Man MadeA Stupid Quest for Masculinity
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Stein, Joel
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780446573122
Being a man seems a little intimidating, so I’m going to start off by being an eleven-year-old boy.
The only way to fix all the man damage I’ve done to myself is to time-travel all the way back to the moment where I made my first big mistake: not becoming a Boy Scout. If I had learned to tie a square knot, pitch a tent, and be constantly prepared, I’d have made lifelong friends who would have cajoled me into joining Little League, fraternities, and the boards of multinational conglomerates. Even if it’s too late for all that, I hope to learn how to live without being dependent on modern comforts by spending a weekend as a Boy Scout.
For years people have told me that I have nice skin, and I didn’t know what they meant. Eventually, I figured out that I have nice skin the way that vampires have nice skin: I’ve never been outside. Growing up, I’d spend months without seeing the sun, going from my room—where I never opened my black Levolor blinds—to the car in the garage to either school or the mall. Inside was for humans, outside for animals. Sleeping outdoors for fun seemed like mocking our ancestors.
But I’m probably missing an understanding of freedom and self-reliance. An access to some instinctual part of me that I’ll probably need for all my other tasks. This is my chance to start fixing that. If I can’t—at thirty-eight years old—earn my first Boy Scout badge this weekend, I’ll have no chance on my other quests.
My camping weekend at Firestone Scout Reservation outside Los Angeles will be under the supervision of Rick Pierce, the Scout leader of Troop 773. I had no idea that being a Scout leader is one of those badass jobs, like professional wrestler, rapper, porn star, and Pope, where you get to pick out an action-hero name for yourself like Junkyard Dog, Ghostface Killah, Ben Dover, or Pope Hilarius. I am excited to be under the tutelage of someone who would make such an excellent choice for Scout leader nom de guerre. Then I find out that Rick Pierce’s real name is Rick Pierce. My parents doomed me from birth. I wish I had known this before I agreed to name our son Laszlo.
When we talk about the upcoming trip, Rick Pierce tells me to bring a tent and a sleeping bag. Since I don’t want to fail at my first task as a Boy Scout, I tell Rick Pierce I will totally bring a tent and sleeping bag. I, of course, don’t own a tent or a sleeping bag. Worse yet, I am unsure whether it’s socially acceptable to ask to borrow a friend’s sleeping bag. I mean, you’re really in that thing. Is it like borrowing someone’s underwear or more like borrowing a blanket? And even if it is only like borrowing a blanket, is it okay to ask a friend to borrow his blanket?
Luckily, I do not have to deal with these delicate social issues, because, of course, not one of my friends owns a tent or a sleeping bag. So I call Rick Pierce and nervously ask Rick Pierce if Rick Pierce has an extra tent and sleeping bag. Of course Rick Pierce does, and of course Rick Pierce doesn’t feel weird about sharing them. He sends me an email telling me that for our initial meeting at the campsite—for which he uses military time—I should “pack a sack dinner” to eat with the group. So, at 1700, I leave the house and pick up a braised short rib sandwich on my way. About forty minutes into the drive, and two hours before I normally eat dinner, I panic about being trapped in the wilderness without food and eat a few bites of one of the three PowerBars I bought, pacing myself through my reserves. This just makes me more anxious about being hungry, so I eat half the short rib sandwich. And even though I am already late, I stop at an In-N-Out Burger and eat a Double-Double cheeseburger and a vanilla shake. I consider buying a second burger and salting it so I can store it outdoors.
What I am really afraid of, more than death from starvation, are the Boy Scouts themselves. This may partly be my mom’s fault. “I think the Boy Scouts are a fascist organization,” my mom says when I ask her why I wasn’t allowed to join. It’s exactly what she said when I was a kid. “I don’t like the regimentation. I don’t like the rigidity. I don’t like it any more than I like the army. I don’t think it fosters creativity.” That’s right: My mom approves only of activities that foster creativity. I am lucky I can add.
My mom is a family therapist who went back to school when I was kid, at the height of the 1970s feminist movement. My mom is like a liberal suburban Zelig: She does not miss a trend. She spent the 1980s jogging, the 1990s in a book club, the 2000s in a monthly poker group, and now does a lot of yoga. So while I was not joining the Boy Scouts, she spent a year not shaving her legs or underarms and met at a monthly consciousness-raising group with other women in the neighborhood. She also founded a charitable organization called “Women Helping Women,” which, in the initial brainstorming group, I’m sure they considered calling “Fuck You, Men.”
My mom’s resistance to the Boy Scouts was fine with me when I was a kid, since none of the Boy Scout activities involved reading or watching television. Instead, Boy Scouts are tiny little survivalists, the kind who carry knives and smash the eyeglasses of the asthmatic. To calm myself before the trip, I called my sister’s husband, Mike Browning, who had gone all the way through the program to graduate as an Eagle Scout at seventeen. Although Mike is a computer programmer, he’s much tougher than I am: He drinks beer, hunts, watches the History Channel, keeps his hair short, loves super-violent horror movies, curses a lot, and stores a survival kit in his car specifically designed for the zombie apocalypse. When I asked my sister, Lisa, if she thought it was surprising that she married someone with the same interest in history and facts as our dad, whom she’s always fought with, she said, without any intention of hurting my feelings, “I could never be attracted to someone who is soft and metrosexual like you.” It feels very uncomfortable to be sad that my sister doesn’t find me attractive.
Mike’s main advice about my camping trip with the Boy Scouts is to bring earplugs. Not to keep out the sounds of animals, but to block out the farting and the laughing about the farting. He says the kids will try to trick me into hunting snipes, a fake bird that apparently is so hilarious to trick people into hunting that Mike believes it is probably still funny after twenty years. The highlight of the trip will be hanging out by the fire.
“You put everything you can in the fire to see what happens to it. They’ll be burning stuff you know is toxic,” he says.
I am going to spend the weekend with farting, knife-wielding pyromaniacs.
I drive past the gates of the Firestone Boy Scout Reservation with food all over my face. My cell phone signal is gone, my GPS shows nothing but unmarked green expanse, and it is getting dark. I drive blindly down dirt roads, more and more certain I will starve to death. My unborn son will be raised by Cassandra and a rotation of gay men.
Two miles later, Rick Pierce appears in front of my yellow convertible Mini Cooper in an SUV and introduces himself as Rick Pierce. Then Rick Pierce leans down from Rick Pierce’s window and tells me to follow Rick Pierce. Rick Pierce leads me to the campsite, where, to my shock, Rick Pierce informs me that we are going to sleep right next to our cars. This seems less like camping and more like camping on a reality show. I am thrilled.
Rick Pierce brings me to a picnic bench to meet the boys, all of whom have good, solid, Rick-Pierce names such as Nick, Kirby, Chad, Tanner, and Wiggles. They are eating their sack dinners, so even though I am close to barfing from the two thousand calories I ate in the car, I pull out the second half of my short rib sandwich in order to fit in. I am three minutes into quietly eating when several kids ask if I want to hunt snipes. I look hard at them in the gathering dusk and tell them I know about snipes. They nod, impressed, like prisoners who’ve just noticed my tear tattoo.
Then they tell me about Beef. Beef is a man who lives in the shack down the hill and knows absolutely everything about outdoorsmanship. Beef owns a fire truck and is an expert with guns. Beef, obviously, is bullshit. A human snipe. When I ask Rick Pierce about why this fake person calls himself Beef, Rick Pierce plays along and says it is because Beef used to be a hundred pounds heavier, which sounds like it makes sense but does not. Rick Pierce says Beef isn’t a park ranger exactly, but is sort of a volunteer ranger whom the other rangers let do ranger stuff and live in a ranger house every weekend. I tell the kids that I know Beef doesn’t exist.
Then Beef comes by. It turns out Beef is not only a real person, but a real person who introduces himself by saying, “Hi. I’m Beef.” Beef tells me that his family has been camping on this site since 1965 and that his dad was also a big deal in the Scout organization. “Some families are Kiwanis. Some are Masons. We are Scouts,” he says.
The kids run around Beef and yell like he is Willy Wonka. He shows them an old soda machine he spent a lot of time retooling with car hoses and CO2 tanks so it basically makes soda. But the kids call it “Homemade Coke” and pass around a cup tasting it and commenting thoughtfully like it was a 1945 Mouton Rothschild. By the time the cup gets to me I think of it less like Homemade Coke and more like Cold-and-Flu Coke.
Beef starts throwing miniature boxes of Milk Duds and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at the kids, who go wild with Beef excitement. He says his fire truck is under repair, but he has some special stuff in store for them over the weekend.
“My job is to build memories. And to make them all feel accepted,” he explains to me about his role as the Santa Claus of Boy Scouts. I cannot justify this, but when you are around Beef, you are certain that he is not a child molester.
What I instantly love about Beef, and what my fellow Boy Scouts see in him, is the very manly trait of boyish delight. It comes built into most of us, and our job is not to let it get removed.
I walk outside and jot down that idea. When I look at it, I realize it’s not good enough for The List. Ever since Cassandra got pregnant, I started writing a list of life advice for Laszlo. It’s my philosophy: a combination of what I’ve learned by doing, seeing, reading, and listening. The List is the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever written. And I just wrote about owning an Easy-Bake Oven. But this idea about being born happy and having to exercise that happiness, while not being good enough for The List, does make me think about the day Laszlo was born, which, despite all the talk about it being the most memorable day of a person’s life, doesn’t pop in my head often. I didn’t learn all that much that day, other than that women should definitely get the epidural right away, out of politeness to others. But I also learned that I had no idea how we start out.
I assumed women struggled and pushed and a baby popped out and everyone clapped and shook hands. What actually happened was that, over and over, Cassandra struggled and I saw the top of Laszlo’s little fuzzy head poke out and go back into her vagina, like the worst Thai strip show ever.
Eventually, Cassandra pushed Laszlo out, and I couldn’t believe how enormous he was. I went to go get him, when I realized that was only his head. The rest of him slithered out of her, red and angry and screaming. For three very long seconds I feared I wouldn’t love this furious demon child, that I wouldn’t be able to calm him, that he’d hate me. But then, because Cassandra had some excessive bleeding, the doctors immediately put him in my arms, and the red left him, and he calmed down. And as soon as he stopped crying, I started.
I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it was that I thought about all the people I loved who had died and would never get to meet him. Part of it was that, for the first time, all my decisions seemed to matter: meeting Cassandra, staying married, deciding to have a child. So much could have derailed this: other men, other women, a lack of forgiveness, one of a million tiny acts of cowardice of not saying how we felt calcifying into irreparable resentment. Part of it was because of how unmarked by experience Laszlo was. I fought an urge to run out of that hospital, leave Cassandra forever, and drive with him to a cabin in the woods and raise him alone. I didn’t want anything to corrupt him, not even Cassandra. Everything was out to hurt him, to ruin him. This feeling lasted for several weeks. And, in retrospect, was something I probably should not have told Cassandra about. I got halfway through describing why I thought I might have these reactions and how it didn’t reflect on her or my deep love for her or how great a mom I knew she’d be, and how animalistic and discombobulated your emotions get right after having a baby. She left the room, pondered the deep emotional experience I was having, and sent me this email:
“You do not have boobs! You do not have breast milk! I’m doing all the work. All! The! Work! You! Could! Not! I! Do! Everything! You are useless! You and your woods!”
I think the main reason I cried, though, is that I assumed being born was awful: You suddenly went from darkness, wet warmth, and a feeding tube that hooked into your stomach to bright, hungry coldness where you had to breathe yourself. I had a good childhood, but I remember it being really difficult and confusing and lonely and vulnerable and full of heartbreak in a way that adulthood isn’t. But after those first three seconds of red-faced crying, which, in his defense, were probably due to the fact that his head had just been squeezed by Cassandra’s super-tight vagina, Laszlo wasn’t upset. He was curious, looking up at me with total trust despite the fact that I hadn’t finished one parenting book and wanted to raise him in a cabin even though I’d never spent one night in a cabin. The Buddhists were wrong: Life isn’t suffering. It’s awesome. And that was making me cry.
Cassandra thinks this is the stupid ranting of a narcissistic parent, but I really could tell right away that Laszlo is a good person. Until he was born, my greatest concern was whether he would get into an Ivy League college. But right then I realized he was happy and kind, and that was more important. I could tell that he’s a nicer person than I am. I don’t know how I can prove that, but I will be very, very surprised if he perpetrates genocide.
All this crying over my newborn son would make me a pretty good person, if it weren’t for the fact that I wasn’t paying any attention to the fact that a bunch of medical professionals were working to stop my wife from bleeding to death.
I cry a lot now, and it’s embarrassing. Before Laszlo was born I cried as often as I barfed, about once every seven years: when my grandfather died; when I was dumped by my college girlfriend; when I feared I was losing Cassandra. Now I cry over the part in children’s books where the kid gives up his stuffed animal. My feelings are much closer to the surface, or maybe the skin around my tear ducts has thinned out. Either way, it’s annoying.
I do not want to cry during my weekend as a Boy Scout. So I steady my nerves with a shot of Homemade Coke and join my fellow Boy Scouts outside Beef’s shack. We sit on some picnic benches illuminated by electric lanterns, which is when I notice that these kids aren’t as badass as I feared. In fact, they are wearing uniforms that include a neckerchief. They have flashlights strapped around their foreheads as if they’re about to go spelunking in the nerd mine. Plus, they are eleven to thirteen years old. From El Segundo, a tony beach town in Los Angeles. Even Beef isn’t all that tough: He teaches technology at Eagle Rock High School and coaches their athletic decathlon team under the name Glenn Laird. These were a breed I did not know existed: outdoors nerds.
Wiggles, a small, good-looking, obviously popular thirteen-year-old, asks me why a thirty-eight-year-old man is joining a Boy Scout camping trip in a way that informs me that his middle school is doing an exemplary job of warning him about child molestation. So I tell Wiggles about my lack of male skills and that I’ve just had a son and how I worry about passing my inadequacies on to him. I figure fatherhood insecurity is just the kind of thing to bore a thirteen-year-old out of asking a person any more questions about his creepy desire to camp with children. But it doesn’t. Wiggles is the most empathetic kid I’ve ever met. He nods at everything I say to him and seems to process my middle-aged masculinity meltdown in a way that Cassandra did not. After waiting to make sure I’ve finished talking, Wiggles leans forward on his bench across the table from me and tells me something that makes me feel even less intimidated by the Boy Scouts than their neckerchiefs do: “We suck at sports,” he says.
Looking around the table, I can see everything Wiggles is trying to tell me about the Boy Scouts. Sure, a group of them is having a manly conversation about sniper rifles, bazookas, and howitzers, but in that way dorky kids who like complicated games involving painted figurines do. Boy Scouts are a lot more like me than I thought. They are playing Dungeons & Dragons, only they’ve replaced elves with American Indians.
A tall kid sits next to me and asks if I want to see something cool. Before I can decide, he shows me six knives he’s hidden on various parts of his body. Then he tells me that his dad is in jail, which led him to join the Scouts. When I ask him what his dad got put away for, he tells me it was weapons sales. I mention that carrying around a Le Cordon Bleu number of knives isn’t a great call for someone with his family history. He tells me that his dad was caught selling guns, not knives. There is clearly no Scout badge for non-linear thinking.
Since we are all hyped up on soda, candy, and Beef, Rick Pierce holds up three fingers, which is the Boy Scout sign for silence. Then Rick Pierce has everyone line up behind their senior patrol leader. I am not at all surprised that Wiggles is one of the leaders, or that his group looks the coolest—he is flanked by two boys with longish hair and a bit of an attitude, each significantly taller than Wiggles. The other patrols all have four kids instead of three, so I meekly volunteer to join Wiggles’s, trying to half pretend it’s a joke since I am at least twenty-five years older than them. But Wiggles sees through it and quickly waves me to the back of his line, like it’s normal to have old, neckerchief-less men join them. He makes me feel like I belong, despite the fact that I’m a foot taller than my patrol mates, and two feet taller than my patrol leader. Then the groups state their patrol group names. One is the Red Hats. One is the Leprechauns. One is the Gummi Bears. Wiggles’s group is the Master Exploders. I must have heard this wrong. Faster Decoders? Mister Explorers? No, we are the Master Exploders. Wiggles says he got it from the title of a Tenacious D song, the heavy-metal comedy band with hits such as “Fuck Her Gently.” He shows me the Master Exploders patch on their uniforms; it is a drawing of a mushroom cloud.
Wiggles and the other kids set up their tents. It is dark and there are lots of poles and pounding of stakes with rocks. This is the stuff I was afraid of. On some level I know putting up a tent can’t be too hard if an eleven-year-old can do it, but eleven-year-olds can also illegally download movies and shoot people in Halo. I have no mining-helmet flashlight. I have no flat rock. I am starting to sweat from embarrassment and ineffective pounding on stakes with round rocks.
Luckily, Rick Pierce comes over and sets up my tent with me, which isn’t all that hard. I string a few poles through some holes, pound the stakes in the dirt with the bottom of my shoe, and suddenly there is a flimsy piece of plastic separating me from the earth, the sky, and, most importantly, the farts of eleven-year-olds. I go over to help Rick Pierce with his tent, when I discover that Rick Pierce has a cot. This is so incredibly wrong. Like finding out your favorite superhero sleeps on a cot.
When I ask Rick Pierce what the etiquette is on urination, Rick Pierce points me toward two Porta-Potties down the hill. I check the Porta-Potties out, only to discover that one of them has some Boy Scout feces on the seat. This confirms my plan to not defecate during this camping trip. I fear this might make my experience less authentic when Chad, a very chill, confident eleven-year-old with a shaved head and some kind of cool black neoprene Nike outfit, tells me that all the kids constrict their bowels until they get home. As far as pissing, Chad takes me aside, away from the adults.
“I always set up my tent near a tree. Just don’t let the scoutmasters catch you,” he says. “You can use a Porta-Potty in the city.” We high-five in our minds, as people who pee on trees are wise to do.
The only thing I can’t figure out is where the kids brush their teeth.
“In their minds,” explains Mr. Wetmore, one of the kids’ dads and one of four non-Beef adults on the trip.
“These boys won’t brush their teeth or change their underwear until Sunday night,” adds Rick Pierce. I can’t figure out why, then, they had packed such enormous bags—bags that barely fit in their tents.
“Who do you think packed those bags?” Mr. Wetmore asks. Moms apparently either don’t understand or refuse to accept just how disgusting boys are. Which I need to embrace. I need to lose some of what’s made me so uptight, so afraid, so weak. I need to unbrush and unfloss. I do not need the bag I brought, either. The Boy Scouts are teaching me that being prepared is for chicks.
While the kids settle down to sleep at 2130, I chat with Rick Pierce and the other three adults. Rick Pierce, unsurprisingly, spent most of his career as an air force rocket scientist and is now employed in the private sector working on satellite weapons systems. His seventeen-year-old son just dropped out of the Boy Scouts but Rick Pierce has decided to keep going anyway. I think this is pretty weird. I can’t imagine telling Cassandra that Laszlo isn’t interested in baby music class anymore, but I’ll be spending Sundays at a random couple’s house singing hello to a group of babies teething on tambourines. But this is how Rick Pierce is giving back to the community, and Rick Pierce is even taking classes to become a more advanced Scout leader, son or not. One of the other dads, Wayne Torrey, also has a son who dropped out of scouting a few years ago, and he spent three of the last four weekends at this campsite. For his weekend off, Mr. Torrey watched a Civil War reenactment.
It’s nice to learn that I’m not the only person with this fantasy of stealing his son and taking him to the woods: There’s a giant international organization dedicated to it. Some guys like Rick Pierce, Beef, and Mr. Torrey have it so bad they’re satisfied taking other people’s sons into the woods.
I say good night to the four adults and get in my tent, where I put on two layers of socks and a hat and try to fall asleep in the cold. I am trying to get comfortable by twisting my body around the rocks under me when I hear a boy yelling, as loud as he can: “Go outside! GO OUTSIDE! GO OUT OF THE TENT!” I stay in my tent, remembering that you should stay still and quiet when a bear is around, no matter how many Boy Scouts it is eating. But I quickly figure out, by the rolls of paper towels Rick Pierce is requesting, that one of the boys barfed. This, apparently, is so common—because kids so often get sick and so unoften eat boxes of candy and Homemade Coke for dinner—that it’s not even a big deal to the barfee, who went right back in the very same tent with the guy who just barfed on him.
“I barfed last time,” explains the barfer’s tentmate, Charlie. In fact, Charlie says, the barfer—who is actually my cool, piss-confidant buddy Chad—still owes him one barf after this. That’s when I know I am in the right place. Dorks or not, these are the men I need to learn from. Men with a Mafioso-like sense of loyalty and repaying favors. Men who are comfortable sleeping in one another’s vomit.
I do not sleep well. It turns out the outside makes a lot of noise. At about 0300, I gain an even deeper appreciation for houses, which are underrated in their ability to provide warmth, block noise, and keep dew off you. In the ranking of shelters, tent barely edges out no tent. I cannot get warm. I cannot get dry. I cannot sleep. My car is only feet away. I could easily sleep there, with the heater on and some classical music in the background. I could even drive to a hotel and be back before anyone knows. Is that any less manly than Rick Pierce’s cot? Isn’t it resourceful? Isn’t there a badge for that?
But I can’t fail this soon, even if no one else would know. Because I would. So I put on a third pair of socks in the dark and shiver on top of the tree root sticking into my back, putting together sets of twenty-minute naps.
Even though we agree to get up at 0630, the boys get up at 0530, which pisses the adults off by 0100 percent. I am not nearly as upset since I don’t yet appreciate the subtle differences between sleeping in a tent and being awake outside of one.
Still, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’ve camped. I’ve beaten the elements. I feel connected to this grassy field. I know it in a way I haven’t known a plot of earth since the backyard of the house I grew up in. Better yet, I’ve never woken up outdoors and had quite this quick a transition into my day. I feel like a man with important things to do. Like sleep.
Instead, I walk out of my tent in the clothes I showed up in and Mr. Wetmore offers me a cup of coffee. I admit that, in addition to never having camped before, I’m also not man enough to drink coffee. Mr. Wetmore informs me that most Boy Scout dads don’t drink coffee, and suddenly my lifelong inability to handle bitterness becomes a Boy-Scouty, clean-body/clean-mind, too-tough-to-need-caffeine affectation. I head for my morning treeside ablutions when Wiggles asks me what I’m up to. I am not sure on all the Boy Scout rules yet, but I figure lying to your patrol leader is not okay.
“I’m going to brush my teeth,” I admit.
“That’s unheard of,” Wiggles says.
In fact, only one kid has brushed since arriving, and he is a severely autistic seventeen-year-old. “I haven’t brushed yet,” Chad says to me. “And I puked.”
Rick Pierce makes sure we look spiffy since, as part of Boy Scout diversity training, we are hosting a brand-new troop from South Central Los Angeles made up of poor, inner-city kids who are mostly black. Troop 1323 is going on their first sleepover, under our tutelage. When the nine nervous, quiet boys show up and introduce themselves and their patrol troops (Panthers and Sharks), we help them put up their tents. It is beautiful to learn that eleven-year-olds don’t care at all about race and class when they are allowed to boss around other eleven-year-olds.
For breakfast, we are preparing several rugged outdoorsy entrées for our guests, one of which is muffins from Costco. Unfortunately, the kid with the six knives opens the muffin cellophane with one of them and Mr. Torrey confiscates it, since it is a sheath knife, which apparently is not permitted. The kid takes this pretty well, probably because he has five more knives hidden about him. He tells me that the hardest part of passing my test to be a Scout, which he believes I can do that very afternoon, is learning to tie a square knot. After a few tries, I get it, and he quickly shows me another knot.
“This is the hangman’s knot. It’s an illegal knot,” he says, making me Richie to his Fonzie. “You’re not supposed to use it. Especially around the new troop. It’s offensive.” Still, he makes it clear that in less racially fraught situations, illegal knots are way cooler than legal knots. I’m really worried about this kid’s future.
Meanwhile, Andrew, a small Asian kid from our troop who knows the most about World War II weaponry, is standing near a slab of bacon holding a knife and spinning while screaming, “Blood circle! Blood circle! Blood circle!” like he is in a 1970s punk band. I think there is something very wrong with him until I learn that this is standard knife-operating Boy Scout procedure. Apparently, much of the fun of wielding a knife is that you get to yell “blood circle!” while holding it in your hand and swinging your outstretched arm to demonstrate, in the most dangerous manner possible, the risks involved in getting anywhere near you. It’s as if every time you used a paper clip you unfurled it and threw it as hard as you could at someone’s eye to warn them that there were paper clips around. I decide that I am totally doing this with my knives when I cook. It will make it seem so much more manly when I’m crying and chopping onions if I’m also screaming “blood circle!”
In addition to muffin-package opening, we are going to make eggs in a paper bag. We put raw bacon on the bottom of a brown paper bag, crack two eggs on top, and tie the bags to a rope above a fire. This will be of use if we are ever trapped in the wilderness with just a fire, some bacon, a carton of eggs, a lot of brown paper bags, and rope. We also fill ziplock bags with Egg Beaters, bacon bits, cheese, and tomatoes and drop those in boiling water. I do not know why there is such concern over the cholesterol of active, outdoorsy eleven-year-olds.
I assume we are loading up on a big man breakfast so we can do some serious scouting, finally putting a few feet between myself and my Mini Cooper. I am excited to check out the thirty-two hundred acres of wooded hills. I am ready to reconnoiter or bivouac or attack American Indians or befriend American Indians, depending on our mood. Instead, Beef comes by to teach us how to make paper rockets. The Master Exploders get two Troop 1323’ers added to our patrol, one of whom is a small, hyper boy named Robert. As we are cutting paper by the picnic benches, Robert keeps asking the same question: “When are we going to go over there and catch snipes?” Wiggles takes charge, calmly improvising that snipes don’t come out until nightfall, are hard to find, and are extremely dangerous. Beef, clearly uncomfortable with the snipes lie but trapped in a classic moral dilemma between empathy and tradition, will only say, “They’re very elusive.” So are you, Beef. So are you.
Though I have not told Wiggles about The List, Wiggles gives me a lot of unrequested advice on fatherhood while we’re carefully folding paper:
“Don’t get involved in everything your son does.”
“Be on him about grades.”
“M-rated video games are okay. But don’t get him games with sexual themes. No Grand Theft Auto.”
“Don’t always be there, standing with him and waiting for the bus. You’ll embarrass him. Starting in sixth grade.”
Wiggles is far better than any parenting book I’ve read, even if I’d read a parenting book.
I’ve always assumed people became leaders because they were power-mad. Which I am not. I even view my relationship with Laszlo as give-and-take, sometimes giving in to his desires and sometimes insisting he listen to my suggestions that he lie still and let me wipe his butt. But Wiggles is able to give advice and direction without seeming like a jerk. He doesn’t ask what I want to do, but it feels like he’s paying attention to my needs, whether that’s advice on fatherhood or paper rockets. Wiggles is on my side, and because of that, I want to do whatever it takes to make the Master Exploders the best patrol on this trip.
Our next outdoorsy activity is putting Mentos in half liters of Diet Coke and watching them explode. Then we turn the bottles into yet more rockets. I’m starting to see that nature isn’t something to explore as much as something to shoot rockets into. Luckily, Beef drives up in his ranger vehicle and offers me a tour of the campsite.
Beef, I learn, is a member of the Scouts’ prestigious Order of the Arrow, where he has been given the Vigil Honor and the Indian name Lo Unsa Wesechumaid. There aren’t many of his kind left. Scouting has been in decline for decades, ever since Vietnam, when people started associating the Boy Scouts with the military. People like my mom. In fact, the organization is still in such financial trouble that they had to sell the thirty-two hundred acres of Firestone to the City of Industry, which loans it back to the Scouts. The Scouts lost further membership in the 1990s when they decided against allowing gays or atheists. In other countries, scouting mixes both boys and girls, but in the United States they don’t, and now the Boy Scouts are far more popular in Republican areas, while the Girl Scouts, who refuse to use guns at all, are bigger in Democratic regions. Ironically, one of the reasons that Boy Scouts are in decline, Beef tells me, is that boys think “it’s gay.” My sister’s husband, Mike, was one of these “closeted Scouts.”
“No one at high school knew I was a Boy Scout,” Mike had said when I called him. “It would have been open season on my dorky ass. There was an unwritten rule that anyone in Boy Scouts never said anything about it at school.”
Beef wants to take me on some real scouting. He leads me into the woods for the first time since I arrived and makes me taste some kind of dirty plant he picks from the ground and guess what it is. I take a tiny bite and say “watercress.” Beef’s face drops. Something is wrong. He has clearly realized that he gave me poison and the antidote is either far away or out of season. Instead he tells me that, yes, what I ate was baby watercress. I have found the one place where survivalists and pampered city folks overlap: identifying field lettuces used in expensive restaurant salads. I hope I get a Boy Scout badge with three Michelin stars.
Back at the camp, my fellow Scouts begin dinner preparation. Dinner, sadly, will not involve a roaring fire and sticks. Rick Pierce brought little electric burners that plug into outlets near the picnic benches. Even more disappointing, Rick Pierce organizes dinner as an Iron Chef competition among the patrol groups. I am baffled that gay kids aren’t allowed to be Boy Scouts.
I am very excited, since cooking is something I can totally master explode at. Even though he knows a lot about food for a thirteen-year-old, Wiggles lets me take charge of my patrol. We make a two-course meal: chicken potpie and a dessert we call Grandma’s House because it smells, for very good reason, like an entire canister of cinnamon. Wiggles makes cooking fun by acting like everyone’s ideas are great, even as he decides not to pour everything in one big pot as the other kids suggest. He makes us believe our patrol’s cooking superiority is so objective that the judging results are immaterial.
We win the Iron Chef cook-off and celebrate by eating a lot of cinnamon. Then we all dip bananas in sugar and caramelize them with a blowtorch, which is the most effete method of playing with fire possible.
After dinner, Rick Pierce brings me to a picnic table to take my official Scout test. If I pass, I will be an actual Boy Scout. If not, I’ll need to take a step even farther backward in my man journey and learn how to burp and spit up masculinely. Wiggles tells me that I have nothing to worry about on the test. That I’m already a Boy Scout.
As Rick Pierce watches, I successfully tie a square knot, give the Boy Scout salute (three fingers), recite the motto (“Be prepared”), and demonstrate the secret handshake (can’t tell you). Then Rick Pierce goes over Boy Scout law, asking how I demonstrate each of the Scout attributes. I am doing pretty well, especially when he asks, “Are you ‘clean’?” If there’s one place where “I am clean,” it’s with this group, where the autistic kid and I are the only ones who brushed our teeth.
Then Rick Pierce gets to “reverent.” I explain that Rick Pierce is asking me to choose between scouting and my career. That’s when Rick Pierce explains that reverent specifically means in relationship to God. I tell Rick Pierce that I don’t believe in God. Rick Pierce puts down the manual. Mr. Wetmore, an editor for commercials who is used to dealing with guys like me in Los Angeles, says a belief in any higher power or energy will do. He gives both me and Rick Pierce a nod that implies we should go along with this. Which Rick Pierce grudgingly agrees to. But I am not going to build the foundation of my new manhood on a lie. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but right now I’d rather give up this badge and abandon my entire journey than not be true to myself. So I tell Rick Pierce that, no, I can’t go for the higher energy thing. Mr. Wetmore, who cannot believe he is parsing theological terms so a thirty-eight-year-old can get his first Boy Scout badge, suggests that just believing in myself is a kind of reverence. Rick Pierce gives him a weird look, but Rick Pierce has twenty-one kids and a live blowtorch to deal with, so he passes me on the test, for reverently believing in myself. I am now a Boy Scout. I get a square knot in my throat and shake Rick Pierce’s hand in a way that I can’t tell you about.
I told Cassandra I’d be home before she goes to sleep, so I get ready to leave when Wiggles grabs me. We’re going on a snipe hunt with the new troop members to haze them.
Wiggles insists that I can’t miss such a storied part of Boy Scouting. So I join him as we walk into the darkness down the hill, the kids from the inner-city troop nervous and quiet. One of the kids from our own group, Nick, who missed the memo about snipes being fake, gets scared and heads back. I go to stop him, but Wiggles signals to let him go.
Eventually, we walk three feet into the woods, the troop entering nature for the very first time on the trip. Chad, the unbrushed barfer, hides behind a tree. He tries to blink his two red forehead flashlights to replicate the eyes of a snipe, but he flashes it white the first few times and then finally red, which is way more robot than snipe. We all, I’m sure, see him fiddle with the thing. I figure the game is over. But then Wiggles yells that the visiting troop should attack the snipe, which not only works but seems, at least for Chad, like a cruel reversal of this elaborate practical joke. A particularly small boy named Christian yells, “I hate you! I hate you!,” his fists wildly swinging in front of him as he rushes toward Chad. As they’re beating the crap out of Chad, who goes fetal, they finally discover he is not a snipe. Chad, oddly, looks triumphant, as if he got the better of these kids who are punching him.
I should break up the fight, but I can’t tell if this is just normal boy play or something more dangerous. Because I didn’t participate in normal boy fighting. When I was five, my mom brought me over to play with her friend’s two sons, who were older and Italianer than me. One of them started hitting me when my mom, apparently, went to save me from my first fight. “My friend said, ‘No, no, no. You have to let them fight it out.’ I thought, Maybe she’s right. You can’t always run away. I can’t keep protecting him,” my mom said. “And he punched you and pushed you down and you were crying. And I was so pissed at her.” One clue to where I got my fear of fighting is that my mom is so afraid of her Italian friend that she won’t let me print her name in this book.
Looking at this scrum of kids in the woods, I realize that by the end of my man journey, I’m going to have to fight someone. I don’t know who, I don’t know why, and I certainly don’t know how, but I know I’m going to hate it more than anything else I have to do. Confrontation is the most elemental part of manhood and the one I’ve worked hardest to avoid. Even seeing these eleven-year-olds fight, I want to run away.
By the time I react and decide to break up the fight, the pile of kids has already gotten off Chad. As we approach the tents on the long, quiet walk back to camp, Christian, the particularly small inner-city kid, looks at all of his supposed Scout mentors and says, “Whoever that snipe was, I hate you. That was not cool.” I have a bad feeling we just confirmed a lot of what he already thought about white people.
I do not know how Wiggles is going to handle this debacle, to repair this fissure between our two groups that was the exact opposite of this weekend’s purpose. Wiggles, though, doesn’t see it that way. The mission was accomplished. The new kids, once they calm down, will feel included, like they’re experts now in something, even if it’s in fictionalized birds of wrath. Wiggles doesn’t need to be liked. Wiggles follows his own code. Which is why he’s respected.
Sitting on a picnic bench next to Wiggles, I say good-bye, thanking him for all that he somehow managed to teach me about outdoorsmaning without ever really going into the outdoors. Wiggles begs me to stay until morning, when they’ll be cooking something called a Wagon Wheel that sounds to me like the same undercooked bacon and eggs I had this morning, only arranged on the plate in a different way. I explain that I have a baby and a wife and I can’t stay away any longer.
“I get that,” he says.
But he does convince me to stay for another hour so I can see the fire they’re about to set. I find it hard to believe this will only take an hour since it is already 2100 and no one has gathered any wood. Beef explains that, because of the dangers of forest fires in Los Angeles, this will be a propane fire, just little jets of blue flame emerging from tongs of steel. It’s tiny and lame and as evocative of the power of the elements as a paper fan. You can’t make s’mores in this fire. It does not attract insects. It is like we’re holding up Bic lighters waiting for an encore where real Boy Scouts come out and light a huge bonfire. I just got my Boy Scout badge hours ago, but I already feel like throwing it in the flame in protest. Especially since it has absolutely no chance of burning in there.
We gather around the not-fire and Mr. Torrey tells a very long Nordic myth about mistletoe that he segues out of by saying, “Now I have a story that you might enjoy.” Then the boys put on skits that imply that they have attended a lot of vaudeville shows. Wiggles drags me out to the center of the group, next to the not-fire. He has me and another kid hold a stick for no reason and pretend we’re at a candy store. The skit ends when all the other kids go back to their seats and Wiggles looks at us and says, “I’ve got two suckers on a stick!” Everyone laughs even though (a) I’m sure they’ve heard it before, (b) it’s not funny, and (c) there’s no way they know that lollipops were once called suckers. But I feel so glad to be included enough to be made fun of—to be sniped—that as the kids file off to go to sleep I consider getting back in that tent and abandoning Cassandra and Laszlo for one more night.
I thank Wiggles again, and he shakes my hand, and tells me that he’ll mail me the cool mushroom cloud badge he says I also earned—the Master Exploder one. I know this is not the last I will see of Wiggles. That someday, somewhere, he’s going to be my boss.
I could have stayed. I could have peed in the woods, worn that same outfit, and secretly brushed for another two days. I could become one of them. All I need to do is take my natural nerdiness and apply it to stuff I’m not interested in. The happiest thing I learned this weekend is that nerdiness is a big part of manliness: learning battle dates, perfecting martial arts moves, memorizing NFL passing percentages, knowing a lot of knots even though the only one you really need is the “shoelace knot.”
I’ll be back. With Laszlo. I like that time is slower out here. I like the freedom from feeling I should be doing something better or more interesting. It’s my first appreciation of boredom, and if I like sharing that with Wiggles, I bet I’m going to really like doing it with a kid with a slightly less stupid name. And if Laszlo is anything at all at eleven years like he is at five months, then he won’t mind barfing on himself and others.
When I get home from the campsite, I tell Cassandra that she was wrong, that already I’ve changed, that I’ve learned enough from earning my Boy Scout badge to take Laszlo and his friends camping whenever they want. I also tell her that I definitely don’t need any dinner tonight, since the impacted short rib sandwich, cheeseburger, beef stew, cinnamon treat, undercooked eggs, and PowerBars are starting to hurt. Then in an act of magnanimity, I tell Cassandra that she can come to the woods with Laszlo and me.
“I’m not going camping. There could be spiders. I would go camping if I could be in a log cabin with running water.”
“That’s not camping.”
“Oh. Then I won’t go camping.”
I told her that if she did come, I’d make sure any spiders, whether itsy or bitsy, stayed on the water spout, far away from her. These are precisely the conversations I wanted to have as a man. Ones in which my wife cowers in fear and I lean over, put my arms around her, and taunt her for her fears.
RESCUING THE HELPLESS
Though I think Cassandra is being uptight, I agree to take a shower before going to bed. I feel great, recounting my triumphs over raw eggs and tween barf, unsure why Cassandra is not setting them to verse. Instead, she tells me she cannot believe how empowered a person can feel after surviving one night of camping with eleven-year-olds. It is going to take more to impress her.
A big part of being a Boy Scout, perhaps second only to cooking, is community service. To become an Eagle Scout you have to complete a huge service project—my brother-in-law Mike restored trails at a state park. Beef’s whole life seemed to be about helping children. That’s because the Boy Scouts believe that after you learn to take care of yourself, you should help people who don’t know how. I want to leap to the other side of that divide. And I want Laszlo to learn how to do that from me.
There are many different levels of sacrifice, none of which I know anything about. Risking your life for someone you don’t know, someone you’ll never meet, someone who very well may not even be worthy of this risk, is the most moronic level. And it’s exactly what firefighters do. I need to find out why. And whether I could ever rush into a burning building to save someone. Or even be near people while they do it. Because by having a child, I suddenly went from protected to protector.
Bravery is not something I’m naturally gifted at. In fact, I cannot figure out why bravery wasn’t the first trait eliminated via natural selection. Whenever people ask what items I’d save if my house were on fire, I look at them like the idiots they are. Why not ask which bill denominations I would request to keep from the guy mugging me at gunpoint? These are people who do not realize the importance of being able to identify an emergency situation and then run quickly away from it. These are people who think that before you get stranded on a desert island, you get to pack a bunch of records.
Firefighter is one of the few jobs kind enough to warn me away by containing two words I’m not interested in, unlike the deceptive bookkeeper. All the boys in my kindergarten class wanted to be firemen. When I used to ask them why, not one of them mentioned early retirement, days off, or excellent benefits. Instead they focused on the giant truck, ladder, pole, and hose. I realize now that this is because all the boys in my kindergarten class had tiny penises.
Firemen are different from guys with other man jobs: I respect them, but they don’t intimidate me. That’s because they get to be brave and badass without ever confronting other human beings. Their only disagreement is with one of the elements. That’s why firefighter is the job closest to superhero. Actually, Mexican wrestler is the job closest to superhero, but since I don’t speak Spanish and face masks immediately make my whole face smell like morning breath, I figure if I want to learn to conquer fear and help others, I’ll try out firefighter instead.
Four months after the Boy Scout camping trip, a friend on the LA City Council puts me in touch with the guy who runs Fire Station 27 in Hollywood, one of the ten busiest houses in Los Angeles. His name is Captain Buzz Smith. I cannot believe the names of real men are so real manly: Rick Pierce, Captain Buzz Smith. Did my parents doom me to wimpdom with my name? If I were Jack Hammer would I be the first man on the sun? Or, as a quick Internet search shows, would I just have been an imprisoned male porn star?
Just like Rick Pierce, Captain Buzz Smith uses military time, telling me in an email to show up at 0600. My life never calls for military time. If someone says, “Let’s meet at six,” I know exactly when they mean since I have only one six in my life. Also, just like Rick Pierce, Captain Buzz tells me to bring a sleeping bag. He suggests I wear boots with toe protection, too, which, of course, I do not own: I live a life in which my toes are never in any danger. He ends his instructional email by commenting on the idea for this book: “Not to dismiss your entire premise, but none of the activities or skills you plan on doing define becoming a man. A man is honest, kind, and courageous, protects women, is humble, bold, moral, seeks truth, loves children, and fights for what is right.” He actually wrote that! Without one of those winking emoticon things!
I park my car in the morning dark and walk down the street to the firehouse in my vulnerable-toed shoes. Since I still don’t have a sleeping bag, I carry my giant down comforter and a pillow, like a kid with an overprotective mom going on his first sleepover. I ring the doorbell of a huge, beautiful old brick building with a red, Mexican tiled roof, and a fireman leads me past an empty reception desk to an office in the back of the house where Captain Buzz Smith is sitting behind a desk. Captain Buzz Smith does not look like a Captain Buzz Smith, by which I mean he is not made of plastic. He has a gentle face, an easy smile, a mustache, and a general kindness to him; if he were cast as an astronaut he’d be the guy in charge of mixing Tang. Both his father and grandfather were firefighters in LA, and it is a safe assumption that at least one of his eight children will be. Shortly after getting married, he and his wife heard a sermon at church about how you should let God decide how many children you should have. I think this is a pretty good plan: let stuff just naturally happen and say that’s how God wanted it. I am going to let God decide how much food I eat, how much wine I drink, and how much porn I watch.
Upon Captain Buzz’s suggestion, I’ve brought boxes of donuts to win over the other guys. This does not seem like the healthiest way to start a day of putting out fires. I suggested some egg-white omelets, but Captain Buzz said the guys are pretty insistent about the donuts. I bring them to the kitchen, where, at 0700, men are eating fried pork skin and cucumber salad with ranch dressing left over from the dinner made by the previous crew. They are not doing this because they lost a bet. They are doing it because it is food that is there. My stomach can’t even handle an oolong tea that’s too dark at 0700. They are able to eat 0700 pork rinds without anyone commenting on how gross this is because there is not one woman among the house’s three crews of sixteen firefighters.
The guys are really friendly considering God wants us to be asleep and they have no idea who I am. There’s not one hostile “May I help you?” There aren’t even any questions about what I’m doing here. I’m a guy who’s not starting a fire, and that’s good enough for them. Besides being friendly, almost every one of them is weirdly good-looking. I knew about the handsome firefighter stereotype, but I didn’t think it could possibly be true about so many of them. I’m okay with bending employee discrimination rules for restaurant hostesses, but is it really a good idea to be choosing the people who save our lives based on facial symmetry? The good-looking firemen are especially a problem since, as we were going to sleep last night, Cassandra said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you made all these firemen friends?” This was disturbing, especially since a firehouse was used more than once as a setting in the classic 1990s series of films called the Gangbang Girl. Plus, everyone knows that, as far as occupations that get you laid, fireman is number three—behind drummer and male prostitute. I am definitely not going to be making “all these firemen friends.”
I do, however, need to be liked by everyone at all times. So my plan is to indeed make all these firemen friends but never tell Cassandra. I will claim I’m going out for the night to play poker with my dork friends, but I’ll really go out with my firefighter friends, and we’ll spend the night drinking light-colored American beer and recounting stories of danger and gangbanging girls.
But these guys are way better looking than I feared. All of them are significantly better looking than the firefighters in the Gangbang Girl videos. Cassandra will never meet these guys no matter how much our house is on fire.
They are also excellent homemakers. The kitchen is immaculate. I had no idea men were capable of being neat without women around. Seeing a lot of fires, apparently, makes you pretty concerned about clutter.
It’s not just the kitchen that’s clean. The garage is spotless, too. It looks like a museum room displaying two ambulances, an SUV, and two fire trucks with exhaust pipes that hook into hoses that vent out the ceiling to keep the carbon monoxide out.
I am a little disturbed that the stereo is blasting Death Cab for Cutie instead of Pantera or Motörhead, but I figure that’s an 0700 thing. After a long conversation with Captain Buzz about the difference between fire trucks and fire engines that I really should have written down, he explains that as soon as I hear an alarm, I have to put on my jacket and hat and get in the fire truck engine within sixty seconds or my team will leave without me. I think this is an excellent policy to institute with Cassandra for whenever we go out.
Captain Buzz introduces me to Herbie Johnston, the engineer who drives the—I’m guessing here—fire truck I’ll be riding in. Herbie, fifty-five, has a slight limp to his step and looks just like Robert Duvall with a mustache. He was drafted at nineteen, and he has surprisingly positive memories of the Vietnam War, which focused his life and gave him confidence and discipline. It is 0700 and I am talking about Vietnam.
I instantly like Herbie. That’s because everybody likes Herbie. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who is calm and chipper—like Tom Hanks without the nervous need to please. Herbie seems happy about everything. He’s happy to be here early in the morning. He’s happy that it’s his turn to cook dinner tonight. He’s happy he was drafted into the Vietnam War. The only thing Herbie isn’t completely happy about is talking about all the lives he’s saved in his three-decade-long career. When I ask him about that, he instead talks about how much he needs to be a fireman. Herbie has put off his retirement several times, using excuses and technicalities to drag his career slightly past where the city normally allows: “It’s not the fires,” he says. “It’s the guys.” If I were being rescued from a fire, I’d be instantly calmed by Herbie’s face.