There was this strange footage that caught my eye in all the flood coverage here. A male journalist was interviewing a male flood survivor. The flood survivor is describing some of the horrific moments he witnessed during the flash flood that killed members of his close community. He becomes visibly distressed and turns away. The male journalist looks both saddened and uncomfortable. An agonising moment passes before the journalist finally reaches out and touches the flood survivor, patting him on the shoulder and then letting his arm drop back down. The two are as far apart as is possible while still being able to extend one’s arm out to touch the other. In fact, the journalist has to lean right over in order to pat the flood survivor. A quick firm pat and the journalist says something like “you’ll be ok mate”. It is a hopeless gesture, an entirely inadequate moment of empathy and it is just so incredibly masculine.
The journalist isn’t cold-hearted, at least I don’t think so; he was doing his best to navigate the sudden intimacy of male tears knowing this exchange was to be witnessed by a TV audience. In some ways he was showing both empathy for the emotional pain the flood survivor was enduring and also for the possible indignity that this man might experience in having displayed raw emotion in public. The moment threatened their masculinity and he was trying not to make it worse for either of them. The journalist understood that as many rules govern supportive behaviour in our world as govern male interactions. But his handling of that situation was almost laughably bad.
Anyway, right afterwards I read this terrific novel by Scott Spencer and I loved all of his observations but I particularly enjoyed his observations of masculinity. Like, the bit that follows. It is the circling, the quick bites and retreats in intimacy that I love in this description of a conversation between two male friends when one is clearly feeling troubled by something and the other is not able to cross the emotional divide. It is the deep distrust between men in a patriarchal world, even men who are friends, that I appreciate in this writing.
“So,” Lawson says, leaning back on his elbows, stretching out his legs. “How are things at the place?”
Paul has noticed that Lawson doesn’t ever call where Paul lives his home. Or house. He will say the place, even your place, he will say crib, pad, domicile, abode, residence, residencia, he has called it a tent, he will even go so far as to refer to it as your corner of the zipcode. But he evades ever calling it Paul’s home, and this can have only one meaning: Lawson does not believe that Paul belongs in Kate’s house. Does he think Paul is somehow too good to allow himself to be installed in a position that might call into question his independence? Does he worry that Paul has become one of those men who manage to saw and hammer their way into a period of cohabitation with the lady of the house, a period that, at least in Windsor Country, is always short-lived and always ends with the bourgeois lady coming to her bourgeois senses and the carpenter out on his proletarian ear? Or is it that Todd Lawson believe Paul Phillips is not worthy of that house? Is there in Lawson’s view something incongruous about Paul’s inhabiting those prim and proper rooms, and that to see him there is to witness a display that is inherently absurd, upsetting, and distasteful, like a chimp in a tux?
“Since when did you start smoking?” Paul asks.
“A while ago,” Lawson says. “You want one? They’re chemical-free.” He exhales a long trail of smoke, the same color as the autumn air. “So things are okay?” Lawson asks.
Paul is silent for a moment, seeing his chance to say something, and trying to gauge what his life would be like were he to actually tell his secret. When he feels as though the silence cannot be extended further, he says, “Kate’s annoyed with me, I think.”
“You think?” Lawson says. “That’s the problem right there. You can’t be guessing what she feels, you’ve got to know.”
“I brought this dog into our life, and I didn’t exactly have the green light on that one.”
“You just walked in with it?” Lawson’s tone conveys that he is impressed.
Paul senses another opening, a place where he can imply more of the truth. It is like being lost in the darkest heart of the woods and seeing a flash of light that suggests a way out. But for now he remains in darkness.
“That’s a whole other story,” Paul says. “But Shep’s a stray.”
“Well not anymore he isn’t,” Lawson says, with a laugh. Lawson snaps his fingers, beckoning the dog to come. Shep turns toward the sound but doesn’t move.
“He’s actually sort of practical,” Paul says. “You haven’t done anything for him so he doesn’t figure to owe you anything. ”
Lawson shrugs. “I can relate,” he says. He pats Paul’s knee and looks at him curiously. “You look sort of tired.”
“Up late,” says Paul. “Three o’clock in the morning, not good.”
Lawson smiles. “Maybe that’s what we should be talking about, my friend. What would a fine hardworking man such as yourself be doing up and around at three in the morning? Why would you abandon the bed of your lovely consort? Why would you expose yourself to the demons who rule the earth at that ungodly time?” Lawson wets his fingertips with saliva and pinches out his cigarette, drops the twisted butt of it into his jacket’s pocket.
“I’ve got a lot on my mind,” Paul says, looking away. Shep has seen or heard or picked up the scent of something – not enough to bring him to his feet, but his spine straightens, his ears go back, and he raises his muzzle.
“Anything you feel like putting out there?” Todd asks, and when Paul shakes his head Lawson looks somewhat relieved. He gets off the boulder, and Paul readies himself to resume walking, too. They walk beneath an old spruce. Lawson lifts the lowest bough so he can pass under it, and lifts it a little higher as Paul passes under, followed by Shep.
“All right, here’s the Todd Lawson diagnostic test for good relationships. Do you guys still laugh together? I mean, is it still fun?”
What would be funny, Paul thinks, is if I right now just said, “Hey I killed a guy a couple of weeks ago.” But instead he says, “No problems there.”
“Well, if you guys are still laughing. And I’m assuming the other more unmentionable things are all copacetic.”
“Very much so,” says Paul.
“Well then,” says Todd.
Paul is quite sure that this is as far as the inquiry will go. Women have told him that among female friends all sorts of sexual confidences are exchanged, often quite graphically, but in Paul’s experience this is not the case with men. Men protect the details of their intimate lives like poker players holding their cards close, and for very similar reasons, too – they either want to give the impression of holding aces or they want to be able to quietly fold without showing their hand. Knowledge is power and men don’t want to give it away.
From Scott Spencer’s Man in the Woods.