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COMMITMENTS : Being a Man Can Mean Being Less Than Whole

FIRST PERSON

November 28, 1994|MARK CROMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For 29 years I have been taking life, as the old saying goes, like a man. That's American-speak for keeping your face as dry as the Sahara. No tears allowed.

Like most men of my generation, this code of emotional conduct was ingrained in me at an extremely young age. The shrieks and howls I let loose upon emerging from my mother's womb were just about the last tears I shed without a pack of men immediately shouting at me to "walk it off" or "suck it up."

Indeed, that initial burst of tears as a newborn was short and sweet compared to the dry spells that have followed. My memory is littered with incidents where I really, really wanted to cry, needed to cry, but didn't.

At first the admonitions against my tears were more or less gentle encouragements from the male figures in my life. Firm reminders that men don't cry.

I remember I ate it pretty good one day on my bike as I pedaled furiously across a field in a futile effort to keep up with my older brother and his buddies. As I sat clutching a scraped knee, I was consoled by my sibling and his friends, who also urged me in near-unison, "Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry."

Looking back, it seems almost as if they were worried they might get caught in a compromising position: being seen with a bawling 6-year-old.

Then there was that fastball that mowed me down as I stood at the plate during my first year of Little League. The coach was on the field at once as I trotted off to first base, jogging alongside me as the crowd cheered (apparently impressed by the fact that I wasn't being carried off the field).

"Attaboy, tough guy," he remarked as I struggled hard to not cry. "Walk it off. You're OK! Way to go, Bud. . . . Suck it up, now!"

It's funny, but I don't recall whether he asked if I was all right.

It was a much less publicly awkward moment when I first realized I was having a hard time crying, a rare instance when it probably would have been OK with the people who were there. But by that time I couldn't bring myself to do it. That was the day my stepfather died of lung cancer, the culmination of a long and grueling illness.

I rode home from the hospital with my mom and brother, sitting silently in the back seat. I don't think my mom ever stopped crying. Once we got home I sat in the car for a while by myself. I could feel the anguish rising up inside me, but somehow it never made it to my eyeballs. I slugged the seat in front of me and finally went inside, nursing my hand.

*

The last time tears cut a path across my face was in October, 1990. A cub reporter for a daily newspaper, I was hauled into the executive editor's office one afternoon and summarily fired for violating the paper's free-lance policy.

I suppose it was the unexpected nature of it, the sheer suddenness of getting canned, that triggered my emotions. I felt like Private Slovak. Bewildered. Dazed. I was 24 years old and naive enough to believe my career had ended before it really started.

My managing editor put his arm around me and walked me out of the newsroom to my car. I kept a stiff upper lip and dry eyes all the way across the parking lot and told him goodby without so much as even a quiver in my voice. But as I drove home, I heard a strange sound. A shrill little whimper that was punctuated by a gasping for breath as it grew louder.

I was crying.

Sobbing. Emotionally succumbing to the notion that I was doomed to a life of fast-food jobs and trying to prepare myself for the fact that I would shortly have to inform my parents of this.

I'm not sure how long I cried, but the tears stopped as suddenly as they had started. I remember I felt fascinated and yet frightened by the way I sounded as I cried. It seemed so childlike. All those barricades that had been erected through the years somehow failed to stop these particular tears. I couldn't walk this one off, like I had on the field. I couldn't bite my shirt sleeve, like I had in the doctor's office. So I just let it go.

Embarrassed, I made an effort at male atonement a little later that afternoon, buying a tall can of beer and stopping off at a friend's house, hoping to get cheered up. He took one look at my eyes and asked me if I was stoned. I almost told him I was. It sure beat allergies as an explanation.

Although slightly ashamed that I had been reduced to tears, I'll never forget how much better I felt when it was over. It was like that heady feeling one gets after a fever breaks. I felt exhausted but relieved. It was as if the tears had purged a lot of stress out of my system.

Yet those tears were a feat I haven't managed since, despite my share of funerals and loss and pain.

*

Worse, a couple of times my dry spell has affected my relationship with my girlfriend, who has absolutely no trouble crying. I think it might be some sort of therapy for her. She cries when she gets really mad; she cries when she's really happy; she cries when she is sad.

"It's natural," she tells me.

I wish.

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