One Last Thing…

Before I begin my manly hibernation, a few final announcements to make:

Thanks to everyone who has bought a book so far! If you’re interested in picking up a paperback or e-book version of the book based on this blog, check out the book page to see your options. The book has been available on Amazon in print and Kindle versions, and is now available for Nook at Barnes & Noble, iPhone and iPad on the iTunes Store, and for all other e-readers at Smashwords!

For those of you who weren’t able to attend the Book Launch ExtravaMANza in NYC earlier this month, I’ve uploaded some photos to the Events page, including a video in which I take the Great American Country Drifters through an exciting obstacle course to discover which one of the Drifters is the most manly.

Finally, here’s the introduction video I made for the event that summarizes my year-long journey in about 100 seconds. Enjoy!

Epilogue

A friend recently said on Facebook that he hated the word emasculated because it supposes that masculinity is superior to everything else, specifically femininity. His comment is in the double digits for likes.

Around the midpoint of the year, I was struggling to rekindle my original passion for the project when one of my favorite MANtors expressed his own theory.  He thought that real men don’t have to do any of these activities in order to feel manly.  In the true journey towards manhood, all these challenges would be superfluous.

Q recently discovered a trailer for a documentary that posited that the three most destructive words a young male can hear are “be a man.”  The filmmakers theorized that pressuring adolescents to embrace masculinity increases anger and violence, hampers emotional maturity, and does more harm than good.

They’re all wrong.

Well, no, they’re not wrong wrong, but it’s not as dramatic when I qualify it.

Hypermasculinity is a destructive behavior, and the word masculine does have questionable connotations. But we don’t have to consider manliness as inherently troublesome or without merit. A lot of good can come from being a man, and although the archetype has become nearsighted in the wake of societal changes, we don’t need to strike it from the dictionary forever.  We just need to expand its definition.

Qconeyisland

I strive for masculinity that is not granted by gender, but earned through grit. I’ve had male and female MANtors in this project from ages eight to eighty, and I would call each and everyone of them manly. I understand the need to fit people into categories for simplicity’s sake; you were born with a Y chromosome, so you are a man. But it’s time to move away from the thinking that anything about manliness could be determined at birth.

This discomfort around the concept of masculinity allows both males and females to be less than their best selves. It’s far easier to poke holes in a concept than to live up to its lofty ideals. It’s true that experiences alone do not award manliness. Getting married or having a kid does not automatically validate your man card, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid having these experiences; rather, our actions and behavior in the midst of these experiences reveal our manly worth. If we consider masculinity in those moments, it becomes a positive ideal. Maybe we do need to change the word to something else to start fresh. MANfidence? EnlightenMANt?

If I want to use this new word that retains all the positives of being a man and refuses its hang-ups and restrictions, I suppose I need to define it in greater detail.  I may be a few paragraphs away from calculating my own manly worth, but as someone who as spent an entire year examining masculinity in all its forms, I am uniquely qualified to write this new definition.  So in this commencement speech to the Man University Class of 2014, I give you the four tenets of being a man:


front cover pic medium

Want to read more? You’ve reached the end of the preview, but the full text of this entry and many more can be found in my book, BE A MAN: How I Spent One Year Drinking, Shaving, Farming, and Fathering My Way Toward Masculinity.

Click on the book cover and you’ll find more information on how you can purchase the book in paperback and e-reader versions.

MiniBAM: The Comprehensive Man Scale

With fifty weeks of challenges under my rawhide, weather-worn belt (with a gold bald eagle buckle, natch), I’ve adequately explored the entire spectrum of manliness, leaving no steak ungrilled, no lock unpicked, and no bull penis uneaten.  So it’s only right that I take the entirely arbitrary scores I spent mere seconds determining for each challenge and rank them all in a long list.  Because the internet loves lists!  Some fun facts:

  • The average score was 3.48.  My midpoint was 3.00, and 70% of challenges fell above that median, meaning I considered them “very” to “super duper” manly.  Oddly enough, the challenges that fell below 3.00 were often the most fun ones to complete.  For example, drinking Scotch is one of my new favorite pastimes, yet it ranks very low on the scale.
  • I didn’t rank the Road Trip (every challenge therein was evaluated on a Pass/Fail basis).
  • Apparently working a twelve-hour shift in a restaurant kitchen and swimming in an ice cold lake for ten seconds earns you the same amount of manly points, so keep that in mind for time management.

Without further ado…

WEEK CHALLENGE SCORE
8 Wear a Suit (When It’s Required) 1.80
9 Eat a Bull Penis 1.87
9 Drink Raw Eggs 2.13
3 Drink Scotch 2.28
49 Fast From Technology 2.30
9 Eat Hot Peppers 2.36
27 Fight With a Samurai Sword 2.39
26 Win at Carnival Games 2.45
10 Fall Without Fear 2.67
25 Run an Obstacle Course 2.75
43 Know My History 2.78
16 Eat a Porterhouse Steak 2.80
35 Throw a Shot Put 2.81
33 Banter With Barbers 2.87
29 Visit a Haunted Place 2.89
5 Shoot a Gun 3.00
41 Pick a Lock 3.12
37 Chop Wood 3.20
4 Fix a Flat 3.21
45 Kick a Field Goal 3.27
44 Be a Plumber 3.45
48 Tailor Clothes 3.48
16 Create a Better Signature 3.50
31 Make Good on Old Bets 3.60
6 Smoke a Pipe 3.68
15 Grill 3.70
30 Work in a Restaurant Kitchen 3.72
38 Do a Polar Bear Plunge 3.72
14 Wear Cologne 3.75
47 Be Skilled With a Knife 3.76
24 Hit a Baseball 3.81
2 Shave with a Safety Razor 3.83
ONLY IN BOOK Survive the Apocalypse 3.85
17 Speak in Public – Stand-Up Comedy 3.88
7 Drive a Stick Shift 3.96
40 Use a Map and Compass 4.02
46 Befriend a Dog 4.02
32 Donate Blood 4.06
13 Gamble 4.08
42 Rebuild a Home 4.10
34 Ride a Motorcycle 4.17
1 Tie a Tie 4.18
22 Build Something With Wood 4.24
ONLY IN BOOK Work on a Farm 4.25
36 Ride a Horse 4.29
12 Learn Self Defense 4.32
8 Wear a Suit (Because You Want To) 4.33
28 Welding 4.35
23 Go Fishing 4.44
39 Volunteer 4.67
50 Be a Dad 4.81
11 Learn CPR and First Aid 4.88

MiniBAM: The Cost of Being a Man

As the saying goes (if you say it fast and kind of mumble), it takes money to make manly.  Though many challenges were free of charge, my pursuit of masculinity required more than time and effort.  I’ve decided to list my expenses for fifty weeks of challenges should any current man-children want to follow my lead.

ITEM/SERVICE COST
Bowtie $24.99
Safety Razor $30.00
Shaving Class $40.00
3 Glasses of Scotch $50.00
50 Bullets $15.99
NRA Range Fees for 1 Hour $20.00
Corn Cob Pipe $9.99
2 Ounces of Tobacco $20.60
Two Piece Suit $150.00
2 Raw Eggs $0.83
Bull Penis $6.00
Plate of Peppers $2.99
Stuntman Class $60.00
3 Krav Maga Classes $90.00
Groin Protector $12.00
Gambling Money $300.00
1 Ounce of Custom Made Cologne $42.00
Meat and Veggies for Grilling $20.00
Porterhouse for Two $96.50
Wood for Guitar Pedal Board $4.00
10-Day Fishing License for North Carolina $10.00
Bait $10.00
First Fishing Set $19.96
Entry Fee for Survival Race $79.00
Tickets for Coney Island Carnival Games $24.00
2 Samurai Sword Classes $29.99
Welding Rods $10.99
Watercolor Set $2.89
Haircut $18.00
Motorcycle Class $90.00
12-lb. Shot Put $29.00
Horse Riding Class for 30 Minutes $58.85
Virginia Polar Dip Entry Fee $25.00
Compass $6.99
Lock Picking Class $65.00
Drain Auger $9.99
Bleach $3.50
Football and Kicking Tee $15.39
Knife Skills Class $65.00
Sewing Kit $14.99
10 lb. Bag of Flour $4.68
TOTAL $1,589.11

And that’s not even counting the road trip.  To be fair, some of these items were donated to the project by my absurdly generous MANtors, so I can’t say that it all came out of my pocket.  But had I initially known what my total investment would be, I’d probably have opted for a testosterone injection instead.

MiniBAM: Challenge Update #5

A friend recently asked me what I was going to do with myself once the blog ended.  I joked that I was going to work as hard as I possibly could to undo everything I learned.  The idea is a tiny bit appealing.

I spent fifty weeks building, grilling, riding, and eating my way to masculinity, so I’m excited for a little R&R, which surely will include shopping sprees, spa treatments, and romantic comedy viewing binges.  (If you haven’t done a Mystic Pizza/Pretty Woman/Notting Hill marathon, you haven’t LIVED.)

But I would be devaluing the great work my MANtors have done if I simply forgot everything.  I’ve been able to overcome some legitimate fears and expand my manly knowledge with their help.  So before I look at the big picture in the final entry, it’s time to rewind and see if I’ll be saying “Whoopsidaisies” when I review the last ten weeks.  (Seriously, at least watch Notting Hill if you’re short on time.  It’s a treasure.)

Week 41: Pick a Lock

Upon reviewing the laws for owning lock picking tools in different states, I discovered that in my home state of Virginia, just the possession of tools is enough to show intent of burglary.  The thought of accidentally bringing them across state lines and ending up in the slammer was enough to avoid purchasing a set of tools for myself.

But that reasoning does strike me as partly an excuse to let my skills slide.  Lock picking was one of those challenges where, beyond the fulfillment of learning a new technique, I actually found pleasure in performing the task.  These manly skills have a habit of leaving my mind quickly, so perhaps it’s time to get a set before I lock myself out of my apartment.  Which, of course, I’ve just jinxed myself into doing by writing it down.

Week 42: Rebuild a Home

I haven’t heard anything about the progress of the home Q and I worked on, but if they kept to the timeline Connor showed us, the rebuilding should be complete by now.  I haven’t tackled any home improvement projects in my apartment as of late, but I have felt more smug while watching home renovation shows on HGTV, so there’s that.

Week 43: Know My History

I think the next phase in appreciating my heritage is learning some Greek.  While on our road trip, Q and I listened to some Teach Yourself Greek CDs, thinking we could learn some conversational phrases as we took in the Pacific Coast Highway.

Unfortunately, we didn’t look too carefully at what we had checked out of the library and ended up with Easy Greek for Businessmen.  So now I can ask my taxi driver to take me to the Hilton Hotel for my conference, but I’m totally out of luck if I need to know where the bathroom is.

Week 44: Be a Plumber

Over the last month, a work crew has been jackhammering in the lobby of our apartment building, replacing the old cast-iron plumbing system with updated parts.  I haven’t offered my services to them yet, but I think they know they could ask me if they needed the help.

Much like the rebuilding a home challenge, the plumbing challenge gave me the confidence to tinker even though I haven’t put my skills to work on any major project.  But I’m sure that drain won’t stay clear forever, and I’ll be called to the front lines soon enough.

Week 45: Kick a Field Goal

The satisfaction of actually kicking a field goal got me excited to learn more athletic techniques.  I was between the Fosbury Flop, a slap shot, and a bicycle kick, but then I decided on watching YouTube clips of White Men Can’t Jump.  I’m not entirely upset with my decision.

Week 46: Befriend a Dog

There’s a dog in an apartment down our hallway that barks wildly anytime he hears me walk to the elevator.  I wish that I could use my newfound comfort with the canine species to pacify him, but it’s proving difficult with the closed door between us.  I’ve never actually seen what he looks like.

My neighbor who lives across from that apartment tells me his children are scared of this anonymous dog.  I wanted to tell his children that it will get better, but I don’t even know if they have a blog yet.  Best not to get their hopes up.

Week 47: Be Skilled With a Knife

Q’s friends gave her a beautiful chef’s knife after they heard about the class we took.  It’s nice to develop a new relationship with a knife now that we’re aware of our bad habits.  We’re still in the honeymoon phase – we take it out of its foam-insulated sheath every week or so, use it for a few minutes, and then immediately clean it and replace it in the drawer.  I think we’ll actually develop better technique once we’re not so precious with it.  I still chop vegetables every day, so I’ve put in another three weeks since I first learned proper technique.  I haven’t improved greatly, but I hope I’m on my way.

Week 48: Tailor Clothes

My hem is still going strong, but I’ve had a couple of clothing mishaps since then: a rip in a sleeve and a hole in a pocket.  Normally I wouldn’t think twice about bringing them to a seamstress, but learning how to sew makes me think I should do the alterations myself.  Or I could split the difference and choose to do nothing at all.  I wonder what I’ll do…

Week 49: Fast From Technology

I found it much harder to finish Walden after I reintroduced technology in my life. Thoreau’s words didn’t seem to stick they way they did when I was living off the grid.  I still have no desire to be parted from my smartphone for more than a sleep cycle.  I don’t know if I tried hard enough.  Maybe I was only a day short of making a breakthrough – just 24 extra hours of technology rehab and I would have been released from the digital stranglehold.  But I’m not sweating it too much.  I do have a lot of television to catch up on.

Week 50: Be a Dad

Peter Jr. is still up for adoption, should anybody have a flour baby-shaped hole in their heart or an upcoming bake sale.  Surviving three hours with three boys hasn’t given me the confidence to start a babysitting service, but the experience was still extremely worthwhile.  I thought I would have been more composed for that challenge, since I occasionally watched my sister when my parents were out, but those quasi-babysitting sessions were nowhere near as stressful as the real deal.  At least there’s something to be said for jettisoning false confidence.

Stay tuned for the comprehensive man scale and a list of my expenses for the fifty challenges.  There must be some kind of tax deduction for “manly education,” right?

MiniBAM: Man of the Month, June 2014

We used to have pony rides at my church’s festival.  It was a one-man operation.  The only thing I can remember about the owner-operator is that he never looked very happy to be there.  He paraded ponies all day long, brought sheer joy into the lives of countless children, and yet his expression was more akin to faces found in the waiting room of a proctologist’s office.  Oh, he also had oddly styled facial hair.

Who could be downtrodden whilst in the presence of ponies?  Not my new best friend Tony.  Tony is obsessed with the song “Pony” by Ginuwine, but I think their bond goes far deeper than a convenient rhyme.  Sure, I connected with Skeeter on Doug, but he wasn’t even my favorite character on the TV show.  (Porkchop, as if you had to ask.)  After spending nearly two minutes enraptured by Tony’s hypnotizing moves, it’s painfully clear that his destiny is to allow us mere mortals a glimpse of heaven anytime Ginuwine’s mellifluous voice entreats the listener to mount his or her faithful steed, should said listener be feeling extraordinarily amorous.

But this does not a Man of the Month make.  There had to be a worthy contender to dethrone the original Man of the Month, a reason to revive this award for something other than filler leading up to the grand finale.

Commitment!  Tony only dances to “Pony.”  That’s not solely the way you might describe this video to a friend.  It’s a mission statement.  An edict.  It’s a way of life.

Surely Tony is aware of other music, an educated viewer might wonder.  Why only limit himself to a small slice of R&B goodness?  Why not consider an R. Kelly, or perhaps an Usher?  But the only “Bump N’ Grind”-ing that occurs in Tony’s domain will be accompanied by a distorted vocoder bass line.  Tony’s lone “Confession” is that his saddle, like Vladimir and Estragon, will be forever waiting.

Maybe Tony can be swayed with other equine-related songs, the persistent naysayer (or neigh-sayer?) will suggest.  A “Horse With No Name” will break his conviction.  He’ll surely fall under the mesmerizing spell of a “Dark Horse.”  And there’s no man alive who could deny the request to “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.”

NO!  I CAN’T MAKE THIS ANY CLEARER!  Until the end of days, Tony will only tap his toes to the 62nd hottest song of 1997, according to the Billboard music charts.  The only words he will ever lip-sync are, “Sitting here flossing/Peeping your steelo,” whether or not he’s confident on what that actually means.  For that dedication to his craft and for his undeniably funky fresh moves, we salute you, Tony.  Don’t stop believing.  But you probably shouldn’t listen to “Don’t Stop Believing.”  It’s hard to not at least pump your fist to that one.

Thanks to The AV Club for nominating Tony for this great honor.

Week 50: Be a Dad*

*Not for real.  Sorry to get your hopes up, Mom and Dad.

Fatherhood is a scary proposition.  My ineptitude at caring for pets has been well documented, but the thought of raising an actual human being in my current state gives me nervous sweats, similar to that one time I ate cold penne alla vodka at a street fair.  (Pro tip: Never do that.)  The closest I’ve come to fatherhood so far was raising a Tamagotchi.  In case Late ‘90s Toy Crazes isn’t one of your preferred Jeopardy! Categories, allow me to elaborate – a Tamagotchi was a digital game in the shape of a small egg, in which the player would have to raise a digital animal-like blob by feeding it pixel food and showering it with pixel love.  Yes, it was technically a pet, but with the way I begged my parents that Christmastime, you would have thought it was my life’s new mission.

When I was fortunate enough to receive my very own Tamagotchi, I was obsessed – for about a day and a half.  Then I realized that my idealized dream of raising my very own digital being didn’t sync up with reality.  You were expected to press buttons all day long and check your Tamagotchi’s happiness and health meters every fifteen minutes to ensure they didn’t dip too low.  My Tamagotchi, which I never got around to naming, quickly became too high-maintenance, and after two short weeks, he had a quick, painless, digital death.  I’m just hoping it was painless – I don’t really know what the original Japanese game makers had intended beyond traumatizing a nation of twelve-year-olds by showing the extreme consequences of neglectful parenting.

makingflourbaby

So I thought I could have a redo for my final manly challenge.  I could honor the memory of my late, great, anonymous Tamagotchi by not making the same mistakes again.  But of course I would need a practice baby first.  I don’t think I’m ready for the big leagues just yet.

In her health class this past year, my sister had to carry around a ten-pound bag of flour and treat it as she would a newborn.  The instructions for the exercise warn the newly christened mother or father to keep the baby safe at all times, to show the baby love and affection, and to never let it out of your sight, lest you be accused of child abuse.  The instructions also reminded the students to give the bag of flour construction paper arms and legs.

I graduated from high school ten years ago and have learned a great many things since then – 49 things, to be exact.  This should be an easy A.  The hardest part of the exercise initially seems to be simply finding a ten-pound bag of flour.  I have to visit four different stores until I come across the correct weight, but the one I finally find does have a picture of a toddler on it, confirming this particular bag as my destiny.

flourbabysayshi

Despite my pained effort in locating a flour baby, I let him or her live as an amorphous blob on my kitchen table for a couple of days – a lack of commitment foreshadowed by my history of Tamagotchi parenting.  On the third day, I finally feel guilty enough to work on the transformation.  As I wrap the first piece of duct tape around his base, a tiny cloud of flour spits out of his head.  I feel a jolt of panic, which seems ridiculous at first, but then I realize that my panic shows I’m beginning to care about my flour baby.  It’s actually a touching moment as I wound my powdery offspring.  I cut out paper legs and arms and even give the little buddy a blue baseball cap.  Peter Jr. is starting to grow on me.

Nearly anyone else would be a better source on fatherhood than me, but since I doubt many people have been face-to-face with a flour baby, I can speak with some authority on the subject.  Flour babies bring out your worst qualities.  I didn’t give my flour child a face, arms, or legs for three whole days.  I’m lazy.  I am late to work every day this week because I wait until the last possible moment to pack Peter Jr. in his carrier (read: Urban Outfitters shopping bag).  I am bad at time management.  I had a cramp in my side each day I walked to the train with him.  I am out of shape.  My flour baby won’t let me forget any of my weaknesses.


front cover pic medium

Want to read more? You’ve reached the end of the preview, but the full text of this entry and many more can be found in my book, BE A MAN: How I Spent One Year Drinking, Shaving, Farming, and Fathering My Way Toward Masculinity.

Click on the book cover and you’ll find more information on how you can purchase the book in paperback and e-reader versions.

Week 49: Fast From Technology

When I was in elementary and middle school, for one week each year we’d celebrate something called No TV Week, during which you and your loved ones were supposed to eschew the boob tube for seven days in order to remember what really matters in life.

It was, bar none, the worst week of the year.

For starters, there were no activities assigned to take the place of lost TV time.  It was just a normal work week without the companionship of Darkwing Duck, Wishbone, or the students of Bayside High to help me relax after a long day of multiplying fractions and reading about U.S. colonial history.  I didn’t spend more time reading during No TV Week, though perhaps that was the intention.  I had somewhat longer conversations with my parents at dinner time, but at eight years old it’s not as though we were discussing the complications of the First Gulf War.  I thought that the anti-holiday had gone the way of the buffalo until a search online reveals that it’s merely expanded into Screen-Free Week, a fast that still convinces millions of otherwise sane people to trade the warm, embracing glow of their electronic screens for cold, sterile nature.  Unfortunately, I’ve never heard the phrase, “If you can’t beat them, mock them from afar,” so against my better judgment, I’m signing up.

For one entire week, I’ve decided to forgo all forms of technology – the computer, the internet, television, and my iPhone.  I’ll write with pen and paper, read books, and live the life of an outdoorsman, at least as much as one can accomplish while living within the borders of New York City.  Though I’ve had my qualms with No TV Week in the past, the experience will hopefully prove to have some benefit now that it’s under the guise of a manly challenge.  I’ve had great luck in the past with challenges that connected me with my inner Jeremiah Johnson.  Maybe technology is the reason I can’t grow proper facial hair!

Qcoldspring

To begin with the best possible circumstances for success, Q and I plan a weekend camping trip to Bear Mountain State Park – the lack of electrical outlets and poor cell phone reception should provide the constraints I need to deal with technology withdrawal with little incident.  At least that was the idea.

We arrive at the rental car location early Saturday morning to find we’ve received a free upgrade, which any other week would be cause for celebration.  But our lowly compact car has been replaced with a sleek SUV with enough electronics to function as a mobile Brookstone.  Even after I turn off the satellite radio, GPS, and Bluetooth, putting the car in reverse automatically brings up the rear view camera on the dash.  It’s inescapable.

As we get on the highway, I hand Q the directions I printed out before my tech fast began.  She points out the hypocrisy so you don’t have to: “So in order to go without technology, you’re first using the computer, the internet, and the printer?”  But I don’t see it as any different than the addict who does one last bit of drugs before walking through the doors at the rehab center.  I’m still going to rehab.  So what if it took a few false starts in between checking social media before I was able to disconnect?  (“Starting now.  Ok, starting now.  No, really, starting now.”)  The electronics are off.

tentandphone

But even beyond the trunk camera, other technologies wheedle their way back into my life, sometimes supernaturally.  The radio somehow turns on at some point on the trip and stays on for a good ten minutes before I even realized it.  Right before we enter the gate to the state park, the GPS lady on Q’s phone suddenly tells us to make a left, even though we thought we turned her off hours ago.  We’ve relied so heavily on her guidance that she now knows to speak up whenever she sees me reading a map.

We make it to Bear Mountain five minutes before dusk falls and the park closes.  I rush Q out of the car and we run over to the scenic point that overlooks the Hudson Valley to take a picture.  As Q hands me the camera, she asks if taking pictures voids my abstinence from technology.  I say, “One picture won’t hurt,” and right on cue, the camera fumbles out of my hand and falls onto a rock below our feet.

After a good few minutes of panic and distress, we’re able to bring the camera back to life, though a long crack along its side will always be a reminder of my lapse in self-control.  The rest of the night is uneventful, save for some confusion and grumpiness while trying to set up the tent, though that would have happened with or without the technology ban.  The next morning, the first thing I do upon waking is ask Q to check the weather, not even realizing that I’ve made her my phone surrogate.  She’s not as amenable to her new role as Siri might be.

lotsostuff

We’ve planned out a long hike for today in the hopes of escaping the boundaries of cellular networks and further temptation.  I printed out a worded description of the trail route, foolishly assuming a map would be available at the trailhead.  Instead we find signage so deteriorated by sun and rain that it is no longer readable, and a piece of paper taped to its front, directing hikers to scan a QR code to download the map to their phone.  I sincerely start wondering if I had been cursed by anyone recently.

The trail is at least well blazed so we venture on without a map in the hopes that the verbal instruction will be clear enough to follow on its own.  But after the first few turns rely more on faith than intuition, I once again bend the rules to look up the map on Q’s phone.  However, we apparently were successful in escaping cell phone reception, so the only thing that pops up on her iPhone are the words “Server Not Responding,” though I imagine the full text of the error message actually reads, “Server Not Responding to Lying Liars Who Can’t Even Go a Day Without Checking Their Phones.”

Thankfully, Q does not suffer from the same spatial unawareness I do, so we manage to walk the trail as intended and come out unscathed, save for the incident with the garden snake that came out of nowhere.  But since Q was the only one who saw it happen, I can safely say the incident was that I acted very maturely and did not scream like a little girl at a One Direction concert.  Walking the trail for two hours is a sufficient distraction, but it’s far too brief.  On the ride back home that evening, I wonder how I’ll possibly stay true to my fast over the next five days in the city when I couldn’t even make it two days surrounded by nature.

signsontech


front cover pic medium

Want to read more? You’ve reached the end of the preview, but the full text of this entry and many more can be found in my book, BE A MAN: How I Spent One Year Drinking, Shaving, Farming, and Fathering My Way Toward Masculinity.

Click on the book cover and you’ll find more information on how you can purchase the book in paperback and e-reader versions.

Week 48: Tailor Clothes

Above good grades, a plethora of friends, and a spot on the basketball team, the only thing I wanted in the seventh grade was to be cool.  I had just moved to a new district and didn’t know a single soul at my middle school.  In preparation, I reread The New Kid on the Block, Shel Silverstein’s book of poems, but there was not one good piece of advice for the newly relocated adolescent.  However, I did use the titular poem for a sensational reading in English class that year, so I suppose I broke even.

Sixth grade was a banner year.  I was cast in the school musical, and although I only had one song, I made the most of it when my CD accompaniment failed and I led the audience in an impromptu rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  Despite being obsessed with movies since birth, it surprised me that my obsession with everything Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy did could result in an actionable skill.

And yet, when the time came to choose electives for my first year in middle school, I balked at the opportunity to take Speech Arts and Drama.  This is the Peter that still dreamed of sports glory, who got up every morning an hour earlier than he needed to, just to watch SportsCenter.  If only I had realized I was watching it more for the witty catchphrases and less for the highlights, I could have saved myself a lot of time.

In lieu of drama class, I chose an elective that would surely connect me with the cool kids on day one – Keyboarding.  It may be unfathomable to younger generations who were born unaware that “app” used to mean “spinach and artichoke dip,” but there were entire classes devoted to proper positioning on a computer keyboard and upping our Words Per Minute.  I’d learn about QWERTY during the day and hone my skills with Mario Teaches Typing for Windows 3.1 at night.  I really thought this was how my transformation into a social butterfly would begin.  I rose to a WPM of 70, but my FPD – that’s Friends Per Day – flatlined.  When I realized that all the friends I managed to make were taking Drama 8 with Mr. Andrukonis next year, I quickly signed up.  I may have only been following their lead, but at least Theatre Arts was truthfully where I should have been from day one.

I’m still not over this irrational need to be cool.  This manly mission of mine is an extension of that.  I find manliness attractive, so if I do all of these activities I relate to masculinity, I’ll be more attractive by society’s standards.  In many ways it’s no less ridiculous than taking keyboarding in an attempt to woo the cool kids.  In the pursuit of getting the world to like me bettering myself, I’ve only focused on the stereotypically manly attributes, neglecting anything that doesn’t fit into that narrow criteria.  But if I truly want to be a better me, I can’t be nearsighted about what falls under the manly umbrella, especially in Week 48.

It’s only recently that I’ve discovered the joy in having clothes that properly fit.  My parents would often send my church clothes to the seamstress across from my grandparents’ house when I was younger, but for some reason it took me a long time to realize I could do the same for myself as an adult.  Having clothes tailored seemed like a indulgence reserved for those with multiple three-piece suits, but it’s amazing how attire fit for your frame can affect every part of your life.  Maybe I would have discovered that middle school confidence much earlier if I had instead taken Home Ec.

But because dropping clothes off at a seamstress is hardly a worthy topic – this coming from someone who wrote 2300 words on getting a haircut – I thought I might double my manly points by attempting to tailor clothes myself.  Thankfully, choosing Drama in the eighth grade paid off for this particular challenge, since the theatre world is full of people who make their living off clothes.

cailindraws

I met my MANtor Cailin through a mutual friend.  Cailin works as a dresser on Broadway and has been sewing ever since her grandmother, who was both a minister’s wife and the de facto seamstress for her family, sat five-year-old Cailin down at the sewing machine when she was misbehaving.  But this impromptu diversion backfired because every time Cailin would visit, she’d ask her grandmother to demonstrate a new sewing technique.  Before long, Cailin was making her own clothes and soon found her way into the costume shop of her high school theatre department, never looking back.  Cailin’s grandmother passed away recently, but her legacy lives on in the work Cailin performs each day.

Cailin pulls out a pair of old jeans we can use to practice so we don’t have to jump right into clothes I plan on wearing.  I’ve dabbled in crocheting and knitting, but I’m hoping the promise of something wearable, as opposed to making ear muffs or a baby blanket, will help to cement Cailin’s instruction in my brain.  She demonstrates two basic stitches I can use to hem pants – the whip stitch and the cross stitch.  The easy way to differentiate between the two is that the needle always points down for the whip stitch, and as Beyoncé would approve, always to the left (to the left) for the cross stitch.

cailinsews

Before we can start those stitches, Cailin first shows me how to prepare a pant leg for a hem.  We measure two inches from the bottom and make a chalk line.  Using white thread, she sews a simple line through the chalk, denoting our final length line.  Cailin turns the jeans inside out and rolls a cuff so that the thread marking the hem line runs around the edge of bottom opening.  She pins the cuff in place and lets me practice both the whip and cross stitch until I feel comfortable.

With pins and needles dangerously close to my fingers, I ask Cailin how to avoid getting stuck, but she admits that even with all her experience, her clumsiness sometimes gets the better of her.  She says the worst is when she is sewing a costume with white fabric and can’t figure out where the blood is coming from.  It makes me realize that despite my own well-documented issues with coordination, I actually haven’t drawn blood since I used a safety razor in Week 2, Week 32’s visit to the blood bank notwithstanding.  Though after this challenge, I may be resetting the “46 Weeks Since Last Accidental Blood Drawn” sign back down to zero.

mesewing

Both the cross and whip stitches are easier techniques to grasp than knitting so we move onto the real world scenario after the short practice period.  I put on the dress slacks in question and Cailin helpfully marks a chalk line on each pant leg indicating the final length line. Pants are the perfect practice material; Cailin can demonstrate a technique on one pant leg while I mimic her on the other.  She rips the existing seam in the pant leg with a special tool before cutting off excess fabric for the new hem line.  I stifle a gasp as Cailin takes scissors to my pants.  A stain on my shirt is enough to put me in a sour mood, so just the sound of ripping fabric gives me anxiety.  Adding to my concern is the realization that our lesson has to end in the next few minutes so I can go to work.  Cailin quickly shows me a special trick to tie a knot in thread not unlike a fishing knot and cross stitches about a quarter of the way around one pant leg before it’s time to pack up.  I’m a bit nervous at the thought of finishing the alterations without Cailin’s helpful guidance, but I suppose it is more authentic to take her lessons and apply them on my own.

That weekend, I sit by the window, turn on the Relaxing Coffeehouse playlist on Spotify, and retrieve my sewing supplies.   It may be a far cry from the manly image of sitting down to enjoy a Porterhouse and Scotch, or crawling through the mud pit of an obstacle course, but I posit that it’s simply another variation on the theme.  This is just the micro version – it’s all happening between my fingertips.

Finishing the pant leg Cailin started is no sweat.  I can look at her first few stitches to confirm I’m on the right track, and the only new business requires tying a knot when I’ve finished.  Starting the other pant leg from scratch requires some trial and error, and unfortunately I don’t have many errors to spare.  I one up the old adage by measuring three times before cutting once.  The pins pose another problem entirely because I can’t remember how Cailin managed to place them in the fabric one at a time while still keeping the folded part held at the correct length.  I eventually figure it out, though not before pricking myself squarely in the thumb.  It doesn’t break the skin, which actually disappointments me.  It would have been a nice arc to bleed at both the beginning and end of the blog.

ouchies

Once I secure the folded fabric in place with pins, the rest of the process is a continuation of what I did earlier in the day.  Tying Cailin’s special knot requires a visit to YouTube, but I’m pleasantly surprised with how much I do remember from our short time together.  Sewing is quite relaxing – there is a calmness to the repetition of the movement and the pattern of the stitches.  After I finish the second pant leg, the joy of completing this project is only trumped by putting on my newly tailored pants and seeing that they don’t look half bad.

It’s easy to fool myself into thinking I’m self-sufficient.  But the reality is if dry cleaners, hardware stores, supermarkets, and tailors suddenly vanished from the earth, I’d barely make it a week, and that’s assuming Q is around to help.  Many crucial skills get neglected because it’s so easy to have someone else do it, but that’s no excuse for ignorance.  I may never reach Cailin’s abilities, but now I don’t need to rely on my neighborhood seamstress.  That feeling of satisfaction will always be manly in my book.

ON THE MAN SCALE…

Only choosing challenges I could see the Brawny Paper Towel Man doing was not limiting in and of itself, but I didn’t consider how varied his skills could be.  Of course the Brawny Man knows how to sew!  His clothes always impeccably fit his bulky frame.  And if he takes his outfits to the tailor, well, he’s missing out.  There’s nothing like a needle and thread in your hand and folksy music on the stereo to remind yourself of what it is to be a man.  3.48.

NEXT WEEK:  No computer and no TV makes Peter something something.

Week 47: Be Skilled With a Knife

The week-long limit to challenges was a necessity in order to experience a full spectrum of manliness in a year, but it’s not without its downside.  Variety may be the spice of life, but it doesn’t pair well with proficiency.  Experiences I had at the beginning of this grand experiment seem as distant to me as classes I took in high school.  Maybe I’ve missed the point.  If I had spent an entire year learning to become skilled with, say, a safety razor, my shaving technique would be at a level of precision only matched by my skill at eating and showering.  And I still manage to bite my cheek or get soap in my eyes every now and then.

I get asked, “Did anything stick?” quite a bit now that the project is nearing a conclusion.  I’d like to be able to say that I now have an aptitude for something besides drinking scotch.  My genetic predisposition and interest in eating would make cooking skills a reasonable area in which expertise might be obtainable, but I still need to narrow it down.  I need to zero in on a specific technique with which I already have some experience, and something that could produce visible results after a week’s worth of practice.  This led me to the Knife Skills class offered by the Brooklyn Kitchen.  I’m often precariously close to cutting myself when I chop veggies, and I have grown fond of my fingers.  I do have decent fine motor skills, however, and it seems like a push in the right direction would be all I need to go from a near-disaster to a julienne master.

rowsofknives

Our class of twelve students is led by Kate, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and teaches a Julia Child cooking class at the Brooklyn Kitchen.  Though we could have brought our knives from home, Q and I decide to borrow chef’s knives from Kate.  Q and I bought our knives set when we first moved in together almost six years ago, and we had strict rules to keep them pristine.  We told ourselves we would always keep our knives sharp and never leave them in the sink overnight.  Ah, the high hopes of new cohabitants.  I think our knives set is in decent shape, but I also like to think the same baking soda box that’s been living in our fridge for a year is still working.

Kate begins by talking about the different parts of the knife and discusses the four knives you’ll need to do just about any cut, the chef’s knife being the tool required for the majority of cuts.  She then explains the difference between honing and sharpening a knife.  I thought when I saw Gordon Ramsay on TV scraping his knife back and forth against a cylindrical stick, he was sharpening his knife, but he was really just honing it.  When Kate asks us to try honing, I want to be as intimidating as Gordon Ramsay is, but then I remember that the last time I tried to mimic knife play on TV, it didn’t end so well.  So I stick to slow and steady.

kidskitchen

Next, our teacher passes out bowls of celery to each table.  Before we start cutting, she demonstrates how to position your non-cutting hand in a stiff, curved position she calls the “angry bear claw.”  Kate also shows us the correct way to move the knife, similar to the way a rod that connects train wheels oscillates.  It’s awkward only for a moment before it becomes obvious that this is the right way to cut.  Each time Kate visits our table to check on our individual progress, she compliments my technique and it goes straight to my head.   Her kudos makes me believe I can go faster and show off, but each moment of praise is followed by a near-loss of a finger or a drop of the knife off the cutting board.  Sometimes I think I do better with solely negative reinforcement.

After the celery, we cut up carrots and an onion, the latter of which makes me cry every time.  Q wears swim goggles to combat onion vapors, but I’m hoping Kate has a solution that won’t result in raccoon eyes.  She doesn’t have any magic tricks, but she does teach us a way to dice an onion that utilizes only about twelve specific cuts and reduces chopping time to the point that the vapors don’t even reach our nose.  It might as well be a magic trick to me.

bkcuttingboard

Besides learning good technique, the other big takeaway from the class is that I’ll never cut properly if I don’t take proper care of my tools.  Kate lists off most of my typical interactions with my knives – leaving them in the sink, cleaning them in the dishwasher, scraping food off the cutting board with the knife edge – as big no-nos.  Kate suggests we get our knives sharpened regularly and only buy new knives one at a time, instead of in sets.  She says the only way to get better is to continue practicing and tells us to buy a five-pound bag of potatoes to practice our cuts, so on the way home, I do just that.

And then the bag sits on my kitchen counter for days on end.  Outside of the encouraging Brooklyn Kitchen environment, my responsibilities of work, writing, and general housekeeping get in the way of bettering my cooking skills.  The potatoes are growing eyes, each new sprout a reminder of how I’m shirking my duties.

My guinea pig Oliver eats a handful of veggies twice a day so I try to incorporate my cutting practice into his daily feedings.  He’s not a discerning foodie and doesn’t mind when my alumette cut veers into batonnet.  Or if he does notice, he doesn’t speak up.  I cut up his carrots the way Kate taught us in class and focus on precision rather than speed.  After a couple days, I can feel those bad habits start to disappear from my muscle memory.

properposition

Once I get into the rhythm of utilizing this new cutting technique on lettuce, green pepper, and tomatoes, I force myself to cut at least a couple potatoes a day until I go through the whole bag.  After the last diced potato, the oscillating arm motion and angry bear claw have become second nature to me, but my speed remains slow and steady.  I’m on the road to proficiency, but I didn’t see the radical transformation I wanted.

But expecting mastery after a week’s worth of practice is no less dense than expecting it after a two-hour class.  Time limits and learning do not go hand in hand.  When I got my first guitar at thirteen, I spent the first few weeks trying to teach myself chords from a video and then let my acoustic guitar collect dust for the rest of the year, after You Can Teach Yourself Guitar! proved to be as misleading of a title as The Neverending Story.  Thankfully, my guitar’s constant presence in my bedroom forced me to reconsider my failure, and in its second year of life, I took a group lesson and haven’t looked back since.

choppedpotatoes

If I had said I’m only giving myself one year to learn guitar, I would have given up before I even learned my first chord.  Maybe I’ll think about my chef’s knife in the same way one day, lamenting the days I wasted with poor technique.  In any case, this week served as yet another reminder to forget about the results and just enjoy the journey.

ON THE MAN SCALE…

In the narrow guidelines of this challenge, I didn’t see the results I expected after a week.  The title is “Be Skilled With a Knife,” not simply “Use a Knife.”  I don’t hone my knife like Gordon Ramsay.  I don’t chop like Emeril.  But the nice thing about cooking is I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life no matter what.  As long as I keep getting hungry, I’ll have opportunities to practice cutting.  Even if I only used my knife two hours a week, I’d still hit Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in 96 years.  And then I’ll be a 124-year-old master chef!  I’ll practically be guaranteed my own TV show then!  So forget what I said – maybe the results matter a little if it means you get to be on TV.  3.76.

NEXT WEEK:  Another chance to bleed.