love song for the gymnasts
A few weeks ago I wrote a post examining how I developed my ideas of womanhood, and I wanted to answer that today with a parallel post about manhood. Something loving, something light, some kind of ode. And that's where I'm aiming, but we have to start somewhere darker—no choice, or else this is going to run about an inch deep.
(The bear will make sense later. Hold tight.)
In Hinduism, to get to the other gods you have to go through Ganesha, the placer and remover of obstacles. He's the doorman. You worship him first and only then are you clear to interact with the rest of the pantheon.
To get into my Hall of Men, I have to stop and address Dad. If you've been following along, you know that's fraught, but the first stop is the first stop.
I showed you this paper towel tube
and explained it a little, how it's supposed to be a model of my energetic spine, with the electrical tape marking where the blocks/trouble bits are. See the tape at the bottom? See how thick that part is? That's the big one. That's the sexual abuse. We're going to talk about it a little bit, get some things clear and then move on, I promise.
I was working with my teacher, Jim, today, and I started getting some shooting pains in my lower back, sharp and intense, a little like labor pains. (When a baby is faced the wrong way, you can get what they call back labor, and this was like that.) When I checked it out, it seemed clear that this wasn't a chiropractic deal, or something else purely mechanical. This was an emotional iceberg starting to melt and crack. I sat there and observed and waited, and then I dropped straight into my old tiny consciousness. I'd say I was around two. I seemed about that size.
I was in our old living room in New York—don't worry, nothing lurid/sensational is coming—on a normal, peaceful afternoon. Nobody was around in this glimpse. What I picked up, though, from this sudden bit of mental/emotional time travel, was my mindset back then. I didn't feel like a child. I felt the same as I do now, person-sized. Neither adult nor not-adult, just awake, conscious, present. And I was very sad. Calm, but gravely sad. I saw in this bit of time travel that my small self felt that the people around me didn't see me as a person. They saw me as a thing, an object. They had no consciousness of my consciousness.
My mother took fine care of me as an object. I was a clean object, fed, dressed in pretty clothes. But I was not used so well as an object in other quarters. That understanding was there. If I had to make the feeling concrete, I'd say I felt that I got used sort of like a towel. Something you wipe yourself with, something you leave your dirt on. Something you don't think about. Something...well, you're not even actively, purposely disrespecting it. Purposeful disrespect would have been a step up. This was something more careless, and thus more profoundly disrespectful.
No horrible particulars. That's not what I got in my trip back today. This is just what I knew. This is how I knew myself to be cared for, or not cared for. And so I was resigned to it, but so sad, and there was a pervasive feeling of loneliness.
Okay. So, that. That, and the pain shooting in my back today from what I buried down there, that old stuff starting to move, making me cry out a little, with the stabbing feeling, the surprise of it.
We start there, manhood. (I warned you we'd begin dark.) But shit, I need a little rest, and we're barely out of the starting blocks. The worst is over, though. Let's sip our drinks.
Men reading this, I'm going to #notallmen for you, so you don't have to. I love so many men, and I'm not predisposed against you. I carry the normal, streetwise, savvy amount of wariness because of some of you, since I can't see into all of your souls immediately on sight. I'm married to a wonderful man, and I have two sons, and a beloved brother. I have male friends that I cherish, bunches of them. And here we are on earth together, being humanity. I have huge tenderness for you as a group.
But we have history to contend with, personal and societal, and it's not all great and it has to be addressed. Patriarchy, I'm looking at you. You've done so much wrong, and you're reluctant to stop. This doesn't need more explanation, does it? I hope not. I don't have time. If you need more, you can google "patriachy" and "wrongs of" and keep yourself busy for a while. And we know, right, that it doesn't operate by itself? We know collaboration is required, and collaboration is alive and well. And you know that you're in play, right? You, reader, whoever you are, male or female? You're either helping it along or you're on the dismantling tip. You don't fall into the "neither" camp. I'm implicated, too, with what I agree to and don't agree to, and I'm not necessarily working to bring that fucker down very hard myself. So, I feel you. It's heavy. But this discussion is going to float away on a cloud if we don't ground ourselves in those facts.
It's tough to trace the exact fallout from the sexual abuse—I keep flashing on the title of that book,
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
—it's like that, sort of too big and close in to see clearly, but can we doubt that I got the message that girls/women are objects for men's pleasure? I was practically vaccinated with it, like the world's smallest geisha.
Probably not the smallest, either. Oh, world. Bent, in pockets, beyond belief.
I'm thinking about The Fonz now, who was one of the earliest alpha males I knew about. This was a man among men. He snapped his fingers and a couple of identity-less babes flocked to his side on the double. They were always pretty and they didn't say anything. It was never some mouthy bookworm.
No, lady, shut up and decorate that arm.
Okay, I see. Men don't want to hear you say stuff. Okey-doke. (I was never a Fonzie girl, by the way. Potsy was the one for me. There seemed to be some consensus that Potsy was a dick, which I didn't get. He's cute! He sings! What'd he ever do to you?)
Then there were The Monkees. Adorable scamps!
People say we monkey around!/But we're too busy singing to put anybody down!
They were funny and sexy, but also they were good guys, safe, and that pulled me in. The more I think about it, the larger those Monkees loom. They were my first love interests, and I imprinted on them hard. They were larrikins, is what they were, which is an Australian term I'll explain a little later when we meet the Rowleys.
But let's go back and turn off the television and see what the real-world men were doing in my neighborhood. My dad—whom, of course, I loved, and who was much more complex than a plain figure of harm, so we're not going to monsterize him—wasn't what you'd call the classic All-American male. Harvard-educated, wine over beer, vegetarian when it was still an oddball thing to be. (And he was in the army during the Korean War, where a vegetarian was a super-duper anomaly.) Classical music listener, dead against rock-and-roll. Huge reader. Brought a book with him everywhere, showered the rest of us with all the books we could handle. Inveterate punster. Beret-wearer. Computer guy, math guy.
What really made an impression, though, were the sorts of men he admired, and didn't admire. My dad was the smartest guy going, as far as I could see, so I paid attention.
There was his own dad, Fritz, whom he adored, who died when I was two. Fritz was a huge intellect, a gentle and funny man, and his life was organized firmly around his spiritual principles. He and my grandmother founded a Theosophical camp on Orcas Island, Indralaya, and right there in the meadow next to the main lodge was a driftwood sign painted with the word AHIMSA, which is Sanskrit for non-violence. Fritz spent a lot of time in India at the Theosophical headquarters there in Madras, and someone made a cartoon poster of him sometime in the 1920s. He was dressed like Robin Hood/Peter Pan in a little green suit, wearing his trademark round spectacles and sporting a halo, and he was aiming an arrow at a mosquito, who also had a halo. The caption read "Fritz Killing a Mosquito at Adyar", so that gives you a sense of his rep.
Namaste, I greatly regret this, but off you go.
And we had a friend of the family, John Verrall, a composer, ancient when I met him, and the quietest, most ethereal man I ever saw. I mean, he was barely corporeal, he was so quiet and frail. Dad treated him with infinite reverence, so I guessed he was perfect. When the Verralls came to visit they barely ate or drank, and the conversation was so soft and slow that we might as well have been conducting it in a sleeping baby's crib.
He had other heroes—Paul Robeson was one of them, for example—but these two shared the throne.
Dad was also clear about what kind of men he didn't admire, and that included bullies, drunks, loudmouths, gladhanders, salesmen, Republicans, rednecks, hippies and the overly ambitious. Big men in suits acting like big men in suits*. Men slapping each other on the back around barbecues. Loud men, cocky men, aggressive men. Bums, he called them.
*I'm with him on that one. Your captains of industry, you can keep them. I couldn't be less interested. They're interested enough in their own damn selves.
I know it could be a tough sell to listen to this kind of list after what I talked about earlier. Like,
who's this guy judging other men? If they didn't molest their kids they're all ten steps ahead of him.
But my grandmother, his mom—
—said that he worked harder to be a good person than anyone she knew, which may have been the only nice thing she ever said about him. He failed, sometimes, devastatingly, but that doesn't mean he didn't try. I saw him succeed lots, in fact.
Life is complicated.
What is my Platonic ideal of manliness? When I call that up, what do I get?
The first thing that arises is the idea of soundness, like a structure is sound. The wood isn't warped, there's a nice, resonant thump when you test it. The thing doesn't fall apart. There's a feeling of not just strength but health.
Then I see something like a dancer, a male dancer lifting up his partner, and the solidity and generosity conveyed in that gesture, the willingness to be in a supporting role.
I was out to dinner with a friend the other night, and we were talking about our favorite qualities in a man. For her, humor was at the top, and for me it was kindness. I've grown more stringent about that. I used to let a less-than-stellar kindness rating slide if enough other things were in place (good looks, intelligence, humor, etc.) but now I've crossed into a zone where I don't respect a man who isn't kind, plain and simple. A man who isn't kind doesn't seem fully grown to me, no matter his age or accomplishments. Conversely, a man who
kind is a big man in my eyes, all grown up, and that stirs me.
And then there's an ingredient that's more keen, something like true aim. It's not just strength and softness, but acuity. That doesn't in and of itself make a man for me, but it definitely puts the shine on one who's got everything else in place.
Part of me wonders whether this is a constructive or a destructive exercise. I don't want to foist my ideas of manhood on anyone, in the same way that I don't want want someone else's ideal image of womanhood projected onto me. Part of me thinks it's better to resist fixing my ideas about this. We desperately need fluidity in our conceptions of gender. Big portions of humanity are suffering because of this lack. (I'm thinking about the GLBTQ population in particular, though everyone suffers when we carry on like it's the dark ages.) I'm more inclined to dismantle whatever notions I've built so far. But I don't know how fixed my ideas are until I pull them out and look at them, so here we are. And some fixed ideas are values and principles, which are good, particularly since I'm raising sons. They need to observe some of those, so they can build their own.
There's work to do, too.
Finn was playing next door at his friend's house one day, and his friend got hurt/upset and started crying. His dad browbeat him, telling him that boys don't cry. The fuck they don't, buddy. And then Fred had a pal over for a play date, and all the boys were outside drawing on the driveway with chalk.
We had some pink and purple chalk in the mix—
colors, don't you know—and the boys were making a huge show of scribbling over them, yelling "Destroy the pink! Destroy the purple! We hate pink and purple!" It was a symbolic display, as violent as you can get when you're talking about sidewalk chalk in a little kid's hand, and it kind of took my breath away. This was one of those teachable moments you hear so much about, but I was too stunned to catch it properly. I didn't know what to say, and I didn't want to shame them, but it made me sad. Femaleness was not just something to distance themselves from as hard as possible, but something deserving of contempt and destruction. Fear and hatred,
, had made inroads into their beautiful little minds.
Don't get the wrong idea. There are some classic displays of manliness that give me a thrill. Oh, baby, there are. For example, I'm a football fan—
—and it doesn't get much more old-school Y-chromosome-y than that. The crush of it, the grunt and thud, it talks to me somewhere ancient in my brain. I didn't grow up with any of that stuff, either, so it's exotic and maybe a little erotic. It's
, after all, and not
. And it's not good! Physically, for the players, it's not good. It's awful. They're hurting themselves. It's like we're all gathered in a Roman coliseum watching a very slow execution that gets completed later, offstage. But there it is. Fuck it. I love it. Let's go, football season. Get here.
And since I'm a heterosexual woman, a discussion of manhood isn't complete without at least a glance at what makes my blood flow/makes my pupils go heart-shaped, and that's not all high ideals, you know? Without some roughness, without some push, my bell does not ring. It's all well and good to be John Verrall at the dinner table, but if Richard Sherman doesn't show up a little in the hay, then I get disgruntled.
The night I had dinner with my friend and we talked about the qualities we went for in our men, we walked past some guys playing bike polo. They were young and pretty but for me they didn't do a thing. I don't get off on straight-up handsomeness, and youth is boring. I like a face that makes me wonder where it's been. I like crinkles and scars, or at least something a little crooked, a little bent, a little fucked-up. A touch of the criminal. Christopher Walken, say, over Bradley Cooper.
Old-school manliness, with its implications of sex and violence: yes, ma'am. I'm not immune. It's a paradox. I want progress, I want evolution, but at the same time, vive la différence, you know? That old binary can be so sweet.
I wrote a short autobiographical story once about a romance I had when I was traveling in Italy in my early 20s with a half-British, half-Sicilian mercenary. Not a figurative mercenary, either, but an actual one, in the British army. He'd killed people. Five, to be exact. Chilling. He loved guns, too, and took me to a gun shop in Florence to show me his favorites. Not my scene, man. Hoo boy. Anyway, I showed this story to a male friend, and he really liked this guy, though his regard may have been for the character as character more than anything. But maybe not. In any case, he liked his James Bond-ness, and something like his amorality. He said admiringly that this guy was a man, and even gave him a shout-out for being a liar for some reason. This was interesting to me, because the stuff I liked in my temporary, unsuitable boyfriend was the other stuff, his sweet side, his romantic side. The other stuff was the BUT. But maybe also it wasn't. Maybe I liked being near all that wrongness. Maybe I appreciated being with somebody who wore his danger right out where I could see it.
(I vaguely remember reading some book or seeing some movie a million years ago where a woman was talking about how nice it was to have the kind of stormy boyfriend who loves you but hates all others. Like you've won some kind of special prize, or tamed a lion or something. I related.)
If the subject is men, and ten billion words says it was, I have to end with my favorite clan of men, the clan whose name I've taken as my own. All hail the Rowleys! And they are a clan of men. Since sometime before 1943, a female Rowley has not been born. Dave's dad, Stan, hit the scene, and then came Dave, and then his brothers Mick, John and James, and then the next generation, Mick's kids Daniel and Bryson and Brodie, and then our Finn, and then Mick's youngest son, Kalani, and then came our Fred bringing up the rear. All us female Rowleys had to marry in.
I took Dave's name not just because I fell in love with him, but because I fell in love with his whole family. They exemplify everything I love in the other gender. The Rowley men are kind, above all, but they're also funny and quick and tough, not afraid of a fight. (Not like my family at all, god bless them.) They're
, as my mother-in-law, Larraine, would say. Australia has a lot of testosterone running through it, and the Rowleys certainly fell in a pile. They have a streak of the larrikin, too, which term I promised earlier that I'd explain. A larrikin is a lovable rogue, a good guy who makes a little mischief, a character, and that's the Australian temperament, right there. I had a big thing for Australians when I was a teenage girl, and I would have shit myself if I'd known I'd end up marrying one.
The one I married comes as close as humanly possible to my Platonic ideal of manhood. Dave is sound and kind and true, and he's old-school and new-school all at once. Poker but also poetry, yoga but also surfing. He's thrown a punch, but he knows his way around a meditation cushion. And he's got me and Finn and Fred firm in his grip, lifting us up like that dancer, steady and stable and giving.
After I met him and fell in love, I wanted to clean house. I wanted to examine what I was carrying around about men, because I didn't want to bring any baggage along that would weigh us down, so I jotted down the following. (I made it into a song later which a friend of mine recorded for me, backing me up on clarinet. If I hadn't lost the CD I'd just play it for you, but I did lose it, so you're reading it.)
Here goes, here's what I was packing.
Love Song for the Gymnasts
Men are bespectacled bears
Intelligent and animal
Bulky and refined
A study in contrasts
Men are of the head and the muscles
The brain and the muscles are working
There's an atmosphere of work
Whether straining work or effortless
Men are serious
And not to be disturbed without good reason
Men require good reasons
There is the question of what is allowed
Men are prone not to think much of you
Unless you do something surprising
Such as you might see
In a traveling circus
Something involving a parasol
And you atop something tall with wheels
Something where you make a loud noise
Men get warm
A thick deep warmth like syrup
And when they get warm
They get strange and unpredictable
They talk to you with their eyes
In two different languages
Purposely twisted together like ropes
To mix you up with their homonyms
Men get cold
Like sudden unseasonable weather
And it was because of something you did
(It really is)
Even if, of course, it isn't
Men hang their heads in shame
Standing in their own draft
They've done something horribly wrong
that you can't understand
But it would be wonderful if you did
A holy surprise if you did
They would drop to their knees for you
They explode in perfect gratitude
Like gymnasts out of nowhere
Striking the mat, the beam
The vault in a cloud of powder
A sudden conflagration
Of angle and force and something else
Something harder and hotter and more insistent than joy
It's a breathtaking display
It prepares something hot in my chest
Something radiant and aching and painful and good
Which no one but a man can give