I thought about the progress of American men while I was standing in the Grove in Los Angeles. It’s a mall that serves as a playground for tourists, rich Angelenos, and celebrities who want to be spotted by the paparazzi and prove in the fan mags that “they’re just like us.” None of those people are why I was thinking about the cycles of American men. It was my nephew. We were walking to see Guardians of the Galaxy at the Grove theater. He and I would do “boy’s night out,” as he liked to call them. Even though, often, they played out over a Saturday afternoon.
Headed to see a matinee, we’d been talking about boy stuff. Then he started talking about what it was like living with his father. His mother and father had gotten divorced before he could speak. And now they’d gotten back together. He was just older than I was when my parents broke up. He’d never lived in the same house with his father except for when he visited for a few weeks during the summer. After a year of living with his mother and father, he was telling me how he felt about it. It was kinda strange that now he was visiting me for a few weeks during the summer.
It was odd for both of us. After his parents reunited, he’d moved with his mother and sister back east to live as one nuclear family, all under the same roof. Prior to that move, I’d lived with them. There were two reasons for this. First, the house I was renting was foreclosed in the Great Recession. I came home one day to an auction. That sucked. I moved that weekend. My sister was worried about how I was living my life, she insisted I stay with her until I could find a place. Then she got sick. It was life-threatening. And her health problems lasted a few years. So, I stayed with them and took care of my nephew and niece.
As you might imagine, that choice was cyanide for my dating life. Once I told a woman I lived with my sister and her kids I could practically see the baggage appear in my hands. Hands? What am I talking about? I’m sure they pictured it on my back, under my arms, hanging from my waist like tassels. I think some women imagined me handing them some of it, like, “Here, you wanna hold some of my baggage?” But what are you gonna do? Those are the sacrifices you sometimes have to make for your family. It’s what a man does, in my opinion. My biggest concern was that I knew I was like a father figure to my niece and nephew during those years. I secretly hoped they were smart enough to do what I did and choose a better one for themselves.
Now, with our recent time together almost over, my nephew was telling me how much fun he’d had over the summer. It nearly killed me when he said, “…Well, it’s because, you know, you’re like my dad. I know I have my dad — and I like living with him, but you know, Uncle Z, you’re like the guy I look up to, want to be like — you’re my dad. Y’know what I mean? Don’t tell my dad I said that.”
I didn’t know how to react. Suddenly, I was in a peak moment in my nephew’s life — whatever I was about to say would instantly become a memory for him. Unfortunately, I was hyper-aware of this. Yet, I didn’t want to suddenly slip into artifice when he was so emotionally honest. I had to meet his honesty with my own. I just hoped it was good enough for his memories.
I said, “I know what you mean. And you know, you’re my number one boy. Always. You’re like a son to me. You know that. Now that you’re living with your dad — it’s like you have two dads in your life. You’re very lucky. I don’t think your dad would be hurt by what you said — he would know what you mean. I do. You’ll always be my son.” With my arm around his shoulder we entered the theater to see our summer movie.
And I silently hoped I’d done the right thing. I was so certain I was fucking up somehow. I tend to do that. I never see the ways I fuck up until it’s too late. I didn’t want my “too late” tendency to mess up his maturation as a man. Like, I never know what I’m doing. I suppose no one does. But I often feel like I’m scrambling in the dark of a library without a flashlight, trying to find one specific page that has the right answer.
You’d think I’d be ready for such a moment with my nephew. I’ve studied American men my whole life. But I had to. Like my nephew, I was also a son of divorce. The reason I have no biological son of my own is that I still don’t feel like I’m man enough to raise a boy. Yet Life saw to it that despite my fears of inadequacy, I was dropped into the role of pretend-dad to my nephew and niece. And so, every day, like a real parent, I pray that I don’t fail them or ruin them somehow for the future. I know those creeping silent fears of every parent. They are inescapably bleak. My nephew let me know I hadn’t completely failed. At least by his measure.
I never thought of myself as an American man, until he called me his dad. That was the moment. Mostly, I’ve always said I’m just a really tall five-year-old who drinks, cusses, and has a driver’s license. I’ve always been immature. When my father left, it was possibly the worst time for him to go. I was nine. Although, when is the best time to leave? I imagine they’re all equally terrifying and shitty. But I remember when he left, I was mad at him, because I revered him, I wanted to be just like him. He gave me his name, and now he was gone. How could I ever learn to be like him — or ever learn to be a man — without his example, his guidance, and his lessons? Rather than succumb to bitterness, I went with my primary response: defiance. I decided I’d do it on my own. I’d have to study what made an American man.
I started with my friends’ dads. I took bits and pieces of their personalities, their ethics and codes, their ways of doing things. But they were too suburban for my taste. So I expanded, relying heavily on pop culture. I’ve always found my reality in movies. That sounds ignorant, or possibly backwards, but in the projection of light against a movie screen I spy the hidden truth of a human moment. It’s the same way a poem reveals truth. So, I studied the cinema and the buffet of unabashed American men who I wanted to be like. Steve McQueen was my favorite. Humphrey Bogart. Lee Marvin. Burt Reynolds. Sidney Poitier. These were men I wanted to be like, so I aped their gestures, imitated their walks. John Wayne. Randolph Scott. Richard Roundtree. They took no shit. I saw that was key to being an American man worth his mettle. Robert Mitchum. Paul Newman. William Holden. Harrison Ford. I took from everywhere to make the American dad in my head who would teach me to be an American man.
Memories of those moments — with me alone, studying the glowing screen, growing up on pop culture — all came rushing back to me. Occasionally when I’d show my nephew one of my favorite films, I’d be overcome with emotion. I never let on. Instead, like when we were watching Jaws, I’d tell him the story of the USS Indianapolis, the ship that delivered the atomic bomb to the Enola Gay so that the world could tremble in the wake of the nuclear age begun by the American war machine, and how, returning home, that ship had sunk and sharks feasted on the men bobbing in the ocean. For days. We’d talk about what that horror must be like, and how we’d each face it, and what it would be like to see our buddies in the water. We’d discuss boy stuff. And as we did I’d remember how, when I watched those movies, I puzzled over these answer by myself. It felt good that my nephew and I could learn together. Some of my wounds, picked open by the impartial cruelty of associative memory, were getting healed as he and I sussed out masculinity from a Spielberg movie.
But then, there were also the movies I showed him, the ones that I would forget about a scene, and then I would marvel at how much different the scene looked to him than to me when I first saw it. The Electric Horseman was a big one. I loved that movie as a boy. In fact, I would say a large portion of my psyche is bent by the gravity field of that piece of Americana. It’s a light-hearted movie about a washed-up rodeo star who steals a mistreated champion thoroughbred horse, rides him out of a Las Vegas casino, and disappears into the dark of the Nevada desert. Together, neglected man and horse, go on the run. They find their own way and freedom. I thought it was a great movie for us to watch together. It dealt with themes of when is it right to break a law? When is the law of Nature greater than the laws of humanity?
But I forgot about Jane Fonda. She plays the reporter who senses a big story in the missing horse and rodeo star. She goes after them, finds them and demands to stay with them and cover the story. She promises to show the world his side, since the owner of the horse, a powerful corporation, is using the press to smear the cowboy’s name and ruin his reputation. He relents. Eventually, while on the run, they become romantic. Then one night, they get in a fight. And he slaps her. Somehow, I’d forgotten about that. My nephew was stunned.
He was confused how this guy could still be the hero if he was hitting women. As he expressed his problems with the scene, I marveled at his nuanced and clear understanding of domestic violence, gender violence, and when it’s okay to hit a woman — never (unless, by doing so you save the lives of a school bus of children, yes, there are exceptions to every rule). My nephew has a very strong moral compass. And his values are commendable. In many ways, he will be a far better man than I am.
My father left. I looked to pop culture to become a man. My nephew’s father was absent. I suggested he do the same thing. Together he and I watched movies, and all the while, I hoped he would learn what I did. What I missed was how he and I formed a psychic partnership, an unspoken bond, and effectively, we both learned how to be men. He learned from me and movies. I finally saw that all my study of American men was apparently successful enough I could teach a boy how to be a better man than I am.
Somehow, we’d recycled the values and ways of the past. I’d made something new from the past, from the ideals of the American man. I made something I needed that could hold my conception of what it means to be an American man. My nephew took that model and improved on it. Together, we were recycling American men like beer cans.
As we were walking through the outdoor mall, passing through a space loaded with foreign tourists, surrounded by a wondrous cacophony of at least six different languages and the wafted scents of each store, my world froze for a moment when my nephew said, “You’re like my dad.”
Those four words were like a magic spell that allowed me to see I finally am what I always wanted to be: an American man. There’s no denying it, because I see the man who means the world to that little American boy I call my nephew. Some day soon, he’ll be a better man than me. And that’s why he makes me certain that we’re all making progress. Things are getting better, even when we can’t see it. The horizon moves with us.
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