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The Men From the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America.

The Men From the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America. Ray Raphael. University, of Nebraska Press, $19.95. My family says a special prayer during Advent. If you repeat it 15 times each night, Jesus is supposed to grant you a special intention. When I was 11, I prayed that I would grow up to be the free safety for the Minnesota Vikings. I grew up instead with the body of Michael Dukakis.

Twenty years later I'm comfortable with the conclusion that Jesus did the right thing. But growing up with athletes as my role models, being too short and too slow to compete beyond Little League seemed like punishment for sins I didn't know I'd committed.

There was a certain cachet that accompanied playing Babe Ruth League baseball or playing high-school basketball, an acknowledgment of masculinity that was denied the president of the student council, the kid who just passed his driver's test, or the guy who helped support his family with a part-time job. The only feats that could win a guy similar prestige were having a great deal of sex (and talking about it) and drinking a great deal of beer.

Ours was an impoverished notion of what it meant to be a man, but in an economically depressed former mining town, it was all we were given to work with. One comfort of Raphael's insightful book is the discovery that we were not alone. None of the men he interviewed seemed to have a particularly welldeveloped idea of just what it is that separates the men from the boys.

We haven't killed our own food for centuries, so that can't be it. It takes fewer and fewer of us to defend hearth and home. And, of course, women now excel in fields once reserved for men alone. Progress, it seems, is the nemesis of masculinity. This may not be one of the major criticisms of progress, but it has left a generation of men struggling (too often in print) with their identity.

The identity problem, Raphael would have us believe, is most acute for the young man. A society that is unclear about its definition of masculinity is incapable of formulating rites through which a boy passes into manhood. Lacking such rituals, Raphael says, we grow up frightened of definition and duck commitments. The midlife crisis, Raphael says, is the working out, late in life, of problems once resolved by rituals of passage.

Devising and supervising these rituals was once a profoundly social affair. As Thomas A. Leemon observed in The Rites of Passage in a Student Culture, a 1972 book, such rituals placed "a difficult problem of personal growth into a social context ."

But as ideas about masculinity evolved-not just bringing home the bacon but cooking it too-the consensus on what made a man dissolved. High school and college students were left to answer this question for themselves. Raphael believes that guys basically had two choices and that each was ultimately selfdefeating.

The first is to devise our own highly individualized challenges, an approach Raphael likens to the vision quest practiced by various tribes of American Indians. Whereas the Indians rode into the desert seeking the sacred through fasting and prayer, Raphael's interview subjects-who seem disproportionately drawn from northern California's adventurefitness culture-seize on a hobby at which they can excel.

"But the vision quest model," Raphael writes, "fails to provide any structural support to help us with our personal struggles and so it does little to ensure success in our difficult times of transition."

Worse than that, nobody cares when you succeed. Becoming the world's greatest rock-climbing, Weightlifting guitarist impresses few people who aren't conversant with one of your mediums. The applause of your peers-something that used to be a part of rituals-is gone.

That's not true of the second path-athletics. The opportunity to win the admiration of one's peers is much greater in competitive sports. But the problem with competition, as Raphael points out, is that someone has to lose. In fact, when it came to making or not making the varsity, most of us had to lose.

I still nurse a small grudge against my high-school baseball coach, who wouldn't let me play in our scrimmages but neither would he cut me from the team. I kept showing up at the field every day hoping for my chance. I never got a uniform.

This was humiliating and not, to Raphael's mind, a successful rite of passage. But I have a different idea about that. On the bench I was more keenly aware than ever that my boyhood was over and my adult life was beginning.

Raphael undervalues the importance of losing. He wants society to do more to "ensure our success." This is a noble sentiment, but it seems to me it would produce generations of Donald Trumps and Dan Quayles, men on whom life appears to have left no marks. They are innocent of their own limitations and the rest of us are in danger because of this, just as we were in danger of the occasional cruelties of the big jocks in high school.

Failure is necessary because we must be chastened as well as strengthened, taught humility as well as confidence. St. Paul speaks of putting aside childish things, but most of us won't do so voluntarily. Failure provokes the epiphanies that force us to confront the future. It teaches us the principal lesson of any rite of passage: we are mortal, but we are not dead. -Jim Naughton
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Author:Naughton, Jim
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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