Opinion » John Rember

Men II Boyz

Picturing male adulthood


John Rember

Unkind observations about my gender are made this time every year, when the heterosexual-male-dominated Legislature meets in Boise to improve the lives, behavior and finances of lesser Idahoans. Here's my own unkind observation: I spent seven years teaching middle school, and none of the dramas I see in state government differ much from the body-building poses, locker-room towel snaps and latent-and-not-so-latent misogyny of 12-year-olds.

Thought experiment: Imagine a group of seventh-grade boys sitting in their tree house and pretending that they're saving the country from a Commie invasion, or that the tree house is really a starship protecting Earth from aliens, or that they're going to take over all the public lands in Idaho.

Now, something not so easy: Imagine them voting to Add the Words to their tree house charter. Imagine them planning a campaign to raise the minimum wage for restaurant workers. Imagine them voting tax dollars to help out old or sick or homeless people.

When you're an insecure adolescent male, you're not about to share your allowance.

And when you're deep into the enormous job of defining your own sexuality, it's easier to turn your tree house into a starship than to allow a gay person up the ladder. Of course--if it's any comfort for gay people--girls aren't allowed in, either.

Architects of the recent remodel of the state Capitol building missed a bet when they didn't put the whole structure on 40-foot pilings. Admittance would depend on a rope ladder reaching up to a trapdoor, with a state trooper at the top, waiting for the secret password. It would prevent unruly and misguided demonstrators from disrupting the people's business.

That's one part of a bigger picture. Here's another, an innocent question about a not-so-innocent trend: How can so many men decades past their 21st birthday never grown up? It's not a problem confined to our Legislature, as any 30-year-old woman will tell you.

I've noticed lots of well-educated, articulate, attractive women--late 20s to early 30s--who are single, recently divorced or who are resigned to living with guys who are manifestly Not The One. These are women who cannot find an equal partner. They find lots of aged boys, but it's way easier, safer and less hassle to share an apartment with girlfriends who will have their back than it is to visit the Y-chromosome pool and find, in its depths, a mature, benign, non-self-obsessed man.

It occurs to me that a good reason for legalizing gay marriage is so that 30-something women can marry grown-ups.

A third part of the picture: There aren't all that many fathers out there. By fathers, I mean responsible adults who work more or less constantly for their families, who nurture and support their children, who stay in their marriages in good times and bad and who, by their actions, show how to do the right thing even when it's the furthest thing in the world from what they really want to do. That's what positive male adulthood looks like to a boy. If you're going to expect a boy to become a man, it's essential to model manhood for him.

As a middle-school teacher, I saw again and again the damage that divorce does to children. There is no getting around it: if you really want to screw up your kids, fracture your marriage or refuse to get married in the first place. The damage is life-long, massive and repeats itself through the generations.

Custody practices usually award children to their mothers. It's up to them to provide adult models for their children, and they do an astonishingly good job, by and large. But their sons see adulthood as the property of Mom. The person who has escaped the drudgery and obligations of adulthood, child-support checks notwithstanding, is Dad. That's probably why girls find it easier to become adult than boys.

Finally, a frame for the picture:

It's a challenge for anyone, regardless of gender, to become adult. It involves pain and change and facing mortality. It means letting grief into your life, letting go of false pride and superficial dreams, rejecting cherished beliefs, accepting limits, owning up to mistakes, paying off debts and admitting responsibility for the things you say and do. It means becoming part of a community. It means being able to see things from other people's points of view.

Few young men in our culture are up to such challenges. I can't blame them. To come of age in an era of high unemployment and low wages is infantilizing. So is graduating from college with a crippling burden of debt. So is having your wetware programmed according to future employers' needs, especially if those employers have moved on to other concerns by the time you enter the labor force.

But not all problems with adulthood are economic. We live in a world where rites of passage have become anemic. So-called primitive cultures, recognizing how destructive young male energy can be, made a big deal out of letting their young men into the privileges of adulthood, civilizing them with ceremonies and ordeals and vision quests. These rituals defined adult behavior for people who didn't come to it naturally.

Our own culture has defined adult males by default. Male adult privilege has become the unharnessed laxity of adolescence, male adult values have become an adolescent fascination with wealth and power, male adult existence has devolved to a nihilistic fantasy of being impossibly alone and apart from community. It's not hard to see that what passes for public policy in Idaho derives from an adolescent group-think rather than considered, conscience-directed wisdom.

Not that a lot of 30-year-old women are looking to marry state legislators anyway. I hope all concerned can consider that a good thing.