Old School Man Rules
It's time to spit-polish your image with a few simple, classic codes of manhood
We support most of the new rules of the gender game. Sexually demanding women? Fine by us. Wives with big jobs? Ka-ching! We'll flirt with fragrances our grandfathers would have feared. We'll even endorse male experiments in listening. That said, from time to time an event gives us pause, makes us wonder if maybe men are moving ahead just a tad too fast, leaving behind some precious parts of our gender legacy.
Case in point: A few months back, when the baseballer John Franco wept at a press conference because his 18-year career might be over, we couldn't help comparing it with Gehrig's stoical goodbye. Hmm. . . . The path from the rock-ribbed Iron Horse, doomed by the disease that now bears his name, to the whimpering Met, faced only with ordeal by high marginal tax rate, seemed a sad transit. It's possible the degendering of America has gone too far. Apparently, we've traded inspiring strength for the freedom to weep.
There are other troubling signs, too. The news that men are taking botox injections in their faces to erase wrinkles doesn't exactly make us swell with gender pride. No, it's not morally wrong, but it's a sin against our history, our traditions of honesty and poise and self-possession. You think Churchill worried about laugh lines? You think Ozzy does? It's hard to avoid the conclusion that some gender border has been crossed, that we've lost touch with the aged-in-the-barrel authenticities that have made us, over the years and at our best, irresistible to women and encouraging to each other.
We're not for going back. But we're a little nostalgic for the days when you just left the bullet in there. And more important, in a gender-lite age, adding a few of the old ways to your cutting-edge cool will make women weak in the knees and other men stand at attention. Here's some timely advice for men: Get a testosterone tune-up, a refresher course on where we come from. Time for a transfusion: two units of Old School 101.
The phrase "Old School" is often applied to sterling seniors -- guys like Palmer and Paterno. But it's not limited to men with high mileage or fine character. Old School is plain old zest for being a man, for the whole gender-rich story. It embraces both the swagger of the Y chromosome -- the strength, the lust, the appetites, the right to an opinion--and the obligations that come with cojones. To Old Schoolers, duties aren't burdens at all; they're reveille, rousing the better parts of us. Old School is proud of all the gender stuff -- both the polished elegance of Cary Grant and the unvarnished frankness of your Uncle Stosh. Do these conflict? Sure. Nobody ever said it was simple to be a man. If it were, more guys would try it.
There's no doubt Old School has its stupidities. (Right, Coach Knight?) And we're for leaving those behind. But we're determined to stand by its virtues. You can live by the code. We've compiled a fistful of Old-School phrases, each of which summons a particular spice in the stew. Every morning, when you're shaving, first thank God for your whiskers, then repeat a few of these yelps and resolve to live by their spirit. They'll moor you to the best, most dependable instincts of our breed.
The First Rule of Old School -- Don't Talk About Old School
1. Who Wants to Know?
Old School resists today's confessional, Rosie O'Donnell-current that has virtual strangers sharing in vitro tales. Imagine the above question asked with an only slightly veiled hostility. Old School isn't really big on sharing. Privacy is a priority. Why? Hey, none of your business, pal. We know a dad who got mad at his kids because they told the neighbor kids about the trip to Niagara Falls the family was planning. "They don't need to know about our vacation," said our role model.
There are two reasons Old School isn't talking. First, when you lay your cards out on the table, the other guy knows how to place his bet. Yes, this is a competition. But more important, a man's troubles and exaltations belong to him. When he holds them in his heart, they're a fire that fuels his life. But once they're broadcast, they're just the stuff of gossip. Old School cherishes his tales. In a tell-all world, mystery is currency. Old School keeps his secrets and yours.
Strategies: The following numbers are secrets: your income, your cholesterol fractions, your home equity. Shut up about your vasectomy; we really don't need to visualize your boys backed up in the tunnels. When you call in sick, no info on bowel woes -- you're taking a personal day. Your father's dying words are best kept between you and the Old Man. And unless you're a true friend in search of counsel, your wife's rages are of no interest. Finally, nobody needs to hear the word "biopsy" until some bad results are in. And even then, you should share the news only with people who really need to know you'll be dead by the spring.
2. Left Foot, Right Foot
Jeez, enough already with the analysis! On the one hand, and on the other. These days, everybody's as confused as Hamlet, unsure about what to do. Is she "the One?" Xanax or Paxil? Do I tell the feds about my boss? Back and forth we go, gnawing every little decision down to a nub. Well, guess what: Hamlet was an idiot! The question isn't anything as windy as "to be or not to be," but how to get the crops in. Old School starts, and then keeps on.
Strategies: Stop waiting. You don't need some brilliant paradigm-breaking marketing plan, just a better one. Get to work on it. Time to have kids? Who knows? Have one and find out. (Wait, you've got a job, haven't you?) Dive in. Your swimming skills will surprise you.
3. The Poor Bastard . . .
The phrase "poor bastard," muttered as an aside, puts the lie to a widespread misconception about Old School--that it's insensitive. Yes, when you confided in Uncle Stosh that you were bummed out about George Harrison's death, you got a dismissive, gimme-a-break snort--because that's what you deserved. Old School has zero tolerance for phony emotion. In today's hyper-therapied age, when all feelings--even the lazy, self-indulgent ones--are honored, Old School proudly deploys its shockproof bullshit detector. Old School husbands its sympathy and never endorses fake feelings. But it's gentle, even tenderhearted, in the face of genuine human sorrow when a good fellow is laid low.
Strategies: Old School begs out of conversations that are designed to show how sympathetic we all are. ("Did you hear about the fire that killed the whole family?") Old School uses simple words of solidarity. "I was sorry to hear about ________." Old School goes to funerals, and will even say a few words in eulogy about someone he admired. Old School cuts a man a few breaks, figuring he may have hit a bad patch.
4. What Can I Do for You?
We first heard this phrase from a very Old-School doctor, a father of seven. When his 25-year-old boy would call home from out on the frontier, he would greet the pup enthusiastically, and then, at the first slight pause in the conversation, inquire, "What can I do for you?" as though he were a counterman at a deli, instead of his dad. This reveals three things about Old School. First, Old School doesn't "chat" on the phone. ("The phone is for messages or calling the cops.") Second, all talk has a purpose. And third, Old School is eager to be of use. Though of late men have actually taken some heat for always trying to fix things--"Can't you just listen and acknowledge my pain?" say wives and teenagers everywhere--there are worse habits than trying to help. The world feels safe around men like this.
Strategies: Old School picks you up at the airport. His loved ones don't ride the airporter after a 6-hour flight from Fresno. And no picking them up at the curb, boy-o. Get out of the car and help them haul their bags right off the carousel. Old School always has a stamp for you. And Old School will give you a map--not directions downloaded from an e-map site, but a folding map with the ideal route highlighted. Old School shows up -- whether it's to hunt down terrorists or move a heavy couch.
5. I'm a Lucky Man
Gratitude is a powerful current of Old School. Generally, Old-School men are so self-aware -- meaning familiar with their character flaws--that they feel like they've gotten away with something if they have the humblest of blessings: someone who cares about them or even a simple, clean, well-lighted place to lay their heads. In a world shadowed by entitlement and presumption, humility shines a guiding light. Of course, the aforementioned Gehrig is the original Adam of this Old-School trait. Michael J. Fox, who got bushwhacked by Parkinson's early in life, flashed some game when he called his book Lucky Man. Old School never envies anybody. So he's got the time to repanel the playroom for the kids.
Strategies: Always compliment the meal. ("This is delicious, Nicole.") Send a note to a teacher or coach who helped your kid. Go to church now and then. Every week is not required, but spending a few moments, from time to time, in a vaulted house of worship tunes up your thankfulness. Make a point of really tasting a bite of a peach or a swallow of single malt. Yeah, we're skeptical of mindfulness, too, but it helps you appreciate. Say, "Thank you" all the time, or even, "Much obliged." We know a 35-year-old man who often says "I'm beholden to you." It makes us feel as if he'll help if a twister hits the house.
6. You Missed a Spot
Remember when you were 15 and the old guy on the corner hired you to cut his lawn? He wouldn't pay you if there were three blades of grass unmowed over by the porch. As gender fades, demands recede. Women are more understanding. Lots of men had drill instructors. Old School holds out for good performance. He expects a good effort. Sure, from you, but mostly from himself. He raises the bar. Excellence seems possible.
Strategies: Hey, coach, praise effort as much as results. Honor the digger who sells out on every play. Be a stickler. Make sure the waiter brings you your bread. Insist that all vendors live up to the deal. You'll cut the last check as soon as he touches up the trim by the chimney. Be a little crotchety. Wash your car. Shine your shoes so often that you're known as a guy with shiny shoes.
7. Hell of a Thing
If Old School is stuck in traffic on Route 40 outside Raleigh with three cranky kids and a wet beagle, his thoughts may well turn not to his troubles, but to the civic- engineering marvel that is the interstate highway system. "Hell of a thing," he'll say, appreciating the architecture of the cloverleaf off-ramp. These days, everybody has a gripe. But Old School finds no time for complaints; it takes the helicopter view. It's buoyant enough to understand that this vexation too shall pass. Old School makes the world feel big and forgiving and interesting. Though often grumpy on the surface, Old School is optimistic bone-deep. Hell, what's to worry? I'm a man. Whatever happens, I'll deal.
Strategies: In an age of critique, be prepared to admire. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) exemplified the perspective when he noted the excellence with which some German units retreated during World War I. "When attacked they halted, took position, fired to order. There was no haste, no crying, no hesitation. They were glorious." Observe quality things -- the grain in a hunk of lumber, a chip shot clipped just so. Disrespect is easy, respect a much harder road.
8. What's That Supposed to Mean?
Old School is oddly sensitive to slights. If you say something that could in any way be interpreted as a rap on his Buick, he assumes you're making a crack of some kind. This is not because Old School gives a damn about your opinion, but because he believes in respect. He's determined to treat you with some, and is really hopeful that you're not just some smart-ass who knows nothing about giving folks their props. So, Old School is a little prickly. This may result in a bit less cackling all around. But there are fewer hurt feelings, too.
Strategies: Don't tolerate careless talk about good people. Pipe up for the decent guy who's not in the room and is getting whacked. Never presume that people share your politics, especially your psychotic loathing of either President Bush or Senator Clinton.
9. The Hard Is What Makes It Great
This Old-School nugget is from the movie A League of Their Own, which tells the story of babes playing baseball during World War II. When one of the Rockford Peaches whimpers that the game is "too hard," the alcoholic manager, played by Tom Hanks, replies with this distillation of Old School: "The hard is what makes it great," he says, stupefied that anybody could so completely miss the sparkle in the diamond. Old School believes in the difficult. When his wife shouts up from the front lawn that maybe he should just hire a roofer, Old School shakes his head at her sadly, confounded that so smart a person could have been paying so little attention.
Strategies: You're painting shutters that happen to be decorated with a small pine-tree-shaped cutout in the middle. Get your brush inside the cutout and paint the inner, invisible edges of said tree. Who'll know? You will. Resist shortcuts. Do it right.
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Read Hugh's original article on Men's Health.com
HUGH O'NEILL, Editor, Men's Health
Born and raised in New York City, Hugh O'Neill was an editor and publisher with Doubleday and Random House and has written for magazines such as GQ, McCalls, Reader's Digest, and Prevention. He has written several books including Here's Looking at You, Kids; Golffirmations; Daddy Cool and A Man Called Daddy. Now the editor-at-large of Men's Health magazine, Hugh lives in Princeton, NJ, with his wife, Jody, and son and daughter.