Joel Stein, married and almost 40, finds out he’s about to become a dad. The ultrasound says it’s a boy. But Stein, a Time magazine humour columnist, doesn’t feel masculine enough to be a good male role model for his soon-to-be son. So he goes on a stupid quest for masculinity. Think Woody Allen alone in the country, hanging out with burly men who don’t do the dishes, and you’ve got a mental picture of Stein’s quest in Man Made.
Stein is no Renaissance man. While some North American white-collar men watch the DIY channel and get inspired to renovate, Stein would rather go to a food-and-wine show. He doesn’t drink coffee; he drinks green tea. He doesn’t drink beer; he drinks wine. When Stein was a kid, he owned an Easy-Bake Oven, not toy guns. He’s a sensitive, Jewish-American mensch who grew up in suburban New Jersey with a salesman father who routinely challenged unbending strangers to rounds of fisticuffs.
While Stein’s dad managed to make the the jump from the rough-and-tumble Bronx, Stein graduated from prestigious Stanford University, worked as a staff writer for Time and now writes the magazine’s back-page humour column from Los Angeles. He has never had to do any heavy lifting, selling or hand-to-hand combat. And he likes it that way.
In a backward move toward tradition, Stein wants his son to be raised by a masculine father. He plans to learn how to be a man by embedding himself into a wide range of macho activities that he considers to be the purview of über males. “I started this project because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do all the things my son would want to try. But now I have to change because I’m about to raise a boy who doesn’t want to play at other boys’ houses because it could mean going into the woods, jumping ramps on dirt bikes, or playing with a lizard, which all boys seem to think is an okay pet even though it is clearly a lizard. I am about to watch someone be me again. And I am not going to let this happen.”
To pump up the masculinity muscles, Stein engages in “participant journalism” around the United States: Going on a Boy Scout camping trip spent with scheming preteens; spending a week with stoic, flag-waving Los Angeles firefighters; driving around Los Angeles in a $250,000 Lamborghini; spending a day at a New York City brokerage house, day-trading with somebody else’s $100,000; hanging out with his macho, power-tool-wielding father-in-law in New York State; turkey hunting in Vermont with a professional guide; riding in a U.S Army tank; and going a martial arts round with Randy Couture, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ.
Stein even tries to become a dog person for a few weeks by adopting Montana, an older female cocker spaniel, from Animal Advocates Alliance. He starts to get into the rhythm of daily dog ownership but he’s not sold on keeping one around. “The truth is that I don’t like dogs simply because we didn’t have a dog when I grew up. Though I still think Jews who have dogs are trying too hard to assimilate.”
Man Made is a funny collection of essays about a middle-age urbanite pulling himself out of his comfort zone and taking a few macho risks. Hilarity ensues, with only a few flat spots in the narrative. After all, dying is easy and humour is hard, especially spread over 300 pages. But Stein, a skilled feature writer and humour columnist, keeps his storytelling fresh and his unfiltered observations coming, page after page.
D. Grant Black is an independent journalist and author of Saskatchewan Book of Musts: The 101 Places Every Saskatchewanian Must See. He writes, renovates and gardens in macho rural Saskatchewan. And he has a dog.