Week 46: Befriend a Dog

I was a terrible best friend in elementary school.  My neighborhood bestie Evan and I were very close, but he shouldn’t have put up with the destruction I brought into his life.  He didn’t deserve it – he was kind, amiable, and extremely smart, which he would demonstrate by counting off digits of pi while we waited for gym class to start.  He and I would race each other to see who could finish their math test first and spent our afternoons hooked on 8-bit Nintendo.  Yep, we basically ran that school.

I honestly never meant to hurt him.  Our activities just had a tendency to spiral out of control, and I always seemed to be on the side that inflicted the damage.  We were truthfully bored of video games one day and moved onto a game of our imagination called Crash Test Dummy.  I didn’t mean for the wooden car to fly into Evan’s head, honest.  And isn’t it true that head injuries always bleed a lot whether or not they’re actually serious?  I thought I read that somewhere.  And when we played Action Movie Stuntman on top of the playground tower, the name alone should have warned Evan that injury was part and parcel of the game.  When I pushed him off the ledge, I really thought he’d be able to grab onto that fireman’s pole.  But I didn’t make him do another take – that’s a truly kind-hearted gesture.  But there is one transgression for which I would understand if Evan couldn’t forgive me.  I hated his dog.

To be fair, I got along just fine with his first dog Taz.  Taz was a docile Dalmatian who would lay at my feet while Evan and I played Monopoly.  Taz and I were never overtly warm with one another, but we coexisted happily.  Taz got sick and suddenly died, so once they had grieved, Evan and his family adopted another Dalmatian, a dog that could carry on Taz’s legacy of kind-heartedness and pleasantness.  Instead, they got Autumn.

I first encountered Autumn at the school bus stop in the early morning – she wore a muzzle over her nose and mouth, fashioned unintentionally (I hope) after Hannibal Lecter’s mask in The Silence of the Lambs.  Autumn could smell my fear and knew it paired nicely with fava beans and a nice chianti.  Autumn would greet me at the entryway of Evan’s house by ferociously barking and straining to break free of whomever was holding her back.  I would cower in the corner of the foyer and tried to hide my fear, but Autumn always knew.

That winter, Evan and I took to the slopes as we always did, by which I mean we went sledding down the best hill in the neighborhood.  It was the perfect slope for maximum control and velocity, but more importantly it was hardly ever interrupted by car traffic.  As any kid of the suburbs knows, there’s no greater buzz kill than hearing the cry of “CAR!” just as you’re finding your sledding groove.

As I took my turn down the hill, I remember a wave of panic tingles overcoming me, like when you think you left your credit card at a restaurant.  I turned my head and saw Autumn barreling down the hill after me, sans muzzle, teeth bared.  I screamed as she caught up to me, opened her mouth, and clamped down on my arm.

But that’s all I remember.  And a lot of it doesn’t make sense to me.  Why don’t I remember anything after the bite?  Why wasn’t Autumn wearing her muzzle?  I called my mom up to confirm the story, but I have to give her several details before she remembers any similar incident.  She somewhat remembers Autumn nipping me one winter, but nothing to the extent of the story I’ve described.  The facts and my fears have mixed together in the stew of my brain and produced something that may be less than the truth but still viscerally affecting.  Each time I’d meet a new dog, even as recent as a few years ago, I’d stiffen up with a dishonest smile plastered on my face.  With maturity came more control over my fear, but I still remain standoffish around the canine species.  Adopting a guinea pig with Q was a step in the right direction, but there are few qualities more quintessentially manly than dog ownership.  What better way to get over a deep-seated anxiety than to organize a week of dog-sits and visits through a frivolous blog?  It’s much cheaper than therapy.


Q and I first stop in Northern Virginia to dog-sit my cousin Kristin and her boyfriend Mark’s dog Zoe.  We arrive in their apartment early in the morning and find Zoe hanging out in her crate, emitting a low growl in the direction of us intruders.  I’ve spent enough time with Zoe in the past to know this aggressiveness is just a sign of anxiety, but my attempt to allay her fears is ineffective.  I kneel down and put my hand on the grate for her to sniff, but her growls continue.  Q tells me to get lower to the ground and avoid looking Zoe in the eyes while she does her Dr. Doolittle thing.  Zoe alternates between calmness and growls depending on which one of us is interacting with her.  I ask Q jokingly, “Is it me?”  To which Q replies seriously: “Yes, I think it is.”  Like it needed to be said.

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.

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Week 45: Kick a Field Goal

I’ve been very fortunate to have family, friends, and friends of friends donate their time and unique skills to this project.  Their generosity allowed me to attempt challenges that seemed impractical to organize.  Even with the ideas that seemed too esoteric, there would somehow always be a person in my circle or a few degrees removed who had experience and could teach me.

Except for this one idea I had.  In the past, when I truly could not find a suitable MANtor for a challenge, I’d move onto another topic.  But for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about kicking a field goal since Week 1.

Maybe it’s because I wanted to redeem little Peter who never engaged in anything more violent than flag football, or maybe because it’s only natural that an aspiring man would want to emulate the gladiators of our modern era – either way, I never let go of this dream.  I went so far as to scour Craigslist for kicking coaches with less-than-credible résumés, but I could never connect with them.  I’m sure now I’ll have a friend casually mention that he kicked the game-winning field goal in his high school team’s state championship – and to be fair, I could have searched for a MANtor more publicly – but my inability to find a coach posed an interesting challenge itself.

Could I actually go MANtor-less?  Would I be able to find my footing without someone guiding me the entire way?  I’ve never been the kind of person who excelled at self-teaching, but after 44 weeks, it’s at least possible that I’ve absorbed enough collective knowledge from my MANtors to be one myself.  But I couldn’t just hop on the field.  First I needed to familiarize myself with the entire history of place kicking.

My athletic endeavor begins, as they so often do, in the microfiche room of the New York Public Library.  The library has conserved a series of sports pamphlets from the early twentieth century on microfilm, and among the short guides on baseball, basketball, and ice dancing, there is a pamphlet entitled The Lost Art of Kicking, printed in January 1947.  Even in those early days of professional football, there was apparently enough time for the art of field goal kicking to be forgotten.

The guide, which was printed in conjunction with the Flying Football Tournament – sorry, the world-famous Flying Football Tournament – argues that kicking could win football games, bringing up several well-known collegiate games as evidence.  They were about as well-known to me as the Flying Football Tournament, but I take the author at his word.  The pamphlet is clearly directed to high school and collegiate players, making special note of the boys who should practice these techniques, and the men who have emerged victorious on the gridiron.  If that’s all it takes, I really should have made field goal kicking Week 1.

Wedged between chapters entitled, “KICKING WINS FOOTBALL GAMES,” and “DO YOU WANT TO MAKE THE VARSITY SQUAD?” lies a chapter devoted to teaching young whippersnappers how to kick a football.  The advice never gets exceptionally detailed – the writer doesn’t even give aspiring kickers the option of using anything but their right foot to kick the ball.  The fear of Communist lefties had apparently spread to sports-related footedness.  Most of the guidebook focuses on training boys to become well-rounded individuals, going so far as to say that football shouldn’t be a priority in your life – this coming from a football instruction guide.  The advice is so antithetical to everything I’ve learned through watching and reading Friday Night Lights that I choose to move onto my next source of place kicking instruction (with clear eyes and full heart, natch).

Advancing twelve years in football history, I pick up a three-hundred page tome entitled The Complete Kicking Game: Mechanics and Strategy, written in 1959 by the football coach at East Orange High in New Jersey.  Since I’m only interested in place kicking, I skip ahead to that chapter, which is only fourteen pages long and appears to have even less worthwhile advice than The Lost Art of Kicking.  The author mostly speaks in maxims like, “The hands should not be resting on the hips or thighs,” “The kicker should see his foot go into the ball,” and the evocative “The kicker should stay up and come through, rather than fall away.”  I barely understand that last piece of advice as I write it now, but it could be something that won’t make sense until years later, like hearing at eighteen years old that you never quite leave high school.


Despite some detailed information on proper footwear (“The shoe should be a high top, fit snugly, with a built-in kicking toe on the kicking foot”), The Complete Kicking Game is a bit of a bust, so I skip ahead another few decades to The Art of Place-Kicking and Punting, written in 1985.  The book is written by three professional kickers – Pete Gogolak, Matt Bahr, and Rick Danmeier – each of whom employ different styles.  I focus on Bahr’s section, since he kicks with a “soccer style,” using the side of his foot to launch the ball through the uprights.  Here’s hoping I haven’t forgotten my one season of youth soccer when I was six years old.

Thankfully this book is mostly pictures and I use the images to solidify the written instruction.  When he sets up for a kick, Bahr takes two steps back from the ball, lining up with the center between the goal posts, and then slides two paces to the left, arranging himself in a forty-five degree angle with the ball.  He takes one long stride with his kicking foot, another to get his planting foot parallel with the ball’s trajectory, and then kicks the ball on the third step.  He ends his section with a discussion on troubleshooting and leaves the reader with a final aphorism: “You’re only as good as your last kick!”

To finish the journey through place kicking history, I end my research with a YouTube video featuring a former kicker on the University of Kentucky’s football squad.  Though the video is only four minutes long, it’s more helpful than any of my previous sources just for the fact that it animates what previously had only been described in words and still pictures.  This kicker takes three steps back from the ball as opposed to only two, but it’s a close facsimile of how Bahr kicks.  After viewing this video a few times, I feel adequately prepared to take the field.  If seventy years of football knowledge can’t make me a success, there really is no chance for me.


Since Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx is home to community soccer games and Manhattan College athletics, I only have a short amount of time each day to commandeer the field.  I arrive Monday morning when there are only about ten stars of track and field running laps.  I have the field completely to myself and thankfully, the weather complies and offers a clear, sunny day for my first practice.  I do a couple of quick stretches, more to prove my worth to my fellow athletes on the track than to actually warm up.

The field is currently painted with line markings for soccer games, so I find a line around the goalkeeper’s area that seems an adequate distance from the goal post while still being achievable.  I’m having trouble following through with my leg as I practice kicking the air, but I think it best to just start kicking for real and fine tune as I go.  I set the football down on the tee with the laces toward my target and take two steps back and two to the side.  I lunge forward with my right leg, plant my left foot, and kick with all my might.

The first kick is a weak one; the ball barely reaches the soccer goal beneath the goal post.  It’s straight – I can say that much about it – but at no point in its trajectory does it reach a height that would clear the crossbar.  The next few kicks are no better, flying wildly left or dribbling into the soccer goal.  My form improves on my fifth kick, but there’s not enough power behind it.  The ball strikes the crossbar and bounces back into the field, inches away from scoring.  The last few kicks of the day are straight but short, which worries me more than the inverse.  Accuracy can be fixed with foot placement and better targeting, but how do I fix the problem of not enough oomph?  The one kick that hit the crossbar gives me enough hope to return the following day.


I return to a much winder Van Cortlandt Park than yesterday – so windy that the football topples off the tee nearly every time I try to balance it.  My focus wanes and my nerves fray as I’m forced to rush kicks during the few breaks in the wind.  I review my notes from Matt Bahr’s section on troubleshooting, trying to find a reason why I consistently hook the ball.  Out of three possible reasons he suggests, I think it’s that my kicking foot is coming too far across my body, so I focus on a straighter follow through.  It doesn’t work – my first three kicks are even worse than the day before.  To make matters worse, the soccer team from Manhattan College has begun to set up on the field, and their presence is even more nerve-wracking than the looks from the track stars.

Somehow I always forget how crippling my overthinking is.  It’s not until it becomes overwhelming that I remember the importance of a clear head.  I put my focus entirely and solely on the ball, running towards it with conviction.  My foot meets ball and miraculously the ball squeaks over the crossbar and lands with a thud behind the soccer goal.  IT’S GOOD!  My arms subconsciously raise to signify victory and I run to retrieve the ball with an immense weight lifted off my shoulders.

It’s only then that I actually measure the distance from the goal post to my kicking position..  The tape measure reads 18 yards, which seems like a respectable amount until I actually look up the field goal distance for NFL extra points.  Adding in the ten yards of end zone, the ball is hiked back to the kicker seven yards from the two-yard line.  In total, 19 yards.  One short.  Sure, one yard probably wouldn’t have affected the success of my last kick, but the psychological damage is done.  Now there’s a little asterisk next to my victory.


I giddily tell everyone I see over the next couple days that I kicked a field goal – clearly the psychological damage did nothing to diminish my braggadocio.  Though despite my outward pride, I can’t forget about that one yard.  It’s such an easy proposition to return to the field and do it right.  So after two days of rain, I return to Van Cortlandt Park with clear skies and stiff legs – looks like my half-assed stretching paid off.

I start from the line I kicked at earlier in the week, take three paces back, and set down the tee.  Now I’m at the professional level – save the equipment, the holder, and the eleven giants on the opposing team who are trying to crush me.  But still.  Professional level.  It’s only three feet more, but what if that’s all it takes to lose my mojo?  In my two days of rest, did I forget everything?  I can’t say I have the same focus I did then.

My first two attempts land squarely in the soccer goal.  I overextend my leg and feel the stiffness in my leg increase exponentially.  I get under the ball on the next kick, and it launches high in the air wildly off target before landing with a thud, a visual representation of my confidence.  My pulse quickens and my anxiety is palpable, so I take a breather before my next attempt.  I roll up my sleeves and try to reenter the mind space I discovered two days ago.  When I connect with the ball on this attempt, the sound of impact tells me everything I need to know – it’s going through the uprights.  The ball cleanly dives over the crossbar and my arms raise again.  After sixteen attempts, I kicked a field goal.  No asterisk required.

Without a physical MANtor, I could say I passed this challenge without anyone’s help, but that would be far from the truth.  I had help from Matt Bahr, the East Orange High School football coach, and the former kicker from UK, even though they never knew it.  Embarking on athletic endeavors completely alone is an unwinnable proposition, except for maybe the Fosbury Flop guy – it’s hard to imagine anyone signed off on that.  Without my place kicking committee’s willingness to share their knowledge with interested parties, I surely would still be out on the field, foolishly hoping for that one good kick.


Not counting what I’ve attempted for this blog, I haven’t attempted a new athletic technique since high school.  I was content in what I already knew how to play and really only enjoyed sports for which I naturally had some aptitude.  It’s humbling to try something you’re totally ill-prepared for, especially when kids half your age can take to it like a fish to water.  I sincerely thought I would fail miserably when I decided to go sans MANtor, so the fact that I was able to coach myself is a win in itself.  There’s no substitute for training with another person, but it’s nice to know that I can make do in a pinch.  3.27.

NEXT WEEK:  Man’s best friend’s best friend.

Week 44: Be a Plumber

Calling the super can sometimes be the adult equivalent of asking Daddy to cut your steak for you. I know that having a complimentary handyman on call is one of the perks of apartment life, but I can’t help but feel emasculated every time I dial his number.  The last time he visited our apartment, I asked him to help me hang a picture on the wall.  Well, him to do it and me to watch.  While he worked, I asked him discerning questions so he could tell that I was worthy of standing so near his power tool.

“Oh, so you use a special tool to drill through the concrete behind the drywall?” I casually confirm.

“Yes. It’s called a hammer drill.  Basically, as it drills, it also hammers.”

“I have a hammer. It’s black and yellow like a bumblebee.”


The super hung the picture up without another word and left, leaving me to wallow in my inadequacies.

The time before that jovial visit, I asked my super to clean up our clogged shower drain.  He came up with his assistant and stuck the hose of a wet/dry vacuum down the drain.  The assistant hit the switch and the vac did its thing.  With the growl of the machine overpowering any conversation and the two men blocking my view to the bathroom, I felt helpless – not that anyone asked for my help, but I wanted to maintain the illusion that I was still master of my domain.  As the super cleaned up, I made my case to prove I wasn’t a damsel in distress or, rather, a man-child in misery. “I poured Drano down the drain, but it didn’t seem to do anything,” I mused, hoping this could lead to an informed discussion of his methods. “Got any tips for me in case this happens again?”

His only piece of advice rang clear as a bell: “If it happens again, just call me.”  So I’m supposed to send out an SOS call and just wait for the life preserver to be thrown to me?  This will not stand.  I needed to take matters into my own hand.


The technical school affiliated with the City University of New York offers a three-hour plumbing course for homeowners; I hope apartment dwellers are similarly welcomed.  As I enter the hall where the class is held, a security guard stops me to ask for my driver’s license or learner’s permit.  I start to get incensed that he could possibly think I was a teenaged student driver before I realize that this school probably offers classes for new adult drivers – at least that’s the interpretation I choose in order to walk into class with my head held somewhat high.

I’m the second student to arrive, immediately after an older gentleman wearing a cargo vest.  Our teacher greets me by asking, “Are you the new guy?”  I mutter something along the lines of, “I guess so,” but wonder why he’s singling me out as the new guy in a one-time three-hour class.  Something about my look must scream out “newbie,” and it makes me think my initial reaction to being asked for a learner’s permit wasn’t far from the truth.

While the rest of the students arrive, I fill out some standard paperwork – “How did you hear about the class?”, “What do you hope to learn today?”, and “On a scale of one to five, how comfortable are you with big boy jobs?”  I may have imagined that last one.  Mr. Crabbe, our ironically-named amiable instructor, hands each of us a plumbing textbook, which illustrates how to install toilets, faucets, and pipes in full-color pictures and diagrams.  I start skimming the textbook in the same way you might stare at an abstract painting for several minutes, assuming that simply making an effort is enough to induce comprehension.


Mr. Crabbe starts the class by detailing the standard plumbing system in a house or apartment building, mentioning vent lines, drain traps, and P-traps.  I don’t emit even a single giggle upon hearing the latter term, proof positive that this manly journey has been transformative.  To illustrate the importance of the vent line bringing air into the plumbing system, Mr. Crabbe pours water out of an upside-down plastic soda bottle, asking us to take note of how the water dribbles out.  Then he pierces a small hole on the bottle’s bottom, and the water shoots out of the bottle’s mouth like a Super Soaker.  It’s these kind of Mr. Wizard scientific demonstrations that excite me every time.  I don’t care how juvenile it is – I will always be giddy upon seeing the overflowing volcano at the science fair.

Mr. Crabbe starts to explain the pros and cons with PVC and cast-iron tubing, tips when using a roto-rooter, and the technology behind valves.  Though I’m sure these topics will be useful when I become a homeowner, they are not applicable to the apartment dweller so I begin to space out, daydreaming about imaginary confrontations with my super, wherein I always at some point say, “Hand me that wrench, partner.”  My ears perk up again as Mr. Crabbe starts discussing how to remove and install a toilet, and suggests that we try it ourselves.  The classroom is chock-full of power tools, sinks, and toilets – ostensibly here so the full-time students who are here during the week can actually get their hands dirty.  Our teacher rolls a toilet on a wheeled platform to the center of the room and tells us to have at it.

I’m hesitant to be the first one up, but my reluctance proves to be a major misstep as you don’t need fifteen students to remove one toilet.  As such, a few people do most of the dirty work, and I only end up tightening the bolt on the floor a few turns.  Not the crash course for which I was hoping, but I can only blame myself.  As we finish up the class by independently tinkering around with the sinks and faucets strewn about the room, I take Mr. Crabbe aside and ask him about the issues with my shower drain and bathroom sink.  When I turn the sink’s hot water handle on, water immediately spurts out, but there’s a delay with the cold water handle.  It takes a few turns before any water comes out.  Mr. Crabbe admits it’s an unusual problem, but suggests I look at the cartridge underneath the cold water handle to see if it needs to be replaced.  With the clogged shower drain, Mr. Crabbe suggests I use a zip-it – a long, skinny piece of plastic with teeth – to remove any hair or grossness lodged in the drain.  Failing that, he says I can pour a quart of bleach down the drain.  With the knowledge I’ve gleaned from the class and Mr. Crabbe’s personal encouragement, I resolve to tackle my plumbing issues with aplomb.


Tinkering with plumbing systems is not for the softies among us, of which I am a card-carrying member.  On the Sunday evening I plan on playing super, I don a rain slicker and bathing suit, hoping that being prepared for the worst will somehow prevent it from happening.  Sure, you’d probably shut the door on a plumber wearing this costume quicker than you can say, “P-traps are nothing to laugh about,” but my house, my rules.

I retrieve my trusty Phillips head screwdriver and examine the cold water handle on the bathroom faucet.  Fortunately, the screw to remove the handle is conveniently located right on top – no hidden screws or an awkward placement with which to struggle.  However, as I begin to unscrew the handle, I realize I’ve neglected a crucial component of this DIY session.  I need to find the sink’s shut-off valve, which was always so easy to spot in the pictures of the demo bathroom in the class textbook, but proves more difficult in reality.  I can easily find the shut-off valve for the toilet (good to know for the future), but the bathroom sink doesn’t appear to have one.  Is this even possible?  Mr. Crabbe mentioned that every toilet has to have a shut-off valve accessible (again, good to know), but he didn’t mention anything about sinks.  I don’t know if it’s located in a place only the super can access, or if I’m just completely missing it, but either way I have to abort the mission prematurely.  Taking the cartridge out of the faucet handle before shutting off the sink would surely make use of my rain slicker, but I’m not sure it would make me a man.  I’m upset I can’t strut my newfound stuff on the sink, but I suppose there is some solace in knowing what you can’t do.  Maybe?

I turn my attention to the clogged shower drain.  Despite placing two hair catchers on top of each other, the shower drain has intermittently clogged for the past several months – it only takes a few minutes of showering before I’m standing in a pool.  With the failure of the bathroom sink still fresh, I make a silent promise to myself that I won’t call the super for his help.  It’s the only way to make sure this plumbing class wasn’t taken in vain.


I start with the simplest solution and hope I’ll get lucky on my first try.  Boiling water can do wonders to move the hair and sludge stuck in the drain down to its final resting place, but boiling water alone is not enough to unclog the drain.  I continue onto Mr. Crabbe’s suggested methods.

At the hardware store, I become enamored with the zip-it’s bigger brother – the drain auger.  The auger is a fifteen-foot long metal coil with an open-ended spring at the very end.  The spring enters the drain and you twist it to loosen up the blockage.  But the best part is it comes in a handy carrying case!  I decide to forgo the flimsy plastic of the zip-it and choose the manly steel of the auger, despite it being three times the price.  Can you see where this is headed?

When I return home, I fit the auger handle over the coil and start sending it down the drain, but it stops at about five feet.  I tighten the thumbscrew of the handle, twist the coil several turns, and let go, allowing the centrifugal force of the spinning coil to unleash hell on whatever darkness lies in my drain.  I do this a couple more times before removing the auger from the drain, which, by the way, is the nastiest thing ever.


To make matters worse, the auger appears to have done nothing besides make me gag.  Some smelly sludge found its way onto the coil, but the clog is undisturbed.  As if it needs to be said, monetary value does not correspond to results.  Rather than plunk good money after bad on a zip-it, I move onto some liquid solutions.

As I research online, a mixture of baking soda and vinegar comes up again and again as a worthy drain cleaner for those averse to harsh chemicals.  Since I have those ingredients handy in my pantry, I figure I should try it out, if only to judge its effectiveness against my other methods.  I pour baking soda into the drain until it reaches the top and then slowly pour vinegar over it.  The concoction immediately starts to bubble, which delights me in that juvenile way that I hardly care if it clears the clogged drain.  I wait for a few minutes to let the baking soda and vinegar mixture disappear down the drain, and then I flush it down further with some hot water.  On first review, the mixture doesn’t seem to have done much other than clean the metal ring around the drain.  It put on a good show, but this homegrown technique couldn’t cut the mustard.

baking soda vinegar

Over the next couple of days, I put off going to the store to buy bleach.  Giving up and calling the super appears to be a foregone conclusion, so I hardly have faith in the promise of another method.  However, by the end of the week, I’m treated to a marvelous surprise – the drain miraculously clears.  Q thinks our clogged drain cleared due to other parts of the apartment-wide plumbing system unclogging, but I’m not a fan of that deus ex machina.  I think the drain was no match for my flurry of activity, and simply rose its white flag later than I expected.  I still buy the bleach and pour a quart down the drain per Mr. Crabbe’s instructions, as a sort of knockout punch and victory lap altogether.  Since that day, our shower drain has been as clear as Crystal Pepsi.

The following week, I ran into our super in the lobby.  We both exchanged head nods as I ran to catch the train, but it was a different interaction than we’ve ever had before.  My head nod was one of confidence, of a newfound awareness that he is no longer my hero in times of need, but rather my peer.  His responding head nod indicated that he was awed by my rapid ascent from clumsy DIYer to responsible apartment dweller.  Dare I say I saw the forming twinkle of a tear full of pride in the corner of his eye.  At least that’s how I’m interpreting it.  It makes for a better ending.


Due to its home behind walls and out of sight, plumbing had always been a mysterious entity.  Unlike hanging pictures on walls or installing electronics, the plumbing system in my apartment building could have been run by little elves for all I knew.  As such, I took it for granted before learning the ins and outs.  And yet, even after absorbing a bit of Mr. Crabbe’s expertise, the easy fixes were not so easy.  So much of fixing plumbing is reliant on “feel” that it would take a lot more practice before I could handle even a medium-sized job.  But by tackling a small job, I discovered the simple satisfaction in not having to rely on anyone to save me from drowning in my bathtub.  Maybe I’ll even leave the rain slicker in the closet next time.  3.45.


Week 43: Know My History

Q is an expatriate at heart.  In the course of studying abroad for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she has spent almost three years living in France.  I’m shocked I was able to persuade her to return to the States.  Last time, it took a diamond ring.  Following the syllogism of “Mockingbird,” I’ll need to procure a looking glass if she escapes to Paris again.

Her new scheme to take us permanently across the Atlantic involves me applying for dual citizenship with Greece.  Since my grandfather on my mother’s side was born there, I have the minimum ancestry required to be eligible for dual citizenship.  With this, Q and I could trapeze through the European Union, visas be damned.  We could send our future children to school in Italy, spend an entire year attending theatre in England, and I could run for prime minister of Greece.  The only catch – and when I say “catch,” I mean “Jeff Goldblum-sized fly in the ointment” – is that I would have to serve in the Greek military for nine months.

Pshaw! says Q.  What’s nine short months of an enlistment against a lifetime of geographic freedom?  And shame on me for thinking Q is only being self-serving!  There’s something in it for me too!  After all, I’ll need a new blog topic pretty soon, and serving three-quarters of a year in the Greek army practically writes itself.  It could be just like Eat, Pray, Love, except I could call it Cry, Pray, and Cry.  Needless to say, there are just some vocations I won’t attempt in the name of manly science.


However, this whole discussion of sacrificing myself for Q’s globetrotting brings up an interesting thought: what defines me more, my Greek heritage or my American history?  Greece is tied to my religion, family, and genes, but I don’t feel like anything less than a full-blooded ‘Merican.  I don’t find it necessary to align myself with a single heritage (what would American be, after all?), but straddling the two cultures has had a deleterious effect – I’ve been able to claim both cultures without fully embracing either.  I brag about being Greek as if it sets me apart from other Americans, but I haven’t bothered to learn the language.  Isn’t it a responsibility of any citizen, and by extension, any man, to be knowledgeable about his own history?

I set out to remedy my foolishness this week, starting on the Greek side.  Both my father’s grandfather and my mother’s father emigrated from Greece via Ellis Island.  I had looked up this information years ago for a school project, but could scarcely remember the details today.  I visit Ellis Island’s passenger lookup database and find that nearly one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather John Andreadis traveled from Chios, Greece, to Ellis Island, before landing in Lancaster, PA, with only twenty-five bucks in his pocket.  It’s more than a little shameful that it’s taken me this long in my manly journey to remind myself of his story.  I’ve been smoking a pipe and drinking scotch in search of an elusive rite of passage, but my great-grandfather achieved it at only seventeen years old.  I don’t feel able even at twenty-seven to move to a new country without first learning the language, securing a job, and having more than $527.16 in my bank account (my great-grandfather’s twenty-five bucks adjusted for inflation).  Even missing one of these safeguards would make me trepidatious.

It’s amazing, though perhaps not surprising, how little I’ve appreciated the comfort of a geographic home considering it’s been a given my whole life.  Though the act of emigrating to another country would break my rule of manly challenges not lasting longer than a week (among other excuses), there is a small effort I can make to begin to empathize with my ancestor’s plight.  I decide to take the United States Citizenship Test.


The civics portion of the citizenship test contains one hundred possible questions, of which ten are administered on test day.  The hopeful citizen-to-be must answer six of these ten questions right in order to pass the exam.  Though I did well in high school history, I wonder if without a need to retain this knowledge, I’m left with a gaping hole in my brain where state capitals and Civil War battle names used to reside.  Perhaps I’ve neglected the history of our forefathers in the same way I’ve neglected the history of my great-grandfather.

I ask my mom to take the citizenship test as well, partly for support and partly because a little competition never hurt.  I will take the test first without any study and then retake it after reviewing the online study guide the Smithsonian provides for potential American citizens.  I first attempt the seven-page written test on the subway ride home from work, giving myself a mostly uninterrupted hour.

I am pleasantly surprised to find many random American History facts tucked away in crevices of my memory despite not accessing them in a decade – it’s a testament to my public school education I suppose.  I can thank my participation in my high school’s production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! for leaving the preamble to the Constitution on the tip of my tongue (sing it with me now: We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquilityyyyyyyy…).  But some of the dates elude me, as do the rights and responsibilities of United States citizens – you know, the trivial stuff.  I also thought Susan B. Anthony sewed the American flag.  When I tally my score, I end up with an 80.5 out of 100 – barely a B-minus – and the possibility of a revoked citizenship were this test for real.


After a few days pass, I visit the Smithsonian’s study guide for some crucial cramming time.  In the meantime, my mom returns her test to me, scoring a 92 and mentioning that the test didn’t pose a challenge only because she has been helping my sister study for Government class tests this year.  I think she’s being modest – she’s always been up-to-date on current events and lives in one of those original thirteen colonies (Question #64) bordering our nation’s capital (Question #94), which – fun fact – happens to be named after our first president (Question #70) and father of our country (Question #69).  Still, her proximity to the government’s headquarters doesn’t account for everything.  She’s always been bright and superb at retaining knowledge.  When the test asked her to name her district’s Representative, I bet she didn’t panic and write down “Al Roker.”  Not that that happened to me.

My retest goes exponentially better, though I do take it mere minutes after studying for a few hours – not exactly exam conditions.  But I’m satisfied that I could name James Madison as one of the writers of Federalist Papers, count 435 Representatives in the House, and know that Susan B. Anthony and Betsy Ross are not the same person.  This time, I score a 98.5, enough points to keep me in this country a little bit longer, at least until Q convinces the Greek army to hire a blogger.


Taking the citizenship test of your home country is such a tiny gesture, especially when others have to take it in a newly learned language.  I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the Greek government, except that I think they have a parliament.  Wikipedia claims they have a “300-member elective unicameral Parliament,” but they’re just showing off.  Taking the United States Citizenship Test should be required of every citizen, no matter how they were granted their American passport.  Let’s give it every year around tax season, and offer tax credits to passing grades, or at the very least, award “I PASSED” stickers like the “I VOTED” stickers that we wear so proudly.

My mother’s father emigrated to America from Chios, Greece, when he was eight years old.  I hope his village wasn’t too close to where my dad’s grandfather lived.  My grandfather passed through Ellis Island in 1939, unfortunately too late to show up in their online database.  However, in searching for this information, I discovered that he actually arrived via a Turkish ship since the quota for Greek immigrants was full that year, and if he had stayed in Greece, he would have been enlisted in the army, which, at that time, was gearing up for a fight against Mussolini’s troops.  His life, and subsequently mine, would have gone in a very different direction had he not come to America to create a life for himself despite not originally knowing the language.

Q says I should be thankful there’s no Greco-Italian War going on now.  Pshaw, I say.


2.78.  Studying and taking the citizenship test twice took a grand total of four hours.  It’s the absolute minimum effort I can make to know my history, but it’s a step in the right direction.  I can say that I value the struggles of my ancestors, but it’s an empty statement when I can’t begin to understand the obstacles they overcame. I’m going to continue my search for my grandfather’s record of entering Ellis Island and will hopefully come up with something before the next Challenge Update.

NEXT WEEK: The joy of not having to call the super.

Week 42: Rebuild a Home

HGTV has ruined me.  If you have yet to be seduced by its siren song of DIYness and open concept floor plans, the network reels you in with large blocks of programming, so if you casually flip to the channel at two in the afternoon, you’ll be sucked into a mini-marathon of house hunting or home renovation until the wee hours of the morning.  And damn if those full home renovations are always wrapped up in a succinct half-hour.  With commercials too!

My allegiance to Home and Garden Television has outrageously skewed my perspective of my own home repair skills and estimation of time.  That gallery wall that Q wants to put above our couch?  Psssh.  Five minutes tops.  And that even leaves plenty of time to explain to the imaginary camera why certain nails are better than others and sneak in my drywall-related catchphrase.  (“It’s hammer time,” or something of that ilk – I’ll surely have extra writers to punch up my dialogue.)


Cut to three hours later and I’ve sheared off most of our wall without successfully hanging a single painting.  Maybe I don’t have the right tool for the job or maybe it’s the 5’9”ish, brown haired tool that’s the real problem.  It’s only clear that binging on HGTV is not the solution.  When I spent a week volunteering, I noticed there are still several organizations rebuilding homes that were torn apart by Hurricane Sandy, even a year and a half after the storm hit New York.  So I signed Q and me up for a day of on-the-job training.

The organization foolish enough to put a power tool in my hands is called Friends of Rockaway.  They send us to a house in Broad Channel, a coastal community near JFK Airport, and on the walk to our particular house, we see quite a few homes that are still in disrepair and others in major renovation.  The “Broad Channel Strong” motto that adorns car windshields and shop windows proves that Sandy is more than a distant memory for these folks.

When we find the house, a young man with cropped red hair welcomes us inside.  Connor, our project head for the day, has us drop our backpacks in a couple of trash bags so they won’t get covered with the dust that is accumulating from the furious sanding currently in progress.  I count nine volunteers plus Connor and us, and about half of them appear to be college kids completing their service obligations, though they are more focused and proficient than their young appearance would intimate.  So much for looking better by comparison.


The house itself is in better shape than I predicted; drywall and insulation has already been installed, though the edges show where separate pieces meet.  The owners of the home live upstairs so we’re just tackling the first floor today.  Connor hands us a mask and rectangular sanding block each.  Though previous volunteers have already “sanded and mudded” the walls once, today we’re putting on a second coat to ensure that the job’s done right.  “Mudding” involves slapping a spackle-like material on the walls to cover the cracks.  It’s a job that appears to be a step beyond beginner DIY, but I worry that it doesn’t rank very high on the manly scale.  I’ve been brainwashed by HGTV to believe that every home renovation needs to have some extreme component.  If we’re not installing a media center with a wall-mounted HDTV and built-in wine cooler, how can we call this a living room renovation?

If this were Xtreme Home Renovation, they’d cut away to commercial or pull out some nifty time-lapse photography to avoid the drudgery of these common tasks so the host with the bright white teeth and superbly coiffed hairdo can swing a sledgehammer into something.  Alas, they would knock out this task in about a minute of fast motion, but for my group it takes the entire afternoon before lunch.  And thank goodness for them – I’m barely able to tackle half a room myself in three hours.

At first I am too shy to ask for more guidance, worried that I might halt the steady rhythm of the work by requiring a hand to hold.  I hope that by sanding aimlessly and expanding my work area to the entire wall, I’m bound to sand something that needed it.  A veteran volunteer, Don, smells my desperation from across the room and walks over to give some unsolicited advice.  He explains that I just need to sand the white areas on the walls where the mud has already been applied.  It’s then that I notice the “SAND HERE” markings, complete with arrows, all over the wall.  I must seem like one of “those guys” to Don, the guys who call up a contractor just to hang a picture, and well, he’s not far off.  I just hope I can fool Connor for a bit longer.


Connor visits Q and me to check on our progress.  I feel like I’m in seventh grade art class again, and I just want the teacher to compliment my papier-mâché sculpture so I don’t have to put effort into finishing it.  Connor offers some encouragement before pointing out places on a wall that were missed.  I fight the urge to tattle on the volunteer who was working on that wall – so deeply ingrained is my need to be the perfect student.  It doesn’t matter that there’s no teacher-student relationship here; I’ve created one in my mind so I have someone to whom I can prove my worth.  I sand with fervor while Connor is in the room, hoping for accolades, but when he leaves, I wish time to move faster while my body runs on autopilot.

Gratefully, Connor calls for lunch an hour later, remarking that we’re ahead of schedule and can move onto a different task when we return.  Q and I trudge over to a nearby restaurant, covered in white drywall dust from head to toe.  My left eye is completely bloodshot, either from the dust or a lack of sleep – either way, I’m hardly excited for renovation part two.

As I glumly eat my sandwich, Don stops by our table and chats with us.  He lives in nearby Howard Beach and has been helping out with rebuilding efforts since the storm hit in 2012, as has another volunteer who I had assumed was just a college kid fulfilling community service obligations.  They both work construction during the week and volunteer on the weekends.  They are titans amongst us normal men and men-children.  They make me feel like a Grade-A wimp for complaining about a little dust.


Back in the home, Connor demonstrates how to mud the walls while Don mixes up the adhesive material in large buckets.  The act of mudding is strangely satisfying in a “play with your food” sort of way.  You take some of the mud out of a pan with a paint scraper, fling it on the wall, and spread it until it’s smooth.  The places where the walls have been previously mudded provide a nice guideline for the next coat, meaning I won’t be lost like I was with the sanding.

Don scoops a pile of mud into my pan and I head back into the room where I worked before.  The mud has the consistency of instant oatmeal, making it tricky to slap it on the wall before it drips on the floor.  I struggle with maintaining a smooth coat, but the lack of dust makes the task immediately more enjoyable.  Later, Don comes over to correct my technique when he sees I’m not spreading the mud wide enough; the second coat needs to expand beyond the first coat so it can adequately seal the cracks.  When I receive his instruction this time, I don’t feel as self-conscious as I did at first.  Maybe it’s because mudding is a totally foreign experience or maybe because I realized this project is bigger than my insecurities – either way, I’m thankful for his guidance.

After spending a good twenty minutes mudding one corner of the room, I realize I’ve had a major attitudinal shift.  I came to the house today on a very personal mission: to learn some home repair skills so I could fit into this ideal of the handyman.  But it doesn’t take much manliness to simply learn a couple techniques and hang a painting in your own home.  The real test is to put that same amount of effort into someone else’s home, where you will never live nor even see the finished product.  It’s not until I arrive at that epiphany that I understand the satisfaction in simply a job well done, which doesn’t require anyone’s acknowledgment.  It’s childish to still be craving the gold star from the teacher, especially when the gratification from the work can be more meaningful without it.


After the front room is adequately mudded, I follow Connor into the back room where a second coat of mud needs to be applied above the baseboard.  While we’re alone, I ask Connor more about his organization.  He says each house takes a couple of months to complete, and although they’ve been working steadily since the storm hit, there’s still over two hundred houses left on the waiting list.  It’s sobering to think of all the work left to be done.

From the time I start in the back room to when Connor calls for cleanup an hour later, it feels like no time has passed at all.  I hurry to finish the wall I started, as it seems careless to leave it half-finished, but there’s simply no time to complete it.  After all, the whole house is half-finished, so it’s not as though there’s any sort of end product to admire.  It’s another bubble burst in my quest for the HGTV renovation, but another important lesson learned.  My need for immediate gratification has become far too easy to satisfy – if I want to buy that album, I can download it right now, no matter where I am.  But I tend to listen a new album far less now than when I had to drive to the record store, search for it in the racks, pay for it, unwrap the plastic…you get the idea.  In the case of this house, where I will not be present for any sense of completion, I still manage to find fulfillment in micro terms – a cleanly applied stroke of mud or a smoothly sanded patch of wall.  Finding that joy in each small part of the work makes the final satisfaction of the completed product that much longer lasting.

Seven hours later, it isn’t visually apparent that the twelve people who worked here all day did anything – after all, we just applied a second coat of mud to the walls.  The pictures I took of us working would never suffice for a before-and-after reveal on HGTV.  And yet I can’t help but feel satisfied with my day’s work, knowing that my tiny effort matters in the long run.  As our group left, Connor let us know we did a great job.  “Usually I tell the groups they did a great job when they didn’t, but you guys actually did a great job,” he says.  He probably says that to everyone too, but his pat on the back isn’t necessary.  A day’s work was enough to fulfill my manly quota for this week.  No drywall-related catchphrase needed.  At least until I think of a better one.


Though the day lacked the excitement of demolition or installing a pool in the backyard, it was crucial for me to delve into the nitty gritty of home repair.  The true stars of HGTV aren’t the hosts; they’re the guys with two seconds of air time who install flooring overnight.  It’s nowhere near as glamorous, and frankly it shouldn’t be.  They place the necessary foundation for everything else to exist.  I was immensely humbled to see all of the volunteers, whether they were college kids or full-time contractors, work without ego and pride.  4.10.

NEXT WEEK: I just hope they don’t revoke my citizenship.

Week 41: Pick a Lock

In the early days of Wikipedia, I cited the crowd-sourced encyclopedia on a paper I wrote in my Feminist Theatre class. My professor circled the citation in red ink and scribbled in the margin: “THIS IS NOT A LEGITIMATE SOURCE.” Now that the foibles of Wikipedia’s research have come to light, I wouldn’t be so foolhardy to reference it in a research paper, but at the time I remember thinking that my professor just wasn’t forward thinking. I cited Wikipedia’s explanation of a theatrical concept, and what could be more extensive and thorough than a definition which has been edited and refined by hundreds of scholars? (Turns out half of Wikipedia editors are under 22 years old.)

Still, the growing accessibility of information over my lifetime has completely transformed the way I learn, mostly in that I can more easily avoid human contact. In Week 1 I learned to tie a tie with the physical help of two friends, but these days I hop on YouTube or Wikipedia whenever I need a refresher before I tie a Pratt knot or bowtie. My first recourse in any situation, be it physical, mental, or metaphysical, is to Google it. I don’t necessarily begrudge myself for taking the easy way out. I can’t help the fact that most of my brain is reserved for obscure movie trivia; I can only thank the Internet Gods for making the rest of the world’s knowledge similarly easy to access.

However, in the pursuit of manliness, I’m beginning to wonder if internet research is on a lower tier than an apprenticeship. There are some skills that cannot be effectively learned with the aid of only a YouTube video. But at the same time, there are legitimate reasons for forgoing the face-to-face instruction, namely physical location and available funds. I’ve purposefully put off tallying up my manly expenses for this project in fear that the running total will make me cancel the whole thing, or at the very least, sell banner ads for thinly disguised Ponzi schemes in the margins of this blog. But for this week’s challenge, I was fortunate to find a class where I could learn the basics in two hours. I gladly handed over my credit card info and reserved one seat for Lock Picking.


The class takes place in a nondescript warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn; by day, it serves as an art gallery. I walk into the building to find the ground floor empty and pitch black, only adding to the clandestine nature of the class I’m about to take. I see some light at the top of the stairs and head towards it.

Upstairs I find the classroom with several students huddled around a communal wood table, each nervous and excited for our instructor’s arrival. When he does arrive, his imposing stature makes quite an entrance – he’s the size of a linebacker with a steely gaze to match. However his friendly demeanor and soft speaking voice hints at the welcoming atmosphere of the class to follow. He calls himself Tantric, which confused me at the point of registration; I thought I had accidentally signed up for Tantric Lock Picking, which frankly sounded like a pseudonym for a key party. I didn’t see Q signing off on that.

Fortunately for me and the sanctity of my marriage, the class is a fully clothed, two-hour primer on lock picking. Tantric starts by presenting a PowerPoint that introduces his organization. TOOOL, The Open Organization Of Lockpickers, began with a couple of Dutch men twelve years ago who were interested in “sportpicking,” or picking locks as a hobby, and now has evolved into a worldwide network that boasts 22 chapters in the United States alone. What once was a group ostracized and feared by lock makers has now become a legitimate organization that is regularly shown research and development by the major lock companies in order to strengthen the security of their products.


Tantric works as a security professional and has been toying with locks all his life, catching the bug from his uncle who worked as a locksmith. To keep his skills sharp, Tantric says he’ll spend a night opening thirty or so locks before he goes to bed. He says he views locks as nothing more than “Do Not Disturb” signs. Tantric is a good person to have on your side.

After Tantric’s short introduction of himself and TOOOL, he presents a series of slides that deal with the mechanics of lock picking. Tonight’s class focuses on pin tumbler locks, which account for the majority of locks in the world. Tantric passes out a lock to each student, and the locks themselves contain anywhere from one to five pins – the more pins in a lock, the longer it takes to break it. He then passes out thin metal tools we’ll be using to pick these locks. Though these are standard tools for lock picking, Tantric says he’s been able to fashion tools out of common hardware like the allen wrenches that come with IKEA furniture. I imagine those instructions were in the black market IKEA line, where the cartoon IKEA man has a handlebar mustache in all of the manuals.

Tantric tells us to insert a tool into our locks and slowly remove it, listening closely to hear the pins drop. I think my lock is broken until I realize it only contains one pin, the lock picking equivalent of training wheels on a tricycle. After a half hour of jiggling, I’m finally able to get my lock open. Tantric says the one-pin locks could be opened with no lock picking knowledge and some wild wriggling, but I won’t let him burst my bubble – I’m extremely satisfied to get one open. I pick up a three-pin lock next.


Tantric discusses wafer locks, skeleton keys, and getting out of handcuffs, but I barely listen because all my focus is directed toward the lock in my hands. Lock picking is almost entirely a tactile experience, and since I mostly rely on aural and visual clues, it takes some adjustment to depend on my fingertips for answers. The sound of pins dropping can offer some guidance, but this is not the kind of covert lock picking that requires a stethoscope and a mock turtleneck. When I miraculously manage to open the three-pin lock, the excitement in solving this puzzle is as palpable as any challenge I’ve completed this year. It takes another attempt at opening the lock before I truly understand the technique of lock picking, and by the end of the class, I’ve reached a decent level of competency, if not confidence.

I haven’t explained the mechanics of lock picking for a reason. There are some skills that lose their mystique when information is printed or made available on the internet. In the case of lock picking, there is even an ethical argument to be made – TOOOL makes clear that their knowledge is only to be used for purposes of a hobby, never for criminal gain. Face-to-face interaction cuts down on nefarious use of these skills.

Unfortunately, the lock picking information is already out there. A quick Google or YouTube search will produce hundreds of guides and instructional videos. Even TOOOL has made their PowerPoint slides available on their website, though I doubt that’s how they want their information delivered. In this case, I don’t want to dilute the potency of this information by making it too easy to access.


TOOOL has chapters all over the country for a reason, and I implore interested parties to seek out a meeting in their neck of the woods, or find a Tantric of your own, should you be so lucky. Not only does it expedite the learning process, it helps to be a part of a community, even if only for a couple of hours. A camaraderie develops instantly, and there’s a sweet satisfaction in knowing that this information is only available to a small group of curious souls before it evaporates forever.


Face-to-face interaction will always trump a Google search when it comes down to true manliness. There are certain things that cannot be conveyed in a YouTube video, no matter how high the resolution is. A manly man seeks out his wiser elders for guidance, and although I haven’t always stayed true to that ideal, I know that that scenario provides the most efficient vessel for learning. I certainly could have figured out the mechanics of lock picking online, but there was a palpable strength inside the classroom with every student trying to reach a common goal. I’m positive that the collective manliness got each of us to the finish line. 3.12.

NEXT WEEK: House of Sand and Mud.

MiniBAM: Challenge Update #4

According to math, I’m four-fifths of a man now.  That means I can recite 40 state capitals from memory, can eat 25.6 ounces of a porterhouse for two (for one), and can play four minutes and ten seconds of the guitar solo in “Free Bird.”  Except not really.  It turns out becoming a man doesn’t follow a weekly linear curve.  I’m hoping it’s exponential because I could really use a big boost of testosterone in these final months.  In the meantime, let’s look back at the last ten challenges before I come down the homestretch.

Week 31: Make Good on Old Bets

Since my last poorly devised bet with Q, I’ve shied away from making any bets with her that will only lead to more humiliation.  I have that area of my life sufficiently covered, thank you very much.

For a couple months, this blog was the top hit on Google when you searched for peter andre naked, which I must add, was not false advertising.  Now that the jig is up, it’s fallen to number seven, but I’m still thrilled to be disappointing several people on a daily basis.

Week 32: Donate Blood

I haven’t returned to the blood bank since my maiden voyage, but I’m now eligible to give blood again.  The emails I receive from the New York Blood Center are the only spam that serve a valuable purpose, reminding me that I shouldn’t wimp out of this obligation.  Q and I have talked about making a donation once a year from now on, and that seems like a good place to start.  I’m just hoping I won’t turn green after donating blood a second time.  I’d even settle for a pale chartreuse.

Week 33: Banter with Barbers

I went back to the same barbershop a few weeks ago, but did not receive the hero’s welcome I expected after Arthur and I became best buds the previous month.  I even had my opening line all ready to go: “Hey, remember that time I asked you about lunch?  That was CRAZY!”  Instead, I sat down with a new barber, with whom I shared none of the camaraderie I had worked so hard to develop with Arthur.

Perhaps I’ll attempt the barbershop equivalent of speed dating: visiting several shops across the city and asking for the tiniest of trims while deciding if I could be simpatico with this barber.  Maybe I’ll finally find my BBFF (Best Barber Friend Forever).  Though it’s more likely that I’ll be shaved bald first.

Week 34: Ride a Motorcycle

Even though I haven’t hopped on a bike since my crash course (thankfully, sans crash), I wouldn’t be opposed to returning to two wheels in a controlled environment.  Oddly enough, I haven’t seen more than a few motorcycles on the road since my class, unless I haven’t been paying attention.  Perhaps that’s more telling than I’m letting on – maybe the thrill of the motorcycle has dissipated.  Out all the modes of transportation I’ve attempted in this project, this might be the one I’m least likely to try again.

Week 35: Throw a Shot Put

CL>new york>bronx>for sale>sporting goods



Selling one gently used shot put.  Bought with dreams of Olympic glory, now lays dormant in hall closet.  Some caked on dirt and scratches, otherwise mint condition, despite my best efforts.  FULL DISCLAIMER: May have suffered some emotional abuse after I yelled obscenities when I stubbed my toe on it.  To be fair, obscenities were totally warranted and I meant what I said.

Will accept trades (specifically, fake beards and flannel shirts).  WILL NOT DELIVER, IS TOO HEAVY, MUST COME PICK UP.

  • do NOT contact me with unsolicited services and offers unless said offer is coupon code for PartyCity.com/FakeBeardsandMoustaches

Week 36: Ride a Horse

It’s fair to say that horseback riding is not the most cost-conscious activity in which one can partake, so unfortunately I’ve not had the time nor funds to venture out to the Bergen Equestrian Center again.

However, I recently discovered that there are stables in Van Cortlandt Park, only a mile and a half from my apartment building.  With this winter finally releasing its stubborn grip on the city, it might be high time to saddle up again.  This is, of course, assuming I can successfully find my way to the horse stables (see Week 40).

Week 37: Chop Wood

As I mentioned in my post, I found the repetitive physical motion of chopping wood oddly satisfying and relaxing.  It’s a shame New York City doesn’t have a venue where I can engage in this activity.  Maybe I just need to be more resourceful.  Certainly Central Park will be no less majestic if a single tree goes missing, right?  (I’m currently being told that I’m not to lay a finger on a single tree in the park and that a citizen’s arrest will be made if need be.  So nevermind.)

Week 38: Do a Polar Bear Plunge

Nooooope.  Once was enough.  Unless they’re planning any polar bear plunges between July and August.  Then I’ll consider it.

Week 39: Volunteer

Q and I have lined up another volunteer activity that serves the dual purpose of an upcoming manly challenge and an opportunity for us to work together.  I can see us making volunteering more of a priority if we can find activities to do together, which will also keep us accountable.  Though the next volunteering project will still be fodder for the blog, I’m trying not to obsess over reaching some ideal of selflessness and instead focusing on enjoying the work.


Week 40: Use a Map and Compass

Though my tale of getting lost in a public park may have come off as hyperbole in the eyes of the directionally stable, the truth is that Week 40 was one of my least exaggerated posts.  There must be a part of the brain that is devoted to spatial awareness, and I simply have not been able to activate that certain part.

I consulted this phrenology chart, and from what I can deduce, I must have bonked myself in my head above my eyebrow one too many times.  It also explains why I’m always late to things.  And they say phrenology is obsolete.  Psssh.

Goodness gracious, if you haven’t liked BE A MAN on Facebook or followed the Twitter feed, what are you waiting for?  There’s only ten challenges left before this grand experiment becomes nothing more than “that thing I did where I voluntarily ate bull penis.” Granted, that’s how I describe it now, so perhaps little will change.

Week 40: Use a Map and Compass

When I first moved to New York, I bought a pocket-sized guidebook with a map of the entire city split over 40 or so pages.  I did the same thing when I studied abroad in London, and the smug satisfaction I felt in finding my way around a new city without holding an enormous map in front of my face was immense.  I specifically chose a New York guidebook that was all black with few markings on its cover, so that I could surreptitiously pull it out of my jacket pocket and find the nearest subway station while it seemed as though I was merely perusing a book of poetry or looking up an address in my little black book.

Though I felt like a third-class citizen for not having a smartphone, I took pride in my paper method and bragged about using my brain while everyone else let the GPS on their phone lead them around on a virtual leash.  “See, it fits perfectly in my jacket pocket,” I’d demonstrate to a friend after circling his address in my map, “and as long as I’m quick about peeking, I won’t look like a tourist.”  My friends were kind not to burst my bubble.  I thought my guidebook and I would be forever inseparable until one evening when I got lost for a half-hour in the Lower East Side looking for a subway stop.  Until you move here, no one tells you that they stop numbering streets in Manhattan after a certain point.  The next morning I told Q we were getting iPhones and now my formerly trusty guidebook sits on a shelf in my apartment gathering dust.

I assume my terrible sense of direction is genetic because most of my immediate family has been stricken with it.  We’ve only avoided natural selection by pairing up with an accomplished navigator, as I’ve done with Q.  When we finally bought our smartphones, I thought the little blue dot would be my panacea, but I can’t tell you how many times in Manhattan, even in the consecutively numbered part, I’ll walk nearly to the next avenue before I realize I’m headed in the wrong direction.  Apparently the blue dot doesn’t refresh fast enough for the hopelessly lost.

My lack of spatial awareness has aggravated more people than me and Q, who loves to remind me of the time I swore we could get back on the highway by pulling into a totally enclosed grocery store parking lot.  Some of Q’s family friends believe I lied about my hometown of ten years when I couldn’t describe where I lived in relation to several famous nearby landmarks.  Then there was that time when I worked for the mall management office in Tysons Corner Center in Vienna, VA, and my boss asked me to stand in front of a directory map on Christmas Eve and send lost customers in the right direction.  I think I was the reason Santa didn’t show up in some of their households that year.

I’m not sure it’s even possible to learn a sense of direction, but I’m going to try by embarking on a three-mile trail hike in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.  Those who are always able to pinpoint north might poo-poo this challenge for what it literally is – a walk in the park – but for someone like me who used the hand trick he learned in kindergarten to discern his left from his right for far too long of his post-adolescent life, this may prove to be my most daunting challenge yet.

The organization that wrote up the directions for my three-mile hike is the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, who coincidentally offer a free map and compass workshop in lower Manhattan that I have decided to attend, assuming I don’t get lost in that numberless neighborhood again.  Their motto, displayed proudly on their website and materials, says they are “Connecting People With Nature Since 1920.”  I’d be more relieved if it was followed with, “And Then Returning Them Safely To Their Loved Ones,” but I’m hoping it’s implied.

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Week 39: Volunteer

I haven’t been a very charitable person thus far in my life.  I’d like to give back more, but in the same way that I need to clean my computer screen, it’s been a little too easy to put it on the back burner.  Sometimes I can convince myself that I’m doing good by not doing evil, or that I’ll give back more when I’m older or when I’m in a better position in life, but that’s all poppycock.  The fact is I’m a privileged person who too often can be only concerned with my well-being and those very close to me.  It’s not exactly my favorite quality.

Admitting that it took a blog prompt to finally entice me to embrace volunteering is not something I’d like to shout off roof tops, or, say, post on the World Wide Web, but I think it’s important to note.  I simply do not have the activist gene in my body, but I hope that doesn’t mean I’m inherently averse to giving back.  Though I’ve volunteered for school and for college applications in the past, it’s never been without an ulterior motive.  Neither am I devoid of one now, since I do have to write about something this week, so I electronically send in my application to New York Cares, the city’s largest volunteer organization.

As part of the sign-up process, all volunteers are asked to attend an orientation session.  Arthur, a sprightly 73-year-old man, runs the session and explains all of the different opportunities available to us as New York Cares volunteers.  He’s been regularly giving back to the community for the last twenty years, ever since he ate at a meal service when he was down on his luck and swore that were he ever able to extricate himself out of his situation, he’d spend the rest of his life volunteering.  I find it amazing that people like Arthur actually exist in the real world.

After detailing his inspirational life story, Arthur says that New York Cares can cover all of our volunteering desires, no matter our reasons for being here.  He points his laser pointer at a woman in the front row and asks her why she wants to volunteer.  She starts to mention her passion for eradicating hunger before Arthur pivots the laser pointer in my direction, specifically at my chest.  I don’t look down.


“You, in the green shirt.”  I consider asking him to describe the shade of green, but I figure that question will explicate me further.  “Why do you want to volunteer?” Arthur asks.

I have a brief moment of panic: that familiar break of sweat when averting my eyes in English class didn’t work, and it became crystal clear that I hadn’t read whatever Dickens novel we were assigned this month.  As I begin to answer Arthur, I just hope whatever comes out my mouth makes a modicum of sense, but I’ll settle for a complete sentence.

“Uhh, I was just, you know…interested in finding volunteer opportunities.”

Arthur nods and moves on – it’s difficult to add anything to the most generic reply I could have mustered.  I’m ashamed of the true reason I’m here, that I’m volunteering so I can write about it, because I don’t want to appear apathetic or self-serving, but perhaps my reluctance in saying it aloud proves that I am those things.  Otherwise, why conceal the truth?

A couple hours after the orientation ends, I receive an email saying that I am officially part of New York Cares.  I quickly sign up for two projects: helping with the annual coat drive and working a meal service on the Lower East Side.  I picked these two in particular because they were convenient and just about the only two projects left – after my group was inducted into New York Cares, there was a mad rush to choose projects, and many of the opportunities that had been available in the morning were all filled up by the afternoon.


The annual coat drive, which takes place every winter, is on the last day of accepting donations when I visit the makeshift warehouse on the basement level of an office building across from Madison Square Garden.  I take the elevator down with two other newbie volunteers who appear to be similarly confused and nervous, though I might be the only one concerned with the state of hand sanitizing at the coat drive.  When we arrive at work site, the floor is mostly bare except for large pyramids of plastic bags filled with coats in each corner.  Some twenty volunteers, who I assume have worked here before, are already hard at work.

My fellow newbies and I gather around our team leader Tim who sends us to another knowledgeable volunteer who explains the different tasks and assigns us accordingly.  Beyond a quick “thanks for coming,” there’s no formal introduction or glad-handing.  Arthur’s exuberance during the orientation gave me the impression that each project would be a celebration of our charity and willingness to donate our time, but in reality, there’s too much work for self-congratulatory nonsense.

About half of the thirty people volunteering are tasked with separating the pile of coats into men’s, women’s, kids’, and infant sizes, while the other half bags coats in groups of five and keeps tally.  I am assigned the latter task and take my place behind the kids’ table.  The metaphor doesn’t strike me until long after I leave because the coats start piling up immediately and never stop for the three hours I’m there.


Once my fellow newbies and I get the hang of the assembly line nature of this project, a subsonic hum falls over the warehouse floor as conversation gives way to silent concentration.  I try to chat up the volunteers next to me, a wide-eyed freshman studying at Pace University and his mother, but anytime I ask or answer a question, I lose count of my coats and have to start over.  For the record, I’m also not good at simultaneously rubbing my belly and tapping my head.

The service elevator we use to transport coat bags upstairs breaks within the first hour, but there is no big announcement in an attempt to avoid any disruption of our workflow.  I only find out when I realize that my conversation partner has been MIA for the past twenty minutes because he’s stuck on it.  This means the cart we use to transport the coats has to hold many more bags than it currently does so that sorting won’t cease while the servicemen fix the elevator.  I do my part by deflating the bags before placing them in the cart by sitting on them, squeezing my thighs together, and rocking back and forth.  It looks like a drunk toddler attempting Channing Tatum’s Pony dance in Magic Mike.  When the Pace freshman returns and begins to emulate my style, I’m tempted to mouth “sorry” to everyone within a twenty-feet radius.

By the second hour of tallying coats and ThighMastering, my mind wanders.  A chance encounter with a badass leather jacket – complete with fringe – leads to daydreaming about thrift shopping, which leads to imagining life stories for certain volunteers, which leads to whistling “Wrecking Ball” ad nauseam that surely delights my neighbors.  By the third and final hour, my hunger pangs are too intense to ignore and I spend a good half hour planning an itinerary for finding a lunch place in Midtown.  By the time I’ve weighed several pros and cons for Chipotle, team leader Tim calls out to end today’s session.  He congratulates us on counting and sorting 3,500 coats and reminds us of upcoming opportunities to help out again.  There are no formal goodbyes or gold stars handed out – we file out as aimlessly as we walked in.


I thought that volunteering without an express purpose would feel more rewarding, but I didn’t notice any tangible difference between working the coat drive and completing service hours for high school.  I wonder if good work is still good if one has an ulterior motive.  Volunteering simply to help others seems more genuine than volunteering to fill a quota of hours or a weekly prompt on a blog.  But it’s also true that I would not have worked the coat drive without this arbitrary reason to show up.  I hope that I feel more fulfilled when I arrive at the meal service at the church on the Lower East Side two days later.

There are seven volunteers and I helping out today, including team leader Helaine who directs me to the bathroom to wash up before handing me a plastic apron and latex gloves.  The eight of us assist a group of five men and women who actually run the operation – we’re just the special guest stars, so to speak.  They host a meal service seven days a week, whereas New York Cares only sends volunteers on Tuesdays.  I’m planning to mostly stay out of their way.  The woman in charge speaks very little and silently places a cutting board, knife, and carton of tomatoes in front of me.  I solve the puzzle and start chopping.


I sincerely enjoy busy work in certain situations; when I’m meeting ten different people for the first time, having a common task fills those awkward pauses in small talk with some purpose.  Our team leader has a daughter working in the theatre world, so we chat about that.  Two other young women have traveled to New York from the Netherlands to study child psychology and pick my brain about planning a trip to DC.  Another woman is planning a trip to Europe over the summer and gives some good tips for finding cheap airfare.  In the midst of easy conversation, I don’t concern myself with the question of volunteering selflessly – I just dice the tomatoes.

However, the conversation may have been too lively because I have about ten tomatoes left as everyone else cleans up their stations.  They stand around my station, politely waiting and fighting their impulse to push me aside because they could chop so much faster.  I’m tempted to mention my skills honed while working the kitchen of my church festival, lest this performance give them the wrong impression, but the proof’s in the pudding, as they say.  I rush to finish the last of the tomatoes, managing not to cut myself (a true victory), and we take a short break before the meal service officially opens.

At a quarter to eleven, the volunteers and I take our place on the meal line.  I am assigned bread duty and tasked with asking each person if they would like a roll or bagel and doling each out accordingly.  At eleven o’ clock sharp, the doors open and an unceasing flood of people travel the line until we close up shop at noon.


On the subway ride to the Lower East Side that morning, I saw two near-fights break out, less than gentle pushing and jostling for position, and a general aura of grouchiness that must have been sparked by whatever that smell was.  It’s that nasty side of New York that used to scare me in movies I watched as a kid, but I refreshingly haven’t seen much of it since I moved here.  There were petty arguments at the meal service too – one person who wanted to take up a seat for the whole hour and another who didn’t want to throw out his trash – but the overwhelmingly grateful people who stood in line made up for the few squabbles.  The social component and instant gratification in seeing our volunteer efforts at work helped me to ignore all of the concerns I had at the coat drive and just enjoy being there.

I’ll have to make volunteering a larger part of my life before I see a major impact; two days of volunteer work only helped me realize how lax I’d been in giving back to my community.  When I consider the tenets of masculinity, I put philanthropy and altruism high on that list, and I can’t help but feel shady for hiding my ulterior motive for volunteering.  But I’m beginning to believe that showing up was the key, and whatever impetus gets me to that meal line is good enough.  I can dice it any number of ways, but the tomato is still going to find its way to the salad.  I promise to be faster this time.


It was so easy to delude myself in thinking I was a charitable member of society by donating a can of peas once every year or believing that my inaction is beneficial because I’m not causing any harm.  It took someone like altruistic Arthur to help me realize how long I had shirked my responsibilities to my community.  I’ve only begun to make giving back more of a priority, but it only took an hour of volunteering to cement its place high atop the man scale.  4.67.

NEXT WEEK: Never eat shredded wheat.

Week 38: Do a Polar Bear Plunge

I’m so over seasons.  I don’t need to see another inch of snow in my lifetime.  I enjoyed skiing the one time I tried it, but it’s not enough to dissuade me from a consistent forecast of sunny with a high of 75.  I think most people who have suffered through this year’s remarkably evil East Coast winter would admit they at times dream of a constant climate of warm spring weather.  All I’m saying is that before we pooh-pooh it, we should at least give global warming a chance.

My distaste for long winters stems from my feebleness when outside in the cold.  I always seem to be taking out my down feather parka a few weeks before the rest of the city does.  It’s odd because I think I’m a warm-blooded person by nature.  I’m comfortable in my office when everyone else says it’s freezing.  I regularly wake up in the morning having kicked the blankets off our bed while Q shivers in fetal position beside me.  I’m trying to rectify that last one.

But for some reason, perhaps it’s the added wind chill or because I’m always losing my gloves on city buses, I become a certified wimp anytime I leave my humble abode for the wintry outdoors.  It’s time for a change.

I recently saw photos online for the annual Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s New Year’s Day Swim.  Over two thousand people rushed into the frigid waves with wide smiles despite the 40 degree Fahrenheit water temperature.  The goofy costumes and facial hair they wore couldn’t deny the fact they looked superhuman emerging from the Atlantic Ocean.  Maybe I put them on a higher pedestal because the pictures didn’t reveal their shivering limbs or high-pitched squeals, but their achievement was evident all the same.  I regretted discovering this annual event a day after it occurred, but fortunately I found a polar plunge scheduled a couple weeks later in Lake Anne in Reston, VA, that raises money for Camp Sunshine, a retreat set up for children with life-threatening illnesses.  Q couldn’t make the trek down to Virginia with me, but I managed to corral my parents and sister for the event.


Q thinks having my parents in tow while I make the jump will lower the degree of difficulty down to a 0.1.  She thinks that as soon as I get out of the water, they’ll rush to my side with multiple towels, battery-powered hair dryers, and a tub of whatever is in those hand warmer packets.  I remind Q that I’m coming up on a year of doing these manly challenges and I think my parents know better than to mettle.

When my dad picks me up from the bus station, he tells me he’s already picked out the terry cloth robe with which he’ll wrap me after the plunge.  I explain that having my parents wrap me in towels, robes, and hugs immediately after I emerge from the water would seem to cancel out the masculinity gained from this challenge, but my rationalization falls on deaf ears.  I realize I’ll have to be more assertive at the actual event to get my point across.


We arrive at Lake Anne the following afternoon, early enough to register and find a place in line before the 200+ participants show up.  Down at the lake, two men wearing wet suits stand on top of the ice, taking turns chainsawing into the six-inch thick solid barrier between the water and us.  Since it’ll be an unseasonably warm 44 degrees when we jump into the lake today, I was worried that it wouldn’t be a true polar plunge, but my fears are immediately allayed upon seeing these men and overhearing an event official say the water temperature is 33 degrees Fahrenheit.  Hearing that is all it takes for certain body parts of mine to retreat and take cover.

While standing in line, I realize that over half of the participants are wearing ridiculous costumes; there’s a woman in a full body cow costume, several superheroes chatting over take out coffee, and a group of twenty men and women adorned in matching pink tank tops and tutus, milling about as if it were the dog days of summer.  I’m currently wearing four layers of clothing, including my down feather parka.  I think I’m doing this wrong.

I plan on removing an article of clothing every few minutes, timing it just right so that I will be down to my bathing suit when I’m standing next to the heat lamps the event organizers have so graciously set up at the front of the line.  It will be the least erotic strip tease in modern times.


But I’m still in the same place in line a half hour after the scheduled start time since we have to wait for the “chicken dipping” to finish, which is what they call it when the kids and parents who are too afraid to jump dip only their feet into the lake.  It complicates my plan of calculated assimilation to the cold because when the line finally does start to move, it moves at a faster pace than I would have thought and by the time I reach the heat lamps, I’m still wearing all my clothing.

I quickly rip off all my layers since I’m close enough to the pier to now have visuals of the unfortunate souls leaping into the icy water to match the shrieks I had been hearing.  I can see the radio announcer who has been introducing each jumper and counting down from three before every plunge.  We’ve been asked to write a little blurb about ourselves on an index card to hand to him before we jump, and I don’t even notice that I’ve crushed it in my hand, perhaps in subconscious hope of transferring some of my cold to this inanimate object.

When I’m down to my bathing suit, I hand over a gym bag full of my clothes to my mom and pass cameras to my dad and sister, hoping they’ll find good vantage points in the crowd to record this manly moment.  My dad pulls the parka out of the bag and tries to give it back to me.  “Put your jacket back on – I saw people wearing theirs until the last possible moment.”


“I’m f-f-fine,” I spit out.  My purple lips give me away.

“You’re freezing.  Put your coat on!”

“NO!” I push him away and scramble down the steps.  I’m not a chicken dipper!  I’m a man dipper!  I have to embrace the pain of the cold if I want to do this manly cleanse right, letting each shiver release a wimpy toxin.  I hand my crumpled index card to the announcer and take my place on the pier next to my fellow jumper, an employee from the smoothie tent who has been giving away free towels all day.

When the radio announcer says my name, I get tunnel vision.  The crowds fade away until it’s me versus the lake, man pitted against nature with no chance to retreat.  The voice of the announcer jumbles together with the noise of the crowd: “Peter is jumping to support Camp Sunshine and to be more manly!”

Right before I jump, my body pulls back reflexively as a last ditch effort to stay dry.  I have to forcibly deny the impulse and swing my body forward into the lake.  I’m completely submerged in the icy water and there’s a split second where I’m unable to do or feel anything due to the shock.  But it doesn’t take long for the cold to take hold.


It feels like drinking an entire bottle of Cool Mint Listerine while receiving a bear hug.  I open my eyes but the lake is entirely opaque.  I swim up to get my head out of the water, scrambling in a frantic freestyle to the ladders, uncontrollably saying “ohmygod” over and over again to distract from the sharp tingles covering my entire body.  I’m proud of myself for avoiding expletives and keeping the family-friendly event PG-rated.

True to Q’s hypothesis, my family attends to me post-plunge with better treatment than Captain Phillips received.  They pull me aside and search my bag for my coat and extra towel.  But as soon as I feel the sunshine on my skin, I realize their efforts are in vain.  Simply removing myself from the lake is enough to feel completely revitalized and exponentially warmed by any increase in temperature.  I walk steadily to our car wearing only a thin towel and my wet bathing suit, feeling more comfortable than I did the entire time I stood in line.


On the drive home, my adrenalin wears off and the seat warmer in the car seems more appetizing than I want to admit.  Jumping into the lake was not so much of a transformation that I can now run outside in freezing temperatures wearing only a tank top and shorts (or tutu, as it were), but there is a lingering afterglow – not quite the sensation after a first kiss, but more like the fifth or sixth one.  It’s a sort of awakening that feels like it adds a couple days to my life, or at least cancels out the last cigarette I smoked.  I’ll take it wherever I can get it.


I wasn’t scared or dreading this week as I have with some of the other more extreme physical challenges; maybe it’s because I knew one way or another the whole thing would be over with in ten seconds.  But I wasn’t prepared for how revitalized I felt afterwards.  I can see why there’s a club in Coney Island that does this every week.  I’m not saying I’m going to join, but I realize now that they’re not insane to do it.  Only slightly.  3.72.

NEXT WEEK: You get what you give.  Or so I’ve heard.

Special thanks to David Madison Photography for the spectacular close-up shots.