Did you hear the one about the Irishman, the Ukrainian and the two Polish men? It’s no joke though. We cycled to Czech where my father-in-law hosted us on a 230km round trip. A weekend like that, on the road, tired, hungry, the road stretching out before you, punishing yet inviting, and well, you’re going to get to know the men you’re with. What makes them tick. What makes a man.
And what is a man? The question intrigues me as the answer is never a fixed thing. Used to be a pair of testicles would suffice. But the definition evolves with knowledge and experience.
Being a man goes way beyond the celebrity endorsed entertainment model currently positing men as Superheroes and so seeks to infantalize us by denying our knowledge and experience. It creates a longing in us for the impossibility of…superpowers – invisibility, turning green, or in the case of Spiderman, the ability to shoot a sticky substance out his body over great distances and onto walls. Eugh.
Or else we’re told to follow the James Bond model which looks like fun until you realise it really entails being an alcoholic, state-sponsored executioner with 42 different kinds of venereal disease.
Mykola, Marcin and Adam are scientists and engineers and I think if a man can be anything he is a creator, a builder, a healer. Any fool can burn a barn, destroy a headstone or bully a black man off a train, but it takes talent to create. To conjure something from nothing – this being the act of magic.
To be a man is to create anything beneficial, be it a picture, a happy human, or a home. To be a man is to be a multifaceted thing, embracing his family while seeking solitude, a bon viveur who knows when to let the sadness in. Contradictory? Of course. A man should be. To simplify man is to reduce him. A man should embrace failure if he is to achieve success, be it in relationships or whatever he is striving for. Show me a man who hasn’t had his heart broken or loved the wrong woman and you’re not showing me a man. You’re showing me a picture in a magazine, a pretty-boy pin up for adolescent girls to cry salty tears over.
As Irish dramatist, Samuel Beckett says in Krapp’s Last Tape, ”Clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most…precious ally”. Poverty, failure, exile, loss, these all build man into a wondrous creation. To die without scars would be a truly awful thing. To fall off the bike, means you have gotten up on the bike and challenged the punishing road that is the future. To die without scars is to die without courage and this loyal readers is the essence of man.
We are all possessed by quiet acts of fortitude. Our lives are defined by them. Marcin Mykola and Adam are no different. For Marcin, the zenith of his courage was being present at the birth of his firstborn, a truly scary time when a man contributes nothing yet everything. For Mykola it was deciding to become a doctor, a career where you perpetually have to re-examine your levels of bravery. When I came to my father-in-law, his answer was the humble one I expected; he said he has never done anything courageous in his life – this from a man who acted in the face of Poland’s historical oppression and made his way out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Both however pale in comparison to his most courageous act; raising five children, four of them being daughters. Jesus, I’m raising two girls and if I don’t get my parade I’m going to be pissed.
He cooks. He cleans. A man finds poetry in the dirt beneath his feet. He lends his lungs to those whose are collapsing. A man fights his corner. He kicks up and kisses down. He shouts at the devil and finds god in the little things. A man hugs. Sings. He doesn’t whistle in the dark, he finds the light. He digs in the earth to create life and to bury the dead. He seeks heaven and he raises hell, he burns the candle down, he gambles, he gets sunburned and he has a stack of quips written on the cuffs of his shirt just in case.
He gets up on the bike, fights the pain and he gets there.
A Man is there.