Nobody Told Me
I must’ve been three-years-old the first time I noticed it. My babysitter was serving pickles for lunch, and I didn’t want any part of that.
“Hey, pickles are good for you,” her husband said. “They put hair on your chest.”
Why would I want hair on my chest? I wondered.
I loved my babysitter. She was a second mother to me. But I never understood her husband. He was a presence on the periphery of my life, occasionally interacting with me in ways I found perplexing or troubling. But I was totally devoted to my babysitter.
At family gatherings, I don’t have many memories about the men. My uncle Gary was taciturn and stilted, appreciating good beer and The Far Side, both of which seemed totally alien to me as a kid. My uncle Donnie was loud, brash and erratic. He was friendly, but it was an unpredictable friendliness, and I stayed away from him for the same way I stayed away from sparklers. My grandfather was quiet and distant.
I only felt connected to my uncle Paul. The memories I have of him now are flashes and glimpses, more personal myth than reality at this point. He was warm, friendly, involved, artistic, hip. When I was three, he fell down a mountainside into a rocky riverbed and almost died. When I was seven, he developed serious emotional issues. And then he was gone. Physically still present, but in every other respect, the uncle I knew had vanished.
On my dad’s side of the family there weren’t many men around. Just my uncle Bill, who was friendly but unpredictable, and my uncle Tom, whom I idolized.
Tom was a lot like my dad, except funnier and friendlier. I discovered when I was older that my dad had suffered from depression since he was a kid, whereas Tom’s problems had always seemed to bounce off him. This explained what I’d noticed when I was young, that there was something buoyant and cheerful about Tom which was muted in my father.
Other than the difference in their moods, they were much the same. They talked animatedly about history, books, and music, were huge fans of The Three Stooges, and had little interest in sports (the only exception being Tom’s devotion to the local hockey team). My dad was more sedentary though, and didn’t pursue his hobbies and interests with a great deal of energy- he’s always had a persistent, low-level fatigue which has prevented this.
Tom, on the other hand, loved traveling with his wife, my aunt Julie, and was skilled with photography. There was nothing traditionally masculine about Tom’s interests or personality, and nothing feminine either. He was just a geek. A geek who bore a physical resemblance to James Cagney, but a geek nonetheless.
So when I was a kid, that’s what the men in my family were like. Apart from my dad and Uncle Tom and, all too briefly, my Uncle Paul, I didn’t have much to do with them. They were decent but distant.
The women in my family were a different story. They were kaleidoscopic.
In my mother’s family, the women were deeply emotional, non-traditional in every way but especially spiritually, fiercely intelligent, funny, raucous, and empathic. They were all second-wave feminists who believed strongly in social justice, especially in First Nations rights, even though none of them were First Nations.
Because of the women in my mother’s family, I grew up with raiki, homeopathic medicine, drawn-out conversations about feelings, Buddhist and First Nations fairy tales, and a feeling that I should probably appreciate nature more than I do (fuck that, there are bugs out there).
The women in my dad’s family were divided into two groups: first were his sisters Laura and Beth, who were perpetually cheerful, friendly, and had both feet planted firmly in mid-air. Then there were the in-laws Eleanor, Julie, and Shirley, who each patiently ensured that their designated Preyde did not die from absent-mindedness.
I was pretty much raised by women. They were nurturing and powerful and I thought they could solve any problem. Unlike most of the men, they were always present and interested in what was going on in my life, and in the lives of my sister and cousins.
That’s how I grew up.
Probably as a result of that, I glommed onto any strong, maternal woman I met throughout the course of my childhood. I adored my babysitter, I connected with the only female leader in Beavers (and had nothing much to do with the male leaders), and in school I was frequently the teacher’s pet amongst the predominantly female staff.
The first friend I ever had was pretty much assigned to me. Her name was Jill. Our mothers had been in lamaze class together, so coordinating play dates was the logical next step.
Jill was a tomboy. She was smart, opinionated, and creative, and she didn’t take any shit from anyone, least of all me. We loved each other with an almost familial intensity. We were collaborators and best friends. She was my first crush.
She moved at the end of first grade. At the beginning of second grade there was a new girl in my class. Her name was Kelly. She was energetic, strong-willed, and quick-tempered. I befriended her immediately, and formed a bond with her that was similar to the one I’d had with Jill.
This pattern has continued throughout my life. Maybe because it was the first relationship I ever had outside of my family, it’s the relationship dynamic I understand the best.
I’m capable of going through life without a smart, powerful female partner by my side- I was solo for my late teens and most of my twenties- but it makes me feel adrift.
When I was a teenager, the previously ambivalent relationship I enjoyed with the men in my family was turned upside-down.
Uncle Gary, it transpired, had a violent temper. My aunt divorced him. The process was protracted and feverish.
I remember being parked on a scenic lookout in the middle of the Badlands in Alberta with my immediate family when we got a phone call from my aunt explaining how, in just the past few days, the situation had badly deterioriated. We were across the country from her, and- while other family members were available- there was nothing we could do ourselves. In situations like that, what really sticks with you is the sense of all-consuming helplessness.
A few weeks after that, my mom’s extended family converged on the farmhouse to remove the rest of my aunt’s possessions. We parked our cars up the road a few blocks. I remember standing with my family as someone- who was it?- revealed that Gary hadn’t left for work that day. We had counted on him not being there.
What would happen if Gary found out we were coming? I wondered.
I was sent off with my sister, cousins, and grandfather to a local beach while the rest of the family drove up to the house.
I remember standing on the shore of the beach fully expecting to return to the farmhouse and find ambulances and police cars waiting for us.
In the next few years after that, my uncle Donnie’s behaviour darkened and became increasingly erratic. He had always been loud and blustery, but he developed a harsh, angry edge that I’d never seen before. I remember once, when I was seventeen or eighteen, having dinner with my extended family in a busy restaurant. Donnie was unhappy with where we’d been seated, things escalated quickly. Soon he was yelling, I don’t remember at who. Everyone, maybe.
My aunt and Donnie separated a few years after that.
I’ve told you all this not because I think it’s intrinsically interesting, but because I wasn’t sure how else to talk to you about gender.
This is something that’s really preoccupied me over the last several years. I’ve seen violence not just in my family but in the wider world. Massacres and rape perpetrated by men, yes, it can get as obvious as that, but there’s also the stealthier violence of denying women access to birth control and abortion. There’s casual sexism and objectification. I filter all this through my own experiences, which is all I can do, because that’s all that gender is.
It’s constructed from the things we witness.
So what am I to make of all this? What does it mean to be a man or a woman? I honestly don’t know, and that bothers me.
We could come to some pat conclusion like, oh, all that matters is being a good person, or what really matters is asking the right questions.
But there’s something going on out there among us which we call femininity and masculinity. There are people who are doing masculinity, and for whatever reason the way I do it is completely different from most people. I don’t understand the methods and motives of most other men, and so much of how they express their gender puzzles or appalls me. Most women, on the other hand, appear reasonable and lucid to me. I find it easier to understand what they do and why.
And yet I am indisputably, inescapably male.
In what ways can I express this? How should I go about life as masculine without any traditions or history to guide me? The best I’ve got are what my dad and uncle Tom have managed to cobble together, which is masculinity as an extended improvisional exercise. They never had male role models growing up. Their dad was decent but uninvolved. And, going further back, their mother’s dad was absent when she was growing up, too. My other grandmother’s dad spent much of her childhood away at war.
What am I to make of this? I put all these things together, all these observations and experiences, and what happens then?
What does it mean to be a man?