No man celebrating his eighty-sixth birthday can avoid thinking about whether he has measured up to the standards he held when he was first starting out. I am not speaking here of the mundane problems that plague all men: how good a living he made, the professional success he achieved, or where he settled down and spent his life. I have in mind something both more and less tangible. For men of my generation, the mid-century idea of manhood was vitally real. What would his life look like when he saw it framed against his expectations? Would he have measured up? Or would he sense that he had disappointed a hope that had left him with more debts than could be accounted for by checkbook stubs and paid-off mortgages?
For me, and for the men I grew up with, manhood began at eighteen, along with draft eligibility. We reached that age already armed with an idea of what manhood was. It had been imparted by the books we read, the movies we saw, and the newspaper headlines that blared at us from the rickety green wood-and-tin newsstand in front of Sandow & Israel’s candy store. Long before I read Ralph Waldo Emerson on the theme, the idea of self-reliance had done much to shape, perhaps even save, my life. I was crippled by polio at eleven, and self-reliance remains the standard against which I measure myself.
No eighteen-year-old of my generation would have understood the term “toxic masculinity.” Manhood had nothing to do with bullying others or the inane behavior suggested by the word “macho.” Manhood meant toughness and endurance—virtues that pushed me through physical workouts that were long, strenuous, and at times excruciating. No matter what those workouts demanded of me, no matter how much pain and exhaustion they caused, they promised that, if I kept at it, I would forge an independent self. I would be a man, however crippled. And the self I achieved would belong to me alone. My toughness would make me whole.