I was scrubbing the upstairs bathroom tub, listening to a track from the 1972 film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Cabaret” and thinking about masculinity.

What prompted this — the thoughts on masculinity, not the tub scrubbing or “Cabaret” listening — was a new book by comedian Michael Ian Black. It’s called “A Better Man,” and it tackles (please note the manly word choice) the subjects of men and “toxic masculinity” in an American moment when bullying, refusing to admit you’re wrong and putting on the airs of some idealized “tough guy” seem all the rage.

I’ll get to the substance of the book in a moment, but first, let’s return to the bathroom.

We clean the house each weekend, my wife and kids and me. I usually handle the upstairs, which allows me to listen to music and lose myself in clouds of Ajax and vacuum cleaner dust.

Growing up, my parents loved musicals, and “Cabaret” was a favorite. A song from that soundtrack came up on my playlist Sunday as I was cleaning.

In my head was the content of Black’s book, which is framed as a letter to his son as he prepares for college. The book delves into the unanswerable question of what it means to be a man and the absurd measures our culture has set up for gauging who is or isn’t manly.

Leaning over the tub, I paused my scouring a moment and wondered what listening to a show tune while cleaning the tub said about my manliness. And I realized I didn’t care.

A lyric in the song I was listening to — “Mein Herr,” which, conveniently, is German for “My Man” — put it nicely: “And though I used to care, I need the open air.”

I no longer care how anyone defines my man-ness. I haven’t cared for quite some time, in fact, and that, I argue, is how we should hope our children feel.

Other things I did Sunday included watching football, planting a tree in the backyard and oiling the garage door tracks. Are those more manly endeavors? Do they up my man-cred in some way that makes any difference to anyone on Earth?

In his book, Black describes a Twitter troll who once accused him of not being a “real man.” Black asked the troll to define “real man” and he couldn’t: “He doesn’t know. I don’t blame him. I don’t know either — I only know my own experiences.”

Black writes: “Traditional masculinity is an elaborate system of ritualized posturing. A kind of drag show. It’s men in carefully assembled attire lip-syncing the songs of their fathers and grandfathers. At their most grandiose, both drag shows and displays of traditional masculinity are campy exhibitions of gender blown out to cartoonish proportions. The only difference is that drag performers have a sense of humor.”

A persistent cultural focus on the harder-edged definitions of masculinity comes with consequences. There’s a reason boys are shooting up schools. There’s a reason some men have become socially unmoored in America’s evolving culture, and a reason they’ve turned angry and embraced the snarling, “[expletive] your feelings” emotion ginned up by the modern-day Republican Party.

Real-man imagery doesn’t involve expressing emotions or asking for help. As Black puts it, “The relentless American marketing campaign of the Real Man has [expletive] a lot of us up.”

None of this excuses bad male behavior. But what Black’s book does, and the reason I think it’s essential reading for both men and boys, is frame out the problem and acknowledge there’s no one right thing we, as men or boys, need to do. Rather, there are many right things we can do to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.

“How do you do it?” Black asks near the end of the book. “One guy at a time. One guy asking for help, opening his heart to another, standing up for others. One guy living a conscious life. One guy doing the simple, hard work of being a man. One guy practicing love.”

I think this starts with us abandoning the idea that there’s one way for any human to be. I am who I am, and my kids are who they are. You are, I hope, who you are, and your children will be who they’re going to be. This doesn’t mean gender doesn’t matter, but it does mean the things we do, the things we like and the ways we choose to spend our time shouldn’t conform to some precise recipe for masculinity or femininity.

Because there isn’t one.

After pondering my Cabaret-accompanied cleaning, I thought of a more stereotypically manly and muscular song I love, “Good Times, Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant sings: “In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man. And now I’ve reached that age, I’ve tried to do all those things the best I can.”

I used to pump my fist and shout along with those lines. Now they just seem silly, though I still think the song rocks.

If one of my kids asks what it means to be a man, I’m going to tell him this: Be kind. Be thoughtful. Try, always, to be a good person. Be yourself. Be happy.

And know that at the end of the day, the only one who can truly define what it means for you to be a man is you.

 

Rex Huppke is a Chicago Tribune columnist. Readers may send him e-mail at rhuppke@chicagotribune.com.