Around the bend: Men who cry


 "A man’s not supposed to cry." -Marvin Gaye

      J.F.K., Jr., as a youngster, was skiing with his cousins and Uncle Bob when he took a hard fall. He began to cry and his uncle admonished him that "Kennedys don’t cry." He fired back, "This Kennedy does!" This no doubt reflected his willful personality (and his mother’s wish to stay clear of the wild Irish Kennedys). It also focuses on the fundamental masculine ambivalence about showing emotions with tears.

    The most dramatic repercussion for a public man shedding  tears came during the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary. A reckless newspaper publisher had insulted Edmund Muskie’s wife. While refuting the slur, Muskie, no wimp, choked up. Given his temperamental nature, it was probably as much from anger as regard for his wife.  The dynamics of that did not matter. He cried, and that was interpreted as weakness; he was through.

 .    Real men don’t cry. Probably comes from the WASP stiff upper lip ethic. No need to elaborate on that often-noted character distinction. We know it’s not of Italian descent.

     Yet, counter to what befell Muskie, what’s a more surefire way to win over a crowd in a sentimental mood than a lapse into tears?  At the end of a gala tribute to an elderly Frank Sinatra, Tough Guy, he cried. The applause meter jumped.  People can’t get enough of that at times.  Show us your heart.  One of sports’ hallowed moments was when "the Iron Horse," Lou Gehrig, was overcome giving his "luckiest man alive" farewell.

     And, contrary to the stoic stance, our popular culture is streaked with male  tears.  For example, "Crying in the Rain," "Tears of a Clown," and, of course, Roy Orbison’s "Crying," which was taken to a higher level, so to speak, in a duet with K.D. Lang.

     While pop music examples show an indulgent emotionalism (artistic license?), perhaps society in general is  opening up the ducts. Witness the trend in the last decade of political candidates going to up-close-and-personal stories to show a man’s sensitive side.  Tears might not come but certainly those stories could evoke them.  This goes hand in hand with talk show confessionals. In that format, Ed Muskie might be expected to cry and, today, he might be admired for it!

   Two examples of unabashed public weepers are Dick Vermeil, an NFL coach, with countenance and conduct as fearsome as they come,  but the press was bemused at how quickly he would get choked up over things that matter. The second example is the soft-voiced mc of NPR’s "Weekend Edition," Scott Simon.  He was here for a presentation and it was remarkable to see his repeated unselfconscious displays of emotion.

    Not surprisingly, my own nature is in line with this unabashed emotion school. In my life, I can only recall five times I have really wailed. There were probably other times when it would have done me good to let go, but the stoical brakes contained me. However, the older I get, the more easily my eyes well up. Sometimes, I surprise myself. A handy example is my response to key moments  in the  movie"To Kill a Mockingbird." Poignant demonstrations of values. My daughter refers to my "water works."

     I used to be embarrassed by such unmanly behavior, but I have come to feel blessed to still respond with my heart and the values that tears affirm.

     As a kid, my favorite book was "Lassie Come Home," no doubt worthy of the sentimentalists’ Hall of Fame. An episode that always got me was the death of a white terrier, valiant companion to a kindly traveling tinker. For an LVA reading, I read that chapter. All these decades later, it still choked me up. I felt it coming!