It had been more than six months since we’d seen this couple. My wife had been teaching abroad for a semester and during her absence I didn’t go out much. Now that Barbara was back in the States, though, our social calendar was repopulated with evenings out like this one. We met at a favorite restaurant and, after ordering drinks, settled in to catch up on each other’s lives. By the time our cocktails arrived, the discussion was in full flight. The four of us leaned conspiratorially over our placemats, taking turns with anecdotes about kids, work, or mutual friends. Emma and Jonas, as I’ll call them, are vivacious, intelligent people whose energy makes a dinner feel like a celebration. As the conversation found its course, Jonas and I occasionally wandered into tributaries of our own, pursuing subjects that, for whatever reason, attracted our masculine interests. Before long, we heard our wives remark how self-absorbed we appeared, so we rejoined their discussion, only to wander off again a few minutes later.
The topic that kept tugging Jonas and me into side conversations was, surprisingly, masculinity itself. Having attained nearly 58 years of age, I can count on one hand the times I’ve talked candidly with another man about the pressure of masculine gender roles in our culture. Jonas and I didn’t get terribly theoretical in our discussion, but the themes we addressed are the fodder of sociological inquiries these days. Since #metoo went viral after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the idea of “toxic masculinity” has gotten a lot of attention in social media, resulting in endless Twitter debate about maleness and the impact of the masculine gender role in our culture. Most of that conversation has focused on how traditional masculinity leads men to be chauvinistic at work or, in the #metoo context, sexually brutish. Less often does it explore the impact of gender roles on men themselves and their sense of masculine identity in a changing world.
Talking Outside the Lines
In any case, things got interesting at our table when, shortly after his first sip of bourbon, Jonas congratulated me on my forthcoming book. Sensing from its title—Midpoint: Manhood, Midlife, and Prostate Cancer—that we had something in common, he launched into a story about his own recent health scare. After a visit to the dermatologist a while back, he told us, he’d been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a terrifyingly aggressive form of skin cancer. Surgical removal of the mole in question resolved the initial health concern but left him stunned by how suddenly, how randomly, his life went from secure to threatened.
That episode, he continued, ushered in a new phase of life when everything seemed uncertain, as if the cancer had disrupted not just his body, but his sense of self—where and how he fit into the world around him. His career, previously a resounding success, hit a lull, leaving him unclear about his professional prospects and wondering whether a course-correction was required. Hearing him talk, it was as if my book title and its promise of embarrassing details removed a barrier between us, emboldening him to have a conversation without the rigid super-structures of masculine discourse.
“I’ll never forget,” Jonas recalled, gazing at his hands on the table. “I sat there with him after dinner—holding him as he wept.”
Of particular interest to me was how, after all the disruption in Jonas’s life, he’d revised his views of masculinity. By the time we reached this topic, we were on our second round of drinks and feeling comfortably loquacious. Jonas told me how he’d come to resent the masculine ideal of stoical silence in the face of misfortune and how, since his brush with mortality, he’d become unapologetically expressive—in particular with other guys. To illustrate his point, he told me about a mutual friend who was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. The night before this friend’s surgery, several couples gathered to enjoy a meal together and provide badly needed moral support. “I’ll never forget,” Jonas recalled, gazing at his hands on the table. “I sat there with him after dinner—holding him as he wept.”
A Shit-Ton of Protection
Now, I had no idea this mutual friend had been through colon cancer; and until earlier that evening, I had no idea Jonas survived melanoma. Even more moving to me than their misfortunes, though, was their uncharacteristic—arguably unmasculine—willingness to display vulnerability. Jonas described the experience of embracing his friend as two men “setting down their shields.” The shield he described, of course, and all the burnished armor that goes with it, is the masculine gender role in which we men function. From the time we’re snotty-nosed toddlers to adolescents playing football in the yard, from high school to college, from getting our first job to becoming husbands and fathers, we unknowingly accumulate our armor piece by piece, lugging it through life in the belief it protects us. If we gain rare insight later in life, or if calamity violently strips away our protection, we get a glimpse of the man himself, naked of his panoply, newly and hesitantly authentic. I doubt many men wish to become so exposed, but having once been unburdened, they wonder how they ever bore the load.
In a chat with an older male friend of mine, I asked how a newly retired buddy of ours was faring. “Do you think he’s really happy?” I asked him. Mack looked at me for a minute, pursed his lips, and replied, “It’s funny, I’ve known Tom for something like 30 years and I’ve never asked him that.” That exchange launched us into a conversation much like the one I had with Jonas the week before. How had such an obvious question gone unasked for so long, we wondered, though both of us knew the answer.
That’s when I lean in and say, “It’s about being a middle-aged man and having cancer right in the middle of what matters to a guy.”
A Liberating Kind of Embarrassment
There’s a pattern to my interactions with men like Jonas and Mack. American men seldom talk about feeling scared or vulnerable. To do so, they require assurance that letting down their guard won’t invite ridicule from other men. In my conversations, that assurance has been granted by the confessional nature of my book. After hearing the book is a memoir, guys typically probe for more specifics. That’s when I lean in and say, “It’s about being a middle-aged man and having cancer right in the middle of what matters to a guy.” After a pause, I might add, “It’s all the shit I wish someone had told me but didn’t have the nerve to say.” I put it this way to rattle men’s cages a little. They understand that the middle of what matters to a guy is a physical and psychological place—where sexual potency, urinary function, confidence in oneself, and the burden of being a “man” all converge. In other words, the book explores all the stuff that freaks men out. Hearing how I put it all out there in print, guys figure they couldn’t possibly share anything more embarrassing than I have. It’s liberating for them. For me, the conversations that ensue are nothing short of miraculous.
While my original aim in writing Midpoint was to inform men about the realities of the so-called “good cancer,” I found myself addressing nothing less than aging and the tyranny of the masculine gender role. Conversations such as I had with Jonas and Mack remind me that prostate cancer, a complex subject in its own right, provided an unexpected prism through which to refract my understanding of middle-aged male existence. Inviting friends into that re-evaluation has been the best and most unexpected byproduct of writing the book.
All that was required for those conversations to occur, it turns out, was to lay my soul bare and hope the world wouldn’t snicker.