A while back I wrote a blog that was fairly critical of Esquire magazine and its notions of manhood. Click here to read it.

While several readers pointed out (and rightly so) Esquire‘s long and distinguished record of truly first-rate literary journalism, my point was if you’re taking your manhood cues from a magazine then you’re probably already a lost cause.

And so when I saw that the May issue of Esquire was devoted almost entirely to the vexing (and presumably profitable) topic of “How to Be a Man”, complete with lists of man things to own, man things to do, manly men to emulate and manly behaviors to cultivate, my initial reaction was to lampoon it with a few smart-ass quips and a list of my own.

But then I started thinking about it. And then I thought some more. And I eventually came to an uncomfortable yet honest conclusion: How could I criticize when I myself am the end product of the exact same process?

I was a latchkey kid. My parents divorced when I was 10. The process was bitter and in the end my mother went to work and my father went elsewhere. That left my brother and me to figure out on our own those things generally figured out with the help of a father figure. So I invented my own moral and philosophical compass, an imaginary personal life coach and mentor culled and patched together from the pages of Robert Ruark books and Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield. Back then magazines let writers write stories, real stories with meaning. And as I clumsily stumbled through adolescence toward the person I would eventually grow into, I now realize that words on pages did as much as any real person to get me there.

And I am by no means unique. There are thousands of others who, just like me, trudged the road to manhood alone because that was the hand life dealt them.

So no smart-ass for you this time, Esquire, merely a suggestion for you and any other magazine that young, confused men might look to for guidance: Without a voice to put them in the context of real life the endless laundry lists of “essential” items, skills and how-to-do-this-and-how-to-be-that sidebars mean absolutely nothing. They’re just words on a page to be glanced at and discarded. But wrap them in a real story told by a real person with a real voice and suddenly they have meaning, they have guidance. Because in the end, real manhood isn’t something you can achieve by checking off a list. Either in person or in print, it must be taught by example.