August 30, 2010

Keeping Good Company

     ‘My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’
     ‘You are mistaken,’ said he gently, ‘that is not good company; that is the best…’

(Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1818).
Good company, which Mr. Elliot reduced to the requirements of ‘birth, education, and manners’ is nigh impossible to find. Fortunately, I am blessed by constantly being in the best company, but to understand me correctly requires an explication of Austen’s prose. There is nothing worse, I humbly aver, than people being clever. Intelligence ought to come with modesty, pertinent interventions, and humility. Clever people flaunt their superiority at any opportunity, lacing it with facetiousness and pedantic corrections. Clever people delight in the tripping up of others. Clever people know a variety of stratagems for penetrating the most fortified of hen houses.

So what did ‘clever’ mean? Our old friend Samuel Johnson first defined the word as ‘dextrous, skilful’; his second definition was ‘just, fit, proper, commodious’; and finally, ‘well-shaped, handsome’. Austen’s ‘clever’ company was, therefore, not so much vulpine as perfectly adapted to polite company, in both mental fitness, social appropriateness, and aesthetic appeal. Were such people ‘well-informed’, they would be devastatingly interesting. Their ‘great deal of conversation’ would not be mere artfulness around ladies, but a supreme engagement with the world and the like minds around them. The best company is sympathetic, challenging, and fair.

You may keep your clever people. I will take the best.

August 26, 2010

And Other Utterances

It is ‘Frosh Week’, which seems to mean that the neighbourhood goes to hell for a few days. Not being overly inclined to dwelling within Sodom and Gomorrah, I annually reflect on the reasons for this descent into every kind of vice. Alcohol, immaturity, and the complicity of the university authorities seem to make the lethal cocktail. The immaturity we may blame on the parents; the university should be ashamed of itself; the alcohol would perhaps not be such a problem without the other two. In any case, I wonder how many fun first weeks end in unanticipated tragedy of one form or another. The principal chant, boomed out military style all week by hordes of roaming children (with apologies to readers who’d care not to know), goes ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, three cheers for fucking’. These words will no doubt haunt those afflicted with unintended pregnancies, diseases, and humiliations. And how many alcoholics begin their journey here?


 (c) 2010 academicmice.com

A less weighty observation to terminate this post: whooping, out of the mouths of young women, is unladylike; out of the mouths of young men it is effeminate. Can the young not find a more civilised way to utter their enthusiasm for their misguided lives?

August 25, 2010

Speaking in Tongues

Our Hollywood brethren have broadcast the myth that the essential qualifications for manliness can be boiled down to the bicep and the grunt, and the influence of this stalks our streets all too evidently, its knuckles knocking the sidewalks. It has been particularly effective in the English-speaking world, where the idea of intelligent writing has been reduced to such choice phrases as ‘Gr8 2 c u’. I shudder. Helping all this along is the prevailing Anglophone cultural arrogance that usually makes us unilingual. We readily dismiss the majority of the globe’s people since they are unable to speak English. And this is our loss.

I confess to being a victim of the aforementioned arrogance. At school, French was introduced at age 11, but the tuition was pitched at the least able, and the least able was unfortunately illiterate in English. Not much hope there. German began at 13, with similar ineffectiveness. The education system being what it was, nobody was compelled to continue with these foreign tongues after the age of 14. Even then, there was no clear idea put forward for why learning these languages might be an advantage. Since then, moves have been afoot to steer certain people away from language learning altogether because it is ‘not useful’. To that end, we might well dispense with school completely, and send young boys of a particular station down the mines at age 12.

Not if I can help it.

I am attempting to correct my own shortcomings, which I greatly regret, and doubtless another spell in Germany won’t do me any harm. For those youngsters currently progressing through school, certainly our first priority is to improve their English. But we should dare also to push them to engage with the other, for in teaching them to speak in tongues, we shall improve their brains. And if we improve their brains, we may make better men (and women) of them.

August 20, 2010

Hands: Shaken, or else Stirred

The elegant Lily Lemontree has been on top form of late, and if you are not among her followers already, I hasten you there. Of her recent posts, one on shaking hands caught my attention in particular. Anyone with any doubts about the whys and wherefores of this essential practice should look in with alacrity. I thought I’d add my two penn’orth on the subject, for the first one ever knows of a man is his handshake, and its importance cannot therefore be overlooked.


There are many good reasons to shake hands. First and foremost, the handshake behoves each participant to make eye contact, and a failure in this regard arouses all manner of suspicions about character. A man who cannot look another in the eye betrays a want of something – a mere lack of confidence may be misconstrued as shiftiness – and the other shaker would be judicious in proceeding with caution.

Second, the handshake establishes an equality between men, for if done properly each shaker will respect the other as well met. If not done properly, however, a superior shaker will immediately assume superiority over the man who proffers a limp wrist, or too soft a squeeze. The hierarchy may not be justified in fact, but how is the man who puts forward a sock in a cup for a handshake supposed to recover his status? First impressions are lasting impressions, and we should do well to remember that beginning on the wrong foot – or wrong hand – will set us back considerably.

The handshake is the very standard of sportsmanship. After fierce competition, the declaration of no personal animus ensures that the game continues to be played in the right spirit.

Finally, there is the horror, and the offence, of the absence of a handshake. Nothing could be more disturbing than a failure to shake on first meeting. I can think of no good reason for such a failure, and please spare me your hygienic scruples. What are we to make of such a man? Since he makes nothing of himself, I suggest we also make nothing of him.

August 16, 2010

A Musical Education

And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker. There you have something – the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little footsteps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight and then he sang “Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat.” And the circle sang softly with him. And he sang, “I’m leaving Old Texas,” that eerie song that was sung before the Spaniards came, only the words were Indian then.

And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep. He sang the “McAlester Blues” and then, to make up for it to the older people, he sang “Jesus Calls Me to His Side.” The children drowsed with the music and went into the tents to sleep, and the singing came into their dreams.

And after a while the man with the guitar stood up and yawned. Good night, folks, he said.

And they murmured, Good night to you.

And each wished he could pick a guitar, because it is a gracious thing.

(John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath).
The power to enchant; to bring together; to bond through common voice; to discover humanity through melody; to bare one’s soul to strangers and thereby to gain their confidence: this sounds like a rare power. But such is the power of the musician, and particularly the guitarist. I have had the pleasure to be the man in Steinbeck’s description on a number of glorious campfire-lit nights in dusty America, and in those moments of shared song, and in the thrilled eyes of the listener who discovers you can play his favourite ballad, I have experienced something akin to pure joy.

It is a long road to that moment, of pain and practice, of failure and frustration. To play fluently, spontaneously, and with abandon, takes years of deliberate action, muscle memory, and dedication. Hours each day of tuneless fumbling, the sound near to the dying wails of a wild animal. No one wants to listen to you, or even to be around you in your obsessive and compulsive need to get it right. But the glimmer of a future moment, when the sparks of a fire will be sucked into a sky untainted by another manmade light, and when the assembled faces of new friends and old will hang on every note, convinces you that the struggle will be worth it. And not only for you.

To play is to have learned to play. And to learn to play is to understand that life does not come ready made. One doesn’t necessarily need a music teacher, but one would be strongly advised to get a musical education.

August 15, 2010

Go Climb a Rock

Climbing is the best possible physical developer of nerve and muscle and endurance. A good rock climber cannot be a weakling (Baden-Powell, Rovering to Success).
We could dwell for many an hour on the life and works of Lord Robert Baden-Powell of Gilwell, founder of the Scout movement, hero of Mafeking, and teacher of youth. Strange to say, but Baden-Powell’s book detailing the rocks that will hinder the boy’s passage into manhood has not lodged so firmly into the popular consciousness as his Scouting for Boys. Sure, it sold a canoe-full of copies, but I suspect not many fathers will be giving Rovering to Success: A Guide for Young Manhood to their budding sons. More is the pity, for despite its antiquated style, it still has much to offer.

The ‘rutting season’ was a principal concern of Baden-Powell’s guide to becoming manly. Of course, his image of young stags with warm blood seems far removed from anything we might connect with the adolescent sweat boxes of today, but the metaphor is not so far-fetched. His prescription was a tried and tested mix of active participation, hard work, team work balanced by self-reliance, and, perhaps above all, temperance in all things. Baden-Powell pointed to rock climbing as the exemplary activity to instil these qualities. He exhorted teams of rutting stags to club together and support each other up some craggy edifice in order thereby to learn the lessons of life. They would reap ‘the moral effect of learning to face a difficulty, even when it looks like an impossibility, with calm determination and good cheer’. They would thereafter ‘face the difficulties of life in the same spirit, and by sticking to it and trying the different ways round or over the obstacle [they would] get there in the end’.

We don’t all have to go climb a rock, but the example is a good one. One way or another, young men must get a foothold on life.

August 13, 2010

Daring to Speak Its Name

It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand (Oscar Wilde).




The world did not, and does not, understand. How curious that the man identified with bringing homosexuality into the public sphere in modern times had a specific intellectual agenda to broadcast with respect to love. The public attempts to reduce the man’s reputation to the level of the gutter were met with references to poetry, philosophy and spirituality - to eros. And to where, might we ask, has this intellectual quotient disappeared?

I begin this entry knowing that I will displease some, but I have repeatedly been asked to write upon it, and can shirk the responsibility no longer. I wish, at the very least, to get one thing straight: men have always sought sexual intimacy with other men, but only very recently has this had anything at all to do with identity. Nothing within the pages of Being Manly is exclusionary, precisely because I believe that being manly is within the purview of any man, regardless of his physical persuasions, if he gives the matter due attention.

People have become very confused in recent years about what homosexuality means. Literally, it defines a sexual preference and nothing more. Unfortunately, a great burden has been placed upon men who desire other men to conform to a cultural standard, which sweeps up their sexuality with a gender identity, namely being ‘gay’ or ‘queer’. I have seen this happen: the public emergence as homosexual seems to entail a wholesale transformation of lifestyle, manners, morals and speech (especially intonation). I confess to being bewildered by this.

There are, within this culture, realities that sit at odds with what I tentatively call common decency. Please don’t mistake this sentence as prudish, bigoted or hypocritical. To my mind, it is just as lax and impolite for a heterosexual person to behave with wanton abandon, marking notches on the bedpost and publicly announcing, even flaunting, his promiscuity. I refuse to associate with straight men like this for they show a complete disregard for those who place discretion as a cornerstone of propriety. Unfortunately, just as in the case of the justly maligned macho man, many gay men feel an expectation to behave in this way – it is something of a cultural standard – and it does a great discredit to the many men who are sober, faithful partners (or who at least would appreciate fidelity), and who believe in the qualitative value of relationships, the bonds of love, and all the signs of an upstanding man in modern society. Discretion is the better part of valour. All men would do well to remember this, regardless of with whom they care to sleep.

Therefore, let us talk of love, come one, come all; but let us talk no more of unclothed activities, for they are and should be matters of the private life.

August 10, 2010

Going Deutsch

(Monday Night)


When I awoke this morning I did not expect this evening to be writing to you from a bus. Yet here I sit, squeezed into another inadequate Greyhound seat, listening to the aggregate of mumblings of unhappy people. Why am I on a bus? Well, dear Readers, it is high time I prepared you all for a shift in mood on Being Manly. Having spent the majority of time writing to you from Boston and Montreal, with a little London thrown in for good measure, and a small dose of New York, yours truly is moving to Berlin (again). It was not a looked-for move, but it is not an unwelcome one. Berlin was something of a rite of passage for me when I lived there previously, allowing me the time and freedom to find many things, not the least of which was a sense of sartorial independence and a burgeoning writerly voice. This time I hope for the maturation of many things, professional and personal, including the thoughts I commit to these pages.

But why am I on a bus? Mrs. VB, being afflicted with a non-European passport, cannot just up-sticks and move. Uncharacteristically for German matters bureaucratic, her relevant paperwork has been somewhat slow in coming forward, and thus we are on a last-ditch run to the German Embassy in Ottawa to apply for a visa. It is a most unceremonious journey, the end of which is to surrender a passport to German officials. We only hope it returns post-haste.

Somewhere in today’s shenanigans is a moral pertinent to our theme. For while I am perennially reminded that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”, I am also persuaded that the best mice and men have always responded philosophically, perhaps stoically, and with imaginative alternatives to their often-ruined intentions. Today I planned to make progress with some serious literature auf Deutsch; to digest a couple of scholarly articles; and to ice a couple of increasingly creaking knees. Instead, the knees got a thorough workout as we raced around town making last-minute preparations; the articles are in hitherto unimagined insalubrious surroundings, inside a bag inside a bus; and the German learning can simply wait bis Morgen. Needs must as the Devil drives, or at least, so says this mouse.

(Tuesday night)
I am on a bus. Mrs. VB is ohne Reisepass. It seems Germany will welcome us with open arms. I shall give much thought to being manly in old Europe, and trust that you will join me in the endeavour.

August 06, 2010

On Becoming Manly, Part IV

It might be thought that the aggregate of pages here on BeingManly would provide sufficient answer to the terminal of my self-imposed questions: why become manly? I know for certain that there are some who would argue otherwise, and in any case, the 50,000 or so words thus far amassed can hardly be said to make for a succinct answer to the question. That answer has to be the basis for my work, and for your reading of it. Although we may differ somewhat on the nitty-gritty bits, we nevertheless need to come to a common understanding of why it is that the world needs the particular breed of manliness here discussed, rather than some empty-headed macho nonsense of which the world already has a surfeit.

It is perhaps through the image of what is undesirable that an answer might be attempted. Negative arguments might be objected on the grounds of being insubstantial, but it seems to me that one has to know what is to be rejected in order to define what is desired (the gradual and incremental description of which is the work in progress of this blog).

So, what do we find in the men of the world that would make us desire an upsurge in manliness? Of men in public life we find dishonesty and double dealing at every turn. Politicians, in the incessant fight for the middle ground (wherein they might appear the most pleasing), and in the embracement of celebrity culture, have foregone intellect, historical knowledge, diplomatic experience, and unshakeable values. The voter, who could never be relied upon to understand any of these things, but who might be deemed capable of recognising his betters, is now faced with mere sound bites and empty charisma, sharp suits, glamorous wives, and a paucity of political substance.

The voter is not helped, of course, by the media, which packages the emptiness of debates among powerful men and turns it into grotesque entertainment. The media has a missing moral compass; it has forgotten its social responsibility; it altogether has no integrity. Hardly anybody, it seems, is able to see fit to restore these qualities.

And then there is the voter. How can this generation fail to be influenced by these powerful but vacuous currents? Increasingly, we suit ourselves in every respect, paying no mind to our neighbour, or our fellow man. We do this in a context of squabbling and deceit, in a world that teaches us not to trust; where spilt milk causes tumultuous schisms, but where the violent shiftings of the earth arouse indifference and inaction. Our attention spans are reduced without limit by the whims of advertisers and the media corporations that depend upon them, and life in general drifts towards the soap operatic.

Is this a picture of life up with which we shall put (apologies to Churchill)? Is not the manly – the intelligent, educated, forthright, honest, hard-working, well-mannered, courageous, sober – individual required, now more than ever, to arrest the decline of civilisation into the tawdriness of a glass-house stone-throwing competition? I suspect that the assembled choir will cry out with one voice ‘Yes!’

August 03, 2010

Indefatigability

Mrs. VB’s parents just finished moving house. They experienced all the usual stresses and strains to be expected of this kind of endeavour, but last night was something of a singular marathon. An unfortunate series of events conspiring against them, and despite advanced planning, the entire abode had to be sorted, packed and moved in twenty-four hours. Earnest son-in-law and spouse answered the call, working for twenty-two hours, straight through the night, to get the job done. Along the way: thunder and lightening; plenty of heavy lifting; three close encounters with the neighbourhood skunks (some of whom were lustily engaged); and bacon and eggs. The result: a more than usually fatigued VB; two very sore hands; a number of bruises; one place empty, another full. My other work waited, and suffered little. The job at hand got done.


This was merely a night – two days, really – and something achievable, tangible, in the grand scheme of things, something easy. But to talk of moving house in such circumstances is rather a good way of conjuring the kind of attitude that facilitates good living, even where the goal is more nebulous, the intention less concrete, the outcomes not known for certain. We have, or should have, aims in life. How keenly do we pursue them? Do we invest our whole hearts into our relationships, jobs, sports, interests, the Thesis, the Book, the Opus; in short, do we take the reigns of our futures? Do we call it a day when the going is rough? Do we follow the path of least resistance, settling for less for the sake of ease and comfort? Or do we push through the thorns, the rocks, the landslides, and the rain, aiming for what we really want, risking failure for the sake of greater success? It is, I aver, better to get there late, battered and bruised, bleeding, hungry and thirsty, than not to get there at all.

We all tire, and, pushed to the limit, we wish to resign. Sleep envelopes us; we come to terms with defeat, fatalism, a panoply of failure. Our slumbers recharge us, but, on awakening, we must come to terms with chances lost, moments missed, regrets accrued. To pursue relentlessly; never to lose sight of one’s aims; to pay no heed to physical and mental exhaustion for the sake of a goal – such are the rare qualities of the indefatigable man.
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