments from childhood.

Dad’s family were country and small town people, and my uncles and he still went back to woods and farmland in western Ohio to hunt in the fall. I visited my grandparents’ house one day in November with my father, and as I walked into the kitchen I saw Grandpa Schmalstig and my Uncle Eddie seated in wooden chairs on either side of a galvanized, metal wash tub. I was about 4. They held something gray and furry between them and I watched in horror as Grandpa John took a hunting knife and made several cuts through the dead animal’s pelt. He set the knife down, took a tight hold of its head and told my uncle to pull. The rabbit’s skin was gradually peeled away from the carcass and I could see pinkish gray muscles exposed inch by inch from its neck down to its long hind feet. Blood dripped down into the tub. Uncle Eddie grunted from the effort it took to remove the rabbit’s skin, but the last strip was finally removed when the head was laid bare. I believe that the dark, black eyes remained in the sockets. The flayed animal looked vulnerable and fragile, and it was hard to imagine that it had ever hopped in a corn field or munched on clover.

My Dad waited until I was about eleven to introduce me to squirrel hunting. He had shown me at a firing range outside of Bellbrook how to shoot a 22 caliber single shot rifle. We drove up north very early on a Saturday morning to a farm. The farmer invited us in when we arrived and gave us some coffee. He didn’t want any money for the privilege of hunting in his woods, but told us to shoot any ground hog we saw along the way.

I turned out to be a horrible stalker making too much noise as I dragged my feet through dried leaves and snapped any available twig in my path. I scared away game, got lost, and missed the one good shot my Dad and I had the whole day. My legs started itching back home that same evening, and my mother discovered that I had somehow managed to come down with a raging case of poison oak even though I had worn long pants and boots. While I was busy in my bedroom trying not to scratch my shins, I heard them conferring in the living room about my future as a hunter. My mother wanted Dad to never take me again, and he agreed without making much of an argument. I don’t think that he believed that I would ever be any good at it.

I never was invited back again, which was a great relief to me. The day in the woods had been a series of humiliations that discouraged me from ever trying again. And there was one item of business that my Dad had neglected to mention before we set out, but which was revealed about midday. My cousin Mike had come along on the hunt. He went his separate way far from my crashing about in the undergrowth, and bagged a little, gray squirrel. He came up to my Dad when we all met in a clearing and said, “Uncle Tommy, will you gut my squirrel?” It was a warm day and the meat wouldn’t keep if the intestines were given time to rot inside the rodent. My Dad replied, “It’s your squirrel,” and Mike reluctantly used his knife to cut open the furry, white belly. Then he plunged his thumb into the opening just below the ribs and pushed down hard. Gray and red, sticky glop dangled from the carcass before dropping with a quiet, mushy plop onto the ground. The smell was of warm blood and shit. Mike wiped his thumb on his hunting jacket and stuffed the gutted animal into a pocket. I knew at that moment that I would never be a hunter.

A few years later my Dad mentioned to me that he was going rabbit hunting and wanted to know if I wanted to come along. I thought that I was finally being given a chance to redeem myself, but I saw a calculating look in my father’s eyes. I asked him if I would be using a shotgun, and he told me no. He explained that I and some of my male cousins were being recruited to act as beaters. We were to walk in a line through a harvested corn field to flush rabbits out of their hiding places among the dead, brown stalks. Dad, Uncle Eddie and Uncle Jerry would be waiting at the other end of the field with shotguns in hand. I turned the “offer” down. I didn’t trust my life with these men (there were rumors of them taking whiskey flasks along on cold days to keep themselves warm), and I didn’t want to be used by my father as a stand in for a hunting dog.

We sometimes ate rabbit or squirrel for our Sunday dinner. My mother insisted on baking a chicken for those, herself included, who found the hunted meat too gamy, or who didn’t enjoy spitting out shotgun pellets and bone fragments. My Dad would pull out a cardboard milk carton from the deep freezer in the basement and set it on a kitchen counter to thaw. Inside would be a headless, skinned animal frozen in water. After the ice melted my Dad would cut up the rabbit or squirrel into leg quarters, backs and breasts, would dredge them in salt and peppered flour, and brown them in a iron skillet. They were baked until well done in the left over drippings, and I remember enjoying the taste of squirrel more than rabbit. I also remember feeling a bit uneasy whenever I took a bite because I knew exactly how they had been taken from the field and delivered to our table.

My Dad had an odd sense of humor, and enjoyed teasing us in rare moments of…levity. One of his favorite “jokes” was to tell us on the Saturday night before Easter that he was going to stay up all night waiting for the Easter Bunny. He’d have a weird smile on his face when he added that we shouldn’t expect any baskets of candy in the morning as he intended to sit in a chair by the front door with a loaded shotgun, and that we would be eating the Easter Bunny for our Easter Sunday dinner.