“A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son.”
That subtitle isn’t accurate enough. Like many other men in this country who are also fathers, I’ve been confused the last few years. I’ve looked inward and examined everything that I am, everything I want to be, and which parts of those two versions of myself I want my son to learn. Michael Ian Black’s new book isn’t just a letter to his son. It’s a letter for all fathers to all sons.
I have a good relationship with my dad now, but when we were both younger we were different people. I lived with my mom, he was in the military, we didn’t know how to communicate with each other during visits. Thus now I look at my son and I want to teach him by example but they are examples I was never given. Black has his own story about his late father. Fathers and sons reading this will have their own unique relationships. Yet we all have one wish. One job as a father. For our sons to be better men than we were/are.
Black starts off breaking apart the idea that men aren’t supposed to show emotions like pain, sadness, or even love. “There has to be a way to retool masculinity for an age that demands something more from men. There has to be a model that prizes empathy and cooperation as much as strength and independence” (page 58). I’ve been working through this for nearly a decade. How can I be everything for my son that I wanted my dad to be, despite having the adult knowledge that it’s impossible to be all of those things? It’s a difference between being what I want to be as a man versus what society, old TV shows, older male examples, etc tell me I’m supposed to be. No, I can’t build my son a swing set with my bare hands. But I can hug him, bring him up on my lap, and listen to him talk about Pokemon or Roblox for the next hour. Is this “manly”? That’s what the book is here for, to break those ideas apart.
One of those ideas is thinking that as a straight white male, I (or Michael) are anything special. While readers may have him on a celebrity pedestal Black is selflessly down to earth throughout the book. He’s just a guy. There are people who are better, and worse. Those who have more, and those who have less. Some of the problems we face as a country can be boiled down to the belief that you as an individual and your thoughts/opinion/wants/desires are more important than anyone else’s and screw them. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that school shooters are nearly always male, their ethnicity almost always white… That thought process, and the level of self-importance required to see one of these massacres through, requires astonishing arrogance (60).” Black has a heart warming moment with his son during a trip in which he realizes his son found “his people”. A sense of belonging. I was bullied horribly in school. I fear every day that my son might experience it as well. For me it took going to college, travelling, living in a different town, and joining groups of bloggers and podcasters to realize I’m not alone. That arrogance is also a feeling of no one understands Me, no one has ever felt pain like I do, I must destroy everything as an outlet for that pain. Our neighborhoods, maybe even our hometowns may not have the community we seek but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the world. Freedom and acceptance could be in the next town over.
As much as I want my son to find a safe place to be himself when he’s older I also empathize with one of Black’s other points – kids are forced into maturity way too fast. Girls are marketed to and expected to rapidly look like a desirable woman before they’re at all ready – physically, mentally, or legally. Boys have massive growth spurts and spotty facial hair and tower over their parents yet while a girl of the same age is pushed to womanhood a boy has to accomplish specific mile markers in order to be viewed as a man in the community. Get a job, own a house, wood work, struggle, not cry throughout pain, have his own car and money. I’m in my forties and I’m still not sure I’ve checked off every box to be truly considered “a man”. What sort of toxic totem pole of masculinity have we created and grown up with for one to live many decades, have a family, have life experiences, have a job, retirement fund, car, home – and still not know if I’m a peer to the elder men of the tribe.
When the goal post keeps moving and “only one model of manhood exists” (73), what are the rest of us? Are we not men? (We are Devo!) As Black points out, when you’re told to “be a man” it also means “you are not a man”. The same man who spouts that crap “be a man” is the same type of man who has a shelf of hot sauces and a fridge of various IPAs. Which means he’s well familiar that different processes and ingredients can create similar results. Just because you, me, Black, or this ‘real man’ didn’t take the same paths to manhood does not mean any one of us is more or less true. We’re all men.
Michael makes a great point called the Infinite Axis of Manliness. What is and is not macho? Coffee is more macho than tea. I read that, it makes sense. You read it, it makes sense. But why?! I didn’t learn how to catch and throw, but I did learn how to read and write well. With this book, Black will have an impact on thousands if not millions of readers. I think exposing his most private thoughts in this book with the hope it makes a difference to someone, anyone, takes more guts and is more ‘macho’ than seeing who can bench press more.
The most macho part of A Better Man is the final feeling that the reader is not alone. I also have daily questions about religion, government, society, and wonder how much I accept solely because I was born into it. I also look back on things I did before I was married, before I had a kid – and hope that my son makes better choices. Yet, those choices led me to his mom and to his existence.
As he ends the book Black asks his son to question everything. “Constant self-interrogation”. I’ve grown in acceptance, empathy, and love once I started questioning that which was always status quo to me. The more we read and experience, the more lives and voices that are nothing like our own are allowed in. Then we can take that knowledge and maybe be the example, the voice, the inspiration for one more person to also become a little bit better. If we’re lucky, we have an offspring that is better than we were. That creation may just be the most macho thing any of us could do.
This book is highly recommended. As you’ve read, it resonated with me like no other book has in years. I plan on taking this back out for a re-read once a year as my son grows. Black’s son is going to college and mine is in grade school (from home this year). I’m not going to have the same thoughts about my son until he is older. But this book could be a guide, a map for ideas and concepts and qualities I might want to work on with my kid. Buy this book for father’s day. Get it for a new dad. A graduation present. Buy 3 or 5 and hang on to them until the moment arises when someone could be helped by this book. You’ll know when. Our first night home with our newborn son was the scariest moment of my life. I did not feel I was ‘man enough’ to take care of anything, let alone a baby. In my thirties I thought this. If there was a book like A Better Man just a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought I had all the answers, but I would have felt I wasn’t alone. I would have found representation. Someone else has felt this way and worked through it, it’s possible that I can too.
Seriously, get this book. Let it effect you the way it did me. I’m going to go read a book to my son now and let him know I love him.