My mom likes to laugh about the time I almost drowned. I was five years old, standing in the center of the neighborhood baby pool, when I felt the urge to dunk my head in the water and subsequently freaked out because I thought I was drowning. A paralyzing fear fell over me, as I just stood there, bent over, unable to rescue myself. It wasn’t until my mom repeatedly shouted “Just stand up!” that I was able to save myself from certain death.
This was a pivotal moment in shifting my enjoyment of the pool to a certain kind of dread.
I got over it from time to time. I conquered the high dive at Orange Hunt pool, a rite of passage every middle school boy must endure. On the springboard, I mastered the can opener, the cannonball, and even managed a full flip, though it wasn’t until recently that I reminisced and realized I was really only doing three-quarters of a flip. I’ve always excelled at deceiving myself.
But I never played sharks and minnows and never became proficient at diving. I wanted as much control as possible, and if that meant sticking to water basketball in the shallow end, so be it. I took swimming lessons and learned enough to survive, but never excelled. I remember the moment when I finally quit very clearly. The instructor led us through some basic skills before moving onto dead man’s float. To this day, I still can’t float. Q tells me it’s because I don’t put my head back far enough, and that seems plausible. I hate getting water in my ears. I also think the name “dead man’s float” scared me as a kid. Surely the technique was not given that name to put beginning swimmers at ease. “Hey, little Peter, I’m gonna teach you this thing that gets its name from what happens when you die trying it. You’re gonna love it!”
So when my swimming instructor tried to teach me how to float and I failed spectacularly, I gave up on swimming lessons forever. When my mom picked me up that evening, I told her I didn’t like it anymore and wasn’t going back. I stayed true to my word.
My parents didn’t raise me to be a quitter, but they didn’t exactly make it difficult to simply abandon activities either. When I got a whole lot shorter than the other little leaguers and couldn’t hit the ball any more, that was it for baseball. When my jump shots were routinely blocked by kids a foot taller than me, basketball no longer found a place on my schedule. It wasn’t my parents’ fault. They chalked it up to me wanting to try new activities, and maybe that was a part of it. But the fear of failing played an even bigger part.
This has manifested itself into many starts and stops in my life. The aborted public access show in high school. Countless plays and screenplays. The tastefully nude gentlemen’s magazine I wanted to self-publish in college. (For the best, BTW.) When the going has gotten too rough, or I’ve been too afraid to follow through, I just tell myself I didn’t care that much to begin with and it fizzles out.
Which is why I have to complete this. It means so much more than just being a man. It’s about seeing it through to the end, even when it scares me. I’ve tried to specifically choose challenges that frighten me or make me anxious because it’s important to push myself past my comfort zone. I’m hoping that’s where I’ll find the elusive manhood that has escaped me so far.
Even Q has her doubts about me finishing this project. I can’t blame her. She’s seen me come up with some good ideas and then abandon them because “I doubt there’s an audience for it,” or “I think I’d rather rewatch season 5 of Friday Night Lights,” or “I probably can’t get people to pose nude for this.” (To reiterate: For the best.)
There’s a lot riding on this. I need to prove to everyone and, more importantly, myself that I will step up to the plate, even if it means striking out a few times. Failing is going to be a natural part of this project, and I think the sooner I accept that, the better chance I have of making it to the end.
I need a game plan. And this is what I’ve come up with:
I’m giving myself one year to become a capital-M Man. To achieve this, I’m going to complete 50 manly challenges – one every week. The challenges I’ve devised so far are skills that I believe need to be in the arsenal of every real man. “But what’s a real man?” I hear you asking. As a benchmark, I’m using this dude:
The Brawny paper towel man. If I can see him completing the challenge with ease, it’s probably something that a real man needs to know how to do. Though I’ll probably pass on wearing flannel for each challenge.
50 challenges in a year is daunting, no doubt. So I’ve come up with some other rules to keep me on track:
1. Each challenge needs to be able to be completed in a week.
As much as I’d love to learn how to deadlift 300 pounds, learn another language, or grow a beard, I can’t feasibly do any of that in a week’s time. And without some pharmaceutical help, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to grow a beard that doesn’t look like a Wooly Willy in the hands of a three-year old.
I do have that unibrow down though.
So each challenge has to be feasibly completed in a week’s time. It doesn’t mean that I have to become an expert, but I do need to feel a sense of accomplishment after seven days.
2. Each challenge needs to have a concrete and tangible goal.
I know that I need to be better read, more assertive, and more in shape. But those are overarching qualities I’m seeking, not weeklong achievable challenges. So if I want those broad resolutions to manifest themselves in a challenge, I could read How to Win Friends and Influence People while running on a treadmill. Boom.
Hopefully by completing small challenges, I’ll be much closer to these larger intangibles I want for myself. It’s just a shame that passive-aggressiveness can be so satisfying sometimes.
3. Each challenge needs to be something I can complete on my own.
I‘ve relied on other people to help me through life too much already. I count on other people to fight my battles and make the first move. This project has to be an individual pursuit. Teamwork is without a doubt a tenet of any true man, but I need to go solo if I hope to complete this project the right way. I have to do the challenges myself. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have help.
Each week, I’m going to be supervised by someone who knows how to complete the challenge at hand. They’re going to give me the skills and guidance so that I can finish the task fully. They will be my MANtor.1
To be clear, a MANtor can be a man, woman, or child – gender isn’t a factor. The MANtor only has to be well versed in the what the challenge requires and capable of teaching it. No man is an island, much less an aspiring man.
After each challenge, I’ll also determine how manly each skill is on a scale of 1 to 5, a 5 being, for instance, saving a baby from a collapsing house, and a 1 being collapsing after seeing a baby mouse. Maybe manual labor is less needed to feel manly than I thought. Maybe I’ll find that more aspiring men should smoke a pipe.
So there you have it. The rules and framework are in place. Now I just need to do it. Frankly, I’m not sure how this will all pan out. I know what’s at stake and it’s not just my manhood. I can’t let this become one more aborted project that peters out like so many before it. I won’t let this become another Sexy Campus Quarterly (to be fair, that was just the working title).