The Misconception of Manhood
Growing up in America in the 70’s & 80’s taught me what a ‘man’ was supposed to be. My formative years were developed by the Marlboro Man, John Rambo and Bruce Springsteen. “Never let them see your vulnerability”, my dad told me, because he grew up with war-time manhood. “Never let them see your weakness.” Essentially put on a mask, be someone else, someone who is strong in all situations (even when he is afraid), someone who knows all the answers (even when he doesn’t), someone who is confident (even when he is not)… If you are in law enforcement, the military, the POTUS or behind enemy lines, this will keep you alive and protect those around you. But, if you are just an average American citizen, that is what I call peace-time manhood. There is a difference. Manhood that isn’t in battle is different than manhood in battle. Each of us know, that at any time, we would step up and be the kind of men we need to be to overcome an enemy threatening us or our families. After all, we are all American men, and that in and of itself is pretty badass. ‘Merica Fuck yah!!!
What is American manhood?
Let’s answer that together shall we? The word on the streets says the ‘real’ man is strong, athletic, intimidates others, can fix anything, always wins, leads and never follows, has a bigger bank account, a bigger house, a better wife and a better life. He fights if he has to, but even bullies are wrongly considered ‘real’ men (women like bad boys right?!).
As a child, I saw this message on TV, at the movies, at school, in sports and with friends. This message was reinforced by my own family as competition fueled approval and worth. Sibling rivalry among my brothers and I fueled masculine competition for parents approval. Winning meant love, and losing meant shame. In fact, comparing myself with other men along the way, I did everything I could to build my exterior mask into a man among men. While I was broke & attending college, I heard that guys my age were already making six figures, starting businesses, marrying beautiful women, buying nice cars, nice houses and going on fantastic vacations. I subconsciously applied myself to athletic success to compensate for my feelings of inadequacy on the inside. Competing in the arena against the best of the best would make me or break me. In the arena, in front of thousands, I thrived, and strangers approved my achievements with immediate applause; while professional critics reported in the media their approval to additional thousands who did not witness them live. This was approval overflowing, and seduced me into craving more and more outside approval. Success in the athletic arena made you a man, so I thought.
Sometimes, I am an unsure, frightened, timid boy, beaten down and unconfident; hidden inside a 6’10”, 265 pound solid muscle mask. It was easy to hide my authentic self beneath this uber masculine mask, but I knew little about true masculinity, and portrayed the best version I could create. I fed this false self with as much outward achievement, success and all the props that I thought made a ‘man’. Imagine the iron giant, and the small boy operating the beast. The boy is my authentic inner child who thought success, money, and women were the ultimate measurements of a man, and pursued these with great zeal. While my friends were heading to the beach, I was heading to the campus to run stairs or hit the weights. I trained so hard, it ultimately ended my career, and almost my life. While I was playing professional basketball in France, essentially living my dream of becoming a pro; a routine check-up ended up saving my life. Working out so hard for so long my heart developed an enlarged muscle around it, which they called cardiomyopathy. A few years before, Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount and Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics dropped to their immediate deaths from the exact same thing. When I found out the news, my career was over. I had run the race, and went as far as I possibly could. When I arrived home from France, my first wife left me for greener pastures. This was a double whammy! My dream of playing professional basketball was short lived and ended tragically only a few weeks before my wife of 5 years split. I found out at the airport when she got a ride from someone else. “Peace out loser” was the message loud and clear. In retrospect, had I made the NBA, they may not have discovered the enlarged muscle around my heart and I could have dropped dead then. That was an uncertain season in my life, as I tried to start over.
This was 1993 (pre-Starbuck nation) and my experiences playing in France, led me to open a coffeehouse called Mitch’s Java ‘n Jazz in my hometown of Newhall California. It was an instant success! Lines out the door, around the corner for days as I brought my version of a coffeehouse experience to an ultra-conservative community. That led to the opening of my second business, Newhall Coffee Roasting Company … My previous book, Coffee Revolution, paints a pretty good picture of that experience so I won’t repeat myself here with all the details.
I had thought that business success, combined with the fruits from it, would ensure my status as a successful man in this society. I had brand awareness all over my hometown and throughout SoCal. I was doing good for the community, while selling coffee. I was in the local papers all the time and felt like I had arrived at some acceptable level of approval.
I remember preparing for the meeting with the national coffee buyer for the largest retail store on planet earth. The meeting with Wal-Mart took me hundreds of emails, phone calls, letters, samples, and interaction over several years to book. Developing the product, packaging, marketing, researching competition on a national scale, scaling our supply chain, production and distribution all had to be figured out in order to be able to handle the growth that I was going after. I was at the headquarters of the largest company in the world, preparing to introduce my brand and ask for an order. This was big-time business, and I was there, rubbing elbows with the world’s largest companies. I was a very small fish, but that’s what made it so exciting. This was David vs Goliath, and I was the underdog with nothing but my own abilities to hopefully persuade them to buy from me. The butterflies felt the same as they felt when I faced All-Americans on the basketball court. At that point I had already gotten my brand into a thousand SoCal grocery stores, a few dozen Costco’s, along with hundreds of Subway restaurants, Ski Resorts, Hollywood studios, etc and had positioned the brand as the premier regional micro-roaster. I likened our brand to the old west, where one or two good-guys would surround several hundred bad guys, by pretending they had much more than they really had. I was able to convince these buyers to purchase 100,000 pounds of coffee.
As part of our branding, and in order to differentiate us, I placed a photo of my older brother on the side of our packaging informing our customers that their purchase is helping prevent more pain and suffering in families who experience Leukemia and Lymphoma. I personally received Los Angeles’ Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s ‘Man of the Year’ 2X’s for raising more money and awareness than anyone else for the cause. ‘Man of the Year!” It doesn’t get any manlier than that. My brothers’ life mattered, and his death and memory helped countless others.
I grew my business for 25 years before, as what I later describe as the perfect storm came and literally destroyed all that I had worked so hard for. The great recession hit, and most of my largest customers had to downsize, and coffee became less of a priority. Meanwhile, coffee prices hit a record high, and to top it off, the banks closed their doors due to the housing crash and left a lot of small businesses high and dry. Shit went downhill fast. My 2nd wife left me right as everything was crashing and took my kids with her. It appeared as if the same thing was happening twice… basketball career ends, wife leaves – business ends, wife leaves. This was a two-fer, and I got to experience the same feelings of failure all over again. Although there were so many factors that were completely out of my hands, these storms were complete and final in their respective destruction, and I had no choice in both cases but to pick up my boot straps, and move-on with my life the best I could.
I imagined that a real man was able to seduce women. I grew up in a culture where bad women were considered good catches. Man’s insane attraction to Jezebel women isn’t new, but I believe my generation was exposed to the lie more than any before or since. Movies like ‘Pretty Woman’ taught us that street walking prostitutes were good catches. The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders were every man’s wet dream. Playboy’s like Hugh Heffner’s bunnies were the pinnacle of success… women who got naked in front of millions were considered good catches? This is madness! Real’ men had ‘trophy’ wives. Beauty trumped personality and men who dated strippers were to be admired. Pursuing the best looking, most popular girl, regardless of her personality was what we did to prove our manhood. Of course this is extremely shallow thinking and that is exactly what they sold my generation. Sex sells, and we bought it hook line and sinker. Movies romanticized slutty loose women and we bought. Hell, having sex was a sign of manhood, but having sex with a cheerleader girlfriend was the ultimate sign of manhood worthy of the praise and admiration of peers. Young men put so much pressure on other men in this endeavor. Not having sex, meant you weren’t a man, having sex; depending on the status of who you are having sex with determined your level of manhood. As I mentioned, sex with a cheerleader was the ultimate success and only the ‘real’ men did that. (Reader’s note: I’ve never been with a cheerleader)
I married my first girlfriend because I thought that a woman by your side made you a man. I soon found out that although a wife symbolically represents manhood, a disrespectful wife can actually de-emasculate you and take away your manhood. Or at least threaten your mask. Regardless, I took pride in my loyalty. Loyalty was a true man’s attribute and although I was propositioned by beautiful women often, especially while on basketball road trips, or at school, I remained loyal. Loyalty was an attribute I honored. I was never told by this wife that I was beautiful in any way. Never affirmed as a man for my accomplishments, never praised or admired for my provision, my loyalty, or my integrity. This bad choice made me feel less than adequate as a man to a woman, so I made up for it in my pursuit of money and success. Buying a car, a house, starting a business, a non-profit, and success in the marketplace were ways I compensated and built this outer shell. My mask always made sure I looked happy on the outside, although I was increasingly unhappy on the inside.