men & death

ANNA

When I was thinking about who I wanted to invite to post as part of my blog launch, I immediately thought of three classmates from my writing school days. One reason is that they write in completely different genres to me, but still contributed so much to me during those two formative years. The other reason is that I believe they will all be super-stars of the literary world, and I wanted their voices to be part of this conversation.

Scott Pearse writes the opposite of what I do, in the sense that one side of a coin is the opposite of the other. He’s consumed by the question of what it means to be a man in an age when the traditional signs of male competence are no longer valued, or even necessary. He asks this question with humour and wisdom and heart-wrenching clarity – as well as being a bit of a smart-arse sometimes.

I talk a lot about Female Stuff. (*gasp*) That’s cool, I write for a predominantly female audience, and I am female. (I know, right?) I’m so excited to have Scott’s post, which asks questions about masculinity in a way I couldn’t.

Scott and his wife Jo-Roxy recently cycled across the US and documented their trip in all its gorgeous, awful, honest detail on their blog Bike Gang (also, photos of weird tan lines). My favourite post is Scott’s letter to Jo-Roxy on their second wedding anniversary, because we all know I’m a big romantic softy.

***

SCOTT

 I’m truly elated to be asked to contribute to this fancy-looking new blog. Anna and I were novel classmates for two years in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing program. I entered the program as a confident middle-twenties know-it-all and was paired with Anna in our first class. I can’t recall the exact nature of our task, but it was writing a reaction to something that our instructor had written on the board. Of course, my response was mostly forced comedy and attempted insight and I thought I’d done some pretty creative and zany stuff. I’m grateful still that I chose to read my piece to Anna before she read hers because that was the first time, of many, during the two years that it became evident Anna is an exceptional writer. I doubt I would I have had the courage to read my flippant musing after hearing her competent and honest prose. Our Novel instructor told the class at the beginning of our course that only one of us would have our book published, and I’m glad that it is Anna’s work that has beaten the odds.

*

My father was the first person at the scene of a cycling fatality. The man who died was near to my father’s age, had small children and was struck by a bus on the straight highway that runs between Geelong and my hometown, Drysdale. An investigation, or perhaps local conjecture, suggested the cyclist had been holding a straight line along the narrow shoulder of the highway during his usual Friday morning training ride, when his wheel must have struck a rock or debris which caused him to veer unexpectedly into the road. It was awful luck that a bus happened to be passing at highway speed at the same time.

My father was returning from night shift, it was 7:30am. The highway leaving Geelong was mostly empty; the other side was only beginning to see the daily stream of commuters headed for the city. My father was distantly following the bus when he saw the cloud of smoke caused by the pointless locking of brakes and tires. When the bus came to an askew stop on the side of the highway, he knew something was wrong. My father was driving an awful car at the time, an Orange Datsun 120Y, a car so bad only my father, who has always had a fondness for vehicles others believed ugly or undesirable, could love. When he pulled over he saw the outline of the bicycle in the knee length grass beside the road, a mangled wheel pointing skyward. My father took a towel from the boot of the Datsun, walked over to the cyclist’s body, saw there was nothing he could do and placed the towel over the man’s face. My father waited with him until the ambulance arrived.

I was probably ten when this happened; I remember it being a school day. It wasn’t unusual for my father to be returning from work as the rest of us would be beginning our day. I spent much of my childhood sneaking around the house being careful to not wake my father who slept until 3pm after a night shift–the sneaking was mostly pointless, my father could have slept through a tsunami.

Even after a night shift my father is affable nearly to a fault. Shift work was never a crutch he leant on, he would never complain, he was always excited to see us and besides being a little absent-minded, you would hardly know he had been awake all night. My father is as constant and dependable a man as I have ever known. He grew up on a large farm in rural north-west Victoria, leaving almost as soon as he could to move to Melbourne where he became a 16-year-old apprentice mechanic. He spent time in the Army reserve eventually becoming a commando and earning his wings for completing fourteen airbourne training insertions, including six in one day (not that I’m boasting or anything, but my Dad might be tougher than yours). Luckily for me, my mother and sisters, he was enlisted in a time of peace and was never deployed overseas, although I’m sure he would have found a way out of going anyway. My mother, who was in the reserve at same time, recollected, ‘every time my group passed Andy’s, he would be on the ground doing push-ups with a sergeant standing over him berating him for his insolence.’ My father still benefits from oversized shoulders to this day.

On the day of the accident my father came home and looked as blank and white as a bleached towel. This was before the days of mobile telecommunication and my mother had no idea what had happened, but it was obvious something was wrong. Without saying a word my father ran into the toilet and started vomiting, my mother followed him and when he was done took him into the bedroom from where he didn’t emerge. My mother and father stayed in their room a long time, dealing with the complexities of marriage as they always did, behind the curtain of their closed bedroom door. Being ten, I was sure my father had discovered one of my many innocent wrongdoings and it had made him violently ill. I racked my brain for all the bad things I had done, wishing I could undo them. My mother came out and told me Dad had seen an accident, someone had died and Dad didn’t feel too good about it.

It is sad that most of us these days seem to have had some experience with a road fatality and whenever such a story is recounted the incident of my father and the cyclist comes flooding back to me. I recall my own ten-year-old reaction quite vividly. I suppose I was beginning to understand what is required or expected of men, and this was the first time I had seen my father react to anything so viscerally. I would never call him emotionally reticent but he does have an awkward matter-of-fact way of doing things. He was always strong in every situation; he is our family’s rock. My reaction was to be equally confused and amazed that my father could show how deeply affected he was by trauma. He broke down, and thus, as my reasoning went, all men could break down. This experience was completely outside my emotional vocabulary.

Coming to understand the expectations placed on men has been an interest in my writing from the beginning. My simple realisation is that mostly the individual is responsible for the expectations placed upon themselves; without doubt, societal pressures dictate certain behaviours, but mostly it is personal choice to be the man I want to be. My own father is as complex a role-model as any, because people change, things happen, and we live on the edge of control attempting to preserve the facade that we know what we’re doing. This is as true of men as it is of women.

In hindsight my ten-year-old reaction was naive. This incident stands out in my memories as every small change in my perception of what I was supposed to grow up to be was monumental, and death is the one awful thing parents cannot shield their children from. My father was grieving: even though he had no connection to the cyclist, his connection to his death caused him grief. Now as an adult I know death is shared equally among both men and women, while grief is as varied within each sex as it is different between them. My father wasn’t exposing an aspect of masculinity, he was exposing something human. I simply wasn’t old enough to distinguish between the two.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

Comments 8 Responses

  1. Merrian

    Thanks for this thoughtful post Scott and Anna. I think the male voice is important in this series of blog posts because our beloved genre constructs male identity in every story. I also remember a conversation with my brother many years ago which showed me (as we reflected on our traumatic family of origin) how much my brother felt he had missed in not having a father that was capable of helping him grow into a man. This lack (I think) has muddled what is masculine and what is human for him. Your conclusion Scott is quite poignant for me as I think about this.

    1. Scott Pearse

      Thanks for reading Merrian. You bring up an interesting point, and one that I haven’t spent anytime considering, where does one learn about manliness in an absent father situation? The father son relationship is one that we are born into and is a clear and obvious role model for any growing boy, assuming a functional relationship.

      What complexities are introduced to the relationship if the mentor is not the father? I can imagine that the relationship must first be that of friendship, which slowly transitions to respect and admiration. Whereas with a father those aspects are already built into the relationship. Plus blood links are impossible to break, whereas a mentor can walk away at any time.

      This is a very interesting line of thought. Thanks Merrian!

  2. anna cowan Post author

    I thought this was really important as well, Merrian. So much of our genre is devoted to trying to get inside the heads of men. But of course even when we’re trying to explore the “other”, it’s still our own construction – still essentially ourselves.

    There’s a quality to Scott’s piece that I wouldn’t be able to grasp, or write from. I guess when we question masculinity there’s still some sense of intrigue and wanting to understand – whereas when a man writes about the question it’s a personal, complex thing that affects his daily experience of himself.

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