The masculine trap

To anyone who tries to observe accurately, men are clearly the privileged gender. However, this observation is likely to generate a hostile response from certain types of men, because they do not feel privileged. They have heard their right to privilege questioned, and seen their privilege somewhat diminished in the last few decades. The diminishment does not go nearly as far as it should, so far as I am concerned, but, because their privilege forms a major part of their identity, the change is resented out of all proportion to its effect. To far too many men, being male is a major part of their identity, which is particularly difficult because the traditional roles no longer work.

In the last century, traditional masculinity took two blows it has never recovered from. First, in North America and Europe, two generations were decimated several times over and warped by the loss of millions of men in the two World Wars. Some of the survivors returned home handicapped or suffering trauma, others eager to put their experiences behind them and become an economic success.

Neither of these attitudes made many of the survivors ideal role models for their children. As a result, several generations of men had to re-invent masculinity for themselves.

Lacking examples, many stalled in adolescence, which is often a time of exaggerated and over-simplified gender roles. Instead of learning responsibility for their dependents, the use of their physical strength for others, or any of the other expectations that could sometimes make the traditional masculine roles acceptable, they focused on the superficial – swearing, drinking, watching sports, and domination without responsibility.

In particular, as adolescents often do, they developed a negative identity, defining themselves primarily as not being women. A negative identity is always a shaky basis for anyone’s sense of self, but what made this identity particularly unstable was that the necessities of war time had also caused women’s roles to change as they actively helped the war efforts. The result was that the basis for many men’s identities shifted. Add the reduction of domestic work due to automation, and the liberalization of many laws, and by the 1960s, many women realized they no longer needed to depend on men.

Since male identity depended on a disappearing view of women, the change in the female gender role suddenly left many men with no sense of who they were – a problem that many men still struggle with today. Rather than adjusting to the changes, they prefer to lament them, evoking a view of traditional masculine roles that the men of the past would probably openly despise. Rather than learning from the example of feminists and starting to examine their own roles, they obsessively blamed women for destroying their sense of identity.

Those men who escaped these dead ends have done so mainly by building identities that are not based on their gender. Their senses of themselves are based on their accomplishments or sense of ethics. Rather than viewing themselves primarily as men, like feminists before them, such men have struggled to identify themselves as humans first, and to consider their biological sex as a detail only relevant in one part of their lives. Unlike the Men’s Rights Activists, they have tried to develop an adult sense of themselves, one that is self-contained and not dependent on women’s roles.

There are many advantages to this new definition of masculinity, not least of which is the possibility of actual friendships with women. However, to men who invested so much in a distortion of the past and in not being women, this new definition is unacceptable. They call men who adopt it effeminate, as though the old insult has any power over those whose identity is self-contained. The truth is, they have too much invested in their confusion and resentment to move beyond it into anything healthier.

They would rather condemn or attack, and assert their own psychosis than consider any other alternative – and, unfortunately, there is no easy way to make them re-evaluate themselves. A few learn flexibility as they realize that their wives and daughters benefit from feminism, but for the most part, they continue the confusion and the hurt by passing their perceptions on to other generations, condemning their own sons to a distorted and corrupt perception of themselves, ensuring that their self-inflicted misery will continue.

The Naming of Names

Last Friday, I attended the VCon novel-writing workshop. I came looking for encouragement, and found it in the comments of the two professional writers, Eileen Kernaghan and Robert Sawyer. Many of the negative comments could be disregarded as a sign of careless reading, although, Sawyer, to my embarrassment as an ex-English teacher, pointed out at least two places where I should have used the subjunctive.

However, the comment that I have mulled over the most was Sawyer’s complaint about the main character’s name. In reviewing a couple of entries to the workshop, he mentioned a dislike of invented names like Luke Skywalker. I am thinking about the comment because I at least partly agree with him, but changing a character’s name is a serious step. To my poetry-trained year, changing the character’s name means changing their personality as well, which can require a complete revision of the manuscript.

On the one hand, I dislike the surnames often borrowed from role-playing games, especially from elvish characters. Often these names show either a lack of imagination, such as (to invent an example on the spot) Inglorion Far-Traveler, or (to invent another quick example) an embarrassing attempt to sound mystical and exotic, such as Glorfindel StarDweller. My character’s name fits neither category – or so I believe – so I am not exactly pleased to have it lumped in with them. Yet considering that Sawyer is a successful, better than average professional writer, I want to think twice before disregarding his criticism – always keeping in mind that one writer’s opinion of your work can sometimes mean no more than they would done things differently.

On the other hand, invented or obscure names are used by many writers. Charles Dickens, for example, had Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist, Whackford Squeers and dozens of others. Thomas Hard had Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Stephen King had Dolores Claiborne. And if you include semi-allegorical names, like Mrs. Malaprop, the examples jump from the dozens to the hundreds. From these examples, I conclude that unusual names are acceptable in popular literature, and are even more so in fantasy and at least sometimes in science fiction. Granted, though, they may not be to everybody’s taste.

I have considered some alternative names, and found one or two that seem acceptable to me. All the same, I am glad to be some ways from a second draft, so I have time to think more about the issue.

In the next few centuries, we may encounter non-human intelligences in space. I hope that first contact occurs during my lifetime, but, if it doesn’t, I am not concerned. Without any exaggeration, I can say that my personal first contact happened when I was twenty-six on the bottom floor of the Pike Place Market in Seattle, when I discovered parrots.

Until then, I hadn’t thought much about parrots. So far as I was concerned, parrots were kept in cages like fish in aquariums, minding their own business and eating decaying fruits and vegetables for preference. About all that could be said for them, I thought, was that they were more interesting than reptiles, and less creepy.

Trish and I were meeting friends who read tarot in a booth down the hall from the parrot shop. Waiting for our friends to finish work for the day, we wandered down to stare at the birds. It was a gaudy, raucous experience, and I suspect that too many birds were crammed into too small an area by modern standards, but I realized almost at once that almost everything I knew about parrots was wrong.

I was captivated. Best of all were the birds running up and down the torsos and arms of Dick and Diane, the store’s owners, chuckling, squawking, stopping for a scratch and occasionally a squabble. Some of the birds would pause, looking at me while hanging upside down, and, meeting their eyes, I knew there was an intelligence, watching and evaluating me. The experience was uncanny and thrilling at the same time.

After that, we made a habit of stopping at the parrot shop whenever we were in Seattle. We started visiting pet shops at home, too. Those were the days when the exotic bird trade was still unregulated, and pet stores would get dozens of different species for sale, most of them kept in overcrowded conditions.

Once, we saw birds with scaly face mites disfiguring their beaks being kept in a coral with other birds with clipped wings, and made a point of avoiding that chain of stores every after.

Not that the stores we continued to visit were much better. I suspect now that most of the birds in such stores died, and most of the rest went to homes where they were chosen to match the decor in the living room, and thrust into closets and back rooms when they stopped being amusing to their owners. Only a handful are likely to have had happy lives.

Now, the restrictions on the parrot trade have mostly ended such commercial misery, and I regret having assisted it by patronizing such stores. At the time, though, we had no idea. Our fascination grew, and, when our tarot-reading friends bought a yellow-naped dwarf macaw they named Coquette, who quickly befriended us, we became ambitious to own a parrot ourselves.

Large parrots like cockatoos, and macaws were beyond what we could afford, and Amazons seems staid. However, we soon learned that conures, a small South American type of parrot had much the same irreverent rowdiness as macaws, and were far less expensive.

We briefly considered a blue-headed conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store who responded excitedly to us through the bars, going so far as to think of naming him MacAlpen, because his blue and green feathers reminded us of a hunting pattern on some of the older Scottish kilts. But somehow, he didn’t seem quite right.

Then at the Kingsgate Mall, we met a young nanday in the closed room. His round cage sat amid a dozen others, most of which were much larger than he was. The only other bird near his size was a red rosella, and they would hang from the bars of their cages for hours, cheeping back and forth.

The nanday had a bright-eyed look of innocence. He was also missing two claws on his foot, which was almost a sure sign of the kind of rough treatment associated with the illegal export of birds. In addition, the store owner seemed dodgy, boasting of contacts that sounded like smugglers and claiming that the nanday was several years old when his all-black hood strongly suggested he was under a year.

We went home and looked up nandays in the magazines we had accumulated. Nandays were poor talkers, we read. They were noisy, and not fit for keeping in apartments. They were not beginners’ birds.

Still the nanday at Kingsgate Mall had an irresistible gallantry, a willingness to hold his own in the face of much larger birds. On our second visit, we agreed to buy him, and to take him home after the folk festival. We did stop by on the way to the festival to feed him cherries, but we waited until the day after, which was Trish’s birthday, to pick him up.

We put him in the living room, and went out to dinner to give him time to adjust to his new surroundings. I was so excited that I could barely leave him, or eat when we got to the restaurant.

Somewhere along the line, though we agreed to call the bird Ningauble, after the insatiably curious and gossiping wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The wizard’s personality seemed to match the bird’s, and we were completely enchanted. What we didn’t know was that one of the most enduring features of our domestic life had arrived.

Whole wheat, sour dough, rye, pita, challah,  foccacia, poppadom, and naan – no matter what form you serve it in, I have an obsession with bread that amounts to gluttony. One of my most memorable meals was in San Francisco in 1992 with Margo Skinner, where we sat long after closing while the cook — delighted that Margo had lived in India — served us bread after bread, and I still wasn’t sated. But for me, no bread comes close to matching the bagel. Whether Montreal or New York style, the smell of a bagel causes me to salivate uncontrollably.

Understand that I am not talking about the round pieces of bread that are sold by the half dozen in grocery stores that purport to “New York Style Bagels” – a euphemism for “not a bagel at all.” The only thing that these upstart buns have in common with an actual bagel is their round shape, and the hole in the middle. These alleged bagels are frauds, one and all, and in a civil society would not be tolerated for a moment.
For one thing, a true bagel is not sprinkled with onions or bits of cheddar cheese. Nor is made from whole wheat flour. No! These ingredients are a snare and deception played upon the unwary. All these innovations may be fine on other breads, but the true bagel is covered, both top and bottom,  in either sesame or poppy seeds, regardless of whether you eat it with cream cheese and lox, or simply hot, melted butter.

A true bagel uses a touch of malt to activate the yeast and harden the outside when they are dropped into boiling water before cooking. Even more importantly, a true bagel rises for half an hour before being punched down and rolled into shape, and  for another twenty minutes, making it the sort of dense foodstuff that sentients of taste and refinement must eat on high-gravity planets across the galaxy. Such a bagel is the breakfast of heroes, the yeasty equivalent of a bowl of Scottish oatmeal whose dozen bites, when eaten at 6am , can sustain you until noon even when you are doing heavy labor.

Yet this is the sort of bagel you rarely find in most cities. In fact, you can forget Pokémon Go – what I want is an app that can locate a proper bagel when I am traveling. In Vancouver, Solly’s makes a decent bagel, although the true masterpiece of all its branches is challah. Seigel’s is genuine, too, with the mild sourness of malt as an aftertaste, and is, in fact, the only bagel found locally on grocery shelves that is worth buying.

Stray out into the suburbs, though, and edible bagels are rarer than Tsonqu’a. In fact, before you are fifty kilometers down the highway in any direction, the prospects of a true bagel is several thousand kilometers down the road.

For that reason, a few years  ago I finally learned to make my own. Even, as sometimes happens, I have to substitute sugar for malt, the result is better than what I can buy in most places. But the do-it-yourself  approach does help me to understand why bagels worth eating can rarely be bought. Bagels are labor intensive, and making them circular is  a craft that takes several batches to learn; my own approach is to poke a hole in one end of the dough when it is rolled out into a flopping rope, then insert the other end into the hole and twist the ends together. Personally speaking, though, I would rather go to the trouble than condemn myself to lesser breads for breakfast.

If you are interested in how people age, a school reunion is ideal for observations – especially if several decades have passed since graduation. The types are quite distinctive, although since my own recent reunion, I am still puzzling over what the physical changes indicate. However, I am starting to believe that George Orwell was correct when he wrote in his journal that, after forty, everyone has the face they deserve.

In my experience, people tend to age in one of two ways: either they continue to look much the same as ever, or there is a drastic change in them. Very few are anywhere in the middle, and those who are likely to have had major upheavals in their lives. Their bodies, for example, may be similar to what they were when they were young, but a stiffness in their walk may indicate knee replacements, or deep-set lines in their faces a prolonged illness or trauma.

Those who continue to look much the same are often those who take exercise and diet seriously. These people are rather strained – threadbare around the edges is the phrase that comes to mind – but usually move well and seem lightly brushed with age, either mentally or physically.

More often, those who look much the same are heavier set than when they were young, but are still recognizable. They may be bald, or have a limp, but you can easily subtract such incidental changes to see their younger selves beneath, and, once you do, they remain unmistakable. Some of them seemed to have grown into their bodies, so that what what seemed like too large a nose now seems to suit them. If they were clumsy, they have developed, if not a grace, but an appropriateness in their movements. Somehow, they have learned to accept themselves.

In contrast, others look so different that you would never recognize them without a name tag. Often, they have gained considerable weight, as people tend to do as they age because few of us realize that our eating and exercise habits need to change as we age. However, those who greatly changed also tend to be more careless in the way they dress. It is not that they are eccentric so much as they no longer worry about the image they present to the world. To my eye, they seem tired and often colorless

Very occasionally, you do find someone who has changed for the better, but, after several decades, they are the rarest type of all. Often, they have overhauled their lives because of a premature heart attack or some other crisis, becoming slim where they were once chunky, and outgoing where they were shy To be honest, this type often disconcerts me, because I feel that I have never known them at all.

These categories are fairly complete in my experience. However, what I am less certain about is what to make of them. I tend to think that those who look basically the same have been true to their natures, while those who have greatly changed have given up on life, and are preparing to follow the chalk marks on the floor for the rest of their lives.

However, this may be my own prejudice. In theory, those who have greatly changed may have matured, and now please themselves instead of doing what every one expects. Yet judging from their conversation, which is all about retirement and their empty nests, that doesn’t seem to be so. Perhaps Orwell was more accurate than I first imagined.

On this date in 2010, at 3:05pm, my partner Trish died. We had been together thirty-two years. Since then, at a time when most people are settling down domestically, I have had to start again. So far, my new start has not included a new relationship. Nor do I expect to.

Whenever I state my current situation, most people assume that it troubles me. They imagine that I am discouraged, and tell me to cheer up, that a new relationship could happen at any time. A relationship is such an important part of their lives, they cannot imagine someone who does not share their pre-occupation. From their perspective, I must be being stoic, wearing a brave face while being shredded inside.

What they don’t understand (and probably never will, unless they are widowed themselves) is that I mean exactly what I say. I wouldn’t refuse another relationship. I might even take a chance on a less promising relationship. However, it is no longer a priority

Perhaps part of my attitude is my realization that, unless you divorce or break up, a relationship is going to end with one of you dying – a fact that popular culture conveniently ignores. Having faced that overwhelming event once, I admit that I am nervous about facing it twice. Emotionally, the death of your partner is overwhelming, and, even after your grief has quietened to a chronic condition that is always in the background, it puts you out of sync with your family and generation.

Still, I might take a chance – but only if I thought my new relationship had any chance of being as successful as the one I shared with Trish. We worked hard on our relationship, and, even after thirty years, many people assumed that we had just found each other. When I have had the best, why should I settle for anything less, just because I am afraid of dying alone (and I am afraid) – or, worse, because everyone thinks that I should be hanging out on OK Cupid, and taking night school classes in the hopes of meeting someone?

Having been lucky once, I am not greedy. I have had my share – in fact, more than my share, when I observe many of the relationships around me.

However, the main reason I am not particularly eager for a new relationship is that, in the last six years, I have learned to survive alone. I have learned to go to parties without being supported by someone or supporting them. I have learned that, if I don’t do a chore, it won’t get done. I have learned to live without having someone with whom to share absurd or puzzling moments. Now my calendar is my own, and I stay up or go to bed early without consulting anyone else.

At first, I didn’t care for being responsible for no one except my parrots and I. But I survived – I had no choice, because a minimal number of things always had to be done each day, even after I had plunged into the bureaucracy of death and out the other side. Now, I am like a castaway who, after praying each day for rescue, realizes that I have become accustomed to my own solitude.

In fact, I suspect I am no longer fit for a relationship, anymore than, after twelve years of freelancing, I am fit for working in an office. Inevitably, I have grown egocentric. Unlike most people, I no longer define myself by my relationships – not even the one that Trish and I shared.

I think wistfully of a relationship from time to time, but I abandoned worrying about relationships – or a lack of them – several years ago. In the last six years, I have learned to live with myself, accomplished a few things that satisfy me, and even to find a bit of contentment. But the difference between me and the average adult is that relationships no longer define me.

By your standards, I might be poorly adjusted. However, I no longer expect what most people suspect. You may not understand my perspective but, then, I no longer understand yours either, except by a conscious act of empathy.

Please do me the courtesy, though, of believing that I mean what I say. For the most part, I am content with my adjustments to life – even if many of those adjustments are not the ones I expected to be making at this stage of my life.

My younger ghost is walking,
He kissed you against the wall,
I hear he looked a lot like me,
Would you know him now at all?

Last Saturday, I went to my high school reunion. If that sounds unlike me, that was the point. However, what struck me most during the evening how varied and sometimes strange the opinions about me were. Walt Whitman may be vast and contain multitudes, but I could only wonder how one uncomplicated person could inspire so many opposing opinions that were at odds with my self-image today.

I went to a large high school, and it has been (mumble, mumble) years, so I wasn’t surprised that some people failed to remember me at all. Another person remembered me as a basketball player, pretending to remember only when I said that I had always lacked the coordination for basketball. I tried to demonstrate my clumsiness by make dribbling motions with my hands, but either I had drunk too little or too much to get my point across, because the person with the faulty memory wandered vaguely away, leaving me to imagine myself Afro-American and fifteen centimeters taller.

Almost as bad were the women with whom I had once been infatuated. One I saw across the room, but she seemed defeated by life, putting in the time until her death; I waved at her, but by her lack of enthusiasm I might have been inviting her to a meal of slugs and tripe, and I inferred I was not a welcome memory. Another women, whose last exchange with me involved me angrily unfriending her on Facebook arrived late, watched me all evening the way a squirrel would watch a hawk, and left early, possibly fed up with the dance of keeping away from me.

A long-ago friend was more accurate and more enthusiastic describing how I used to run everyone else into the ground at track meets “Oh, thank you very much,” I said, referencing my bad knees and suggesting that, these days, a two legged dog could outrun me without breaking into a pant.

Still another went on in embarrassing detail about how, when I ran, I wore a look of concentration that nothing could shake. That was news to me, but when they went on to say that my example had inspired them later in life, I wanted to cringe. Ten years ago at another reunion someone had professed to admire me, but they had built me up too much in their own mind, and my ensuing fall from grace was as quick as it was inevitable. I didn’t want a repeat, and was embarrassed to be someone else’s example, because I was sure I would sooner or later fail to match expectations.

Then there were those I had gone all the way through school with, or known even earlier. They knew who I was, but their assumption of my intelligence and abilities made me squirm, making me squirm with the knowledge that at best I had only feebly fulfilled whatever promise I might have had. We were glad to see each other, but after the initial welcome, we didn’t have much to say. The mutual sympathy was there in several cases, but our meeting sometimes felt like a convocation of our younger ghosts than a meeting of our current selves – wistful and even pleasant, yet always with a sense of a gulf that would take more than good will or a single evening to cross.

On the whole, it was easier to deal with people with whom I had struck up a casual exchange with over the Internet, involving a lot of jokes and little beyond the present. That was a persona I could slip into easily, enjoying and, I hope entertaining others without giving too much away.

The exceptions were one or friends from long ago with whom I could simply talk. Soon after arriving, I had a long conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, and later on one about British punk-folk bands. The kindness of these friends was part of the reason I could relax, but another part was that these topics bridged the past and present for me. In these topics, my authentic self (or what I imagine to be my present self) was to the fore, and I could relax.

Unfortunately, a reunion was not the place for the deeper conversations I would have preferred. On the whole, the evening was enjoyable enough, but, on the long taxi ride home, I kept thinking that while many people go to reunions to reconnect, or to prove something to others, I must be one of the only ones to have brought home the rags and tatters of former selves, many of which had never fit, and most of which certainly did not any more.