Unfinished Business

Originally published in the July 22, 2004 “Men’s Issue” of the Santa Barbara Independent

My father is a man of few words, and he delivers those few with a surly charm that can, at times, render a poignant father-son moment dark comedy. He sat on my couch during a recent visit, while I finished a piece for an approaching deadline.

“Boy,” he said, putting his book aside. Addressing any of his sons, regardless of age, as boy usually preceded something serious. “You and I got any unfinished business?”

The question was one of two dozen complete sentences he spoke during his two days in Santa Barbara. His Oklahoma drawl hasn’t faded after spending more than half his life in California. My young niece once remarked, “Granddad talks like a cowboy.”

“No, Dad, I don’t think so.” Between his rare candor and my own shaky people skills, I missed his real question. “Like I said, I need to finish this article then leave for work. You’ve got a set of keys to the place, so make yourself at home.”

“Not what I’m talking about. I mean you and I, do we have unfinished business?”

“Dad, is something wrong? You’re not sick are you?”

“I’m fine. I just want to know if there’s anything you want to say to me. You got anything you want to get off your chest?”

I thought for a moment, with my father looking me in the eye. I grew up in a three-bedroom, Roman Catholic pressure cooker where two parents and six children fought the family skeletons for space and sanctuary. Yes, I might have had a few things to get off my chest. I certainly had some questions, but they had nothing to do with my dad; what I might have wanted to get off my chest was too miniscule to warrant being exhumed for some vacuous notion of “clearing the air” or closure. I can’t help but wonder, lately, whether a certain visit with my father will be my last, so I refuse to spend my remaining time with him dragging the river for dead grievances.

“No, Dad. We’re cool. No problems. You sure you’re not sick?”

“Nope, I’m fine. Just askin’. Now’s your chance.”

Perhaps I hadn’t been emphatic enough.

“Dad, I don’t have any grudges or hard feelings against you. I make my own choices. My life is my own. I don’t blame anyone else for anything, especially not you. Do you have anything you want to get off your chest with me?”

“Nope. Just makin’ sure we’re okay.”

“We’re okay.”

He re-packed his pipe and resumed reading.

I’ll admit the exchange was not one to tug the heart strings. Regardless, my father’s candor demanded the same in return, and I’m glad I said to him what I said.

My life is the sum total of the choices I have made within the circumstances I have not. I had no choice in how the flip of my personal gender coin landed. At best, those first ultrasound pictures told my parents I was physiologically male, but were nonetheless grainy pictures taken after the fact. Beyond the skin, blood, and bone that make me one gender versus the other, the lifelong expectations of my gender along with everyone else’s—our gender roles—are defined by a host of sources none of us can choose.

The dictionary defines definition as “a description of a thing by its properties” and “a determination of its limits.” Most dictionary definitions for vocabulary are universal and inviolate, but cultural definitions are not. Notions of manhood and masculinity are defined, and the limits and expectations are set, by family, religion, media, the whole of our culture and its subsets. These multiple definitions overlap, collide, and change from region to region, decade to decade.

To say, then, take it like a man or act like a man is to say, Act according to my specific needs and expectations for this isolated set of circumstances. Remember, our prisons and crisis hotlines are testimony to what is statistically male behavior, behavior that is undesirable under any circumstance. The demand to act like a man is the demand for behavior necessary to a prehistoric clan leader defending a patch of rock, but unnecessary to a modern man performing surgery.

Answering the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” is to make a personal choice about one’s definition of manhood, which is to perpetually challenge those more widely accepted definitions. The very act of making this choice, to defy the colossal weight of expectations that assail a man day in and day out is, for me, the act of being a man.

I made a choice several years ago to pursue a life goal of writing, which I made at the expense of most everything I had accomplished prior. While most of my close friends are married, having children, and buying property, I’m living dollar to dollar, with no financial buffer for the future, scarcely able to provide for myself (let alone someone else), grateful for having an apartment and for days when I eat more than once. I have a string of burned-out relationships that have failed, in part, due to my choice and the ensuing isolation and self-absorption that it brings. Here I am, six months shy of halfway dead, with less stability than I had when I was 21. Still, I don’t regret my choice; I have never looked back. But not a day goes by when I don’t feel the repercussions of my choice in some way that I wish I didn’t have to.

I measure my manhood by measuring the resolve behind each choice I make, and in my honesty to myself and those around me when my resolve fails me or, more accurately, when I fail my resolve.

Sometimes I confuse resolve with being stubborn or intransigent. I can be unyielding in a choice despite consequences to myself or to those around me. But resolve means the opposite of dissolve. To be resolute means my decision holds together regardless of fluctuating circumstances. Not admitting wrongdoing in spite of all contrary evidence takes stubbornness and intransigence; admitting wrong and asking forgiveness takes resolve. Committing to another person, raising a child with love, or choosing to become sober… these things take resolve. The magnitude of my choices can be measured in the amount of resolve I need in order to remake a given choice day after day, in spite of changing circumstances or immediate benefit, and in the consequences to myself and those around me if my choice is wrong or if I fail my resolve.

Again: My life is the sum total of the choices I have made within the circumstances I have not. I hope some of my choices have bettered the circumstances not chosen of others; I hope I have shown resolve with each choice, if not the willingness to acknowledge the choices I made wrongly or the times I failed in my resolve. Those who have failed me, or who I feel have failed me, are of no consequence to my manhood. Of consequence are my failures to those friends, lovers, and family who are discrete from the rest of the world because their expectations matter to me, because I have freely chosen to hold those expectations above others.

I make new choices daily, remake others, try to reaffirm my resolution, and try to admit when I haven’t. I’m still struggling to get it right. Some days, I believe I’ve grown into a man. Other days, I think I’ll finally reach manhood at the same time I reach that other, hopefully distant, end of my life.

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