A Man's Life
An ongoing conversation about what it means to be a man in the 21st century.
I returned to live with my father in the house I grew up in shortly before
my 24th birthday, toxic from 18 months in Manhattan where I'd been a copyboy
in the newsroom of The New York Times. A few of the ground floor windows
of my father's house didn't lock, so in order to sleep, I lined the tops
of these windows with delicate glassware.
That I would need to do such a thing was less a reflection of our upper-middle-class
neighborhood in Shaker Heights, Ohio, than the lingering impact of the
place Id lefta city where you might, say, find a man with
beady eyes and a moustache hiding in your closet. (Hed been ripping
off my apartment when I surprised him; after I got him out, he knocked
to ask if we could talkI declined the request, then found his trousers
on my bedroom floor.)
That my paranoia carried over from where it was useful (Manhattan) to
where it was pathologic (leafy old suburbia) tells me how powerfully home
is built into our psyche. I wasnt actually preventing a burglar
with those perched wine glasses; rather, those wine glasses secured the
home in my mind, the idea of home, which had been violated by urban life.
I came and went from my boyhood home during the next four years but ultimately
sought to return, with my New York-born wife, to live in the city where
I grew up. I found that when I lived elsewhere, I yearned for home, and
now, surprisingly, though Ive been back a dozen years, that longing
continues. I yearn for the home I have. And it is this yearning, Ive
realized, that has shaped my life: my family, my work as a writer and
the compulsion to write about specific people at their workteachers,
chefs, boat builders, surgeons.
Mine is work that necessitates long stretches away from home followed
by similar stretches of having returned home. Its become clear to
me only through the writing and editing and rewriting of these words that
there may exist a prehistoric homing instinct in men, different from but
no less powerful than womens so-called nesting instinct.
The mythology of Odysseus, his place in our culture as an archetypal figure,
should not focus solely on his being a journeyer, soldier, quester, but
truly as the ultimate homebodya seeker of home, the embodiment of
the yearning for home that is a fundamental aspect of male humanity.
I cherish home on even the most superficial level. I love simply being
at home, all day long, day after day. I have created a job for myself
that demands it. Here I set my own schedule, manage my own time. As it
doesnt require a daily commute, unnecessary banter with colleagues,
or a single meeting, work is streamlined and efficient. I can get more
done at home. Also, when Im writing, I can go days without wearing
anything more than pajama pants and a bath-robe, which is a pleasure all
That Ive become such a homebody would have appalled my 21-year-old
self, a man at last, heading recklessly into the world full of promise
and eager for adventure, determined to avoid falling into the routine
Id seen in the life of my fathera Cleveland ad-man who today
boards the same train at the same stop where he first boarded it in 1965,
When I was a boy, Id loved his daily ritual. Id wait for him
at the busy intersection at the end of our street, where he would step
off the train, home from work. If I was lucky, hed have brought
me Necco wafers or a mini six-pack of candy-colored liquid in tiny wax
bottles. He loved coming homealways arrived with a bright smile
and a big hug for me, his only child. We walked home together. It was
home when he was there.
But by the time I was 20 and off to college, I resented his acceptance
of this lifelong routine. How could he stand it, let alone choose it?
It is the irony of fate that routinesomething I once resented in
my fathers lifeis what I have chosen and most cherish in my
I covet routine, and I resent anyone who takes it from me. I am not spontaneous;
I hate a surprise. When I hear a phone ringing out in the middle of silent
morning work or see the mail carrier striding toward our porch, I dangle
a cross and rope of garlic in my mind to ward off the surprise bill we
cant pay, the call from the school nurse about a serious accident.
Or actual bad news, as happened this summer, catastrophes within families
we know and lovethe death of a toddler within the home, a potentially
terminal illness in a seven-year-old girl as beautiful and bright as my
The lives of entire families, entire family histories, pivot on a single
day, on a single moment. Routine within the home, to one who expects disaster
at every turn, feels like a barrier against it. So for reasons big and
small, imagined and real, I hoard routine like a miser.
For my work I have chosen to write about others at their work, mostly
men who labor with their hands, all of whom are guided by the work of
their predecessors. Nothing the heart surgeon in my latest book does today
would be possible without the maverick work of the heart surgeons who
came before him. The builders of wooden boats about whom I wrote rely
each day on the knowledge, passed down over millennia, of how to put pieces
of wood together in a way that is both beautiful and watertight.
The fundamental techniques used by the chefs Ive chronicledstock
making, sauce making, braising tough meats or sautéing tender onesrely
on principles of heat and cold that have existed since humankind first
realized, many thousands of years ago, that heat changed the texture and
flavor of food; their work is daily informed by the work of French chefs
of several centuries before them, from La Varenne to Careme to Escoffier.
I was fortunate to meet a chef named Thomas Keller, as watchful a craftsman
as I have known. He liked to say that if you are a really good cook, you
could travel back in time and be at home in any kitchen, because food
and cooking works today as it always has. A cook in the 17th century who
braised oxtail was feeling and smelling and seeing the same things as
I did when I braised oxtail. So if I paid attention to the process, enjoyed
the sizzle and aroma of floured meat hitting the fat as I kept watch over
the cooking of a deepening stew, I connected in a way with that 17th century
cook, to all those people who had done exactly what I was doing. I affirmed
my own humanitythis was part of the great pleasure and deep satisfaction
of cooking, this connection.
Keller and I have begun work on another cookbook. It explores utilitarian
French cookingFrench comfort foodthe sort of food you want
to return to again and again and againroast chicken, steak frites.
Part of the pleasure of eating a good bowl of onion soup, Ive recently
discovered, is that you connect to all the onion soups you have ever eaten.
The idea of onion soup is a reference point against which you measure
each actual one, and all your experiences with onion soupfrom the
70s sludge in a crock to the one you watched your wife eat in the
hotel on your honeymoon to the ethereal one you found in a country inn,
by chance, on a cold fall daythose onion soup experiences accumulate
and become a part of a time line of onion soup experiences that grows
richer with each successive onea great big to some foods over and
My point in bringing up this onion soup business is to suggest that to
be in a house itself is not whats so important to me; it is to be
in a house in the city where I was born (and will likely die, in demented
incontinent bliss, I hope). This deliberate actto live where I grew,
an increasingly uncommon choice in vagabond Americaallows the ultimate
connection to the life force. I tread daily the same paths I had as a
childto school and then home, to friends homes, then back
WE ARE RENOVATING an old house here, including my office, and so I wrote
my last book at my fathers house, in my childhood bedroom (generic
nowno camp pennants or baseball trophies) at the desk my parents
bought for me before my entry into the sixth gradea desk still scarred
by incense I accidentally left burning as a wannabe hippie teen-ager.
I wrote a novel at that desk when I returned home at 24 from New York
City. Ten years later, between moves, I wrote a book about learning to
cook, and all last winter, I sat at that desk finishing my book about
a surgeon-craftsman and the high-stakes work of a pediatric heart unit.
When I took my daily midday breaks for exercise last winter, I jogged
past my elementary school. Midway there, I crossed a bit of sidewalk,
a big cracked sandstone slab that still collects water on wet days as
it always did throughout my school daysthe slab where my classmate
Debbie Shaw kissed my second-grader cheek for no reason. That kiss would
mark a moment of private glory I could not help but recall each day on
that run. It was as if the sidewalk slab was actually charged with some
kind of memory electricity that buzzes me when I hit it.
Each step of that seven-tenths-of-a-mile route I have made thousands of
times, in hundreds of versions of myself, and each step of that daily
jog last winter connected me with all those versions, good and bad: returning
home with a shameful report card; returning home after midnight, a drunken
teenager burning with love for a girl named Kathy who lived a ways beyond
the school; the apprentice writer returning home to work on a novel that
would never be published but that would secure an agent; and still again
to carry on with the cooking book, then again with the surgeon book.
That work in my old house, that daily run, stakes me to my history, to
all my former selves, holds me down in chaotic, confusing winds, in a
world where the toddler child of dear friends can die, where girls my
daughters age are snatched from their home forever, gone.
The same connective, onion-soup powers rise out the routines of home.
Mowing the lawn, the route to the grocery store, the smell of the kitchen
when no one is cooking, the senses of every day, experienced without thought
or reflection but powerfully absorbed. It will be the same routine my
children absorb (and they may need to resent me for it just as I needed
to resent my father). My daughter and son might even play baseball on
the same fields I played on. Just the thought of it recalls the passion
with which I lived for those gamesmy passion for a baseball game
then exceeded in intensity most passions I feel now, in flabby middle
age, for anything, not to mention the completely new and raw sensations
of anguish and joy over girls, who are now moms I still know. My children
will know such passions as well in the city where my father grew up and
where their father grew up.
A LOVE OF HOME is ultimately a connection with the life circle, no different
from the seasons. My father will work and die here. And I will work and
die here. My children may or may not choose to do the same, but knowing
that they may, having sensed the continuum of my fathers life, leading
to mine, leading to my childrens, obviates what might otherwise
be my biggest fearfear of death. A recognition of this continuum
and a deliberate effort to observe it makes any such regret or worry about
death or the apparent lack of meaning in life inappropriate, gives a sense
of life-integrity to each day, and to each days routines.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO when I began to write about boats built of woodplanks
on frames that kept the water outI lived among the people who did
the work. I met a gifted sailor and boat builder named Andy Lyon, who
had just returned from cruising Amazonian tributaries in Harmony, his
35-foot Crocker sloop. Andy lived year-round on Harmony, and he articulated
the most appealing fact about boats when they are your home.
I live on it because it takes me places, he told me, as we
clipped through the Vineyard Sound. Its always an adventure.
And every night I come home.
No matter where he is on earth, every night he comes home. Andy, 34 years
old at the time, a quiet solitary soul and continual world traveler, was
the ultimate homebody, a true Odysseus.
I dont like being called a live-aboard,
he said. I dont live aboard. This is my life. I live on something
This was a kind of integrity of being, of existence, that I had never
encountered. His house was him, and he was his home.
Today my house is the same (now equipped with motion detectorsI
think of them as electronic wine glasses)an actual structure that
gives not only shelter and warmth but salutary shape to a whole familys
life, and more: a metaphorical structure I long for even as I live in
it, to make it what it has always been.
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