Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On Ahabs and Snow-Whites

I don't know if this is a true story or an urban legend type thing, but my dad once told me that Gershwin asked to study composition with Ravel. Supposedly, Ravel replied, "If you study with me, I can only teach you to be a bad Ravel; you are already a great Gershwin."

I wonder about what is happening in the minds of modern men and women.

I used to have a problem, on an artistic level, with the way actresses played women in positions of power -- ships' captains on Star Trek, for instance; or senators or soldiers. It always felt to me as if the women were trying to play men; trying to be, if you will, "Ravel" when they should have remained "Gershwin" when both were equally different and equally great.

Women and men are equal in their validity as human beings, to me, so, I often wonder why some women seem, in their important quest for complete social equality, to want to take on the worst of stereotypically mannish qualities. (We'll get to men, in a minute -- they do something similar.)

For instance: war is awful. War has long been a failure of men. I wish women did not want to be warriors. It feels, to me, like children looking up to the playground bully. (I also wish men did not want to be warriors, but that is our millenia-established hole to crawl out of...)

Men have a ton of awful qualities and maybe equality does not require women sharing these awful characteristics.

I know I am on dangerous ground here, but, there is nothing more profound than a mother's gentle affection. I like the idea of women being labeled "the gentler sex." I also understand that many women consider that a damaging diminutive, but, in the purest form, gentleness is a good thing. But I do get the objection: those words out of the mouths of different man can carry different intentions and meanings.

If we could all just come center, toward each other, instead of wanting to jump into each other's (ill-fitting) shoes, that would be great. I don't want men to be simpering wimps and I don't want women to be arrogant hammers. I'd like  us all to look at what is best in our respective traditional characteristics and choose those items, a la carte. But I realize that takes thought. It is easier to create a cardboard cutout of one another and imitate that.

In our quest to redefine gender roles, it is no suprise to me that some modern men seem to be imitating the sexist stereotypes (like weakness and helplessness) they helped to create and that women seem to be putting on the masks of shallow agression that the worst of us dudes wear in our worst moments.

But being "manly" (strong and self-sufficient) is, again, in its purest form (the same way being "gentle" in its purest form is) a good thing. There is something noble in the role of the "protector" or in that of the "head of the family," as long as these things are not taken as positions of shallow, bullying dictatorship. I want, for instance, my family to look to me for leadership in tough times; for them to be confident in my abilities to be a stalwart captain. In that way, I want to be the leader. That does not feel the same to me as wanting to tell people what to do. Does that mean my wife can't fill that role whenever she wants to? Of course not. And there is my point: she can do it to, without turning into Captain Ahab.

The motivation for men to become the artificial stereotypes of weakness they have helped create for women is an obvious one: It's easier to be a victim than it is to be a hero. It's easy to shirk off the social demands of being strong, especially in a time when the idea off gender roles is being challenged (sometimes in good ways, but more often in foolish ways).

In short, if my wife doesn't need to be Ahab, I don't need to be Snow White. But, as I mentioned, I am not surprised that people of both sexes tend to slide into extremes.

Some balance in this world would be great.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Who Cares How the Cookie Crumbles?

It's easy, when living in one's own head space, to assume that one is perfectly normal. A simplistic statement and (perhaps) a simplistic state. But, on occasion, one can be presented with a situation in which everyone else feels one way and he or she does not. 

For instance, I am not much good at nostalgia, especially in that I don't seem to care in the least about institutions or organizations of which I have been a part. 

My old high school? No interest since the day of graduation. My old colleges? Same thing. Sure, I remember some events fondly and memories of doing things with friends can still make me smile, but the schools were just a backdrop, to me. Somehow, that tether that holds many never attached to me. 

Not me. 
Just yesterday, a friend posted, on Facebook, that "The Great American Cookie Company" closed its stores. I worked there for a few years before graduate school. I had great friends there (many of whom I remain friends with) and we had a lot of fun. My romance with my wife, Karen, even blossomed there. Yet, I simply do not care that it closed. To me, the business had as little to do with the relationships I developed than the clouds have to do with a 747 pilot's lunch conversation. Sure, he is up in the sky, and wouldn't have been if that situation if not for the sky's existence, but the sky doesn't get credit for his conversational topic. 

It's not "Penn State" that I miss when I think of keg parties by firelight in the woods, late night talks, Saturday morning touch football games, Denny's breakfasts at four in the morning, romantic scenarios, four-hour composition sessions on the Baldwin grand piano in the empty science building theater or watching "Alf" on Wednesday nights with everyone on my dormitory floor (in some ways, the most important event of the week) crammed into one tiny dorm room... It's not Penn State, the school, I think of. It's the people. It's the life lessons learned and the impressions made. I don't feel as if I owe Penn State for that or that Penn State was, as a school institution, even any part of all that. 

My time in grad school wasn't about Rutgers -- it was about my friends; it was about in-class epiphanies; it was about evenings researching Coleridge in my room; it was about immersion in music and literature. Sure, Rutgers (and Penn State) provided the classes and the great professors (at great cost -- let's not forget, I paid handsomely for school either in dollars or in work)...but, it's the experiences I love, not the buildings or the billing office or the board... 

Maybe I feel that individualism that is so important to me; maybe I don't want a corporate or educational structure to claim any credit for my personal experiences. Either way, affection for a company or a school does not compute. If I met you  there, I might be your friend forever, but, if my respective schools close their doors tomorrow, I might say, "How about that?" and finish my bagel. That will be the most thought I give it. 

We had good times at The Cookie Company. It was also an unfulfilling, messy, and often undignified low-paying job. Why would I care that is closed? The closing of the company in no way closes the curtains on my memories of laughter, friendship, love and tomfoolery. I may still have some pride that I was a decorating wiz (many witnesses will, to this day, testify that I actually did a portrait of Juan Valdez in chocolate and vanilla icing on a giant chocolate chip cookie, once) but I don't owe the corporation for that. 

Does any of this make me selfish or weird? Either way, I can't pretend affection when I feel nothing. Love and loyalty, for me, for people, not for buildings and infrastructures. I don't disparage people for being different. I almost envy my friends who love Penn State enough to spend tons of money to go back for football games... Seems like fun. just ain't there, for me. That connection between the experiences, the people and the just is not there, for better or worse... 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Emotional Sneak-Attack

One of the elements in life that can be jarring is the emotional sneak-attack. We can think, as much as we want, that we have filed our experiences into their appropriate cabinets and closed the doors; that everything is shuffled into its respective folder for permanent storage. But experiences are less like files put into a cabinet than they are like animals stuffed into cages; and a caged animal will try to get out.

I was in the car, a few days ago, when I remembered an incident with my dad, a little while before he died. He was in the early grips of dementia. My mother had needed surgery, so I went to their apartment, while she was in the hospital, to stay with him, because his mind just was not right.

That night we had numerous "conversations." One of them had been about how my father "knew what was going on" between "[my mom] and [so-and-so]." Clearly, my dad pointed out, they were having an affair. For the record, he was about as wrong as one can get: [so-and-so] is my mom's brother and, he's gay. 

But I would sit and listen and do my best not to patronize him -- to make the conversation as real as possible; to endure the sadness it brought upon me to hear him struggle with a partial understanding that he was making no sense and his efforts at defending himself as sane: "I know -- you think I am crazy..."

Finally, it was bed time. As I was getting him settled in, he began to tell me about the noises he was hearing at night; that he thought there might be ghosts in the place. My dad had always, even when lucid, had a belief in the possibility of supernatural phenomena, so I was not surprised that he now believed there might be some retirement community haunting going on.

I did my best to dismiss the sounds he was "hearing" -- a loud heater; the refrigerator motor -- and he was pretty well tucked in. As I left the room, he said, good naturedly, "Do you want to sleep in here? Like, in the bed, here?"


"I mean," he said (and pardon the direct quotation from a man of another generation who would, in life, never have discriminated against even those for whom he used politically incorrect terms), "It's not like we're faggots..."

"I know, Dad," I said. "It's not that. It's just that it is seven o'clock and I am not really tired yet."

"Oh," he said, clearly disappointed. "Well...maybe when you are tired..."

"Yeah...maybe. Good night."

Well, I didn't go in there when I was tired. I slept on my mom and dad's awful couch. In fact, it threw my back out of whack for about three months. Maybe that was payback for my insensitivity...

....because, all I could think, last week, when this event of about four years ago popped into my head, was: couldn't you have just gotten into bed with your dad? After all the irrational fears he talked you through as a kid; after all the comfort he brought you in the late hours, after a long day's work, when he would rather have been asleep? 

I can still see his face in a flashback to my childhood; I can see him in silhouette, sitting on the edge of my bed, on a night of sickness or of irrational childhood fear, looking down at me. I can feel him gently squeeze my arm and say, "If I could, I'd take this from you and onto myself, I would. I'd be sick or scared for you, if I could..."

But I couldn't inconvenience myself when he saw a monster in his closet...

Maybe a better metaphor for this is that memories are sharks down below us, cruising around, waiting to clamp onto our legs. This one got me good.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


One thing this blog has been for me is a kind of therapy. Every writer will tell you that writing is good for him. I once heard a writer ask, "How do I know what I think until I write it down?" I had this feeling all through the early phases of this blog and beyond. There have been quite a few "Hey, how about that?" moments.

Yet, there has been a long gap. The last time I wrote here was in May and before that the pieces started getting scattered.

Why? When I started this blog and was looking around for models, I would see other blogs in which people posted "sorry I have been away for so long" and I would wrinkle my nose. If you are dedicated, I thought, that won't happen.


I am not jumping back on here to make excuses, but to observe the tides of life. Or, maybe more accurately, the riptides of life.

One of the things I have always marvelled at is how often I simply forget to do major things. I am not talking about paying bills or taking out the trash. I'm talking about things like eating well and exercising; spending time with my wife; spending time with my kids.

There is always a moment of shock: that moment, for instance, when, after having lost thirty pounds, I realize that I have forgotten to keep on top of eating well and that I have gained ten pounds back. It is never about simply blowing off self-care. It's more about just getting swept away by the riptides of daily and professional life.

And that is where I have been: caught in a riptide. I know that in order to escape a riptide, one must swim parallel to the shore and allow the riptide take one farther out. To swim straight in against it is death. You have to let go the fear of being drawn out deeper into the ocean and trust in the fact that, at some point, you will be able to ride the waves back into shore; or, at least, paddle slowly back in without becoming exhausted and drowning.

I have been in a major riptide.

Since I never saw this blog as a blog about me, even when I am actually talking about me, I won't detail what has been happening. You can insert your own riptide experience in for mine and we can ponder it together.

In some ways, your problem gets worse when you are, as I am, pretty good at appearing as if nothing is wrong. But when is breaks; when the riptide is strongest, it starts pulling in others who are trying to help you. That's when it is worst. That is when something needs to be done.

Hopefully I have done it. Hopefully I won't forget that I kind of need this blog. In a lot of ways, it's my spot on the beach. But there will be a long way to go until the exhaustion passes and breathing gets back to normal.