Thursday, May 31, 2007

I know what it takes
to be a man...

...and I'm only four.

(That title, by the way, is from a Tesla song. Oh, yeah. Uh-huh. Tesla. Anyway..)

Liv’s preschool class does “special days.” Each kid is given one day to do or bring in his/her favorite things. The boy whose dad is a firefighter had a firetruck in the playground for outside time. Another boy had everyone come to school in pajamas and made English muffin pizzas for snack. Kids have brought relatives, pets, favorite storybooks, toys, etc.

Yesterday was Liv’s special day. She’s big into dancing and listening to music these days (a favorite CD occupies her more fully and for longer than any DVD or OnDemand video she weasels out of me) so she decided she wanted to start her special day with a little dance party.

First, though, she wanted to show off the ballet routine she’ll be performing in a couple weeks for her first real recital, galloping, sashaying and plie-ing in front of the class to “Small World.”

(Quick aside to anyone that complains about the lingering of this song after a trip to Disneyworld. You don’t understand torture by “Small World” until your child practices a dance routine to it. For two months. Several times a day. Every day. Now I can’t even go to Disneyworld for fear of a psychotic episode.)

Then it was time for everyone to dance. Liv chose a rockin’ little number called “Go Wild!” by Milkshake, one of several CD suggestions I stole from Alternadad’s book. It starts slow, and then, predictably, gets wild. And Liv was working the room, saying “wait for it, it’s gonna get crazy.” And when it did, the wild, exuberant dancing you’d expect from a room full of 3- and 4-year-olds erupted.

Every girl was dancing. And not a single boy.

One boy, the fireman’s kid, was all excited to dance when Liv was prancing to “Small World,” and jumped up when “Go Wild” started, then ran and hid in his cubbie when he saw all the other boys sitting, looking uncomfortable. Another, the crazy, long-blonde-tressed son of our crunchiest, hippiest parent recognized the potential freedom of going wild, and jumped around a little, but gave up when he couldn’t convince the other boys to join in. Parents tried to get the recalcitrant boys up and moving to no avail.

I looked around, dancing myself, and thought “Holy shit, does it really start this early?”

And these are the children of progressive parents in a highly liberal city, composters, raw milk drinkers, the kind of people that argue during parents meetings about the number of field trips when people are dying for oil and whether time-outs are too harsh a disciplinary action.

I laugh when my brother-in-law gets freaked out by his son, a few months younger than Liv, trying on a princess costume, and I was disappointed when a friend told me she and her husband told their son he shouldn’t try on those costumes at preschool or the gym’s daycare because he’ll be ridiculed, so maybe I’m naïve. The truth is, I’m less concerned about her occasional exposure to high fructose corn syrup than I am restrictive gender roles.

So, this display of “typical” behavior at so young an age bummed me out.

And it brought into sharper focus a couple of items I cam across last week. The first came courtesy Adrants, which linked to the 2007 nominations for the Image in Advertising Awards from the Commercial Closet Association, an organization dedicated to promoting positive gay, lesbian, transgender images in advertising. The award list includes a category called “Clean-Up-Your-Act Notice,” and among the nominees was the Milwaukee’s Best Light campaign with the tagline “Men should act like men, and light beer should taste like beer.”

CCA criticized this campaign for it’s mockery of men who don’t fit the macho gender ideal. They did themselves no favors in turning my “get-over-yourselves-its-friggin’-Milwaukee’s-Beast” reaction around when they ended each description of the ads offense with some deadpan reference to advocating that girly-men “should be squashed by giant beer cans.” (And Green Giant advocates all farming be done by the giant and tiny mutant offspring of a man and an asparagus.)

I wasn’t through being snarky and smirking about this when I found mention in Salon’s Broadsheet of a study on sexual harassment that tied harassment to adherence to (or divergence from) gender ideals. The article and the study focused on the behavior of women, but it was this line that jumped into my brain:

"She [lead researcher Jennifer Berdahl, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto] calls this phenomenon 'gender harassment' and defines it as 'a form of hostile environmental harassment that appears to be motivated by hostility toward individuals who violate gender ideals rather than by desire for those who meet them.'"

I’ve never really met gender ideals. I was raised by my Sicilian-Irish stepfather, a former wrestler, football player and drummer, and my fear of snakes, lack of coordination and tendency to cry never measured up. We moved around a lot, too, so I rarely if ever had a group of boys to run with, grow with. Around groups of men, I’ve always been a slightly alien presence, a bit too Other, the emotional spaz in the midst of their stolid objectivism.

And, the truth is, sometimes it felt like they’d just as soon see me squashed by a giant beer can.

I can’t really blame the boys in Liv’s class for picking up on this already. Seems the last 15 years are crowded with more attempts to differentiate the genders, from books speculating on their celestial origins to Oxygen, Lifetime, SpikeTV and The Man Show. I'll spare you a rant about "divide and more effectively market to" strategies.

I have distinct memories of dancing like a fool with a friend to a song called “Roly Poly Polar Bear” when I was five or six. Granted, that was the seventies, when disco and a constant supply of sex crafted a different, or at least varied, male ideal. Still, it seemed like it was all about the joy of motion, and it feels like it was before any awareness of what my gender role “should” be.

I wish I believed that space, that time “before,” could be stretched a little further for my kid and her classmates, but I don’t.

I’ll keep trying, keep modeling different ideals and striving for balance. I’m already trying to let go of the fact my girl is going girly-girl and will only wear skirts and dresses and wants to change several times every day, while subtly tempering it with Mariners and Seahawks games, and giving it some Grrrrl edge by playing her (carefully selected) 7 Year Bitch.

But it is an uphill battle when the boys of hippy parents are too macho for dancing before their fourth birthdays.

And, hey, why does it matter? What's so bad about rigid gender ideals anyway?

Oh, wait that's right, the continuum from social anxiety and personal drama to bulimia and date rape.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Evil That Women Are...

...gets more pub than The Evil That Men Do. We the people just find it the more palatable concept.

OK, Ladies, yes, I see the stares and the crossed arms and the tapping toes, so I'll get to 'splainin'.

This resurfaced into my mental radar when I saw mention in Salon of the Joss Whedon post to Whedonesqe (a blog about, but not generally written by, Whedon) that has been making the rounds - Let's Watch a Girl Get Beaten to Death.

I'm not a huge Whedon fan, but I respect him, and admire the strength he brings to his female characters (the very fact that is admirable is part of the point to which I'll be getting). This post was a reaction to cellphone video of the "honor killing" of Dua Khalil, juxtaposed with the trailer for the upcoming film "Captivity.*

Whedon asks mid-rant "What is wrong with women?" And the question isn't directed at women, isn't "what the hell is your problem?" It is a question asked of us all, what do we find wrong in women that makes us hate them so? For how can we not hate them if death by torture is a reality for them and an entertainment for us?

Still, this is Joss Whedon. For all the godhead bestowed on him by his cult of fans, he's just a writer, and one given, at least in my aesthetic judgement, to a bit of hyperbole. I took my usual "Yeah, this is a sign of the sick and twisted nature of our culture, but this is news to you how?"

But, that essential question took up residence in my head.

Let me back up for just a moment and say that in college, I publicly identified myself as a feminist. I was first media relations chair and then president of a sexual assault education and advocacy group, and used the term "rape culture" almost reflexively in presentations. And even with all of that, I resisted the idea of an inherent hatred of women, classified the hatred as "Other" and, in a sense, marginalized.

So here I am, over a decade later, and some comic book writer whose name is most closely-associated with the word "buffy" gets me thinking.

And, over the weekend I catch some NPR discussion on the issues and discourse around the approval of Lybrel, the pill that eliminates the menstrual cycle. One guest astutely side-stepped that argument of whether this was "natural" or not, and keyed in on the mentality behind the marketing of the drug, in which the period is cast as a barrier to a better life. The guest (I wish I could remember which, but I was in the middle of marathon dirty dishes) said, and I hope I'm being faithful to her here, that aspect of the message is true, men's perception of the menstrual cycle has in fact been a driving force behind keeping women out of power.

This caught some fire with me, because it is so obviously, dumbfoundingly true. Regardless of the exceptions, the cycle, not childbirth and mothering and such, but the cycle itself and its attendants is what men are most uncomfortable about with women. We see it as a source of weakness and object of ridicule, almost instinctively, and its centrality to conceptions of women brings them down with it.

The joke. Maybe even Joke. "I don't trust anything that bleeds for three days and doesn't die."

But, even the more subtle examples. The period has essentially been the crudest and most base criticism of a woman president, the idea that she won't be able to maintain her composure in the face of cramps and blood and tampons and hormones, and will fuck up world events.

(Though they have something in that last, as Bush's hormonal codpiece catwalk across the carrier deck attests.)

The same idea behind that joke and that criticism is behind the marketing of Lybrel.

And then I read about labial reductions. Cosmetic procedures on perfectly functional vaginas, side-effects of which include reduced sexual sensation. What in the name of all that is good and holy would lead women to make this choice?

Ever hear this punchline to a joke? "Let's see. You look terrible, but you feel great. Ah, it's right here. You're a pussy!"

Or, how about the profusion of the term "camel toe," along with whole online galleries of examples, as a way to demean the vagina? Again. Already.

After all of this, I was primed to come across the pre-Christian translation of God's curse upon Eve before banishing her from the Garden, the pains of childbirth, the curse of blood, and an unquenchable lust for male seed, and to compare that last to the many modern translations' "your desire and craving shall be for your husband," wondering whether we liked women more as slut or domestic slave.

I'm less concerned than Whedon with knowing the specific answer to his question. He goes for "womb envy," but I've never been a big believer that inverting a flawed paradigm yields much truth. The reason is whatever it is, and it's likely varied, but it boils down to some notion of women and womanhood as evil.

Here's the facts: We hate women. And unless your "we" is a big group of politically-active lesbians, you do, too. And I know that is like racism, where you want to wiggle out from under, talk about your individual love for a rainbow of people, but in both cases I'm talking about a cultural hatred, one which is essentially inescapable. For every advance women might make, we'll find a new way to hate. It has been around too long to go away. Love-hate between woman and man may well be the essential struggle, tension, balance.

Language creates culture. Some argue that the formation of language is the basis for human development. It is the code with which we create our world.

And when I call a woman a "bitch," it carries the weight of cultural enmity, brings to bear a hatred ratified by centuries. And she has no equivalent response.

And that's not a coincidence.

And I wish I had an answer.

*- For similarly disturbing resonance, try and get your hands on Sut Jhally's editing of music videos into the rape scene from The Accused. Particularly compelling as it was originally done in the '80's, looooong before the term mash-up entered the parlance.

Monday, May 14, 2007

My Mothers' Day

It was really a quite lovely Mothers’ Day.

My mother lives three thousand miles away, so we do the obligatory early morning phone call to catch up and then we’re done with it. And, my wife took a trip in early April with girlfriends that was expensive enough to free me from the responsibility of getting her any substantial gift. Instead, I just helped Liv pick out hers.

“So, what do you want to get Mama for Mothers’ Day?”

“Shoes, because all of Mama’s shoes make her feet hurt.”

Which is true, and some fine thinking on Liv’s part, but no-how no-way am I trying to pick out shoes for my wife, especially not with the “assistance” of my three-year-old.

“Uh, I think Mama likes to pick out her own shoes. Do you have any other ideas?”

“How about a bra? She only has two good ones.”

I assume she know all of this because of girl talk. But, the bra is a good idea and Tricia agreed when I ran it past her, so a bra it was. I believe the most fun part, at least in retrospect, was taking Liv bra-shopping at Macy’s, where she ran around saying “this cup is too small” and “this one doesn’t have a wire” and “ohh, this is lacy,” leaving scattered intimate apparel in her wake.

(And I say in retrospect because, while it is fun to write about, she was actually being a little punk that day.)

Tricia loved her bra, and wore it to our big event of the day: the Mariners-Yankees game. Not only did I marry myself a girl who likes sports, but one who comes from a long line of sports fans – this is the third Mothers’ Day we’ve spent at the ballpark with Tricia’s parents, her grandmother, her sister and brother-in-law, and their kids. And everyone, including grandma but not the kids (obviously) or me (a little hungover), enjoyed a couple beers we watched the M’s topple the Evil Empire 2-1 to take the weekend series.

I mean, really, I should have nothing, and I mean nothing, to complain about in the Mothers’ Day department. Minimal shopping? Baseball? Beer? How can I possibly have a problem with Mothers’ Day?

Because I’m a crank, and I’ve got a problem with everything, that’s why.

Men who spent the last week in jewelry stores and yesterday complimenting their mothers and wives on the dry ham and watery mashed potatoes will undoubtedly roll their eyes when I say this, but I’m just irritated by the iconography of Mothers’ Day and it’s upcoming paternal counterpart.

Because all those things Mom does, that we’re supposed to remember and reward on this special day, I do. I stay at home with our daughter, work in her co-op preschool, cook 90% of the meals, do most of the baking from scratch (except Christmas cookies, which are all Tricia) and the majority of the household chores. I’m a housewife without the breasts (actually debatable, given that I have yet to drop my winter padding).

And there’s something about Mothers’ Day that goes beyond celebrating the one who bore you. The imagery, the narratives, the sales pitches are all geared toward the Mom-job as much if not more than the Mom-person. Common Mothers’ Day tropes like making Mom breakfast in bed don’t have the same resonance in our family, because I make her breakfast every weekend, and rarely is it cold cereal.

Similarly, Fathers’ Day is rarely satisfying for me because it focuses on the father that works outside of the house. You know what I most want for Fathers’ Day? Usually to get the hell out of the house and away from my wife and kid. Which would sound terrible if I worked 40 hrs/week. Instead, most daylight hours are spent at home and/or in the presence of my kid. They don’t write Fathers’ Day commercial with daddies like me in mind.

We aren’t particularly traditional; when Liv first started playing at family life with her dolls, invariably the mother went to work and the father stayed home to take care of the babies. Non-traditional families aren’t particularly well-served by the firmly entrenched traditions of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days.

As a result, every year I’m surly around Mothers’ Day because its messages seem more geared toward my reality than Tricia’s, and surly around Fathers’ Day because it is supposed to be about me and yet doesn’t feel like it at all.

I don’t know if there’s any kind of answer to this. As gender identity politics continue to evolve, maybe there will be subtle shifts in the way we talk about the holidays, relying less on outdated-stereotypes. Maybe Fathers’ Day rhetoric will become more inclusive of dads like me, and Mothers’ Day ads will start sounding less like my life.

Of course, then we’ll have the Right claiming liberals like me are trying to ruin the traditions of the holidays. “Next, on The O’Reilly Factor: The War on Mothers’ Day. Should we allow feminists and femmy men undermine or celebration of Mom? What’s next for these sickos? Apple pie?”

Damn, that would be the best Mothers’ Day gift ever.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

It's a sad, familiar love story is what it is

Just getting ready to head out for an evening monkeycage shift, which means I’m fried by the day and baked in anticipation, while Liv is puttering at the nook and Tricia, home early from work with a nagging cough, is sitting on the couch reading Positive Discipline for your Preschooler: A to Z.

“You should read this and then we should talk about it.”

“That sounds especially serious. Are we going to talk about all the things I’ve been doing wrong?”

“They’re things I’ve been doing wrong, too.”

And she reads off a few. Time outs aren’t effective when used as punishment (I told Liv that very day that time-outs were supposed to be hard because they are punishment). Us I statements (an ex flogged that into me, but I advocate it better than practice it). Walk away from whining when you have to (I suck at this).

As she talks, I almost crumble. Because it is so hard already. I’m convinced of my incompetence without good reasons, much less with good ones. Liv and I have been struggling lately. Too much sharp edge from me, too many histrionics from her. And I see myself reinforcing behavior and outlooks that I still find crippling in myself.

And it had been a hard day. Tears. Brattiness. Selfishness. Take your pick as to wich one of us I’m describing.

“I don’t think I can do this right now. I don’t think I can handle this.”

She’s silent, because what can you really say in response to that?

“I’m already afraid that I’m a bad daddy. Right now, before I leave for work, I just want to watch her play and love her.”

Which I do, while the frustrated tears remain unwilled, in a hard ball, just behind my nose, and fear makes my icy belly rumble.

It’s a new religion, this parenting business, and for the first time in my life I’m a self-immolating charismatic. But only in my head.

Outside I’m a neurotic and depressive stay-at-home-daddy with a good heart and a three-meter deficit of patience. Conflicted and self-abusive as a Catholic with a hard-on, though hopefully more noble.

No, that’s literary bullshit. I said it because I had to, because it popped into my head and the fine print on the poetic license in my wallet said I had to run with it.

What I am is just another guy that loves a girl he believes he can never do right by. Ever.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Call him Alberto "Bubba" Gonzales

I can't help but think that somewhere Bill Clinton is watching our "Attorney General" play the prancing matador with Congress.

And I imagine his Bubba drawl, "Oh, this man is good. He is very gooooood."

Professional respect. Same reason sharks won't eat lawyers.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Monday in the Monkeycage

The season closed yesterday at the Rep. I expected a quiet night in the monkeycage. Moments into the shift, actually even moments into the building and before my shift, that illusion was shattered.

College kids and the SRO. I didn’t bring enough wine to handle this.

There’s a reception for UW’s PATP (Professional Actor’s Training Program) in the lobby, and a performance showcase by PATP artists schedule in the jewelbox theater. Actors in there early twenties have flooded my entrance. Well-proportioned boys with sonorous voices to make me feel inadequate, buxom girls with intriguing faces and the balls to make meaningless eye contact that remind me why the inadequacy matters.

And the SRO, the Seattle Repertory Organization. Meeting to plan their annual NYC trip and tour of Broadway, Legions of confused, Aquanet-coiffed, pancake-makeup-ed elderly women. When they ask for directions to the boardroom and I answer, they start tottering away at my first instruction, no longer listening, as though “turn right” is either all the instruction they can imagine needing or all the instruction they can handle. The few men in the group avoid eye contact with me, the women, or each other.

So, when he shuffles in, I make an assumption.

“Here for the NY Trip?”

He’s thin, bearded though it looks out of place, as though he’s been stranded somewhere away from his razor. I’ve seen him before, but never noticed how water, how red-rimmed his eyes are.

“Uh? Yes.” And he looks away from me.

I stumble on forward. “Do you know where the boardroom is?”

He’s clearly uncomfortable with me speaking to him, keeps casting glances over his shoulder, out the windows of the small waiting area in front of my monkeycage. He doesn’t want to have to answer.

“I’m here for the big party.” He isn’t looking toward me when he says it. I’m not sure if that means the NYC trip or the PATP reception, and I’m convinced he doesn’t either.

Now he stares out the window, and his helplessness, beyond even his frailty, comes crushing down on me, because I didn’t allow him to conceal it. “I’m just waiting for Tammy to...” And he trails off.

And she swoops in from parking the car. His wife. Small and powerful and vivacious, a board member. She pulls him along in her wake, and he is clearly relieved. They are attending the PATP reception.

At least three groups of the SRO ladies get lost retracing their steps from the boardroom and I have to go retrieve and redirect them. Two of the PATP performers have a loud conversation on the stairs to backstage where they can’t seem to resist using “fuckin’” in every sentence.

I can’t stop thinking about the lost man going to the big party.