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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Looking for Mr. Goodheart in the Firehouse

January 04, 2002|John Balzar

"Has your taste in men changed?" I was making the rounds at a party recently with my notebook at the ready.

The woman understood my question. She had been reading these same accounts about how manly sex appeal is undergoing a reevaluation. She also had the forthrightness to say that what she sees in the media doesn't necessarily reflect what her heart tells her.

"No, not really," she replied.

That's generally the response I'd been getting from women. I was beginning to wonder if trend spotters weren't reaching too far. Then this woman added, "But my feelings have changed about my son. If he grew up wanting to be a fireman now, I'd feel differently."

When mothers start talking about new aspirations for their sons, it's a good sign that something is going on in the land.

For one, I have my hopes. Maybe I will live to see the gentleman resurgent. By that I mean a man who stands out by his purpose and the manner in which he presents himself. The man who ignores the social advice to "just be yourself" and instead strives to be something a little better.

It's not money but it is class that I'm talking about, and not even class so much as one's principles and bearing. Few things in our culture would cost so little and could get us so far, if only to break the monotony of the last 20 years or so. Right, dude?

Today's trend spotters in New York, in Washington, in Singapore, in London, in Calgary--to name just a few--are generally discussing the "new male" in terms of appearance. Thus, the hairy-chested man is supposedly back. Slick is out. Women are said to be eyeing firehouses, not Wall Street. Well, considering the state of the economy and the gargantuan overtime paychecks of your average fireman, I wonder if we don't simply have a case of digging for gold in new locations. But I could be wrong, and these observations get us only so far anyway.

As I see it, half of being a man is what you are born with. If you find yourself now possessing the "in" look, congratulations.

But, fellows, before the rest of us rush out and get hair plugs for our chests, let's consider the other half of manliness, that part that we have some say in. Like the way we carry ourselves. And our objectives.

I'll take a stab at encapsulating what's really occurring: The NYFD has gained respect over MBAs because firefighters displayed selflessness, duty and honor. In threatening times, these attributes no longer seem quaint but desirable. Some people run out of burning buildings, some run in. Thank heavens for the courageous.

That's it.

Whatever trend emerges, or fails to emerge, has roots there. And it's not strictly a matter of gender, either. Men change in tune with the tastes of women according to the ageless quest for approval, so this conversation is more accurately about cultural shifts.

As it is, American life as reflected in athletics, commerce, politics and show business is far too coarse. The Darwinian, Reaganesque view that life is but brutal competition has exhausted us. Coldbloodedness, the sneer, vulgarity, disdain, the knife in the back, ostentation--attitude!--no longer define the novel, but the ordinary. To stand out in this crowd anymore requires one to achieve, truly, the monstrous. Think Enron.

But just as people set trends, they become captive to them. So even though there is widespread dissatisfaction with the values in our culture, we have achieved only peripheral progress in the pursuit of alternatives. Perhaps firefighters and tragedy have opened our eyes to the possibility that a man just might be able to score a touchdown with humility. Imagine the shock of that.

Beneath the superficial, these inquiries about manliness speak to our fundamental regard for each other. Decency, courtesy, kindness, honor may be the codes by which some Americans live, but they have not been the reigning imperatives of our pop culture. A man who finds a bag of money on the shoulder of a highway is still portrayed in headlines as strange, if not demented, for returning it.

So, when I hear about the sex appeal of NYFD firefighters, I trust that we are not speaking of goofy hats, Brooklyn accents, bitter and sometimes bigoted union politics or tracking wet ashes into the living room. And it's probably not a matter of hairy chests, either. We are talking about what a mother wants for her son: a better heart and a bigger purpose in life.

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