This is all by way of saying that for all our gender stereotyping about the way men fetishize the rational, here's one of the more notable things about us as a group: We often seem to make bad choices. Shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot kind of choices. The kind of choices that make our loved ones cluster in little informal discussion groups afterward, trying to figure out what on earth their boy was thinking.
It's not an unimportant point. Whether we're falling off the wagon or gambling away our families' savings or having to resign the governorship, the impact we generate through those choices never goes away. My father to this day has never recovered from what he calls my night rider days. He's still waiting for the news that I've done one more calamitously stupid thing to undo all the good fortune that he feels I've enjoyed up to this point. How many other parents or wives or siblings or children are living, one way or the other, under the shadow of the very same thing?
Adult, and solitary, and happy with his life. That character of mine was a guy who cherished his intimate connections and at the same time sought to undermine them. That paradox turns out to explain a lot of seemingly inexplicable behavior. Of course we wanted to believe that the sorts of things we did as boys had nothing to do with aggression toward our parents; we loved our parents. And of course those things had everything to do with aggression. It was as if we were grateful to have been granted the space and the trust to maneuver and to screw up, if we had to, and, simultaneously, were enraged at having been left to do so: Was there really no one minding the store? Was someone really going to suggest to us that we should have agency? It made for a state of mind, familiar to so many of us, in which you take a risk and deny the risk at the same moment, out of rage. It's a way of protesting, and subverting, a feeling of individual impotence, perhaps: I'm not helpless. Look, I can shoot myself in the foot. Even at 11 or 12 or whenever I did it, when I spread myself out on that runway, a part of me found it inconceivable that one of those aircraft would touch down early and turn me into a gruesome local mystery. But the other part knew the risk and could begin to imagine the damage to those who loved me and went ahead with its activities nonetheless.
One thing that is certain is that we'll never get men to fully explain themselves on that score. That's one of the reasons the laconic is and always has been so deeply attractive to men in all genres of popular entertainment. In that same Western I mentioned earlier, The Magnificent Seven, the Mexican bandit chief asks Steve McQueen why he came back to face impossible odds: why he'd commit, cheerfully, something like virtual suicide. McQueen tells him, "Well, it's like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day he took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, 'Why?'" The Mexican bandit chief says impatiently, "And...?" And McQueen smiles bemusedly and tells him, "He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time."
We Hear You!