Writer Tom Chiarella in Esquire comes up with a pretty decent list:
A man welcomes the coming of age. It frees him. It allows him to assume the upper hand and teaches him when to step aside.
He understands the basic mechanics of the planet. Or he can close one eye, look up at the sun, and tell you what time of day it is. Or where north is. He can tell you where you might find something to eat or where the fish run. He understands electricity or the internal-combustion engine, the mechanics of flight or how to figure a pitcher’s ERA.
A man does not know everything. He doesn’t try. He likes what other men know.
A man knows his tools and how to use them—just the ones he needs. Knows which saw is for what, how to find the stud, when to use galvanized nails.
A miter saw, incidentally, is the kind that sits on a table, has a circular blade, and is used for cutting at precise angles. Very satisfying saw.
Very satisfying saw indeed. I own a 10” Ryobi that sits expectantly on my workbench. I often smile at it while I’m folding laundry.
I also might add the following to the list:
A man knows how to handle a gun – whether it’s a handgun or a rifle. He recognizes that the gun is a tool to get a particular job done and as such should be treated with the same respect he reserves for his other power tools. Just as few carpenters obsess about their hammers, a man knows to avoid becoming obsessed with guns. They are tools and they are useful, but nothing more.
A man knows how to use and maintain a chainsaw. He knows how to add the right proportion of oil to the gasoline by sight and without a measuring cup. He knows how to fell a tree with the saw without damaging nearby structures or himself.
A man should know how to be completely self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is his default state. He must be able to get a job, pay the bills, do the laundry, cook and clean without any help whatsoever. However a man recognizes that the sum of a family is greater than its parts; consequently sharing life with other human beings should be a goal of all men. The lessons of self-sufficiency can then be used for the good of others.
A man always pays his bills on time – not because of the penalties that he might incur from late fees or dings to his credit, but because doing so contributes to the order in his life. This order is like rebar in his character, enabling him to weather the storms of life without breaking.
A man values the wisdom of older men, but he doesn’t need their company or their “role modeling” to become a man himself. A man learns that everything that he needs to become a man is already inside him; all others can do is help him find it more easily. Nevertheless a man can find it on his own. This has become a cultural cliche: a man refusing to ask for directions while lost. Usually it’s up to women to force him to stop somewhere along the way. What the cliche fails to recognize is that a man will eventually reach his destination without help and by doing so stumble upon new vistas and possibilities that would have been missed had he taken the direct route.
A real man appreciates the artistry in the everyday. He can look at an interior wall and appreciate the expertise it took to apply a smooth skim coat, and to completely hide the joint with mud where two sheets of drywall meet. If he can, he learns how to do this feat himself – but if he does he won’t brag about it. His friends who are real mean will appreciate his skill when they see his remodeled bath or family room.
Real men have feelings but don’t feel the need to “get in touch” with them. Emotions have their place, but a man knows when to express them and when not to. A man knows that a crisis is not the time for emotion: it’s the time for intellect and reason, and a man cultivates both throughout his entire life. It might be through reading the classics or the daily newspaper, but a man is ruled by his rational mind and exercises it regularly.
UPDATE: Of course Rudyard Kipling says it the best in his poem, “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!