Updated: Mar 30
Last night, Brynn had a friend over who is working at a construction job. His task is cleaning up around the construction site, and I asked him if his hands are calloused. I asked him to show me his hands, which he did and they were still soft and unblemished.
It reminded me of a time right after my first year of college, I had a job working for a "finish grader" whose business consisted of leveling the landscape around newly built houses. My job was to use my favorite flat head shovel to get to the spots that the tractor couldn't reach. Ten hours a day, at $6 an hour, six days a week, and time and a half for overtime. It was good money, the overtime.
The houses that were being built were all over the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs, in California. We tried to always work on the shady side of the house, but in the mid-afternoon, there wasn't much shade, and other times, we just needed to finish the job. Sometimes, working against the heat sink of a newly built wall, in the afternoon sun, was unavoidable. In certain spots around the house, the temperature could be well into the 140-degree range or hotter.
I prided myself on my toughness. My hands developed calluses upon calluses. So thick that I could work a full day and nothing would hurt them. There was this time when we had to move several large landscape boulders with the tractor. My task was to wrap a chain around each bolder so that Bud, my tractor driving colleague could maneuver the boulder into place. It was a point of pride for me to be able to grab the heavy and hot chain, barehanded, get down on hands and knees, dig away the dirt to make room for the chain, and then wrap the slack around the teeth of the scoop. My body too was tough, I was in the best physical and functional condition of my life. I went shirtless most of the time, with jeans and work boots. My toughness was legendary.
I remember going to a church dance and meeting an older gentleman and we struck up a conversation. He asked what I did, probably because I was really tan and very blond. Whatever the reason, after I told him he asked to see my hands. He was very complimentary towards my calluses because it meant that I knew how to work, and I was even more proud.
That was back when my masculinity was tied to my ability to do manual labor. That's how I was raised. My dad was a gardener and he maintained his work ethic until a few weeks before he died of cancer, at 79 years of age. One of the last times I saw him, he was really thin from the chemo, but still, he loaded up his truck and went to work. He had one or two accounts that he still maintained and on this particular morning, he had to trim a few citrus trees. Since his body was weakened from the chemo, and a cold chainsaw is harder to start, he handed it to me and asked me to pull the cord for him to warm it up. He didn't want to get to the job and not be able to start it.
Throughout my early life, manual labor was the standard and toughness was the only way to express my masculinity and my manhood. Any sign of emotion or love was a weakness. And the calluses were a symbol of the type of man I was becoming. I had a good friend in college that I talked about all the time during one of the last summers I stayed at home. My dad wasn't comfortable with my love for this friend and once commented that we must be gay. The thing was, he didn't explicitly teach us to hate homosexuals, so his comment was surprising. So what this friend and I shared must have been a little too much for him.
During my first year of college, I was about ready to meet a girlfriend's father, who came from the East Coast to see what his daughter got herself into. We had a fireplace in our student rental so when he arrived, they found me out chopping wood with an ax, and boy could I swing that ax, which was another point of pride. It turns out that he was not impressed. I was surprised because I thought everyone would be impressed with my definition of manliness, calluses upon calluses, and the ability to wield a shovel and swing an ax. He was more interested in an earner for his daughter, and I wasn't driven in the way that he valued.
He was a bit of a "softy", NYC lawyer guy, but I was a year into college and so I was starting to accept other ways of being. So even though I judged him by my old standards of masculinity, I was willing to give him some latitude for the sake of my hope for this relationship. Eventually, that relationship tapered off. But I'm better off, because even though my definition of masculinity at the time was quite narrow, so was his, just in a different way, and trying to conform to those expectations would have been painful.
So when I asked to see this young man's calluses, I had to check myself. He probably didn't feel any judgment from me, but it was there. That judgment was the old me, not too far below the surface, the construction, tough guy me. Physical toughness, being able to do a day's work, is a thing that I still value, and it's the work ethic that I learned from my dad that got me through the early years of art-making. I took my first art class in my early 20's, and I needed to put in long hours to catch up with my very talented peers who were further along. Being a "hard worker" alone no longer defines me, and it takes effort to broaden my definition of masculinity. Or maybe masculinity isn't the right word to use. Maybe it's just the process of deepening my humanity: empathy, kindness, vulnerability, and generosity are what matters most. It's human to be a man and humane to feel.