One time my grandpa hit me with a two-by-four. I couldn’t have been more than six years old at the time. It was pretty gnarly. I watched the upper half of the board tumble, twist and turn through the air, he’d hit me with enough zest to break the board on my bum and, though it hurt and frightened and saddened me, there was something numinous in the way that broken piece of wood — wood which would never be given the opportunity to serve its intended purpose — gracefully arced through the air and pirouetted with genteel compunction to come to an almost whimsical resting point, leaning against a brick wall on its splintered end. That moment has stuck with me since then, I often recall it for various reasons; sometimes as a funny little tale to reminisce on our childhood with my brother, who got an awful lot more abuse from the man being a few years older than me, sometimes as an anecdote to illuminate the horrors of my youth when trying to impress someone with my own manliness, and sometimes — more often than the others in fact — to search for a feeling inside myself when I am feeling weak, when I am considering slacking off or breaking rules or transgressing against my own internal values in some way. It’s not a happy memory, but it’s not entirely negative, I don’t know how I’d describe it were I forced to, only that it encompasses varied themes; the absurdity of certain social rules and their matching punishments, the importance of personal accountability and discipline, the horrors we are all capable of and the contradictions that make up every single one of us, paternal love and its bedfellow rage, loss and longing and loneliness.
I loved my grandpa, he was a gnarly dude all the way around, but I fear that were he alive today he would not thrive as he did in his life. He died something like twenty-five or so years ago, from some type of cancer, and that sucked, but we all die anyway, so I guess it was better that he died before he had the chance to become another misguided Trump supporter. He didn’t fit the stereotype, he was extremely intelligent and, despite previous evidence, quite patient and compassionate. He was racist in the way that racism was normalized for the majority of those among polite society during his life, which was pretty ridiculous to me even as an impressionable young kid. The man was pretty proud of his Cherokee heritage and often went to lengths to express to us how important it is to respect people regardless of their superficial traits, but he was all-too-willing to toss about certain racial slurs, and he once told me that he hated the people of the Navajo Nation because one of them once bit his leg during a highschool football game. I can’t really place him in today’s often volatile milieu, I know he was a good person, but I know he had some terrible beliefs and characteristics.
Anyway, I didn’t intend to write about my grandpa today, but now that that’s out I think it might actually be pertinent to what I did intend to write about.
Identity. More specifically, how our personal identity constructs influence our perception of the world and often constrain us to decisions that we wouldn’t otherwise make. This can be a good thing, acting as an aspirational standard against which we judge our actions and their outcomes, but more often I feel it has the tendency to hinder our thought, to keep us in our place and keep us striving for a result that we would, in the absence of artificial goals and limits, understand is no longer viable. Now, I am throwing around the word we a lot here, and I really should state that I mean in this case only to refer to a certain subgroup to which I belong, namely that of white American men.
In my youth I was inundated with examples of strong men, both in real life and the media and advertisements I consumed and was subjected to. I grew up watching ruffians and scoundrels man their way into success. The most prominent being the parental-unit approved John Wayne drinking, shooting, raping and racism-ing his way through all those quaint little towns, managing to get the real bad guys and take possession of the love interest, which was invariably a younger woman with no agency of her own. Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston, Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson all did the same things, and the real-life men I looked up to all seemed to be imitating them. I was told that men don’t cry, I was whooped many times for crying and told “I’ll give you a reason to cry” by all my male role models. I was told that there are things men can do that women can’t, and that the reverse is true as well, and that’s why all the women in my life were relegated to care-giving while the men swashbuckled their way through sports and hunting and fixing things and general manning about. I was trained to keep my feelings suppressed, I was told that men have to be hard, and that there are things in life that seem wrong but must be upheld in order to maintain my manliness; and that my manliness was important because that’s what god intended. There have been many people who have written about this before, some have called it Toxic Masculinity and I wholeheartedly endorse that term, so I don’t need to spend too much time running in these circles. I guess this is more of a reflection on my own relationship with Toxic Masculinity and how it has informed my identity and sense of self. But it is also something of a dirge for that identity.
I hate to beat a dead horse, but that horse exists and seems very beatable at present, so here we go. Just over seven years ago my wife was killed as a consequence of a system that not only enables and normalizes apathy, but in fact incentivizes it; those who rise in the ranks of our power structures most often are those who care about profits more than anything else. A collective of these individuals conspired to build a shitty road, a demonstrably substandard road that has taken and ruined more lives than any other road in the county which it resides. In the wake of my wife’s untimely death I spiraled out of control and needed help. The funny thing about that is, the system, once again, is set up for the convenience of those at the top, and rather than provide my family and me the services and assistance we needed, the system opted instead to rip my children away from their home and leave me to figure out how to get back to being something resembling a human being all on my own. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fun, I am not yet done with the process; and the biggest thing standing in my way is the fact that I had my entire identity forcefully stripped from me and I was expected to jump through hoops that I simply could not comprehend.
I really don’t mean to sound like a whiny baby here, but it was fucked up, and I haven’t really spent too much time talking about my feelings; I haven’t spent near enough time examining these feelings. A big factor in my reluctance to process these feelings is the vestigial emotional maturity block set in place by the myths and lies of my childhood. It isn’t easy being a man when you fundamentally reject the idea of manliness but have your entire life stolen away from you, and everything in that life; your family, your home, your support network, any framework for understanding or even caring about anything outside of your own grief. I had spent the bulk of my adolescence and early adulthood crafting my own identity, and my family was central to that. We didn’t have much, but everything we did have was ours. I was a young, idealistic fuck-up punk rocker turned family-man seeking peace and calm and stability for my wife and children. My wife and children were the only things that really mattered to me, I didn’t have a surplus of free time to waste on exploits and endeavors outside of that family, and I was perfectly content with things as they were. Yes, we had our issues, mostly born of economic insecurity, but we were happy and well-adjusted and an awful lot more functional than many other families I see living the good life. I know I’m biased, but we did have a lot of things figured out, and I credit the fact that my wife and I were both more interested in compassion and quality of life than we were in outdated traditions and bigoted “roles” that we were to fill. But when all of that was taken overnight I found myself foundering and listless and unable to express these things, unable to advocate for my family or myself, and I retreated into a twisted version of that toxic masculinity, as that seemed like all the world wanted to see. When I asked for help people didn’t offer it, they just asked how work was going. I was paying fourteen hundred dollars every two weeks for after-school care that only went until five pm, after discounts, and my bosses were accusing me of being too high maintenance and not dedicated enough to the company. My friends and acquaintances all seemed to enjoy and celebrate the romantic notion of the damaged alcoholic overcoming his demons, and not a single person stepped in to stop me indulging this weakness until it was far too late. I had nowhere to turn for help, and it seemed like I was supposed to just suck it all up and be a man.
It sucks to sit and indulge somebody as they complain about their personal problems, so I commend and thank all of you who have made it this far, I really didn’t think I was gonna go all crybaby with this one, but I do think it’s worth putting this shit out there. I have made more mistakes in my life than I have made good decisions, and every time I have made a mistake I can usually point to something inside myself that prompted it. More often than not it has been my own pride or skewed concept of masculinity that got in the way of doing the right thing. The times in life I’ve done the right thing all coincide with having someone there to rely on, to trust in and look to for support and to remind me of what really matters; and what really matters has nothing to do with silly projections of manliness and everything to do with the impact of our actions on others. I have been through some version of hell and back, and the lion’s share of the blame lies with me; in trying to meet expectations that nobody had set save myself, toxic, warped expectations of what it was to be a successful man, I managed to destroy everything of value I had left in the aftermath of tragedy, and I am still trying to figure out what the hell I am supposed to do next.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, I have come a long way over the past few years, and I can once again say that I have a family and support group on which I can rely, I do not just have to ape the actions of the proverbial working man, though I freely admit that I’ve still a ways to go. In the coming weeks I will be preparing for the finale of a lawsuit that has been the better part of a decade in the making, and I am anxiously awaiting its resolution. The people responsible for designing, building, and apologizing for the road that took Krystal’s life and destroyed our family, and did the same thing to so many others, are finally going to be held to account for their actions, and I have high hopes that this will be but one small part of the larger fight against the system that does this to us, that prioritizes capital over citizens and encourages and rewards us for treating each other as dispensable numbers on spreadsheets. I doubt that any of you are reading this, you being not just the specific people who did this to my family but all of you who belong to the class that eats things like this for breakfast, but if you are — I can’t say this more emphatically, fuck you, from the bottom of my heart, with every atom of my body, mind and soul, you are a terrible person and everything you enjoy is contingent on the suffering of billions. For everyone else reading this, thank you so much for your time and attention, I apologize for being such a terrible and whiny writer, and I invite you to comment or reach out to me with any thoughts or criticism you might have.
Thank you all for stopping by, I’ll catch you later!