Greetings and salutations, faithful readers! There were so many submissions to the essay contest that it crashed the servers! The situation was so dire that Steve Jobs himself was brought back from the dead to fix the problem (and then, after the internet was put back together, Jobs was re-situated in his aerodynamic and Window-less coffin, where he will rest until another catastrophe strikes in Michael Bay’s Steve Jobs II: An Apple A Day Keeps the Reaper Away). Or that’s what the Keebler elves told me during my recent peyote trip. Anyhoo, after all the dust had settled, four submissions were good enough to be recognized by the reconfigured internet and thus end up in my email account. Here they are, in all their unedited glory! (This is a lie; I had to add multiple conjunctions, conjugate a few verbs, and tack on some PG-13 sex scenes that show side boob) Enjoy!
The following essay didn’t place because it was two days late, but I’m including it because I don’t want to give this person the $20 I purportedly owe them (although I think they’re making stuff up, as I was never given a receipt to verify the transaction). The essay’s also pretty great.
HONORABLE MENTION: Alex Blissenbach, Adaptive Strategies for Phenotype/Context Mismatch in Human Males
File Photo of Alex Blissenbach
“The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.”
-Marsellus Wallace, Pulp Fiction
“It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.”
Someone has to go out there and die. For reasons of biological exigency, more often than not, that someone is a man. Civilization can soldier on with aplomb after the death of numerous men. Genghis Khan was more than able to step into the cod piece of every man the golden horde killed, making him the direct antecedent of one of every two-hundred people walking the earth nearly a thousand years later. If rational decision making were the basis for all action, no one would set out across unknown oceans, storm heavily defended beaches or brave the dark forests. It happens anyway. It happens with enough frequency that some men survive and procreate. The vast majority of domesticated cats have a feral male father. Why is that? It’s because the purring eunuch on your lap isn’t going to father any kittens any time soon, so someone else has to. The stallion who mounts the world was once a boy; a boy who had to convince himself that he was stronger and better and a more able killer than every other boy out there. The problem is that only one of many boys was telling the truth. Self-deception holds remarkable evolutionary value, but only for those who survive. We are collectively the progeny of liars who, when in over their heads, somehow survived. Given that heritage, how is it possible to navigate a world without uncharted lands; a place without a need for many champions. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima universe, once quipped “The problem with massive online roleplaying games isn’t that you’re not the hero. The problem is that no one is.” Lord British, Richard Garriott’s online avatar (coded to be immortal) was murdered in perhaps the most famous instance of virtual regicide. The games we play are not so different from the lives we live. Built for bluster and blood-lust, what happens when there is no longer a need for gods or masters?
Soma and woad and the honeyed mead of Valhalla wear off. The transcendent effects of every elixir are finite. There are no berserkers in the boardroom and the term “masters of the universe” seems like an affectation summoned by men determined to convince you of their importance. The military paragons of living memory are all resolute elders and statesmen. Our most credible projections of world conquering heroes all wear spandex; we will never imagine another Achilles.
It is not a coincidence that violent/anti-social pathologies and substance abuse are more common in men than women. The earliest known spear points are more than 500,000 years old. There is strong evidence that these ancient weapons were utilized against both animals and other hominids. Under conditions of profound uncertainty, where food and safety were so highly contingent, a talent for violence could be of great benefit. It is a good thing that we live in the safest and most peaceful epoch in the history of humanity, but during the vast majority of mankind’s existence, applied physical prowess in the face of danger was highly adaptive. Given this legacy, it is unsurprising that edge personalities persist in present male populations. Life and death is about as binary a distinction available to living beings. Once survival is a settled question, what do you do with the (possibly obsolete) traits that helped us arrive here? You can keep that spear point directed outward and end up dead or in jail. You can seek exhilaration or annihilation in substances and again help the burgeoning funerary and penal industries. You can keep score with cash and cars, but if the most interesting thing about you is your bank account, you’re pretty fucking boring. Lamenting luxury’s disappointments is scarcely better. The question remains, in the absence of defining conflict, from where do we draw meaning?
If it is by all accounts a good thing the world is a less violent place, the relegation of the physical body to a secondary role is a less well settled development. We are no more than two generations removed from a mostly agrarian and physical labor based civilization. For the prior 12,000 years, the majority of society had been engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. Even specialized laborers were mostly concerned with the business of creating implements for labor/war, processing food or producing clothing or shelter. For at least 800,000 years before that, human groups were composed exclusively of hunter-gatherers, with each individual working for the survival of small, predominantly familial, social circles. Sedentary, highly specialized, knowledge based work is a very recent development. Men are, on average, the gender better prepared to fight and engage in strenuous labor. Women are fully capable of both, but appear better adapted to cope with a world that requires very little of either. However, the creation of an identity through the direct application of strength to effect change seems idiosyncratically male. Traditionally masculine hobbies such as automotive repair and recreational sport satisfy some of this very real need to exert energy; to labor in the service of tangible outcome. Never the less, it is increasingly uncommon to make a living in this way. How does a latter day man define himself in the absence of physical challenge? How do I, in a very concrete sense, meet the needs presented by biological imperative in a context with limited opportunity to do so in ways that make (ir?)rational sense?
I’ve imagined fighting every man I have ever met. Fantasies about ill-aged office mates possessed of more paunch than hair who I imagine pummeling, swiftly maturing youths I convince myself I can still best, and physical specimens I delude myself into believing I have a chance against dominate the first few moments of any social interaction. I’m not a violent sociopath nor what most would consider an angry or (overly) aggressive person. I just want to know where I stand. Chronic ambiguity is sufficiently disquieting that my throbbing mind demands a binary result. I want to win or lose. Let me tell you, I’ve lost a lot. I’ve been rejected by graduate programs, been passed over for promotions, and played on the (from a win-loss perspective) worst team in college football history. I still wish the last game of my high-school junior year football season was 3 minutes longer and that I never tore my ACL. However, I can make peace with all of these tangible physical realities. The sharp-toothed specter gnawing at my psyche is that the corporeal certainty of victory or defeat is increasingly unavailable to the adult male. I have to make do with abstractions and metaphors that are fundamentally unsatisfying.
The appeal of fantasy football is the illusion of control and agency. Fantasy sports began with mathematicians playing fantasy baseball. The baseball season stretches languidly across most of the year without much in the way of punctuation. The appeal of football is violent climax. Every Sunday, someone will win and someone will lose. Everything can be reduced to simple measures that require no arcane methods for drawing equivalencies. Fantasy football allows you to craft a team from some combination of allegiance and arithmetic and set about “dominating your friends” as every fantasy football site trying to sell you something says. It works fine as a diversion, but it’s a tenuous relationship to equate a fictitious team’s victory with “domination”. The inadequacy of this kind of victory does nothing to diminish the popularity of fantasy sports, football in particular. This is evidence of a paucity of outlets for competitive urges more so than any great ability of virtual sports to meet real needs.
At some point in most men’s lives, they played a sport of some kind. I’m no different in this respect. Contests of physical ability will stand as a touchstone throughout my life as a barometer of accomplishment. I don’t mean that my success or failure in past athletic endeavors defines me as a person. Rather, the joy and anguish of sport is something that is persistent; a known currency that is easily exchanged in conversation. The draw of sports is the lack of metaphor. Through strength and speed and guile, someone wins and someone losses. This is particularly true of combat sports. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a superlative athlete and perhaps the greatest defensive fighter of all time. Like many in the corporate and political world, he wins through mastery of convention. He performs sufficiently well to demonstrate his superiority, but is cautious enough to not risk defeat. He wins most fights by decision and this is fundamentally unsatisfying. This is why Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the perfect pound-for-pound champion for the modern era. In every other sphere we are willing to accept outcome by procedure, but not in sport. We can accept Ali as a talker and a dancer because he also finished. We can forgive a monstrous ear-biting psychopath, as long as he provides catharsis. Someone who wins by rule and decision will always have their greatness debated because we have an inherent distrust of victory by judicial convention. This is justice with a small “j”. We intuit arbitrariness and fiat in the result. The truth is that there is a fair amount of chance involved in any athletic outcome. The betting favorite in a world cup soccer game wins half the time. Two-thirds of the time, the odds favorite in a football or basketball game wins. The remainder of the time, the times when the favorite does not win, can be ascribed to chance. The paradox of skill is that as overall skill level rises and becomes more uniform, luck matters more and more. The NFL is a lauded as a league of parity. This can be interpreted as meaning that blind chance plays an important role. So why do we hang our hearts on the outcome of games? Cheering for a set of laundry has a certain tribal appeal, but we cannot inhabit the bodies of our athletic heroes, we can only wear their clothes.
There is nothing satisfying about knowing where you fall on a normal distribution. In small social groups, the norm from the dawn of modern humans and continued to this day in rural areas, you’re probably known for something. You might be the strongest man, the finest musician or the town drunk, but at least you have an identity. With increasing urbanization and connectivity, there is absence of easy identity. I’m the seven-millionth strongest man on earth, I wasn’t travelling the globe this weekend and my dinner wasn’t worth taking a picture of. I’m loath to present my existence as something that requires the degree of curation and image management that social media seems to demand. So what does it mean to be a man?
Testosterone is often regarded as the most “manly” of molecules. I’m loathe to reduce masculinity to bio-chemistry, but the value of testosterone in the broader context of civilization is worth considering. Testosterone levels are highly correlated with outcomes in certain situations. Successful negotiation with rivals and effective parenting both require controlling aggression, and successful negotiators and fathers often have lower than their baseline levels of serum testosterone present when engaged in these activity. In contrast, pursuits that demand high levels of risk taking tend to induce increased short-term production of testosterone. This is a double edged sword, as the increased tolerance for risk can provide the necessary confidence to act as well as the requisite over-confidence to seriously fuck things up. Evidence suggests that about 50,000 years ago, human males began producing significantly less testosterone, allowing for the coalescence of larger social groups and a reduction in internecine conflict based on lower levels of inherent aggression. Does this suggest as a corollary that a reduction in traditionally masculine behavior is a requirement for navigating an increasingly social society? There are a number of species that have populations of breeding males that completely subsume their masculine behavior with the exception of their reproductive capabilities. There ends up being a population of very large, aggressive males and a population of much smaller, less aggressive males who reproduce by means of subterfuge. They gain access to females by pretending to be feminine. I’m not advocating this as a societal model, merely noting that there are a number of biologically feasible options. Surely there must be a middle ground where our baser tendencies can be put to good use. In fact, I’d argue that we are successful as a society only in as much as we are able to yoke our beastly urges to higher purpose.
Humans are sense making animals that rely on comparisons to establish rational orthodoxies. Ambiguities and abstractions are necessary complications of modern existence. This necessity doesn’t make the present reality any less unsettling, particularly for those inclined to keep score. Most men have this inclination because generations of previous men benefitted from having explicit knowledge of their physical capabilities and limitations. For the most part, I’ve written about the biological propensities of men, why that can generate conflict with modern norms and what doesn’t work to ameliorate those tensions. So what advice do I have for leading a meaningful life in light of these revelations you ask? I have almost nothing to offer in response. Science doesn’t have much to offer for questions of meaning. In fact, an organism can be quite successful from a population genetics standpoint without gleaning any enjoyment or purpose from its existence. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned from our natural tendencies. Rather than proscriptions or advice, I offer you my three daily challenges.
Most cognitive processes that we consider to be “higher order” boot strap on top of much simpler processes rooted in physical realities. Your sense of moral outrage is not much different from being sick from bad food. This means that the body is the first metaphor. The mind constantly engages in this kind of comparison. Remember that the mind is embodied and embedded. You’re not getting out of here alive. This suggests that we should try to sleep well, eat decently and move. This is my first challenge, to provide for the beastly parts of me in a reasonable way. Energy and movement deserve special consideration. So much of what we are required to do is sedentary and passive. In response, I try to honor real work in all its forms and sweat every once in a while. This is my second challenge, to find meaning in effort. Camus writes “We must imagine Sisyphus happy” when considering the plight of the famous mortal bound to push a stone up-hill for all eternity. This is because his burden is entirely his own and there is a “higher fidelity that negates gods and lifts rocks.” Finally, there is the question of how to be strong in such a way as to avoid the worst mankind has to offer while maintaining an identity that is real and authentic. Violence is not strength. Bravado and condescension and irony are not armor. I try to take a lesson from ancient stone to persevere, persist, and support. My final challenge is to be resolute in the face of difficulty and to be more kind than required, even when wounded. I’ll forgive you if you take these as bromides, but be careful, we’ve just met.
3RD PLACE: Jordan Brandon, Surprisingly Manly
File Photo of Jordan Brandon
And a painting by Jordan Brandon
Manliness snuck up on me. As a child, I was an unabashed whiner. I cried at the drop of a hat, in atleast one case literally. As a young man I cried more appropriately but still often, and with pride. I cried with a wisdom that I’ve since lost. With confidence that I was right to feel the way I felt. I would be embarrassed to be seen crying, but not bothered by that embarrassment. I was right to feel, and the audience was wrong to judge. Somehow, over time, my emotions have become muted. Over the next several years I changed. I became friends with my father. I became a husband, a father, and a homeowner. I became a dependable long term employee, with a dental plan and a 401k. I became a man. I don’t know whether any of those things changed me, or if it was a matter of time, but I found myself surprised to be a different person than I thought I would be. I still have all of the insecurities of my youth, but I’ve lost the willingness to expose them. I wonder if people who knew me ten years ago would recognize the stone faced man walking down the street, avoiding eye contact with strangers rather than engaging them with a wide eyed, aggressive smile.
On Tuesday night I fell asleep on the couch watching TV. It happens often. Laying on the couch watching things I’ve seen before is way better than getting up and going to work, and if I go to sleep willingly that’s all I have to look forward to. At around 3 am my four year old daughter woke me up and led me to my bedroom, where I found my wife sobbing on the floor next to our cat. Socrates was struggling to breathe and in obvious pain. We knew it was coming. Socrates was 15 years old, which is a lot, and we had talked often about the fact that he was running out of time. My wife took him to the vet to find that he had fluid in his lungs and had to be put down. In the morning I dug a hole in the back yard, placed a box full of flesh and orange fur that used to be my friend in it, and covered it up. As I tamped down the dirt and placed a large rock on the grave, I wept. Tears streamed down my face, and I walked solemnly back to the house. I wasn’t surprised by the tears, I loved Socrates. He was a wonderful pet, and the one being in my house who could belay loneliness without demanding conversation, which is something that I’ve found I need sometimes since becoming accidentally manly. I was surprised that my family was surprised. My eight year old daughter commented that she’d never seen me cry. My wife, who has been my closest companion for over ten years, said this was the third time for her. How is it possible that those closest to me never see me expressing emotions nakedly? 18 year old me would be appalled at the closed off, disconnected brute I have become. I should be free to express myself to anyone, most of all my own family! The truth is, there is no deceit. I don’t hide my emotions out of shame or misguided machismo. I simply don’t have them so much anymore. 18 year old me might be appalled, but I’m not. I never meant to become a man, but it suits me.
2ND PLACE: David Stein, Cowboy Down: The Alleged Pussyfication of Men in Modern America
File Photo of David Stein
There is no size zero for men.
This thought occurred to me as I watched Tony Siragusa sell underwear liners for men. The advert is intentionally vague. I don’t think they ever mentioned the brand. I wasn’t even sure if the product was for anal leakage or penile leakage. I’ve heard tales of each and wished I hadn’t. The commercial makes a special point of how manly these products are; that they are for men and that men can most definitely stay manly while wearing their manly product.
This begs the question “since when was incontinence a female problem?” It wasn’t. But lining one’s underwear with an absorbent lining explicitly denotes womanhood. So men are adverse and require a super manly retired football player for marketing purposes.
Getting ex-footballers to sell Weight Watchers to men made more sense to me and seemed even vaguely feminist when considering the track record of the National Football League. The entitlement of men to their obesity being one of the more insidiously ignored facets of contemporary patriarchy despite being a very real and severely impactful social health issue, I am mildly pleased when I see icons of masculinity like Dan Marino and Dan Dierdorf playing a role in normalizing a healthier lifestyle regardless of their compensatory incentives. But their efforts are a proof of the system. These sponsors wouldn’t have to work so hard to affront these stereotypes of masculinity if they were immaterial or inconsiderable. The adage “sex sells” seems to apply not only the copulative form of the word but also in the sense of gender. Gender identity sells.
But there seems to be something contradictory in all this. We need manly men to give us permission to amend our own gender roles. Isn’t this itself unmanly? Surely a man can stand up to society, look stereotypes in the face and laugh. Surely there can be nothing less manly than being fed what it means to be a man and lapping it up like the dogs we buy to generate an illusion of control and dominance.
The answer depends on your attitudes towards the metrosexual male and most attitudes are not friendly. After all, if you’re looking for a man that flaunts traditional male stereotypes as the archetype as a man among boys one needs not look any further than the sharp dressed manscaper. He instills in society a duality wherein-
-I’m cutting of this argument because it’s tedious, old and obsolete. I haven’t even heard the term “metrosexual” in over five years and can’t imagine anyone finds it acceptable or practical (the latter of which being a factor I esteem). The ‘bro’ has taken this over and completely douchified the entire concept and for the most boring of reasons. It’s all about sex.
Far be it for me to say that sex is boring. As long as you’re not writing it’s fucking amazing. But reading about sex is as useless as reading while fucking. It’s even more boring to write about than it is to read about. The idea of marrying the concept of masculinity to sex is animalisticaly reductive at best. At worst it’s the oldest cliché in writing: a male writer writing about sex instead of writing about something worth writing about in hopes of actually getting sex, instead of putting down his pen or typewriter and going out trying to get laid. Sex is boring. If there is nothing more common to men than the desire for sex then appealing to sex is the lowest of all common denominators.
Once we all realized that the metrosexual was all about using counter-culture to acquire sexual partners (which didn’t take long, in both senses of reference) the feminist angle was dead in the water. The modern douchebag is one of the more tangible signs of any real or actual pussyfication of men in America.
Mind you I still think that “pussyfication” is a myth. But so is the modern man. All it shows is that contemporary manhood is double indemnified as the archetype of the anti-archetype. A man is supposed to be a rock or an island so any attempt to conform to a standard is shunned. But when the standard is to self-identify we have to conform in order to reject the standard. So our choices are either to conform to self identity or self identify as conformist. It’s a dialectic.
This may seem deep or conceptual but it’s really not. It’s just auto-nihilistic.
If you want to go deeply conceptual consider the “man” as defined by science. From a scientific standpoint the first concept of consideration is genetic code. DNA is a code that makes your body unique from all others. Your code defines you as an individual. Any cell that contains your code belongs to you. Any cell that does not belongs to someone or something else.
Identical twins pose a slight complication. They have the same DNA sequence which makes the two of them, according to science, one in the same person. However this dilemma is resolved by their unique fingerprints. Even in utero each body (each body being mathematically defined as the set of living cells with a particular DNA sequence) has separate fingerprints. This makes one set of cells associated with one set of fingerprints a different mathematical set, and thusly a different person, than the body associated with a different set of fingerprints. There is no need to attribute any out of the womb experiences to what makes a person unique. According to science.
But as men we don’t like science. Science makes us sound like a bunch of goddam fatalistic pussies. To say that the answer to the question of what it takes to be a man is to have a Y chromosome, have mass and take up space is unequivocally profane. Even if it is true. It is on this bedrock of faith that man is conceptually born: that although we do not choose to be a man we cannot become a man without making choices.
The idea of having our choices made for us is the idea that most universally symbolizes the deterioration of manhood. In fact the etymology of the term “pussy” has nothing to do with gender or genitalia but instead likens a man to a domesticated animal. Having abdicated the last vestige of wildness that spurned him to challenge the borders of his own comfort he has resigned himself confines of his home within which he can be assured that a preponderance of his decisions will be made for him.
The total vulgarizing of the term “pussy” into the contemporary and utterly thumbless phrase “pussification” (which I am convinced is used solely by failed men who, gutless enough that they cannot even bear to look themselves in face long enough to recognize their own shortcomings, project their cowardice on others while living as men only vicariously through war heroes and television characters) is itself an admission of defeat to the common and the simple. Men who do not respect their own manhood can only understand it for what it is not. Any sense of actualization is missing.
It’s affirmation through negation. Which brings us back to the conundrum of conforming to self-identification. We reject the concept of being clouds of particles stuck on a rock careening through space. But to desire to be something more is to admit to desire as being our defining characteristic. Perhaps that is what it takes to make a man: to be comfortable with one’s own desire to nullify the manhood within one’s self in order to attain a sense of personhood. To simultaneously refuse to conform and refuse to self-identify obliterates both the island and the home and opens a door for us through which we can achieve the truly unknown. Whether or not we take that extra step to darken that frame is, if nothing else, truly a choice.
Manhood is a myth just like America, faith and traffic. Yet we all choose to recognize it as if it had its own face; as if, should it ever go missing, we could put its photo on a milk carton and we could all drop what we were doing and all wander around outside looking for the same thing.
In truth we have all been looking. Like money that’s gone missing no one wants to account for the empty space until we face dire need of the currency. If no one cashes in we can pretend it never left, we can all pretend it was never our fault.
We can step through the door or not step through the door but we will never be satisfied that we were not compelled beyond our will to do so.
1ST PLACE: Evan Kingston, Dead Man’s Float
File Photo of Evan Kingston
The most vivid of my early memories are of my Dad correcting me—not because he corrected me severely or constantly, but because those are the bits of my youth that seemed important enough to remember, the little scenes from a dreamy childhood that have continued to feel real through adolescence and adulthood.
In one of my first memories, we’re still living in Newfoundland, and my Dad, a chemist for C.I.L., a Canadian chemical manufacturer, picks me up from daycare on his way home from work. I’ve been arguing with another kid about a book on how to draw comic book characters, and I show my Dad the contentious pages. On one, there are instructions for sketching the familiar Batman of the 1980’s—blue cape, grey tights—while on the opposite, there is a character with a similar pointy-eared mask, but outfitted with garish cybernetic limbs and a laser-sight eye-piece. Looking back now, after a lifetime of comic book studying, I’m sure he’s some post-apocalyptic version of Batman from one of DC’s endless Earths, but at the time, I couldn’t believe that he, too, was the same Batman I admired.
The vivid part of the memory, though, is how upset I feel when my dad doesn’t take my side. “See,” he points at the grotesque Batman, “says he’s Batman right here, just a different costume.”
I’d thought he was going to back me up, even if I were wrong. Riding home across the misty bay, Dad then gave me some sort of kind explanation about not getting upset when you’re wrong, maybe something about taking it as an opportunity to learn; as the memory fades like a car into the Newfoundland fog, I mostly remember feeling like I knew he cared about me even if he did correct me.
A few years later, we move to St. Lambert, a suburb of Montreal, so my Dad can take a new position researching explosives used in mining.
I remember one night in particular, a small lamp warming half of my dark room while my Mom sits at the foot of my bed. Struggling to stay up until he gets home, I want to impress him with a recording I made on a new toy; I’d spent the whole afternoon speaking pedantically into a tinny microphone attached to a tape recorder, laying out everything I knew about dinosaurs for anyone who wanted to learn.
My first listener, however, is my PhD educated father, who is quick to point out that cave men never lived contemporaneously with Tyrannosauruses. My mom tells him to praise me instead of correcting me, but he goes on to explain about Paleozoic and Paleolithic Ages, and I struggle to remember it all before I sink into deep sleep.
We spent summer weekends at our cottage on a lake Northeastern Ontario, a three-room cabin my Dad and his father built together when he was a teen. In my clearest memory of my time there—probably the clearest memory I have of anything before the age of seven—I’m four or five and afraid of swimming in the deep water off the dock. Dad’s solution is to pretend to be drowned, floating face-down in the water as the tide carries him out into the lake.
I know he’s faking and I’m still terrified, running along the shore after him. I’m an easy tease: even after he tilts his head for a breath and dips it back under, I scream, “Dad! No!” It’s this emotionality I think he’s trying to tease out of me—what he calls “toughening up” whenever my mom tells him to go easy.
A year or two later, while I’m in the opening months of the first grade, there is an accident at C.I.L., and my Dad and several of his co-workers die in an explosion. I don’t go to the funeral: my younger brother and I spend the afternoon being babysat by a teenaged relative who lives near the cemetery in Ottawa; we play with a rub-on Spider-man sticker kit until my mom picks us up.
I’ve since been told we abstained because the venue was too small for the amount of mourners, but I still think I was deemed too young and sensitive to attend; my Mom had enough grief without igniting mine.
In any event, missing the funeral helped foster a strange sense that my Dad wasn’t dead. We soon moved to Minnesota to be closer to my Mom’s side of the family, and starting a whole new life made it possible to feel like maybe my Dad was still in Canada and that we’d reunite eventually. In the meantime, my Mom did an incredible job raising and supporting us on her own, and she eventually grew more capable of talking about the death and decided we were mature enough to finally share in her grief.
But the details she shared often served to deepen my denial. The fact that my Dad had hinted at the ambitious carelessness of one of his team-mates and warned my mom that he was worried something might go wrong a week before the accident lent the episode a dramatic arc. Coupled with the fact that she was denied in her repeated request to see the body and records of the death, I had an easy time developing a fantasy that he wasn’t dead, but recruited into some Canadian superhero program, as secretive as Weapon-X but less malicious; the explosion could be his origin or the cover-up for the terrible but noble decision he had to make to leave his family in order to save humanity.
I always knew it wasn’t true, but believed it somehow equal to the idea that my Dad was gone from existence, which seemed just as preposterous.
While my Mom did a commendable job guiding me through childhood and adolescence, once out on my own, it took me quite a while to finish growing up, in part, I realize now, because I refused to enter into situations where I might lose someone or something. In my twenties, it felt easier to stay a student of the liberal arts and comic books than to commit to anything that, in the future, might sink away from me; most of what I learned is too subjective to ever be proved wrong, and every time Thor died, I knew he’d come back. It’s only in the past five years that I’ve come to think of myself as a man, and it is only since getting married and thinking of starting a family in the past two years that I have really considered what manhood means in relation to my life.
Even though we’re still just planning on a child, I lately find myself trying to act like the “dad” or the “man” of the family—with questionable success, as my wife is braver than me in most situations. Except for anything that has to do with water; she’s afraid of sharks. So afraid that she’s afraid of sharks in rivers, fresh water lakes, and swimming pools with deep ends. It seems to me that she’s actually afraid of those mysterious depths that could hide anything, and that a shark’s wide and jagged jaw is just her chosen physical representation of that unnamable void—but I don’t give it too much thought, as I’m mostly just happy for a chance to play the brave protector.
Because my Dad’s ploy worked: I’m a competent swimmer, at home in the water ever since he pretended to drown in it. The daily swim that is essential when sharing a small cottage with no running water is taxing for my wife, so every day I get in the water first: to show her it is safe, protect her if something goes wrong, and to tease her about it a bit.
It’s while pretending to be nibbled by a shark one day that I realize the selfish side of even the most benevolent aspects of being a man. The father, the teacher, the protector gets to be the one who leaves; once the knowledge is imparted or the danger faced, its everyone else who is left to figure out the meaning and consequences. I imagine what would happen if a shark had swum up the Mississippi from the Gulf, then followed a complicated system of tributaries and lakes up to our dock just to bite my legs; and it is sizable, my terror and pain at being torn under the surface, but nowhere close to what my wife would feel: as sharp blades of the bright world above cut down towards me in my new home, she watches me sink into the deep and is left with only empty wonder when she thinks of where I’ve gone.
While the dead man’s float is effective at teasing those on land, it also seems to tease the drowned as well; in survival situations on the open water, you ape the dead to conserve energy and stay alive.
All teasing, though, contains some similar irony: it is a cruel kindness, an attempt to gently cure, what seems to the teaser, a serious problem. My father teased me to cure me of any misconceptions I might have had about Batman or prehistoric eras, or that misguided apprehension that if I was cautious enough, me and everyone I knew would always be okay.
I’ve often felt like my Dad’s death made me an emotional worrier, but these memories make me feel like he must have pinned me as one even earlier. That said, I don’t know if, while other memories have faded, I’ve held on to these so tightly because they are instances in which I was wrong and I’ve wanted to avoid those mistakes again, or if they just serve as tangible proof that he cared about me and the man I’d become.
Either way, the act of remembering them is a kind of dead man’s float, a way of teasing the present for its inadequacies. I sink my head into the past, pretending that I, too, am beyond time; just below my dangling limbs, those who have died are alive again, and full of wisdom so eternal, the present moment seems to deny it. These deep memories feel realer to me than many things that happened to me last month because they’re either stamped with some eternal truth or eternal soul I still recognize to this day.
Thanks to all those who submitted! I’ll bring the money to your doorstep in a few days! Check back soon for Yuck!, an essay about gross stuff and why we love it!!!!!!!!!!