Joel Stein is a weekly columnist for TIME Magazine. Upon finding out that he was expecting a son, he realized he did not possess any of the classic “manly traits,” so he spent some time going on “man adventures,” which are chronicled in his new book, Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. Below, he talks about his 70s Jewish childhood, who is allowed to drive a Lamborghini, and the time he laughed when his wife cried.
You grew up in Edison, New Jersey. What was your childhood there like? And can we agree that a New Jersey childhood makes you inherently predisposed to be hilarious?
New Jersey is actually one of the three states that give you a personality. When you meet someone from NJ, Texas, or Alaska, you have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to be like. My childhood: I have a sister eight years younger than me. It was a 1970s Jewish childhood. There was a lot of “Free To Be You And Me,” a lot of “gender is a social construct,” …which once you have kids, by the way, I think it is mind blowing that people with children continue to believe that boys and girls are the same. It’s insane. My son, as soon as he learned how to crawl, went to the cabinet, pulled out these two mustards, and started pushing them around and making a car noise. And I was like, oh wow, I guess we have to buy him a car. And now his room is filled with cars and trucks. He wants to fix things. So I think they’re so, so different genetically when they come out.
So do you think all that “gender is a social construct” stuff is what made you a sissy?
Well, I came to realize that it wasn’t just the 70s. I mean, I was okay in 70s New Jersey, but if I grew up somewhere else, I would have gotten my ass kicked. Definitely. I wanted to be a certain kind of Jewish New York writer guy and so I rejected anything that the people I wanted to be didn’t do or try. Hunting? I didn’t hunt, it never came up. Those people hunted. It was tribal. But I knew that my having a kid who’s only half a Jew meant he was going to want to do these manly things like camping and sports and stuff like that. I’m totally incapable of all that stuff.
So in your book, you go on a Boy Scout campout, drive a Lamborghini, and do other “manly” things you’d neglected in your previous life. What was your favorite man-adventure?
The Lamborghini, hands down. Our demographic isn’t allowed to drive Lamborghinis. If you’re a sports star, or a Wall Street guy, maybe you’re allowed. And I never knew that all my guy friends are actually into cars! It just never came up in discussion before. I was with my friend Alex who works with Judd Apatow, and we thought together that he’s the one person we know who can afford a Lamborghini. But he can’t get one. Because if he did, everyone would be like, “What’s up with his marriage, is he okay?” Whereas if he stays in the Post Ranch Inn or flies to Spain to have dinner at El Bulli, that’s totally fine and legitimate. But if he got a Lamborghini, well, his dick must be tiny. That being said, the Lamborghini is completely fun. It’s insanely fun. And liberals and Jews, which are basically the same things, are just not allowed to have fun.
The premise of the book–trying to summon up some dormant concept of masculinity upon finding out that you were going to become father to a son–seems a little contrived and too-perfect of a humorous book opportunity. Were you genuinely concerned that you needed to be a degree of “manly” for a boy?
I was genuinely concerned though not enough to do any of this crap without someone paying me to do it. Yes, of course it’s totally and completely contrived! I wasn’t going to do this if it wasn’t for a book. If I was going to write a book about something, though, this was what it would be.
If you were going to have a girl, would you have gone dress shopping and hosted tea parties?
Absolutely not! There was a moment–at the first sonogram, they said it was a boy. The second sonogram this guy thought that it was a girl, despite my son’s giant penis. And my wife, who’d been making fun of me and my concerns, started to cry. “I don’t have my career together, I’m going to be a bad role model for her…and she’s going to have eating disorders.” I was smiling and really happy while she was crying. Then the third sonogram, we were back to a boy and my wife was back to making fun of me like that other stuff never happened. With a girl, though, I don’t think I’d feel the pressure to be a gender role model. I feel like I can do all that stuff already. I mean, the clothes stuff my wife does, but I can take her to musicals! I am capable of a lot of girl stuff that would be required of me.
My son, he’s super affectionate. He has a lot of what I think are Jewy traits: super affectionate, sings songs from Singing in the Rain. I mean, the good thing about having a girl in 2012 is that they do sports, you can take them to baseball games. You don’t really miss out on anything.
How old is your kid now? How has parenting surprised you, if at all?
3. It’s going really well. He’s a super sweet kid. He’s super into cars and trucks and fixing things but he’s also got all my wimpy non-confrontational genes. That’s kind of a bummer. If there are kids who are the bully biters and the kids who get bitten, this kid is definitely in the latter camp. I guess it’s better than having the bully kid. I feel for those parents. Now that I have a kid, part of the problem is that the older you get, the less judgmental you are so the less funny you are. I feel like so much of this is genetic: some parents just get stuck with the biter.
Which brings me to my next question, about judging people. I loved your piece in Time Magazine where you were forced to recant being a nut allergy skeptic after your kid was diagnosed as being incredibly allergic to certain nuts. Do you still find yourself judging other parents as often as you once did?
Definitely not. Getting older is a whole series, a progression, of not judging people as much as you did before. I definitely judge other parents less for their kids, certainly. And the way they act, because you react to your kid. Some parents just get sociopathic children. Can you imagine how awful that would be?
But do you think that absolves you from a degree of responsibility, that thinking, as a parent?
Yes, it absolves you from the “my kid didn’t get into Harvard” part, but it doesn’t absolve you from your own behavior. Most of the behavior the kid is going to learn is just copying you. So you’re super responsible for how you act in front of your kids and how you treat them.
To what extent does being a Jewish man, as opposed to any other religion, shape you as a writer and as a parent?…if at all?
Well, I wouldn’t even be a writer if I weren’t Jewish. It wouldn’t be on the cultural radar as something cool or respected–I wouldn’t have the same role models. I wouldn’t have been brought up to be so enamored with the written word. OK, maybe if I was Indian, I would have.
As a parent: the cultural parts of being Jewish are the things you really stress and respect. I’m totally uptight about education even though I’m trying to relax about it. For the most part I grew up with super-affectionate Jews and that’s how I parent. The first time I had Easter dinner with my wife’s grandparents–it’s a traditional WASPy family where they never see each other–I was fascinated to be sitting at a table where no one talked. And the first time my wife met my family, she had the very stereotypical reaction, “Why are all these Jews talking over each other?”
The book got rave reviews….
Did it? Where? I feel like it’s been roundly ignored. I think I’m much less of a big deal than I’d assumed I was! (Joking.) And the second reason, I think, is that this is an obviously really played up topic. It’s Mars versus Venus territory. l might as well write about white people dancing differently. People are always saying, “Oh, so and so, you were ahead of your time.” I think I was behind my time. I think if I’d done this 12 years ago before AJ Jacobs and the whole “I will do something for a year” books, maybe it wouldn’t’ have been quite as played out.
But then again, you also wouldn’t have had a kid, which might have made the whole thing tougher.
Really, I should have had a kid a long time ago. I’m probably only going to have one kid. And I might not meet my grandkids. I feel like we were given a bad group of lessons when we were growing up in the post-feminist or feminist period: these ideas that there’s no rush to get married, no rush to have kids, go, have your whole fun and career. I taught this class at Princeton and there was a super smart kid, with an internship at the Wall Street Journal, a really driven kid. And he said to me, “I’m thinking of taking a few years off and playing in a rock band in Asia.” I was like, “Kid, life’s not as short as you’ve been told.” I’m supposed to say “wow” and tell you do that and I was like, you know something, no. All those moms we thought were just stupid Jewish moms getting on your ass for not getting married in your late 20s, I thought they were pathetic and old fashioned. But they were right!