Before we take this Ramble, I have a confession. This Ramble is also a bit of a book review for a few books I read recently. I’ve linked to them throughout the Ramble, and if you buy those books through those links, I get a little kickback. The site I’m linking to is called Bookshop, and they help support local bookstores that are all in danger of shutting down because of Amazon. So, if you buy from those links, you’ll be helping me and helping keep local bookstores open, which is pretty fucking cool. With that said, Ramble on:
If you haven’t checked out my reading recommendations for dudes, check out my other post: Being a Man. I talk about some cool books I’ve read and some of the lessons they’ve taught me about myself, and what I think masculinity means.
This post won’t be that boring.
This post is going to be a list of good books that I’ve read and that I think you’ll like. If you don’t like them, then you’re wrong, and that’s okay. Don’t feel too bad. I don’t really know what it’s like, but I hear it’s a pretty common problem amongst normal folks.
I read a somewhat wide range of things. I’m a long-time fan of “speculative fiction” aka “Science-Fiction and Fantasy,” but I dig a good thriller or murder mystery or alternate history. Good non-fiction will draw me as well. Some things labeled “self-help” actually do help, history is vital to understand as fully as possible, and some people who really lives are more interesting than their fictional counterparts. As Mark Twain said “truth has to be stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense” or something like that…
Let’s dive into good stuff I’ve read in my time, starting with some books that changed my mindset.
On Combat and On Killing both by Lt Col Dave Grossman. (I know the first link goes to Amazon, but Bookshop didn’t have On Combat on their site)
I put these two together because they very much build on one another. Grossman’s research has had profound impact on our understanding of war, policing, and other forms of mortal conflict, and their effects on the soldiers, first-responders, and victims. The value of the information in these books can’t really be overstated. If you live around humans outside of your trust circle, then you need these books. If you, like me, consider your personal safety to be your personal responsibility, then you should be taking the training and mindset cues from these books to heart. From how to better train to prepare to defend your life, to how to deal with the overwhelming emotional and spiritual fallout after the fact, these studies are absolutely packed with information you shouldn’t pass up.
This book is a compilation of the writings of various of the founding fathers of the United States who published articles in newspapers to try and sway the opinions of the populace while debating the future of the New World. Many Americans these days have a very black-and-white view of the Constitution. They don’t really know the history, process, or points of contention that surrounded the creation of the document that would alter the course of modern governance. These writings are an excellent source of information and insight into why certain choices were made int he balance of state and federal powers when the republic was first born.
Did you like 300? Would you like to read the book that made that movie possible? Do you like tales of badassery, fights-to-the-death, and epic last-stands? Pressfield really brings home the warrior ethos in this book. You pick it up and put it down with a feeling in your guts that you, too, could be a ridiculous badass and hold the line against the Persian hordes. This is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants a little more warrior spirit in their lives.
This one should pretty much stand on its own as a recommendation in the current political climate. Big Brother, governmental overreach, the nanny state. It’s all a little too real. Read about what it means when you lean too far into safety and give away your dangerous freedom.
Jack is one of my new favorite authors, and James Reece will be one of your favorite characters. Terminal List is one of those balls-out revenge stories that has you salivating for more. Pick this one up and root for the SEAL in his Cruiser against the political machine that fucked him over good.
Hope you find some of these enjoyable, and you support some local bookshops along the way. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.
Before we take this Ramble, I have a confession. This Ramble is also a bit of a book review for a few books I read recently. I’ve linked to them throughout the Ramble, and if you buy those books through those links, I get a little kickback. The site I’m linking to is called Bookshop, and they help support local bookstores that are all in danger of shutting down because of Amazon. So, if you buy from those links, you’ll be helping me, and helping keep local bookstores open, which is pretty fucking cool. I promise I’m not linking you to bullshit books that suck, I’m only recommending things that have helped to change me in some way for the better and that I think we can all learn something from. With that said, Ramble on:
“Toxic” masculinity. You hear it thrown around all the time. Makes me think of some kind of ‘roided up powerlifter glowing green after being exposed to noxious chemicals. You know, kind of like…
But what does “toxic” masculinity mean? What does is portend for the future of our boys when the adjective used to describe their biology is constantly paired with a word that literally means “deadly”? Is there a way we can raise men who embody the positive traits masculine without this so-called poison?
Fuck yeah there is.
Now, I’m not claiming to be a shining pillar of manliness. I’ve never been the picture of a testosterone-fueled Hollywood dreamboat. I’m not jacked or yoked or cut or chiseled. I spent a large percentage (probably half) of my life training brain more than brawn. I skipped athletics when I was in high school, opting instead to get my phys ed credits from marching band. Thanks to asthma, I always hated to run, and since running was the core of everything athletic that I could see, I chose to carry around a bundle of drums to beat on instead. I never joined the military–a thing many associate with masculinity. Instead, I thought the best way I could support the warfighter was to put my brain to use solving some of the hard technical problems they face way out there at the tip of the spear. I’ve made a modest career helping support the guys out there dangling their asses over the line, but not being one myself.
Doesn’t sound like a picture of masculinity, does it?
Luckily for me, being an athlete and military veteran aren’t the only measures of masculinity. Those men certainly display a number of masculine traits (and veterans have my unwavering respect for the sacrifice they made for my family and me), but those aren’t the only ways to make a man. Not by a long shot. Which brings us to the point of this post: “What does it mean to be a man in the modern world and why the hell should anyone listen to some dude on the internet?”
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Let’s start with the second part. Why should anyone listen to me? Well, I’m a modestly successful man who has read a bit about masculinity through the ages, listened to some really smart people talk about manhood, and generally feels pretty good about himself as a representative of the male of the species. Give me a few more paragraphs and you can decide whether I have anything useful to say. If you close this page thinking I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, then okay, but if not, then maybe we can help a generation of lost boys become found men.
In my not-so-humble opinion, any good learning endeavor begins with books. There are 3 in particular that I think any man (or teenage boy approaching manhood) should thumb through.
The first one is King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. This was one of those that I was skeptical to pick up at first because I wasn’t much of a philosophy or psychology guy, but once I started, I found it hard to put down. It’s a dive into the Jungian archetypes of man that have carried pretty consistently throughout history and across geography. The crazy thing about it is how approachable and fascinating they manage to make something as chewy as Jung.
The general premise is that masculinity presents in 4 archetypes. I bet you can guess what they are. Those archetypes are pyramidal, meaning there are an aggressive version at one bottom corner, a passive version at another bottom corner, and one balanced version at the top peak of each archetypal pyramid. From there they discuss the presentation of each one of these variations in both childhood and adulthood, how to recognize when you are too far to one side or the other, and what kind of disservice you are doing to yourself and your community by not growing to your fullness.
The second book was nothing like what I expected it to be. From the title, I expected Iron John by Robert Bly to be some kind of John Henry or Big John fiction about manly men doing manly things. Turns out I was way off. Robert Bly creates a surprisingly enthralling narrative where he walks through the symbolism and metaphor in the Grimm story of Iron John, a fairy tale I had never heard before.
I don’t want to get too deep into it because Bly does a much better job than I ever could, but basically the story follows a boy born to power who finds Iron John and is pulled from wealth and civilization into the wild natural world. The balance he must strike between wild and civilized before returning to the world of men in triumph and power, describes the struggle all men must endure to embody a true definition of a righteous and masculine man.
Both of these first two books hit on two critical things that previous generations had that modern men lack: elder mentors and manhood rituals. The authors all posit that lacking a moment to point to where they can say “I am a boy no longer,” and not having another man–an Elder–to point to where they can say “This is how a man lives,” leave a boy wandering through adulthood, lashing out at those around him in search of some evidence that he is truly a man.
After those two books dedicated to defining the transition from boy to man and outlining the qualities of True Masculinity in its Strength, I’m recommending something more focused on awareness of thought and forming better mental habits.
As a Man Thinketh by James Allen is a very quick read. Basically a treatise on how thought sculpts your reality, it’s not long but it’s profound. There’s a reason that Allen’s work has been considered a classic since it was published in the early Twentieth Century. In the end, the primary thing I left with was the uplifting feeling that I was not only responsible for, but ultimately capable of, building the reality I wanted for myself.
That, to me, is the heart and soul of masculinity: taking responsibility for your actions, sculpting the world around you to realize your goals, protecting those people and things that are your charge, providing for the same, and leading them as an example of personal responsibility.
In the vast majority of cases, none of those tasks will require violence, anger, or aggression. But that brings me the final piece of masculinity that, in my estimation is the basis of this idea of “toxic” masculinity, and that is Violence. Capital V.
I don’t think you can mention the male of (most) any species and not also mention Violence. Birds, cats, dogs, deer, humans. All of these animals will attack one another under certain circumstances, and all of these animals will attack other creatures at other times. It is the role of the masculine to do the dirty work when necessary to protect or provide for society. Those who speak out about “toxic” masculinity are seeing this violence and aggression used in ways that are destructive and hurtful to society, and conflating it with true masculinity.
From the readings, especially King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, it seems straightforward to me. These men have yet to understand that they are acting from a place of insecurity and weakness. To embody masculinity is not to pick on those physically weaker or try to insert yourself into the world of an attractive woman through cat calls or unwanted confrontational advances. In fact, real masculinity is the opposite of those things. A masculine man will stand up for those weaker, help them along, and understand that by helping those weaker than himself he is making the entire community stronger. A masculine man can approach a woman he finds attractive confidently and respectfully and strike up a conversation in a way that doesn’t make her uncomfortable.
I said earlier that I had spent a large percentage of my life training my brain and not my body. I also spent a lot of my life insecure, depressed, and tired. Then I started going to the gym. I started lifting weights. I began to take pride in my body and recognize it for what it was: my only real physical property. I lost a ton of weight. I’m still kind of a squishy motherfucker, but I eat right, I train BJJ, and I hit the range a few times a month. Simply put, I increased my ability to do Violence and that made me a calmer and more centered man.
It is a hallmark of masculinity to train your body to the limits of its capability. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a chiseled Adonis. A man with ALS who can only move one arm who still works that arm to the best of his ability in a struggle to keep his machine functioning as well as possible; that man is masculine as fuck. That dude has as much of my respect as the powerlifter cleaning more than his bodyweight.
It’s a strange balance to have to strike, this melding of Testosterone and refinement, but I think it’s one that most men know in their hearts. I think those who display “toxic” masculinity know they are misbehaving, but don’t understand where they are compensating or how to grow into better men. Maybe someone will sit them down and be their Iron John or their modern-day shaman and put them through that ritual we all need to make the transition to manhood.
Thanks for taking this Ramble with me. Now, get out there and be some Lost Boy’s shaman.
I have this theory about life. It’s not terribly groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it is something I think about whenever I’m worried or afraid to do something I think will improve my life. It goes like:
Now, this isn’t fear like “if I do that, I’m going to die,” although, some of those fears should also be faced. These fears come from without. The fear that someone else will see you doing a thing and judge it a waste of time. The fear that someone will take in the product of your labor and deem it unworthy. The fear that you will look silly.
The fear that you will fail.
That last one–that’s the big one, the reason most people don’t do things. That’s the reason why dreams lay by the side of the road, bloated in the ditch, as people drive past in their fuel-efficient vehicles acting like they don’t see them because someone else’s dead dreams might remind them of their own hope corpses. That’s why people die with regrets.
I don’t want that. I have no idea how long I’m going to be here. I can’t tell you whether I will die next week from some rare blood disease or hyper-aggressive cancer or stray bullet or Antifa brick to the head. I’m 37 years old and people younger than me die every single day.
So I decided a few years back that I wasn’t going to let any of that petty bullshit hold me back. I was going to do the things that made me and the people I care about happy. I was going to chase contentment. I decided I would keep working my normal job, because it pays the bills and doesn’t stress me out too much, but in my spare time, I was going to write a book, or two, or three.
In the process of all of this writing, I’ve discovered a lot about myself. For three years, I worked on writing this story. I wrote 300,000 words without a single thought to how good or bad it was. I just puked words out onto a page. It was glorious. Then I joined up with the community and started showing other writers my work.
Judgment came down from on high.
For the most part, people were positive, which was awesome. Some people were negative, which was less than awesome, but it helped to make the work better. Then this strange thing happened: I started having difficulty writing.
I would sit down at my keyboard and stare at it. My mind would go totally blank. I knew what I needed to write, but it wouldn’t come out. I would start typing, because that’s what you do when you get blocked, you just write. Write anything. It doesn’t matter. Just get the words flowing again.
Still, it was all crap. I would write and write and write and end up deleting it all the next day because it just sucked. Eventually, I would break through the barrier and something worth a damn would spew giddily from my story hole and my fingertips would hesitantly cram it onto a computer screen. Then a few weeks later, the cycle would repeat.
I noticed something after a while: Rarely did the block come on its own. There was something that incited it. Something that made my mind say “You’re not a writer today. Today you’re a failure.” And somewhere in the corner there was this weak little nerdy kid, with his hair parted on the side wearing a bolo tie sitting at his desk, who just couldn’t tell the voice that it was wrong (I have a picture of me looking exactly like that from like 4th grade, by the way. If you don’t believe me, ask my mother, I’m sure she’d happily show it to you and gush about how adorable I was). That kid would just agree and curl up in a ball and decide it wasn’t worth the effort if he was just going to fail anyway.
Here’s my thoughts on the matter: that kid’s wrong. Even if the voice is totally right and I’m a complete failure and not one single person ever enjoys the words I write down, that kid is still wrong. The value and beauty in life is in the living.
I’ll leave you with an exercise I do from time to time. I do this to make sure I’m living this life the way I want to, not the way someone else thinks I should. I do it when I feel like I’ve lost perspective and I need to remember the shit that matters.
Okay, relax. Here it is:
Contemplate for a moment the idea that one day you will die. Don’t think of it as an abstract idea. Really consider what those last moments will be like. Maybe you will die in your sleep, after a long struggle with an illness. You’ll lie in bed and your chest will feel heavy. Breathing is a chore and when you do manage a gasping wheeze, it isn’t enough to satisfy your need for oxygen. You close your eyes, and listen as the world hurdles through space. You can feel that the end is near and your essence will return to be among the forces of the universe.
What will you think in those last few breaths before you close your eyes and the darkness takes you? How satisfied will you be with the decisions you’ve made and the way you’ve spent the all-too-few and precious minutes you were given? Did you look at the things that were just too scary, the things that, while in the moment, seemed too big and daunting to reach for and turned away from them? Or did you, instead, listen to your heart–to your soul–and grab life by the balls and take the things you wanted as it screamed and fell to its knees begging for mercy? What things will you wish you had the chance to go back and do? What things will you regret as you lay there, contemplating the end?
Go do those fucking things.
Live your life as though you’re watching it from your deathbed. Because one day you will be.
This dude, Stephen Covey, is a pretty smart motherfucker. He’s written a couple of hugely successful ‘self help’ books about how to become a more successful and ‘effective’ version of yourself. One of the most under-rated skills that smart, skilled, and generally worth-a-shit people focus on is the simple act of really listening. Listening to comprehend. Listening to learn and grow. Listening to expand.
Not listening to refute. Not listening to find loopholes. Not listening to teach.
Listening to understand can help save the world. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. I legitimately believe that the path we’re on right now, with all the unrest, the shouting each other down, the rampant victimhood, and immediate dismissal of others’ problems as somehow lesser than our own, is going to be the downfall of the United States of America, and maybe the world as we know it.
This is something we don’t see in our media much anymore. Watch any CNN/MSNBC/Fox, etc. panel and you will either see lots of people arguing with each other and talking over one another, or two people with exactly the same viewpoint nodding heads and patting each other on the back about how right they are. Very few members of the media invite someone on their show and really talk with them to learn what it is they have to say, to expand their own meager worldview by merging it with someone else’s. A counter-example of this is someone like Joe Rogan. On the Joe Rogan Experience, he invites all kinds of people on, from all walks of life, and has these extremely compelling conversations with them. He counters points here and there, but it’s with intent to press them for legitimacy, to make sure they aren’t bullshitting, and not with the intent to shoot them down and prove how right he is.
I chose the title of this post because no matter where you look in history, you will find some really bright people, but you won’t find a single solitary asshole among them who got to be brilliant on their own. Archimedes, Socrates, da Vinci, Newton, Tesla, Einstein, Curie, Hawking. Read up on them, and you will find that none of them came by their brilliant discoveries on their own. They existed in a sea of other brilliant minds who contributed to their understanding and knowledge.
Every person sees the world through a filter of their own experiences. This works pretty well if humans don’t have to live around other humans who have lived different lives, but it really falls apart when we try to create policies and practices that will govern the lives of people from different parts of a country as large as the United States.
Consider for a moment the geographical and cultural spread of the United States as compared with other countries. Latitude has a massive impact on lifestyle and culture. Compare the approach to food and leisure of someone from the southern US to someone from the Midwest. Being in Texas, we see this within the borders of our own state. Life in Brownsville near the border with Mexico is completely different from life in Amarillo, near Oklahoma, simply due to weather. Add to these inherent differences that we also encourage people from all over the world who are fleeing oppression to come bask in the glory of Liberty and Freedom, and we get an immense spread of life experiences and expectations.
And all of these people have to live together harmoniously, or the greatest social experiment in the history of Earth falls apart in ruins.
And we’re on the brink of it. It’s up to us to save this thing called America.
It can’t be done without sharing perspectives. We all absolutely must learn to hear one another with openness and compassion, in order to build an inclusive and productive society.
Stop. Look. Listen. You might find we have a lot in common.