Green Beans and Ham and Being a Man

I hung up the phone and looked down at Kyra.

She was sitting on the floor.

I shook my head.

She curled up into a ball, cradled her belly and started crying.

She was six months into her pregnancy and we were living in San Diego. We were desperate to raise Dillon around our families on the East Coast. So, a few months earlier, I had gone onto the job market targeting Assistant Professor positions throughout the state of Virginia. 

The only college to invite me out was Mary Washington. A couple weeks had passed since my visit. So, I called Brad, the chairperson of the Economics Department at the time, to check in on my prospects. From the other end of the line, he informed me that they were going with someone else.

Watching my pregnant wife cry on the floor gutted me.

I had failed as a husband and a soon-to-be father.

But, so much worse, all of my upbringing told me that I had failed as a man. 

That’s the moment that I began my quest.

I wanted to know. 

Needed to know. 

What makes a man a man?

I’m still on that quest.

And, whenever I seek an answer to that question, I get a list of traits that usually takes the form of the three P’s: provide, protect, and procreate.

I know.

Nowadays, any human can do these three things. 

And, in the past, the inability of others to provide and protect for themselves and the ones they loved was due in large part to men putting in place structures that forbid them from or made it extremely difficult for them to do so. 

So, if you take away the three P’s, where does that leave men?  

Lifting heavy objects? 

Moving them from point A to point B?

Of course, just about every other human can do that as well.

Moreover, there’s a lot of ableism and ageism in that statement. 

At some point, I’ll be too old to lift heavy objects.  

When that happens do I lose my status as a man?

If I am injured, do I stop being a man for the duration of my recovery?

If I was born with a disability that precluded me from lifting heavy objects, would that preclude me from ever being a man? 

Beyond the three P’s, I’ve come across other lists of attributes. But, honestly, they’re pretty much a list of things I would expect any human worth their salt to possess.

So, what makes a man a man? 

What makes a man unique?

Nowadays, more than a few say “Who cares?”

For them, gender is so 1950.

Or is it 1980?

I’m not sure.

Anyways, the spiritual side of me agrees. It does not care. At the end of my life, this carbon shell I walk around in will fall away and whatever I was or thought I was will not matter.

There’s also the progressive/libertarian side of me that does not care. If people want to be fluid with their gender, then let them be fluid.

There’s also the academic side of me that has read enough anthropology to know that manhood is in part a cultural construct. What makes a man a man varies from culture to culture and varies within a culture through time.

And, then there’s the Trekkie side of me that can imagine a genderless future.

For awhile, I think I was fit for such a future.

I had left the locker room of college football in 1993. And, I had long since then been comfortably cloistered in the higher education environment.

Kyra curling up in a ball and crying on the floor punctured my genderless bubble. And, ever since, I’ve found myself interested in understanding what makes a man a man. Asking myself “Am I a man?”  

Indeed, I’m going in the opposite direction.

I’m embracing my understanding of manliness. But, not uncritically mind you.

I’m also asking myself “Why can’t I move beyond gender?” 

I think I have part of the answer:

Green beans and ham. And, an iron skillet full of corn bread.

Let me explain.

When I started my PhD program in St. Louis, Kyra and I would travel back home to Ohio for the holidays with my people. And, as soon as we walked through the door, the matriarchs of my family would gently nudge her aside and gather around me. Using their fingers as calipers, they’d start pinching my sides, tugging on my pants, and pulling at my shirt. 

“You’re too skinny” they’d say.

“What’s she feeding you?” they’d ask. 

“Amber, Heather come here!” they’d cry out.

“Look at your brother. He’s too skinny” they’d declare.

“Sit down” they’d command. 

I’d sit down at the kitchen table and smile up at Kyra.

She’d roll her eyes back at me.

Honestly, Kyra was not the kind of woman you bring home to your mama.

Well, not in my part of Ohio.

She was a vegetarian.

She was also very patient.

“We’re gonna feed you” they’d say.

And, they would.

A bowl full of green beans and ham with side of corn bread.

For me, that was love

And, their love was unconditional. 

Or, was it?

Well, there’s the rub.

The matriarchs in my family like their men big. And, since the Schoonover clan lacks height, they like to see a bit of width. So, when they were measuring the health of my waistline, they were also measuring the state of my manliness.

In their eyes, I was a man lacking in width. 

They were loving on me.

No doubt.

But, they were also reminding me of that.

So, I freely admit that I was conditioned into being a man.

That’s why I find it so hard to move beyond gender.

But, you know, I’m all right with that.

Seriously, have you ever had green beans and ham?

So, if there is a genderless future coming, I’ll be gonna have to pass. 

Call me old-fashioned. 

I accept that (ht “Chuckie”). 

Please, don’t misunderstand me, though.

I’m not gonna get in the way of a genderless future; that is, if its coming. And, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that anyone who wants to go genderless can choose to go genderless.

But, for me, personally, I’m gonna continue my quest.

And, as you might have guessed, Brad called me back a couple weeks later and offered me the job.

I was recently recounting that experience with my current department chairperson. I concluded by saying “I’m all right being someone’s second choice.” She smiled, laughed a bit, and said “You were our fourth choice.”

Oh well.


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Thanks. – shawn