Plum Chutney and Manhood

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Summer brings a plethora of fruit; the plum tree drops it’s bounty in a ten day span and I was lucky enough to be between jobs to catch it. A weekend spent in the kitchen making jam and chutney. The jam was slow to set and soft when it did, but the chutney tasted so sweet and spicy it inspired me on a frenzy of Indian cooking which included three Indian cookbooks for my birthday. I have never had much luck with Southeast Asian and Indian Cuisines, or jam making for that matter, but I am driven to keep trying. I was the same way with baking, and after dozens (hundreds?) of misshapen, collapsing loaves I finally got the proportions right and now make three to five a week. I am proud of my culinary skills and enjoy making a meal that satiates the pallet of many, but I was not always so forthcoming. In the age of the seventies cooking was women’s work and one soon learned to keep such passions secret from peers or face derision. Likewise we men of a certain age learned to stifle smiles other than sly mocking ones, swallow grief, and never cry; neither death not rage nor broken bone would cause a tear in my eye at seventeen.

Through a long chain of accidents I ended up in the hills of Vermont in a cabin in the woods. I went to a school filled with a strange sort of people that you couldn’t exactly call hippies, though many were, nor rednecks though many of the students were also tradesmen. There was a different kind of manhood apparent there; thoughtful, receptive, open even emotional. My housemate cried openly when he sang “The Dutchmen” for his own lost beloved Margret and no one thought less of him. Who I am today started there; my first taste of gentleness, love and kindness. The idea that men were more than rocks in a sea of strangers; forever alone, never touching. The idea within me was nascent and struggling, it would be years before I could finally let go the anger and begin to toss the baggage I carried overboard, but there was the place where I learned there was another way. Looking back now I think of myself as a child raised in a cave who stumbled across a shaft of light in the darkness; I had no word for “light” or any idea what it could do. It was simply beautiful and my heart ached for it, and so I started digging. A question started forming about what kind of man I was, and how could I become the man I wanted to be.

Among these “Kings of Vermont, Princes of New England” to misquote John Irving, was a man of many talents; he was both handy and thoughtful, capable of rebuilding a car, building a house while also being well-read and well spoken. Most of all those he was kind- kind to strangers, kind to misfits and know-nothings such as myself back then. He was the very image of New England gentlemanly manhood. I kid you not that I still struggle to do competently at fifty what this man could do well at twenty. I have remodeled rooms, he has built houses. We lost touch but word from friends was that he had gotten the woman of his dreams, bought land and settled down. An American portrait if ever there was one, worthy of Norman Rockwell in a gritty Vermont kind of way.

Sadly recent news has not been as good. An acrimonious divorce, estrangement from his children. Anger. Resentment. Bitterness. If a man like that can succumb to these things what hope is there for us lesser men? More broadly though it paints a picture of a problem we face, and by “the problem” I mean me; white American men. Particularly well educated, straight, white American men from middle-class families. If there is s group in this society who has received more advantages and second chances it would be the children of the extremely wealthy who are their own issue but fewer in number. As a group we tend towards anger, when really what have we to be angry about? We feel betrayed by the success of others when really we should be celebrating the broadening of opportunity for women, other ethnicities, other sexual identities and orientations. We make choices in anger that negatively affect those around us; often those we claim to love.

Hearing of my former classmate’s fate has caused me to think about this a great deal; before recent news I would have said he was the best of what my alma-mater had to offer. The personification of the farmer-scholar. As his ex-wife struggling to raise children alone when she planned on a life-long partnership, and his children who will never know the kind man with calloused hands who could tell a joke with his eyes alone, compare Kettering ignition to Socratic dialogs and would pull over in any weather to help any stuck car. But also I feel for him; to have lost so much- years with his kids, so much love and hard-built respect. To have fallen so far must be terrible. Part of my empathy for the man is that I know what it means to make terrible mistakes. My first marriage ended in failure, I was at best a mediocre weekend Dad to my eldest and I still struggle at being a competent husband, father, and step-father. In times of failure the anger has risen in me too; at the world, at imagined “wrongs” done to me by others. The only saving grace I have is that deep in my mind is the knowledge that this life is mine; I alone am driving the bus and it only goes where it is pointed.

Having risen out of failure to the point of treading water in life the story I relate is a reminder that the road between a good man and a fuck-up is a two way street. I have not made it anywhere past today. Who we are tomorrow is not what we have done but what we are doing now. A man can choose to turn towards his wife or away from her, treat his kids well or poorly and he is that man. The larger question though is why is this such a common theme in modern America? My father abandoned me, and his second family too. Over and over this story is replayed. We make our own choices but surely if we keep seeing the same thing there must be some common thread?

Some time ago I read that the problem with American men is that we are raised to believe that life is fair, that our hard work will be compensated with rewards and that all problems are solvable. While I have known that life isn’t fair I probably would have agreed with most of those concepts. The author went on to say that the realization that this is untrue caused a lot of anguish in the people most beholden to the idea; middle class men. At the time I dismissed the idea out of hand. What seemed preposterous at thirty seems clear to me now. Unsolvable problems in my life have led to huge upheavals; ended relationships, bankruptcy, depression. The saving grace is that after each seismic shift somehow I have been able to get up and start cleaning up the rubble.

The stunning reality is the life is most certainly not fair, that if “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire” as George Monbait wrote, that most good deeds are unrewarded if not punished, and lastly some things cannot be fixed, they can only be survived. Marriages entered with the best of intentions will fail, your kids will wreck your car, and you will lose work to people who you deem incompetent. There is a term for this: shit happens. Some shit will never come back together and trying to make it so will only drive you to drinking, distraction or worse. When we teach our sons they can fix anything, do anything we are just leaving them unprepared for the inevitable failures of life.

For myself, I feel utterly unprepared in the matter of dealing with events beyond my control. I used to wonder why people pray, but now I get it. People pray when there is nothing else they can do. When a loved one is dying and all intervention is fruitless you pray. When life takes away the things you hold dear, you pray. When every road seems a dead end and you’re lost in a decade of your own life, you pray. Sometimes there is an answer in there, but most often just acceptance and sadness. With acceptance often comes the clarity to see what you can do, how you can survive and rebuild. In my own life when that point arrived and all hope of remarriage and children seemed passed I fixed my house. A woman came over and she was impressed by it and spent the night. The rest as they say is history. But had she never arrived, had I stayed there in that house I would have been fine because I was good there with my place in the world.

So I pray for the sole of the man who was, that he may find his way back to being the kind of man one could admire. But also for his kids. Having grown up without a father I pray they know that this is not their fault, that someday the man-who-was will arise from his own ashes and have some kind of relationship that is good for them. I pray for his ex that she too knows that each of us owns are choices and he chose his life; that there may be more love and life for her. For myself I do not pray; I keep in mind what is most beloved to me and try to choose with love first in mind. I try, and have tried to instill these lessons in my sons; to be good and fair not for sake of gain because it is the right thing to do; to forgive as I have been forgiven.

Without a father and with some rather angry men in my own family “what is a good man?” is a natural question. Now at fifty I have quit worrying about what it means to be a good man and instead focus on what it means to be a good person. The man part takes care of itself; some may say my way is too manly, some not manly enough. When my efforts at being to the human race are separated from my gender identity it becomes a matter of taste. Maybe my voice is too deep for some and my hands too soft for others but all that is irrelevant to whether or not my choices reflect the better part of my nature or not. Right and wrong have no gender any more than they have an ethnicity or sexual orientation; when we act in love and service to others, in harmony with the world and mindful of our impacts on others we make the world a better place.

So to any man who reads this; your anger is not righteous. Your love is righteous, your kindness is righteous and even your tears of grief. You will fail, the world will fail you. Your measure as a person is not how you can fix everything but how you survive everything. Be gracious in loss because we have all lost something dear to us. It is hard; we have been trained our whole lives to be something else, but try for yourself and those you love most. Be that light in the darkness for others as others have been for you.

The jam and bread come with me to work; the jam pours sweet and tart and slightly salty across the toast. I sleep at night and dream of the apple trees and Asian pear; there will be more chutney before the summer is done.

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