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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

At a recent Meaningful Discussions meetup on gender equality, one of the warm-up questions was “Why do you like being a man or a woman?” I thought it an odd question.

I never thought to have an opinion about being a man, any more than I thought to have much of one about being left-handed or on the short side of medium height. It was just another fact, and one that I would need to feel far more strongly about than I do before taking steps to change it.

When others at my table had answered the question, all I managed to contribute was to draw an analogy to Bill Hicks’ answer to the question, “Are You Proud to be an American?”: “I didn’t have a lot to do with it. My parents fucked there, that’s about all.”

I am aware, though, that for many people – probably the majority – being a man or a woman is a major part of how they define themselves. Or, to be exact, in the case of most men, how they define themselves is as not being women. So why am I different? Why is being a man such a minor part of my identity? Outside of my love life, which is as straight as it could be, I don’t spend much time thinking of myself as a man.

After all, I never made a conscious decision to reject male values. For the most part, I simply ignore them.

Part of the answer is probably that I never felt any need to prove my masculinity. Although I reached my full height at fifteen, I entered adolescence tall for my age, which tends to command respect among young males. Also, I won cross-country championships and broke several long distance records on the track – neither of which represented main stream athleticism in the football and basketball culture of high school, but which together were enough of an accomplishment that no one bothered me.

Despite doing well in academics, I was never called a geek or a nerd, and in the couple of attempts to bully me, I more than managed to hold my own through my smart mouth. I felt more annoyed than challenged. I never had a need to establish my position in the hierarchy of boys, or to reject a standard that I couldn’t meet. Looking back, I realize I was lucky.

Just as important was my father’s example. He told me once how, when he was in the British Army in World War 2, he made the mistake of telling a visiting officer that he didn’t see much point in the training his unit was receiving in preparation for the Normandy Invasion. Next day, he was transferred to a unit that would be among the first to land – an experience that had taught him to shut his mouth and go his own way.

Later, when I worked several summers in the plant where my father was a foreman, I noticed that was the way he lived outside the house. He could swear and joke with the best of his fellow workers (although, unlike many men of his generation, never around women or children), but I never heard him doing so in a bragging or aggressive way. Seeing him going his own way, I unconsciously did the same, withdrawing more and more from teen society in the last two years of high school. By the time I graduated, peer pressure barely existed for me.

These unconscious influences were emphasized by my conscious decision when I was fourteen that I was a feminist. By that point, my mother had been back at work for several years, and I had seen how my parents’ division of labor had shifted as a result. Around the same time, I also fell under the influence of a cool student teacher in large glasses and a granny dress who introduced feminism into her lessons. The times, as they said at the time, were a-changin’, and why should I waste my effort living up to updated standards? Declaring myself a feminist was part of my rebellious adolescence, and soon settled down to a part of my identity that I did care about.

Accordingly, I graduated, went to university, and eventually married another feminist. Both of us simultaneously made it a condition of marriage that she not change her name, and in the thirty-two years before she died, we both took considerable enjoyment from breaking sexual stereotypes in little ways, like having her pay at the restaurant. The cash came from the same bank account, so who cared who handed it out? Anyway, the confusion on the server’s face was frequently priceless.

Under all these circumstances, no wonder the question of what I liked about being a man seems meaningless to me. I am still too busy trying to be a human, which seems far more important.

Of course, not worrying about my gender identity is a form of male privilege. A woman, I suspect, would have to be superhuman in her self-will not to be continuously aware of the expectations placed on her due to her gender. No one would allow her to forget. All the same, if I had to choose something I like about being a man, I would have to say it is the fact that in many aspects of life, I don’t have to think about being a man. In fact, the question is so remote from the way I live my life that it took me four days after the meetup about gender equality to come up with any kind of answer.

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Short men are often said to compensate for their lack of height by being aggressive – Napoleon being the usual example. I hope I don’t act that way, but, if I do, I have an excuse. You see, until I was about fourteen, I was tall for my age.

I don’t know how it is for girls, but height makes a difference to boys, if my experience is anything to go on. For a boy, being big means that you are afraid of very few other children. Generally, nobody tries to bully you, although every now and then another boy might pick a fight.

I imagine being tall could also make you a bully, although I don’t think I was one very often. With my head is full of Robin Hood and King Arthur, I was always looking out for opportunities to act the way they would, and once or twice I made a point of standing up for one or two of the weaker boys in my classes.

Still, a tall and stocky boy can hardly help but be an unconscious bully in some senses. Because of your build, you get used to people thinking twice about taking the ball away from you on the soccer or rugby field, and start to take advantage of the fact.

You know, too, that other children will generally give you more space to sit down, and tend to listen to you more. Even if you don’t actively take advantage of such treatment, you still come to expect it as your due, no matter how guilty the expectation makes you.

However, such things changed when I was in my mid-teens. At twelve, I was 175 centimeters, and taller than every boy in my class except one or two who had failed a grade or two. But somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, I stopped growing at about 180 centimeters. Meanwhile, the other boys were catching up. By the time I could vote, I was on the small side of medium.

Today, the only reason I’m not considered small is because of the arrival of even shorter immigrants from cultures with a traditionally low-protein diet. And even then, the second-generation immigrants are likely to be taller than me.

However, I sometimes wonder if my hind brain has caught up with this reality several decades later. I acknowledge my lack of height consciously, but not very deep down, I’m still conditioned by having been tall in my early years. No doubt the fact that I am usually fit and always stocky contributes to my denial.

At any rate, I’m told that I can still project the easy – or maybe arrogant – air of the tall. On some level, I assume my right to be treated like a tall person, and, bluff being so much a part of human relationships, I am often given it.

Occasionally, such assumptions clash with those of men who are actually tall. Their mild bewilderment amuses me, although I tell myself that if I’m not careful, my assumptions are going to result in me standing up at the wrong time to the wrong giant – possibly one with a gun.

However, the surest sign that I still think I’m tall is how rarely I think of such things. If, as feminists are apt to say, the greatest privilege is not to understand that you’re privileged, then the fact that I don’t usually act the way a short man is expected to is a good indication of how I tend to think.

In fact, mostly I don’t think of my height much at all, unless I’m straining to reach the top shelf in the kitchen. It’s only the behavior of others that reminds me of my relative lack of height, and how important that can be in male body language.

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I can still pinpoint the start of my interest in classical history fairly precisely. It was in the spring I was in Grade Three, when Mrs. Charlewood, the school librarian, in a desperate effort to direct my rapid consumption of the library, suggested I try a book called Hannibal’s Elephants.

I didn’t know who Hannibal was, or why the Carthaginians might be at war with Rome, but I was enthralled. If I remember correctly, the story was narrated by a teenage boy who marched with Hannibal, and possibly had some responsibility for the elephants. At one point early in the story, someone sang a song that began:\
Across the Alps and Apennines
In battles far from home,
His elephants lunge at trembling lines
When Hannibal conquers Rome.

At least once, I had a dream in which a woman with a malicious smile started to sing the song, which for some reason I dreaded hearing.

The book ended, of course, with the defeat of Hannibal’s Italian campaign and his recall to Carthage. But I was left with a burning question: how did Rome finally fall? I knew that it must have, since I had a vague idea that the Middle Ages were between Rome and my day, but I wanted to know the details.

I went to the librarian, who didn’t know. She asked a Grade 7 girl who was helping to with restacking books, who said that she wasn’t sure, but she thought that the “Greeks rose to power and destroyed them.”

Even at eight, I could sense that the girl was improvising and knew only a little more than I did. I realized that I would have to find out for myself, so that was what I started to do, reading all the Greek and Roman history and mythology I could find in the school and civic libraries. I remember that in Grade Four, after the teacher taught us about butterflies and metamorphosis, I showed her a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, suggesting there might be a connection, only to receive a sniff for a reply – possibly because she thought Ovid too racy for me, but more likely because she was unprepared for the subject.

Fortunately, at that age I was not very aware of nuance, and continued reading history, branching out into the Egyptians and Babylonians at one end of the Classical era and The Middle Ages at the other.

As an adult, I’ve made some half-hearted efforts to track down the book that inspired me. The only possible candidate is a book by Alfred Powers that was first published in 1946, and just might have lingered long enough in a school library for me to have read it. So far, though, I’ve resisted the effort to purchase it online. I doubt – and worry – that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. Anyway, unlike Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth or Robert Lancelyn Green’s Robin Hood, I value the book for the lifelong interest that it started more than for itself.

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The mother of a friend of mine once said that he had raised himself to be a knight. She didn’t take any credit for the fact – she simply observed it, which it made it the best compliment of a child by a parent that I have ever heard. I knew instantly what she meant, because I had done much the same with Robin Hood, or at least Roger Lancelyn Greene’s version of him.

To this day, I happily devour any retelling of the stories. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood, Parke Godwin’s Sherwood and Robin and the King, the Child Ballads, the Robin of Sherwood series that made him a mystical figure associated with Herne the Hunter, Robin and Marian featuring Sean Connery as the aging hero, the recent BBC series, the Errol Flynn version with Claude Raines as the Sheriff – all are part of my mental baggage, with what for me is an unusual lack of concern for quality. I’ll even watch Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, an admission that shows just how indiscriminate my obsession really is.

You see, for better or worse, a good part of my ethical standards was consciously modeled on Robin Hood, to say nothing of my politics as well. Only King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came anywhere close to be as influential, and Robin Hood – despite being the Earl of Huntington – had the same ethics without the sense of class and privilege. He wasn’t even much of a sexist, loving a woman who shared his dangers, rather than languishing at home like Queen Guinevre.

So what did I learn as a child from Robin Hood? Far more than the manly virtue of courage. I learned that I was supposed to be polite to everyone. That I was supposed to be a good sport, even if I had just been thwacked on the head by Little John or dumped into the stream by Friar Tuck. That I was to value honesty and abhor hypocrisy. That I was supposed to help people, even at inconvenience to myself. That I was supposed to face danger cheerfully – and this, and a hundred other things besides.

However, none of this would have impressed me by itself. I could learn the same values from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – never mind that I later learned that Baden-Powell was a traitor to his own standards, having starved the local Africans to keep his British troops alive during the siege of Mafeking during the Boer Wars.

What really impressed me was that, unlike the propaganda of the Scouts, or even the followers of King Arthur, Robin Hood decided for himself. Rather than acquiesce to things that were legal but immoral, he became an outlaw, and he enforced his own sense of right and wrong while he was in Sherwood no matter how anyone else condemned him. Greene never used the phrase, but his Robin Hood lived by a higher morality, deciding for himself where right and wrong lay.

Of course, the anarchy of Sherwood cannot last, and Robin Hood ends by being pardoned by King Richard. But even as a boy I understood that end as more symbolic than anything else: King Richard is the source of the law, and his approval amounts to a public acknowledgment that Robin Hood’s code of behavior was correct, no matter how eccentric it happened to be. The idea that he was substantially changed by his reintegration into society is quashed by his last moments, when he forgives the Prioress for poisoning her and tells his followers not to avenge themselves upon her.

Part of me wants to laugh at this set of ethics, but I can never manage to be quite so flippant. Robin Hood’s example helped me through the worst stage of my life, when only a handful of people believed in me.

At other times, his example is difficult. For example, while I believe in acknowledging when an opponent has done something ethical, I often suspect that belief only serves as a handicap. Certainly few of my enemies have ever reciprocated in kind.

However, at his best, Greene’s Robin Hood embodies a generosity of spirit that I can’t help but admire. I have often fallen short of imitating this generosity, but the idea that I should try to is lodged too firmly into me to ever root out. No matter how cynical or disillusioned I might become, the lessons I learned from reading Greene’s book into oblivion are likely to remain with me for the rest of my life, even if spend my last few years senile.

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If I ever have to make a statement of my deepest beliefs, I’m going to quote John Le Carré and say,”A good writer can watch a cat pad across the street and know what it is to be pounced upon by a Bengal tiger.”

Despite my flippancy and cynicism, I really believe that, you know. With imagination, a man can know what a woman feels like when she hears a catcall about the size of her breasts. A pacifist can know why for some soldiers a war is addictive, or an athlete what being twice their ideal weight is like. All it takes is courage and effort, which is why most people have all the empathy of a rock.

And if you tell me that such exercises are self-deceit? Then I’d say that you probably have a point, but that empathy is the best that we can manage, and that it is considerably better than nothing. Even a failure of the imagination is better than no imagination at all.

To many people, such statements are heretical. Today, we like to believe that each person’s experience is so unique that nothing can bridge it. But I come by these beliefs naturally, thanks to a couple of events that happened before my fifth birthday (if not my fourth).

The first happened on the front lawn of my parents’ house. The lawn is divided into two parts, with a low stone wall separating the upper from the lower. Waiting to go somewhere, I ran out to play in the yard. Like I usually did, I ran down the upper part of the lawn, prepared to leap from the wall on to the grass below, when I noticed something coiled at the bottom of the wall.

It was a snake, dark-green with black diamond markings along its eyes and matching black eyes. It was maybe three meters long, and about as thick as my leg. Its yellow tongue was moving in and out, as though it could taste me on the air.

I froze. Utterly terrified, yet strangely calm, I began talking to the snake. Once, I told it to look behind it, and, when its head moved, I said, “Sucker” in a satisfied tone.

But it was no joke. I didn’t think that I could jump past it, and I was afraid that if I backed up to the house, it would simply wriggle after me.

I was still debating what to do when the rest of my family came out, heading for the car. My mother called my name, and I turned to look at her. When I looked back, the snake was gone, and not even the grass showed where it had been. For a while, I was convinced that it must have found a place to hide in the stone wall, which I avoided until the memory was less sharp.

The second experience probably happened a few months later. I can’t be sure, because my sense of time was undeveloped at the time. But I heard a sound in the night, and started down the hallway for a look. I was just thinking I must have imagined the sound as I came to the turn in the hallway.

And suddenly, Captain Hook from Peter Pan was there. He had never especially terrfied me on the television, but there he stood, tall in red velvet, with a black hat on his head, and black boots on his feet. His hook seemed impossibly long, and was swinging in my direction.

I shouted as loudly as I could. I could feel myself waking, and started to relax. Then I did wake, screaming, and I was standing at the turn in the hallway. Naturally, I was alone, although my parents soon rushed out. I couldn’t make them understand that I wanted to search the stairs and the basement to make sure that Captain Hook was gone, but I couldn’t express myself clearly.

Consequently, it was a long time before I fell asleep again. I was convinced that to fall asleep would be absolutely fatal.

Giant snakes and Captain Hook are both foreign to the Lower Mainland, of course. The logical explanation in both cases was that I was sleepwalking while dreaming with intense clarity and wonder. Yet for several years I had a morbid fascination with snakes, and would tuck the blankets under my feet at night to make sure that impossibly thin hook couldn’t reach up from under the bed and drag me on to the floor.

Even now, knowing what must have actually happened, I am still aware of a part of me that is utterly convinced, beyond all rational argument, that the snake and the pirate actually existed, and that I escaped them only by the most coincidental of luck. And, because of that part of me, I know all I’ve ever needed to know about the overwhelming potential of imagination.

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Most of my friends claim to have had a harrowing time at high school. They complain about being picked on by teachers, bullied by older students, hopeless at sports, and stressed by a combination of part-time jobs and homework. They paint such a Dickensian scene of horror that I feel ashamed to admit that my main complaints about high school was that it went on too long and taught me lazy habits.

The truth is, I never had any serious problems at school. I may have been good at academics (in fact, I won one of the two major scholarships the year I graduated), but I was also a minor sports star, scoring regularly in rugby, and winning races and setting records on the track and in cross-country races. If I became increasingly solitary as high school dragged on, it was because of my growing realization that I had little in common with those around me. Nobody was going to bother me, because until I stopped growing at fourteen, I was big for my age, and afterward I carried myself like a big man, and looked fit enough to cause anyone who went after me some grief.

The result of all this was that I was left to do more or less as I pleased. Teachers trusted me, and my running especially gave me respect, and most people left me alone. The only exceptions were the boys who responded sarcastically to everyone, and I had no trouble answering them in kind.

The only trouble was, I was ready to leave about Grade 10. I realized that to do any of the things I wanted to do, I would need to graduate, but all I could really do was endure and try to appreciate the fact that these would be last years free of serious responsibilities. So I kept to my routine of study and training for running, mooned about over one girl after another, and waited for it all to be over. I was bored, and I knew it.

In fact, my boredom was responsible for one of the few times a teacher kept me after class. Warming up for typing class, I had written “B—–O—–R—–E—–D!!!!!” repeatedly across my page, and, the next class, the teacher decided to admonish me. “You’re bored before the class even starts,” she said, in an accusing tone, as though I had been caught stealing the principal’s day book. After enduring a rambling lecture about how I had the wrong attitude, I muttered something about it being a joke and slunk away as soon as I could.

By Grade 12, I would take any excuse possible for getting away from school early. I would use my free period to go for a run, especially if it fell just before lunch or the last period of the day. I didn’t bother to attend graduation – officially because the girl with whom I was currently infatuated had moved back to her small town and I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but truthfully because I didn’t care.

For the last six weeks of the year, I even had permission to skip most of my classes to study for the government scholarships. The suggestion was taken by the councilors as an important step in my maturity, although they insisted that I keep attending French class, where my struggle with boredom was causing my grades to slip. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get out of classes altogether, but decided to be satisfied with what I could get. By the day of the graduation ceremony, I was already mentally far removed, and thinking of my planned trip to visit my far-away infatuation (which, needless to say, ended badly)

So, no, I can’t say I suffered much in high school, inflicting boredom not usually being regarded as cruel. But, years later, I realized that, in another respect, high school had failed me badly.

In those days, no students skipped grades. It was thought better to keep students with their peer groups. And if that meant that I mooched around a year of Community Recreation as the class loner because I had nothing in common with the rest of the class, that was supposed to somehow help me socialize into a normal North American man – something I was already resolved not to become.

Nor were there any enrichment classes to speak of. The closest equivalent was the Humanities program I took for two years, which was delightfully free-form, but meant that I had to fill many of the gaps in my education – Macbeth, for instance– for myself.

But the point was, there was nothing to challenge me, a fact that I always thought said more about the curriculum than about any brilliance in me. For two years, I drifted along bored, not trying nearly as hard as I could have. In the end, I developed a lack of self-discipline in everything except running, and had to scramble during my first semester at university to learn some proper study habits. Far from preparing me for anything, what high school really did was encourage me to take everything far too easy..

Still, after all these years, in all honesty, I can’t blame anyone else for my own shortcomings, not even a conveniently vague system or spirit of the times. So when someone else starts bemoaning the terrors of their high school years, I listen attentively and make suitable noises at suitable intervals until an opportunity to change the subject arises. My fear is that someone will learn that I lack the requisite background of torment, and consequently don’t qualify as any sort of geek at all.

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“We’re all a little older, the air’s a little colder,
Feels like forty lifetimes since we walked upon the moon.”

-OysterBand, “I Know It’s Mine”

If you aren’t old enough to remember the first moon landing, you probably have trouble understanding how much it meant – or much it can sometimes still means to those of us who were.

In 1969, life in the industrialized countries had brought more prosperity to more people than at any time in history. At the same time, there were crippling, disfiguring inequalities and wrongs like the Vietnam War to correct. Some people – the so-called “silent majority” – were in denial about the problems, while the rest of us alternated between an optimism that often spilled over into the naïve and a growing cynical conviction that nothing was going to change. It was a moody time, as exciting as it was scary for those us who were still children and starting to wonder what the world would be like when we were adults.

For me, these conflicted feelings extended to the space program. I had done a school project a few years before about space exploration, and I knew it was nothing like the great adventure that science fiction had been promising us for the past thirty years. It was, after all, popularly called The Space Race, and I knew it was an extension of the nationalism of the Cold War, a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in which each was determined to prove its ideology the best. I knew, too, that Wernher von Braun was an ex-Nazi, and that NASA was too full of the American militarism that was responsible for Vietnam. As for the astronauts, in public they were bland good soldiers that no amount of PR could ever make into heroes.

All the same, I couldn’t help following the gradual testing of the Apollo systems in the eighteen months before the actual landing. No matter how tarnished, my science fiction dreams were starting to come true. When the crew of Apollo 8, in orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, began reciting Genesis, I had much the same reaction as I’d had at Disneyland – it was at once corny and deeply moving. The gesture captured my imagination despite my recent conclusion that I was an agnostic.

By the time of the actual moon landing, my excitement – and everyone else’s – was almost unbearable. Everywhere I went, people were carrying transistor radios, not listening to music, but to live coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, or at least to discussion of it. People were making lists of firsts that would be accomplished on the mission as though they were achievements unlocked in a video game: First man to land on the moon, first man to orbit the moon alone, and dozens of others, some of them remarkably silly, including first man to leave the moon. Talk shows went on about the possibility that the LEM (which everybody knew was short for “Lunar Excursion Module”) might find itself landing sinking into layers of dust, or what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong might do if they needed suit repairs while walking on the moon, or what Michael Collins felt like, being more isolated than any other human had ever been. Nobody could get enough of the coverage.

Then the actual landing came, and none of the shortcomings of NASA or the woodenness of the astronauts, or Armstrong’s pedestrian first words from the moon could destroy the excitement. Not only were humans taking the fist step out into space, but everyone knew that anyone with a television set or radio was listening in, in a small way a part of the achievement. Suddenly, for all the social problems of the time, being a human being, and a citizen of an industrialized country didn’t seem something to be ashamed of at all. Despite all the efforts of the United States government to convince the world that the moonlanding was an American achievement, we knew it was a human achievement that highlighted the best that was in us.

For the next few days, the celebration continued. Newspapers got out the large typefaces to produce souvenir editions with front pages consisting of a single headline and a few pictures. Airlines offered souvenir vouchers, reserving seats on their first flights to the moon (I kept mine for years).

Somehow – I’m not sure how — by the time of the next moon mission, the excitement had died out, the usual social issues and divisions returned if they had ever really gone away. Yet despite the hype and jingoism surround the event, the days of the moonlanding still lingers in my memory as a significant event.

Like the ending of the World Wars, it was a defining moment that combined the fulfillment of anticipation with genuine achievement and the hope for a better future. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was one of the first major events to receive massive television coverage – but, unlike the Kennedy assassination, it left people in awe rather than horrified disbelief. It was like nothing that has happened since, not even the Falkland War or the two Gulf Wars, and probably can never happen again, given our modern cynicism and knowledge of the media.

How much of it was hype, I couldn’t say. But somehow, the point is academic. For a moment, the moonlanding made those who watched it believe – and that it why so many can’t forget it. Despite its shortcomings, I only wish that we could have a moment like that again.

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