“I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.”
“Enough of your borax, poindexter! A man’s life is at stake! We need action!”
-Chief Clancy Wiggum
One of my favorite movie scenes of the 1980s involves two men shaking hands. Except that the two men, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as Major Dutch Schaefer) and Carl Weathers (as CIA crony George Dillon), aren’t really shaking hands at all, but are more or less trying to rupture the other’s biceps in a glorified arm wrestling match. In this shot from Predator, director John McTiernan lingers on the glistening and hypertrophic muscles of both Schwarzenegger and Weathers for what seems like an epoch. On one hand, it’s a perfect visual microcosm of 80s action movies: brash, macho, and overwrought, unafraid to meander through critic’s invectives such as “cheesy” and “corny,” yet thankfully bereft of the winking irony or post-modern cynicism inherent in pretty much every contemporary action flick. On the other, you have to turn to the dialogue to get the deeper meaning:
Dutch (to Dillon): What’s the matter? (Dutch is winning the arm wrestling match) The CIA got you pushing too many pencils? Huh? Had enough?
Dillon: Make it easy on yourself, Dutch. (Dutch is clearly kicking his ass) Okay, Okay! (Dutch wins)
On the surface, Dutch is the winner because he’s the lead protagonist and he’s Ahnold (and does Carl Weathers ever get secretly pissed about playing defeated second fiddle to a couple of pumped-up crackers in Schwarzenegger and Rocky’s Sylvester Stallone?). In essence, however, Dutch is the winner because he is a man of action, still vigorous and in the field. Still alive. He is golden-hued pecs and assault rifles, a jawline and camouflage. I saw this movie as a nine-year-old boy and nodded. I’m a 34-year-old man now and I’m still nodding.
Writers sit. And watch. And think. Maybe scribble some notes or punch a few keys. Then there’s some more thinking. Mostly sitting, though. I am a writer and I’ve always had a hard time being entrenched in such…sloth. The world churns around me, a world of doers and movers and shakers and Deciders with their Mission Accomplished banners, and I’m bloviating in my room wearing a “#1 Dad” shirt, an inert sack of skin and atrophy that is the very antithesis of any era’s definition of masculinity, much less the 21st century’s.
“Writing is me at my best,” the dean of my MFA program, Mary Rockcastle (what a writerly name!), pronounced at our awards banquet. She went on to make the statement an inclusive one, emphasizing that we, as a culture and species, but especially us literary folk, are all better when communication becomes truth in the alchemy-ether of meticulous craft. I find this statement both profound and, in my case, heartbreakingly true. It hurts because I want to be, like most American men in 2013 (ages 18-34), a physical being in perpetual motion, an in-the-moment man-of-action rather than a static overseer of nebulous philosophies. Oh, how I would give it all to be the artist-as-kinesthetic genius: the wide receiver in full extension along the sideline, unfurling coiled muscle to spear an uncatchable ball; the metal drummer blasting out polyrhythmic 32nd notes at 260 beats-per-minute with the adrenalized commotion of a hummingbird’s heartbeat; the blacksmith taming liquid steel into a blade, brow seared in soot, with a hammer blessed by Hephaestus himself. But I am the cop with a desk job, the star quarterback relegated to intern assistant after graduation. Sure, there are the Hunter S. Thompsons and George Plimptons and, more recently, the Sam Sheridans of the writing world, all brilliant men who cannonball-dive into their subject matter as not only scribes but as full-fledged participants. But even these men are self-admitted dabblers, dilettantes who are inevitably shoved to the periphery by the real racecar drivers and football players and mixed-martial artists. Shit, can a credible writer even be such a man?
“Is that what a real man is supposed to look like?” says Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club as he gazes upon a bus ad featuring (at least in the movie) the lithe, manufactured, and borderline-feminine musculature of a Calvin Klein model. The mischief-maker Durden is a walking landmine, ready to rend the world’s finances and cubicles and possessions with his anarco-punk shrapnel. He wants to rid modern masculinity of empty catchphrases and corp speak and passive-aggressive emails and an entire bullshit culture based on sterile suburban landscapes and their paucity of anything resembling a basic, grubby, enlightening humanity. Tyler Durden, alpha male id extraordinaire, wants to kill abstractions, as abstractions are the insubstantial polarity of action. In kneejerk solidarity, I instantly felt a kinship with such a worldview as a young 20-something. I rejected the ideals of petty consumerism and ad copy bombast with the zest and simplified optimism of a collegiate in the throes of a new religion. Wall Street, Big Box, McWorld, WTO, fuck em’ all; let’s kick the shit out of each other and become hunter-gatherers! Let’s DO something! Although I’ve grown to like and actually need (or so I believe) a great deal of my stuff, abstraction-run-amok disgusted me enough that I’ve still sworn off suit-and-tie work at some corporate-sponsored rhetorical circle-jerk. And there are shreds of intellectual merit hidden in such youthful, anti-establishment paeans. Matthew B. Crawford’s introduction to Shop Class as Soulcraft examines what occurs when a physical, tactile, concrete world is traded for its opposite.
“Those who work in an office often feel that, despite the proliferation of contrived metrics they must meet, their job lacks objective standards of the sort provided by, for example, a carpenter’s level, and that as a result there is something arbitrary in the dispensing of credit and blame. The rise of “teamwork” has made it difficult to trace individual responsibility, and opened the way for new and uncanny modes of manipulation of workers by managers, who now appear in the guise of therapists or life coaches. Managers themselves inhabit a bewildering psychic landscape, and are made anxious by the vague imperatives they must answer to. The college student interviews for a job as a knowledge worker, and finds that the corporate recruiter never asks him about his grades and doesn’t care what he majored in. He senses that what is demanded of him is not knowledge but rather that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance. Is all his hard work in school somehow just for show–his ticket to a Potemkin meritocracy?”
Okay, so I eschewed the path of business and chose the purportedly divergent one of artist-in-the-trenches. So what? I wear boxers and sox instead of a tie and, yeah, the hours are flexible, but I make a pittance (re: nothing) for my work (so far) and I still ply my trade in a universe of miasmas and phantasms that occasionally wander into a semblance of profundity and truth. Guys in cubicles stumble on progress, too, except they actually get compensated and do adult-ish things like make investments and buy insurance while not raiding their parents’ liquor cabinet. No, this is not some screed against the written word at its finest or an indictment of writers or even eggheaded book learnin’. It’s just that writers, along with our antagonists and foils who happened to major in business, toil in an existence that is defined by abstraction, no matter how moving or poignant or seemingly Earth-altering the words are. From the Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution to the Gettysburg Address to “I have a dream,” the words of even the greatest writers are still just that: words. They are instrumental to the process of change, these theses posted upon the doors of stifling institutions throughout history. But freemen and serfs still had to starve and militias still had to freeze to death in Northeastern forests and soldiers in blue and gray still had to eviscerate one another with grapeshot and bayonets and protesters were still beaten with batons and mauled by police dogs. Change may start on the page, but true transmogrification ends with the last step down a mountain, the final pull of a trigger, the closing bolt riveted into place.
Reconciling the writer/man-of-action dichotomy becomes such a burden that I find myself in the basement. The written word won’t help. Too much voltage in my feet, my hands, my head. I’m in my laundry room. Low ceiling, single bulb, an iron tub, mildewed humidity. A punching bag. I wrap my wrists, from the top of my palms to where I can feel my pulse, the bones underneath delicate. I want to let you know what this feels like, fuse to you a connective tissue, fibers that flex and shudder and touch across a divide. Hands strike the bag, jolt the bag, it scrapes against the floor grit, I grin or grit, wanting to show you the ache of being a man with limited physical gifts. Make sense of it all with no translation loss. Fist impact, waves breaking through a conduit and the beads of water turn to mist up my arm, my spine, and the mist breaks into visions of hybrid flesh and flash: samurai, warrior poets of Tibet and ancient Greece, the athletes at West Point and Annapolis. Men of letters and deeds. The last hit and I loose a treaty disguised as an exhale and see the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the action that follows the word of God. Truce is called, hands and head. God and Adam, their two fingers, so close to contact. Guess I’ll exist in the space between. This will do for now.