The Tender Bar: Uncle Charlie knows best
By Guy Shepherd

If the road to growing up takes you past The Tender Bar, stop for a drink and a lesson.

The Tender Bar: Uncle Charlie knows best


A man without a mentor is a lost soul.

In "Tender Bar" we meet the master of man-science, a mentor for us all.

A buddy of mine has been telling me for years to read The Tender Bar.   I’m sorry to say that I waited until it was made into a wonderful movie.   Thank you, George Clooney, for seeing in JR Moehringer’s book a movie for the dysfunctional American family.

Settled science shows that boys-to-men development without a father figure is a risky enterprise.

Settled science shows that boys-to-men development without a father figure is a risky enterprise.  If you had to bet, Yale or Jail—the social statistics and smart money is not on Yale.   Spoiler: Our guy JR goes to Yale.

The framing of the story is all too familiar—which is the silver lining of this work of cultural “man sciences.”

Mother is forced to back to her familial home with her seven-year-old son.

JR’s grandfather’s house was described by passersby as “suffering from some painful house disease – a shit house.”

The father, a disc jockey referred to as “the Voice,”offers the rare example and when he does, it’s not good. The Voice is an “unstable mix of charm and rage”.

However, JR is not without a functionally dysfunctional clan.  He has a mother who loves him deeply and wants the best for him (Yale), and a loving and perfectly cast idiosyncratic set of grandparents (the grandfather is played by Taxi’s Reverend Jim “Iggy”Ignatowski– Christopher Lloyd). But the boy’s guide in “the process of becoming” is Uncle Charlie—masterfully played by Ben Affleck.

This is Affleck’s best acting — and his best role — to date.  He owns the character of Uncle Charlie.  Affleck has displayed his working-class charm in Good Will Hunting and his street wisdom in The Town.  In The Tender Bar, Affleck becomes a surrogate dad—an explainer and exemplar of the “man sciences.”  Uncle Charlie has a plan for becoming a man that he shares with his nephew whose father is just “the voice in the radio.”

Most kids who get to Yale do so with the help of a Tiger Mom.  JR has Uncle Charlie and the bar – and Charlie’s simple rules that maketh men.  Simple rules are best.

The Tiger Mom’s approach will get you to Yale; however, its problem is you might graduate from Yale but never graduate from a Tiger Mom.   Perfectionism has its price.

In contrast, Uncle Charlie’s goal is to teach—and repeat on occasion—the manly basics.  His goal is to graduate his student ASAP so he can go off and make his path through the world.  I am a fan of Uncle Charlie’s plan for man.  Functionalism has its freedoms, joys, and rewards.

This is my best blurred recollection of Uncle Charlie’s man-science: two rules, one big question and a few tactics for mentoring a boy to manhood—as well as day-to-day discipline of keeping one’s shit together.  I am sure that I’m missing something, but the point of Uncle Charlie’s approach is that it’s a stripped-down, pure theory of a man-science.

Two rules for mentors:  1. Never let them win—all success is to be earned. 2. Always tell the truth.

There’s no participation trophy in Uncle Charlie’s world.  “You beat me, you know you beat me, fair and square but I will never let you win.”

This is honesty that young men need more of: “I saw you in the yard playing sports.  You’re not very good.  And probably not going to get a whole lot better.  So, it might be wise for you, in order to avoid the tears and above all, the delusion, to you know, find some other activities that you like.”

A young man should know his limitations if he is to become wise. Accepting what you are not good at opens new vistas.

And then there is the big question to ask and answer:   What do you like to do the most?

This is how north stars are discovered. Figure out what moves you and pursue it.  JR at age 11 said: “Reading.”

OK, then. “Fill yourself up…If you read enough books, maybe, if you are lucky, you could become a writer,” says Uncle Charlie.

And that is the day JR decides to be a writer.

Spoiler Alert: JR grows up to be a reporter and an author – in fact, a damn good writer. In the book, Moehringer writes, “Life is a matter of choosing which voices to tune in and which to tune out.” His father was the voice on the radio; Uncle Charlie was the voice in his head.

And then there are the man-sciences’ tactics for testicles:

  1. Take care of your mother.
  2.  Be good to your mother.
  3. Take care of your woman, if you have one.
  4. Hold doors.
  5. Never, under any circumstances, hit a woman, even if she stabs you with scissors.
  6. If you drink, keep your shit together.
  7. If your shit is not together, don’t drink.
  8. Don’t carry your money like a drunk.
  9. Never drink your “stashie” money.
  10. Own a car. Be able to change a tire and jump-start a your care when the battery dies.

I think that’s it.  What does all this add up too? “It’s about being a man.”

I am a big fan of functionalism —the ability of a person to keep their shit together in the pursuit of some honest living and happiness with the life allotted.

Perfectionism is great.  If you have it in you, go for it.  But functionalism provides the guardrails even of perfectionism.  More importantly, functionalism is a basic man-science for the masses.

Watching (or reading) The Tender Bar ought to be a rite of male passage.  If you lack an Uncle Charlie, and need one, a movie and book like these can make a dent of a difference in your son, nephew, or the lost kid on the block of life.

Uncle Charlie is a mentor of men with a clear guide for guys in their blurry pursuits.  It can get you into Yale and keep you out of jail and away from the need for interventions.

Go watch the movie — and read the book. Both are worth your time.

Cheers of Uncle Charlie!



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