Monday, 22 August 2011

Manual for a Mechanised Man - Book 1, Entry 4 - Masculinity

Men Hanging Out with Other Men, Doing Manly Things
I would classify myself as a garden variety heterosexual male. It would be erroneous to think that my disability has not affected how I experience and display my masculinity, but initially I didn't think this was an area where I had many insights. You see, I don't tend to ponder what it means to be male and in this body. Yet as I begin to unpack these ideas, I have found that I have surprisingly more to say than I initially expected.

Obviously, from a convenience standpoint, I think it is altogether easier to be male, than female, with this disability. Self toileting is an obvious example. Moreover, I would think that dealing with feminine hygiene issues, given some of my mobility restrictions, would be horrendously difficult. And there are a range of other cosmetic experiences for females which I, as a male, am glad I don't have to engage in, or resent not being able to engage in, on account of a non-cooperative body.

A truckload of Ph.D. thesis’s have probably been written to define, analyse and explore masculinity, but for me I suppose the starting point should be examining the experiences and interactions that I have been prevented from doing or experiencing fully because I am in a wheelchair. I am not beginning this discussion with a negative slant by approaching the task in this way, on the contrary, I feel that my disability has impacted my masculinity in only a few ways and it is far quicker to discuss and explore these than pursue the converse approach.

The most obvious area, I would suggest, involves physicality; playing sport or constructing or assembling things. I would dearly love to have played backyard cricket or Tuesday night touch football, but I am not going to shun sport because I can't participate in it. There are plenty of old, fat blokes in the stands at sporting grounds all over the country who would have a coronary if they ran the distance from their seats to the middle of the pitch - all the while trying not to spill the beer in one hand or drop the pie in the other. I have no problem joining them in the sidelines; I don't lay awake at night thinking that my life is not complete because I can't partake myself.

Similarly, just because I can't do carpentry in the back shed or reassemble an engine doesn't mean that I am devoid of a sense of mechanical curiosity or desire to construct or alter physical objects. As a child, I was always playing with Lego and building things with wooden pop sticks or small pieces of timber. Now I immerse myself in computing, and am constantly tinkering and reconfiguring my computers on an almost daily basis.

Yet I often think that without an outlet that tests me physically, I am not best able to release pent-up emotions as I could if, for example, I played football, went on a long run or punched a bag (or better yet, someone who annoys me). I don't consider myself to be a violent person, but I have had to sit back many times and watch situations unfold where, if I were physically able, I would have entered the fray.

Over the years there have been many people I have wanted to pound into the pavement, if I could. And whilst it may well be that if I were able-bodied I may have not been much of a fighter, I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I had have been born in a different body and with different gifts.

I'll be honest, I have quite a temper. There is an undercurrent of buried rage that is always bubbling below the surface in me. 99% of the time, it stays hidden – even to me – but occasionally it gets stirred and rises to the surface.

I abhor family violence of any kind, so please don't take what I am saying out of context. Nor am I suggesting I would run around belting my friends, colleagues or random strangers; what I am saying is that on the occasions where I have seen people (grown men) behaving poorly, or threatening or intimidating others – the best example being drunk guys in bars or occasions when I have felt I had need to stand up for myself (in an metaphoric sense) – I wonder how would I react if I were able to resort to violence?

If I were able-bodied, there seems to me to be only two possibilities; I would have a temper less than I presently do or it would be of a similar intensity. What I am questioning is whether my disability has either directly or indirectly contributed to the quantum and/or severity of the semi-dormant rage I carry around inside of me.

Perhaps there is a connection; being as I am does cause or significantly contribute to my anger, but it is also possible that this is just part of my make-up and there really isn't any causal relationship between my temper and my physical capabilities. I am not sure, nor will I ever be, but I suspect the former of the two alternatives is most likely correct. What I am reasonably certain of, though, is that I could not envisage any scenario where my underlying anger would be greater than it is now if I was born with a normal body.

What I'm driving at is that perhaps by being in this wheelchair, I have been restrained from doing things that could really have destroyed my life (or somebody else's). In moments where I have felt threatened, and I can think of a number, rather than extricating myself from the situation or relying on friends to intervene on my behalf, I shudder to think what may have happened if I were able to really unload on someone.

I am not sure that in situations where I have become totally enraged and furious if I could bring myself under control once I passed a certain point. In an alternate universe where I had a normal body, would I be serving 14 - 21 years on a manslaughter charge? Or would I have been a far more passive person if I didn't feel my body was conspiring against me?

One clue that there is a causal relationship between my physical circumstances and my anger and frustrations at being as I am concerns how I have felt about 'competition' for the attention of whoever has been the object of my affection at any given point in time.

I will be able to say more about this and my next post, but what I can say here is that when I have been interested romantically in a woman* and she has preferred someone other than me, I have often tried to remain friends wherever possible (where we have had some sort of prior friendship). This is not to say that every female friend is someone who has spurned my advances, nor is it true that everyone who has rejected me romantically has remained my friend, but I generally become attached to someone because I find there are certain personality compatibilities, and they simply don't vanish because the person decides to pass on my offer of something more than friendship.

Yet, the cumulative effect of having played out this scenario on more occasions than I'd care to admit is that there has been a rising apprehension in me that I am sometimes seen as a handbag of sorts, a eunuch. Emasculated.

I remember consciously making the decision many years ago that if I were to drop punt from my life anyone and everyone that I was sexually attracted to, or wished to pursue a relationship with, I would become very lonely indeed and miss out on a whole host of rich and rewarding experiences, and a great deal of fun. I chose practicality over principle, I suppose. I don't regret it either, but it has come with a price by devaluing to an extent how I saw myself as a man.

Almost inevitably, those who I have seriously wished to be in a relationship with often find for themselves somebody else. At this point, I then need to make a decision as to what to make of 'he who is better than me'; is he, honestly and on balance, a better choice than me or not?

At this point the reader might be thinking a couple of things, which I should address before going further.

- Yes, I realise it is none of my business, really, who somebody that I am interested in decides to date or be in a relationship with; and

- Yes, I also realise that he who is better than me may have qualities to which I am unaware, and as such I don't have a complete picture of him as a person upon which to make my assessment.

I know these things intellectually, sure, but what I think in my mind may be different to what I feel in my heart and as a fairly emotional sort of person, my mind – the rational and logical side of me – usually loses any battles for dominance over my heart.

The truth is that from time to time, I have looked at certain individuals who have dated or been with women that I have adored - and would have given both kidneys and half of my lower intestinal tract to be with - and I have been left utterly dumbfounded, confounded, flummoxed, bewildered, confused, bemused, bamboozled and befuddled that they had been able to worm their way into that particular woman's life.

There have been occasions when I, honestly and objectively, and quite independent of whatever feelings I may have had for the woman in question, have been left absolutely gob-smacked, astounded and incredulous at the, in my view, poor choices I have seen some women make.

I am not saying that these characters are necessarily a worse choice than I. Certainly, I concede that the consequences (for breeding) of my error ridden genetic sequence is visible for all to see and I suppose I am not exactly in a position to point my arthrogryposic finger at another for being less than ideal, but notwithstanding that I still find it difficult to understand that if said woman wanted to (quite obviously, by her choice of partner) date well below the high calibre of suitor she, in my opinion, deserves - that if she wanted to go slumming - then surely why couldn't she have looked no further than me? I am just as big a dunce as anyone else!

If she's in the market for someone at the lower end of the spectrum, then, surely, must I not come into consideration? This is a question that keeps me up at night. This is a question that I have never been able to get my head around. I can't find the answer to this to put the matter at rest, nor can I park it and leave it be. It gnaws at me.

Yet, I'll simply say that this does have an impact upon how I interpret my masculinity to myself, and I'll leave all other issues arising from this until my next entry.

I find this issue just so emasculating, because it has become a re-occurring feature. I think far more deeply about things than some may expect and when I look across the spectrum of attributes and qualities that make up a person, any person, if I am to be honest and not feign modesty, then as far as a self assessment goes, I do not think I am necessarily bereft in too many areas.

I have a reasonable intellect, I feel I have appropriate social skills, I think I can instigate and maintain conversation and, at times, I can even be funny. Prior to my fall, as I call it, I had a job, I had a home and I thought that I had something to offer despite the obvious drawbacks.

Yet time and time again, the women that I have been interested in have, it seems to me, preferred anyone (with a pulse, who wasn't in the final stages of brain death) over me. I seem to have been witness to a cavalcade of freaks and weirdos, those with the intellect of a house brick, or the social skills of Rain Man or the sex appeal of a crate of haemorrhoid cream.

I have even wondered, in my darker moments of self contemplation, whether I have been running around for years unwittingly, unknowingly and indiscriminately ruining lives through my ability to subconsciously (or supernaturally) compel single women to immediately latch on to the nearest tool, tosser, fool or loser and that crosses their path through the sheer power of my romantic interest.

When this happens over and over again, it does wear on you and it does deplete your confidence. It makes you feel less confident around other men, because every time your self-esteem takes a hit it affects how you see yourself as a person, and as a man. You know that your friends know that you can't get a girlfriend, and I'm sure they feel a little uncomfortable for you. 

Sometimes I get angry at the world and at our society which seems to place physical attributes above all else. However, I suspect that there is more going on here than simple social conditioning. I think there are several factors at play;

1. Self perception

2. Peer interactions

3. Societal conditioning

4. Biology

5. Individual qualities.

A deeper description of these five areas - which I have categorised myself - is more appropriately dealt with in the next entry however, suffice it to say, I do believe that we humans, as with any other mammals, do tend to select partners with some influence from biological factors based on the instinctual drive to procreate with healthy partners possessive of desirable attributes of which to pass on to successive generations.

To be clear, I am not trying to suggest that this is the primary force at play when people pair up – I am not an expert in anthropology, biology, sociology or psychology nor am I trying to console myself by saying that it is all a matter of genetics and primal urges and, therefore, the whole issue remains out of my control or influence. I am simply saying that this is one factor among a number, and I think the relevant science supports this. But I know, or have seen, many people with disabilities – some more severe than mine – in relationships and having families, so there must be other factors at work, and I think I have stated them above.

One mistake I have made during my teenage years was to push a very significant part of the way I saw myself as a man on to how successful I was (or wasn't) sexually. I saw that many of my friends appeared to be in relationships or having plenty of casual sex – at least, that's what they said anyway! – and I thought that this was necessary in order to be a proper man. That may have been fine when I was 15 or 16, but when you turn 18, 19 and then 20 and you still haven't lost your virginity, it can fuck your head up enormously if you let it. And I did.

Unfortunately for me, it was at this time that it got too much for me to continue to carry around and I buckled under the pressure. It wasn't about sex, it has never been about sex really, it has always been a struggle to reconcile how I feel internally with how I experience the world externally.

Shortly after my 21st birthday, I fell into a very deep depression brought about for a number of reasons. I just couldn't reconcile how I saw the world with how I knew the world saw me. I was sick of what I saw as some people's duplicity, how there seem to be no correlation between what they said they wanted in a partner and the choices they then made.

I kept being told that the right girl hadn't come along and that she eventually would, but nothing ever seemed to change. I grew to resent that there seem to be one rule for everyone else, and a different one for me. I lacked the life experience to understand that perhaps sometimes what I interpret to be my own failings could indeed be a reflection of someone else's insecurities, at least partially, projected on to me.

I quite literally saw myself as worthless, essentially unlovable and a failure as a man. Nearly 2 decades later, some of my thinking has changed but the damage done then has been permanent and I have no doubt the consequences of this have permeated into every area of my life.

What essentially happened was that I have perpetually judged myself against the standards of 16 and 17-year-old girls. That was erroneous when I was the same age, and is simply crazy to take this along with me as I have moved through the last 20 years. But I guess this is a similar sort occurrence to what some people who are abused as kids continue to relive in adulthood and let it seep into areas of their adult life.

Yet, this didn't occur in isolation. The teenage brain and personality is, in most cases, quite fragile and malleable. Mine was no less sensitive, I'm sure it had to be more so. I was already deeply into a process (that I have only just in the last year or so begun to break free from) where I would create fictions around my physical capacities.

I am sure many people must have realised that in those days I couldn't bath or dress myself unassisted. I needed help to get on and off the toilet. I couldn't even get out of bed myself. But I didn't want people to know that, to me that was a sign of weakness and I went to great lengths to try to hide or obfuscate or otherwise concealed my level of physical dependence on others. This was not in keeping with how I saw myself and more importantly how I wanted other people to see me. I felt so child-like.

I used to think to myself sometimes;

How can I try to get into someone else's pants when I can't even get out of my own?!? (Granted, that is little coarse but you can see my point)

And how can I feel like I am developing into a man, when I am still shopping for clothes in the children's section?

Yes, I realise my hands are little and soft and probably quite cute though that is not much of a consolation given that I can't very well hold anybody with them.

I have always been vacillating between wanting to keep friendships whilst also trying to at least acknowledge the validity of some of my feelings. When I have given in to some of the thinking around being angry that I have been luckless in love and resentful of how I perceive I have been treated, it is not only the friendships with the women concerned that I have been conscious of trying to protect.

Although I have not always succeeded, I have never wanted my friends - of either gender - to be annoyed by, or ashamed or disapproving of how I have conducted myself when I have personally felt rejected, dejected or unfairly treated (by my subjective criteria). I have never wanted to lose or push friends away because of how I have behaved towards or treated others and when I have behaved badly or in a manner which I acknowledge may have been short of ideal, I have retained enough self-awareness to think about the consequences.

Unfortunately, all reason and logic has on countless occasions evaporated when I have been worse for wear from drink. That is when my anger can manifest, almost as if it is a separate and distinct personality. I'm not trying to shift blame, I'm solely responsible for the many times when I have behaved disgracefully when under the influence, and I regret quite a lot of things I have said and done. During these times, it is as if every filter, every emotional restraint, that I possess fails catastrophically and I burn with the intensity of 1000 suns.

I don't drink now, it doesn't agree with my medication, and when I was socially drinking it didn't always go pear-shaped. Yet when it did, when it went badly and when I surrendered to my perpetual fire, I was vicious, venomous and dangerous to know.

I would tap into something deeper that just fuelled me in an entirely different way. A little bit of fire in the belly can be a good thing, it can push you to achieve, to prove people wrong and to reach for your goals and leap at your dreams. I have said elsewhere, it is like a campfire; it can warm and sustain you. If, however, you get too close and catch alight, things can get dangerous for you very quickly and you need to put out the flame fast.

To me, that is a metaphor for depression and when it happens you need to take better care of yourself to make sure you don't drift into the abyss and lose yourself. But if you take a person, whose clothes might be smouldering (a metaphor for mild depression) and if you douse them in jet-fuel, then that symbolises me on the drink and on a rampage. It gets very ugly, very quickly.

I was always a very social person, I liked going out, I liked being with friends. Yet every time I went to a party, or to a nightclub, or other similar sorts of gatherings there would always be a part of me that wondered if this would be the opportunity to meet that special someone. Then I would get slightly self-conscious and uncomfortable when I looked around and saw everyone else, and I would then start to feel deep down inside of me that I was wasting my time and deluding myself.

At that point, I would usually get completely tanked. That is not the only reason why I drank, but it is a reason. And it pushed more people away than it ever drew in, of that I am certain.

I don't know whether this anger I speak of in these vulcanous terms is an inherently male feature, but I always felt it was. This is probably because, to me, it has felt tied to testosterone, given that I first started to really experience this sense of emotional burning when I hit puberty.

Coupled with the urge I have often had to tear other men limb from limb, I have always thought it part of natural male behaviour (a normal impulse). I think I am reasonably cerebral, but I also think there is a caveman inside every man.

I have written often of the need I feel to reorient, or reinvent, myself and in the thinking that I have been doing whilst writing this entry I have concluded that the role I have now as an uncle, to my niece and soon-to-be-born nephew, is a manifestation of how I can channel the positive aspects of my masculinity.

Hopefully, as they get older, I can be a positive male role model for them once they understand why I'm not as well as their other uncles.

Although I am not one for ball games and things of that nature, there are many aspects of play and learning that I can help with, and hopefully I can share some of the knowledge that I have picked up along my way through life.

I might still have time to become the man I have always wanted to be.

* It sounds strange to say woman, but at my age girl sounds a little bit creepy. I could say person or someone but that, to me, sounds like I am gay and trying to hide it. I see nothing wrong with being gay if that is who you are, but I'm not gay and I see no reason to sound ambiguous about my sexuality when I am trying to write about it honestly and openly. It's a credibility thing; well, it makes sense to me anyway.

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