Archive for Thursday, October 19, 2000

Real men know how to back up

October 19, 2000


Let me set the scene. Two guys are passing through a Miami gas station, traveling in opposite directions. Black SUV comes bumper to bumper with little white car. They can't go around each other because there's a building on one side and yours truly on the other, gassing up.

So what do you figure happens next? One driver backs up, allowing the other to pass?

Obviously, you weren't listening. I did mention that these were men, right? So you know that instead of backing up, they sat there and held a smirking contest. When that ended with no conclusive winner, they went on to communicate their escalating scorn with certain universal hand gestures.

It would've been easy for either to end the standoff by shifting into reverse. Instead, they held fast and as I stood there, ping-pong'ing back and forth from one to the other, I had this epiphany. Here was The Trouble With Men demonstrated in microcosm.

That trouble is not, a hundred female comics to the contrary, the thing about leaving the toilet seat up or the other thing about never asking directions. Nor is it socks on the carpet or 27 hours of football on Sunday. No, the real problem with people of my gender can be summed up in three words: Don't back down.

Not if fire and hail bar your way. Not if the path of least resistance is sunlit, flower-scented and paved with gold bars. Not if celestial voices waft down saying, "Back down, stupid."

Hold your ground. Stand firm. Don't back down. I swear, it's on the male genetic code somewhere.

You think two women would have sat there snarling at each other for long minutes? Outside of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, I mean. Not a chance, Jack. One or both would have backed up and they would have gone on about their business, waving toodles at each other as they passed.

I'm not saying women are perfect. Anyone who has ever cringed at their terrifying battle cry, "Let's talk about our relationship," knows better than that. But on this backing down stuff, they've got men beat every which way. They understand, in other words, that some things simply aren't worth the aggravation.

It's a distinction many of us on this side of the gender line have yet to master. We're too besotted by John Wayne movies. Not to mention Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford and every other man's man of the last 50 years. They're the ones who taught us not that we ever needed much convincing that masculinity was inextricably linked with the ability to summon violence in the service of a noble cause. Indeed, the willingness to put it all on the line, to say this far and no farther, to fight for something, is the signature of the capable, iconic male.

They told us, in effect, that backing down was for girly men. And they lied.

Don't get me wrong. Standing firm is often the hallmark of heroism. But it is also, once in a while, a beacon of boneheadedness. Exhibit A: two guys who meet in a gas station right-of-way and find themselves unable to work the gearshift. ("Stranger, these pumps ain't big enough fer the both of us.")

Believe it, neither of those boys moved until I finished gassing up my car and drove away. Freed from their standoff, they went around each other and continued on their way, each one, I bet, feeling secure that his point, whatever the heck that might be, had been vindicated.

And you know, the world is such that it's not difficult to imagine a different ending, to imagine that one or the other had whipped out a weapon and somebody had wound up hurt. Happens everyday. Then you read it in the paper or see it on the news and you shake your head, men and women alike, that such a trivial encounter led to such an awful result.

Funny, isn't it? It always seems trivial afterward.

A smart man knows this. And he throws it in reverse.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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