Advice for real men

A writer's guidelines for being a "standup guy" look more like a primer on chickening out.


Cary Tennis
June 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"'Standup Guy,'" my wife says. "It's a catchy title. I think I'll have waffles with strawberries. Or do you want to pick up an Egg McMuffin on the way?"

"What I can't figure out, though, is why this Michael Segell guy, the author, put all the key stuff -- about his dad being a mean old son-of-a-bitch alcoholic and then him trying to make up with him -- at the end."

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"There's way too many alcoholic dad memoirs out there," she says. "It wouldn't sell."

"But it's the only part of the book that's really good," I say.

"Too bad. There are just too many. Unless he were famous. Or his dad were famous. These Zip-Lock bags smell funny."

"It's the polyethylene. I called the lady at consumer affairs. She's sending us a coupon for a new box. She said that in Wisconsin they hang them out on their clotheslines to air out so the chemical smell goes away."

"It gets in the food."

"Yeah, I know. So it's just like a guy, right, because I know guys. I am one. It's just like a guy to, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, let me tell you how my alcoholic father died. The dad was a real sonofabitch. Midwestern Republican judge. Treated Segell like shit after his big brother died of leukemia. They never got along. He was a drinker and mean. Segell waits around to tell you that. Meanwhile, he's got all this bullshit advice about what it takes to be a standup guy. He even talks about how a big jaw is evolutionarily significant."

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"I don't like big jaws."

"I have a weak chin."

"No, you don't. Your face has character."

"This book is a jumble. It's got a structure problem."

"The alcoholic father couldn't be the focus. There are too many like that."

"Well, I don't know what to write about it now."

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"Why don't you just say what you just said?"

"What did I just say?"

"It's a structure problem. So, his dad died?"

"His dad was 'dependent on alcohol.' And two years before he died he called his son and tried to make amends for all the mean things he had done. That changes everything. You know me. You know how I feel about things like this. But how can I say all that? What does the reader care that his dad was an alcoholic?"

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"Whatever. I'm gonna be late. So what are you going to write?"

"I don't know."

"Why don't you say what you just said?"

"You said that."

"What?"

"That I should just say what I said. I ask you: Has a book ever improved relations between the sexes?"

"No. That's ridiculous," she says. "But the ones that promise to sell like crazy anyway."

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"But no book has ever improved relations between the sexes, right? It couldn't, right? Because you read a book in isolation. Then you put it to work, it's like you're experimenting with animals. I used to read books to get girls. It never worked."

"But it sells. People read them."

"So that's probably what happened. He said to his agent, 'My dad just died. I made up with him before he died. It was very moving. Here, read this,' and the agent says, 'Too many alcoholic dad memoirs, give me an angle,' and so he says, off the top of his head, 'Standup Guy, there's your fucking angle.'"

"But you said the part about his dad was good."

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"It was. There's the rub. Remember last night we were walking on the beach after I finished the book and I was sad? He told the story of his dad's death well. He'd had a long time to think about it. Not like the part of the book when he went to a men's group and they sat in a circle naked and they're passing this rubber dick around and talking to it and giving it names, and when it gets to him he's thinking, 'So what do I say?' and then you read on and on and he never tells you what he said. That would have been the most interesting moment in that part -- what he would have said to the big rubber dick. But he never tells you. He copped out."

"That's not being a standup guy."

"No. Guys. We have burdens."

"You have burdens?"

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"Guys have burdens. We carry burdens. We don't put them down till somebody dies. Then we put down our burdens."

"Well, you should say that, too."

"Oh, but wait. There's this other part that makes me mad. Because Segell's trying to give advice but he's clueless about human relations. See, he plays squash with three other guys. That's their friendship. And you know the way we guys play, we don't really talk, we just bullshit each other and give each other shit. That's what we do. And it's good, in a way, because it keeps your ego in check. It keeps you from taking yourself too seriously. But one guy, an art professor, is obviously trying to be more of a friend, to communicate on a level a little more complex and sophisticated."

"Is the art professor gay?"

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"No, he's married to another art professor, a woman. And she hates her job and wants to move to a small college in North Carolina and take him with her. But he has a prestigious job. So he, the art professor, before they start playing squash, wants to know what Segell would do if his wife asked him to move so she could have a better job."

"What would you do?"

"If you wanted me to move so you could have a better job?"

"Yes," she says.

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"I'd do whatever would make us both happy."

"Sure."

"I would."

"OK. I found a great job in Pinole."

"Sure you did."

"We're moving to Pinole."

"OK. We're moving to Pinole."

"You're not paying attention."

"I'm trying to tell you this story. So they're at the squash court and the art professor is trying to ask Segell what he would do in that situation. And the way Segell describes it in the book, it's what you call, wait, here is the passage, I'll read it to you, it was 'the equivalent of what hockey players call a screw-your-buddy pass ... There was no way I could handle Don's screw-your-buddy question and remain on my feet. Lined up behind him was a squadron of ever-vigilant sex-police referees ready to hit me with a life misconduct were I to suggest that Julie was making an unreasonable demand and they should find another solution to her discontent that didn't involve his having to sacrifice his very happening job so that she could have a better one. And I'm not sure I really believed that, anyway. What do I know about their life together, the difficulties of dual academic careers -- about the intricate and intimate calculus of another man's marriage? So I said something about how every marriage requires a lot of give and take, that compromise cuts in both directions, and it's pretty hard for both partners always to get what each wants. And then I suggested we play squash.'"

"Oh, God."

"Can you hear that? Can you hear the dismissiveness?"

"Of course I can hear that. I can hear the dismissiveness."

"And he doesn't notice that his friend is torn up about this thing?"

"No. Of course not. He's a guy."

"But I'm a guy."

"Yes. But I had to teach you."

"Not true. I studied the ways of men while living in the wild. I studied men from the tops of trees silently in the night. I waded into rivers and watched them and learned. But this guy has obviously done very little field research."

"Well, he's probably done the academic research. He's just emotionally tone-deaf."

"Sure, there's eight big pages of source notes. Ever read 'Animal Genitalia and Female Choice?' Segell has. So anyway, he gives his supposed friend this total non-answer when the guy is obviously reaching out. And then they have a dinner party with all the couples of the men who play squash together. And they're talking about something trivial, the curfews they impose on their teenage daughters."

"This Segell guy has a daughter?"

"He has five kids. He 'lives with his wife, the writer Winifred Gallagher, and their children in New York.'"

"God."

"So they're talking. The art professor has been looking depressed all night. And it's something trivial about Segell (Mike) having a stricter curfew for his daughter than Joe. And the art professor says, 'That's because Mike is an asshole and Joe isn't.' So then Segell's all upset that this guy called him an asshole."

"He probably drank too much. Guys drink too much and say things."

"And then Segell starts brooding over it: 'Did he insult me because I'd won our last three matches? ... Or was it because he suspected I didn't approve of his decision to ditch a prestigious gig at a prestigious university so that his wife, who had a mediocre job, could have a better one?' And he says, here, he says, 'But I do know that I didn't particularly enjoy being called an asshole before my friends -- and by someone I thought a friend -- because of a presumed difference in sexual politics.'"

"So blame it on 'sexual politics,' which is a code word for blame it on the women. It's like a fight breaks out over hockey and you blame the hockey. The whole book he's been saying things like this: 'The ubiquitous message: men are screwed up, and the opposite of a screwed-up man is a woman. As one Big Ten university professor told me, "The academy today is an incredibly toxic and hostile environment for young men."' I think he's implying that if it weren't for feminism, his friend wouldn't even have to think about leaving his cool, East Coast art professorship to support his wife's career move. No career, no career move, no hard decision-making for the husband, no need to have a real friend to confide in."

"Yeah."

"He talks about 'sex police,' but there's nobody looking over his shoulder when his art-professor friend asks him for his advice. Segell's all about thrill-seeking behavior. Here's him talking about hockey: 'It's played at an exhilarating pace and requires split-second reactions and decisions. Its constantly shifting geometry focuses my mind in a way that no other activity -- save, say, sex -- does. It's got speeding missiles and moving targets.' He's got a pulse rate of 48. He may have physical courage but he doesn't have the courage to be honest with his friends. Couldn't he at least have said to the art professor, forthrightly, 'I respect whatever decision you make, but if it were me, I wouldn't leave my job so my wife could have a better one'? What a stupid friendship. If guys have a problem, it's this kind of thing. We don't tell each other the truth. Why? Because we're afraid a fistfight will break out?"

"Well, it's not that different with women. Guys are just bigger and stronger."

"Maybe this other guy, even though he was an art professor, was actually bigger and stronger than Segell. Maybe Segell was scared the art professor would corn-hole him. That's what we were afraid of in junior high."

"You were very sophisticated young men."

"I was the most sophisticated ninth-grader. So I just think that part alone disqualifies this guy to give anybody any advice about relationships with other people. Sheesh. And the art professor probably picked up on the whole thing. It's so obvious. I rest my case."

"'Standup Guy.' I still say it's catchy. It'll sell. Let's get Egg McMuffins."


Cary Tennis

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