Knowing how to make coffee doesn't make a man. At least, not according to Joel Stein.
Stein, a writer and columnist for TIME Magazine, among other publications, knows all about being a man – or not being one. After learning he and his wife Cassandra were going to have a son – Laszlo – he became panicked that he wasn't equipped to raise a boy. So he took a crash course in manhood: He did a 24-hour shift with the L.A. Fire Department, a few days of basic military training and watched football with the pros, among other challenges. Then he wrote about them in his forthcoming book, called "Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity."
But making coffee evidently wasn't one of those challenges. When I got to Stein's house for our Q&A, he offered me a cup. When I accepted, he meekly admitted he doesn't know how to make coffee and asked his wife to do it. Stein prepared himself a chai latte.
"Man Made" is in bookstores on May 15 and available for purchase online now.
So why write about being a man?
When we found out we were having a boy, I legitimately, totally freaked out. I am not equipped to raise a boy in any way. I literally pictured having to camp, and throw a football, and watch people throw a football and decide if the results of that football-throwing were positive or negative. And fight – he's going to get into fights and I'm going to have to teach him how to fight. Those are the three big ones I thought about immediately.
I secretly thought I wanted a boy – because I'm a guy, you say you don't care, but I suspected I might prefer a boy. But I really wanted a girl, not because I care about girls, but just to avoid boy stuff. So that's when I got this ridiculous idea to try and learn how to be a man.
For this book, you did a full-day shift with the L.A. Fire Department, you went hunting, built a house, did three days of basic training – how did the Marine Corps respond when you called and pitched them your idea?
It was awesome. I knew someone in the Department of Defense who put me in touch with someone, and the next thing I know, all of the branches [of the military] were calling me with offers, each trying to be better than the next one. It was amazing.
My original request was if I would be able to do boot camp for a few days with a real troop. Sleep with them – not sexually. Unless that's what they do! I was up for anything for this book. I was learning how to be a man one way or another. And then next thing I know, all the branches except for the Air Force called me and had super amazing offers. This general was emailing me using emoticons. He offered to let me fire a tank. I shouldn't have said yes to two – the Marine Corps and the Army – but the offers were too good to say no. It's hard to say no to military people. They're scary.
The things in your book you chose to do – how did you arrive at those as sort of benchmarks of what it means to be a man?
Right. There's an infinite amount of things you can choose – I could have been a cowboy, I could have joined the Elks. I could have been a Hells Angel. I thought about illegally crossing the border, I thought about going to prison. I thought about trying to sell drugs. There are so many cool things I could have done. The rule I tried to use was, I'm not trying to be extreme man. I'm trying to do what many, many men in our country do on a regular basis for fun or work.
What ideas for your book were you on the fence about or made you say, "No, absolutely not"?
The whole introduction is about all the things I didn't do. For a while, I was trying to do things I was afraid to do that I'd never done – part of me was like, I should go on spring break and do cocaine and be a roadie for Kid Rock. That's so far beyond my experience, I'd love to know what that kind of manliness is like. Then I decided that wasn't something I need to learn. I wanted these to be more Herculean challenges.
Try giving me me one-word summaries of some of the experiences you write about in the book, like the 24-hour shift you spent with LAFD.
I only get one word? Firefighters, I'm going "fraternal." There was a day trader that gave me $100,000 to day trade with for the day – I'll go with "risk." One word is not very exciting. I'll play the game, but is it working out?
Maybe try using a phrase.
You're changing the rules! Well, with firefighters, the phrase would be "desperate for a fire." Which is not what I expected. I thought they would not want to walk into burning buildings.
That's all they want to do. When you see a fire truck going by in L.A., they are not going to a fire. If there's one truck, and there's no sirens on, they are probably going to take someone who's not that hurt to the hospital. Or they're going to something that's clearly a false alarm or help a homeless person. When you see four or more fire trucks in a row, with lights on, they at least think they're going to a fire. And they are pumped about it.
I kind of felt it after a day. We got to go to a fire. At a sushi joint. At night. Perhaps suspicious. They brought in the arson team; let's just put it that way. I had a lot of questions about that. [Laughs]
Did anything surprise you about the time you spent in the Army?
I'd say it's the most effective organization I've ever seen, by far. Six weeks on the job for me means I've just about figured out what I can eat in the cafeteria. The Army takes these messed up 18-year-olds who can't do anything, and in six weeks, they're operating as an incredibly confident, cohesive team. It's like a reality show.
It's only a matter of time.
It really is. I'd totally watch that. Because people cry all the time at boot camp.
Did you cry?
I did something worse than cry. I was three hours in, hadn't done any physical activity. I admittedly hadn't slept much because I was nervous. I did lock my knees – it was very hot – but basically I was getting screamed at by sergeants, because that's what they do, and I fainted. For the first time in my life. Into the arms of soldiers, I assume – I don't know. I just woke up next to a tree.
I also understand you wrestled with Randy Couture.
It's not wrestling. It's UFC fighting, which you apparently are not a fan of, or else you'd know that wrestling is only a tiny part of it. So you've never done any Ultimate Fighting?
I haven't gotten around to it yet. Is that the cagefighting?
It is. It's the octagon ring. I need a phrase for UFC fighting – it was super intimate. It's a lot of touching. You have to be really OK with yourself and your body – you have to be a totally different type of man. This is alpha man. I was originally going to call this book "Beta Male." But these are real alpha males. There's a real quiet confidence to them. All the UFC fighters I met were super nice and super calm. But you could tell that they knew in their brains – and the Marines had this a lot too – that if there was a conflict, they could beat you. And even though you were doing something that wasn't going to involve fighting, they had that over you.
And you saw that as soon as you got in the ring with Randy?
First of all, he went at about five percent on me, which kind of sucked, because my assumption was he was going to either punch me really hard in the face or put me into some kind of hold in five seconds.
You were willing to get punched in the face at 100 percent by Randy Couture?
I got punched in the face 100 percent for the book by a bouncer. And it sucked. But I figured for the book, I should at least know what it's like to be punched in the face so that, if I'm in a conflict, I at least know it's not so bad. But I thought this thing with Randy Couture would last five seconds, would be a blinding flash of pain, and then over. But instead, he goes at five percent and makes me do the full five-minute round. Which is exhausting. I got to the point where I understood why boxers hug each other and just stand there and get punched, because it's preferable to be punched than to have to move.
I have videotape of the fight and I do some running. In a circle. Around the ring.
You consulted experts for your book – your father-in-law, former NFL player Warren Sapp. Was that helpful?
I just needed these people to guide me through these things. I thought about having some male guide or some book I read guide me through this. But I didn't do that. Warren Sapp, I watched football with him and a bunch of NFL analysts, because I don't know how to watch football. And then I had [former MLB player] Shawn Green teach me how to play baseball.
You've also gone on an interesting, self-deprecating marketing campaign for your book via Facebook, your email signature–
Yeah, I don't know how to do this! Apparently you have to sell everything yourself now. It's horrible. It's just a weird time in the culture of narcissism where it seems like asking people to buy your book is a dishonorable thing to do. It seems to me very self-aggrandizing. It just seems blatantly awful.
This coming from the man who always says – jokingly – that he's desperate for attention.
Right. I guess I don't understand what Facebook and Twitter are. But no – even in print I wouldn't say "Buy my book." I've never said "Read me." You know when you get those emails from your friends that say "Come see my play," "Come see my band play"? I really resent those. And I don't want to be that person doing the same thing.
But, on the other hand, if some people chose to follow me on Twitter or Facebook to find out what I'm doing, then maybe it's not so bad. I don't know. It's a conflict because we live in this culture where people are taking photos of themselves in their bathroom mirror trying to look hot and posting them on their Facebook wall and that's almost OK now. So I don't know what's OK.
So what's the verdict? Are the things in your book what being a man is all about?
Yeah. In fact, in the conclusion, I say that when I sat down to write this book, I expected the conclusion to say these aren't the things that being a man is about, that being a man is about being present and loyal – but what I learned from doing the book was no, doing this stuff does make you a man. We are in many ways the sum of our actions, more than some black box we're supposed to tap into by remembering our childhood memories. If you do these things, you do become more manly.
Even the tiny bit of home improvement I did for those three stupid days – I fixed stuff around the house. It does give me a different attitude – not just self-confidence, but about my interaction with the physical world. I feel a different connection to my house and stuff just from tearing a roof off and seeing what's in there and taking apart some pipes. Like this stuff isn't so mysterious and you can do it. I think that stuff matters in a weird way. And we should just all try it. Some of the stuff.
So are you ready for your son Laszlo to want to play catch and all those things?
He's so not into it. It's just genetics. I've tried to throw a ball with him like a million times and it lasts like two seconds. He loves cars, which I did have to learn about for him. He's super into cars, he likes tools. He likes taking things apart. He kind of likes animals. That's kind of manly.
Depends what kind, but totally.
Yeah, that's a good point. I wish I knew enough dog breeds to make a joke.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.