Monday, April 18, 2016

Minnesota Melancholy and Masculinity

Maybe it’s something in the water. That would make sense; Minnesota is water-rich. The Dakota words that form our state’s name are “minni,” which means water, and “sotah,” which means sky-tinted or cloudy. Maybe it’s male insecurity clouding the water.

We love our water. Our license plates read, “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which is some classic Minnesota modesty, rounding down the actual number. We’re home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: a national park consisting of over 1,000 lakes on the Canadian border—where my father and I used to go every summer to paddle and portage, still one of my favorite places. Lake Itasca: headwaters of the Mississippi River. Minneapolis: literally named city of water, with its Chain of Lakes described in 1884 as “a necklace of diamonds in settings of emerald.” Minneapolis grew around Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, and flour companies like Pillsbury and General Mills prospered thanks to the waterwheels those falls turned. Minnehaha: a creek in Minneapolis with a 53-foot waterfall on its way to the Mississippi; the name Minnehaha means water of the falls—mistakenly translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to “laughing waters” due to the “haha” portion. The elementary school joke went: “I bet you can’t say Minnehaha without laughing."

I remembered this schoolyard joke when reading Kirk Wisland’s chapbook Melancholy of Falling Men, which won the 2015 Iron Horse Review chapbook prize judged by Roxane Gay. Wisland grew up in Minneapolis and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, a program I currently attend, and he precedes me in a strange legacy of Minnesotans piped down to the Sonoran Desert to write about what it means to be a man.

In the opening essay of Wisland’s chapbook, titled “Johnny Cash Died,” Wisland writes a breathless single-sentence essay, including an anecdote where he storms down to Minnehaha Creek with a tire iron raised like a Cro-Magnon in pursuit of the hooligans who have egged his car, resulting in a broken nose and a story he can perhaps use to impress his tough-guy farmer grandfather.

With the Minnesota to Arizona connection at my disposal, I decided to track down this fellow traveler to ask him what it is about Minnesota that makes us want to scrutinize masculinity. I found that Wisland currently resides in Athens, Ohio, pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Ohio University. After a few friendly emails where we discussed the nature of life in the Twin Cities and our communal status—in Wisland’s words—as “long-suffering Timberwolves fans,” we arranged a phone interview.

On February 9th, when Minnesota was dealing with a 17-degree day, I parked my Chevy Malibu south of 6th Street and comfortably strolled in jeans and my favorite blue-checkered short sleeve button-up to the University of Arizona library through the bright, 76-degree Tucson air. I rented a private study room and set myself up with two notebooks for questions and answers respectively. When I dialed, Wisland answered with “That’s a real Minnesotan, 11 o’clock on the dot.” I chuckled and said I was trying to be timely. I started with a Minnesota Nice question, asking how the collection came together. Wisland said he was trying to find a home for these pieces, saw a thread of melancholy among them, and entered the collected essays into the Iron Horse Review chapbook contest. He won, impressing Roxane Gay to blurb:

Melancholy of Falling Men is a meditation, of sorts, on modern masculinity and the Midwest. There is so much ambition and risk-taking in this collection of essays that defy any sort of tidy description. From the first word to the last, these essays will leave you feeling utterly exhilarated and wanting to spend the rest of time roaming through the writer’s mind.

I have to agree with Gay; the collection is solid and made me want to spend some more time with this man’s mind. More recently, I got to meet Wisland face-to-face at AWP in Los Angeles, and I attended an Iron Horse Review reading where Wisland shared two short essays from Melancholy of Falling Men: “Future Weight of This Regret” and “A Crack in the Façade.” The first essay is about witnessing a break-up through a diner window in Tucson and the second a reflection on Wisland’s grandmother while he stood in the San Miniato church in Florence, experiencing an “absence of anxiety, the acceptance of mortality.” It’s interesting to hear a writer’s voice audibly after encountering it on the page, and Wisland’s reading was strong. Afterward, Wisland and I chatted Minnesota and the finer points of ESPN’s film The Fab Five.

But before the face-to-face niceties was our initial interview back in February, and I had one central question for Wisland. I asked what it is about Minnesota that makes us want to talk about masculinity. He thought for a moment, then said:

In general, we don’t have that kind of exuberant masculinity that a New Yorker has or a loud southerner has. When you think regionally, like when you say east-coast hyper-masculinity, I immediately think: Tony Soprano—Italian, Jersey, gold chain. Like a big blaring neon sign saying, “I am a man.” In the Midwest in general, but particularly Minnesota, we’re just not like that. Our masculinity and just our basic nature is so much quieter. Head down. Don’t stand out from the crowd. It’s a cliché, but there is something about that Germanic, Scandinavian quiet. I remember the first time I went to New York just being kind of amazed by how verbose and kind of boisterous people were. The weird thing is now, the older I get, I appreciate that a little more if I think it’s honest. Sometimes I think there can be kind of ridiculous, over-the-top personas. But that New York version in some ways is more honest than the Minnesota version. We have this politeness that we like to congratulate ourselves for, which is true, but it’s also like “I would never outright say that I think I’m a better person than you, but I’ll quietly think that to myself.” Whereas there’s something refreshing about the Tony Soprano type who you know he either likes you or doesn’t like you.

I confess, I haven’t been to New York. I have a kind of Old Testament fear of the city—it’s a mix of respect and a worry that the city would smite my tender, corn-fed nature. But I get what Wisland meant about the honesty of verbosity, and I think he hit on something important: maybe we as Minnesota men scrutinize masculinity because we’re afraid we’re being dishonest. We want to speak up, to discuss what truly makes a man a man.

Personally, I grew up feeling that I needed to remain a boy as long as possible, that one day, without noticing, I would transform from precocious to predator. When I was little, my mother would often roll her eyes at displays of masculinity from my father or other men, and she would turn to me and say, “Don’t grow up to be a man.” She was joking in that way you do when you think a child won’t understand, but I listened. I’m wary of sharing this quote from my mother because I know it hurts her to remember, and I don’t blame my mom for my awkwardness. I bought into the idea behind why she said what she said: that to be a man is to be bad. I’ll own my acceptance of such an attitude. For years I did my level best consciously and subconsciously to sabotage my progression into manhood, yet I became a man anyway. Not in a sudden, werewolf-and-the-moon, Jekyll-and-Hyde moment, but somewhere along the line I at least stopped looking like a boy. Although, even once I identified as grown, I still distrusted and disliked most men, feeling we were the cause of so much evil in the world.
I started to see that there is more to masculinity than aggression or the patriarchy while working with a therapist and reading the book Iron John: A Book About Men, which my therapist recommended. I specifically sought out therapy at the time to try to figure out why I couldn’t “act like a man,” and I asked my dad for help. He suggested that I see his guy, Adam, to at least get a referral for someone else. Adam and I hit it off, and with my dad’s approval, Adam became my therapist too. It also happens that Adam is a Minnesota man who wrote his graduate thesis about the psychology of masculinity. I’m telling you, there’s a pattern here.

Robert Bly, author of Iron John, is a former Minnesota poet laureate, translator, leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, and generally another Minnesota man writing about masculinity, perhaps the most widely known. In our interview, I asked Wisland if he had read Bly’s book, but he said he hadn’t, though he had heard of Bly. Iron John is an analysis of a German fairy tale of the same name, and Bly uses the story to mine lessons from mythology, psychology, and elsewhere about how we progress from boyhood to manhood. It was an important text for me as I started facing the fact that I am a man.

I thought about how I used to harbor such fear and distrust of men when on the phone with Wisland, and, my Minnesota pride getting the better of my Minnesota politeness, I gently countered his claim, saying that the Minnesota version could be honest, saying that it was a shift in my life when I realized that my dad—who is the stereotype of the stoic, hardworking, Emersonian self-reliant man—was really being himself. For my dad, it wasn’t an act. I couldn’t exactly relate to him, feeling like I was lazy or an emotional creature, comparing my insides to my father’s quiet, composed exterior. It’s weird. I would silently berate other men for being what I typically considered manly, but I would also internally beat myself up for not being man enough. I think that confusion is why I’m interested to hear from other men like Wisland who have similar struggles. But from talking with my therapist who also knew my dad quite well, I started realizing that maybe some men just fit the Minnesota mold. Maybe some men are aloof and manly, and good.

Wisland responded:

My stepdad in particular is exactly that type. The stereotype of the hardworking, honorable Minnesotan. He’s retiring this year, but I mean he graduated high school, started working on the production line of a factory, went to Vietnam for a year, came back. He will have worked for almost fifty years. And I remember he said that, that he has worked full-time for fifty years, and I thought “I am almost the exact opposite.” Recently I started compiling all the jobs I’d ever been fired from. And I realized between age fourteen and forty, I think I only had two jobs that I didn’t get fired from. So I was contrasting that and thinking “How did I grow up in a household with a dad who was so nose-to-the-grindstone and end up being the person who just floated along paycheck to paycheck?”

I laughed. I’ve asked myself similar questions. And Wisland led me to another topic I wanted to discuss with him: humor.

My family, and the Midwest in general, loves dry humor. A deadpan delivery plays into the impassive, quiet persona and both ascribes to and violates that carriage. My mom’s full-blooded Norwegian dad, Ray, had a sense of humor where, if you didn’t know him, you might have to wait for him to crack up to know that he was joking. He would say something he knew would rile up my east-coast uncle, and then Ray would just quietly sit there, looking down with a twinkle in his eye during the ensuing tirade, and he’d shoot a quick glance at me to show he knew what he was doing before busting a gut. Ray was another man who honestly filled the stereotype of the stoic, hardworking Midwestern male—living his whole life in rural Western Wisconsin. Yet he was also an alcoholic and could be very sad at times and very funny at others. I asked Wisland what he thought about the role of humor in masculinity, particularly when feeling melancholy. Wisland said:

Humor is a double-edged sword. You almost need it to get by. Unless you’re one of those people who enjoys the routine of life, humor is almost a necessity to survive. But I suffer from an excess of self-deprecating humor. I’ve realized that I am constantly undercutting myself, and often in professional situations. I’ll make a joke at my expense and think, “That was kind of a stupid thing to say.” I put so much thought when I was younger into getting people to laugh. Someone pointed out to me once that there’s a little bit of the self-defeating clown that seeps in. It’s a self-defensive verbal tick that I have to consciously be aware of, and I’ll actually have this little voice in my head in a pressured moment or professional setting that wants to say something funny to break the tension. I’ll have to put a gag on my interior monologue. And there’s this defensiveness about writing. There’s sort of this idea that writing is not a real job. Even I fall prey to that still, thinking, “Oh, I’m just a slacker. Just stumbling along. Teaching a couple classes.” My parents will say these things with such pride that I’m going to get a Ph.D. And I’ll think, “No, no, no. It’s not a real doctorate.” You know? I have kind of bought into my own self-perpetuating myth that I should feel vaguely guilty for not being an upstanding citizen. Really ought to just give up on this silly dream and get a nine-to-five job.

I can relate. Accurate self-appraisal is difficult, and sometimes that Minnesota politeness can turn into humility as a defense mechanism, self-deprecation to beat others to the punch. It’s like we feel we’ll be cut down if we build ourselves up, so we preemptively cut, which keeps us from standing up straight and taking the blame and the credit when it’s warranted, which again sort of feels dishonest. I guess since I’ve been around these Minnesota, Midwestern types all my life, I feel like I can see when their humility is real and when it’s someone saying what they think they’re supposed to say, like an athlete addressing the media. For the latter circumstance, I know what the person says is scripted, and I cut them some slack for not wanting to air their dirty laundry or step on other people’s toes. But then I also kind of respect the honest, heart-on-their-sleeve reaction of guys like Cam Newton, who was criticized for pouting after the Panthers’ loss in this year’s Super Bowl, because, really, what do we expect from someone who cares enough about winning to make it their living? I suppose that’s where levity and humor come in; humor can keep the withholding nature of a stoic persona from being cold, but humor also prevents full disclosure and sometimes gets used to mask fear or pain.

I also asked Wisland what he thought about the role of melancholy for the modern man, why it seems to be so prevalent:

There is something going on in terms of a kind of sea-change of what it means to be a man over the past thirty years or so. The shriveling up of the American Dream. It’s interesting, yesterday I reread Seymour Krim’s “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” which is great, it’s forty-three years old, but it reads like something that you could have written yesterday. It’s basically just talking about how we’ve internalized this open expanse of the American Dream. We’ve internalized the idea that we can be anything, which for a lot of people ends up being kind of a false dream. It’s talking about all the people who wake up one day and they’re forty and they’ve had ten different jobs and ten different things they’ve tried to be. It’s a great piece; I highly recommend it. I was thinking about how that relates to some of the stuff that I’ve written. The long roundabout answer is I think that melancholy is inherently tied into the mourning for all those lost opportunities. Those little mistakes. I think particularly for men of Gen X on up, I think we almost had too much freedom. I look at my dad or my grandfather and think they really had what I would think of as limited choices. And I think, “God, I’m so glad that I grew up with this idea that I could be anything.” But the flipside is that I wasted a ton of time. Trying to figure it out. What do we want to be? I look at my dad, and I envy his seeming lack of existential angst.

This existential angst comes through in many of Wisland’s essays, but it’s particularly strong in “A Generation of Worthless Men.” He opens saying:

Watching and waiting.
Making nothing. Building nothing. Planting no seed.
What do we know?

Wisland then relays the things this generation knows: drugs, dancing, raves, boozing, fucking, profanity, abortion, how to break things, not how to fix things, the horror the horror (like Kurtz) of excessive information via the internet, isolation. These men, thinking of joining the Marines in the era “between Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom,” deciding instead to be artists. “Watching and waiting, wasted and wasting.”

I see in this not nostalgia exactly, not a desire to go back to the way things were. I see a desire for a straightforward purpose and an acquiescence to the complexities of modern living. It’s, as Wisland told me, a mourning for the American Dream. A meditation on the excess of freedom squandered. The fear that it’s your fault, that you’re the problem. It’s honesty. A plea for men to speak and share and improve. I relate deeply with this. We put on the old trappings of a man, but it doesn’t seem to permeate. We feel like pretenders.

In my favorite essay of the collection, “The Flying Lantern,” Wisland slow-motions us through a moment when he watched a man chuck a “mass-produced, faux-gothic porch lantern” into the sky and saw it smash in the middle of the street. In the essay, Wisland recalls sitting at “Bob’s Java Hut on the corner of 27th and Lyndale” in South Minneapolis with his “cool-rooster friends” when the lantern chucking took place. Despite first finding the coffee shop with his then girlfriend, Wisland writes that he stuck around because he was “hungry for the company of men.” Again, I relate. Just one block north, on 26th and Lyndale, I used to spend nights at the CC Club. I partly went to the CC because it’s a quality dive bar with just enough grime and edge to make it cool, but also based on a referral from Slug of the Minnesota hip-hop duo Atmosphere, who says on the song “Aspiring Sociopath,” “Maybe he should just go get a pitcher at the CC. Find a stool at the bar where he can stare at the TV.”

At the CC I drank Jameson and Grain Belt with guys who seemed to have the quiet cool of Minnesota masculinity ingrained in them, and I tried to steal some manliness for myself. I asked Wisland why we surround ourselves with these kinds of men, why we seem to collect them:

At its simplest level for me it was a lot of insecurity about my status as a man. I think it’s funny, I started hanging out at Bob’s Java Hut by accident. It was that a woman I was dating at the time would go there, and then I started hanging out. And I was immediately aware of feeling like I’m on the lower end of the testosterone scale. Sitting there and there’s forty motorcycles parked outside, and lots of leather and chain smoking. And I remember in the late ‘90s sitting there and feeling a little bit like a kid, like I am a little boy among men. I had a couple friends there, one of whom basically held my hand as I got my first motorcycle. And I remember thinking that this guy was like my Han Solo. He was my ticket to this cool world, you know?

I do know. And I think Wisland’s distinction that he felt like a kid or a boy rather than a woman is important. This anxiety around masculinity isn’t about disparaging femininity. It’s about wanting to be confident and wise and mature, to not be a scared little boy. And for some reason we need guides into that mature world. Bly writes in Iron John that such initiation and guidance are exactly what men require to be healthy and happy, and exactly what stunted, angry, aggressive men have missed.

In “The Flying Lantern,” Wisland’s guide was named Darryl, “who sauntered with the confidence of a guy who’s taken his share of hits, who knew he punched above his weight.” One of mine was named Shane. Shane was an east-coast biker, had run in gangs, tattooed up to the ears and down to the knuckles, scrawny but scrappy, chopped his long hair off for a high-and-tight, sustained piercing eye contact, called his drug of choice either crack or “cocaína,” claimed it was what made his goatee prematurely gray.

I met Shane at a men’s recovery meeting, and then again at a Buddhist Twelve Step group in Southern Minneapolis, not too far from Bob’s Java Hut and the CC Club. Shane and I bonded over our desire to stay sober, and our need to be around guys who wanted the same. He invited me to a private men’s meeting he and some friends held. They met at a Thai restaurant called Supatra’s on West 7th Street in Saint Paul, and then rolled on motorcycles or in contractor’s pickups or in Shane’s industrial painter’s van to the basement of a guy who had done years in San Quentin for meditation and sharing.

It was such an interesting set-up because I was a nerdy feelings guy, and these men with all the dressings of bad-asses were also feelings guys. But I remember thinking a few months in, after the first time I cried in front of them, how in active addiction or as kids we probably wouldn’t have hung out. As kids, they would have been the guys skateboarding and riding BMX bikes off jumps they built, and I would have been the guy flailing uncoordinated Pumas at a hacky sack at church youth group. But at this stage in our lives, as we were trying to be grown-ups, honesty and tenderness were valuable. The chains on their wallets, which weren’t just for show, rattled as they hugged me and slipped back on their bandanas and leather jackets. I buttoned my pea coat and oddly felt like I belonged.

For some reason this pull to challenge and reframe masculinity is strong in Minnesota men. Minneapolitan Slug of Atmosphere often raps about what it means to be a man, including the 1997 song “Ode To The Modern Man,” which contains one of Slug’s best lines: “I could fill your head some more with metaphors, some cute catch phrases filtered through accessible themes. But if I don’t stay sincere to love and hate, how do I differentiate between chasing C.R.E.A.M. and chasing dreams?” I feel like Slug is talking about that same fear of dishonesty that Wisland mentioned in our phone call. And both Slug and Wisland seem to err on the side of truth.

Garrison Keillor is a Minnesota institution, and in 1993 he published The Book of Guys. He says, “Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement and now it’s just a problem to be overcome. Guys who once might have painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling are now just trying to be Mr. O.K. All-Rite, the man who can bake a cherry pie, be passionate in a skillful way, and yet also lift them bales and tote that barge.”

Perhaps it all stems from Robert Bly, who gave us Iron John: A Book About Men in 1990, where he says, “The journey many American men have taken into softness, or receptivity, or ‘development of the feminine side,’ has been an immensely valuable journey, but more travel lies ahead.” I think Bly is right: we’re progressing, but we’re not done. We want to be sensitive and honest, but we also want to be grown men. Wisland is embarking on the kind of travel Bly describes, and he’s adding himself to the list of Minnesota men we can turn to for guidance.

Wisland’s Melancholy of Falling Men weaves together the insecurity and thoughtfulness of modern masculinity, disclosing these musings in order to connect to his reader. He’s testing our masculine tropes, trying to filter truth from cloudy waters. I value that Wisland is willing to show his insides so that we don’t have to compare our interiority solely to the stoic exterior of Minnesota men. Near the end of my phone call with Wisland, he said:

People are always telling me there’s still an absence in masculine writing. There are not a lot of male writers who are willing to take big risks. There is an opening for men who are willing to write emotion and write about painful things, for those of us who are willing to lay ourselves bare.


Kirk Wisland’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, DIAGRAM, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, Phoebe, Essay Daily, Bending Genre, Fiction on a Stick, and Proximity. He lives in Athens, Ohio, where he is a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Ohio University.

Caleb Klitzke is new, but he’s giving it hell. He is a nonfiction candidate in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Arizona. Caleb loves Minnesota more than is reasonable to love a patch of land largely defined by the rivers that separate it from other areas.

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