Zeek from "Parenthood" -- In Search of the Sensitive Tough Guy

Amy Keyishian

Photo from NBC
Let's just admit right off the bat that I'm unhealthily obsessed with the TV show Parenthood and move on. Recent episodes revolve around the relationship between the uber-parents of the show, Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia).

Zeek, it's revealed, is a Vietnam vet with anger issues, while Camille is sort of an all-purpose hippie-flowing-garments earth momma.

"How did these two end up together?" my husband, Randy, wanted to know.

"Oh, please," I said, without skipping a beat.

"He came back from Vietnam all angry at the state for sending him there. He goes to Berkeley on the GI Bill and starts speaking at anti-war rallies, like Born on the Fourth of July but without the wheelchair. Camille skips pottery class one day and sees him and she's smitten, because he can punch people but chooses not to. He's the first real man she's come up against, versus the milk-toast hippie pacifist she was probably dating until a month before, sitting up in Canada and counting his nine toes."

As my rant ended, Randy looked at me, dumbfounded.

"What?" I grumped.

"Was all that just ... in there?" he wanted to know, tapping my head.

Well, yeah. It's one of those eternal questions women torture themselves over, isn't it? You want a nice guy, but he's got to be able to throw down when push comes to shove. Thus our obsession with firemen (big, strong, carrying a helpless kitten), chefs (taming fiery open flames to bring us … a three-course meal), Doug Glanville (Ivy-League baseball pro), and Sebastian Junger (author who almost chainsawed off his own leg, RARR!).

When you know he's got a hard edge, the sensitive parts become all the more precious. The way chocolate tastes so much better on a salty pretzel. The harder the shell, the gooier the center -- and the more I'm guaranteed to melt. And I know I'm not alone in admiring the central tension that makes people more complicated than a first glance would reveal. And it's not just women who feel this way, or "sexy librarian" wouldn't get 247,000 hits in 0.29 seconds on Google.

There are other cultural equivalents -- rare birds like the waspy-looking Jew or the archaeology professor. I think when we give guys the lame excuse "you're too nice," we mean "you don't have the requisite manliness to balance out your bookishness." I'm not sure, though -- that's a question I'm still puzzling over.

The sad truth is that, as for Camille and Zeek, the gooey tough guy can be difficult to maintain a relationship with. Then again, every relationship is difficult to maintain, so why not go for it when you find the poet with a dark side?

For the record, Randy's six-foot-four, a former football player who's worked as a bouncer and once stopped a car (it wasn't going very fast) by slamming his hands down on its hood. And gentle as a kitten, except when it counts.

What's your favorite manly dichotomy? How does your guy combine manly and mushy?

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