Thursday, March 25, 2010

Love Is in Bloom

Recently (it was only five days ago, but it feels like longer) one of my Facebook friends from high school, the Methodist minister, posted that "a couple of guys have been giving me all kinds of grief about eating the occasional scone with my cup of coffee in the morning." Apparently scones aren't manly in Methodist land, or at least in northern Indiana Methodist land.

This revelation prompted a thread of joking from both men and women, and Mark responded with a link to his blog, and to an article from Sports Illustrated (I almost spelled that "spurts", hehehe) on the metaphysical significance of the high five.

The SI article was a fantasia on failed high-fives, the difficulty of bringing the gesture off successfully, and on its significance -- along with the dap, the chest bump, "the soul shake, the leaping shoulder carom and, last but not least, the grip-and-rip", as expressions of love between males. Because men don't express affection like you and me.
Mark T. Morman, a Baylor associate professor of communication studies, has spent years analyzing male-to-male communication, and he has a message for all you fivers out there: You're in love, or at least in like. "We call it covert affection, as opposed to overt," explains Morman. "Punching somebody in the arm or punching somebody in the chest, that doesn't look very affectionate, mainly because we tend to frame affection in very feminine ways—hugging, kissing, soft touching. So when a guy punches another guy or pushes or shoves him or wrestles him to the ground, it's covert affection, but it's real."

Of course, Morman points out, this can lead to discrepancies when both genders are involved. For instance, Jeff Lurie and his wife. "I remember that—it was hysterical!" says Morman. "That's an example of the masculine and the feminine crashing into each other. Sometimes there are affection disasters."

"Shoves him or wrestles him to the ground." I need to savor that for a moment. That, and the bit about hugging, kissing, and "soft touching" being "feminine." My friend the minister quoted this passage in his blog post, by the way, and added:
I've been saying this for years. Visitors to Trinity will hear me and my friends verbally "high fiving" or "chest bumping" one another. We talk trash to one another. Give each other such a hard time. And it almost always a sign of affection. Hassling one another is how men show love.
Or maybe this is just Christian love? I mean, when your exemplar is a God who shows his love by crucifying his own son, and by condemning the vast majority of human beings to eternal torture, showing one's manly love by wrestling one's buddy to the ground can seem the most reasonable thing in the world.

I've asked this question before:

Where were the adults?

Or, as I asked Mark on Facebook,
Good grief. Are straight men still fussing about this stuff? ...

Just out of curiosity, though, Mark, how do you explain cultures where men show affection by holding hands, kissing each other, sitting close to each other, embracing each other -- all that, you know, sissy stuff that men don't do according to Mark T. Morman? Like the Beloved Disciple resting against Jesus at the Last Supper, or the Prodigal Son's father, who didn't welcome his returning son with a chest bump or by throwing him to the ground (!), but by rushing out to embrace and kiss him, weeping? That doesn't mean those cultures aren't ferociously homophobic, by the way; they just draw the boundaries differently than latter-day American men do. All that aggro stuff you describe isn't love and affection, it's substitution for the love and affection they're afraid to show.
Mark responded, "Different cultures have, I guess, different ways of playing music, showing affection, or playing football." Actually, though, I cheated a bit as I posed my question, because even American men don't only show affection for each other by beating each other up.

In the dorm where I work (admittedly an artsy-fartsy liberal arts living-learning center, but we have our share of jocks, ROTC, and frat boys), I don't see much punching, shoving, or wrestling each other to the ground. I do see young men hugging each other and touching each other affectionately, not just around work but all over campus. This may be partly a generational thing, but if so my generation is impoverished.

Still, I doubt even that. My generation would have been the hippies and other males who rejected -- however inadequately they succeeded -- the rigid masculine roles we'd been taught as children. My generation came up with the Promise Keepers, a reactionary Christian group that wanted to reinstate biblical patriarchy in the home, but which also insisted on men showing affection to each other by being affectionate. Insofar as we failed to carry these changes through, our lives are impoverished, but I think we made a lot of progress anyway, and really, American men are no more all alike than another other group. Some of us can only show affection by punching each other and making fun of each other for eating "sissy" foods like scones (?); others show affection by hugging each other, treating each other with warmth and even tenderness. But where are the adults in my old friend's church? The behavior he describes belongs to Fag Discourse; it's not innocent, and at the risk of granting Christianity its own moral pretensions, what's it doing in and around a church? Or anywhere.

Some years ago, on the night before Graduation Day, I was sitting at the bar of a tavern popular with alumni and other manly men. Two boys came in, evidently graduating fraternity brothers, and stood at the bar a few feet away from me to order a couple of shots. They toasted each other, downed the shots, and embraced each other; I still insist that I heard the sound of one of them kissing the other's neck. Nobody minded, least of all me. They didn't punch each other or slam each other against the wall; as far as I noticed, they didn't wrestle each other to the floor. That's why I disagree with my old friend and with Mark T. Morman, the Baylor associate professor of communication studies. What they are celebrating as normal and positive is neither.