Sunday, March 8, 2009

I See... A Real Grill Man

This weekend the temple work was completed for a friend of mine, Cal, the happy quadraplegic. Like many young 19-year old Mormon men, he was called on a fulltime mission when he became of age, but it was a long call; he was sent to the spirit world. This post is dedicated to him.

What is the measure of a “real man?” For my brothers and I, we prove the depths of our manhood by grilling meat over open flames in our backyards. Real men love their meat and know how to cook it well. We trace this tradition of defining manhood back to neanderthals who wandered back to their caves from a hard day in the hunting grounds, slung a slab of their prey over an open fire, and danced around the flames, arguing with wild body gestures until it was done. The burning question, especially in a family as competitive as ours, was.... Who among the brothers was the best? We all had our reasons as well as our unique methods in justifying the need to grill, which made comparisons difficult.

The Grill Men

My older brother's outdoor grill is bigger than our first-floor powder room and outfitted with every available accessory. I believe it was originally developed by NASA for the space program. It was automated, computerized, and voice-activated, and would talk to you in a soft, inviting woman’s voice when chicken breasts reached the desired temperature. He would put slabs of meat on the grill, program the gleaming silver beast, then let it run in the background while regaling me with gripping stories about crooked lawyers (he was a doctor). I affectionately call his gas grill “the replicator,” because it performed like that gadget in the Star Trek kitchens, where you just told the computer what you wanted to eat, and it would pull the right molecules together. My older brother owned a “meat replicator.” He was invoking the time-honored masculine mantra that having the biggest and the best makes you the biggest and the best, similar to the monster truck phenomenon.

My younger brother's gas grill was not as glorious, but he relied on other reasons for being the real man in the family. He sought, and attained, perfection in his grilling practices. He conducted extensive research, took classes on the web, and watched the 24-hour grilling cable channel in preparation for each grilling adventure. There was no use talking to him while his carrion was over an open flame; he was focused, and during that time only the meat mattered. Being real picky on those things that matter most to a real man made him a serious contender for the real man title.

I, on the other hand, looked down snobbishly at my brothers’ vain attempts to mangle meat, because I was a purist- a true grill man. I used only charcoal, like the first real men used. Anything automatic or powered by any substance other than naturally burning carbon molecules was for sissies. It was not uncommon to find me on the deck in front of our charcoal grill on a lazy Saturday afternoon, viciously ripping apart thick chunks of freshly washed animal flesh with my bare Tyrannosaurus Rex teeth, then coarsely slapping them on a corroded metal grate encased in numberless layers of dried grease from previous cookouts. I would then circle menacingly
around the grill and emit unintelligible manly grunting sounds, which, according to the ancient traditions of brazing the spoils of the hunt over an open fire, somehow made it cook faster and taste better. Real men like me took great pride in grilling the way it had always been done. I’ll admit that there may be some slight exaggerations in the family grilling habits described above. However, before I ask you to decide who is the real man among us three, I need to introduce you to another contender.

The Real Man

His name was Cal. He was not a brother in my family but my brother in the gospel. He didn’t own a grill, and never cooked a steak, but there were other factors to consider. Cal was normal in most every way except one: he was a quadraplegic. In fact, the only part of his body that moved with meaning was his perpetually smiling eyes. He was your average fun-loving boy trapped in a body that would not cooperate. It was his striving to be normal in the midst of his exceptional circumstances that made him so exceptional and established his manhood.

We had passed in the hallways at church several times, but I first got to know him well during a priesthood interview soon after I became his bishop. Excitement radiated from his eyes when I asked to meet with him alone, like any other teacher in the Aaronic priesthood. His ears worked fine and his wit was unusually quick; he could not speak, so a nod of his head to the right was yes, left was no. I asked all the questions a teacher should be asked; a couple of times he gave the wrong answer just to make sure I was paying attention. I encouraged him to serve a mission, not knowing how he would accomplish it, but exercising the faith it would happen.

As I got to know him better, I noticed his remarkable struggle for normalcy amidst so many reasons to be different. With the help of family, friends, and some pretty whiz-bang technology, he was able pass and bless the sacrament, work on the family business’s books, and get tired of doing homework. He loved big-time wrestling (that was his raw macho side) and playing practical jokes on his family and home nurses (the innate, Three Stooges-loving silly side of a real man). He was also a great member missionary; there were at least three members I knew of who could trace their conversion stories back to the example he set for them.

The last year of his life, when most worthy young priesthood holders are preparing for their missions, he was preparing to die. 18 years of his body not working properly in synch with his spirit was taking its toll. I don’t remember much about exactly what was wrong with him, but I do remember it was painful. The only thing worse than watching a friend face soul-shuttering pain is trying to comfort a friend who is physically unable to express the pain. It transformed him into a twisted mass. It was tough to watch him endure, but he did it well.

My compassionate side wanted to invoke the power of the priesthood to relieve his suffering, but the distinct instructions I received in blessings during the first waves of agony he faced in his last stand was to tell him that there was a purpose for his pain; he was being prepared for a greater work. These impressions personally mystified me; no one had more experience with the hard knocks and unfairness of life than Cal. Why would he need more?

Finally, just days before he turned nineteen, it was God’s assigned time for his spirit to separate from his body. I blessed him to be released from the pain that raged through his body like an uncontrollable wildfire engulfing everything in its path. Soon thereafter he slipped away quietly. We learned to be happy for him. What appeared to be death to us was merely an unorthodox mission call for Cal. He was fulfilling his divine destiny on the other side of the veil.

We honor the dead in the way that we live. Cal’s courage to seek normalcy when he was dealt such a strange hand can easily translate into our courage to be right in the midst of so many of life’s wrongs, to be true when so much of the world embraces falsehoods, and to seek happiness when there are too many reasons to be discouraged. Measuring manhood in terms of expertise in working an outdoor grill seems inconsequential when it is compared to the legacy of a great man. If “manliness” is defined as the lasting positive impact one has on his fellow man, Cal stands alone as the winner.

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