As cultural headshots go, the idea of “fragile masculinity” is just about perfect. Grown from the Marxist concept of hegemonic masculinity, it adopts Saul Alinsky’s fifth Rule For Radicals (“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”) to associate the legitimately risible — “Is it gay to use scented soap?” — with the traditionally male — “Shouldn’t I, the husband, have the final authority in my house?” Naturally, the media uses it with abandon, creating the hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile to drive the nails into the coffin just that much further in hopes of immanentizing the eschaton before the 2020 election.
You suffer from fragile masculinity if you voted for Trump, at least according to the Post, which published a study on the topic. (Even if you’re a woman.) If you disapprove of relaxing the standards applied to firefighters or SWAT troops or Green Berets so more women can qualify, your masculinity is fragile. If you own a gun… well, I’m literally shaking right now, I can’t even, wow just wow. In fact, if you are any more conventionally “manly” than the nu-male in the Swagger Wagon ad, you have gone right past Fragile Masculinity, all the way to Toxic Masculinity. Even African-American men can suffer from Fragile Masculinity, although in their case it was. apparently, forced upon them by white men.
Expressing dissatisfaction with the idea of fragile masculinity is also, you guessed it, a sign of fragile masculinity. Pay no attention to the non-binary character behind the curtain. If you see something, say nothing.
Ah, but this isn’t the Fragile Masculinity Edition of Weekly Roundup, it’s the Masculine Fragility Edition. Which, as you will see, means something quite different.
My son and I spent the last three days in Las Vegas as a kind of pre-Christmas holiday trip. He’d never been there before, but I knew that his mathematically-inclined mind would be fascinated by the games, the odds, and the manipulations involved. We went go-karting at three different facilities and visited tall buildings and ordered room service via robot. Along the way I asked him to figure out a variety of mysteries: Why do the slot machines look like they do? Why would you make it hard to find the exit of a casino? Why is every single salesperson in the high-end watch shops a woman of Chinese ancestry? Our first evening in Vegas was a “boys’ night” away from Danger Girl, who was busy at the spa. We went to the Circus Circus Adventuredome so we could play the same air hockey and video games that we play back home in Ohio. Everything was going swimmingly until we came around a corner and found… a roller rink.
John took a few ice hockey lessons last year, because central Ohio has a bit of a hockey fetish and quite a few of his friends play on junior teams as a consequence. It didn’t resonate with him — “super-boring” was the verdict — but he does enjoy ice skating and he was therefore eager to give the rollerskates a try. “Go right ahead,” I told him.
“You should skate, too.”
“Dude, I haven’t skated since 1985.”
“Well, you still should.” Which is how I found myself lacing up a set of disgusting rental rollers and attempting to stand up as John skated away towards the dark, laser-pattern-splattered rink. I was not an accomplished skater as a teen; the only reason I went to “United Skates Of America” was because that was where the girls were. Sure enough, after five or six sessions of learning to skate in passable, chick-attracting fashion, I met a remarkably busty blonde named Tara near the rental lockers. We skated together for a week before exchanging phone numbers and agreeing, after one particularly long and smutty call, that we were boyfriend and girlfriend. Our first “date” started with my mother driving me down to a less-than-distinguished school district and dropping me off at Tara’s split-level house. The family room smelled like smoke, the carpet was spotted with foul-smelling stains, and someone had leaned a Remington 870 shotgun against a corner. Tara’s thirty-something uncle walked in the front door without knocking, stinking of gas-station wine at seven in the afternoon. He pinned her to the wall, kissed her on the mouth, and pinched her nipple through her sweater, saying “Gotcha!” as he did it.
“Can we leave and walk to dinner?” Tara pleaded with me, so we did. Over Rax sandwiches she strongly implied to me that she had been molested by every man in her extended family over the past two years, but that she was still interested in us possibly having sex in her room that night before my mom showed up to get me at nine. “If my uncle knocks you have to get rid of him, maybe keep him from coming to see me any more,” she clarified. Then, to close the sale, she pulled the collar of her V-neck down so I could see the depth of her cleavage and the line of fine, slightly darkened hair between her breasts.
Chewing a french fry in idle distraction, I imagined the scenes to come. She would take my hand and lead me to up to her bedroom, which would probably be just as dirty as the rest of the house. We would definitely do the thing — how the pieces fit was medically clear to me but the details of the actual interaction were fuzzy. At some point, the uncle would probably bang on the bedroom door, expecting no effective threat from a five-foot-six thirteen-year-old boy who weighed approximately 110 pounds. I would answer it, say something suave, and deliver a high front kick to his jaw, exactly the way I had been taught at the Jay T. Will Karate Academy in the course of receiving my yellow belt. Then I would take Tara back to my father’s house in Muirfield and teach her the Standard American Dialect so we could be married.
On the walk back I thought and spoke in measured, Eastwood-like terms of the heroism to come. As Tara crossed the threshold to her house ahead of me, however, I thought about her uncle and that Remington shotgun for a moment before turning and sprinting into the trees across the street. A few minutes later, she came back out, accompanied by the kissing uncle, shouting and searching for me in the dark. They laughed together in the throaty familiarity of family or lovers. I flattened myself against vinyl siding, nearly invisible on her unlit street, and imagined that I was a Green Beret, separated from my unit, being hunted by the Viet Cong. An hour later, I intercepted my mother’s Nissan King Cab a quarter-mile away and locked my door as I closed it.
“I don’t ever need,” I told her, “to go skating again.” Yet here I was, thirty-four years later, rolling unsteadily along a makeshift wall of half-height barriers from a place called “United Rental”, pitching fore and aft in spastic but successful attempts to stay upright. John braked to a halt next to me.
“You don’t actually look that bad,” he offered by way of consolation, “but you should try moving your feet out to the side, one at a time, to go faster.” His demonstration took him away from me with startling speed. I attempted to emulate him and was rewarded with a tottering, terrifying ride on my left foot into the next barrier. A gap-toothed Latino fellow who was standing on the far side threw himself off said barrier in exaggerated, theatrical fashion.
“At least choo are out there,” he told me, in the low voice of conspirators. “I could not even try, man, I would crack my head chust like that,” and he made a chopping motion with his left hand.
“That,” I replied, “is what I’m trying to avoid, but I’m not sure how to do it.” I felt very tall on the skates, and indeed I was a head above everyone else there, a side effect of also being the only adult white man on a rink full of visitors from Mexico and India. In the two decades since I first came to Las Vegas, the place has stratified by race in a way that would shame a California prison. The poor end of the strip is almost entirely brown, the middle is white twentysomethings trying to cosplay Swingers or The Hangover, the Bellagio and the Aria are majority-Asian. I’d noticed, on our sojourn through Circus Circus, how the crowd melted away from me and John in the same mix of deference and defiance I recall from trips to Asia. We were aliens here, imperial interlopers imposing our presence on America’s future like the last drunken guests to linger at a party, T. Rexes in a world of furry mammals who both feared the violence of our oversized stomp and pitied our impending obsolescence.
The ground seemed very far away to this particular dinosaur. I became conscious of just how fragile I was on these skates. Not in the political or emotional sense, but in the sense that I was forty-seven years old and I could easily crack my wrists, or skull, with one ill-timed fall at speed. I was afraid, as I skated, in a way that I am not afraid in a race car or on a BMX bike. There is something in me that laughs at the idea of death or dismemberment behind the wheel and sneers at yet another bike-related trip to the ICU but absolutely freezes in terror at the concept of cracking my arm on the ground of a children’s roller rink. All around me, people were falling, tripping, landing harmlessly on butt or elbows or hands. I couldn’t take even a single one of those falls. I had to be a perfect skater from the first kick-off.
I forced myself to circle for a precise half hour, rarely exceeding walking pace, vibrating with fright but smiling and giving a thumbs-up every time my own kid buzzed me. Over time, I re-learned how to keep my head up and my feet steady. My knees hurt in that familiar tendons-and-ligaments fashion, particularly when I tried to steer on the move. Then I shucked the skates and gave John another half-hour of his own as I lined up with the other parents. Some of them had been there for the whole time and they nodded at me as I took my position on the fence: We see you’ve finally given that idiocy up. What an American, meaning stupid, idea, that adults should skate, particularly if they obviously don’t know how! And how inherently privileged of me to try. I could do my job with a broken arm or even a broken leg; how many of them would be immediately terminated in the same situation? How can you clean a table or nail a sheet of drywall with a fractured wrist?
At least I was out of danger — or so I thought, until my son looked up and saw the sign for “Ice Rink” at the Cosmopolitan the following night. He wanted to go, as did Danger Girl. How could I vote against it?
The roller rink at Circus Circus had been dark and dirty, with a $5 rental fee. The Cosmo’s ice rink was on a rooftop, illuminated in the current hipster-mandatory manner by string lights, charging thirty-four dollars per head for skates and a “S’mores” package with Sterno stove, marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers. A veritable army of dark-skinned, five-foot-four uniformed functionaries circled the rooftop, silently cleaning up the messes left by food and drink. Did I happen to spot the Latino fellow with whom I’d commiserated the night before, wearing casino livery and scrubbing the sticky floor next to a reserved cabana seat on his hands and knees? Perhaps it was my imagination. Every thirty minutes the sky filled with artificial “snow” made from frothy bubbles. The whole thing felt absurdly self-congratulatory and deliberately Instagram-worthy, surrounded by fireplaces and neon and the insistent throb of the “Vegas beat”, 120bpm dance mixes featuring whatever tripe is trending on Spotify at the moment.
The rink was crowded with children, parents, teens, young adults, all enjoying the effortless prosperity that had brought them to the Cosmopolitan, almost entirely white and Asian, well-dressed in whatever fashion applied back home, bedazzled sneakers with incomprehensible logos, massive Canada Goose coats. My son stepped across the threshold to the rink and simply disappeared into the crowd. Twenty minutes later, I followed him on, clutching a odd “seal sled” given to novice skaters so they wouldn’t fall over. My son commented on it every time he skated by. After two laps of the rink, he said to me,
“You don’t need that. Give it to me?”
“I do in fact need it. And you don’t.” But I handed it over anyway, thinking that maybe he was tired or nervous. He sprinted away, guiding the seal with one hand. “Seal wheelie!” he yelled, and sent it spinning between two adults before taking three strong kicks, recovering it, and skating away at high speed with the “seal” balanced on the back corner of its “flippers”. Some teen girl screamed in fright as the seal zipped past her and in response John performed a mock bow in her direction as he skated by. Was this toxic masculinity in its earliest form? Who made him a cocky little showoff — nature, nuture? Society, partiarchy? I remember those same impulses from my youth, the urge to show off and invent tricks and impress my personal awesomeness upon innocent bystanders. Who put those impulses there? God or Man?
Not that I had any bandwidth in my head at the time to process these questions, being entirely too consumed with sheer blinding fearful misery. Rarely did I make it more than thirty or forty feet before falling prey to some sort of unbalanced paroxysm that ended with me clutching the rink wall — but that was enough to raise me to the middle rank of Cosmo ice-skaters, many of whom were on the ground more than they were on their feet. Not a luxury I could afford. As with the roller rink, my first fall would likely be my last. I’d refused the helmets they were handing out; that would have been a humiliation greater than pushing a seal. This time I gave myself a mandatory twenty minutes before retiring to the observer’s section. I made slow and steady progress. Eight laps of the rink, sans plastic sled. Then I stepped off and shuddered at the cowardly flush of relief that swept through my body.
Sipping a soda with Danger Girl at the rink’s edge, I watched my son absolutely terrorize the world. He bumped, prodded, buzzed, teased, and enraged nearly everyone on the ice — but every time the referee in the center pointed at him, he would grin at her and she would accept this as an apology. “If you have the guts to be yourself,” Updike had “Rabbit” Angstrom say, “other people’ll pay your price.” Once, John was forced to lift a foot at high speed and zip by an errant seal-sled in flamingo fashion; when he saw me laugh at that, he deliberately created the same situation a dozen more times, usually causing the seal-holder to slip and fall in response. It occurred to me that I should probably discipline him for this, but I did nothing about it, always loath to take any action that might crush his belligerent high spirits. Surely there will be enough of that in his future. I need not add my voice to the chorus. The nail that stands tallest will be hammered down, but I will not be the one to swing that hammer. “Stay away from the old people,” I told him, expecting that he would define “old” as “like my dad, or above.”
He was not the only fellow out there having a good time. I saw an impossibly handsome, John-Mayer-esque kid, early twenties, six-three and whipcord-thin, sitting arrogantly on a seal sled that was being pushed by two beautiful co-eds. (Can we still say co-ed? When does that go on the Proscribed List? Do my younger readers even know the word? It refers to when the better colleges became co-educational facilities by the introduction of female “co-eds”.) The girls alternated between laughing for his benefit and side-eyeing each other. Was it that our young Mayer didn’t know how to skate? Two laps later, having sufficiently harnessed the ladies to his will, he hopped off and began circling the rink with long, powerful strides, his hands clasped behind his back to demonstrate skillful nonchalance. The girls scrambled to keep up but had to settle for grabbing at him each time he went by. John took offense at his speed and resolved to match him, chasing at a distance that never shrank but rarely increased.
Eventually, Mayer stopped to favor his companions with a word. Either of them, with their perfect bodies in yoga pants and chiseled bone structure beneath rosy cheeks, would command two grand a night or more as escorts to the high-floor suites above us. Credit the folks at Seeking Arrangement for letting us old guys get back in the game: NYU has almost 1,300 “sugar babies” available, for example. The going rate is usually three figures, not four. The tire bill from my World Challenge race would have gotten me a week in an upstate cabin with a nineteen-year-old. What does it say about me that I no longer even consider it?
Ah, but these particular beauties weren’t here on business and they only had eyes for their… date? Friend? Mayer leaned towards them to say something witty, but right at that moment, my son saw the triangle formed by their mutual body language and contrived to blast through it, jumping cannonball-like as he did so. The two ladies yelped and spilled to the ground; Mayer twirled gracefully in response and laughed out loud, nodding at John’s receding back in the universal “game recognized” expression. Each of the distaff victims then received the favor of a hand and they used it to stand and physically crowd their savior, laughing bright-eyed, a natural aristocracy of beauty in the midst of the merely money-#Blessed. John arrived on his next lap and, with obvious disdain for this in-rink hugging, skipped one-footed around them. Then our curly-haired hero skated away towards the exit, his hands fervently gripped on either side by a brunette beauty, his head held high in satisfaction.
For a long moment, I envied the fellow the same way I occasionally envy my own son. All their lives ahead of them, with the confidence and skills to write their own rules along the way. And here I am, wobbling unsteadily on rental skates, one slip away from being treated like an old man by some emergency-room nurse. More life behind me than ahead, the remainder sure to be laced in ever-swelling percentage with pain, sickness, the slow painful decay of both body and mind. If I permitted my envy to fester, what would grow in that fetid ground? Would I seethe with pustulent hatred for “bros” and “frat boys” and “Chads”, the way so many of my repugnant younger contemporaries do? Would I take steps to level the beauty and confidence of that young skater with my own sullen fecklessness, the way Harrison Bergeron was burdened with goggles and sacks of lead shot? Would I speak against the “fragile masculinity” that leads impossibly self-confident boys and young men to tease girls and show off to them? Would I advocate for complicated “codes of consent” to clip their wings and bring them down to the same grinding sort of negotiation with the opposite sex faced by the nerds and geeks of the world? Would I labor to destroy every institution held dear by boys and young men, from the Boy Scouts to the NFL to the Green Berets themselves? How long would it be before I independently invented that ridiculous and hateful concept of “fragile masculinity” as a stick with which to beat young men into the ground?
Alternately, I can offer the seedlings of my envy nothing but rocky ground in which to take root. I’ve had more than a fair share of time in which to shine. I have a woman to love, a few cars to drive, a bike to ride, a son to cherish. If I have any role in the future, it is to sustain and defend a world in which young men like my boy and his skating adversary can flourish, prosper, find their best selves, and encourage others in turn. If my contemporaries are sworn to “destroy the patriarchy”, then perhaps I should be the one to defend the most worthy parts of it. I do not want to live in a world where we geld our young men then cauterize the wound with ridicule.
Allow me to channel Crash Davis for a moment: I believe in the soul… the late-braking pass… the Church Gap… the American shoe and the Swiss watch and the Savile Row suit… the freedom to have two girls with you on a skating rink or on a press trip… I believe in Audie Murphy and Manfred von Richtofen and Isoroku Yamamoto… I believe that we should encourage our masculine impulses, not to hurt or demean others but to excel in our own selves, to walk that fine line between bravery and stupidity knowing that we will occasionally err, and sometimes fatally. I believe in the podium trophy and the champagne spray and the astonished crowd. I believe in the femur nail and the fused joint and the post-concussion headache. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.