The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A War Worth Winning

I recently spent two nights sleeping on the gym floor at the house of my karate instructor, Sijo Steve Muhammad in Atlanta. This was during a pause between traveling to the Bahamas on the Tom Joyner cruise promoting "From Cape Town With Love," driving to Quincy, Florida to help T's mom during her recovery from radiation treatment, and flying to Philadelphia to speak at the yearly Art Sanctuary event, this year honoring Nikki Giovanni.

In the middle of all of this, I had about 36 hours to spend in the presence of one of my favorite human beings in all the world. Far beyond being "merely" the finest karate man I've ever known, or am ever likely to know, he is also quite arguably the best MAN. Whatever it means to be an adult human being, Steve Muhammad exemplifies it, warts and all. Seeing him with his beautiful wife Connie...watching him hold his grandson and just burbling with joy...seeing the way young men of all persuasions, races, and ethnicities react to him...not to mention the way women seem to know, at the most basic human level, that they are dealing with a mature male of the species and not a boy or a wannabe...

He just blows me away. The man once voted "the most feared karate competitor in America" is my friend, role model, father figure. And when I knew I would be visiting with him, I knew there was something I wanted to ask him. Alone. It was just too embarrassing, and too personal.

Thursday morning at 10am, Sijo Muhammad teaches his karate class, and I had the honor of attending. It was small this morning, just four of us sweating and moving in the room that serves as Steve's gym (and where I had slept the night before.) And after class we sat in our sweaty uniforms and spoke of martial arts, and life, and family...and suddenly, my private concern came to the tip of my tongue, and spilled out.

It was simply this: I damaged my first marriage, and I do not want, under any circumstances, to damage my relationship with Tananarive in any way shape or form. But as higher levels of success come to us, so do greater temptations and opportunities for mischief. While I have maintained the integrity I promised her upon marriage, hell...nobody's perfect. And I want so much to be perfect for T. She deserves that. And Steve has mastered that aspect of his life, been surrounded by serious temptation on isolated Hollywood sets, notorious for lax morality, and stood tall and strong.

I asked him how I might best follow his example. Now, Steve being Steve, he didn't offer light generalizations but rather a specific path: by mastering one appetite, we can master another. And the more primal appetite is physical hunger for food. For thirty years he has been a vegetarian eating a single meal a day. And if you can control that gnawing urge, so basic to survival, you can handle the voices in your head that urge one to explore new connections, new energies, new matter how inappropriate or destructive. I thanked him.

I asked him point blank: if I called him at 2 in the morning asking him to support me in being the husband I am sworn to be, would he mind..? He looked at me as if I was crazy: of COURSE he would help, in any way he possibly could. But then the other men interjected. They would ALL be there for me. We spoke of the commitment to our families, temptation, and the fact that men must stand together against the evils both within and without. That together, we are stronger, can remind each other of our obligations, of who we are sworn to be in the world. We shook on that, exchanged contact information. And I felt that I'd touched something real and all too rare: men sharing their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths, men swearing to stand together to protect our hearts, our souls, our families, our communities.

Did there use to be more of this? Once upon a time was it more accepted to admit that we are not perfect, that we need and crave help? When did we as men, as people, stop admitting that we are flawed and limited, stop striving to be our full potential, and settle for the mediocrity of what we can accomplish as isolated individuals? I don't know. But I do know that I walked away from that workout with far more that physical skills. I walked away with brothers in a sacred struggle.

The struggle to be awake, adult human beings. The struggle to be worthy of the magnificent women who have deigned to share our lives. The struggle to be men in a world that celebrates eternal childhood.

That is the war worth winning.


Anonymous said...

I reached a formal detente with my johnson years ago when it could no longer be ignored or rationalized that he had the willpower of a ten rock a day crack head and like crack heads, they care not a thing about the rest of the body's peace of mind and financial security. Meaning, the expense and potential financial devastation of a nasty divorce. I came within an inch of one. Thankfully it didn't come to that. I wised up. In brief, I then stripped the johnson of his voting privileges and veto power and now he just sits in the visitor's section of my United Nations of Body Parts. He heckles at times, but he's either ignored or removed from the chambers altogether by security.

JR said...

Thank you for this, Steve. It takes a certain kind of man to share the things that you do.

Steve Perry said...

" Once upon a time was it more accepted to admit that we are not perfect, that we need and crave help?"

Actually, the further back you go, the less acceptable this has been for men. Real men never admitted to failure.

I can recall telling women I knew to read Lonesome Dove, because this is how men I grew up with dealt with emotional issues -- which is to say, they laughed or got pissed off, but they didn't whine.

Didn't eat quiche, either.

It wasn't until the 1960's that men started admitting they weren't made of stone, and even then, it was iffy. Men wanted to be John Wayne, not Alan Alda. That conversation you had wouldn't have been possible many places forty years ago.

I know better, and yet, I can count the number of times I have cried as an adult male on the fingers of one hand, and two of them were while having beloved dogs put down.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Steve Perry, there's been a straight-line increase in social permission for males to be emotionally open in the US in my lifetime, too-- but that's not all of history or the whole world.

Steve Perry said...

Probably so, Nancy. I was focused more on the USA and as far back as I can see here, men didn't have much of a feminine side, by and and large. The idea of a bunch of men sitting around in a circle and having a good cry is something that my father, and his father, and his, would have considered to be on a par with leaping into the air and flying to the moon by flapping one's arms. Just wasn't done.

Anonymous said...

"..there's been a straight-line increase in social permission for males to be emotionally open in the US in my lifetime, too-- but that's not all of history or the whole world."

Throughout history, men were traditionally the warriors. Warriors are usually disciplined to sport stoic pokerfaces, lest showing "soft" feelings betray weakness to enemies, or unleash torrents of suppressed anguish that trigger dangerous empathies or crippling self absorption. With the "enemies" of males in the Developed World being reduced from actual cutthroat adversaries to the petty likes of bosses or cock-blocks, emotionalism is largely harmless. Now that acting "soft" is far less dangerous, emotionally expressive men may benefit relative to stoics by using their "gushier" feelings to forge stronger and more intimate bonds with friends or lovers.

Curiously, throughout history men have been encouraged to be profusely emotional when drunk or high. In nearly all culture, otherwise stern hardbodies were granted license to wail, weep and loosen all passions during the Ale-Fest. This interesting chink in the traditional male emotional armor bears in-depth examination.


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