Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“Harden up,” they used to say.
They were my teachers and, soon enough, my fellow 14-year-old boys.
“Harden up” — it could be the response to a great many things during those months when we lived three to a room in wooden huts at the former mill in rural New Zealand. But I remember it most frequently said when we hiked in the forest, stumbling and panting and sweating.
“Harden up,” one teacher might say to a boy complaining on his first hike that his backpack was too heavy. “Harden up,” one boy might to say to another if he fell and scraped his knees and looked like he was going to do anything other than to brush it off.
The new and controversial Gillette ad campaign focusing on the now-popular concept of “toxic masculinity” has prompted me to think back to that semester in high school in the woods.
I should explain.
I went to a high school (which in New Zealand is five years) with a few peculiarities. One was that it started as an all boys school before deciding, some years before my matriculation, that it would accept girls but only for the final two years — what the Americans call junior and senior years. The first three years would remain boys only.
Years before that, the school bought up a cluster of wooden huts once owned by a logging concern in the middle of a national forest. These were originally housing for the mill workers. The school bought the property in order to establish a satellite campus. Henceforth, all the pupils in the second year (the American equivalent of freshman year) would be required to spend a semester at “Tihoi.” That was the name of the satellite campus, after the nearby village with its one general store and post office.
During the week we still went to the same classes as we would otherwise: English, social studies, mathematics, etc. But every morning each hut of eight or nine boys was responsible for chopping its own wood, lighting its own fire, and cooking its own breakfast. The same went for dinner at the end of the day. Lunch was the easy part — because there was not enough time between classes for us kids to cook, the school provided lunch.
On weekends we went out to do outdoors stuff. The teachers became guides. We went hiking around Pureora National Forest, sailing on Lake Taupo, rock-climbing at various rock formations scattered throughout central North Island, mountaineering on Mt. Ruapehu, and so on. After all, New Zealand was the perfect country for such activities.
And yet — I imagine — a lot of what we were taught at Tihoi then, by teachers both male and female, would today be deemed toxic masculinity by many feminists and the makers of the Gillette commercial.
And they would surely be right in some respects. Tihoi unquestionably emphasized certain traditional ideas of masculine virtue — keep in mind that our school, even apart from Tihoi, modeled itself on a classic British boarding school, with all that this fact implied.
It was not for everyone. The outdoors component might seem charming, but it was an extension of the English boarding school belief that manly virtue was to be found on the sports field. Not much room then for the theatre geek, the science nerd, or really anyone less physically capable or inclined than the rugby team.
One absolute pitfall to avoid was any perception of effeminacy, which in the mouths of ruthless teenagers quickly got transmuted into homosexuality, which in the boarding school environment justified almost any cruelty. I remember one unfortunate boy my year who laid himself open to this charge. While at Tihoi he allegedly tried to kill himself, and on another occasion he supposedly tried to run away. I don’t know if these stories are true, but it didn’t take a genius to see that he was woefully unhappy there.
Perhaps connected to that was the program’s implicit sexism, if only because the school had no girls until the junior and senior years. Girls didn’t go to Tihoi, except for one weekend their junior year, along with the boys of their cohort for a return visit. I should note that my sister, who transferred to my school her junior year and therefore went on this one Tihoi weekend, has turned out to be far more enthusiastic about the outdoors than I am.
And then there was the lesson of stoicism. “Harden up” was the constant refrain. Shut up and quit complaining. I developed pains in my knees toward the end of my time at Tihoi, and I went to see the teacher who doubled as the nurse. But don’t you for one second think that I received any exemption from any activity for that. Weekly run? I still ran. Week-long hike? I still went.
Yet I don’t believe that stoicism is in and of itself a “toxic” aspect of masculinity. Undoubtedly the notion that men should always conceal their pain rather than seek help as necessary is a misguided one. But the first time that we went out on a hike, still within sight of our wooden huts, some of us were already panting and complaining and joking that we ought just to set up camp right there. “Harden up,” the teacher said. And soon enough we discovered that we had a lot more reserves of strength in us than we realized initially. And soon enough we were telling each other to harden up.
Stoicism is after all named after the Stoics, philosophers like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who taught us how not to fear, how to march on in life — like us in the forest — come what may. There will always be difficulties and pains in life, ones that can’t be helped but can only be endured.
Perhaps more to the point is to sprinkle on this Roman philosophy a pinch of Hebrew wisdom: there is a time for everything. There is a time to brush off pain and injury and to dig into oneself and to endure. And then there is a time to go to the hospital. What we all need is the wisdom to know one occasion from another.
And you know what else I learned hiking in the forest? I learned that the strongest, fastest person should always go last.
If every boy walked at his own pace, then the slowest, least fit person, the one most likely to be on the receiving end of a cry of “harden up,” would always bring up the rear. And if the other boys aren’t careful, they might well leave him behind. So the teachers taught us: always arrange your group so that the fastest boy went last, consciously following behind the slowest boy. Doing so would force the entire group to move at the pace of its slowest member and to be mindful of his well-being.
And what is the fastest boy supposed to say to the slowest boy directly in front of him? Not “harden up,” not “hurry up,” but “it’s all right” or “take your time.” The poor kid felt bad enough already being the least athletic person in a place that valued athleticism.
Because — and surely this is not a secret — a proper education in masculine virtues includes not only stoicism but also compassion, not only the importance of cultivating our strengths but also empathy and kindness for those not as strong than we.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."