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How I Learned To Be A Man

My Broken Framework of Masculinity

When I was a child, my father punched holes in the walls. Sometimes they came from the knobs of slammed doors, but mostly they were at the height of my mother’s face.

By day, when the house was quiet, I’d gaze up at these holes with a kind of odd detachment. My 5-year-old hands would reach up and graze the edges of the house’s interior, tracing the outlines. I never saw them happen, only heard them through the walls of my room. The holes terrified and fascinated me all at once.

   Everything about my father was massive—callused, weathered hands from years of hard labor and broad shoulders squaring his 6’ 3” frame. He squeezed me as he shook me, and if he gripped any tighter I knew I’d snap in half.

My parents separated when I was six, and my father moved into a ranch house down the road. Nestled in the state park, it was isolated and quiet. The first night I slept over, there was no furniture in the house—no lamps, no books, no toys. I slept on the floor of his bedroom in a thrifted Ninja Turtles sleeping bag.

Coastal fog encased the house and thin fabric of my cheap sleeping bag did little to keep out the cold. My father paced between rooms, silent and stoic. I whined, asking if there were more blankets, or if the house could be warmer. In response, my father picked me up from the floor and shook me.

Shut the fuck up Shut the fuck up Shut the fuck up

Everything about my father was massive—callused, weathered hands from years of hard labor and broad shoulders squaring his 6’ 3” frame. He squeezed me as he shook me, and if he gripped any tighter I knew I’d snap in half. Trapped in my toy store sleeping bag, I went silent and still, my eyes forced wide open and staring straight at him. His face suddenly paled, the shaking stopped, and he placed me gently onto the floor. He walked out of the room, into the shadows of the hallway, outside.

I looked up and across the bedroom using only my eyes, keeping my head and body completely still. I did not cry. There were no holes in this house.

Twenty-two years later, balanced on a ladder, I held a jackhammer to a concrete block in the ceiling of my father’s cabin on his Wyoming ranch. We’d demolished the entire kitchen wall, only to discover the previous owners had insulated the ceiling with concrete and newspaper to save money.

“You want to take a break?” my father asked, wiping his brow.

“No, just a few more to finish.”

“You sure? It’s 5 o’clock. I think it’s time for wine.”

Outside the horses grazed at the spring grasses just emerging from the snowmelt. My father had bought this property in the Bighorn Basin seven years earlier with his wife, Maria. They’d been temporarily living in a single-wide behind the cabin, steadily plodding away at its remodel during the quieter winter months. Their dream home.

The horses were part of Maria’s equine therapy program. Many of the animals were rescues themselves. At the end of the day I’d walk to the pasture and rest my head on Daylight, a white-haired quarter horse once renowned for her bucking skills. I would listen to her breathe, pass my hand along her back, and feel as though she was absorbing my exhaustion, releasing it with each exhale into the dusk.

I’d come out here to escape. Twelve years living and working in Los Angeles had wrung me dry, and my partner Sera and I were in search of a calmer home life. Wyoming was our attempt to start anew.

Photo by the author

We’d been together for two years. After an initial period of bliss, we were both in debt and growing apart. We were also fighting. A lot.

Many of our disagreements centered around money. I’d been raised in a household where the man was the designated provider. His worth stemmed from his ability to pay the way for his partner, and if he lacked funds, he made up with it with confidence and control. Control was key. A man had to be unwavering in his actions, never second-guessing himself.

With this as my framework for masculinity, I took any criticism or doubt from Sera as an attack on my innermost self. The core of me. All of me. I responded with rage. I smashed a phone. Broke a pair of sunglasses.

Tears would follow. I would repent, apologize, and after some space alone, we would rebuild.

This is how you fight. When someone hurts you, you make them hurt. It was instinctual. Even if I was cruel, at least I was confident, and Sera would see that. She would know I was still being a man, despite my flaws. It made sense to me.

On one occasion, I came inside after a fight and found Sera in the bathtub. I’d walked the block to calm my mind, and when I saw her sitting motionless in the water, staring silently at the wall, I saw the way my anger was chipping away at her, fraying her spirit and diminishing her fire. I felt such shame for what I was doing to her. I wondered if I’d be better off placing my head into the drain and swallowing until there was only darkness.

But my spiral was short-lived. Something triggered the anger in me again and I wanted to attack. I grabbed for the plug in the tub and tossed it across the room, lording my body above Sera, huffing, breathing, fuming, yelling as the water drained around her. I couldn’t tell you what was said. My fury took me out of my body, floating into some disassociated outer world until my breathing would calm again.

Sera held her knees to her chest and cried. I walked out.

It was my Dad who suggested the idea in the first place.

“You can come work for me. Get your head right. We can finish the house. The quiet will be good for you.”

Over the years my father’s walkabout had seemed to quiet his inner fire. I believed him when he said the atmosphere would soothe me; I’d seen it work for him. I imagined me and Sera finally sleeping soundly again. Laughing. Connecting. She would no longer recoil at my touch. I hoped.

I told myself that my expectations of being close to my father, of actually living in the same space, were that of a grown man; of someone sound in his character and confidence. But the child within me reemerged in his presence. I knew nothing of his world—hammers and plywood, horses and irrigation, ditch digging and country music—and he reminded me of this at every turn.

“I’ll show you how to do this once,” he’d say as he laid out wood planks to be cut. “So I can blame you if it gets fucked up.”

A sounder mind, a more balanced spirit might take such statements in good humor, maybe even have a clever response. Just fucking roll with it. But despite my best efforts, I was a child in his presence, a regressed 10-year-old desperately seeking the approval of his Dad. If I could only get him to praise me, I would feel calm again. Something wrong inside me would be righted.

   I would brood over my father’s comments, compiling them into a sort of mental greatest hits of shit-talking to myself. By the time I arrived home, I was a menace.

But that moment never came. Instead I would work all week in internalized quiet, my head down, trying to mold myself into the image of a man I thought I was supposed to be, the man who would be powerful and strong, capable of building anything without direction or mistakes. But my efforts were always flawed. My father always found something to redo, something that delayed his imagined perfection. I took every comment personally.

“You just gonna work here your whole life?” he’d ask some mornings as he handed me my work gloves. He would laugh. He was trying to be humorous. I was often devastated.

On Friday evening I would arrive home to my excited partner—our only time together being the weekends—as there was no work available for her on the ranch full-time. During the 90 mile drive home I would brood over my father’s comments, compiling them into a sort of mental greatest hits of shit-talking to myself. My back would begin to ache, and oftentimes headaches would arrive on cue about halfway across the basin. By the time I arrived home, I was often a menace.

I met Sera’s affection with aggression or detachment. A snarl about the recycling still being by the door, or a silent walk into the shower. There was very little grey.

“Maybe you could take a break from the ranch for a while,” she suggested gently one afternoon on a daytrip into the mountains. “Or just quit. It seems like it’s really hurting you. I don’t think your dad will take offense.”

But I wouldn’t hear it. I couldn’t admit defeat. I was committed to forcing my way into my father’s world, to proving to him that I could be the vision of a son he wanted. No. I would stay and fucking work. Any suggestion otherwise was an attack on everything I was aiming to do. I was myopic in my vision of a unified father/son relationship. And neglecting the one in front of me.

“If I quit, how are we gonna pay our bills?”

“You could work with me. On the farm. It’s relaxing.”

“I don’t think you understand the kind of pressure I’m under. I can’t just quit. I have to finish. What else could I fucking do? You want to stress about money again?!”

Silence. That was the end of it.

Over coffee one morning, I mustered the courage to ask him to speak more kindly to me, to be aware of how his teasing was felt at my core

“I sometimes wonder what would’ve have happened if I had never moved away,” he told me with a sigh. “Maybe then you’d have thicker skin.”

Sera and I finally split after six months in Wyoming. My anger became too much for her, and she—out of a desire for her own health and sanity—stepped away. I blew up one too many times and wore her down to a shell. In my myopic pursuit of my father’s attention, I had completely ignored the relationship in front of me, the one I had chosen. And once I realized this, it was too late.

“This is abuse,” she had told me. And I had taken offense to such a term. Abuse was physical. It was terror in the home. Destruction of love because someone was inherently cruel. That was not me.

But it was. In all my attempts to protect myself from the pain of separating from her, I had made it so. A self-fulfilling prophecy. I had willed it to end because I didn’t feel I deserved it. Sera had to leave to save herself.

I moved out of our house and retreated to the ranch. There was little time for niceties or somberness from my father. He’d never been given the same luxury. To him, sentimentality was a liability to work—to survival. You just keep going. He hugged me when I arrived, told me he was sorry, that he’d been down that road before and made it out. “I wish there was something I could say to make it better,” he said. And I knew he meant it. I knew he wished so deeply to ease my pain, to erase it even. He simply didn’t know how.

“You know,” he said, glancing at the cabin. “Sometimes work is the best way to deal with this kinda thing.”

We walked back inside, parting ways to our respective positions in the house. I was the one making holes now.

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About the author

Philip Eastman is an writer, photographer and existential enthusiast residing in Los Angeles who likes to discuss late stage capitalism, mental health, and the emotional memory of the psoas muscle (look it up!). Bibliophiles welcome.

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