Q&A: Making a book out of making himself a man

Joel Stein throws himself into things. I know this personally, because he threw himself into making me eggplant parmesan the week my son was born. He and his lovely wife delivered it personally, with bread and wine, braving the dangers and dog barks of Koreatown to feed two hungry, tired new parents.

I’m not just bragging about my friend cooking for me. This has a point, I swear.

He knew what we were going through, having just had a baby boy, Laszlo, months earlier. Stein, whom you may know as the humor columnist for Time magazine or as a charming talking head from many basic cable countdown shows, can cook. He can do lots of girlie things, like empathize. The question he asked himself when he became the father of a boy was, could he teach this kid to be a man? He wrote “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity” (Grand Central Publishing, releasing on May 15: $26.99) to find out for himself. I asked him some questions and pretended I didn’t know the answers.

TERESA STRASSER: Describe your reaction when the doctor pointed out that the smudge on the ultrasound was actually a penis and that you were about to have a son.
JOEL STEIN: I freaked out. I was sure I didn’t care what the gender was, and if pressed, I would have said that I feared I might prefer at boy, but it turns out I hate boys. Which I should have known from having all female friends as a kid. Boys push and yell and want to go in the woods and throw balls and have way too much energy. There was a moment after that first ultrasound penis spotting when the more detailed 3-D ultrasound seemed to indicate our baby was a girl, and then my wife, Cassandra, freaked out about body image and eating disorders and being a bad role model. I felt vindicated. Then, a few weeks later, we saw the damn penis again.
TS: Tell me about your quest to confront your own personal sense of wimpiness.
JS: I figured if I could at least learn how to camp, fight, throw a baseball, watch football and shoot a gun, I could do those things with my son if he wanted, and he wouldn’t have to do those things with some coach or friend’s dad. Those guys are always creepy. I didn’t have time to really learn all those things, so — to at least get over my fear — I did some immersion therapy by trying the extreme versions. I did three days of boot camp with a troop at Fort Knox and fired a tank; I went around with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture; I got a day trader to give me $100,000 to trade for a day. That last one was kind of Jewish. And the baseball player was Major League Baseball All-Star Shawn Green, also a Jew. And this sergeant I trained with at the Marines turned out to be Jewish. As well as the race-car driving, ex-Navy SEAL, CEO of Patrón who let me work on his pit crew. There are a lot of secret Jews in the world of manliness.
TS: Were there any stereotypically “manly” challenges from which you were truly tempted to back out at the last second?
JS: I really dreaded boot camp. I was so freaked out, I didn’t sleep the night before, and three hours into my training, before I did any physical activity — mind you it was hot, and I hadn’t eaten, and I locked my knees — I fainted for the first time in my life. Into the arms of soldiers. I also nearly backed out of the Randy Couture fight, largely because the training the day before, when UFC President Dana White — definitely not a Jew — had me choked out, really messed me up. I couldn’t swallow my own spit that night.
TS: How did your cultural background play into your sense of gender identity? Wait, that sounded very graduate thesis. What I mean is: People think of Jewish guys as bookish and non-athletic, which may be totally unfair. What do you make of being more Woody Allen than Sandy Koufax? Do you blame the Jews?
JS: At first I totally blamed the Jews. Since the book is, basically, “A Jew Goes South.” Look at me try to hunt and fish and fight and camp. There is a very Southern Scotch-Irish, rage-fueled, outdoorsman manliness that is the American manliness, compared to a stiff-upper-lip repressed British manliness, for instance. But my dad is very manly. He’s the kind of manly that Larry David has reminded America of. The kind who thrives on confrontation. Al Franken has it. Mamet has it. I don’t have it. But enough Jews — even outside of Chicago and Israel — do, so I can only blame my wimpiness on myself.
TS: Your son is almost 3 years old. What is he like these days?
JS: Are you pretending you don’t know my son? Is that some objectivity thing they teach in journalism school?* He’s all man on the outside: He’s obsessed with trains and cars, collects sticks, likes to use tools. But he’s a total wimp. He’s so clingy, my wife calls him a helicopter kid. He cries if I leave the room. Until very recently, he freaked out at toys that light up or make noise. He gets pushed around on the playground and doesn’t push back. He’s definitely my son.
* (Writer’s note: embarrassing)

TS: How did having a son change your relationship with your own father?
JS: I already appreciated so much of what he did — not just his generosity and patience, but also how he made me feel safe enough to take challenges. But writing the book made me realize that he not only accepted but also was proud of me for being so different from him. He didn’t care that I was a wimp. Also, having a son made me realize that previous generations of men — even men in a liberal town in the most liberal period in America — didn’t do a lot of baby taking care of.
TS: Of all the “manly” things you tried, did you ever stop and think, “Yes, I totally have a knack for this. I’m a natural.”?
JS: Absolutely not.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.