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Jewish World Review April 15, 2004/ 25 Nissan, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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Changing fashions in the quest for manhood | The quest for modern manhood goes to strange places. The BBC, not to lag behind the American networks in the pursuit of bad taste, is staging what might be called the Super Bowl of Sperm. In a series called "Lab Rats," two presenters of an "educational" program pit their sperm against each other's as filmed in a tiny glass test tube under a microscope. The students in this exercise, naturally, are crawlers in pubs with big screens.

The redeeming scientific and social value is to demonstrate how different lifestyles affect reproductive abilities. Dr. Mike Leahy, the scientist, and Zeron Gibson, a comedian, will undertake rigorous training routines to see whether this has any effect on the swiftness of the racing sperm. The sperm will be measured and tested by a fertility expert. (No steroids, please.)

This race to expand an audience of bottom feeders comes in the wake of a new book by a British geneticist who speculates that the Y chromosome, which determines the male sex, is headed for extinction.

The Y chromosome has been self-destructing for years, isolated without the ability to recombine with a healthy partner like the X of XX chromosomes. Consequently the Y chromosome inhabits "a graveyard of rotting genes," writes Bryan Sykes in "Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men."

The destiny of the diminishing male gene is not a new discovery, but Dr. Sykes sets the extinction date considerably sooner than other geneticists have, estimating that men will be infertile in only 5,000 generations, or 125,000 years. He puts men on notice. (There's not a minute to waste.)

But, fortunately, there's time. Accommodations can be made. The vole, a mouse-like rodent, lost its Y chromosome a while back and it continues to supply male pests to the ecosystem. Sykes thinks it would be a good idea to dispense with the male anyway. Women could fuse eggs in a lab and produce a race of women who would radically reduce aggression and brutality, criminal and war characteristics of dominant males. Sykes has been so busy in the lab that he obviously has no time to read the newspapers.

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He is less concerned with the battle of the sexes, however, than with the ferocious combat between genes that puts the male at a disadvantage. You don't have to be a degenerating gene to recognize that man is increasingly at a disadvantage. The generic postmodern male has become the nervous patient in the skit in which Rodney Dangerfield plays the shrink who tells his receptionist, "I'll take all calls."

This is a state of (non) affairs that men have brought on themselves.

They have tried on more outfits to define manliness than the emperor who ordered new clothes. We know what happened to him. Sensitive man proved he was merely too sensitive to reach for the check for dinner. The guy who went into the woods to beat the drums returned to the table with the same uncouth manners. Earth tones didn't make either Al Gore or the Alpha man more natural and the Metrosexual looks like a man seeking the approval of other men. (Those queer eyes for the straight guys don't help matters either.)

My mother always said that boys stopped growing into men when they began wearing cutoffs and flip-flops. I've heard other women speculate that real men disappeared when baggy pants two sizes too big ("prison pants," as they're known in some neighborhoods) became the fashion for boys and young men who want to be boys. On the other hand, if such men have something to hide, they might as well hide it.

Brad Miner, in a wonderful new book entitled "The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry," finds a dramatic example of how far men have fallen from understanding and acting with the grace of gentlemen. He recalls his irritation when, at a showing of the movie "Titanic," a group of twenty-something men began sniggering when two passengers dressed as if for dinner as it became clear that the great ship was doomed: "We're dressed in our best and would prefer to go down like gentlemen."

What the sniggerers didn't understand was how manners, dignity and courage express grace under the most extreme circumstance.

Fashion, of course, follows the culture and is often drawn on the heroes of the moment. The heroes of our day are our fighting men in camouflage in Afghanistan and Iraq. There's no distinction between who they are and what they wear. Fashion takes many forms but courage only one. You don't have to be a soldier to be courageous, and there's more than one way for the Y chromosome to survive. If only men dare.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS