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SWEAT, BLOOD, AND TEARS
WHAT GOD USES TO MAKE A MAN
By XAN HOOD
David C. CookCopyright © 2010 Xan Hood
All rights reserved.
You would be amused to see me, broad sombrero hat, fringe and beaded buckskin shirt, horse hide chaparajos or riding trousers, and cowhide boots, with braided bridle and silver spurs.
I had always heard that Theodore Roosevelt was a tough, hardy "man's man" sort of guy: a hunter, outdoorsman, activist, soldier, explorer, naturalist, and "rough rider." But it wasn't always so. Much like me, he was raised a refined, tame city boy, a member of a wealthy, powerful family with political influence. He was a sickly, asthmatic youngster who at the age of twenty-three still appeared boyish and underdeveloped. Both the press and his fellow New York state assemblymen made light of his high-pitched voice and "dandified" clothing, calling him names like "Jane-Dandy" and "Punkin-Lily." He was what we now refer to as a "pretty boy."
It seems Theodore knew he needed to escape the confines of the city, to be tested and initiated beyond his Jane-Dandy world. There was only one direction to go: west.
"At age twenty-five, on his first trip to the Dakota badlands in 1883, Roosevelt purchased a ranch, bought a herd of cattle, hired ranch hands, and, spending considerable time there, began to develop his Western image." It is said he took rides "of seventy miles or more in a day, hunting hikes of fourteen to sixteen hours, stretches in the saddle in roundups of as long as forty hours," pushing himself physically and mentally.
* * *
Within two weeks of moving to Colorado, I drove up alone to the Orvis store in Denver to purchase a complete set of official Orvis gear: waders, boots, vest, and a fly rod. I had come to the West to bond with earth, wind, and rivers that I could fly-fish—and to find God. The fishing needed to be done in official Orvis gear—only the best.
You see, coming from a town of status and wealth, the type of gear you chose was very important. It needed to function, but it also needed to make you look good so you could feel good while looking good.
In my eyes Orvis was the status symbol of real and serious fly fishermen, the hallmark of class. I stocked up on floatant, little boxes, nippers, and line—all Orvis products and logos, of course. I paid with a new credit card and walked out.
* * *
While Theodore would become a great, brave man, his first attempts out West were about as comical as my own. It is written that he "began to construct a new physical image around appropriately virile Western decorations and settings." These photographs show him posing "in a fringed buckskin outfit, complete with hunting cap, moccasins, cartridge belt, silver dagger, and rifle." In a letter to his sister back East, he bragged, "I now look like a regular cowboy dandy, with all my equipments finished in the most expensive style."
Though he looks like a young man in a Halloween costume, something much deeper than child's play was occurring. A rich city boy was exploring another side of himself. The costumes, however foolish they appeared at the time, were a part of this becoming and would, in time, become him.
I was also searching for a new image, one more closely connected with nature. In his book Iron John, Robert Bly writes, "Some say that the man's task in the first half of his life is to become bonded to matter: to learn a craft, become friends with wood, earth, wind, or fire." I had yet to experience that. Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and a posh lifestyle were simply not enough. And while it's likely that neither of us could have verbalized it at the time, Theodore and I were learning that a man had to find something away from all of it. I think his fringed buckskin and my Orvis gear were safe compromises between the worlds we were straddling.
A week after I bought my Orvis gear, I drove about an hour away to the South Platte River. An Internet search revealed that I could quickly access it from the road. On my way I stopped at a little fly shop in Woodland Park, Colorado. A retired-looking man had blessed my obvious naïveté but left the teaching to a sheet of paper, diagrammed for a nymph-dropper rig. He made a few fly suggestions and sent me on my way with the paper and a pat on the back. It was time to become Brad Pitt: Orvis-endorsed, perched on a rock, waiting for a fish.
I arrived on the water's edge at about 2 p.m. Like a warrior dressing for battle, I donned my Orvis gear and set to work on the nymph-dropper rig. About an hour later, after clamping on weights, indicator, and tying two flies onto the razor-thin line, it looked like I'd tied my grandmother's collection of jewelry to a string. I stood in the middle of the river, flung the line out, and whipped it back and forth, feeling good and enjoying the four-count rhythm.
Though I filled the hours with flipping and whipping, I could not seem to hook a fish. Were they in the rapids? The calm water? Should I cast upstream or downstream? The paper didn't say. It didn't help that every few minutes I would get caught on a branch, or grass or algae would get on the flies, tangling them with knots. It was getting dark, and I was getting lonely and frustrated at Orvis, God, and myself.
But there came a last minute hope: I remembered Dan Allender telling a story at a leadership conference about going fly-fishing with his son. As an unsuccessful day of fishing came to a close, he told his son they needed to call it a day. But his son kept fishing, and then, on the fifth and final cast, as all hope was fading like the sun—BAM!—a massive trout on his fly rod. It was a miracle. Dan concluded his speech with this lesson: "God is the God of the fifth cast ... He comes through in the end."
And so I began my count. Okay, Lord, I prayed. This is for You. Help me fish. Catch me a trout. One cast ... nothing. Second cast ... nothing. Third cast ... nothing. Cast again ... nothing. God of the fifth cast ... not for me. Eleventh? Nope. I kept going. God of the seventeenth cast ... God of the twenty-second cast ...
Before long, darkness covered me, and I could no longer see my orange indicator. It was over. There would be no fish that day.
I stood all alone in the middle of the river, holding my empty net. There wasn't a soul in sight—not a fish, not even God. It was haunting. I demanded an explanation. Where are the fish? Where are You? Just one, God. All I wanted was one. One simple fish would have made this day worth it.
Would God not give a man dressed in Orvis a fish if he asked?CHAPTER 2
I wandered the long narrow aisles stocked with canned foods and cloth, dry goods and work boots, tools and shotguns, colognes and wallpaper. Unable to decide, I walked and walked, touching everything as if it held some wonderful mystery.
Harry Middleton, The Earth Is Enough
I wish I had nothing else to say about my equipment obsession, that my affair with Orvis gear was the extent of it. But it's simply not true, nor was I content to just fly-fish. Mountains, hills, trails, and wide-open spaces surrounded me. And in order to truly enjoy them, you need a lot of gear. Stuff I never needed before became as necessary as food, water, and oxygen.
I began to acquire gear like a developer acquires property: a mountain bike, then a road bike (one for my wife too), tents, backpacks, stoves, sleeping bags, snowshoes, North Face jackets, and Mountain Hardware rain pants. I would walk the aisles of REI and just grab stuff. Or go to the store's Saturday "garage sales" of half-off used gear and buy a third backpack—just in case.
I had the same problem with tools. I had started my own painting company in Colorado—really a pathetic attempt at a business, an easy way to make fast cash. I often found myself wandering into places like Home Depot, drooling over the selection of Ridgid, Ryobi, Milwaukee, and DeWalt tools that promised to transform me into the man I was trying to unearth. There were sanders. Lathes. Routers. High-impact drills. Reciprocating saws. Circular saws. Chop saws. Mitre saws. Accessories, too, like the twenty-nine-piece DeWalt drill set that complemented my DeWalt 14.4-volt cordless power drill. I just had to have it.
No reason to buy a tool was too shallow. I remember one painting job that entailed installing a chair rail: basically a few feet of trim on a wall. My hammer, a box of a finish nails, and a cheap plastic mitre box would have done the trick. But it seemed a great excuse to finally get the DeWalt heavy-duty twelve-inch compound mitre saw along with the Porter-Cable three-nailer and compressor combo kit. (It came with staple gun, too.) The purchase cost as much as what I made in painting a few rooms in the house. And I easily justified it.
I felt a great wonder while buying these gadgets, from tearing through the box to wielding them in my hands. They represented power, mastery, ownership, masculinity—symbols of what I wanted inside me. It was as if buying a new tool or piece of gear brought me closer to who I hoped to become—and further from the man I was out East.
Let me say that I never felt good buying the stuff. I knew I was an impressionable consumer susceptible to impulse buying. But that realization didn't stop me as our bank account dwindled and the credit card bills piled up. I kept my wife in the dark about most of it. I would always leave the store feeling like crap, carrying the shame and thinking, I did it again. There was this sense of foolishness about what I was doing, but it almost felt like I couldn't help it. I had collected a garage full of tools and gear. And I had yet to start a real job—or even catch a fish.CHAPTER 3
With initiators gone from our culture, we do not receive instruction on ... going into grief ... but one sometimes feels that in the United States a man is supposed to feel grief only at a funeral.
Robert Bly, Iron John
I was sitting with my wife, Jayne, on the couch one night when she looked at me and said, "I've never seen your tears."
Hmm ... tears. Well, let's see. I flipped through my memory while she stared at me. Tears? Crying? I was trying to think back, but nothing was coming. I was digging deep, hoping to give some reason for her to take me off the hook. We looked at each other, and I really didn't know what to say.
"Really, honey?" I asked. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, I am sure."
It felt weird to admit, but she was right. I had never cried in front of her. To be honest, I had not cried much at all over the past few years. Not around my friends. Or my parents. Or anyone, really.
It was weird to think that way because I wasn't a hard or violent man, not the leathery, thick–skinned, violent, emotionless type of Dirty Harry personality. In fact some people had labeled me as more of a sensitive type, a nice guy. So something in me had assumed I was pretty good at expressing emotions. But maybe not. She was right. I hadn't shed a lot of tears, even on my own.
I sat there, unsure of what to say and feeling awkward. Of course I didn't want to cry, not that I could anyway. I don't know exactly where it came from, but I'd always believed men don't cry much. I mean, how many times have you seen men cry? Maybe men going through times of pain and brokenness—maybe. While a part of me knew it was probably a good thing to do, the other parts of me saw it more as weakness.
I found this was true of other guys. They, too, found it difficult to get to that place of grief and tears. My friend Ryan had confessed he had never been able to cry. He always thought men weren't supposed to cry. He remembered being at a friend's funeral surrounded by crying people, men included. While everyone around him was crying, he recalls thinking, I should be crying right now. I am at a funeral. Why can't I cry? I'm supposed to be crying! "So I tried to squeeze them out," he told me. "I mostly tried to talk myself into crying by reminding myself that I was at a funeral, that someone close to me had died. But it didn't work."
I had always associated tears with femininity. The thought of tears took me to tenderness, love, nurturing, and care. As a boy and young man, I had rarely, if ever, seen men cry. And when you are a kid trying to make it in a world of men, crying almost seems like letting down your guard, being exposed to something weak that other men don't do.
Without a whole lot of masculine things to cling to, crying felt like it might forever banish me from masculinity. As Mary Sykes Wylie writes in Panning for Gold, "Any show of gentleness or 'softness' was unmanly and would be met with harsh punishment and brutal public humiliation." Many of our fathers never showed us their tears. One friend shared that after a fight with his brother or a rough day at school, he would cry in his room. His father would come home, enter his room, and say, "Real cowboys don't cry, son." Then he would walk out.
Ryan, the young man who could not cry at the funeral, had a similar experience with his father. As a young boy he was crying on his bed after he witnessed his parents fighting. His father tried to get him to quit but only frightened him more. Frustrated, his father said, "I'll give you something to cry about," and gave his nine-year-old son a punch in the gut. It was the last time Ryan ever remembered crying. He confessed to me, "I feel emotionless."
* * *
While my wife had never seen my tears, she had seen my anger. In fact I had karate chopped a few items from our home, taken out a wooden laundry rack, flipped over a coffee table twice, kicked a hole in our laundry room door, threw a glass candleholder through the wall, and broke a lamp when we were fighting. It was weird to experience so much anger after getting married. While I could not cry, I seemed to be enraged, and I wasn't sure over what. Little things, like driving in the car or a conversation with my wife, would set me off. I was feeling alone out in Colorado and trying to make sense of it all.
If I was honest, I was angry with a lot of things. My past had left me short of what I needed to mature. I was angry with people in general—and at God more often than I wanted to admit. I was angry with my mom. My dad. The church. My wife. A few people in Knoxville. An old mentor. Gosh, often my life in general. And while sometimes that anger was directed outward, I internalized most of it. I didn't scream in public, give people dirty looks, or throw fits. I was more discreet. I let it out in ways that allowed me to feign cool and keep others out of it. I could seethe for hours, obsessively thinking about a situation, something, or someone. And while I don't know how, the anger often settled, lost its steam, and leveled off. I would go about my day until it again reared its ugly head.
While I wasn't aware of it at the time, even the music I listened to had a bit of a rebel yell in it. I didn't need dark goth stuff, but I did appreciate the gruff, masculine voices of Bono and Eddie Vedder. Their voices had this frustration and angst that gave voice to the emotions I could not feel. It explained my struggle with so much of the popular soft worship music. It was too smooth, too sweet. Too meek and mild—too happy. God was always good, and we were always supposed to be smiling with a sweet-sounding voice. But sometimes I just wanted to throw my Bible at the stage and say, "I don't feel like that! I want to put on boxing gloves and fight God right now, not cuddle up with a pillow and blanky." But I never did that; I was too nice.
A nice guy who was steaming inside.
My friend Matthew, probably the nicest guy you could ever meet, once shared that during the workweek, there are times he wants to flip out at his desk—pound his computer screen into pieces, fling his keyboard across the room, topple tables. Though he often bottles it up and flashes a friendly smile, the anger is there, threatening to erupt.
Another friend, Ben, for years went by the nickname "Gentle Ben" because of his calm and tender personality. But he admits that since being married, he feels more anger than gentleness. Thinking about it, he said, "How can Gentle Ben coexist with all this anger?" Another friend, Forrest, took his anger out in the boxing ring during college. He was a charming and likeable Christian role model. But when he fought in the fraternity boxing tournament, he would flip this switch and let his rage explode, crushing people with his inner pain. He could switch it on and off. Those who knew him outside of the ring would have never known; he was such a good guy.
Dan Allender, the fifth-cast guy, says if you have met a man, you have met an angry man; that because of sin and the fallen world and the curse, man is a raging machine ready to destroy. Dan says just to say the word man really means "angry." It made sense that there were all these nice-guy Christian personalities who were angry, most of whom, like me, had no idea.
Excerpted from SWEAT, BLOOD, AND TEARS by XAN HOOD. Copyright © 2010 Xan Hood. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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