On Men, Male, and Masculinity

Military and ministry: two of the most male-dominated professions. But it’s not only my professional life that forces me to confront issues of masculinity on a daily basis, since I’m also the mother of two sons.

In the wake of the Vanity Fair cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner, we have, collectively, been so caught up in the question of “what makes a woman,” it might be easy to miss the fact that we’re coming up on Father’s Day—a day, for me, that tends to spur reflection on how it is we go about making men.

Every year, I’m stymied by finding an appropriate Father’s Day card. The majority of the cards refer to barbecues, beer, golfing, fishing, sleeping, having the answers, giving advice, or passing gas. How did these things become the image of fathers?

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When I reflect on issues of masculinity and manhood, I find myself returning, again and again, to the biblical story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22).

Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

Isaac was Abraham’s only child with his first wife, Sarah. The boy was born to them when the couple was quite old. Isaac was loved and beloved, so it’s to be assumed Abraham finds it very painful when God speaks to him one day, acknowledges Abraham’s great love for Isaac—then orders him to kill the boy and make a “burnt offering” of him.

Abraham binds Isaac and picks up the knife, fully prepared to follow through with God’s commandment, when an angel appears and stays his hand. The angel says (with approval) that Abraham has proved the great depth of his fear for God. So Isaac is released from his bindings, and Abraham is released from his most awful task.

I do not propose to offer here a full or proper biblical exegesis of the Isaac story, or to share a new interpretation I’ve come across (though many wonderful meditations on the story exist). I merely want to share some of the feelings and questions this story raised for me decades ago, when I first really read and tried to absorb it, and the impressions the story leaves with me still.

The binding of Isaac always seemed to be one of the most confounding of biblical passages. And since I was a teen, my questions about the story have revolved around questions of masculinity.

After all, Abraham is the central father figure of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament.

Abraham is The Man.

But passing God’s test in Genesis 22 has nothing to do with Abraham’s strength, leadership, intelligence, or compassion—or even his ability to build a bookcase. Rather, Abraham proves his worthiness by showing such fear, loyalty, obedience to God—The Man higher up—that he is willing even to destroy what is most precious to him.

By implication, Isaac also passes his test as a son. And similarly, Isaac passes not because of any quality of strength, thoughtfulness, or valiance. Almost the opposite. Isaac proves himself by not struggling or fighting back, even when it becomes clear that his father plans to kill him.

Ultimately, an animal is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, and one message commonly taken from this story is that the Hebrew Scriptures mark a departure from barbaric practices of human sacrifice, that they helped to make a more humane world.

Yet clearly this also is a story about making men.

And the curious thing is, I’m not sure things have changed all that much when it comes to our stories of making good men.

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Navy Chaplains serving with Marines at Kaneohe Bay. (June 2014, Kaneohe, HI)

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that masculinity in America means blind obedience to a superior force. It doesn’t even mean that here with the Marines, where I am privileged to work with and mentor so many young men.

The idea that masculinity is best forged through processes of domination is one belief that seems to endure, however. The idea that loyalty should be a man’s highest priority seems to be another.

Most of all, what seems to endure from biblical times is the idea that strength as a man—that honor, goodness, and worthiness as a man—is about swallowing any feelings of fear or grief and forging ahead with the task you were given. Even if it is a calamitous and murderous one that threatens to break your heart. Isaac must swallow even the unimaginable fear and grief of knowing his own father was willing to sacrifice him.

That is what struck me when I first read the story, and it is what shatters me every time I read it again.

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Daily I talk with young men navigating their way through manhood. Our ministerial conversations usually begin with their explaining why they don’t need help. Often they feel compelled to explain that they are not “weak.” Often they will say they’ve only come to see me because someone higher in their chain of command ordered them to see me. During the first half of our time together, they attempt to fortify their fortresses, though often a Chaplain’s quiet listening presence acts as a deafening ram’s horn, causing their walls to fall.

But how in our wider culture do we make space for men to own their vulnerabilities, to own their feelings of anxiety, fear, grief, and loss? And how can men own their own feelings if, as a society, we continue to ask them to do things in the name of masculinity that their sense of compassion makes them revolt against inside?

How do we break the endless cycle of dominance, of manliness forged through domination that seeks in turn to dominate?

How do we offer solace to the men for whom that urge has gotten out of hand, leading them to hurt the ones they love, with no angel stopping their hand?

I don’t know the full answers to these questions.

I do know that on Father’s Day—along with wishing the fathers in my life a good day off and a blessing on their barbecues—I’ll be reminding my male family members, friends, and colleagues that I love them, that I see them as whole humans, and that I believe as much in their good and generous hearts as I do anything else about them.

My muddy son. (Kailua, HI, April 2015)

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Remembering Pop

Eulogy for my father, Lester “Les” Eugene Kane (July 1, 1934 – January 15, 2015). Originally delivered on Saturday 07 February 2015 at Glueckert Funeral Home, Arlington Heights, IL.

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My father was hard-working yet easy-going, soft-spoken and an impeccable dresser, fastidious, witty, and handsome. He was born in 1934 in Fairfield, Iowa, the ninth of eleven children. He was referred to as “number 7,” though, since two of his siblings died shortly after their birth.

Pop claimed “little-to-no upbringing” and a “humbling” childhood that was a “lesson in survival”. His father, Earl, was a farmer and alcoholic. His mother, Hazel, was a woman he hardly recalled. His parents divorced when Pop was five (5) years old. Pop and his brother Lee (#6) became a Ward of the State, lived with various foster families, and later stayed with their older sisters and brother through high school and college.

Uncle Lee, who will speak in a moment, undoubtedly will regale us with stories of my father’s earliest years and their shared childhood tales. His humorous and optimistic spin on their adversity is a shared characteristic between him and my father. Yet, unlike Uncle Lee, getting Pop to talk—let alone share emotion—was a Herculean task. So my reflection here, in part, is a pieced together narrative from years of patient (perhaps annoying) prodding.

From 1953 to the mid-1980s, Pop’s late teen and adult years focused on family and career. Pop was an all-star athlete at Fairfield High School and was the third of the Kane brothers to hold the record for the mile. His was smitten with high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Balderson, and shortly after she graduated in 1954, they married and started a family. Speaking about the birth of his first child, Kathryn, in 1957, always brought a tear to his eye. He got equally teary eyed when speaking of his other two daughters, Kristin, born in 1959, and Susan, born in 1960. (In addition to my father not being overtly expressive, his tears were particularly telling since he lost one tear duct after dropping a drill in his eye.)

Before Susan’s birth, all of them moved to suburban Chicago for his job at Bell Telephone Company. That move, according to Pop, was the demise of their marriage—as was him being “from wrong side of the tracks.” By April 1961, his wife took their daughters back to Iowa, and they began divorce proceedings. Pop described that time and experience as his “great heartbreak,” forbade himself from saying anything more about that marriage and his daughters than “the facts,” and had little to no contact with any of them for most of the rest of their lives.

In May 1961, Pop attended a conference for Illinois Bell and, according to him, that “last thing on [his] mind was meeting someone.” At the company pool party, however, there was Pat Gerhart. They were brought together by “accident”—an accident. Pop dove off the diving board, hit the pool floor, broke his nose, and—struggling to the surface—he grabbed on to the first person he found, which turned out to be the woman who became my mother. His injury notwithstanding, Mom maintained she married Pop because he had “potential and a nice nose.” They married on June 8th, 1962—a date forever embedded in my brother’s and my mind, as you will come to understand.

During their first few years of marriage, my parents lived in suburban Chicago and cared for my mother’s nieces and nephew before having children of their own. My brother, Doug, was born in June 1965. I was conceived during the Blizzard of 1967 and born that November.

In 1970, my parents built a home here, in then the newly developing area of Arlington Heights, Illinois. Together they ensured Doug’s and my basic needs were met—as well as a few additional comforts. We had a cocker-poo dog, Patches (named because of his varicolored coat, though after 6 months turned completely white!), a 1973 Pontiac convertible, a batting-cage in the back yard (cause of the earlier mentioned drill accident), and most importantly, family time.

Be it one-on-one or all four of us together, family time was fundamental for Pop. For me, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with family-friends the VanNests are among the most memorable times. Even more memorable are our non-holiday evening meals. Not the beige food part of the family dinner, but the nightly ritual of my father announcing the length of my parents’ marriage. After the four of us said grace, Pop asked Mom to pass the salt and pepper. Mom, genuinely surprised she left the shakers on the stovetop, rose from the table to get them. Pop would then say, “x-number of years we’ve been married, Pat, and x-number of years we have yet to begin dinner with the salt and pepper on the table.” Every June 8th, the year count would increase.

Also fundamental was maintaining close ties with his eight surviving siblings. We made the biannual pilgrimage to southeastern Iowa to be with his brother and sisters, and the sundry in-laws, nieces, nephews, and cousins. And being a telephone executive, he was readily able to and regularly reached-out-and-touched each sibling by phone.

Pop was a devoted father. It still remains a wonder to Doug and me how, for 23 years, he managed to make the 25-mile train commute to and from downtown Chicago, have family dinner, coach Doug’s various sports teams, attend my various music recitals, and never miss an event!?

Nor did he miss a teaching moment. Doug will speak more about our father as coach. As for me, Pop made me his apprentice to his various home improvement projects, and taught me how to use a slide rule, a 3-sided architectural scale, and design templates. To this day, mechanical drawing remains one of my hobbies.

Pop also was fiercely protective. He joked to pull out the Voodoo doll if any boyfriend broke my heart. (We didn’t take him seriously until one day in high school when John Russell showed up to class with a broken leg.) And the only time my father did not spare this child the rod was when I sassed Mom.

Pop worked for Bell until the mid-1980s. In 1984, he was one of the “masterminds” behind the federally mandated break-up of the Bell Telephone monopoly, and promised “nice piece of the corporate pie.” That piece, instead, was a position doing the same thing he had been doing for the 23 years prior, despite a new title and higher salary. Pop thus opted to retire (for the first time) and venture into the new world of digital communications, which eventually brought him to work with former Soviet block governments to upgrade their World War II infrastructure. Pop thrived in this new frontier—and is quietly credited bringing the first cellular technology to Russia.

In the early 1990s, my parents moved to be closer to Mom’s mom and sister in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They bought a home in a quiet, upscale neighborhood where their big community excitement (apart from Mardi Gras) was the announcement of the most recent recipient for Garden of the Month. (Pop won on a few occasions.) Our speculations have never been confirmed or denied, though we believe at this time Pop worked for the CIA. Apart from his occasional, casual mention of being on Air Force One, there was the questionable drive-by shooting that occurred while he was working at his home office. [Maybe you in the back with the sunglasses and earpieces can help solve that mystery?]

Health issues were the theme in Pop’s Golden Years. In the late 1990s, he experienced kidney failure and underwent dialysis for a few years. On my 34th birthday, 2001, Doug donated Pop his kidney and gave all of us the gift of Pop’s life back. Both Kane men were more excited, though, about being roused out of post-operation sedation in time to see the Arizona Diamondbacks win their first World Series.

In 2002, Pop retired again (and for the last time) and my parents moved to a resort retirement community in Surprise, Arizona. They were close to Doug and finally able to live their retirement dreams of travel, leisure, and golf. Two days after moving, however, Mom got sick and Pop became her caretaker while she was in-and-out of the hospital for the next two-and-a-half years until her death in June 2004. A few weeks later was Pop’s 70th birthday. Feeling he had nothing to live for, Pop celebrated the occasion by throwing himself out of a plane skydiving!

Eventually he emerged from his grief (and insanity) to enjoy a few more years of good health and, finally, adventure with a new “lady friend,” Zakea. In 2012, once his health rapidly declined, however, he only was comforted by her memory, spending his waning days writing poetry about her—and the other loves of his life.

Pop died, as he lived: quietly, on his own terms, with a struggle, with integrity, and in the comfort of his own home just a stone’s throw from the 18th hole. In his final hours, the “great heartbreak” from his younger years was healed as his oldest three children from whom he’d been estranged most his life joined my brother at his bedside.

The death certificate said Pop died of heart failure. I think that’s inaccurate. He died from heart success—a heart so full it burst. His heart was filled with the love for all of us gathered here this afternoon, those who’ve gone before, those who are here in spirit, and a life well lived. Thank you who are here for being a part of his journey.

And thank you, Pop, for your elegance, endurance, life, and love. Though your light has been extinguished from this earthly realm, the sparkle in your eye, your adventurous spirit, gentle humor, and fidelity to family lives on in the hearts and minds of all those whose lives you touched and love you well.

I am comforted by an image that came to me in a dream shortly before Pop died: he was in a white dinner jacket, bow tie, black tuxedo pants, in his prime, gracefully dancing cheek-to-cheek with my mother. He was so full of joy and showed me his dance card, which had the names of his parents, sisters, brother, other family and friends…and room for our names when our times come.

Until then, Pop, enjoy the dance.

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My father celebrating his 70th birthday! (Metro Phoenix, AZ, 1 July 2004)