Wednesday, July 7, 2021

With or Without Lust?

I'll let you just react to this, before I get to my point. 

A few days ago, as I was driving home from work through a lovely and very old neighborhood (Haddonfield, NJ -- site of much Revolutionary War stuff and also the place in which the world's first "nearly complete" dinosaur skeleton was discovered [which is all irrelevant to my story]), I saw, on the sidewalk, a beautiful woman, probably in her late forties, casually dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, walking her dog in the dappled sunlight beneath the trees at the roadside. 

Being a gentleman of the ilk that has always been attracted to the beauty of a woman, I was looking in appreciation of said beauty, when she "caught" me. This all happened in a few seconds. I was driving; she turned to see who was passing; I was already looking at her.

Our eyes met... (Oh, stop. That's not where I'm going.) 

She smiled at me and I smiled at her. We shared a smile -- as I see it -- between Gen X-ers. The smile of a generation that was, I think, a bit more sexually comfortable than those that went before or came after. (I'm not saying everything was perfect with us; I don't have that kind of nostalgic lens, but, all things being equal, among healthy-minded Gen X-ers, we were pretty secure in our sexuality, by comparison.) 

Her smile was playful ("Haha -- I caught you looking"); my smile was a little sheepish ("E-heh...I uh..."). 

Her smile was a just a tiny bit flirtatious, with, maybe, a sprinkle of thanks, for the wordless compliment I was giving her: "I find you attractive." This phrase, contrary to popular belief, is not synonymous with: "You are an object to me." And the "compliment" goes no further than that appreciation and it was only a compliment because it was devoid of lasciviousness. 

I think of the Bible quotation, that a man "who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart." The key component is "to lust after her." It's not about the looking, but the kind of looking one is doing. The intent

My smile was playfully apologetic, but it carried -- I hope -- what I felt: a respectful appreciation of her beauty; a small, yet meaningful connection between two humans, rooted deeply within our ancient, natural programming.  

It's daunting to write things like this, because one misstep in wording and someone will find fault based on the standards of some variant of the modern movements regarding sexuality. I've always taught my sons that sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, but it should be a private thing between intimately involved parties. So, to write about "attraction" can seem counter to that advice, but, I think people need to write about the grays of sexuality (and of everything else), because we are losing any sense of nuanced thinking about...everything. 

In the Age Without Subtlety, ironically, everyone is "okay with" everything except "the game of love" -- hence (dare I mention it?), the demise of Pepe LePew. Modesty is lost in both men and women. Prostitutes and porn stars are afforded the respect of being called "sex workers." Modern pop music lyrics refer to explicit acts of sexuality with demeaning atitudes with no social or economic consequences, but someone who glances at a woman because he finds her beautiful and who looks for no other reason -- and with no ulterior motive -- than to appreciate that beauty opens himself up to all sorts of criticism. 

Admittedly, it all stands on the edge of a knife, though, doesn't it? Shift the smile or perceive the smile just a bit off-center, and it becomes a leer and a leer is certainly an insult and a sign of lascivious intent...but for us two, it was, as the youngins are all saying, "all good." We made each other smile. That is what used to be the magic in the dynamics of the sexes -- the game of attraction was fun to play (as long -- and this is essential -- as the woman had the final say in the outcome). 

Speaking of the comfort of Gen X: yes, in case you are wondering, my wife will read this. But that does not matter, in the least. I already talked about this incident with her and we aleady had a philosophical conversation about it. She is neither threatened nor angry. She knows who I am. She knows I am loyal to her for life. And, under similar circumstances, she would have reacted just as this woman did. My wife appreciates being appreciated for her beauty, as well, and her day would have been brightened just a bit by the "compliment" of being respectfully "looked at" by a man. 

My final point? This, to me, was a healthy exchange -- however brief -- between two people in a similar mindset. I've gone past the point of wanting to tell people what to think, but I do wish the dynamics of the sexes these days wasn't so pre-loaded with paranoia. The safety and respect of women is paramount, but I wish raising awareness about this real issues in male predatory behavior didn't have to create immediate suspicion of the motivations of the every, kind-hearted but sexually healthy male in the world. 

Somewhere along the line, the game of love became a chess match. It's a little sad, that's all.  If you don't believe that this has happened, consider: I recently taught Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and some of my high school kids didn't like that the young men were in "mad pursuit" of the young women. 

They didn't see it, as Keats did, as "wild ecstasy." The best they could do was to call it "cringey."

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I Want a Funeral

When I move on to join the invisible choir; when I kick the bucket and, then, quickly following thereupon, the buy the farm, just to be sure I did things properly, I don't want a "Celebration of Life." I want a good, old-fashioned, tear-jerking, black-clad funeral. 

Have whatever you want for your loved ones. Call it what you want. I'm not judging you. These things are personal choices and no one can be told they are doing things "wrong" and I'm not trying to do that. It's just that, for me, I think the best thing to do when someone dies is to be somber and sad. We're wired to cry when we lose loved ones, and cry we should. 

I get it, though -- the whole "celebration of life" thing. A while ago, I lost a close friend. He was younger than I am and we lost him to an unseen heart ailment. He wasn't religious, so there was a remembrance...thing. I don't think anyone called it a "celebration of life" but we spent most of our time sharing funny stories. (He was the most obnoxious, irreverant, inappropriate, foppish oaf I have ever known, and I [and we all] loved him for all of that.) The whole thing was full of laughter with a sprinkling of tears. 

But, it's weird. I find a strange sense of open-endedness in his loss. That's the best I can describe it. Of course, I'm not the important one here. As long as his family got what they needed from the day, that's all that matters. 

In the end, I think I want a little more gloom at my funeral: people standing in the rain in sunglasses, looking all pale and drawn; distraught loved-ones having to be pulled away from my coffin so it can be lowered into the ground; a priest who intones like Max von Sydow; low, slow-rolling thunder; Barber's "Adagio for Strings" running through everyone's heads; one of my sons, kneeling under a rising crane shot as the rain falls, yelling "Why!? WHAAAYYY!!??" up to the deaf,  leaden heavens... That kind of thing. 

Call me grim. (I'll wait.) 

My biggest loss, ever, has been my dad. We had a traditional, Catholic funeral. I wrote this and read it, tearfully, at times, and there were many tears because of it. We only moved away from long-standing tradition in two ways. First, there was no open coffin; he had said, many times in his life, that he did not want that, so that was non-negotiable. Second, he was cremated. I have a small regret about this. When I visit his grave, I really don't feel like I am visiting "him." To have known he was under that headstone in his physical form (at least in my memory) would have been comforting to me. Ashes don't feel the same. 

In the end, all of tthese post-death procedures are for the living. My dad, being dead, doesn't care about any of this; neither does my friend. In the end, I want my family to do what they want -- whatever they need. But I strongly urge them to consider going about things in the way things have been gone about for centuries: tears, gloom and black clothing. Somehow, we decided, at some point, as a human collective, that this is what we needed. There must be a reason for that...

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Vinyl Word

I couldn't resist the title. Sorry. 

So, records... Old-fashioned, 33 RPM, vinyl records...

Don't run away -- this is not going to be an audiophile post, I promise. I'm not a fan of most 'Philes, to be honest with you. I am a fan of the Phillies, but not of the 'Philes, just to keep things straight. 

(Too much coffee this morning. Mea culpa.) 

Anyway, records. I like them. I just patched up the old stereo system with a new amplifier -- which gets used mostly for watching movies in 5.1 surround. (Surround just makes movies so much cooler. The first fight scene in the not-bad Gibson movie, The Patriot, will sell you on the merits of surround sound, if you are not already a believer.)

But, having gotten a turntable a few years ago, I have been rebuilding a record collection. 

There is a camp that argues for the merits of "analog" sound (records and tape), versus "digital" (CDs and MP3s) but, as a musician who works primarily in the digital world, I see the merits of both. (I do think, however, that one can hear a major difference between MP3s and streaming, as opposed to CDs or records. Too much to go into, here.)

This is not about sound quality, though; it's about the experience of listening to a record. 

When I decide to listen to an vinyl album, I have to put it on the turntable, drop the needle and sit back to listen. There is no easy "pausing" and there is no skipping of tracks without standing up, walking across the room and lifting the needle -- after which, one has to find the notch between tracks and carefully put the needle down in the right spot, which is usually a question of trial and error, laced with stifled profanities. (The other day, listening to Sting's The Soul Cages, I actually sat through "St. Agnes and the Burning Train." Who does that?) 

With a record, one commits to the act of listening with attention in a way one doesn't with playlists. And, halfway through, one needs to flip the record over. This, to me, is a refocusing of attention and an awakening of the body: standing up re-awakens the brain, which is why I sometimes tell my classes, mid-session, to stand up and then sit down again. 

And we can't forget the fact that albums were created as songs grouped together around a central idea or theme or vibe, in the past -- or, at the very least, were written during the same timespan and, so, share similarities, if only as a result of the songwriters' preferences or artistic development at the time. This is a completely different experience than setting the phone on "shuffle." (Around the time of the inception of the iPod, I had a young student tell me he listened to new albums on "shuffle" so he never got tired of the order. But the order was chosen for a reason...or, used to be.)

Undeniably, there is an element of nostalgia for a guy my age in listening to actual records: the large-scale cover art; the liner notes; the lyrics. But, listeing to a record used to be an active process, whereas now music has become more of a background thing for most people. 

I like the connection and the committment of listening to a record. And, yes, sitting between loudspeakers that are moving actual air and hearing sounds generated from a needle traveling through actual grooves in actual material must, in some way, make a difference. 

In case you are wondering, no: I never understood why people were nostalgic about the cracks, pops and jumps. They still suck. Which is why I highly recommend re-releases on 180 gram vinyl. 

Now get out there and spin stuff. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Eulogy for Nuanced Thinking

Nuance is pretty much dead. On social media, it's so dead that I have recently decided to stop being satirical. People -- even people I think are pretty smart -- just don't seem to see it anymore. Over the past few years, things that I said with shades of blue and tan and green have been stolen from me by the groupthinkers and turned into explosions of bright yellow and, now, any reference to my nuanced ideas are seen as another voice in agreement with the screaming binary crowds. (Heck, I might as well mix metaphors. There are no rules anymore, right?)

(Swift is turning in his grave right now.) 

For instance, I have long criticized the fact that "science is the new religion." You can find posts about it here, going back to 2010. Then, along came the climate-change deniers and, counter to it, the "trust the science" movement. Now, on one side stand those who ignore science and, on the other, are those who blindly follow anything a scientist says -- who treat science as a depository of incontrovertible fact and see lab coated rsearchers as vestment-clad priests and priestesses of truth. So, if I question science, even after doing considerable reading on it, I must be seen as one side by a fool and by the other as one of their own. 

Fake news? Good old Mr. Trump killed that one. Again, for years, I complained about misleading and outright phony news. Now that he, in his inimitably oafish and cro-magnon-like way has appropriated the phrase, if one complains about the news with its biases and clickbaits, one is seen as a conservative who is only doing what the former president did: trying to kill news he does not agree with. 

I have also written about "wokeness," ridiculing it as a complete paradox: people claim to be "woke" -- which should be a state of the highest level of the achievement of rationality -- when, in fact, all they are really doing is subscribing to a pre-written script. But the conservatives killed that, by making it a slur and a joke. Worse, if one doesn't like that phrase, it will be assumed he is a racist. (God forbid someone call a Black man a "thug." Shame -- another very good word dies...)

I have also long pointed out the need to help our kids to be a little tougher; to allow them to believe in their own strength and ability to get through diversity. Then, along came things like meme of the eighteen-year-old lad storming the beach at Normandy alongside a picture of a "millenial" young man with tattos and stretched earlobes, wearing a pink tank-top and a tutu.  (See how much kids have changed!) Now, if I wrestle with the idea of weakness in our kids, I am pretty much percieved as calling them "snowflakes," which I certainly am not. But nuance, schmuance. You're with us or against us. 

For the love of all that is holy (oh, wait, I must be a religious nut for using that phrase and religion is 100% horrible... forgive me, angry masses...), I can't even express an English teacher's concern for the use of the word "they" as a singular pronoun without being implicitly accused of not caring if young trans people commit suicide. I made the mistake of pointing out this awful bit of writing from a local news Instagram: 

From Channel 6 News: "Singer Demi Levato has revealed they are non-binary and are changing their pronouns, telling fans they are 'proud' to make the change after a lot of self-reflective work."

My light-hearted quip that "telling fans that they are proud" is confusing and asking trans people to just invent themselves a new pronoun was met with questions about my concern for the well-being of others. I pointed out, on the thread, that "one begins to feel that if one ctiticizes a small thing about marginalized people that one is bound to be accused of dismissing them as humans." I've even been told that my assertion that the truth about a police incident between white officers and Black suspects or traffic stop subjects is not the important thing: one should always be on the side of the cop or the side of the Black citizen. 

How is that a remotely sane attitude? How does change happen with this idea?

So, and I mean this proverbially: don't put your arm around me. I don't want to be on your team. Teams are the reason people can't or don't think anymore. If you agree with me when I sound liberal, it doesn't mean I am a liberal and if I express a conservative view, it doesn't mean I am a conservative. 

I suppose the fools have always been louder than the thinkers. The problem is, there has never been a free and deafening megaphone like the Internet. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Waiting Room Thoughts: Marriage

The other day, I had to bring my wife to the hospital for surgery. This is usually way more difficult (emotionally) for me than it is for her. As a nurse, she is at home in the hospital and her familiarity with procedures and the overall atmosphere makes her sort of nonchalant about the whole process. (She's home and doing very well now.) 

Me? They say: "We have your phone number. The surgery will take about two hours. You can go home or to a Starbuck's and we will call you when it is done. She'll be in recovery for an hour anyway." Nope. Ain't happening. 

I have to stay in the waiting room. Something feels wrong about being farther away from her than necessary during a major operation. So, I spent three-and-a-half hours (she took longer than usual) pacing, watching awful morning TV programming (why are soap operas lighted so minimally?) and absently reading a Star Wars book that a student had given to me. ("You HAVE to read this Mr. Mat. It's great." Any decent teacher knows that this means I really did have to read it. Fortunately, the dude who wrote it is, at least, a pro; the book is what my favorite professor used to call "chewing gum for the brain" -- not a bad time-killer, in the end.)

It's always an emotional moment, sending one's loved one back into surgery, especially now, at the tail end of COVID, when one is not allowed into the pre-op room. (For my wife, it's "Meh. It's surgery." For me, it's, "Things happen. Anaesthesia is dangerous. People get infections...")  I always feel a quick, strong rush of emotion after she is gone. As I sit down, I usually reflexively say an "Our Father" to myself because, while I have never really been the religiously demonstrative type, I have always been faithful. It's at that point that I am generally able to pull myself together. And fret...with some modicum of dignity. 

Sitting in waiting rooms does lead one to think, though. And think, I did. 

We were the first ones there, arriving at six in the morning, so I watched husband after husband bring his wife in. I saw at least five long, affectionate, embraces goodbye. I heard accompanying, whispered, I-love-yous. I saw the husbands sit (they didn't want to leave, either) and wring their proverbial hands, staring uninterestedly at morning talk shows. They cared, as I did. They were in love, as I am. They were married these women, in the truest sense of the word: joined together, body and soul, and the breaking of that connection hurt. Daily life might not do it, but risk (or, at least, perceived risk) brings out the bond. 

Of course, these five husbands and myself are only anecdotal evidence (only a sample of the massive population of the world) but it raised a question: If these randomly-gathered people and myself are so clearly in love after so many years, how real is the media portrayal of the decline of marriage?

TV and Internet are dangerous windows. They are, in the end, a tiny portal of information, filtered through a tiny representative portion of the world's population, represented by the producers, writers, presenters, etc. They are the gatekeepers of information. They don't represent the collective voice of the world, at all. And neither do we six husbands represent all of the husbands in the world, but a quick, random sample might just imply that marriage and love are okay and they, the media, who have always favored the grim over the optimistic, might just be forcing a tainted characterization. 

If fifty percent of marriages fail, it doesn't mean the other fifty percent are not good, real, good-old-fashioned bonds, right? There is a lot of love out there. Maybe it's not so dire.