On the flight back from Lake Tahoe, I feared a full-blown migraine headache was kicking in. The ache behind my eyes bulged and throbbed, as if a golf ball were lodged there.
I had been reading a novel and reached a part where two brothers, once deeply committed to each other, experienced a profound fissure. The thought that this could someday happen with my own brother, whom I loved fiercely, unraveled me. Before I knew it, I was sobbing, all-out chesty heaves and whimpers. My girlfriend stared out the window with set, narrowed eyes. Nearby passengers and attendants stole glances my way.
If this wasn't enough of a surprise - I hadn't cried in 19 years, since I was 11 - I did something that unwittingly became one of the most important political acts of my life.
I stared back.
I made sure that anyone who looked my way saw my swollen, bloodshot eyes. They were going to have to turn away first, and I stared them all down. On the walk to baggage claim my girlfriend looked everywhere but at me. "What was that all about back on the plane?" she asked, her eyes still narrowed.
"I'm not sure," I said, and I turned toward her, wanting her to see the dried, salty streaks on my cheeks, which encoded some message like invisible ink. She stared straight ahead.
The previous week spent vacationing with my girlfriend's family sharpened into focus our incompatibility, and this episode merely sealed the deal. But something else remained less clear. I had always worked hard to put strangers at ease. Those stare-downs on the plane had filled me with the same knee-knocking adrenaline rush I got from confronting people who butted into lines or talked during movies. Something about forcing these strangers to bear witness to my tears felt ennobling, as if on behalf of a good fight. So, what exactly was this good fight?
On the first warm April day in 2007, I was walking through the airport, just having gotten off of a flight, checking my cellphone for messages. My sister had called to tell me that our father had passed away. Nursing home staff had found him. After three years of atrophying in bed, our father had finally succumbed to the Parkinson-like symptoms that had developed after brain surgery. I rushed to the nursing home, speeding the whole way; I wanted to be the first one in my family to get to him. For two years I had spoon-fed him, held his hand, whispered in his ear that I loved him. I needed to get there and send him off before his body was taken for cremation.
When I found my father, he was still wearing his eyeglasses, and his mouth was open. I removed his glasses, careful to leave the dandruff dusting on the lenses, and tried to close his mouth. I kissed the radiation scars on his forehead and sat down on the bed, holding his hand. It was still warm.
For a good year and a half after that everything set off tears. At one point a therapist I was seeing said: "Look, if you're still crying every day the next time I see you, you're going on an antidepressant. This just isn't healthy anymore."
"No," I told her. "I can't."
"Why not?" she asked. "This has been dragging on for too long."
"If I was female, would you be pushing antidepressants so hard?" I asked.
She paused. "This is about your well-being," she said.
"Would you?" I asked.
"Maybe not," she confessed.
That was when it hit me. "I don't want to stop crying," I said. "It feels sacred." Crying was the good fight.
When I cried in public, I refused to hide it - not at funerals, not at the movies when the house lights came up. I was on the offensive and made sure that guys of all ages saw my bloated eyes after a good cry. I wanted them to confront, if only for seconds, the notion that the depth of men's emotional lives can exist beyond the world of sports. When it comes to guys showing emotion other than anger in public, we largely reserve that right for professional athletes. We can be moved if Kevin Durant sheds tears at a news conference, but the blogosphere turns toxic when Rep. John Boehner weeps.
I brought this activist agenda to my love life, too. Peeved by dating Web site profiles that echoed the sentiments of one woman who declared, "No weepy mama's boys need apply," I changed my own vita. It included this line: "I'm a man who isn't afraid to cry. You woman enough to handle that?"
During orientation at Towson University a few years ago, I was leading a book discussion for 200 incoming freshmen on a novel that portrays real-life Bosnian cellist Vedran Smailovic. During the bloody siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, he played solo every day in the ruins. A photograph of Smailovic playing in his dust-coated black tails amid the deadly bombings appeared on the overhead projector behind me. I looked out at the sea of students. "Want to see a real action hero?" I croaked. "Check out this guy."
In that nanosecond balance between suppression or release, I surprised even myself and let the tears flow at my job. For the first time in my teaching career, I saw mouths drop. "Don't worry," I said, regaining my voice. "Sometimes I get through a whole semester without crying." Laughter broke out, which, thankfully, put students at ease, but for my money I had modeled something more potent than humor.
If they got beyond the spectacle of my tears, students discovered that raw, genuine emotion has its place in the classroom because it cracks us wide open, creating a space for deeper intimacy with ideas. No lecture could have delivered this message.
In 2011 my son, Macallah, was born, and I suddenly feared the impact of my crying. My teary activism suited me just fine as an embattled, childless adult. But as a first-time parent and an educator who was painfully aware of the bullying epidemic facing children, a new fear crossed my mind: Should I teach my young son to follow my path toward vulnerability? The very thing I had fought so long for, I realized, could have menacing repercussions for my child.
One day last October, my family attended my wife's high school reunion at a winery. A family event preceded the evening party, and Macallah found a 5-year-old playmate. A beanbag-tossing game lapsed into a mash-up of hugging and wrestling until one of them, usually Macallah, fell down. At one point, Macallah threw his arms around the much taller boy and rested his head against his shoulders. His eyes closed, and a beatific smile crested his face. The older boy looked disoriented, then a grimace emerged as he lifted Macallah and threw him to the ground.
Macallah struggled to get up. His eyes widened in an unmistakable look of hurt and confusion. Then came the tears. He looked to me as I was talking to a mother in her 30s. "You're OK, little man," she said. "Tough it out."
Macallah looked at the woman, then back at me. The crying had stopped, but his hurt still stained his face. I waited a moment, then walked to him and got down on my knee. I hugged him.
"It's OK," I whispered. "Go ahead and cry if you need to." Macallah lifted his arm to wipe away the tears. I intercepted and gently pulled his arm down to his side. This was the toughing it out I wanted my son to learn.
Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University near Baltimore, Maryland.