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Measure of a Man

A few years ago I was in a big chain bookstore looking for a copy of Portrait of an American Rebel. I had to order a copy because they didn’t have any in store. I found myself assailed by manuals. Bombarded by books that layout the best pick up techniques to use at bars. Molested by magazines that describe the best “look” for the fall. These manuals take away the last piece of a man’s incarnation. They deteriorate a man’s learning that is essential to his maturity. Because of this deterioration, a man is now manufactured not grown. Faux masculine robots constructed out of the pages of GQ and Esquire. Then I came upon a tiny old distressed copy of a book entitled The Measure of a Man. It was so small it could fit in my pocket. It was barely over sixty pages. Then I read the front cover. It was written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was published in 1968. The same year he was assassinated. In it, he attempts to calculate the value of a man. He explains that a long time ago a group of scientists worked out the worth of a man based on today’s market value. A man has enough, “fat to make seven bars of soap, iron to make a medium sized nail, sugar to fill a shaker, lime to whitewash a chicken coop, and phosphorus for about 2,000 matches.” The total of which came to 98 cents. Adjusted for inflation it would be $1.98 in the 60s or roughly twelve bucks today. Twelve whole dollars for the physical make up of a man. I’m sure if you wanted you could get a few extra for your organs and body parts. I will ask the same questions he asked over 40 years ago. Can we explain the artistic genius of Michelangelo in $12? Can we explain the poetic genius of Shakespeare in $12? Can we explain the spiritual genius of Jesus in $12? Can we explain the mystery of the human soul in terms of $12? “There is something within man that cannot be reduced to chemical and biological terms, for man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons. He is more than a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering.”
“What a piece of work is man! How noble in faculty! How infinite in reason; in form and moving how express and admirable; in apprehension how like a God; in action how like an angel! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet
A boy used to have to learn the hard way, by asking his father. If that didn’t work, and the kid didn’t have an older brother, he’d have to figure it out on his own. Tree houses, go-carts, firecrackers, seem like things of the past. Those that don’t take blueprints. No directions included. These sacred vestiges need to be protected. I feel bad for our younger generations, kids raised on a constant onslaught of social media. They suffer from a constant barrage of advertising. They are bombarded worse than London. A blitzkrieg of Justin Bieber, Twilight, and Facebook. 1 in 5 relationships start online. Connected through wires. Mystical mainframes that make them feel and live their relationships’ through pictures and text. It’s our own version of The Matrix. Ironic, I can never accurately convey an emotion in texts. I’m glad for that. Twittering their lives away. By now you know it takes more than 140 characters to get my point across.
Where are the role models that made boys want to be men? Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen. Ran five miles every day, worked as an oil rigger, a carnie, a lumberjack, and even a towel boy in a brothel. All served in the military. McQueen spent 41 days in the brig for going AWOL for two weeks with his girlfriend. He died in Ciudad, Juarez, a known hideout of John Dillinger. Men who knew one thing. Livin’. Cars, guns, action movies, and women. A man used to have to QUIT smoking. As a kid, we didn’t have anything special. My dad always talked about the muscle cars he used to have. He got rid of them in exchange for something more practical. The fuel-efficient, economically sound, family mobile. Just being around him, watching him tinker with the engine, was fascinating. Here was a guy with zero actual mechanic experience and yet he was comfortable. It wasn’t a chore; it was therapy. I know this now because I see cars for what they truly are; freedom. Freedom on wheels. They are a gateway to new places. My dad gave up part of that freedom for his family. He had a Karma Ghia and a GTO at one point in his life. Like most men of that generation, as a father, he had to forfeit his prizes for soccer practices and family trips to DC.
There are certain lessons and trials one must pass to enter the ancient fraternity known as the brotherhood. Sisters are welcome too. None of that “He-Man-woman-hating” nonsense. Mankind is an equal opportunity employer. But today it seems these ancient rituals are lost. Can we survive when most guys can’t change a tire? Role models now are metrosexual prepubescent males, who sing in musicals, and talking robots. We lived through boy bands. Why the hell do I know the dance to Bye Bye Bye? In spite of all this, we have the desire to be more. The desire to live in a better time or be a better person. A time where standing for something wasn’t a cliché.
I read a story the other day, a kid ran from the cops after stealing a car. He was on the run for weeks. People were outraged. They interviewed his teachers who said naively, “I couldn’t believe he would do something like that.” In my father’s time, that was called being a teenager. Being an outlaw or rebel isn’t about a look or style. It’s an action. It’s a way of life. It’s doing something outside the laws of conventional society to better your own or someone else’s situation. As a kid, we are obsessed with movies. I saw everything. Kids in school would say, “I want to be Harrison Ford or Matt Damon.” I wanted to be Jason Bourne, I wanted to be Han Solo. We want to be pirates, bank robbers, and samurai. We want to be cowboys, soldiers, spies, and revolutionaries. We wanted to be heroes. Somewhere along the way, we lost that. But we have that chance again, no matter how small the act. Growing up, however, you did it, kids always going to give you trouble. We all struggle with people saying we are a certain way when we aren’t. They want you to be the person they want. You need to be the person you want to be. And give the big middle one to anyone who says otherwise. My father always asked, “Well what do you want to be when you get older?” I would say, “I don't want to be anything, I want to grow old on a beach surrounded by my family and friends.” It’s a pretty paradoxical answer, but life is a paradox. We spend most of our time thinking about who we want to be instead of simply being that person. The old coyote would say, “Why to pretend to be a great man when you could be a great man?”
Jam of the week:
Bonis nocet quisqus malis perpercit.

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