It began with an unexpected dump of snow followed by a sudden melt, then a record-setting rainstorm so hotheaded that meteorologists nicknamed it Tropical Punch. In less than twenty-four hours, the mix of meltwater and heavy January rain filled my Victoria backyard deep enough to float a kayak. The rising water was seeping into the house, being wicked up by the carpet on my bedroom floor. And the forecast called for more rain—lots more.
Like any man, I decided to stand up to the weird weather. True, I have never been much tempted by the alpha-male—lately, I had even started schooling myself in Buddhist indifference to the ego. But I was damned if I was going to move again (last winter, the hot-water heater burst, flooding the floor before I even had time to find a mop). So, rather than accepting my oneness with the sodden earth, I got out my shovel and dug several sump holes in the sopping garden, then headed off to rent a pump.
I had other work to do, of course, white-collar work, but the heavy rain continued, filling the holes as fast as the pump could empty them. Readjusting the thirty-metre-long hose every time I hauled the pump around was a mucky nuisance. It didn’t occur to me until well after dark that I could link the sump pits together with a series of channels. Flashlight stuck in my mouth like a cartoon stogie, I worked past midnight, creating, in the process, such a godawful gumbo that my boots were practically sucked off whenever I moved. Still, the channels worked, and the carpets got no wetter. In fact, the original puddle was beginning to shrink under the guard of a space heater. In the toe-to-toe fight with Mother Nature, I had held my ground.
As dawn came the rain let up for a while, and my innovation allowed me to forget the fight for all but ten minutes of every hour, when I would run the pump and sluice the water along the new waterway system. This new routine lasted a week, tapering off in the last couple of days. After that, I was able to return the pump whose services had cost me about as much as the insurance deductible would have—but without the nuisance of renovations.
Looking back on it now, I can’t help but mock myself for thinking that “manning” the pump might have made me eligible for a walk-on role in Some Great Thing, Colin McAdam’s recent novel, which has a builder for a protagonist. I had long since given away the red plaid shirt I wore in my late teens when, to help pay for university, I worked as a day labourer. Even then, I knew I wore it awkwardly. Like so many male preserves, the work site was tribal, class-conscious and preoccupied with petty turf wars. Once, when we were hauling three-quarter-inch sheets of plywood uphill, one of my bosses pulled me from the ranks to help him with some easy wiring. That was all it took; I couldn’t go back to the boys again. Mollycoddled by the boss—himself a beer-bellied paragon of the self-made hypermasculine man—I’d become an instant outsider.
In the thick of my muddy labours, I found myself returning to such memories, sounding them out for insights. Nothing profound occurred to me. It might have been fatigue, but maybe it was just a guy thing. After all, who’s got time for reflection when there’s water to be pumped? Either shit or get off the pot, as my boss used to say, never one to mince words or admit to “womanish” second thoughts.
Everywhere we look, we can see evidence of the view that manliness is shallow aggressiveness. In politics, think of Crusher Chrétien with his branded balls at the Gomery inquiry, trying to one-up his accusers. Or the Texas Swaggerer who doesn’t beat around the bush. Testicles aren’t required either. Think of Margaret Thatcher. Nuance and give-and-take are for namby-pambies. Hell, even the metrosexually hip columnist Russell Smith strenuously insists that you can wear capri pants and still “look” (that is, “be”) manly. Le style, c’est l’homme même. Over the years, these styles, caught up in cultural and social distinctions, have changed, but the Cro-Magnon urge—if you can call it that—has remained a dominant ideal of masculinity, whether garbed in cufflinks or thick leather workgloves.
Where does that leave someone like me? I’m an associate professor at a university, for God’s sake; I even teach poetry, which is as “sensitive” a job as a man can hope to find nowadays. I decided long ago to close my mind to a life of pickup trucks, powerboats and all other heroic images of “real men”—tempting though they remain on occasion. As Robbie Burns once said, “a Man’s a Man for a’ that.” Burns’s phrase was meant as an attack on European pretensions of rank. But I’d like to believe that one’s “pith o’ Sense, and pride o’ Worth” can still trump any exclusionist notions about manhood. For me, this has meant living in quiet resistance to the flashy testosterone version of my gender. When push comes to shove (or when a Tropical Punch deals you an unanticipated blow), rolling with the punches, as Muhammad Ali did against George Foreman, can just as easily land you on top.
Sometimes, though, my hormones still get the best of my gender-neutral neurons, and I imagine myself stepping out in the steel-toe boots I kept when I threw out the red plaid shirt. Had I been an eighteenth-century Parisian aristocrat, I would have proclaimed my masculinity by strutting about the construction site in a powdered wig and ordering flunkies to do the dirty work. Or were I a Scots highlander, I could have slipped into a kilt, the prominent sporran challenging anyone to think twice about mocking its wearer. Mind you, in that time and place, it would have taken a fist fight or two to earn the right to haul lumber in a “skirt.” One thing’s certain: a kilt would have been handy while bailing my yard out.