Archives for posts with tag: masculinity

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36 foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crew mate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion, until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at watcher helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crew mates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were, and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways, and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. And can admit that for the times I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterwards.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a PhD in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

In his TED Talk, “Violence Against Women—It’s a Men’s Issue,” Jackson Katz talks about the how there has been an awful lot of silence” from men surrounding the issue of sexual abuse. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, who pointed out that “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Katz proposes that when bystanders—those who are neither perpetrators nor victims of male violence—act against violence, not by simply intervening at the point of the violent action, but by calling out misogyny as it occurs in daily interactions, then the bystanders will help curb the violence that men commit against women.

I am thinking about this today because of the events that have transpired at my alma mater, the progressive bastion, Swarthmore College. At my old school, documents surfaced (and were published in the student newspapers) that called into question the nature of that culture. Young men wrote of a “rape attic” in one of the fraternities, and bragged about efforts to abuse women. Fortunately, when the documents came to light, action was swift. Unfortunately, as it must seem, knowledge of what had gone on must have existed in the community well before the documents were published in the student newspapers.

I know several women who men have sexually assaulted. Too many. I have seen how the assaults have shaped their lives. And strangely, I know no men who have sexually assaulted women. And that cannot be true. I know this. Because we must know that it isn’t just one man, or a few men committing these acts of violence—one or a handful of perpetrators and many victims. I would surmise that there are nearly as many perpetrators as there are victims.

The easy thing is to see men who commit violence as somehow uneducated, or unenlightened. The chants of “No means yes! Yes means anal!” at Yale, or the actions revealed in the documents at Swarthmore show that violence permeates all corners—high and low. You can be brilliant and assault women. I would hazard that one could be called or thought of as a “good man” by many, and assault women.

A friend posits that it is testosterone—she calls it “the most dangerous thing in the world”—that is at the root of male violence. And perhaps, but that seems like a broad stroke. There is a positive power in masculinity. However, a masculinity that seeks to control, denigrate, degrade, and rape, is foreign to me. These are not values that resonate or connect with anything eternal. My friends who point to the evolutionary roots of male violence—as if distant biology superseded any moral imperative—also seem to be making an excuse.

And yet, “we know better” is belied by the behavior of too many men in too many places. It is time to look in the mirror, as men, and to hold each other accountable. Because, if we all know a victim of sexual violence, we also know a perpetrator.

I have been struggling with masculinity as of late. Which is to say, struggling with ambition. Or struggling with my career choices. Or struggling with relationship choices. Or, simply struggling. Because I am a man, I am struggling on the somewhat closed field of masculinity. I haven’t always thought of it that way, and yet, there it is. I have avoided masculinity for dozens of reasons.

I have seen more examples of toxicity and hypocrisy among men than anywhere else.  Maybe these are not inherently male traits, but I grew up in a male dominated environment—which is to say, the world—including four years in an all-male prep school. I have been bullied, and been a bully. I have seen puffery masquerade as accomplishment. I have seen might valued over intelligence. I have watched as surface characteristics outshone deeper wells of strength. In To the Lighthouse, when Woolf takes Mr. Ramsay to the cleaners for failing to see the world outside of his carefully constructed “a, b, c…” hierarchy, I knew of what she was writing. But that came later.

After college my father brought me in to his company once, to ask his colleagues what career path I should pursue. One of the men counseled, “Don’t go into business.” This was a man my father had often spoken of as one of his few friends at work. This man did not offer an alternate suggestion, just “Don’t.” Then he spoke of a working world in which the soul found no home. That resonated with me. My father was often unhappy after a day of work, and I had seen that unhappiness first hand.

I drew a line between the life of the soul and the world of business and ambition—the world of men.

I spent a number of years in career limbo, and ended up managing a restaurant and working 80 hour weeks. Ambition always finds a way, even in limbo, even when one says, “No.” Part of being a man, I suppose, at least this man, was finding my way into positions of authority. During this time, I started writing—the very definition of author-ity—something I had done in fits and starts in high school then in college. I applied to graduate school in creative writing and was accepted.

So in my late twenties, I became a student of writing and literature. I went all in.  I was never interested in “finding my voice”; I was interested in hitting the metaphorical homerun, of, and pardon me for this, catching the big fish.  There was always a bigger fish in the ocean.  Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Marquez, Dickinson, Whitman, Marquez, and Calvino were among literary fish that pushed me forward. The critical fish were there too.  Each set out a mark and said, “Meet me here.” And, right or wrong, I chased that mark.

I sought work that broke the hierarchies, and offered more possibilities to all. Brilliance the only goal. Brilliance the reward. I reveled. My classmates often complained of this course or that course, or of school altogether. I did not. There was no class—even bibliography—that did not unlock some possibility. My purpose, clear and simple, was to learn and to write.

I was at graduate school at a time when feminism was fully asserting itself, and I allied myself with that movement, in part under the guise of being a creator, which I identified as a feminine act. I was full of it. In the end, I divided the world not between men and women, with all the problematic tangle that came between those energies, but between writers and non-writers. I saw a kinship between Charles Dickens and Jane Gallup. If you know the work, you know what a leap that is. Or, and this is easier, Hélène Cixous and James Joyce. Words held a primal energy for me, an energy that bridged gender and sex. The only ones who could experience jouissance, truly experience it, not simply having it happen, but calling it forth, meeting it, urging it on—if they could—were writers. And so I wrote fervently, seeking a pleasure beyond limits. And I found it.

Now, I realize that I had harnessed a most basic form of male sexual energy, of masculinity. If I had classmates who imagined me in black leather pants, well, there was a reason. I chased something bigger than me, something vital. And chasing is what men do—secretly or not. Part of our deep-seated masculinity drives us to seek—“to bear it out,” as Shakespeare writes, “even to the edge of doom.” What keeps us from doom, from becoming an Ahab (there’s that big fish) is not avoiding the sea and the hunt, just putting up the harpoon and dreaming of what might have been. We must learn to integrate the hunt with the world. We must listen to the world and find an honorable way forth.

I did not. I stopped. I did not stop all at once, but over a series of years. I let more temporary ambitions, often driven by temporary monetary concerns, take precedence. I grew nervous, even cautious. I stepped off the stage. I continued, as I had when I was younger, to find outlets for ambition. They were circumscribed by my career choices, but they persisted. I became principal of a school and, during a crisis at my church, helped hold a congregation together. But I was not doing my life’s work—the thing that brought me joy, even if it did not pay the water bill.

And, as a man, a life without a driving purpose withers. I’m sure this is true for women too, in some way. Finally, at 58, I made a change. It was not an easy, nor a secure choice. It is not the final choice I will make along this way. But it is the first step. And I realize that even though I have been writing—fervently, discovering along the way—that I also have things to learn. About me. About the world. And as a man.

 

 

I do not know Bret Kavanaugh, nor do I have any idea what Georgetown Prep, his high school, was like. I attended an all-male boarding school (The Hill School, in Pottstown, PA) and graduated in 1978. The school taught me explicit and implicit values. What I remember most about my late adolescence was that the values I was taught were not enough for me, that I needed bigger lessons, more durable lessons, lessons that would help me grow up and become a better man. When I decided to apply to and accept admission to Swarthmore College, some of my classmates teased me because The Insider’s Guide to Colleges mentioned that Swarthmore had a gay student organization. The teasing stung, but I knew that one of the reasons I chose Swarthmore was because it was a more open community, and that it would expose me to ideas that were foreign to an all-male campus.

We were never taught explicitly about what women were like, and perhaps that’s not a surprise given that it was the late 70s, and teaching boys—boys who lived at school with each other and without women—would’ve been tantamount to a revolution. What we learned about women came mainly from pornography or word-of-mouth; neither of those sources were particularly well informed. The female characters in our literature classes were the attendant characters in Shakespeare, The Glass MenagerieEmperor Jones, and later in an Ethics class, the mother in Mishima’s Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Certainly there was literature that would’ve helped address some of these issues: Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Virginia Woolf, others; but we stuck to books like Billy Budd.

On reflection, maybe there were enough lessons in those books to teach us about how we should behave in the world. The lessons of the handsome sailor have always resonated with me. There was—is—a better way to be. There was—is—also a darker impulse, based in part on jealousy, and then something unmistakably evil. Each of us carries a Claggart—a heart of darkness—in us, whether we like it or not, and if we don’t wrestle with that presence in our daily lives, and set it back where belongs, then we will be susceptible to those darker impulses.

But how helpful it would’ve been, to learn about how women thought, not just about sex, but about how they felt about their lives, and about us, and what they expected from us. Those lessons came later, and not easily. Maybe they don’t come easily for anyone, whether they spent their adolescence in an all-male environment or not.

The first yearbook I saw at my school featured Christian Nestell Bovee’s quotation: “Our first love and last love is self love.” I’m not sure whether the boys who chose that quotation meant it as an ironic statement or an actual claim of principle. But we were taught to love ourselves. That could be a selfish kind of love, when you are at the center of your own universe all the time. It took me years to knock myself out of that center, to learn how to lead as a form of service, not simply a form of heroic self-proclamation. We spend so much time as adolescents and young men planting our flags declaring ourselves, and declaring our desires, that we forget that there are other flags, other desires, and other selves beside our own. We think our anger is the most important anger. Our selfishness the most important selfishness. Our success the most important success. And of course, and in some ways it is. But when we live that way, we don’t think and we don’t consider. We become islands.

And so we end up 17, thinking that we can have whatever we take for ourselves. Or we end up 35, or 50, or 70, with that same notion stuck in our brains. We enter a kind of Hobbesian world, where the strongest take what they want from those who are weak, where life is short, nasty, and brutish unless you are strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, to define the world on your own terms. The only way to succeed against such impulses is to be like Billy Budd the handsome sailor, excellent on your own terms in a way that is beyond grosser manly definition. A glowing exemplar. Untouchable. And yet, fatally flawed.

In time I would learn other lessons, and they were among the most valuable lessons I ever learned. I learned to complicate my world, to see beyond my immediate desires, to see into the world. I learned this from teachers who were women from classmates who were women, from the authors who were women, from philosophers for women. They deepened my understanding of the world.

I cannot help but wonder what my life, and the lives of the young men with whom I went to school, would have been like if we had received those lessons then, from our male teachers. I am well aware that some people—and not just men—will hear lessons from women differently, less seriously, because it is not a male voice speaking, because it is not a voice that is endowed with wealth, and worldly success. This is a loss, a fatal and horrible loss. Our world is made up so much complexity so much richness so much that is valuable. When we exclude ourselves from seeing these things because we are men, who once were boys, we fail. We fail the women in our lives, and we fail ourselves

I don’t know Bret Kavanaugh, but I know something of the world of boys and men. We have an obligation to be better, to expect more, to not hide behind the “boys will be boys” mantra of the excusers and justifiers. We did learn to be better. And we did not. We own this one, and so does he.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring

Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove

George C. Scott as General “Buck” Turgidson

Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper

I did not see this as a Sunday night ABC Movie of the Week. This had to be a Friday night movie, starting at 11:30 or 12:00. I watched it by myself. It is a black and white movie, but I was well used to that. Almost all the horror movies of my youth were the black and white movies of Universal, or American… Besides, the first television I remember was a black and white set, which made the Wizard of Oz only a little less magical.

Why does this movie make it onto a list of movies about love? There is only one woman in the cast, Tracy Reed as General Turgidon’s “secretary,” and her part reveals more about the men than it does her. And at the end of the film, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of hydrogen bomb explosions. What I didn’t know when I first saw this movie was that “We’ll Meet Again” was a soldier’s anthem in World War II; it marked the hope for those (don’t know where, don’t know when) sunny days. To me it was just dark irony.

I grew up in the company of boys. I had two younger brothers. I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Almost all my playmates were boys. We played “tank” on the school playground, draping our arms over each other’s shoulders and marching pointedly across the field. I went to an all boys private boarding school from 9th-12th grade. Boys playing at being men was what I knew.

Already, by my teenage years, I could see the pitfalls. I was aware of the passionate intensity that could overwhelm sensibility—just as Buck Turgidson demonstrates the the guile of a B-52 pilot screaming over the countryside to deliver his payload. I had experienced the misbegotten “fairness” doctrine—just as President Muffley tries to be fair with his Russian counterpart over the hotline. I had witnessed the driven madness of conspiracy that illuminates General Ripper, and the dedication to duty that Colonel Guano defends. Dr. Strangelove’s and Major Kong’s maniacal genius and drive was often held out as a, more sanely but only just barely, goal. Only Mandrake’s befuddled competence stands out as a lone vision of something like sanity—and he is a stranger in a strange land.

Where is the place for love—strange or otherwise—in a world that totters toward Armageddon? Romantic love is the counterpoint to the well-meaning incompetence, or belligerent dedication of the world of men. Without it: self-destruction.

Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the late sixties and through the seventies, I didn’t know Thoreau at all, but I was naggingly aware of another desperation: one borne of the recent history of perpetual war and nuclear weapons. Those bombs waited like an exclamation point at the end of every thought about war, from World War Two, through Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then the Vietnam War. I often wondered who the men who bore responsibility for the weapons were, and if they were anything like the all too human men in my life. There came a point—it had passed to my way of thinking—when our weapons outstripped our ability to know how to use them. Desperation—existential anxiety—was a low thrum beneath all the humor, all the politics, and all the intensity of my teen age years.

And love? Could love stand against destruction? Imagine that. Only some equally powerful, equally misbegotten, equally passionate, dedicated, driven, and genius form of love, which is to say a love that was truly strange. How long would I try to fly that banner? Years.

%d bloggers like this: