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.


Attack of the Humdrumery


Nature gloriously lifts our mundane plans from our backs and deposits them elsewhere.

Sometimes we need it to. We learn an important lesson: underneath our humdrum world proof abounds that life is extraordinary.

It’s downright funny how I can book my weeks solid with countless everyday tasks. A month or two ago, I was geared up to accomplish them all. I had the whole week planned from morning to evening daily, catching up on necessary life-stuff, once and for all…until I woke up one morning (perhaps it was Monday morning: humdrumery’s sacred day) and the sky decided winter had had enough time to show up in Dallas/Fort Worth and it hadn’t, so it was time for spring. The blue ashen clouds opened up and descended in blinding sheets. I could not go anywhere.

After I recovered from the mild irritation that results from moot schedules, I began to roam our  apartment some. I shut off the lights and raised the window blinds so I could see Nature in all of her watering glory. I chuckled at my tubby cat trying to squeeze his substantial heft under the couch to escape the thunder. I turned on YouTube and listened to Bach’s concertos and fugues. I read some really great short stories. One of them blew me away: Rick Bass’s well-known “Hermit Story.”

In the piece, a woman tells a story of delivering trained dogs to a man who lives in the wild. While returning from an exercise, the whole team loses track of where they are during a snowstorm. The man falls beneath an icy lake, the woman hurries to save him, but then realizes that it is dry underneath. Instead of continuing on land, though, the whole group (dogs and all) decides to travel under the ice on the dry lake bed beneath it. The whole scene is nothing short of magical. Through Bass’s prose, the reader can experience how eerily beautiful the journey was, picturing the shimmer of the stars through the ice and the sounds of the birds trapped underneath with them. The lesson is there: beneath our world, nature still has magic up her sleeve to floor us, astound us.

By most accounts, I wasted the day, lounging, reading, listening to music, begrudgingly giving the rain victory over me. But I had not felt so rejuvenated in a long time, you know—-alive. It’s also funny how running around doing everything can actually make you feel less alive than taking the time to pause and (to most accounts) do nothing.

It seemed I had earned the right to spend at least one day doing what I liked to do most, what really fulfilled me, made me happy. Unfortunately, those of us who live in North Texas are aware that Spring storms never really just pass through. It stormed almost nonstop most of the week. The first day, I was okay with letting a few things slide. Two days later, my secular mind was getting antsy at all of the time I was “wasting” just because the rain prevented me from doing anything else. Yet, one can get used to all things over time.

I found myself so seduced by the world of music and storytelling that the necessary tasks of life began to irrationally anger me. During a couple of those days, I was obligated to go to work and I hated that—-a bit more than usual. I didn’t understand why life could not be like what I read and I listened to. It was not so much that life had to be unreal or fantastical, but that it had to have meaning, structure, symmetry, and beauty. It had to have that trail of mystery underlying the normal aspect of it, like that dry lake bed underneath the unassuming ice in Bass’s story. It didn’t.

The resulting restlessness and discontentment was nearly too much to bear. I had forgotten a certain truth about myself. Sometimes, when I am not careful, my deep passion for poetry and music awakens in me a desire for an elusive something more than my present circumstances can provide. Yes, as I’ve hinted before, I become so thoroughly spoiled by the beauty of art that I am useless in real life, grumbling with dissatisfaction. To be honest, though, such a stance towards life is erring to the other extreme.

Instead, Bass’s story reminds us to appreciate rare moments in nature when they appear. Then, when we are required to perform our necessary duties in life, we can stretch ourselves to look underneath the obvious and apprehend the beauty, the symmetry, the magic that lies beyond our everyday experiences.

How do you reconcile your artistic self with the demands of secular society?

Araby’s Fine Prose

Stories are destinations in themselves. At just a snap of cover, we can be transported across oceans of water, time, and cultures to other places, to other minds. Ah, I love it. Growing up without a lot of money meant that reading was my airplane, that jittery feeling in my stomach when I’m about to embark on some grand adventure, the gratified curiosity for things beyond my own experience.

Even now, I view the stories and authors I read as “cities” that I travel through, because I am inundated with the sights, sounds, smells of the worlds that authors create through their unique voices and subject matter. For that reason, instead of saying that I’m reading an author, it would probably be more accurate to say that I’m traveling through that author.

Right now, I’m journeying through James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” And boy, it’s one of those trips that you remember for a lifetime.

Several stories resonated with me because of their plot. The book in general is full of characters who long for escape from their mundane lives in the inner city, but they end up disappointed, disillusioned, and impotent to change anything. One of the reasons why I read is because I identify with the characters. I am so deeply involved in their lives that I can’t help feeling with them, because I’ve felt before what they have felt. At the end of one story, tears actually sprang to my eyes (“Counterparts” is only for those with easy stomachs.) Other ones that really grabbed at my insides were “Eveline”, “A Little Cloud,” and “A Painful Case.”

Joyce’s story “Araby” is of the same class, but what really impressed me about this story (and the others to a lesser degree) was Joyce’s unparalleled writing ability. I take human lessons from the stories, but it was mostly the craft of writing in “Araby” that left me in awe. His prose is crisp, precise, and yet piercingly descriptive:

“When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.”

A beautiful destination, isn’t it? Joyce was a genius. And I write and write, but when I read prose like his I wonder if I will ever be that good, capable of tight, simple, descriptions.

The irony of the stories in this book is that resignation, paralysis, and general gloominess defines the life of most people, but the stories are written so beautifully. Joyce’s fine prose negates the idea that nothing is worth loving and everything will eventually disappoint you; it is its own contradiction. His writing is worth loving. In fact, our devotion to literature in general mirrors our belief in the ultimate beauty of the universe.

Hey, I’m not going to lie to you. Life is just plain horrific sometimes, when it’s not just plain boring. In fact, our happy moments may be far from each other. Yet, we must sense the small, more intricate parts of life (like the detail a writer from decades ago used to construct an amazing story) and realize a subtle truth: life is extraordinary.

What stories or authors have moved you?

The “Arrested” Awakening

© Nevit Dilmen

© Nevit Dilmen

In one of my American Literature survey courses, my professor assigned a project, comparing and contrasting two of the stories we’d read over the semester. I wanted to write a paper comparing the oft-written about Edna Pontellier of The Awakening and a new hip writer’s (Junot Diaz) poignant short story “Drown.”

Because, it had occurred to me: Edna’s tragic story was all about waking up from a dead, insensitive life. But I asked myself, “What happens when people don’t wake up?” Many, many people don’t. Many people get stuck, or “arrested,” at a certain stage in their lives and they never move on and they never get how stuck they are.

Since literature is one of our best mirrors of life, we receive an accurate, but darkly humorous tale of this very thing with Junot Diaz’s “Drown.” The protagonist of the short story is a youngish guy, living in the ghetto with his mother. At first glance, the story seems to be about a broken friendship between him and a childhood friend. But then, you start to notice how our protagonist is growing older and he’s still engaging in petty theft, he’s still smoking weed with the neighborhood low-lives, and school is still pretty much out of the question.

It is the same with his mother. She’s imprisoned by her fear of the outside world, and hopelessly attached to an emotionally-abusive ex. These people are going nowhere. Their lives (and many lives like them) remind me of extreme birth pangs in a woman where she comes so close to having birth and then…the baby never comes.

What a contrast between them and the seemingly antagonist of the story, the best friend, who seduces his longtime bud and then goes off to college. The tragedy is, both of the boys were smart, bookish kids, but our narrator never goes anywhere with it. His friend leaves their stifling, dead-end neighborhood, moves on, grows up, chases his potential while our narrator remains in a physical and emotional prison. There will be no awakening here, at least not within the context of the story.

Coming back to real life (and speaking of life), it is not really it if you’re not emotionally, sensually, and intellectually awake. It is not life if you have no hope, no prospects, and no dreams.

In much of literature, waking up happens. It can be a bad thing (like in “The Awakening”) which culminates in the death of the protagonist. Or it can be a good thing, much of the time leading to marriage (or some equally puke-worthy variation of a romantic relationship).

Or my personal favorite, the awakening that most commonly happens outside of literature: self-awareness. Amory Blaine’s famous last words in This Side of Paradise illustrates this “I know myself, but that is all.” Where your life goes after that is your choice.

What about you? What is your grand awakening moment? And do you know people who get older and older, but remained unconnected with themselves and subsequently go nowhere?