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Lessons from my late uncle

OPINION

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February 27, 2014|By Ernest Wilkins, @ernestwilkins | For RedEye

On a Monday night in January, Florida State rallied to an incredible victory in the BCS championship game. I drank and screamed and, yeah, even shed some tears for my alma mater until 2:45 a.m. A few hours later, I woke up to a phone call delivering some terrible news: My uncle had died.

To go from such a high to such a low was humbling and weird to boot. Having to call an uncle or aunt and tell them that their brother is dead is a truly awful experience—though, sadly, it's something we all go through in some way or another in our lives.

During the grieving process, it occurred to me that I wasn't sad as much as I was confused. That's happening a lot recently. See, I'm entering my late 20s—you know, the start of "manhood"—and it occurs to me that I don't really know what that means.

We have countless lists on the Internet about things "real men" do and which "real men" are the ones worth dating and marrying. We're supposed to buy this one hair cream, be able to make pasta sauce from scratch or blow half our checks on some suit to avoid being perceived as little boys, or guys who can't handle their business. (Side thought: Isn't it funny how so much of our success in adulthood is measured by our purchases?)

Guess what? We're doing it wrong. In grieving my uncle's death, I learned a few lessons about being a "real man." Check it out:

A man communicates

My uncle was quiet, the type of dude to watch a whole baseball game with you and maybe say three words. He was a prototypical strong and silent type, a man who wasn't going to spit out an "I love you." But you knew he had your back. Men need to be able to get their point across, via overt declaration or more subtle means. Can you speak up when something bothers you, even when the result may not go in your favor? Do the people you care about know you care? Can you share your viewpoint via words or actions?

A man leads

My mom told me a story about when my uncle was younger. He recognized that the guys in the neighborhood needed more money and structure, so he organized this club called Brothers Original Social Savings (B.O.S.S.) and got 28 other dudes to organize themselves and put cash away toward stocks and buying respectable clothes. Being a leader doesn't mean being a caricature of an alpha male, barking and being a jerk. It means communicating the standards you've set for yourself and then executing them every day.

A man has standards

My uncle was on the shortlist for Top 10 Flyest Human Beings Ever. He had hundreds of hats and coats, never left the house without looking good and took pride in himself. But it isn't about clothes themselves. If you feel pride in yourself, you can be wearing a garbage bag for all anyone cares. Project your standards, be they for how you look or how you want to be treated, and you'll be on the right track toward being a real boss.

Losing my uncle was a big blow, but it also was a lesson. His death shook the cobwebs of irresponsibility out of my head and reminded me that even though we didn't talk all the time, he taught me more about being a man than I thought.

Ernest Wilkins is Chicago's wingman. erwilkins@tribune.com

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