I’ve known for a long time that I’m not—how shall I put this?—the most traditionally manly of men. I know, I know: This may come as a surprise to anyone who’s gazed upon my hulking 5-foot-8, 150-pound frame, heard the resonant boom of my Dylan-esque voice, or run their lustful fingers across my nubby scalp, but it’s true. I’m at heart a little guy, full of frailties, failings, and neuroses, who’s uncomfortable with the idea of any kind of macho behavior, like, say, bragging about my salary.
Because what would I brag about? I’ve never made enough money to boast about; in fact, I’ve always been either underpaid (for glamorous work) or paid just adequately enough (for tedious work). Last year, in fact, I made so little money as a freelance writer (after the usual deductions) that I wasn’t even required to pay New York City’s Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility tax, which is maybe $100 every year, tops. If I were single, I would be homeless, or more likely living in a far cheaper place than New York. Like Lagos.
See how much easier this is for me, to put myself down rather than build myself up? It’s the legacy of Woody Allen, I think, that many of us born in the 1970s and reared in the Freaks and Geeks 1980s are only too happy to embrace (we don’t really have any choice): We are nebbishes, nerds, and nudniks, with bad hair, bad skin, and bad, bad dance moves. And yet instead of letting our unmanliness dominate us, we made peace with it and moved on, mocking ourselves more mercilessly than any jock, prep, or cheerleader ever did. In fact, I just wrote a whole book about my failures as a traveler—how, after decades of jetting around the world, I still get sick, spend nights alone, and make stupid, humiliating mistakes. (It’s coming out in May, by the way.)
Relentless self-deprecation has become my basic mode of being, and that’s antithetical to so much of American office and public life: the endless talk about sports, cars, and money. Whenever I overhear coworkers say things like, “Did you see the Nets beat OKC last night?” (which happened as I was writing this piece), I feel the gap between myself and that traditional form of masculinity yawn ever wider and deeper. At times, when I observe how passionate guys get arguing about the superiority of, say, BMW over Mercedes, or discussing serious money-making deals, I wish I could be the same, just to know how that feels, to care so much. But that’s also how I feel about jumping from a moving train or eating glass: curious, but not that curious.
Instead, I’ll content myself with my own little beta-male world of onedownsmanship, and leave the boasting to the boors. Which is, I have to admit, its own form of bragging. By abasing myself so thoroughly, I’m really setting myself on a different, purer plane of existence, where we’re all so gawky and hopeless that we simply needn’t bother competing with the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe. But you know what? That’s one bit of hubris I can live with.