On Turning Forty

wmMMA fighter War Machine and his girlfriend Christy Mac, who he beat within an inch of her life in 2014, as he does Alpha Male Shit. I guess. 

Chapter Five: Toxic Masculinity

When I was a child I had an explosive temper. It took me awhile to get there, but when I snapped, I snapped. To wit, I hit my brother in the arm with a baseball bat. It didn’t break then, but it did later in the year and he always said that it was the blow from my Louisville Slugger that did it. I was five. Throughout my childhood, Stephen used to get a rise out of baiting me, getting me to turn red in the face and run at him, tiny fists flailing and legs kicking.

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Stephen backed off a bit after I started getting in some good licks; there was a particularly well-placed kick to the balls and a nice right hook to the jaw that took him down in the Thanksgiving of ’85. I ran into the house and stayed close to our mother as he stared across the table at me, his nostrils flaring like a bull in the keep.

Once Steve showed up at my elementary school to walk me home; for the life of me I can’t remember why he was there. School was two miles away, and I was used to the walk. The next year my parents would let me ride my bike to school, which would seriously decrease the time it took to get home. But on this day, Steve was there at school and joined me as I walked home with a kid who lived around us, but who I didn’t know well. His name was also Aaron, but his last name began with a letter earlier in the alphabet than mine, which meant that he went first when we went alphabetical by first name. He had the goddamn tie breaker every time. I tried to get us to go with middle name, but nobody was having it. My desperation was too obvious, even for third graders. Stephen kept whispering in my ear to push Aaron down. There were piles of hay and straw from a recent fall festival, and my brother convinced me to push the kid into one. I tried, but he had heard and easily stepped out of the way. He then commenced to kick my ass for the next two miles. I was bawling, begging Stephen to do something. Which he did; he made me stay in the fight. Near the end, the other Aaron began to feel sorry for me and told my brother to take me home. I remember the kid looking at Stephen and kinda shaking his head, like Dude, that’s a cold thing to do to your kin. Stephen told me that he was trying to teach me a lesson and that I would never get my ass kicked again. He was wrong.

Like most kids in the ’80s, I wanted to be Daniel Russo. Hell, even one of the Cobra Kai. So that led to karate lessons.

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I actually took karate twice, the first time for two years and the second time for a year. I earned a red belt, but the first time I sparred in a tournament, I cried when I hit the other kid. The rest of the dojo was embarrassed and wouldn’t sit by me.

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There was a time in which I hung out at the pool a lot, and the popular thing to do was to get into a fight with out of town kids. One time a friend of mine picked a squabble with two kids who were older. Luckily, my counterpart was equally as chickenshit, and while we talked good smack we didn’t throw hands. But my friend did; he was winning the fight by twisting the other kids balls–“I thought, turn the key in the lock” he told me later–until he was caught with a pretty solid strike to the temple. He went down, and the other kid pounced on him. Within seconds, a foot caught the other kid on the jaw and he instantly started bawling. “That’s my cousin, motherfucker!” the owner of the foot said. He was in my dojo. I knew what a kick from him felt like without a shoe. The sound of the leather on the unknown kid’s face made me sick to my stomach. I eyed the other friend, the one I was lined up again, afraid he might come after me as retaliation for his friend’s abuse. He didn’t. He was looking at his friend uncertain of what to do until the mother of the kicked kid came running up the hill, calling us all hoodlums. We escaped trouble because nobody would say anything to the parents. The victim of the kick, his face purple and swollen, stared at the ground with tears streaming down his face. I wanted to tell him that there was no shame. That it was a cheap shot. But I didn’t because I had to live with these kids. And I didn’t want to get kicked in the face.

It is safe to say that I’ve always been a lover, not a fighter. One time I got so drunk that I tried to make out with a male friend who was decidedly heterosexual. We were both sizable dudes, but he told me the next day: “I didn’t kick your ass because it would be like beating up somebody who rides the short bus. You’re so sweet, it’s like you’re not even a guy.”

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A desire to be a fighter, to be an alpha male type, was there, though. In college, I was spectacularly on the feminine side. Even though I was in good shape, I was so obviously not a physical threat to anyone. In an atmosphere in which boys were trying to make the transition to men, pecking order is important. The first quarter, in which I hung out with athletes, it became clear to me that I was a beta male. Maybe even a gamma male. I had no interest in fighting. I was not going to frat parties. I dove even more fully into my so-called feminine side. I wore skirts and shirts with puffed sleeves. Add the fact that I played the flute and listened to a lot of Jethro Tull, and you get the picture of who I was c.1995-6.

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And then both my brother and my father got sick. I had dropped out of college and was working as a bartender and server at a local restaurant. My life seemed out of control so I focused on something I thought I could have power over: my body. Now, I had an eating disorder in my teens and maintained a pretty unhealthy relationship with my physical self. In this period I became obsessed with exercise. I started waking up at 4:30 in the morning. I worked out for three hours a da, six days a week. I took supplements like Creatine, loaded up on protein, and drank gallons of water a day. My training partner was over 6′ tall, and bench pressed mid 400s. He had a huge tattoo of Winnie the Pooh on his leg. He got into bar fights. He was very much alpha male, and was the person with whom I spent most of my time. We watched boxing matches together. Went to concerts. Worked out for hours and were the assholes in the gym who screamed and cursed, who stared too long at women, and who made snide remarks about other people’s lifting ability. We made rape jokes. We called the gay couple Jack and Diane. I grew so quickly physically that people thought I was on steroids. My parents asked me as much. I began to take pleasure in watching people be frightened of me. I stared people down, including women. I was nearly written up for being overly aggressive at work.

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I know, Sly. I know. 

The end came when I was driving my father to the gym the day after Mother’s Day. I had worked brunch the day before and gone out drinking without calling mom. I arrived home and there was an angry message from Mom. I had been stewing all night–I was at work; I was gonna call; how dare you give me crap for this!–and about five minutes into the car ride I growled at my father, Don’t you ever call me and talk to me like I’m a child. Dad cut me off. Turn around, he said. I don’t feel safe. My heart sunk. What the hell am I doing? The man just had two brain surgeries and is trying to get back to a normal life and I’m trying to threaten him because his wife was upset her son didn’t call on mother’s day?! What the hell is wrong with you? 

I stopped taking the supplements, and within another year or so I had left the sport of powerlifting. I had seen what the alpha male thinking does; what the supplements can do inside a person who has the discipline, time, money, and commitment to work out for hours a day. Someone who is so obsessed with his own body and appearance, the only way to communicate that is through intimidation and perceived threats of violence.

There seems to be a great pride among many men–and the culture supports this–for being alpha males. To see this world as one in which sheer, brute strength is a virtue, and being non-confrontational is a sign of weakness. But there is a great danger in this, not only for the people who encounter this toxic masculinity but also for the men themselves. It is exhausting to always be flexing, always on guard, always asserting oneself, always seeking to be the top dog. Emotions become weakness. Rage becomes the only outlet. Physical violence is the primary way to experience feelings, no matter how distorted they may be.

I am more frightened by toxic masculinity than I am of Islamic extremism. Much more frightened.

 

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