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Archive for June, 2016

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?
-Oysterband

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.

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I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

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“Mansplaining” is the portmanteau word coined by feminists for men’s tendency to lecture women – at length, on the obvious, and even on subjects on which the woman is an expert. Ever since I was alerted to mansplaining, I have noticed it several times a day, and it never fails to make me wince.

For one thing, mansplaining is an embarrassment, like an elderly relative who makes loud racist comments at a family dinner. Worse, it is an embarrassment that I am rarely in a position to divert or shut down. When I try, either I am labeled rude for interrupting, or the intervention flounders with my attempt to explain what is offensive, and ends up with me taking the blame for disturbing a social gathering.

Instead, I am left feeling the discomfort that the mansplaining man ought to feel for himself, but never does. The man goes on and on in a hectoring tone of voice, as often as not getting the facts wrong, impervious to interruption, and all the while leaning closer and closer to his victim, apparently under the impression that he has become endless fascinating to her.

Meanwhile, the woman tries to stay polite, interjecting a few vague words or a polite laugh that the man mistakes for interest. She is rarely able to turn the monologue into a discussion, because the man does not detect anything except the fact that he has audience. He never dreams that she has mostly tuned him out, because, in his world view, the main reason for her current existence is to make him feel important or charming – and, for the most part, cultural conventions back him up. And, just like when I try to intervene, any other response from her puts her in the wrong socially instead of him.

All this is so wrong on so many levels, that I am torn between moving out of earshot and leaning closer, morbidly fascinated that anyone could be so crass and unobservant as the mansplainer.

Yet that is not all that bothers me. I am what some people call a high verbal, and for many years I was a university instructor. Regardless of whether I am talking to a man or a woman, my interest in a discussion frequently causes me to interrupt as I become excited by an idea that has struck me, and I have to apologize frequently and back down to avoid monopolizing the conversation. This behavior is not helped by the fact that, as an instructor, I actually was the expert (at least most of the time), and partly paid for lecturing, although I usually tried to turn the lecture into a discussion after I conveyed a few basic facts.

Consequently, whenever I see a demonstration of mansplaining, I am apt to review my recent conversations, and wonder if I have been guilty of the same behavior that I am privately denouncing. Given the social norms between men and women, mansplaining can be appalling easy to commit, even when, intellectually, I am determined to avoid it.

Sometimes, I go so far as to ask a woman I am having a one-on-one conversation with if I am talking too much. However, that is not much help, because her social role is to reassure me, and even the most activist woman can sometimes fall into it. Although I am pleased when a woman tells me that I haven’t been dominating the conversation, or that I am a man who knows how to talk to women, I can never be sure she is not offering me a bit of conventional politeness, woman to man. In the end, I am left to my own self-observations. The result is that the mansplaining is not only boring a nearby woman (or sometimes women), but also leaving me full of self-doubt and self-accusation.

I grew to understand what mansplaining feels like to a woman when I published a book. The reviews were mostly upbeat, and the criticisms minor, but a few reviewers insisted on explaining why I should have done one thing or another. Had they asked, I could have told them I had considered their ideas months ago, and discarded them for well-founded reasons – but of course they never did ask. They simply expressed their opinions, and, like a mansplainer’s victim, I could say nothing without sounding ungracious myself. However, I did start wondering why there were not more instances of women lunging across restaurant tables, intent on mayhem with the cutlery, and I became more determined than ever not to be a mansplainer myself.

To me, a mansplainer is a Jungian Shadow, an embodiment of things I do not want to be or even have around me. Consequently, whenever I encounter one, I cannot help but react with distaste and self-doubt, hoping against hope that the situation will soon be over. Unfortunately, though, it almost never is.

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