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March 27, 2008
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On the (Intergalactic) Road with ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ by Thomas D. Sullivan
Hitchhiker is a road movie on an intergalactic scale. The company is good, and there are fun things to do and interesting (if often life-threatening) aliens to meet along the way. But is this trip really necessary?

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About a Lad

What’s it like to start your career—and your adult life—at the sleazy men’s magazine ‘Maxim?’ In his painfully honest book, ‘Lads: A Memoir of Manhood’, Dave Itzkoff bares his soul.

Lads by David Itzkoff

"What I wanted after college was a job and my own apartment, but what I needed was a good comeuppance, and that's what I got." So starts Lads, a memoir by Dave Itzkoff.

Advertised as an account of the search for manhood (and, since written by a former editor at Maxim magazine, hints at insights unavailable in The Official Boy Scout Handbook), Lads actually is most compelling as the story of the author's search for friendship. Mark Itzkoff was looking for friends, and he'd come to the wrong place.

Mark Itzkoff was looking for friends, and he’d come to the wrong place.
It's perhaps strange to mention propriety advice columnist Miss Manners at this juncture, in a review of a book that includes the sentence, "I don't mean to brag, but I can masturbate to anything." However, read Miss Manners long enough, and you'll come across a worthwhile insight. Miss M. once warned her gentle readers not to confuse the acquaintances you have at work with true friendships. Dave Itzkoff learns this the hard way, and his utter honesty and desire for something better in his life pushes this book beyond object-lesson status.

You can be tempted to dismiss a man who writes at length about his father's cocaine problem, then decides to smoke crack while on a Jamaican junket with the Maxim staff. (Hey, he's beaten you to the punch by telling you that his judgment's lousy.)

Here's what the crack high was like:

"I... was free of earthly worldly constraints, able to see myself from above as the most extraordinary specimen of manhood in the room. I was bigger than U.S. Steel, greater than any other man I had known in my lifetime, even greater than the man who had been responsible for my creation...

"This feeling lasted for approximately fifteen to twenty seconds. Then my confidence melted away, along with what felt like a portion of my forehead."

Returning to sanity, Mark Itzkoff looks around at his Maxim confederates:

'They had stood by and cheered me on while I defiled myself, for no other reason than it kept them amused.'
"The other men leaned in, trying to gaze through my glassy eyes to see what I was seeing, but their approving smiles that I had nearly killed myself to earn looked unsatisfying and grotesque. What did their acceptance mean to me now? They had stood by and cheered me on while I defiled myself, for no other reason than it kept them amused. Didn't anyone feel an obligation to protect me? Didn't anyone understand that I needed to be defendedfrom myself?"

Excellent question. The answer is no, not at least among those men crouching next to the author. We need people who talk us out of whatever stupidity we find currently attractive. That's what friends do. Mark Itzkoff didn't have enough of them in the period covered in this book. But he's man enough to admit that he wants them, and human enough not to give up looking.

In World War II, when Soviet troops encountered minefields, their commanders found men who would march over the mines, destroying the danger (and themselves). Mark Itzkoff finds himself in a similar role while moving across the booby-trapped terrain of contemporary romantic relationships. He relates his third-degree-burn humiliations, such as the woman who took him home, invited him upstairs (for the record, here's how he recounts the exchange:

"'Would you like me to come upstairs?' I asked.

'If that's what you want.'")

Mark Itzkoff gets a change of plan much later in the scenario than is typical, and he is confronted with the question, "What is the accepted protocol when a woman decides she wants to stop screwing in midscrew?" He retires, honoring the young lady's wishes.

Few of us pre-marrieds can credibly claim to be free of perpetrating or suffering from Weird Relationship Tricks...
While Mark Itzkoff may be leading on points in the X Games of romantic pain, few of us pre-marrieds can credibly claim to be free of perpetrating or suffering from Weird Relationship Tricks in our search for the (Theoretically Perfect [and thus chimerical] Romantic Object). Previous generations of homo erectus discovered fire, raised children, had epic adventures, explored the world and outer space. But as for the more recent versions of Western Man and Woman—we've cultivated personalities neurotic enough to make any human relationship with a person of the opposite sex that might lead to a reasonably happy marriage and progeny a troublingly long shot. But I digress.

You can learn a good deal in Lads. About how you should find another job before you spend long hours contemplating and discussing the theme: "My boss is an obnoxious idiot." About how you should not put too much stock in your career. About how a long and painful relationship with your father can improve.

And, like Meryn Cadell, Mark Itzkoff learns to move on. Ms. Cadell's 1991 song, "The Sweater," tells a tale of high-school heartbreak suffered by the girl who filches a cute guy's sweater on a camping trip to get a bit of reflected romantic glory. The song's protagonist gets a karmic comeuppancea note in history class saying that the young man wants his sweater back (and loss of her ill-gotten social status). As Ms. Cadell put it, catching cliches-in-the-making: 

And you don't have to die of humiliation, you know
You are a strong person

and this is a learning experience.

December 15, 2004

Thomas D. Sullivan writes from New York City. He is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

All rights reserved.

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12.29.04   brigidscross says:
"They had stood by and cheered me on while I defiled myself, for no other reason than it kept them amused. Didn't anyone feel an obligation to protect me? Didn't anyone understand that I needed to be defended—from myself?"Is this guy serious, or is this supposed to be ironic? Why was he surprised - That is how the editors treat women every month in Maxim. My plea to our priests and other Catholic men: PLEASE speak up about the mainstreaming of pornography. It's frightening to me. Porn dehumanizes and violence toward people is easy once they've been dehumanized. Link the abortion and porn industries at every chance, because there are many parallels between the two. Not surprising, since both pervert normal sexuality.Thank you! Joanne

12.18.04   TonyC says:
This is a timely article, and I do hope you are able to find and post more like it. A healthy understanding of manhood is practically unavailable to most men today. And so, we do stupid things looking for approval, when in fact, all we want is friendship. We all want to be loved, and dare I say, we all want to stand tall like real men without having to resort to illusive self-destructive practices like substance abuse or playing power games, all the while knowing we are not what really the image we spend so much time maintaining before others. The way out of this mess is not easy. We need to reckon with the pain of our family (and father) wounds caused by violence, emotional absence or non-commitment. Most of our relationship mistakes come out of this place. For me, the answer to Western culture's lack of signposts celebrating the way to real manhood lies in contemplation: finding God affirming our true greatness as men (and women) beneath the depths of life's disappointments and pain. Made in the divine image and likeness, we can find ourselves, man and woman, affirmed in God, in whom is found the fullness of both. Only this contemplative anchor can keep us from getting swept away by the abounding cultural stereotypes for men that don't affirm who we really are; they are simply dead-ends because they are fiction. I would suggest that only contemplation can help us find true peace and fellowship when confronted by the heart-rending disappointment of living in the midst of so many men who live in their heads, who are emotionally crippled and affectively aloof and therefore fearful of friendship, lest it expose their own pain. I would say that contemplation can affirm us in our ordinariness so that we don't fall into the trap of denying our pain by relating through social status or power with a smug attitude of dominance, self-assured competence or tight control. This is not how Jesus approached others. He did not cling to his equality with God, but rather emptied himself, becoming one with those at the bottom. And so his is a model of freedom for all of us. He was free to approach rich and poor, powerful and powerless without fear, but not always without pain. He remained true to his deepest self and deepest values received from the Father, from his family and community, and found himself strengthened and re-affirmed in prayer. Thanks again for the article -great choice of topic. -TonyC

12.17.04   Godspy says:
What’s it like to start your career—and your adult life—at the sleazy men’s magazine ‘Maxim?’ In his painfully honest book, ‘Lads: A Memoir of Manhood’, Dave Itzkoff bares his soul.

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