What was he thinking?

"The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom" tries to answer the eternal question. A conversation with the collection's editor, Daniel Jones.

Published April 29, 2004 5:10PM (EDT)

After "The Bitch in the House," Cathi Hanauer's book about contemporary women's issues, hit the New York Times bestseller list and women's book groups everywhere, readers, writers and reviewers wondered: What are the men in their lives thinking?

In a brilliant mix of editorial and marketing savvy, the task of finding out was put to Hanauer's husband, writer Daniel Jones. The result is "The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom."

"Bastard" tries to break down and make at least a little sense of a new moment in men's lives, a moment that Kevin Canty aptly describes in his unflinching essay, "The Dog in Me," as one where "something's come loose, something's come unglued ... we no longer feel quite comfortable in our roles, no longer quite fit the people we imagine ourselves to be." "Bastard" explores a time of feminism and equality, a bright new democratic future ... in which Canty and so many of us are wondering why we still seem to be paying for everything.

That question and others are poked and prodded by the likes of Vince Passaro (on why men lie), Toure (on why men cheat), David Gates (on why men log), Anthony Swofford (on why men must be alone), and Anthony Giardina (on why men don't need to go to every goddamn school play), and 22 other men who write with candor and crankiness, heart and humor.

On the eve of his book tour (and a few hours before his monthly poker game), "Bastard" editor Daniel Jones took some time to talk about what we talk about when we try (really hard) to talk about the lives of men today.

Tell us a little bit about the genesis of "Bastards."

My wife's book, "The Bitch in the House," gave smart women a forum to explain their frustrations about modern marriage, about the kind of marriage many of us thought was going to be like walking into a bright new world of equality and happiness and hasn't quite turned out that way. Not surprisingly, among their frustrations were the men in their lives, who didn't seem quite up to the task of marriage. I knew some of these men. In fact, I was one of them myself.

To be honest, I was wary about wading into the fray, and I had doubts about whether men would talk honestly about their marriages, sex lives, weaknesses, etc. But the guys I queried early on jumped right on board, and the women in my life kept goading me into taking it on. And once I started reading the most recent academic literature about what's going on with men these days, I was hooked. It was fascinating. Suddenly I knew what the book needed to address and I really wanted to be the one to do it.

It seemed important to me that men be able to weigh in on these issues, both for themselves and for women. Because chief among the women's frustrations with their men was this question of, What is he thinking? Sometimes, of course, this is phrased as a rhetorical question, but in a larger context it's not so rhetorical. Women really do want to know. And they're generally not going to get good answers out of their husbands because it's too loaded. In fact, I doubt many of the men in "The Bastard on the Couch" would ever sit down and articulate their feelings to their wives quite the way they have here either, because their own relationships are also too loaded for such a thing, and who can come up with an articulate explanation or defense of how they're feeling in the middle of a fight? Not me.

Me neither. And while you can probably spit and hit a book club reading "Bitch" in Amherst, San Francisco or Manhattan, I can't see "Bastard" readers sitting around deconstructing it.

I do think guys' thinking has evolved in that tackling these issues takes up more of their brain time, and I know from working with the men in the book that the problems of modern marriage and parenthood are on their minds constantly. But most men I know still don't talk about this stuff with other men. Although it occurs to me that almost every man who's asked me about the book at a dinner party or wherever has almost immediately begun to unload to me about the intimacies of his marriage, so who knows?

Men want to figure this stuff out. But they're on the defensive so much that they're a little hamstrung. In Vince Passaro's essay "Why Men Lie (and Always Will)," he talks about the moral high ground women always seem to occupy in relationships, and how men are always working from a deficit of one kind or another -- the man's never doing enough, his life isn't as hard, he's been privileged for most of world history while women haven't, et cetera. So this position isn't really a place where you're going to feel comfortable airing your frustrations with your marriage or your sex life. Compounding this is a man's sense that it's somehow not polite to criticize his wife in public. After all, he's got to live with her, and she's angry enough already. For whatever reason, most women I know don't share this inhibition. They tend to fire away. And I don't even think their husbands mind that much because they know it's better for them in the long run for their wives to blow off the steam in little bursts than hold it in until they explode.

Both "Bitch" and "Bastard" spend a lot of time looking at the notion of the "egalitarian marriage" -- which definitely doesn't seem to be working. Where did it go wrong?

Men and women get married these days and often have this idea of egalitarianism as a goal. They probably met in college or grad school and have equal skills. They come at the marriage equally armed for combat, knowing they can walk away from it and both leave equally. Add to that that all the old rules are stereotypes. If you're both lawyers and your wife does all the shopping and cooking there's a stigma attached to it, even if she enjoys it. You find yourself trying to not do certain things even if you naturally want to do them. Whenever my wife and I have responsibilities where they fall along sexist lines -- she likes to cook, I like to muck around in the yard -- we're sort of embarrassed for it. I think this silently goes on in almost every marriage. It's almost comical what we're avoiding in order to embrace full equality in a marriage now.

Then full equality isn't good and/or possible for a marriage?

Many of us walked into our modern relationships thinking that full equality was progress, that it was going to make our marriages so much better than what came before. We didn't realize that it might tax a marriage in ways that it didn't used to. I'm still optimistic that men and women believe this to be a better model -- nobody I know wants to go back to the '50s -- because now at least each partner is able to pursue equally the things they want to pursue in terms of raising a family and having a full career. The tricky part is the negotiation of how much each person gets to devote to career, how much to family, how much to domestic drudgery.

But at least men and women are now coming to this negotiation more equally armed for battle. I feel in some ways we're a transitional generation -- we're trying to work out a new way of being married, but most of us haven't had any role models for it, so we're sort of grasping in the dark. Maybe the next generation will pull back some and find a more reasonable middle ground. But I think marriage is still holding up -- at least holding up as well as it used to.

It's still a good problem to have in the scheme of things. You have to figure some critics will write off "Bastards" as bourgeois bitching and moaning.

Sure. The double-edged sword of this whole debate is that it's a situation born out of privilege. If you have two people in a relationship who are both educated, wanting to pursue separate careers, then how do they dare complain? What do you do then, not talk about it? But these are issues that touch a lot of people's lives.

Is it harder or easier to be a man today than it was 20 years ago? Or 50 years ago?

That's a tough question. Male and female roles were clearer in the old days, but did that make it better for men? On the one hand, I don't want to think of myself as living in a time when it's harder for men than previous generations. After all, how self-pitying would that sound considering how privileged we are? I haven't fought in a war, haven't suffered through a potato famine or God knows what else. So I have to believe overall that men's lives are easier, though I also wonder if they aren't less rewarding in some ways. Men of the "greatest generation" ... everyone depended on them, right? And aren't men today less depended upon? The answer has got to be yes, at least on average. And it can't be quite as rewarding for a man to come home at the end of a long work day and realize his wife doesn't depend on him as much as wives used to. Sure, the money he brings home is great, but she's bringing home the same money, so what's the big deal?

Has the notion of masculinity changed in the past few decades?

Masculinity has always been associated with power, and it's this power that men are losing in relationships, in marriage, and in the workplace. Manny Howard writes a wonderfully soul-searching essay ("Embracing the Little Steering Wheel") about how his wife outearns him by 20 times and how he's OK with this. He really is OK with it, but then at a certain point he wonders if he really is OK with it, because what kind of a man is he, he wonders, when his wife, who controls the purse strings, is also able to call many of the shots in their marriage? This inequality is what makes his marriage work, he senses, where his previous marriage failed because he and his wife were so equal and competitive. But how does this inequity affect his sense of manhood? he wonders. It's all wrapped up in power, and he knows it.

Where do "Bitch" and "Bastard" most closely meet and differ?

Where they meet is that neither of the men nor women here want to go back into the traditional marriage of the past, and they both embrace this new egalitarian ideal of marriage.

Where they differ the most is that many of the women were obsessed with their mother as a role model. It was very concrete common thread in Cathi's book. Women are racing away from what their own mothers were -- they want to do more than what their mothers did. Men aren't as wrapped up in who their fathers were and holding that up as a yardstick as how good a man they are. It's a stark, stark difference. The more common thread in a lot of the pieces was: Am I being a man? Is it acceptable for a man to be outearned by his wife and for her to call the shots?

And a lot of guys are struggling with what kind of father they are supposed to be. I thought Anthony Giardina's piece, "A Short History of the (Over)involved Father," really worked because he wasn't afraid to remind men that just because they have a kid doesn't mean the rest of their essence is stripped away. So much of being a parent these days is feeling like you're "supposed" to be doing this or that. You're supposed to be involved in everything your kids do and hover over them asking questions about how much fun they're having and what would they like to do next. It's all about "quality time." Tony's essay traces how this notion is embraced by the popular culture -- particularly mainstream movies -- that preach how family is more important than work, how work is the evil thing that takes parents away from their beloved children during the day, and how if you would just quit your job and go home to your kids everything would be great. But Tony argues that that's a ridiculous notion to embrace -- chiefly because our kids probably don't want us hovering over them all the time anyway -- and also a damaging view of adulthood to present to our children. It's a liberating read that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, or at least the conventional pressure.

And seeing your father being ambitious -- a guy whose work is as important to him as his family -- really isn't such a bad message. Your parents are your first measuring stick for success. To see your parents overly doting and embracing your life as a child more than their own as an adult is a backward message. When I was young, I saw my father go off into this mysterious and enchanting world of work. To have your father sitting around the house and showing up at all my school events would not inspire children to go out and be successful working adults. It's good for my children to see their parents with ambition; it doesn't mean their childhood is getting cut short or gypped.

Was there a topic you would have liked "Bastard" to address but didn't?

I would have liked another angle on Eric Bartels' essay, "The Problem With My Anger," which is a piece that answers a lot of what's in "Bitch." There's this dilemma of some many 30ish and 40ish fathers with young children and working wives. They are working full time, they are trying to do the modern things that a man is supposed to do now -- helping out with school, maybe doing most of the cooking -- and still what they meet with is never-ending criticism from their wives. The "Anger" piece dealt with it, but as I sought out essays and edited the book there was a lot of hesitancy for men to really lay it out. After all, it's uncouth to be openly critical about your marriage in public.

I've given "Bastard" to a couple of guys who I figured wouldn't find it on their own. They all said they expected to read one or maybe two pieces, then started reading and couldn't put it down. That gives me a certain degree of hope. Yet ultimately there's something sad about the tone of "Bastard" as compared to what's the more intense tone of "Bitch."

The tone of "Bitch" is definitely more aggressive. It's about women going after what they want, making great strides and finding great frustration along the way. But at least they are on the move and going out and grabbing what they want. Men, on the other hand, are often on the losing side of this new power equation in many relationships, and there's something about the men that is more reactionary and on the defensive. They are on the whole very decent guys, trying to please and to do the right thing, but often they wind up feeling frustrated, resented, unneeded. Still, it's refreshing to see among the men here that these aren't men who opt to leave their families because of these conflicts.

It used to be the men leaving for their freedom or whatever, and maybe because they were the ones with the skills and financial independence to make it on their own. But in "Bastard" it's often the women who are doing the leaving and the men who are left holding the bag. As one writer, Robert Skates, says in his essay about his divorce, "I both like and admire my ex-wife. But God help any fool who gets caught standing between that woman and what she wants."

How did writing these books affect your own marriage? Are you like the most enlightened couple ever at this point?

The sappy but true answer is that working on these books has made our marriage stronger. We've learned a lot, we've gone from being solitary writers to almost daily collaborators, and we talk constantly about the problems of modern marriage, either with others or ourselves. The only downside, for me, has been that I made the mistake of suggesting in my introduction that men may need to be more charming "if we want to keep ourselves in the game"; Cathi seized on this, of course, and throws it back at me whenever we're arguing about something. "You're the one who said men need to be more charming," she says. "So be more charming."

By Larry Smith

Larry Smith has written about his and other people's lives for ESPN magazine, the New York Times, Teen People, and other publications.

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