The Hammer of Manhood: A 6x6 Story
I don’t remember what the weather was like on the morning I had to once-and-for-all prove the depth of my manliness. Nor do I recall the exact time of year. This was during that ill-defined stretch of life between starting my career and having my first kid. No one had told me that the immediate post-college phase is incredibly dull, with most of the time spent worrying about money and finally understanding why everyone complains so much about their domestic responsibilities. One must make food AND pick up one’s wet towels AND do the dishes every day, not biannually like I had gotten away with in college. Those lessons, while necessary, don’t make for a titillating and notable existence. Important memories get lost in the mix.
I do remember that there was no snow on the ground, and it was sunny enough that my dad, grandfather, and I could be outside of the garage at my grandfather’s northwoods cabin without extra layers. As usual, something needed to be fixed or built before the weekend could be enjoyed, and having recently entered boring adulthood, I milled around while they discussed the project and gathered the necessary tools. At the time I had no idea that I was only moments away from one of the most important exams I would ever face. This was my driver’s test and the ACT and all two hundred elementary school spelling tests rolled into one, except instead of deciding trivial things like where I would go to college, or what I would do with the rest of my life, this assessment would determine if I was indeed a man, or if I would be held back for another year in childhood, an awkward, hairy guy sitting in the back of a room full of boys and their squeaky, prepubescent voices.
Dad handed me two pieces of wood, a hammer, and a nail. “Why don’t you nail those together,” he said. The white pine boughs overhead wavered in the breeze, and the birds kept up their songs. They had no idea what had been asked of me. And neither did I. Yet.
A spot on the dirt in front of the garage seemed like as good a spot as any to complete my task, and I positioned the boards, placed the nail, and hefted the hammer. I don’t remember if I knelt or crouched, but I do remember that my dad came to stand over me. And then my grandpa sauntered up behind him. And that’s when it occurred to me. I didn’t need to nail two pieces of wood together. I needed to prove to my dad that I was capable of this most basic man skill, which would in turn prove to his dad that he had done a good job raising a son through to adulthood. With a few smacks of the hammer I would justify the dozens upon dozens of years’ worth of effort that we had spent on each other. That’s when I froze, along with the wind and the birds. The earth stopped turning, and the universe ceased its incomprehensible expansion. This was, as plainly as can be stated, a big deal.
There’s a photograph of me as a ten-year-old that hangs in my grandpa’s cottage, which has since turned into my dad’s cottage. I’m on the beach and the sun is out, except I’m not digging in the sand or splashing in the water. I am sitting in a lounge chair, shielded by an umbrella, covered in a blanket, reading a comic book. Instead of embracing the outdoors like a normal Wisconsin kid, I look more like an old lady’s Victorian-era excursion to the seaside. In middle school I played basketball for two years, and never mind the fact that I didn’t score a single basket until the last game of my eighth grade season, when all my teammates kept passing me the ball until I finally was able to put a few points in the record book. The true picture of my basketball career is me sitting on the far end of the bench, cheering for my team, legs crossed tightly because no one had ever told me that only women are supposed to sit that way.
These days I am a modern 21st century man, totally comfortable with all of the aspects of myself that skew towards feminine. And my dad is proud of everything I’ve accomplished, and he lets me know often. But now that I have a son of my own, I understand the desire to impart the aspects of masculinity that persist as desirable traits. The courage to try new things. The ability to solve problems and take pride in one’s work. When my son was seven, he and I shared an unfortunate encounter at the top of a set of stairs leading to a giant waterslide. He was scared, he didn’t want to go, but I kept pushing even as tears dripped down his cheeks, not because I didn’t respect his emotions or was forcing him towards some outdated value of toughness, but instead because I knew he would love if he would only give it a chance and because I needed to prove to myself that I had raised a kid who could embrace all the opportunities and obstacles life would throw his way. We want our children to be their own people, but we also want them to be successful and well-adjusted, and sometimes those desires conflict. Those are the tough parenting moments. Those are the times where we apply the crushing pressure of expectation, whether we want to or not.
Side note: my son ended up going down the waterslide, but with my wife instead of me. They both hated it.
In the seconds that followed my realization of the importance of my impending hammer swing, I felt what my son must have felt at the top of the waterslide, what most kids feel when faced with the chance to prove themselves to their parents. Anxiety, fear, a little belligerence, and an overwhelming yearning for approval. After tapping the nail a few times to get it started, I positioned the head of the hammer over the head of the nail. I raised the tool, I took a breath. The earth quivered on its axis in anticipation of turning again. The universe throbbed with potential energy.
I smashed the hammer down and hit the nail on the edge, bending in into a quick forty-five-degree angle. Grandpa turned back toward the garage and dad immediately grabbed the hammer from my hand and stood up. Our worth as men and fathers would not be proven that morning. But more opportunities would come. The workbench held plenty of nails, and the garage contained all the wood we would ever need.