Male Privilege and Other Yarns

I appreciate the older folk. Just stick me in the car with them for a few hours, and I am like a cat basking at a sun-filled window. Not only do they have decades of accumulated wisdom, but they have the freedom to give reign to their throats and ‘say what they wanna’ without the prospect of being chastised.

In particular, I know this old couple who rock the classic style—in life and fashion. They are always dressed outrageously well, matching colors, of course. Their ideologies are old-school, too. While meeting with a group of tense, unmarried twenty and thirty-somethings, the wife once gave us a stern talking to about our irrational hesitations with the opposite sex. For a woman who had been married for over forty years, she was flabbergasted at our reservations about dating and marriage. To her, we were all too afraid of being hurt, so we were all clamoring after the ideal mate, and completely terrified of the real thing in front of us. She made it clear that the risk of being hurt, the fights, the pain were all things that came with marriage, even happy ones; they were not something you could avoid.

While I just wanted to say, “I have a right to be afraid. I don’t WANT to marry a crazy!”, it got me thinking. Where did we learn this deep distrust of each other? What made women fear men and men fear women? And, for the record, is “crazy” simply another term for “not like me”–i.e. someone who thinks, acts, communicates, and feels differently than me? Gender happens to be one of the sharpest demarcations among humans, but other generations seemed to accept it, move on, and work it out, right?

Feminism, patriarchies, the social phenomenon of male privilege, women’s rights, these are all issues that are not new to my generation. People would say today that women (in this country at least) have never been treated better, while others would say that there are still gaping holes. Even now, we hear breaking stories on the rape culture that has taken hold of young people and how women are still lagging behind in pay when compared to their male counterparts. While it is not my way to get involved in social movements or politics, I am a pattern-finder, and it is not hard to see how this Male/Female Fear has been raging among us since…well, forever. The difference is that previous generations had less freedom to rebel against the establishment.

As always, we can turn to the artists of the time to provide this rebellion. The poets and authors of the past have always seemed to us to be “ahead of their time” when it comes to social issues like this. We also have many talented writers today who can write about how deep-seated fear, oppression, and demeaning behavior exists between the sexes on a personal and a societal level.

I am always reading many things at once, but I was a bit surprised to find a link between a Shakespeare play I was reading, “A Winter’s Tale,” and a wonderfully piercing short story by Steve Yarbrough called “The Rest of Her Life.” (By the way, these two authors are obviously male.  Even though these men might not have termed themselves as feminists, they were sensitive to the reality of the society they lived in and portrayed it in a moving, bluntly realistic, but not moralizing, way.)

In both stories, men and women are both living in male-dominated societies that adversely affects both women and men, although Shakespeare was writing in the early 1600s and Yarbrough published his story in 1998. For those not familiar with Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” it is about a king who becomes manically convinced that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. In Shakespeare’s day, men were obsessed about the chastity of the women around them, not only for emotional reasons, but because of financial ones; their money, their lineage, their legacy all depended on knowing that their kids were really their kids. If that was not bad enough, this king used his power and authority to terrorize his (innocent) wife, threatening to murder her for treason after putting her in prison and leaving their newborn daughter to die. By the time he discovers she is innocent, he has lost everything (and it’s only through the grace of the play that he is allowed to recover). I.e., the abuse of male power at its worst.

Yarbrough’s story, “The Rest of Her Life,” does not deal with such high-powered people, but it takes on a sensationalism of its own. The father of the main character, Dee Ann, is accused of murdering his abandoned ex-wife for the insurance money. Throughout the story, Dee Ann is patronized, seduced, and manipulated throughout the ensuing murder trial because of her key testimony. One image that sticks out in my mind is the men (the policemen, the DA, etc) who place their hand on her knee while they are talking to her. At once, you can feel how objectified she is to them and their agendas. The true kicker is her father who is a blatant sociopath. Dee Ann never recovers from the sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness that his actions has caused her and her mother. While her final decision at the trial came as a surprise to me, it made perfect sense later in light of her male-dominated society. In this story, the negligence, the objectification, the legal bullying of the system paints a picture of how tragic life can be when one group has systemic power over the other in such fundamental ways.

This post was not made to bash men, people. The only thing that’s being bashed here is the dominance of one group over the other, because it causes suspicion, distrust, pain, and catastrophe to everyone involved.

We only fight this kind of pervasive wrong by being informed about just what kind of society we’re living in. Reading the works of astute writers can help us to do this. I advise you to find a copy of Yarbrough’s story, in particular. It just might change the way you see the other half.

Departures

(In celebration of the recent 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ve devoted a post to the first play I read by him: Romeo and Juliet.)

Loved ones should not have to part. No bigger tragedy exists, especially when the separation will be for an extended time or even permanent. Of course, Shakespeare is the undeniable king of tragedy, so it fits that he has written several scenes in his plays that captures those sentiments exactly.

Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet has become such a cultural staple that it has lost some of its power, becoming symmetrical more with pathos than transcendent art. The funny thing is, my attraction to the play when I was a fourteen-year-old Freshmen in English class was not the “sappy” love story, but the poetry of the whole thing. The poetry that could reflect with such joyful creativity the real emotional life of real people. It was the genius of Shakespeare: the mirroring of love and hate and grief in language. So, it is with this attitude that I must approach Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Taking Romeo and Juliet from a new angle brings back all of its old power.

Speaking of departures and grief in particular, the scene where Romeo must leave Juliet after spending the night with her packs a punch when you read it with desperation rather than with the playful lover bantering that it suggests on the surface. In Kenneth Koch’s “Making Your Own Days,” he chooses Act 3, Scene 5 for its’ superb poetry, but one can make a case that this scene also portrays two people who love each very much despite the fact that they must separate and they have no idea if they will ever see each other again in life.

All of a sudden, Juliet’s joking about the bird singing outside of their window is not just a cute verbal flourish. It is, for lack of a better term, desperation to keep her loved one with her for as long as she can, because she hasn’t been with him for long enough (it’s never long enough when you want to be with someone) and she unconsciously suspects that it will be the last time they will be together. On the other hand, though Romeo sees that he has to be practical about the matter (after all, he will be killed if he is caught), it’s blatently obvious that he doesn’t want to leave either. If Juliet is desperate, then he is grieved, speaking a few times of their “woes.”

The tragedy is that their fears are real. They do not meet again while both are still alive. In fact, the “loss” of Juliet prompts Romeo to take his own life. And have we not all felt in our melodramatic moments that the loss of someone, the departure of a loved one or friend, made us feel like we wanted to die, too? Separations can be likened to death on an emotionally level. And is it not true that death is the most devastating separation? The hopelessness, the powerlessness that accompanies it…I wonder how humans can stand it. How have we stood it?

Recently, I learned that some dear friends of mine were moving away–far away–across the Atlantic for good. It was as if I had paused while the world continue to rush on around me. It took several days for the idea that I would probably not see them again for a long time–if ever again in person–to settle itself in my brain. Separations happen all the time, but when it happens to you and people you care very much about…

You see why I say that loved ones should not part.

But life must go on. Loved ones do part. We all have our own paths and we must follow our own opportunities for growth. The lesson here is to never take for granted the friends and family you have while they are with you. You never know how much time you have.

Do you have any Shakespearian insights to share?

A Burnished Throne For All

How exciting can a simple poetic phrase be?

During the past few months, I’ve rested my blog in the pursuit of an answer to that question, spending my time studying and experimenting with the craft of poetry, reading here and writing there. The process did not leave me a lot of time to muse and write about the works of others. Still, something caught my attention in my workbook, and I had to explore the idea on Our Literary Lives.

In the section that spoke of where poets can get their inspiration, one of the places was, of course, other poets. As I read on to the examples, a Shakespearian line arrested my attention: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water.” In the midst of reading simple prose, a how-to passage, suddenly my multiple senses were engaged upon a single scene. It took my breath away. And I thought, “That’s what poetry should be.” Unfortunately or no, I also thought, “That’s what life should be.”

Recently, I hit an annoying snag when I became addicted to personality profiles (or as I now call them, the pseudo-science version of horoscopes). You know, they divide humanity up by a series of behaviors, sometimes they give you a title or a list of letters, then they declare that you act a certain a way because of that. Consistently, I tested as a personality type that is overly-idealistic, dismissing the real world, real people, and their quite real imperfections. Not to say this isn’t true of me (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”), yet I couldn’t see the huge problem with this, if it was. Why couldn’t life be extraordinary?

After all, this is what we expect of poetry, of art, of most things we choose to spend our time on. Yet, why is it such a problem to expect our lives to be so? The problem is, so many people click their tongues on idealism, especially in love. They are quick to claim that we shouldn’t expect people or situations to be 100% perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with that. Yet, the same argument could be used as an excuse for underachievement, a lowering of expectations and performances. By making the extraordinary impossible, they discountenance any attempt at excellence.

This is not the poetry of the greats. It shouldn’t be our lives.

We’re not saying that iambic pentameter should spew out of everyone’s mouths all the time and that everyone should be good, noble, and kind with each other twenty-four hours of the day. Not only is that impossible, it would also be irritating. Most of us live quite normal lives. We go to work or school every day. We come home, watch TV, clean the house, clean our cars, go shopping for groceries, and battle with the significant others in our lives. It’s a very prosaic existence, with a faint interspersing of drama every now and then. No, the point is not to dismiss those aspects of living. In fact, much poetry, literature, even visual art and movies are the greater for portraying those avenues of our lives. It’s their familiarity that makes them shine to us.

No, it is the magic, the sense of specialness, the idealism that is brought to the ordinary. It’s the innate sense of the artist, the writer, the actor that the world around us is both everyday and a miracle at the same time! It’s the conclusion that everything else should be to: relationships, work, exercise…I could go on. With writing, especially, it is all about swimming in the ordinary and making out of it the extraordinary. How many poems have we read about seemingly mundane things: onions, birds, fish, factory work, baseball games, et cetera? Even the most realistic writing has some elements of style, flavor, tone….effort, work.

For that reason, there is no excuse for making the ordinary a substandard. We should go about our lives not settling for the mediocre, the unsatisfactory, by calling it reality. We can look for creativity, spontaneity in everyday occurrences. We can be better, we can do better, we can act better. We can go about our lives on our burnished thrones, like kings and queens, just living out our ordinary days, but loving every minute of it because we’ve worked so hard at it, just as a writer works so hard on his craft, that it becomes magic.

To Do or Not to Do: The Real Question

I am not an actor. I am a thinker. I am the type that ponders, deliberates, researches, twists-around-and-around-from-every-conceivable angle before I move an inch. And even then, I pause, reflect on that INCH, twist-it-around-and-around-again, create-it-as-a-comedy, create-it-as-a tragedy and end it all by wondering if I want to do anything at all.

For that reason, Shakespeare’s infamous character, Hamlet, has held a hero-like appeal to me.

Hamlet loved actors himself, but he was definitely not one either. The Prince of Denmark is the paragon of the thinker, so much so that he hardly does anything else.  When he says, “O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself the king of infinite space” is he not making it clear that most of his life, his energy, and his interest lies in his mind not the world around him? Throughout the play, he is chronically plagued by intellectual indecision, and therefore by equally outrageous inaction, a powerlessness in the real, physical world.

There’s something magical about the Hamlet’s connection to the immature intellectual.

Yet, my nearly-idolatrous view of Hamlet changed about a year ago. Even though I had already taken a Shakespearean course in my university studies, I took another later in my career. The second time around, my professor was a sheer delight to behold, the ideal Shakespearean scholar. He was hilarious, energetic, expressive, and extremely personable (he knew everyone by name the first day and when you answered in class, boy, he stared at you deeply as if you held the secrets of the universe) Most importantly, he was knowledgeable about the Bard. For instance, there was the charmingly familiar way he addressed Hamlet, as if the Danish Prince was a little brother. Unlike thousands of Shakespearean snobs who hold Hamlet in such seriousness, my professor seemed to tease him.

Hamlet’s “intellectual indecision” was not a badge of honor; it was a clear manifestation of immaturity. To my everlasting shock, my professor likened the philosophical prince to a brooding, taciturn adolescent that does not effectively communicate with those around him and cannot muster enough courage to act on what he knows is right. Hamlet suffered from an acute immaturity that was hidden by his great mind. True maturity, after all, depends on courageous communication and the will to act. The image of our Danish prince roaming the castle, acting crazy, and endlessly debating with himself does not lend itself to the definition.

Our new view of Hamlet converged on his renowned “To Be or Not to Be” speech. Our class decided that the speech had more to do with Hamlet’s frustrating inaction than the surface existential crisis. After all, the central conflict in Hamlet’s mind is that he cannot motivate himself to act. So, instead of his question being life or death, it is more of “to act or not to act,” “to do or not to do.” Sounds familiar?

Inaction means death. Action means life. To live means to act, to make things happen, change the world around you. If individualization is the product of acting on your convictions, those who lounge around thinking and thinking and thinking are not fully-realizing their potential.

All of sudden, Hamlet is no huge hero. I realized that he’s a deeply flawed individual and I would be too if I never made big decisions in my life. Sometimes even the introverted among us has to cut off the brain and just act.

Hey, I’m still a thinker. Always will be. But I’d like to think I would have the courage and determination to act in my life when it is impoartant. What about you? Are you an actor or a thinker, and have you learned to reconcile the two?

“Sad Stories of the Death of Kings”

An elegant king walks into a room. Dozens of his nobles and lords wait for his arrival, but as his steps carry him deeper and deeper into the room, his eyes witness something they’ve never encountered. Not one man bows to him. For a man who believes that God gave him his throne, this sight drives him nearly mad.

Another king of sorts, of great power and influence, sits in silent darkness. His head drooping towards the ground, his once-mighty arms languid at their sides, he broods listlessly on a recent war that has stripped him of his sovereignty. Yet, no one is around to witness his great debasement but a beautiful, old friend who remembers him in his glory.

Failure makes for great literature.

In the first example, we have Shakespeare’s Richard II, a bad king who played the part well. Arrogant, greedy, and without an ounce of compassion, but he looks and sounds so good doing it! Only Shakespeare can make us sympathize with him when he is deposed by his clunkier, brute, but somewhat righteously-angry cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

And for a second example, we have Keats’ Saturn from his masterful poem “Hyperion.” The former Titan king of the Gods, Saturn has been deposed by a younger, stronger Olympian, Jove/Zeus.

In both cases, Richard II and Saturn makes such woeful speeches of regret, loss, and sheer rebellion against their lot that they seem to mirror our own falls from grace, our own very big failures, our own crash-your-car-into-a-brick-wall-oh-no-what-do-I-do-now(s).

Because even the most humble of us will sometimes think ourselves as invincible as kings. We might really want something, really thought we were going to get something and then…we are told we’re not qualified for the job, or they only think of us as a friend, or you have no talent for this sort of thing, consider a change in your line of work, or a flat-out “You’re Not Worthy.”

Hmm, maybe you already have that job, or that great person in your life, or otherwise “living the good life”, and then some crazy, random, unforeseen event happens and you have nothing. Hey, Richard II was the King of England and Saturn was the King of the Titan Gods, and they were both deposed by men supposedly inferior to them.

Sometimes you fail and there’s ABSOLUTELY NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. The only thing to do usually is to make your peace with it and move on. So, how deliciously wonderful it is to read characters in literature who refused to do so. In fact, they griped and whined their way to the bottom of the food chain.

King Richard plays a total diva, crying in front of the old, regal men of the court. He even calls for a mirror so he can see himself crying! (You see, we are not the first silly people to run to the mirror to catch a glimpse of our bawling.) He wails: “Was this face the face/That every day under his household roof/Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face/That, like the sun did make beholders wink?”

Saturn, too, turns a mirror on his soul to figure out just what happened. When you fail, of course you need someone to gripe to, so he mourns to Thea: “Who had power/To make me desolate? whence came his strength?/How was it nurtur’d to such bursting forth,/While Fate seem’d strangled in my nervous grasp?/But it is so; and I am smother’d up…I am gone/Away from my own bosom: I have left/My strong identity, my real self,/Somewhere between the throne, and where I sit/Here on this spot of earth.”

Oh yeah, the darkness has fallen. But did you notice an integral human factor in each of their speeches? Failure is usually accompanied with a severe identity crisis. Sometimes we get so wrapped in our positions (social or otherwise) or we identify so strongly with our possessions whether they are things, jobs, or people, that our self-concept cannot survive their sudden end.

“WHO AM I?” you ask, like Saturn. Or “I AM NOTHING IF I AM NOT KING!” you think, like Richard II.

Hopefully, just hopefully, you learn to center your identity on worthier criteria. Hopefully, you move pass the temporary loss with its subsequent wounds, smarter and stronger than before, even if you’re a lot more humble than before.

As a writer, even as a human being, you will encounter a lot of failure. Most of the time, our entire identity will be wrapped in whether or not we succeed or fail. As opposed to feeling sorry for yourself and quitting, pick up Shakespeare’s “Richard II” and John Keats’ “Hyperion” and let their characters gripe for you. Then move on and live your life.