Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stupid, laugh-out-loud funny, quest for masculinity

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IN If, Rudyard Kipling promises the person who can fulfil all the famous poem's conditions: "Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it / And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!"

Time magazine humour columnist Joel Stein calls himself a "wimp" and drives a Mini Cooper. His funny and engaging first book, inspired by panic attacks when at 40 he found that his first-born would be a boy, chronicles experiences of aspects of manliness he believes he missed in his formative years.

"I think immersing myself in the foreign land of masculinity," he writes, "is the only way to learn its language." He hopes to show his son Laszlo "that fears are just a list of things to be done. I hope to say manly things like that out loud without giggling."

Stein's memoir of manly acts in chapters such as Engaging in Competition, Using Machines, Building Shelter and Providing Food is filled with delightful turns of phrase and thought. His self-deprecating humour is often both laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provokingly poignant.

He appears to have jumped on a crowded bandwagon with the likes of A.J. Jacobs, David Sedaris and Joshua Foer, who've churned out first-person accounts of attempting challenging tasks.

Stein's quest, which is anything but stupid, is a decidedly civilized version of primitive survival. The first chapter, Surviving Outdoors, chronicles an overnight with Boy Scouts, which Stein's mother had labelled "a fascist organization." Stein discovers in both the scouts and their adult leaders "the very manly trait of boyish delight."

Rescuing the Helpless tells of Stein's experience with a Los Angeles firefighting company, which does surprisingly little fighting of fires, but much public relations. They also have to fulfil bureaucratic requirements to respond helpfully no matter how ridiculously trivial the call.

Eighty per cent of their calls are for ambulance services, not fires, he notes. Most of those "are for injuries so trivial, I would never think to even see a doctor for them."

Calls have even come from people "who wanted to have their remote controls handed to them. More shockingly," the firefighters obliged.

Still, Stein loves "the cheery, orderly, polite, boy-like world these guys have built." The firefighters "have made me glad we had a boy. I just hope Laszlo turns out like these guys. And not like the guys who call 911 all day."

Time with sports personalities like Shawn Green and Warren Sapp prompts the observation that sports prowess is the equivalent of the stereotype that "the most important quality for girls is being hot."

It also raises the important question of how much parents should try to influence their children to take part in particular activities.

Stein decides while Engaging in Competition that he needs "to learn how to fight" from UFC champion Randy Couture.

That impending fight informs most of the last half of the book, as Stein is Making Money by spending a day trading a stock trader's $100,000 and Taming Animals by taking care of a dog.

In Defending My Country, Stein undergoes some of both marine and army basic training, and is promised the opportunity to fire a tank. In spite of his ambivalence toward the military, he comes to see the soldiers and officers he meets as people, not stock characters, in a way that is both touching and enlightening.

In his conclusion, Stein notes how his quest experiences have changed him. "You change not by deciding, but by doing." He has also fostered a more mature relationship with both his father, and his father-in-law.

Kipling's If was written in 1895, yet is surprisingly free of male-female dichotomies. Its advice seems to promise maturity as much as manhood, equally available to men and women.

Stein's advice to his son, and to his readers, while occasionally indulging in sometimes ribald stereotypes, is surprisingly similar. It deserves a wide audience of both genders.


Landmark-based teacher Bill Rambo appreciates the kind of activities about which anyone might say, "Manly, yes, but I like it, too."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J7

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