June 13: “How to Be a Man” by Tamara Linse

Hello, Story366! I hope your week has started off the right. In the wake of yesterday’s mass shooting in Orlando, I’m glad I don’t have any topic to discuss today that’s nearly as high-stakes as that was. I was hoping to run across something lighter in my day today, something to bring a smile on people’s faces. Today has brought no hilarious anecdotes, any news that’s particularly interesting. I haven’t even found a penny on the sidewalk.

Looking up from my Story366 work station, aka, the dining room table, I see an episode of Three’s Company on the TV. Better yet, as it’s an episode that’s unnaturally Roper-heavy, it might actually be The Ropers. Those of you who were born after the seventies probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but The Ropers was a short-lived and much maligned spin-off of Three’s Company, starring minor characters from that show, the kids’ landlords, grumpy Mr. Roper and sex-starved Mrs. Roper. From my vantage point, this might also be the episode of Three’s Company that set the spin-off up, as Jack is helping the Ropers move into a larger place, away form the apartment complex where most of the original show was set. Kind of historical, in a classic TV kind of way—Wait! A young(er) Jeffrey Tambor just appeared on screen!—as this was a trend back then, the spinoff, Flo leaving Alice for Flo, Florence leaving The Jeffersons for Checking In, Fish leaving Barney Miller for Fish, and so on.

Why am I writing about old sitcoms? As much as Story366 is my project, Karen is working on a project of her own, a set of classic TV poems that will be her next book, but for now is a 30/30 project for Tupelo Press, where a poet writes a poem a day for a month (there’s a charity angle involved, but I can’t think of it off the top of my head). This June, Karen has been writing persona poems from classic sitcom characters’ POVs, and what this has meant is lots and lots of old TV broadcasting in our house, as often as Karen can take it in. So, the soundtrack of our lives has more or less been Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, Green Acres, Sanford and Son, The Munsters, and a host of other programs that I have not seen in twenty or even thirty years. I enjoy old sitcoms—I was raised on TV, especially syndicated evening reruns on WGN and WFLD in Chicago—so I’m of this stock for sure. It’s just weird to see, as I walk by the living room, as I cook in the kitchen, or as I spend time with my sons, Chrissy Snow and LeBeau and Wojciehowicz and Luvee on the screen, laugh tracks supporting them no matter how good or corny the joke, how well or poorly it’s delivered. When you live like this, constantly hearing that canned laughter, you can’t help but think that these people—recorded in some studio somewhere decades ago—are laughing at you as you screw up hash browns, break glasses, or spill pizza sauce on your sock. And by “you,” of course I mean you, the Story366 reader, and not me. Nope, not at all me.

So that’s the backdrop for Story366, this month. Could be worse. A lot more fun to write about than fifty people getting killed.

Like yesterday, that anecdote really doesn’t have anything to do with today’s story/collection/author, “How to Be a Man”/How to Be a Man/Tamara Linse (book from Willow Words). Tamara was a student in the online writing workshops I ran back in the oughts, a really talented writer, whom I keep in touch with, whom has this collection out. It’s a solid book, full of solid stories—I’ve read several of them so far today—and for June 13, I’m focusing on the title story.

“How to Be a Man” is a story about a young girl, Birdie Gunderson, growing up on a ranch in Wyoming; I think it says Wyoming somewhere, but I might be placing this there because that’s where Linse grew up and lives now—regardless, it’s a ranch, which to me screams, “Wyoming.” In any case, Birdie doesn’t want to be a girl, but instead a boy. It’s not like the transgender issue-type sexual identity that’s been so prevalent in our news the past couple of years—Birdie makes no mention of surgery, her genitals, or much about sex in general—but more of a social identity. She is growing up on this ranch with a tough cowboy dad and four brothers, her mom kind of mousy, her mom dying young from a “female disorder,” which Birdie can’t even name because these things aren’t discussed in this household. Birdie just wants to be like her dad, her brothers, wear pants, do ranch work, talk about football, when really, she’s become the default for the traditional gender role: With mom down and out, she has to cook, clean, etc., and she doesn’t like it one bit.

Birdie gives both traditional identities a try in this story, which I think is one of Linse’ best moves. It’s easy for Birdie to “act like a boy,” to wear her brothers’ clothes and talk about the things they talk about (though again, when she finds their dirty magazines in their drawers, she’s disgusted, so she’s not, how should I say, all in). Eventually, though, her behavior is making her a pariah at home and at school; pre-puberty, boys liked Birdie as a boy—a tomboy, for description’s sake—but once the genders become more traditionally defined, her best friends abandon her and the girls in her class thinks she’s a freak. An incident involving Birdie’s first dress and foray into makeup and hair styling goes exactly how you think it would, Birdie confusing everyone, including herself, more establishing an identity.

And that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, which is only part of what’s going on here. Also notable is how Linse employs a second-person imperative perspective for the story, à la Lorrie Moore and Pam Houston, shoveling out advice/instructions in the form of commands for any reader who is actually looking to be a man (at least in Birdie’s world). This is paired with third-person narration for the actual Birdie scenes—“you” is not the main character of this story—and I think this combination makes for a perfect choice by Linse. I enjoyed reading the story very much and can’t imagine it in any other person.

How to Be a Man features different stories than this second-person approach, most of which are set in Wyoming or Wyoming-type places. The second story, “Men Are Like Plants,” has its protagonist ask each man she meets what plant he thinks he is, a sort of test for dating eligibility. Another, “In the Headlights,” relives some would-be roadkill moments. Tamara Linse writes a lot of good stories and I’m happy to have read a bunch of them today.

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One thought on “June 13: “How to Be a Man” by Tamara Linse

  1. Pingback: July 7: “Bugout” by Jon Trobaugh – Story366

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