Man Up (If you can figure out how)


Watch a great scene from Gran Torino

About two years ago, I was out of town during a football game and my son was texting me updates on the score. Shortly after he texted something pretty innocuous, my phone dinged again and I read what can only be called a profanity-laced rant (in 140 characters or less thankfully) that should have made Tony Romo’s ears burn.

Needless to say, I no longer need guess how my son feels about the Cowboys’ quarterback.

But, one asks in that moment, what’s a father to do? It’s a little like the first time (and if handled correctly the only time) you find pornography in his room. (From there on out, he better find a better hiding spot.) Do I, I wondered, make a big deal of it? Let it slide? What, I asked myself, would Cliff Huxtable do?

We’ve never restricted our kids from reading any book they can pick up. My logic is that they will self-select when it comes to reading. For the most part, things that are difficult or uncomfortable are often amplified on the page. I feel certain they will skip the D.H. Lawrence novels on the bookshelf.

We have, though, had far stricter guidelines when it comes to movies, tv, and video games. We try to work on a case by case basis, judging the appropriateness based on the quality of the movie or game and what we think our kids can handle. I might, for instance, let them watch The Graduate or Rain Man at 15 but I’m not letting them watch American Pie. Clearly, rated R movies and Mature games aren’t all created equally.

We aren’t so naive as to imagine we can protect their delicate sensibilities or keep them from seeing and hearing things we might prefer they avoid. Nor, we’ve long imagined, should we obsess about it. When your precious 1st grader comes home and asks you if the F-word is spelled with a ck or just a k, you realize he’s learning more than just his SAT words.

We also realize it wasn’t that different when we were kids. I’m not sure what kind of childhood you had, but my wife and I were not strangers to foul language. In some ways, a cuss word here and a cuss word there were part of every day life. It wasn’t all that shocking when dad banged a thumb, got cut off in traffic, or just had a long day if we heard a few choice words. And the junior high playground–they haven’t invented a rating for that place yet. Is there an NC-28?

But if your mother heard you repeat any of those words, all hell was about to break loose. Language, like so many things in this world, is gendered and if mom heard you, it was a bar of soap and a smack in the head.

In our house, my sons have heard me occasionally cuss. We have friends who might offer a well-placed shit or damn. We want our kids to understand that they are just words and they have their place in the lexicon of American speech. Here, we said, read George Carlin. He’ll explain it. On the other hand, we try to tell our kids that such language is the last recourse of someone without enough imagination or vocabulary to express themselves any other way.  Mostly, we try to establish boundaries. “This isn’t,” we tell them periodically, “the lunch table at school.” “What seems funny in the locker room, isn’t usually appropriate at the dinner table.”

Which made my son’s rant all that more surprising. I was, admittedly, oddly proud. In a short space, he clearly articulated his idea and used everything appropriately. There was, I might add, a kind of rhythm. It was much better than “He sucks!”

I thought of that text this weekend when I went with some guys to make 500 pounds of cheesy jalapeno sausage. (That’s a lot of damn sausage, in case you were curious.) We cut, mixed, ground, stuffed, and vacuum sealed.

We also drank beer, cussed, and told jokes that would make a sailor cringe. You get 9 guys in a room making sausage and you can only imagine the commentary (although you probably shouldn’t). At some point during the first day, I kind of wished my sons had been there. Based on my son’s text, I’m guessing he could have held his own. More importantly, I wonder if such displays of masculinity are becoming a lost art and I’m not sure that is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a return to an age when men were men and women were women, but in an age of heightened sensitivity I do wonder if such displays of unfettered masculinity can co-exist.

The men I stuffed sausage with this weekend (inset joke here) were all college educated, successful, employed, upper middle class men. In any other setting, we might argue they were spewing hatred. But, in our 300 square foot room, we were telling jokes. We questioned everyone’s sexuality, virility, and intelligence. Make a mistake in that setting and the onslaught is merciless. I have no doubt each of these men, and I know some of them quite well, oppose discrimination of any kind and they are fair-minded men (or, at least, as fair as any of us might be). It was a room full of democrats, republicans, libertarians, and one guy who was just half-assed nuts.

And these are moments that need to exist. Like the Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece, we have to recognize that these displays of masculinity aren’t necessarily things we should legislate or educate out of our boys. Certainly, we avoid establishing these things are markers of masculinity but within the appropriate boundaries, we also should recognize that such displays, such weekends, reestablish our connection at some base, animalistic level. The ability to insult is ancient and the use of language becomes a stand in for physical violence as we establish our sense of self in relation to the other males in the room. Whether it’s flyting, playing the dozens, or just haphazard insults, this mockery creates bonds, a sense if you will, of community.

The landscape of masculinity has become increasingly complex. That’s not, I don’t think, necessarily a bad thing. Conversations about what it means to man-up and discussions about how social definitions of man-hood as both inclusionary and exclusionary are worth having. The public arena needs open and honest conversations that separate sexual desire from inclusion in the deer blind, locker room, or the boy’s club. In the spirit of the weekend, we need to recognize that we all have different ideas about where we want to keep our sausage but that desire shouldn’t keep us from the all the other elements of masculinity.

But we also need to recognize that those conversations aren’t always appropriate for general consumption. Sometimes, though, complexity is over rated.

After I recovered from the knowledge that my son could be a bathroom stall poet at the local truckstop, I texted back that he might want to check the number and content of his last text. I’m just guessing, I told him, you meant for this message to go to someone else. He texted back an apology and a note that it would only be awkward if I mentioned it again. No doubt.

Just pay more attention to what you text, I wrote back, and heaven help you if your mother finds out.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to Man Up (If you can figure out how)

  1. barbaramudge says:

    Of course it is. It’s their job to not get caught. There are many things, swearing being one of them, that are “par for the course” as Granny would say. I have told my oldest more than once, this becomes a problem when I hear it, or worse yet, hear about it. Their job is to be kids, explore, push boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, nobody wants sneaky delinquents, and this mindset doesn’t apply to everything. It does apply to how they talk when they’re hanging out with their friends. I consider it to be a lesson on how to filter based on your current company and that’s a lesson several adults I know need some practice on.

  2. theedgeofoz says:

    So, John, you are saying that it is ok for him to text things like that – just not to you or your wife? Sounds like a double edged sword to me.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that it is a dicey game to play. I hope, though, we can focus less on what they say and a bit more on establishing those boundaries. Words are tools. I hope they learn to use the right tool at the right time.

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