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Creating Your Legend

Matt has some great thoughts on influencing the boys/men who follow us. Sometimes being a “second father” is even more important than being a biological father to a young man. Too often the primary/original father figure is not around or is downright lousy at the most important job he’ll ever have. Here’s to all the men out there inspiring and growing the men of tomorrow!

Matt Shaner

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be adding some posts leading up to the release of my new men’s devotional at the end of the month. Let the countdown begin!

This week, the world of college basketball lost Dean Smith, legendary coach at the University of North Carolina whose tenure included guiding Michael Jordan, the greatest to play the game.  I’m not a huge basketball guy, but I found myself reading the stories and response to Smith’s passing.  In doing so, I found a valuable lesson in the untapped potential of men.

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Photo Credit: cuppycakelolz via Compfightcc

A phrase that kept coming up in the memories of Smith was, “a second father.”  Many players stated he was the father they never had and they admired his influence. He was a man who taught his players beyond the hardwood. He valued skills that would apply into the world after college.

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The Dreaded “Chick Stick”

The use of the “chick stick” came into question during a recent game of pool with my brother, brother-in-law, and younger male cousins. My 16 year-old cousin needed to make a shot from a significant distance across the table. He was given the option of using the “chick stick” (bridge), but was warned–in a semi-joking way–that this was not the way “real men” strike the cue ball. We were of course referring to this age-old notion that men only do things the hard way. Taking the easy way out is seen as weak, womanly/girly, and generally less masculine. I’m happy to say that my cousin didn’t let us get inside his head and he successfully used the bridge to make his shot.

To me, this strategy of encouraging men to take the more difficult of two roads to prove their masculinity is reminiscent of so many Discovery channel moments. One can easily envision two full-grown rams banging their heads together, giving each other concussion after concussion until one of them submits and walks away, defeated, likely never to mate again. Sure, they’re built for it, and in some ways the survival of their species depends on it, but why do we men do the same thing to each other? Why must the most difficult way be the manly way? Does this even make sense any more?

I suppose many of us convince ourselves that we compete for the sexual attention of women through displays of our physical prowess. There’s evolutionary evidence for this, and research would support the notion that there are certain traits that women find more attractive than others. However, I think we may be fighting a battle long since over. For those of us living in developed, 1st world nations, women no longer look to that physical prowess as their most enticing, sexually motivating factor. Where we men still prefer attractive physical features suggesting youth, health, and reproductive fitness, women all over the world prefer men with resources and status (Buss, 1995).

How does one acquire resources and status? Well, unless you are one of a very select group of professional football players, fewer UFC fighters, and even fewer boxers, you probably aren’t making too much scratch beating up other guys. Hit the weights to stay in shape, but don’t count on them to help you “get the girl.” Many of the wealthiest and apparently most desirable men in the world these days have used personality/charm, intelligence, intuition (business sense), and/or strong leadership/relationship skills to get to the top. This is what most women want most. Long gone are the days of beating each other up for attention.

With this in mind, to whom are we trying to prove ourselves? Women? Research would suggest no. Often they’re not even around for our little skirmishes. Think about the majority of the crowd at a school fight, a UFC fight, a football game. Sure, there are some women in attendance, but they’re the clear minority. We are trying to impress other men!

We are competing for women that are not around, don’t care, or would rather see a “civilized” approach to courting them including courtesy, sophistication, precision, respect and–yes–strength. But what kinds of strength? Certainly there will be many men out there that must maintain their physical strength for work. Blessings on you for carrying sacks of cement, 2x4s, tires, and heavy tools across the construction site. I appreciate your ability and willingness to bulk up your arms using a jackhammer on the street for hours at a time so my drive to the office is faster and more enjoyable. The rest of us thank you, but try not to think of yourself as just a tough guy. Don’t let your strength be the trait that defines you or the thing that you lean on in relationships. That can lead to unsatisfying, shallow, and–in more extreme cases–abusive relationships.

For the rest of us, the average guy, how much is enough, really? My wife needs me to reach high places in the kitchen, lift heavy boxes, move furniture around, open pickle jars, and lift the stroller into the trunk.  For most men, this is all the physical prowess our women need from us.

So carry on men. For the subset of women that still want to mate with a neanderthal, grunt away. Live at the gym. Display your largely useless physical strength. Chug that bottle of whiskey and race your monster trucks. Definitely leave the “chick stick” on the rack. For the rest of the women checking you out in 2015, show your strength of character, your strength of resolve, your strength of values, your strength of maturity, and–if necessary–your physical strength to open a jar or two. But let’s not fool ourselves. We’re mostly just trying to impress each other.

Would Women in Shanghai or Canada be Afraid of You?

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Would women in Shanghai or Canada be afraid of you? Would women in Fiji be attracted to you?

A recent study found that sexual preference for “masculine men” and “feminine women” is not something that emerged thousands of years ago in our evolutionary ancestors, but rather something new and somewhat specific to urbanized cultures. I found that one of the most interesting takeaways from this article was that simply having “masculine” traits–facial features like a square jaw, etc.–was associated with perceived aggression (seemingly insinuating that the more masculine you are the more aggressive you are).

Specifically, participants were shown several ethnically diverse sets of pictures and asked, among other things, “Which face is the nastiest (most cruel, unkind, aggressive, difficult, unpleasant to live with)?” Bear in mind that in all pictures the face had a neutral emotional expression. What an unfortunate finding for those of us who were born with traditionally masculine traits! It’s almost as though they’re saying, “Good luck finding a woman that is not afraid of you!”

Now, to be fair,I may have hyperbolized a bit there. But in all seriousness, it’s too bad that being born with a set of traits may influence what a majority of women may imagine about your personality before they even meet you. (By the way, I’m discussing heterosexual relationships here because that was the specific focus of the research group in the article below). On the plus side for those “nasty” men identified above, masculine traits were often also found to be more visually attractive.

I highly recommend checking out the study: http://www.pnas.org/content/111/40/14388

It’s got some interesting info about how culture, urbanization, and availability of not only potential partners but also visual cues (billboards, TV, etc.) may influence the way we perceive threat and whom we find attractive.

Perhaps the most significant finding is the societal differences shown in the figure above. The figure demonstrates that the more urbanized the culture (Shanghai, UK, Canada) the higher the percentage of women surveyed that found more masculine traits to be aggressive (longer blue lines). Women in less-developed cultures tended to be much less likely to show a preference for “masculine” traits and less likely to perceive them as aggressive (more evenly distributed blue, white, and pink lines).

So, are you seen as nasty and aggressive? Do your traits match your personality? It may largely depend on where you live and what kind of women are around! What can we do about this in “urbanized” and Western cultures so that masculine men are not unfairly labeled as aggressive, nasty, and just plain hard to live with?

Am I Doing This Right???

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Today was a wonderful day. I woke up to find my 2 year-old son snuggling next to me (apparently my wife had retrieved him from his crib and put on his favorite cartoon so we could get 30 more minutes of rest before the day truly started…I love that woman!). We had breakfast and then went to the park where we played catch, went down the slides, and did other generally father-son-ish things. Then home for lunch and a nap. Well, at least my son got a nap. I headed out to my office for the afternoon. Then it was home for dinner where I learned that my son had, for the fourth time this week, experienced a successful potty-training event resulting in great exuberance and “yellow ice cream” (lemon popsicle). Then it was off to bed for my son, and my wife and I got to work putting together the table upon which my laptop currently rests. It’s now midnight, and this brings me to my question: “Am I doing this right?”

I find myself wanting what seem all-too-often to be goals that are at odds with one another. I want to be a good father, husband, psychologist, professor, son, and brother, while somehow also hoping to take care of my body. I have started jogging at night again (going out for a short jog tonight after finishing this post), I eat somewhat fewer snacks while working at night, and I try to get at least 6 hours of sleep each night. Is it possible to do all of these things and do each of them well?

(sigh)

Small victories. Balance is one of the hardest things to come by in my small piece of the world. I cannot say how many days I have been driving to work at an office, clinic, or school when I have found myself longingly looking at the men slaving away in the cool morning air (knowing it would soon be 85 degrees and they would continue working through the day) doing “manly jobs.” Jobs like landscaping, collecting garbage, construction, and others. I’m sure they’re out there, but I’ve yet to see a woman wearing a jumpsuit and mowing a lawn or wearing a hardhat and driving a giant roller to smooth out the pavement as I drive by. I only say this to emphasize that, as a man, these jobs are possible and acceptable options for me. And yet I have chosen to work with people in therapeutic, teaching, and mentoring roles.

My job requires me to read, write, prepare lectures, grade papers, and other administrative tasks. These all take time. LOTS of time. Time that often is taken away from my wife and son. For instance, I turned down an invite to go to Disneyland with them tomorrow. They’ll be going with my mother-in-law, so no real harm done, but I still wish I could go with them. I wish I had been home to see my son have his most recent potty-training success. I wish I could see every step of his tremendous growth and development. I wish I didn’t have my laptop on my lap when my wife and I watch TV together at night. I wish we went on more dates. I wish I were more available to both of them.

I have to consider here that things will likely ease up a bit (if I let them) in the next year or so. Some more cumbersome tasks will soon be completed at work and I am getting more comfortably settled in my academic position to the point that I now seldom teach a completely new class. There is light at the end of the busy-ness tunnel. But, that said, life always throws curveballs and I tend to fill my time when I can. I am terrible at saying “no” when people ask for help.

So back to my question, “Am I doing this right?”

Certainly not perfectly. But I am thrilled that I’ve been able to closely observe the past couple years of my son’s life by being interested, involved, and as present as possible. If late nights are the price to pay for now, it seems a bargain. And yet, I still hope to solidify a consistent approach to all of my cherished roles that demonstrates balance, commitment, wisdom and love. With that in mind, I think it’s time to stop writing, take a jog, and get back to work!

Back Seat Sleeper

Jackson sleeping in the back seat

This Thanksgiving, my family drove up to Ventura, CA from Orange County to visit with my mother’s family for the day. The drive is only about two hours if you make good time, but with a two year old in the back seat, you never know how long it may FEEL to drive those two otherwise short hours. We arrived on time (by some unprecedented miracle) and enjoyed catching up with family we had not spent much time with since last year during the winter holidays. After several hours of enjoying mashed potatoes, cream corn, cranberry sauce, and gumbo (in honor of our Louisiana French ancestry on my mother’s side), we parted company until Christmas.

After staying up late to pack for the journey north the night before (it is AMAZING how much junk you have to haul around to entertain a two year old) and spending all day socializing, I was feeling pretty tuckered out. I’m an introvert at heart and while I enjoy chatting with family and friends, I tend to recharge by vegging out in front of a football game or taking a rare nap.

While driving home that night, tired, jealous of my two year old relaxing and watching a movie in the back seat, I started thinking about when I was the kid in the back seat. There were so many nights my dad drove our family home from the same Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas gatherings, and family road trips. I don’t think I ever really appreciated what my dad was doing at the time.

I remember wishing I could drive. I remember wondering what he and my mother could possibly be talking about for so many hours at a time (I credit my wife for turning me into the at least average conversationalist that I’ve become). I remember playing my Game Boy (the original green screen , heavier than a Macbook, handheld brick console  ) for hours on end, ignoring my surroundings.

What I don’t remember is my dad ever complaining about being tired. I think that may be the thing that stands out most to me.  I really don’t recall him being negative very often. There were plenty of opportunities for him to bemoan our finances at times, lament the traffic we might be stuck in, or grumble about working late nights as a janitor while completing his degree and working toward his eventual successful career as an educator.

What I remember from these times is that he was a rock. He found ways to make working nights sound exciting and mysterious. I would occasionally visit him at work and always had fun “helping” him with his duties. I remember on the late night family drives that he never seemed tired. I always felt secure and trusted that he would get us home safely.

When my son looks at me when we drive home late at night, I hope that he sees the same strength in me. I hope he feels secure enough to sleep peacefully. I hope he trusts that his daddy will always get him home safely. And personally, I hope that California goes the way of Arizona and eliminates Daylight Savings Time so I don’t have to drive home in the dark at 5:00 pm. I’m just saying…

Real men: A lesson from my dad

When I was somewhere between the ages of 4 and 8 (old enough to remember the story and not so old that it really traumatized me the way it may have if I’d been in junior high), my family was eating lunch at a Taco Bell near our home in southern California. I can picture the hard plastic booth just on the other side of the tacky, southwestern-colored solid striped wall containing the fake green plants separating the ordering counter from the dining area. Behind my seat in the booth was a row of tables with three older boys. At least junior high age if not older. Some of the details are a bit fuzzy, but I remember that the boys behind me were making fun of my ears. (To be fair, my ears do stick out a bit more than some.) They called me “Dumbo” of course referring to the Disney elephant whose ears are so large he can fly. They then left the restaurant and headed outside to their BMX bikes in the parking lot.

My dad then proceeded to head out to the parking lot and give a harsh earful to the boys. It’s one of the few distinct times in my life I can remember someone sticking up for me so directly and boldly. I’m sure at the time it wasn’t a big deal to me. I probably just ate my Fiesta Bean and Cheese Burrito (remember those snack-size items that were 39 cents? Ahh, the good old days) and thought nothing of it the rest of the day. Looking back, though, I have a different perspective. When I think about what it takes to be a father, I often think of my own dad. I sometimes find myself tearing up when I watch a movie about the relationship between a father and son. Field of Dreams…Rudy…The Lion King…Indiana Jones…You know the movies. And when I’ve thought back to that day at Taco Bell I sometimes would think that it was my dad’s toughness that was memorable. In my young mind my father was taking on three bullies that were much bigger than me. I would have been terrified of them, but he stood strong and tall and told them not to mess with his son. A real tough guy in the mind of his little boy.

But as I look back on it now I have a different kind of fondness for the memory and for my dad. Sure, he put himself in harm’s way to a degree in the parking lot (again, I can’t be sure how old/big the guys were), but there’s more to it than that. What really means the most to me now is that I was special to him. He cared enough about me (and innocent, helpless boys other than his own) to teach the bullies a lesson. I love that my dad thinks I am special. I have yet to discover for myself many of the things that he already sees in me. I guess I’ve always been his “wild thing,” a boy with no limits, a good man. While I strive in different ways to be all of these things, I think back on the ways he has inspired me with his actions, with his conspicuous love for his son that never fails, even when I do.

To my dad, thanks for being an example of what a real man can be: loving, with actions evolving from affection, through service and protection.

To you, thanks for reading. Share this with your friends or ponder it alone. Either way, I’ve enjoyed sharing this small bit of my life and my vision for what a man can be. Join me for future posts exploring the modern man, and the myths that mold us.