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A Better Man
A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son
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“Surprising . . . [Black’s] tone is so lovely, his empathy so clear . . . Black’s writing is modest, clear, conversational . . . corny, maybe. But helpful. Like a dad.”—The New York Times Book Review
With hope and with humor, Michael Ian Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and delivers a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men?
Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college bound son, A Better Man offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Comedian, writer, and father Black examines his complicated relationship with his own father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”
Now You're Home
If you ever want to feel useless, I recommend attending the birth of your child. Mom and I had signed up for birthing classes together in anticipation of your arrival, but that preparation mostly involved learning how to count to ten over and over again in short breathy bursts. If you think that sounds like it would be a waste of time in the maelstrom of a delivery room, let me assure you, it is.
Mom's labor lasted almost a day. It was awful. At least it looked awful. Mom was in so much pain. I didn't know what to do. It's such a helpless feeling knowing that your partner is exhausted and in terrible pain and, in that moment, almost certainly hates you.
"Get it out!" Mom screamed at me. She was wrung out and desperate. I hovered nearby, stupidly counting to ten. "Stop counting!" Mom yelled. I stopped.
Finally, after twenty-two hours and a lot of drugs (for Mom, not me), there you were, flailing for the first time in the vast, unknowable air like Wile E. Coyote after he runs off the cliff.
As soon as you were born, the first thing the doctor did was announce to us your sex.
"It's a boy," she said.
In that first moment—after all the anticipation, all the guessing and name-picking and speculation—the fact of your boyness felt trivial, inconsequential. There you were, our child, our baby. What difference did your sex make? None, as far as I could tell. That's what I would have said if somebody had asked in the moment, but now I feel like that's not true.
"It's a boy," says the doctor, and everybody's brain makes a little mental click. What was just a baby the moment before is now a baby boy. Immediately, unconsciously, the endless possibilities for this new life narrow. The brain darts to "boy stuff": baseballs, toy trucks, dirt bikes, Nerf guns, electric guitars. "A boy," and without my even noticing it happen, my thoughts about you reordered, the way a new function reorders an algebraic equation.
Of course, this shouldn't be so. Of course, the horizons for any new life should remain boundless, regardless of sex. But society is not there yet, and pretending otherwise doesn't change that fact. I remain dubious of the new breed of parent attempting to raise "gender-neutral" kids. While I admire the spirit of the idea, I don't think it's possible and I don't know that it's even desirable. Like all people, kids crave a sense of self, an understanding of how they fit into the world. I think gender identity is an important part of this understanding of self. There's a big difference, though, between trying to impose traditional gender signifiers on a kid and letting the kid teach you who they are.
Any baby born with a penis is going to become aware pretty quickly that he's in this category called "boy." What he does with that boyness, though, should be up to him. As parents, I feel like our job is as much about listening and responding to our children as it is about steering them toward a desired outcome. A child will always tell you who they are—I don't mean just about gender, I mean about everything. You can either go with it or resist. In my experience as a dad, resistance is futile.
In the immediate moments after your birth, though, all those lessons were ahead of me.
There you were. And you were wonderful in the literal sense of the word. We looked at you and marveled at you and inspected you and the reality of you began to settle over us like the first flakes of snow in a blizzard. We'd known you'd be arriving soon, and here you were. Now we knew something about you. We knew what you were—not a puppy, not a chicken Parmesan—a baby human. A baby boy. But that was all we knew. Everything had changed and nothing had changed at all. The riddle of you remained.
"Do you want to cut the cord?" the doctor asked me, handing me a pair of lobster-claw scissors. I hadn't expected this, hadn't practiced for it. Cut the cord? In all those weeks of parenting classes, nobody said anything about performing surgery. It felt cruel. Your mom had held you tight for nine months, and now my first job as your father was to separate you from her? I didn't want to do it, nor did I want to say no because saying no would have, I thought, made the doctor and nurses question my manliness. I wasn't going to fail my very first task of fatherhood. So I grimaced and snipped through your umbilical cord, squishy like sausage casing.
The nurses swaddled you in a blanket and put one of those knitted blue caps onto your head, your very first clothing already telling the world something about the way it should think of you. We spent some time with you, holding you, touching your fingers and toes to make sure you were real, debating who you looked like. (You looked like a potato.) Mom held you to her chest. I took photos. They wheeled you to the nursery with all the other little blues and pinks.
Mom closed her eyes and I sat in a chair by the window trying out the word "dad" in my head.
Before I sat down to write this, I couldn't have told you the moment I felt I'd crossed, irrevocably, into manhood. Certainly not when I graduated high school. Nor when I turned eighteen. Definitely not when I dropped out of college to travel the country as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Even when Mom and I got married, part of me still felt like a boy playing pretend. Here is the boy in his new suit standing at the altar. Here is the boy saying, "I do." Here is the boy wondering if everything will be okay. Here is the boy holding his son for the first time. Now, though, looking back, I know the moment. It was when I drove my family home from the hospital for the first time.
You were three days old. A nurse wheeled you and Mom out to the front entrance and I ran ahead to get our big white Jeep. I pulled up to the curb and helped Mom secure you into your car seat, a confusing tangle of straps and loops. Mom rode with you in the backseat, me alone up front. Our house was less than two miles from that hospital but it felt like we had to cross a continent to get there. I've never been more terrified than the moment I turned out of the parking lot.
Let me just get them home, I thought.
Look right, look left, look right again. All clear. Turn onto the road. Five miles below the speed limit. Drive. Left at the stop sign, chug up the hill to our street. A slow right at our road. Crawl onto the driveway. Shut off the car. Retrieve Mom's bag from the trunk. Ten steps to the front door. We cross inside. And there we are, home. The three of us: Mom, me, our baby boy whose name we haven't quite settled on.
I had the peculiar feeling of the world being different places: inside these walls and out. Outside, everything continued as it always had. Inside, everything was different. We showed you the house. "Here's the kitchen. Here's the dining room." We walked upstairs and showed you your room, the moon-and-stars mobile attached to your crib.
You spend nine months preparing for your baby's arrival. You might have a baby shower. You might take birthing classes. You might do a natural childbirth or you might get drugs (tell your partner to get the drugs). Everything is so focused on the baby's arrival, just like when you get married and everything is focused on the wedding day. But then the event arrives and the rest of your life begins. When Mom's contractions started, we left the house as one thing: a couple. We came back as another: parents. After we'd given you the house tour, I remember Mom and me turning to each other and one of us saying, "Now what?"
The answer to that question revealed itself over time. There was the immediate business of keeping you alive. Learning how to hold you so your head didn't flop over like an overgrown sunflower. Learning how to keep you clean and warm. Learning how to manage the resentment and rage that comes from lack of sleep. Mostly, though, learning how to love you.
It would be easy to tell you how over the moon I was when you came into our lives, but that's not true. I didn't fall in love with you, or your sister, at first sight. Maybe I had fallen for the myth that the mere sight of one's offspring sets to swooning the new parent's heart. That didn't happen for me. My friend Rob has three children, two girls and his youngest, a boy. When his son was born, he joked with me that he worried how weird it would feel to have another male among the women with whom he lived. "So now there's going to be some guy living in my house?" he said.
That's a little bit how it felt. Suddenly there was some guy living in the extra bedroom. Some guy demanding all of our attention. Some guy who loved my wife but didn't seem that crazy about me.
Over time, I figured, we would come to some accommodations as housemates. And we did. Or, rather, I came to some accommodations as to you. I woke when you woke. Ate when you allowed me. Entertained you and drove you around to your various appointments. Picked out your wardrobe. I did all the parenting stuff and, in doing so, fell in love with my baby boy.
It's funny; without even meaning to, I began thinking of you as my baby boy. How—or whether—that affected the way I parented you, I can't say. I didn't dress you exclusively in blue or make you sleep with a baseball mitt or anything hokey like that. I bought you all kinds of toys: old-fashioned (non-choking-hazard) wooden blocks and soft dolls and bright books with thick cardboard pages. I read to you and sang to you and, when you fussed, I sh-sh-shushed you on my shoulder, bouncing from foot to foot, rubbing your back in rhythmic circles.
I don't remember the first time you called me "dada," but I remember your wide gummy smile when I swung you around in my arms and your chubby legs and your wispy hair. I remember you toddling on unsteady feet. I remember wondering what I'd been so worried about when just the thought of you put a wobble in my own step. Why had I been so unsure about my ability to be your dad? Maybe it had been losing my own father at such a young age and my own conflicted emotions about him when he'd been alive.
Tell Your Kids You Love Them
One of my favorite photos of my dad—your grandpa—is also one of the last he ever took. He's thirty-nine. In the photo, Dad wears a slight, embarrassed smile below the goofy teddy bear baseball cap his wife Beth had given him to cover the new scar that stretches across his skull. He'd undergone emergency brain surgery a couple months before, after the police found him slumped over in his car, unconscious. An assault, they thought. Maybe a mugging gone bad. They didn't know. My mom told us about it the following morning. He was going to be okay, she said, and I remember thinking something like, "Of course he's going to be okay." I'd never considered that my father could be hurt, let alone die.
A few days later, your uncle Eric and I went to see him at the hospital. I remember him in bed, head shaved and bandaged, sleepy and frail, his body covered in a loose gown. I felt awkward and unsure and scared. His fragility frightened me more than anything else. He'd never been a big guy, but every father is a giant to his son, although less so when his son overtakes him in height, as you, annoyingly, have done to me. We stayed with him for an hour or so that day, but he didn't talk much, and when we left him, I felt relieved.
When Dad came home, he was weak and unsure on his feet. That Christmas, Beth gave him teddy bears. Lots of teddy bears, big and small. One of the bears was sewn to the brim of a baseball cap, the dumb hat in the photo. A few months later, he would be back in the hospital, where he died from a blood clot.
I remember that tight smile of his. It was his all-purpose smile. It could mean joy, sorrow, frustration, bafflement, or some combination of those. It's a smile unwilling to commit to emotion. Every now and again, I catch myself making that same smile and I get a tingle of déjà vu. It's funny—I look more like my mom. I have her coloring and some of her facial features. But I have never felt possessed by her in the same way I do when I discover my dead father's expression on my face.
One of the things that haunts me still is the ambivalence I felt about him when he was alive. My parents' divorce had been bitter, interminable. My mother's grievances with my father spilled into our daily conversations at home and, over the years, they poisoned my feelings toward him. Was he really, as she maintained, a sexist? Was he really not upholding his obligations to her, and to us? Did he really not love our younger sister, Susan, who has Down syndrome? I looked for proof of his failings and found it. Once, he bought me a baseball mitt for my birthday, a good gift until I realized he'd bought a right-handed glove. Didn't he know I am left-handed? Didn't he care? A simple mistake, but I filed it away as evidence against him.
I ignored the evidence in his favor. The trip to Indian Guides camp. The visits to the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore to play Skee-Ball. The time he helped us carve our names out of wood blocks. The weekends we spent with his sister and her girls.
I have another photo of him. It might be the only one with the two of us together. I'm young, maybe five or six, which means he would have been in his early thirties. We're at the Guinness World Records Museum in New York City, posing in front of a giant (perhaps world record–holding) house of cards. I've got my hands shoved into the pockets of my puffy winter coat. My dad towers over me, his hand resting on my shoulder, that same smile on his face. I don't remember that trip, but I feel as though I remember the weight of his hand, the protection and love it held.
When my mom and dad first split up, Mom was already involved with her new girlfriend, the woman I call Elaine. As Mom and Dad's divorce proceedings got underway, a social worker took me into a room by myself to ask which parent I wanted to live with. How do you ask a five-year-old to choose between his parents? I started crying, and I remember the shame that accompanied those tears. I used to cry a lot, about everything. A disappointment. A sharp word. Tears from restlessness and frustration and rage. Mom used to say I was "sensitive." I fucking hated that word. Hated my own emotions because I knew, even at five years old, they made me feel weak. The social worker put me on her lap to comfort me. Who was she, this stranger, asking intrusive questions? Who was she to indulge in this forced intimacy? "Don't touch me!" I wanted to scream, but didn't. Instead, I made myself stop crying. It's the first time I remember consciously shutting down my emotions.
The divorce dragged on for years. Eventually, and over the objections of my father, Mom won custody of Susan, Eric, and me, with regular weekend visits to Dad. Throughout the divorce and for the rest of my childhood, we lived with Mom and Elaine in a suffocating townhouse in New Jersey. I hated living there.
Elaine had so much rage, a consuming heat that, day to day, threatened to burn our family down to nothing. We all suffered the heat of her temper, but she reserved the worst of it for her only child, a boy about my age I'll call Gary, whom she and her ex-husband had adopted as a baby. Gary was heavy and ungainly and sweet, at least until Elaine stamped the sweetness out of him. "Stupid," she called him. "Lazy." "An idiot." Words ripped out of the abuser's playbook. He was a loser, she said, and would never amount to anything. He could do nothing to please her. Eventually he stopped trying.
None of us stood up for him. It felt too dangerous.
Elaine's fire eventually spread to my mom, whose moods became brittle and fractured. Sometimes she would take her frustrations out on us kids, but more often she and Elaine directed their anger at each other. Their fights might last a few hours or a few weeks. During these times we boys would hide up in our bedroom or downstairs in the basement, speckled brown carpeting and thin wood paneling over Sheetrock. The only one who escaped the abuse was Susan, but her disability created its own tensions around money and social services and her endless medical needs.
I never told Dad about life at home. I don't think Eric did, either. We never asked to move in with him and Beth because I think we both suspected they wouldn't have wanted us to. Yes, he fought for custody of us, but I don't know if he really wanted us to live with him or if he was just putting up a fight as revenge toward Mom and the wounded pride I imagine he felt at the way she'd left him.
In the seven years between the time my parents split up and Dad's death, he never bought us beds. We slept in sleeping bags on the living room floor. We didn't mind, particularly, because we were kids, but the message felt unmistakable: "You are welcome here, but only for the weekend." Even after they bought the big house out in Plainsboro—the house had a sewing room for Beth but no bedroom for his kids.
Sometimes I wonder what your relationship with him would have been like. I think you would have liked each other, although I doubt you would have been close. I don't think he knew how to get close to people. He was too shy, too withdrawn, lived too much in his own head. He'd studied engineering and had an engineer's mind. He liked mechanical things, electronic things. He bought a computer from Radio Shack called the TRS-80. It was the first computer I'd ever seen, a bulky silver vision of the future that seemed to come straight out of his favorite show, Star Trek. The machine fascinated my dad, the same way computers and videogames fascinate you. Dad used to spend hours huddled at his desk just off the second-floor landing, seemingly preferring the company of his computer to that of his kids, even though we only saw him every other weekend. One of the reasons I say "I love you" to you and your sister every day is because my father never could bring himself to say the words to the three of us.
It hurts me to admit to you that he wasn't a very good dad. I am convinced he loved his kids, but didn't know what to do with that love. Maybe he worried that he didn't have enough and so he kept it in reserve, the way he kept emergency supplies in the trunk of his car. I know I loved him. I just didn't know how to break through and I was afraid to try. If I had to guess, I'd guess that he was afraid to try, too.
All these years later, I still wish I could hear my dad tell me he loved me. He never did. When I was younger, I used to think about what that cost me. Now, as a parent, I think about what it must have cost him. Imagine being unable to say the only three words that matter to your kids. When I tell you "I love you" as you head out the door in the morning, or I kiss your head good night, or after rolling my eyes at one of your gleefully horrible puns, I'm reminding you that, no matter what happens out there in the wider world, here you are valued and accepted. I'm trying to press it into your heart so that when circumstances turn against you, you will feel it imprinted there as a reminder, a rosary.
My father, Robert Michael Schwartz, was the first man I ever knew, and when he died he was the first person I ever knew who died. After you turned thirteen, I felt as though I'd reached a milestone because, no matter what happened from that point forward, at least you'd had me one year longer than I'd had my own dad. Without even knowing I'd been carrying it, I felt myself relieved of a burden. I felt the same way when your sister turned thirteen a couple years later. Although my relief was genuine, some part of me also felt as if I'd committed a small transgression by outliving my own father. Now I am older than he ever was by a decade and that feeling of transgression has been replaced by something else, some sense that I am walking with him, and for him.
A child doesn't recover from losing a parent. It ends your world, yet the world doesn't end. It's the strangest sensation to lose somebody you love, a pain inevitably compounded by the realization that not everybody shares your grief, that somehow life continues, largely indifferent to your loss.
The poet Eileen Myles wrote a memoir about their dog, Rosie, a dog that Myles said represented the longest adult relationship of their life. Early in the book, Afterglow, a vet puts the long-suffering Rosie to sleep. Afterward, Eileen sits with her, flowers decorating the dog's neck: "The world was outside the door. It was Saturday morning. . . . The world out there now on the other side of the wall. In here, just us."
That's just how I felt.
Even before Dad died, I sensed part of myself separating from the world. I suspect every person eventually feels themselves becoming untethered from the world and all the people in it at some point in their lives. Maybe that's what adolescence is, the discovery that everything seems one way, but we feel ourselves to be another. Perhaps maturation, then, is just the slow process of reattaching ourselves to the world and holding out a hand for those still out there in space, alone.
I think my own sense of isolation and detachment happened earlier than most, and I think it took me longer than most to recover my footing. Some of that had to do with my particular living circumstances, and part of it, I think, had to do with my own fuzzy notions of what it meant to be a man. Although I knew that I would one day become a man myself, the boundary between my boyhood self and the men I observed appeared to me impermeable. There was boyhood and there was manhood, and no obvious way to bridge the two.
Mom and Elaine didn't help. They considered themselves avid feminists, but their version of feminism took on a particularly acrid odor. They regularly denigrated men in front of the three boys living in their care. Men were arrogant and condescending and unreliable. They were "male chauvinist pigs," always less capable than the women beside them. Men would betray you. A movie came out called 9 to 5, which was a feminist revenge comedy about three underappreciated female employees who kidnap their sexist boss and run the business in his stead, thereby proving that women can do the job of a man better than he can. Mom and Elaine saw the movie, and then took us boys to see it. The movie was hilarious, its message unmistakable: men sucked.
It was a message I took with me into my teenage years and early adulthood. I favored the company of women to men. I had male friends, but my relationships with females always felt more intimate, which was probably the reason I had girlfriends before so many of my male peers, and probably why those relationships lasted longer than typical first romances.
I also suspected the message was incomplete. Yes, men sometimes suck. Yes, we could be all the things we stood accused of being, and worse. We could be dangerous, and especially dangerous to women. But men, I thought, were more than that, just as those women in the movie were more than what their boss saw.
I worried that I carried some of that male suckiness with me, worried that there was something wrong with me simply for being a boy. But I liked being a boy. And I wanted, one day, to be a man. To do that, I had to understand them. After my dad died, I didn't know how I ever would.
To my kid eyes, men seemed as if they possessed some secret magic. They seemed confident. They knew "things" about "things." They understood women and cars and rock 'n' roll. They could fix stuff. Men could conjure up seemingly unknowable facts from the air the way my uncle Larry would pull quarters from my ear. Men, I thought, understood the whole of the world. How did they learn so many things when, from my experience, they did so little actual communicating? The men I saw around me barely spoke at all; I thought their grunts and smirks and nods were a language just beyond the range of my hearing. One day, I figured, my father would pass these fraternal secrets to me, an intriguing alchemical mixture of aftershave, carburetor fluid, and tits.
He never did.
Just as I wonder what your relationship with him would be like, I wonder how he would have felt about today's world. Maybe he would have grown stodgy and bitter as he got older, the way so many white men of his generation have turned against the culture. Or maybe he'd already absorbed the shock of change in his younger years, and would have accommodated a new and potentially confusing way of life. I can tell you that even I find myself confused much of the time. When something as previously reliable as pronouns becomes a source of cultural contention, I can understand how somebody might feel bewildered.
My dad was a conformist right down to the marrow of his bones. I don't say that as a put-down. He grew up the son of a cop. Rules mattered, and the rules worked for my dad. There doesn't seem to be much sense in breaking the rules when they are to your benefit. Back then, the rules worked for most white men. I don't think he thought too much about problems beyond the ken of his own surroundings. That's not to say he was indifferent to the sufferings of others, but I don't recall him ever speaking to us about social or political issues.
A BuzzFeed Most-Anticipated Book of the Year
“[Black’s] tone is so lovely, his empathy so clear . . . He does wonderful work breaking down the masculine coding surrounding his own behaviors.”
—The New York Times
“Written as a letter to his son, comedian Black’s reflections on masculinity’s pitfalls and how to raise—and be—a more enlightened guy will resonate with parents and teens alike.”
“We need this book . . . To read A Better Man now, when the world often seems beyond repair, so many generations of men having steered us into calamity with their brittleness and hubris and idiocy—one could wonder whether even a good book can make a difference. But then you’re snapped back to Black’s simple decency, and intelligence and love for his son, and you think, Oh man, maybe.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Essential reading for both men and boys.”
“Parents will be moved and enlightened by Black’s thoughtful advice.”
“There's something for everyone in these pages. Hand this to anyone who loved David Sedaris's Calypso.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Heartfelt lessons for his college-bound son . . . Black lays out his thoughts and feelings with few defenses up and a comic lightness that doesn't belie the book's rather heavy truths . . . Thoughtful ruminations on masculinity in the modern age . . . Whether you're a parent or simply thinking about life choices, there's both melancholy and wisdom to be found here.”
“Both thoughtful and lighthearted, this work will appeal to anyone interested in masculinity and modern gender roles.”
“I think about the subject matter of Michael Ian Black's new book all the time. As a parent of both boys and girls, I find myself rebuffing the gender-based cultural assumptions that are foisted on them more frequently than I could have ever imagined. Thank you Michael Ian Black for challenging society's antiquated approach to raising boys, and deepening the conversation about what we actually want for our kids. Sir, you are a good egg.”
—Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
“Gorgeous, authentic, and deeply thoughtful. This book is the perfect gift for a generation of men and boys desperate for guidance but raised to be afraid to ask for it. The way Michael Ian Black models vulnerability and writes about his own pain gives permission to every man across America to do it too. Michael's voice is necessary now more than ever, to offer men a different path, where they can be curious about their own gender and mount their own revolution for better definition of masculinity. I’m so glad this book exists.”
—Liz Plank, author of For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity
“It will never fail to amaze me that the man I best knew as Levon, a crushed velvet suit-wearing, $240 worth of pudding-rubbing smooth talker on ‘The State,’ has written a book that is at once insightful, incisive, deeply kind, urgent and wise (and of course funny as hell.) But that's what A Better Man is. The book isn't so much a call to create a new way of being a man as it to remember our innate and basic goodness.”
—Joshua David Stein, author of To Me He Was Just Dad
“I couldn’t put this down. An important book for anybody with a son. Michael Ian Black tackles the tough subject of masculinity in unexpected, tender, and sometimes funny ways.”
—Alyssa Milano, actor and humanitarian
“Obviously, Michael Ian Black can be funny, but who knew he could write something so raw, intimate, and true? A Better Man cracked me wide open, and it’s a template for the conversation we need to be having with our boys. So, if you have a son, are a son, or know anyone who has ever been a son, just . . . please, read this book.”
—Peggy Orenstein, bestselling author of Boys Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity
“A Better Man is a beautifully written letter from a father to his son. In a wise and nuanced way, Black challenges popular culture’s view of masculinity. Without saying that we have to throw all ideas we have of manhood out of the window, he is reminding his son, and also us, that kindness, love and empathy—as well as strength and courage - are all important qualities - for all men. He’s reminding us that to love, and to care for one another, is not a feminine quality—it’s a human quality.”
—Kim Evensen, author of The Real Bro Code and CEO of the Brothers organization
“[This book] resonated with me like no other book has in years.”
- On Sale
- May 10, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Algonquin Books