Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent




(Mildly Recommended)




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In her new book, Self-Made Man, lesbian journalist Norah Vincent disguises herself as a man, embeds herself in various all-male settings and tries to understand how men see themselves. She joined a bowling league, went on dates with women, spent three weeks at a monastery, joined a door-to-door sales force, and went on an all-male retreat, Robert Bly-style. While she cut short her eighteen month immersion with a nervous breakdown, she came away from the experience with insights and better feelings about the male of the species. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 42-48:


I tried to engage him further on the question, but as I came to understand, you’d always know when a conversation with Bob was over. He’d just revert to peering at you with condescending fi­nality through a cloud of cigarette smoke.


A lot of the guys were like that. It would take you years to get to know them on anything more than grunting terms. They were walled-in tight.


Yet even so, under the surface there remained that distant male-on-male respect that I’d felt in the first handshakes and I continued to feel every time some guy from another team would say “Hey, man” to me when we met in the parking lot or passed on our way to or from the soda machine.


But there was one guy among the bowlers who established an odd intimacy with me early on. It was so immediate, and so physi­cally affectionate, that I felt sure he could see through Ned. I never learned his name. I don’t think he knew anything con­sciously. It wasn’t that bald. But there was an unmistakable chem­istry between us.


Obviously, I’d spent my life as a woman either flirting or butting heads or maneuvering somewhere on the sexual spectrum with nearly every man I’d ever met, and I knew how it felt when an older man took a shine to you as a woman. It was always the kind of guy who was far too decent to be creepy, the avuncular type who had turned his sexual response to you into a deep affec­tion. He showed it by putting his arm around you cleanly, without innuendo, or patting you gently on the shoulder and smiling.


This guy was like that, old enough to have gained some kind of relief from his urges, and now he was free to just like me for be­ing a woman. Even if he didn’t quite know 1 was a woman, his brain seemed somehow to have sniffed me out and responded ac­cordingly. The thing was, in this context, of all places, the way he treated me made me feel like a woman a girl actually, very young and cared for—and I wondered how that could have been possible if some part of him hadn’t recognized me as such. It was unmis­takable, and I never felt it with any other man I came into contact with as a man.


I felt something entirely different coming from the other men who thought I was a young man. They took me under their wings. Another older bowler had done this. Taking me aside between rounds, he tried to teach me a few things to improve my game. This was male mentor stuff all the way. He treated me like a son, guiding me with firm encouragement and solid advice, an older man lending a younger man his expertise.


This was commonplace. During the course of the bowling season, which lasted nine months, a lot of men from the other teams tried to give me tips on my game. My own teammates were constantly doing this, increasingly so as the season wore on. There was a tension in the air that grew up around me as I failed to excel, a tension that I felt keenly, but that seemed unrecognizable to the guys themselves. I had good frames, sometimes even good whole games, but I still had a lot of bad ones, too, and that frustrated us all.


At about the five-month mark, Jim began giving me pained looks when I came back to the table after a bad turn.


I’d say, “Okay, I’m sorry. I know I suck.”


“Look, man,” he’d say, “I’ve told you what I think you’re do­ing wrong, and you don’t listen or you get pissed off.”


“No, no,” I’d protest, “I’m really trying to do what you’re say­ing. It just isn’t coming out right. What can I do?”


I threw like a girl and it bugged me as much as it bugged them If I told them the truth at the end of the season I didn’t want them to have the satisfaction of saying, “Oh, that explains every­thing. You bowl like a girl because you are a girl.”


But their motivation seemed comically atavistic, as if it was just painful to watch a fellow male fail repeatedly at something as adaptive as throwing a boulder. Time was, the tribe’s survival de­pended on it. This just seemed mandatory to them in some ab­surdly primal way.


As men they felt compelled to fix my ineptitude rather than be secretly happy about it and try to abet it under the table, which is what a lot of female athletes of my acquaintance would have done. I remember this from playing sports with and against women all my life. No fellow female athlete ever tried to help me with my game or give me tips. It was every woman for herself. It wasn’t enough that you were successful. You wanted to see your sister fail.


Girls can be a lot nastier than boys when it comes to someone who stands in the way of what they want. They know where to hit where it’ll hurt the most, and their aim is laser precise. One sum­mer when I was a maladjusted teenager, I went to a tennis camp in New Jersey that catered largely to rich princesses and their male counterparts. Most of them couldn’t really play tennis on more than a country-club level. Their parents had sent them there to get rid of them. They just stood around most of the time posing for one another, showing off their tans. But I’d had a lot of private coaching in tennis by that time, and my strokes were fairly im­pressive for my age. I took the tennis pretty seriously.


As for posing, I looked like I’d been raised by wolverines.


The instructors used to videotape each of us playing, so that they could go over the tapes with us and evaluate our techniques. One day, my particular class of about twenty girls was standing around the television watching the tape, and the instructor was deconstructing my serve. He’d had a lot of negative things to say about most of the other girls’ serves, but when it came to mine, he raved unconditionally, playing my portion of the tape over and over again in slow motion.


At this, one of the prettiest girls in the group, no doubt exas­perated by the repetition, said, loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Well, I’d rather look the way I do and serve the way I do than serve the way she does and look the way she does.”


Now that’s female competitiveness at its finest.


But with these guys and with other male athletes I’ve known it was an entirely different conflict. Their coaching re­minded me of my Lather’s, whose approach to fatherhood had al­ways been about giving helpful, concrete advice. It was how he showed his affection for us. It was all bound up in a desire to see us do well.


These guys’ attentions were like that: fatherly. And it really surprised me coming from members of opposing teams, since this was, after all, a money league. But they seemed to have a compet­itive stake in my doing well and in helping me to do well, as if beating a man who wasn’t at his best wasn’t satisfying. They wanted you to be good and then they wanted to beat you on their own merits. They didn’t want to win against a plodder or lose to him on a handicap.


But my game never got consistently better. I’d have good frames now and then, but mostly I hovered around an average of 102 and learned to swallow it. So did the guys. They knew I was trying my best, and that was all that really mattered to them. As with everything else a little odd or off about me, they accepted my clumsiness with a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say: “That’s just how some guys are. What are you gonna do?”


I guess that’s what I respected about those guys the most. I was a stranger, and a nerd, but they cut me all the slack in the world, and they did it for no other reason that I could discern than that I was a good-seeming guy who deserved a chance, something life and circumstance had denied most of them.




I could never have predicted it, but part of me came to really enjoy those nights with the guys. Their company was like an anchor at the beginning of the week, something I could look forward to, an oasis where nothing would really be expected of me. Almost every interaction would be entirely predictable, and the ones that weren’t were all the more precious for being rare.


When somebody opened up to me suddenly, like when Jim confided how much he loved his wife and how much it hurt him when the doctor told him that the best he could hope for was to see her alive in a year, or when Bob smiled at me playfully after teasing me over a toss, it touched me more deeply than my female friends’ dime-a-dozen intimacies ever did. These were blooms in the desert, tender offerings made in the middle of all that guy talk.


I’d never made friends with guys like that before. They had intimidated me too much, and the sexual tension that always sub­sists in some form or another between men and women had usu­ally gotten in the way. But making friends with them as a man let me into their world as a free agent and taught me to see and ap­preciate the beauty of male friendships from the inside out.


So much of what happens emotionally between men isn’t spoken aloud, and so the outsider, especially the female outsider who is used to emotional life being overt and spoken (often over-spoken), tends to assume that what isn’t said isn’t there. But it is there, and when you’re inside it, it’s as if you’re suddenly hearing sounds that only dogs can hear.


I remember one night when I plugged into that subtext for the first time. A few lanes over, one of the guys was having a par­ticularly hot game. I’d been oblivious to what was happening, mourning my own playing too much to watch anyone else. It was Jim’s turn, and I noticed that he wasn’t bowling. Instead he was sitting down in one of the laneside chairs, just waiting. Usually this happened when there was a problem with the lane: a stuck pin, or a mis-set rack. But the pins were fine. I kept watching him, wondering why he wasn’t stepping up to the line.


Then I noticed that all the other bowlers had sat down as well. Nobody was taking his turn. It was as if somebody had blown a whistle, only nobody had. Nobody had said anything. Everyone had just stopped and stepped back, like in a barracks when an officer enters the room.


Then I realized that there was one guy stepping up to the lane. It was the guy who was having the great game. I looked up at the board and saw that he’d had strikes in every frame, and now he was on the tenth and final frame, in which you get three throws if you strike or spare in the first two. He’d have to throw three strikes in a row on this one to earn a perfect score, and somehow everyone in that halt had felt the moment of grace descend and had bowed out accordingly. Everyone, of course, except me.


It was a beautiful moment, totally still and reverent, a bunch of guys instinctively paying their respects to the superior athleti­cism of another guy.


That guy stepped up to the line and threw his three strikes, one after the other, each one met by mounting applause, then silence and stillness again, then on the final strike, an eruption, and every single guy in that room, including me, surrounded that player and moved in to shake his hand or pat him on the back. It was almost mystical, that telepathic intimacy and the communal joy that succeeded it, crystalline in its perfection. The moment said everything all at once about how tacitly attuned men are to each other, and how much of this women miss when they look from the outside in.


After it was over, and all the congratulations had died down, Jim and Bob and Allen and I all looked at each other and said things like “Man, that was incredible,” or “Wow, that was some­thing.” We couldn’t express it in words, but we knew what we’d just shared.


The role of an anthropologist is to be both participant and observer when studying another culture or tribe. Vincent may not have trained in those skills, so the research quality of her fieldwork may not meet scientific standards. The fact that she ultimately revealed to most of the men she got to know well during her disguise period proves her ability to value the importance of relationships. Self-Made Man is an unusual book, and while it doesn’t reveal new information about gender differences, it highlights those difference through well-written anecdotes.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2006 issue of Executive Times


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