Hint: It takes more than a pair of balls.
We’re two drinks deep and sitting in a college bar that looks exactly what a college bar is supposed to look like: metal stools with black upholstered tops, the stuffing sticking out from a fingernail-sized slit in the fabric, a couple of pool tables in the back, a keno machine and juke box in the corner, neither of which get much play.
Scattered around the room are high wooden tables with mismatched chairs pulled so far away from the tables it’s damn near impossible to walk past without tripping.
The college crowd seeps into the spaces between everything. Guys in button-ups, fashion tees, and trucker hats try (and fail) to look menacing while girls in skin-tight jeans try (and succeed) to look uncomfortable.
The place is packed, which is why Scotty and I decided to grab a seat at the end of the bar.
He’s sipping a PBR and I’m having a pint of Arrogant Bastard ale; it cost me five dollars, a trip through a narrow hallway into the adjacent high-end lounge, and a smirk from the waitress when I ordered. Totally worth it.
Scotty takes a drink and sighs. We’ve been here 20 minutes and have already moved past sports, girls, and jobs—the safe topics most guys stick to when hanging out—and have jumped into deeper waters.
The topic we’ve stumbled upon: What makes you a man?
At 24, it may seem a bit foolish for us to be talking about something we should have just started to experience, but that’s one of the main points, I tell Scotty, I’m trying to make: you don’t suddenly become a man at a certain age.
“It’s not like they send you a starter kit in the mail on your 18th birthday,” I tell him. “You could be 16 or well into your fifties before you become a man. If ever.”
Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, seems to agree with me. “Today people become adults when they feel like adults. They experience a “situational maturity,” he writes.
But what, exactly, is the situation that catapults us from “guys” to “men”? And how do we recognize or prepare for it?
“How can you possibly ‘feel’ like a man if you’re not even sure what the values of manhood are?” Scotty asks to no one in particular. He’s swiveled his stool around and is staring at the crowd of guys scattered around the room. He points his beer toward them.
“I mean, are they men?”
It’s a good question.
Appearances aside, I can guess that, like me, most of the guys in the room have been raised on a steady diet of Hollywood morals, shallow friendships and romantic relationships, hubris, and high-fructose corn syrup.
It seems we’ve never taken the time to define what our values are. And all the old credibility indicators—graduating college, settling into a career, getting married, and raising a family—have all but disappeared.
College is leaving us tens of thousands of dollars in debt and won’t even guarantee a job anymore. (I know at least five guys with bachelor’s degrees who live with their parents and either wait tables or fold jeans.)
Our generation—the current 18-30 year olds—are more concerned with freedom than with money, and thus bounce around from career to career without much thought given to stability. And our expectations of what we’ll get paid are incredibly high. Very few people make more than $40,000 their first year out of college, but it’s what most recent graduates expect to make.
And marriage? With the divorce rates at an all-time high, and a good majority of guys growing up with two sets of parents, many are opting to stay single and “play the field” for as long as possible. Which is cool and all until you realize most of them spend more time masturbating in their bathroom than they do going out and meeting girls.
It’s this sort of developmental limbo – in between school and supposed responsibility – where most of us spend our time. And I don’t think we’re making the best of it.
Let’s face it: most of us are lazy. We don’t read or educate ourselves more than we have to. (When’s the last time you read a book that wasn’t assigned to you?) We have fickle self-esteem and mistake machismo for manliness, a by-product of watching hero movies and never really connecting with any of our friends. We have shallow romantic relationships we don’t work at to make better.
And the kicker? We have absolutely no fucking idea who we want to become or what we want to accomplish. It’s goddamn terrifying.
So, what’s a guy to do? Wallow in self-pity? Sack up?
Back at the bar…
Scotty and I have started to rattle off different characteristics we think make a man:
Be honest. Stand for something. Have integrity. Do things that scare you. Keep your mind sharp. Nourish your body. Pay it forward. Do your best work every time, no matter what that work is. Set goals. Nurture relationships. Enjoy every day. Listen. Don’t take shit from anyone. Be passionate about something. Master your emotions. Speak with purpose.
Oh, and drink bourbon.
In the end, to the bartender’s relief, we finish our drinks and agree on one point: you’re a man when you establish your own values and try like hell to live them every day.
But then again, what the hell do we know?