Modern Man Unnerved by Guys’ Guys

I have never been much of a guy’s guy. But recently, I got an e-mail inviting me to a boys-only poker game; the pitch promised me (and a half-dozen friends) “an evening of gambling, drinking & telling tall tales about sexual performance … smoking allowed.”

My first reaction was anxiety-and not because of my aversion to smoke or limited gambling skills. Although I’d known each player for anywhere from two to 35 years, I was apprehensive about my ability to fit in with the men’s club of cigarettes, braggadocio and one-upsmanship, a world that can still puzzle me despite a lifetime of seeing a man in the mirror every morning.

I’ve always been one of those men who feels pretty comfortable doing “unmanly” things-putting my daughters’ hair in pigtails, shopping for jewelry, going along on school field trips, cleaning the refrigerator. This sometimes earns me a quizzical glance or a nervous joke from other men, but most of the time it makes me feel good about myself-and modern. But not in scenarios like poker games.

As a kid, when I went to sleep-away camp, I chose one that was low-testosterone; the campers were mostly suburban Jews like me, not typically among the world’s foremost athletes. But even in this environment, I still felt a little out of sync. While most of my peers were gung-ho about soccer and tennis, my happiest days were spent holed up in the theater, the darkroom and the radio station. I was the only kid in my camp’s history to opt out of the end-of-summer color war as a conscientious objector. In high school, my only appearances on an athletic field were marching at half time, playing a saxophone.

I have maintained some traditionally male enthusiasms, including a fascination with baseball and music trivia, and an overambitious Mr. Fix-It streak. But the day I discovered in high-school gym class that my legs could lift the entire weight stack on the Nautilus machine-more than several guys on the football team-I was just embarrassed. That didn’t feel like me.

In college, I had my one fling with machismo: I joined the freshman crew. For months, I ran up and down flights of stairs, wrestled oar machines and rowed up and down the river in grunting military unison. Despite hours in the trenches with my fellow oarsmen, I felt no connection to them, no team spirit. They seemed to have no personalities whatsoever, just grim determination. After crossing the finish line of our first race, I quit. I soon joined the newspaper and the radio station, took classes in photography and film, and moved off-campus so I could cook my own meals.

Along the way, beginning around eighth grade, I found myself gravitating toward the company of women. Some of it was everyday flirting, but it ran deeper than that. I just preferred their company: their easygoing intimacy, their empathy, their nurturing. Sure, I have close male friends, and, one-on-one, guys are capable of personal revelation, but such moments are usually brief and rare. Women tend to cut to the emotional chase a lot faster, whether out of some chromosomal tendency or sheer efficiency (especially when they become mothers).

Over the years, I’ve gamely gone through the motions of classic guy rituals-bachelor parties at strip clubs, group outings to steam baths, touch-football games, sporting events-but I’ve often felt self-conscious. Then when my wife returned to work after our first daughter was born, I morphed into a stay-at-home father and freelance writer, simultaneously trying to stay out of the sitter’s way and be available to the kids. Later, I became one of only two fathers in a giant mommy-and-me singing group and met a new crop of impressive, interesting women. Occasionally I felt weird pushing the stroller through Fairway. As Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Me and All the Other Mothers”: “We’re sipping on our coffee containers / and chit-chatting, telling little white lies / Labor horror stories and painless abortions / I wasn’t feeling like one of the guys …. “

I wondered if the poker game might be a turning point, a male-bonding breakthrough. Guys talking freely about their lives and their wives, with the understanding that it would all be off the record. I imagined frank talk about books we were reading, difficulties with our families, funny things we’d figured out in recent therapy sessions, career tensions, wistful longings-basically, the kinds of discussions I’d grown accustomed to having with women, some of whom were married to these same men.

Instead, the three hours of our game were taken up with one subject: poker. This was a serious crowd. Two guys brought their own chips; two abstained from drinking to keep their senses sharp. There was showmanship about obscure variations (Omaha, Cincinnati, Steinbrenner), macho chip-tossing, teasing about rule-bending and-occasionally between games-a passing reference to something in the news.

I watched the others having a great time and became convinced there was something wrong with me. This was what they all craved: time away from the women, the pure showy adroitness of brains, booze, bluffs and billfolds. After an hour of trying to keep up, I felt itchy. I would have killed for one “tale of sexual performance,” tall or otherwise. I realized I’d rather be sitting at a bar talking to the wives. Did this make me less of a man? Or just a crummy poker player? I kept wandering away from the table.

In a night that left various players up $200 and down $80, I went home only $7 poorer, so I thought I had acquitted myself admirably. But a few weeks later I ran into one of the other players, and he told me that my restlessness had thrown off his game. Well, I replied, poker’s really not my thing; I would rather have been out at a bar with all of you talking. He stared at me, baffled.

Soon after, I found out another game had been scheduled, and because of my evident lack of interest, they’d filled my spot with a hard-core poker-playing lawyer-a guy’s guy-who won big.

That night, I went out for a drink with two women and had a great time. I didn’t worry for a moment whether I was being discussed back at the game. They’re guys; they only talked about poker. Right?