When I was 20, I was dating women, drinking plenty of alcohol, eating meat, driving a convertible and harboring dreams of excess that included a big house, a beach house, a yacht and sports car. At 47, I date men, I don’t drink, I don’t eat meat, I ride a bicycle and I live quite comfortably and happily in a one-bedroom apartment.
And I’m a man.
According to our magazines, blogs and culture in general, being a man in America means being a person who pursues women, liquor, meat, sports, cars and luxury with bravado. Here’s my problem: that doesn’t describe me at all.
I stopped lying to women when I came out of the closet in 1991; I got sober in 2002, which was really a public service (you’re welcome); I quit eating mammals in 2010; though I’ve had a license since I was sixteen, I haven’t owned a car in over 20 years, opting for a cool bicycle, public transportation, walking, the occasional Uber and the very occasional car rental; and I have no interest in owning multiple homes or a jet.
Here’s another weird thing: I’m willing to bet that a “gay, sober, frugal vegetarian who rides a bike” conjurs images for many of an unshaven, anemic-looking smear in an artisanal plaid flannel shirt, skinny stretch denim and sneakers with a fixed-gear bicycle, a neck tattoo and questionable hygiene. Yeah… not me, either.
Essentially, I’ve never felt defined any kind of “type.” I’ve always had a hard time fitting in and finding a tribe. Common tropes about what it means to be a man have often made me feel left out of the conversation, like I didn’t belong.
One of the reasons I started this blog was because I was looking through an issue of Details magazine several years ago, noticing that all of the clothes, accessories and other accoutrements were ridiculously expensive. $10,000 watches? $6,000 suits? $80,000 cars? Who among that magazine’s readership was actually buying all this stuff? Not me or anyone I know. And I know some rich people.
For the vast majority of real men who don’t have great money, this kind of content wasn’t helpful. A lot of men are suffering and need real options for looking good and living well in grim times. Young men trying to build a life under a pile of student loan debt need to look like they belong at the table. So I started looking at how to create a handsome, attractive, stylish, tasteful lifestyle without being a millionaire or billionaire. Hence my coining of a word that doesn’t exist: “thousandaire.” I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, I’ve learned a great deal and I have found immeasurable satisfaction in finding ways to look better in a $500 suit than the show-off who dropped $5K.
Now I’m wondering what’s next.
As men – specifically American men – we’re supposed to want more: more money, more food, more car, more square footage, more stuff. I think the messages that bombard us confuse “bounty” and “success” with “excess.” Before we know it, when it’s time to move out of that last house, we realize we’ve become virtual lint rollers who’ve unconsciously accumulated more and more rubbish over the years. I’m a terrible consumer. I don’t buy a lot of stuff, and I don’t create a lot of trash. And I – gasp – recycle.
Over many years, careful consideration and a lot of self-examination, I’ve come to realize that the dis-ease of endless want and the all-consuming pursuit of more doesn’t really interest me. As I look around and carefully observe (and judge, of course) other people’s choices, that perspective makes me feel like an oddball, almost un-American in my lack of conspicuous consumption. And I’m fairly certain that people with a lot of stuff or in the process of acquiring it are not any discernibly happier than I.
With respect to money, all I really need is enough to pay my rent and my health insurance premiums painlessly, with enough to enjoy a nice dinner, an evening out and a little bit for a rainy day. It doesn’t need to be complicated. No boats for me, thank you.
When I’m comfortable and unencumbered with lots of stuff, I can get on with the business of living, doing good work, enjoying the people in my life and the places I visit. (And dressing nicely, of course.) It’s all about traveling light. Or, as one of my design idols Dieter Rams put it: Less, but better. Being asked on someone else’s boat or in someone else’s beach house is a lot of fun and a much lighter way to travel. Instead of working myself to death for the castle, I’d rather work on the qualities that make me a fun and interesting guest who doesn’t have to maintain the castle.
This post is an introduction of sorts to a series about my deviations from the usual requirements and expectations of manhood as defined by our culture – all in an effort to redefine or, at least, re-examine what it means to be a man. Here are a few subjects I’m thinking about:
- The Man Society Conditioned Me to Be
- Taking Up Space
- Getting Dressed (Without Going Broke)
- Getting Around
- Getting Sober
- Getting Dinner (and Breakfast and Lunch)
- The Vegan Problem (image issues)
- Real Men Are Guardians of Animals, Not Destroyers of Them
- If You Really Love Dogs, Adopt, Don’t Shop
- Real Men Apologize (Because They’re Wrong A Lot)
- Conscious Consumption (shopping, trash, impact/footprint, awareness)
- Kindness and Compassion
- Vulnerability Isn’t for Pussies
- Change Is a Bitch (and Necessary)
- Reinvention (After a Crash)
- The Underrated Virtues of Bachelorhood/Singlehood
- The Modern Gay
- Social Pressures of Social Media (and “look at my stuff” messaging)
There will surely be others. Maybe this is a rough outline of the book I may write. Who knows? Like everything else in my life, it’s an experiment.
Speaking of books… I was a big fan and regular reader of the inimitable Glenn O’Brien who, quite literally, wrote the book on how to be a man, titled How To Be A Man: A Guide To Style and Behavior For The Modern Gentleman (2011, Rizzoli). It’s a brilliant, funny and useful book that should be required reading for all young men after graduating from high school or college. I re-read it every year or so.
I miss Glenn and his take on things. I never met him, but we were friendly on Twitter. (We were also fellow alumni of St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland and natives of Lakewood, Ohio.) I wish he were still around so I could have these discussions with him. I’d love his thoughts on bringing some of his observations in a supplemental direction as we evolve further from the cave, particularly in a time when a lot of men are, for some indefensible reason, feeling very threatened about the perceived entitlement with their manhood.
Thanks for reading. More to come.