I probably shouldn’t admit this, but (look at that, I got your attention! What a great way to start a sentence. The audience is promised something to pity or despise the speaker for. It’s almost as good as, “I love so-and-so to death, but…” with that “but” promising some great gossip—but I digress) I sometimes cheer myself on by thinking, “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”
The action I have to take, that warrants this silent self-encouragement, is never something really manly, like dragging a guy out of the pub (because he’s been mean to the barmaid or something) and giving him a good beat-down. Usually it’s something that I simply don’t want to do. This thing may require grit or steely resolve, or not; I guess the idea is that I’m trying to convince myself that by doing this thing, I’m manning up. Manning up for a change, if you want to be a dick about it.
Tonight my wife didn’t feel like cooking, so I did. If you think I’m going to complain about this, and say something silly about “women’s work,” think again. That said, I do consider myself lucky that my wife does most of the cooking. This is not such a routine that I can actually expect dinner on the table, per se. Sometimes my wife makes dinner; sometimes she shows no sign of making dinner and then abruptly throws something together; sometimes she announces, “I’m not making dinner” and then—makes dinner. Other times she says “I’m not making dinner” and means it. Sometimes she doesn’t say anything, and I start a timer in my head and eventually either say something or start cooking.
Tonight I made my go-to quick combo: grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. These sandwiches are not actually grilled. They’re fried. If I were manning a grill—because that’s what you do, you man a grill, and if your wife offers to help you say, “Now you stand back from that grill, little lady, that’s man’s work”—that would be one thing, but a) nobody puts cheese sandwiches on a grill, and b) I don’t know how to work a grill, and c) I don’t even own a grill. So these were fried sandwiches, which I guess is better than making a frittata but still nowhere near serving up charred meat that’s pink in the middle, and let me just say that even if I had a grill and manned it, I wouldn’t mess with all that stupid stuff about pressing your finger against the web of your thumb and thinking that has anything to do with whether meat is done. Meat is done when the outside is no longer red, because when’s the last time you heard of a guy getting e. coli or tapeworms from a good piece of meat he bought from a butcher, a real butcher who wipes his bloody hands on his apron and has a Brooklyn accent? But this is all just posturing because I don’t even own a grill.
So anyhow, I served the family some fried cheese sandwiches and soup, and then everybody scattered, and I wasn’t full, so I started making a second sandwich, and my wife, perhaps worried for my delicate physique (I’m just saying that, of course she’s not actually worried, as I’m very slender, certainly not the kind of broad-chested dude who has gravitas and can carry off a double-breasted suit, certainly nothing like Henry VIII) said, “You’re making a second sandwich?” So I answered, “Yeah, sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.”
Immediately following this I considered issuing a caveat, something like “And sometimes a guy’s gotta do what a man oughtta do, if there were an actual man around.” I wish I were the kind of man’s man who can say things like “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do” without issuing a caveat, but I’m just not. I worry that my wife will start laughing, or will silently think to herself, “Dude thinks he’s a man?” So I usually beat her to the punch with the caveat.
But there’s something so wimpy about this. If real man’s behavior is questioned, he doesn’t deign to answer. But of course nobody would question a real man’s behavior anyway. That’s Walter Mitty territory. When’s the last time a Bond girl asked Bond, “What are you doing?” No, they’re about to be killed, and Bond is fiddling with his watch or his pen or something, but she never doubts him.
So, after telling my wife that eating a second sandwich is the kind of thing a man’s sometimes gotta do, I managed to stick the landing and not offer a caveat. A small victory, but I couldn’t help but reflect that less than an hour earlier I’d said those same words, but to myself. What is this, a mantra?
I was at the store. Not a sporting goods store, not REI, not a purveyor, not a place that sells outdoor survival gear. I was at Safeway. I was buying groceries. That is an activity that is not on the list of things that a man’s gotta do, not even sometimes. I’d worked my way from one end of the store—produce & salad dressing—to the other end: beer & meat. Isn’t that great? It’s like the store is organized into His & Hers.
My love of the beer & meat section is tempered because every time I go to the store, it seems like the price of a six-pack has gone up another buck. This cuts into my freedom, because I refuse to pay those prices. I have to look at what’s on sale.
Mindy Kaling, the comedienne from “The Office,” writes about the differences between a man and a boy. If she were differentiating between men and women she might discuss the matter of whether a male of any stripe should be reading her book, which talks a lot about shopping and how to be a good girlfriend. I should really be reading Cormac McCarthy or something. But presumably she wants both sexes to buy her book, so she only goes into boys vs. men. She’s got a whole chapter on this. She says (among other things) that when the shampoo is almost gone, a boy puts water in the bottle and shakes it up to get the last bit out, while a man just buys a new bottle of shampoo. You know what? I always put a little bit of water in the bottle and shake it up to get the last bit out.
So, is frugality the stuff of boys? I don’t know. I’ve always thought that timing the sales—having a hunch about when Rosarita refried beans will finally go on sale, or what the latest windfall discount from the Great Premium Jarred Spaghetti Sauce Price Wars will be—was kind of like playing the stock market, which has always seemed like a manly activity. But in light of Mindy Kaling’s opinion, I suppose shopping sales is really more of a “Hints From Heloise” kind of thing. I guess I should be ashamed.
In this case I was totally torn because four of my favorite beers were on sale, meaning they were discounted from Totally Scandalous Disgustingly Venal Daylight Robbery down to mere Ripoff, and I couldn’t decide which to get. The beer I really wanted was Stone IPA, but even on sale it’s really, really expensive. I think it was marked down to like $10 or something. For a freakin’ six-pack!
So I told myself, “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do,” and bought all four brands of beer. That’s pretty bold, innit? Isn’t that what a man would do? I mean, a boy is usually broke and digs through the sofa cushions for enough change to go buy Bud, right? Well, I couldn’t exactly bask in this idea, because I couldn’t help wondering if the Stone IPA is just another macho affectation. My wife has suggested as much. She calls it “the Emperor’s New Beer.” She has suggested that IPAs in general are just one big pissing contest.
You could probably win a pissing contest by drinking enough IPA, actually. At least, so long as the basis of the contest is urination duration, which seems to me like the right one. But of course duration is not what my wife meant by pissing contest. She means that we males are forcing ourselves to drink something really bitter just to show how masculine we are.
Look, I honestly enjoy IPAs. I really do. No, I didn’t take to them right away, I’ll concede that they’re an acquired taste, but I do like many of them. And if I were only pretending to like IPAs, of course I wouldn’t like one more than another, which I do. And it’s not like I only drink an IPA when another guy is watching. But now there’s a voice in my head that says “Thou doth protest too much!” What kind of a wussy voice is that? “Thou doth”? Quoting Shakespeare? Shut up, voice-in-my-head! Who are you to second-guess my taste in beer, and/or my masculine dignity?
Well, the scary thing is, I’m starting to develop a taste for something far more bitter than an IPA. Before a bike ride, I like to have NoDoz. I crush the tablet with a meat tenderizing mallet (a man’s tool, which every time I use it reminds me that I should get a grill and learn how to barbecue), and dissolve the powder in water so it’ll kick in faster. That caffeine-water makes a double or triple IPA taste like the sweetest nectar.
And this caffeine-water is growing on me, its taste symbolizing the suffering I’m about to do on the bike. It’s a pleasure similar to how, after a hard ride, my legs burn when I come down the stairs. What I’m saying is, I guess I could probably develop a taste for anything. Which could mean that my learned appreciation of IPAs actually is the affectation of somebody trying to be more manly than he really is. As in: “I have to develop a taste for something; I’ll develop a taste for that bitter beer that only real men like!”
In truth, I don’t feel insecure about my masculinity. This guy vs. man thing is more complicated, and may be based on that divide I felt as a kid, acknowledging that my dad was of a different generation than I, always on the higher tier. My friends and brothers seem like guys to me, too.
There’s no single societal consensus about what a man even is. I’m sure it’s not just somebody who wastes shampoo, wears cologne, and has a mortgage, which are Mindy’s criteria—but whatever manhood is, I’m not at all sure I’m there yet. What’s it going to take? Grey hair? I hope not … then I’ll go from guy to old man without ever enjoying a proper manhood in between.
I asked my younger daughter, who is still of the age before tact, and so can always be counted on to give a brutally straight answer, “Would you say I’m a man?” She thought about it. “Not really. You’re kind of just a big daddy guy.” Fair enough. My older daughter says, “Your behavior doesn’t always seem very adult. But I’m glad—that would be boring.”
Is it time to just jettison this “Man’s gotta do” quote? It is kind of antiquated, after all; most people associate it with John Wayne (and the 1939 movie “Stagecoach”) though it first appeared in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (click here). But I kind of like the quote. It reminds me to try to be a man, to live up to that (albeit vague) standard, which is a lot better than shamelessly embracing the arrested development that has become fashionable, like billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg with his hoodies and sneakers.
I first heard “man’s gotta do” from my brother, when he described a wild night of babysitting. What made it wild was that the kids’ dad, Mr. K—, a miner, a real dyed-in-the-wool blue-collar guy who spoke in an irreverent snarl and always grinned at you with a hint of menace, like he was going to slap you upside the head because it’s what you deserved, decided to see if he was getting his money’s worth with the babysitter (i.e., my then twelve-year-old brother). To Mr. K—, babysitting wasn’t about getting the kids to bed on time with their teeth brushed; it was about protecting them from intruders.
So when he and his wife got home, pretty late, he started hammering on the door and then burst it open and stormed into the room. My brother, instead of running for cover, put up his dukes and assumed a prizefighter’s stance. (This was during the ‘70s when people said things like “Put up your dukes!”) Mr. K—, needless to say, was delighted. “That’s what I wanna see!” he yelled. “Somebody who’s not afraid to protect my kids!” His wife said something less enthusiastic, probably along the lines of “I’m not sure that was actually the right reaction,” to which Mr. K— replied, “Hey, sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!” So there it is: Max was a man at age twelve. And I’m still reaching for it. Sweet.
Check out this postcard Max sent my daughter, which arrived the very day I finished this blog post:
In case you’re having trouble with the small print, here’s what it says:
It’s a beautiful day. In a minute I’m going to go get my hair trimmed. After that, I’m going to go swimming. This is not the kind of day I get to enjoy very often, but I worked very hard to make it happen. That’s the thing about life. In order to have time and space for yourself, you have got to do what needs to be done. I have long said “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, when a man’s gotta do what it is a man does when he does what he’s gotta do.” I believe this is true for everyone, even pets and children.
He might as well have added “and my brother” or “and your dad.” You see? My brother employs the caveat, too!
I phoned Max up and described the amazing coincidence. Sure enough, the origin of his quotation was Mr. K— having quoted it. Max still remembers that babysitting episode the same way he’d described it to me, all those years ago. “It’s been a running joke ever since,” he said, “but usually one I keep to myself.”
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