Are you man enough to read this column? I ask this knowing how the issue of manliness seems to pop up even in the most trivial aspects of a guy's life. Are you man enough to do 50 pushups? Are you man enough to eat Hunan prawns? Are you man enough to drive an Alfa? Are you man enough to find your way without asking a gas station attendant for help?
The other day, three friends of mine--all Ph.D.s, academic heavyweights, intellectual Schwarzeneggers--were discussing the situation in the Middle East.
"I still think Bush is too much of a wimp to go through with it."
"But can you imagine the situation if that Dukakis had been elected?"
"Bush has certainly been talking tough."
Do you notice a certain pattern here? A certain obsession that runs through the affairs of men, a tendency toward constant checks on their heterosexual homeostasis? Imagine if women talked this way:
"I'm sure glad Mrs. Thatcher had the ovaries to get out and stop fighting."
"Yes, but what's wrong with that macho Barbara Boxer--she needs her estrogen checked."
I sympathize with the stressful life men lead. What a strain it must be to have to keep asserting gender solidarity, as if every act were a chance at one of those carnival games where a mallet to a bell casts your fate as He-Man, Loverboy, Only Average or Sissy. How hard the life of Just an Ordinary Guy, fending off the ongoing threat of sexual inadequacy, physiological oddity and behavioral perversity.
It starts early. Last year I drove my daughter to school in a car pool with three 11-year-old boys. Among the boys, there was a steady stream of you-wimps, kicked-butts and unprintably worse imputations.
One day, as a girl got out of the car, one of the boys sat there waving his hand in front of his nose for several minutes in a gesture designed to show displeasure with the stench left from her cosmetics. In an attempt to be one of the little boys, I turned to him and said, "She's going to really kick butt with that mousse."
Now, most of the time we gals can just sit back in amusement and watch guys fight over who has the fastest Porsche, the best forearm, the fattest paycheck.
But when it comes to questioning our national masculinity in the military arena, women want in. As recent reports show, women are getting very aggressive about peace.
I am not such a pacifist myself that I think we should accept the ascendancy of bullies. I think truth, justice and even the pursuit of happiness are worth fighting for.
But if the fight is over who's a wimp, as I increasingly hear both men and women cast the situation in the Middle East, I think we might want to put down our assault missiles and our attack helicopters and pick up the carnival mallet.
Last week I met a man who told me he had an 18-year-old son who played in a rock band. "You must be watching things in Saudi Arabia very carefully with a son that age," I said.
"I'm encouraging him to enlist," the father said.
I was astonished to think that anyone would actually want to risk his son's life. "Why would you do that now? You must really believe that war with Saddam Hussein is the only way to stop him."
"No, it's more a personal thing. I'm worried about my son," he said. "I think the military would be good for him. Make a man out of him."
It could make a dead man out of him, too, I thought, but I didn't say it. I'm too much of a lady to want to hit him where it hurts.