The Manly Arts

So what actions make a man a man? As a member of that gender, well into my 40s, I can tell you one thing: I haven’t got a clue. Of course, I am probably not the guy you want to ask. In my youth I can remember imploring my father to let me wear my Darth Vader helmet to the Brewers game to avoid damage from foul balls. John Wayne I am not.

Others, however, are more confident in their definitions. So much so that they have not only compiled lists of manly actions, but they even tell you the correct way to perform them.

If you want your masculinity defined in a mist of generational nostalgia, then How to Build a Fire and Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew by Erin Bried is the book for you. The traditional activities are all here (How to Mow a Lawn, How to Hang Drywall) but the book also veers off into Oprah territory. How to Kindle Romance, “Set the mood according to your sweetie’s taste,” and How to Find Self-Confidence, “Be your own best friend,” sound decidedly ungrandfatherly to my ear.

More straightforward and practical, appropriate for a book put out by Popular Mechanics, is How to Carve a Turkey and 99 Other Skills Every Man Should Know by Chris Peterson. Each task has clear instructions and handy illustrations to guide you through it. Examples include: Splint a Broken Bone, Escape a Burning Building, Kick Start a Motorcycle, and Navigate with a Map and Compass. In a nod to the changing nature of masculine tasks, there is a section on electronics and computers including How to Destroy Your Old Hard Drive.

The best of the bunch though is How to Land an A330 Airbus and Other Vital Skills for the Modern Man by James May.  Mr. May realizes that the whole concept is rather absurd and to prove his point, trots out nine skills that you must master in order to be a man. In addition to being able to fly a commercial airliner in an emergency these skills include:  How to Fight a Duel, How to Invade and Occupy the Isle of Wright and How to Play the First Movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 27, No. 2 with No Previous Experience. The warning sticker on the cover tells you exactly what to expect from the advice in this book: Clear, Concise, Untested, Optimistic.

So after all three books I’m still a bit fuzzy on what actions define a man. I have learned, however, that cheap plastic does little to impede the force of a baseball hit by a professional athlete.

Richard