Book Excerpt: Norah Vincent's 'Self-Made Man'

I could see then that this was going to be laughable. They were all throwing curve balls that they'd been perfecting for twenty years. I couldn't even remember how to hold a bowling ball, much less wing it with any precision. And that was the least of my worries. I was in drag in a well-lighted place, surrounded by some sixty-odd guys who would have made me very nervous under normal circumstances.

I was dressed as down and dirty as Ned got in a plaid shirt, jeans and a baseball cap pulled low over the most proletarian glasses I could find. But despite my best efforts, I was still far too scrubbed and tweedy amid these genuine articles to pass for one of them. Even at my burliest, next to them I felt like a petunia strapped to a Popsicle stick.

I was surrounded by men who had cement dust in their hair and sawdust under their fingernails. They had nicotine-sallowed faces that looked like ritual masks, and their hands were as tough and scarred as falcon gloves. These were men who, as one of them told me later, had been shoveling shit their whole lives.

Looking at them I thought: it's at times like these when the term "real man" really hits home with you, and you understand in some elemental way that the male animal is definitely not a social construct.

I didn't see how this could possibly work. If I was passing, I was passing as a boy, not a man, and a candy boy at that. But if they were judging me, you wouldn't have known it from the way they greeted me.

The league manager led me toward the table where my new teammates were sitting. As we approached, they all turned to face me.

Jim, my team captain, introduced himself first. He was about five feet six, a good four inches shorter than I am, with a lightweight build, solid shoulders, but skinny legs and oddly small feet -- certainly smaller than mine, which have now topped out at an alarming men's eleven and a half. This made me feel a little better. He actually came across as diminutive. He wore his baseball cap high on his head, and a football jersey that draped over his jeans almost to his knees. He had a mustache and a neat goatee. Both were slightly redder than his light brown head of hair, and effectively hid the boyish vulnerability of his mouth. He was thirty-three, but in bearing, he seemed younger. He wasn't a threat to anyone and he knew it, as did everyone who met him. But he wasn't a weak link either. He was the scrappy guy in the pickup basketball game.

As he extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I'd seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone's living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.

It was more affectionate than any handshake I'd ever received from a strange woman. To me, woman-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. I've seen a lot of women hug one another this way, too, sometimes even women who've known each other for a long time and think of themselves as being good friends.

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