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The weight men carry


1 When I was a boy growing up off the grid in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the men I knew labored with their bodies from the first rooster crow in the morning to sundown. They were marginal farmers, shepherds, just scraping by, or welders, steelworkers, carpenters; they built cabinets, dug ditches, mined coal, or drove trucks, their forearms thick with muscle. They trained horses, stocked furnaces, made tires, stood on assembly lines, welding parts onto refrigerators or lubricating car engines. In the evenings and on weekends, they labored equally hard, working on their own small tract of land, fixing broken-down cars, repairing broken shutters and drafty windows. In their little free time, they drowned their livers in beer from cheap copper mugs at a bar near the local brewery or racecourse.


2 The bodies of the men I knew were twisted and wounded in ways visible and invisible. Heavy lifting had given many of them spinal problems and appalling injuries. Some had broken ribs and lost fingers. Racing against conveyor belts had given some ulcers. Their ankles and knees ached from years of standing on concrete. Some had partial vision loss as the glow of the welding flame damaged their optic receptors. There were times, studying them, when I dreaded growing up. All around us, the fathers always seemed older than the mothers. Men wore out sooner, being martyrs of constant work. Only women lived into old age.


3 There were also soldiers, and so far as I could tell, they scarcely worked at all. But when the shooting started, many of them would die for their patriotism in fields and forts of foreign outposts. This was what soldiers were for —they were tools like a wrench, a hammer or a screw.


4 These weren't the only destinies of men, as I learned from having a few male teachers, from reading books and from watching television. But the men on television —the news

commentators, the lawyers, the doctors, the politicians who levied the taxes and the bosses who gave orders —seemed as remote and unreal to me as the figures in old paintings. I could no more imagine growing up to become one of these sophisticated people than I could imagine becoming a sovereign prince.


5 A scholarship enabled me not only to attend college, a rare enough feat in my social circle, but even to traverse the halls of a historic university meant for the children of the rich. Here for the first time I met women who told me that men were guilty of having kept all the joys and privileges of the earth for themselves. I was puzzled, and demanded clarification. What privileges? What joys? I thought about the grim, wounded lives of most of the men back home. What had they allegedly stolen from their wives and daughters? The right to work five days a week, 12 months a year, for 30 or 40 years, wedged in tight spaces in the textile mills, or in the coal mines, struggling to extract every last bit of coal from the rock-hard earth? The right to die in war? The right to fix every leak in the roof, every gap in the fence? The right to pile banknotes high for a rich corporation in a city far away? The right to feel, when the lay-off came or the mines shut down, not only afraid but also ashamed?


6 In this alien world of the rich, I was slow to understand the deep grievances of women. This was because, as a boy, I had envied them. Before college, the only people I had ever known who were interested in art or music or literature, the only ones who ever seemed to enjoy a sense of ease were the mothers and daughters. What's more, they did not have to go to war. By comparison with the narrow, compartmentalized days of fathers, the comparatively lightweight work of mothers seemed expansive. They clipped coupons, went to see neighbors, or ran errands at school or at church. I saw their lives as through a telescope, all twinkling stars and shafts of light, missing the details that truly defined their days. No doubt, had I taken a more deductive look at their lives, I would have envied them less. I didn't see, then, what a prison a house could be, since houses seemed to me brighter, handsomer places than any factory. As such things were never spoken of, I did not realize how often women suffered from men's bullying. Even then I could see how exhausting it was for a mother to cater all day to the needs of young children. But, as a boy, if I had to choose between tending a baby and tending a machine, I think I would have chosen the baby.


7 So I was baffled when the women at college made a racket accusing me and my sex of having cornered the world's pleasures. They demanded to be emancipated from the bonds of sexism. I think my bafflement has been felt by other boys (and by girls as well) who grew up in dirt-poor farm country, by the docks, in the shadows of factories —any place where the fates of men and women are symmetrically bleak and grim.


8 When the women I met at college thought about the joys and privileges of men, they didn't see the sort of men I had known. These daughters of privileged, Republican men wanted to inherit their fathers' power and lordship over the world. They longed for a say over their future. But so did I. The difference between me and these daughters was that they saw me, because of my sex, as destined from birth to become like their fathers, and therefore as an enemy to their desires. But I knew better. I wasn't an enemy to their desires, in fact or in feeling. I was an ally in their rebellion. If I had known, then, how to tell them so, or how to be a mediator, would they have believed me? Would they have known?


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