Sunday, January 27, 2019

On Becoming a Better Man

A couple things making the rounds on social media have got me thinking quite a lot lately. The first is another of those ‘share something about yourself’ games we see all the time on Facebook. In this case, people are invited to post two images of themselves, their first profile picture on FB alongside their most recent picture under the heading ‘How hard have you aged?’ The other thing is the important on-going discussion about toxic masculinity in society—a discussion that may be painful to many, unwelcome to some, still long overdue to others.

I cheated a bit on the FB game, and posted a photo that had been taken when I was twenty-seven, alongside a selfie I snapped around the time of my sixtieth birthday this last August. I was fascinated by the stark contrasts of these two images, yet even more captivated by their similarities; what of the boy is still recognizable in the face of the man?  It would be nice to believe that, at sixty, I am the fine oak-barrel-aged and mellowed distillation of that callow twenty-seven-year old, still outwardly recognizable as the same man, but inwardly—essentially I would hope—a much better one. Life has chiseled and sculpted my features to reveal a story that isn’t always pleasant to read. Yet, like a rock that has born the wear and tear of time, steadfast against all stresses, punishments and pressures, so my face with its scars and pits, its lines and wrinkles of laughter and of care is a record not merely of what I have endured, but a testament to the spirit with which I have endured.

And what of all that lies within--the things one does not see? What the camera cannot show is that this older fellow likes himself in a healthy way of which the young one could hardly imagine. Generally contented in his life, the older man is quietly comfortable in his own skin, and would not trade places with his younger counterpart for anything, for to do so would be to deny what he has worked so long and hard to become, the thing he was always meant to be, nothing more or less than a simple, good man.  

Regarding these two pictures taken some thirty-three years apart, I am reminded of experience gained, creative energies expended and renewed over decades, searing trauma and clinical depression, stress and sorrow and anger—so much anger!—joy and laughter and all-consuming lust, boundless rage and fathomless remorse. I think of how long it took me to learn how to listen, the years of having to be almost completely alone in order to cast off so many unhealthy habits and toxic attitudes, confronting my faults in trials of brutally-honest self-examination.

My twenty-something self clearly had a lot to learn, though I think even at that age, I was eager to learn anything and everything I could. The problem was I had yet to cultivate a habit of inquisitiveness—I was afraid to ask questions. I may have been self-assured to the point of megalomania, but I was also frightened beyond the brink of panic by the prospect of starting a conversation. An incoherent mass of noxious contradiction; aggressively arrogant, thoroughly convinced of the utter rightness of my own ideas, yet, at the same time, pathologically shy, socially awkward, uncertain, anxious, deeply afraid; loud, angry, torturously inarticulate, carrying a sense of self-entitlement because I was lonely and believed that companionship and sex were my rights as a man—all the while spouting platitudes about “being a gentleman” and “respecting women.”  The flame of my creative passions may have burned bright, but it burned too often out of control, and, more often than not, anyone who came too close.

They say there’s no fool like an old fool, yet, I wonder; what is particularly foolish about an old fool? Is it because he insists on believing, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the years have not changed him—that he is still the handsome young blade he was in his youth, having lost none of his juice? His magic mirror tells him precisely what he wants to hear, after all. But, in the end, he is no more enlightened or mature than the boy he imagines staring back at him. The old fool is incapable of giving up his jejune delusions, but, then, he never had sufficient self-awareness to begin with. Every old fool is a young fool who never grew up. 

And there are still a lot of young fools not growing up even in this day and age.

* * *

On my father’s side at least, I seemed to have descended from a long line of manic-depressive assholes, loud, overbearing good ol’ boys, straight, able, white males who took their privilege in society for granted. I inherited certain attitudes about the roles of men and women—attitudes which in many ways had not changed over thousands of generations. Indeed, when I was growing up there was still a broad societal consensus—seldom talked about because it was assumed as a given—that women were naturally subordinate to men, placed on this earth to be helpmates, servants, and providers of pleasure on demand. While one should strive, I was told, to be a “gentleman” and treat women with “respect,” there was some ambiguity regarding what such respect entailed. I remember my father teasing me one time when I had gone for a short walk with a young woman; “Why didn’t you make time with her?” he demanded, and to this I had no reply, though I understood that this was his not-so-subtle way of calling my manhood into question. By and large, the signals I received growing up said that it was perfectly OK to be sexually aggressive, to assert dominance, and never doubt one’s own prowess, so long as one didn’t cause a scandal—whether one’s victims were psychologically battered, traumatized or thoroughly creeped out, was mostly beside the point. Like the ancient Romans, it was a true man’s destiny--if not his duty--to dominate at all times, and penetrate whenever possible.

While I never did anything so extreme, I must admit to behaving towards women in ways of which I am now deeply ashamed. I have often thought in later years about seeking out those I hurt in order to apologize, although I know that this would probably only open wounds long scabbed over, memories best left unremembered for sanity’s sake. I was a creep and a coward, and I have lived alone for decades with regret for the things I did—things for which I have absolutely no excuse whatsoever.  

Not being able to change the past, all I can do is try and effect the present for good, living an honest, ethical life in accordance with virtue. So, I try to ask myself every day; what does it mean to be a good man? What are the characteristics of a healthy masculinity?

A good man is thoughtful, compassionate, dependable, caring, patient, ethical, open-minded, loving, sympathetic, encouraging. A good man is able to listen and willing to learn. He can be confident in himself but not overbearing or dogmatic. He may be independent and take pride in his self-reliance, but he is also cooperative, and strong enough to recognize when he needs help—with the courage to ask for it. A good man is a builder, not a destroyer; he is passionate without being self-absorbed, focused, yet always willing to consider the needs of others.

And that, my dear friends, is the man I aspire to be, the man I hope one day to become.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Aphorisms as Story Prompts

I’d like to begin this new year on an encouraging note. This is not as easy as it sounds. I’ve always had something of a reputation as a grouch—and who can blame me? Have you SEEN what’s going on in the world lately??? It’s hard to feel like my writing matters for a whole lot in a time when three quarters of the world seems bent on destroying itself, the people charged with governing cannot govern themselves let alone whole nations, bald-faced treason and rampant atrocity are “normalized,” blithely excused as “missed opportunities” or “no big deal…” Well fuck! So much for beginning the year on an encouraging note.

Some people turn to drink in times like these. I turn to great books. The drunks probably have more fun in the short run, although I am seldom hungover in the morning, and I almost always remember the night before. Reading acclimates the mind to inspiration, and if there’s one thing we need in these times, it’s inspiration! Great stories—great books—can change the world when people are allowed to imagine and to dream. Great books—great stories—can teach us how to think about thinking, sharpen our ability to reason, and inspire us to build without first needing to destroy. But before any of this can happen—going back to first causes as it were—there needs to be an idea.

I love writing aphorisms; they are to the essay what micro-fiction is to the short story.  An aphorism is the world writ small, a galaxy contained within a nutshell, the tiny icon contemplated by a mystic, who builds a heaven in his head. Someone—I think it was Lawrence Block in one of his books on writing—said that the short story, whatever form it might take, is, in essence, an exploration of an idea. So it occurred to me yesterday as I was desperately trying to come up with a topic for today’s post, that aphorisms can be so much more than snappy memes on Facebook. Aphorisms can make brilliant story prompts!

I write aphorisms about the things that interest me most deeply; human relationships, sex, religion, politics, creativity, and the craft of writing. Here are a few from the past several years, three or four of them even dressed up as snappy, Facebook-ready memes.

People who are deeply embarrassed by sex tend to treat it either as a joke or a crime, in either case, a transgression of the natural order.

Every discovery, no matter how small,  expands context

Ignorance is not a virtue. Willful ignorance is the most egregious of all mortal sins; it is the suicide of the mind.

In a Universe of unceasing change, permanence is unnatural

Monogamy—happy marriage in particular—makes for abysmal erotica

Men claim to be builders, but they are all too eager to destroy in order to get what they want. Women are the true Creative Force of humanity.

When the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat each other—or so the rich try to convince themselves.

First step: get so good they can't ignore you. Second step: continue to improve to a point where they are compelled to take you seriously. Third step: keep pushing towards that point where you no longer have to take shit from anybody. Once at this exalted level you may comfortably rest on your laurels, safe in the assurance that your publisher will accept any random piece of crap you send their way. So long as they can sell something with your name on it, no one will ask any questions.

To be circumspect in the bald face of evil is to be complicit in that evil.

We are a strange mystical confluence of flesh and consciousness; a matrix of meat and bad judgment

We secretly delight in chaos—so long as it affects somebody else. Something deep within us welcomes anarchy. In a life that has become too predictable—too comfortable—we are thrilled by the notion of chaos, seeking change for change’s sake, no matter how disastrous such change might be when played out in reality.

The difference between a gentleman and a jerk is simply this: a gentleman does not assume that women were put on this earth to cater to his every whim. Companionship is not an entitlement or an inalienable right. If I am lonely, or bored, or horny, those are MY problems to deal with. Nobody is under any obligation to keep me company, or entertain me, or supply me with nooky on demand.

Our economic paradigm is nothing more than the old company store on a global scale.

I employ beautiful language in order to expose ugly truths.

I’m not writing about sex; I’m writing about people. It’s just that I don’t pretend that real people don’t think or talk about sex, or spend at least part of their time having it.

There is, I’ve found, a certain grounding value in music or writing that bores me benignly; that is, neither irritates nor annoys me so much as to be a distraction, but allows me to employ my imagination without wandering too far afield.

It is not necessarily a writer’s job to answer every question a reader may have. Better to leave a little mystery beyond the margins, an enigma that makes the story memorable, something to haunt the reader long after the book has been closed.

For me, writing has always been a means to self-knowledge. It is also the arena in which I endeavor to face down my demons. Through regular daily practice, I sublimate my fears, anger, and the ugliness of  depression into something cathartic, beautiful, luminous and self-edifying. Through my characters I imagine an alternate reality and a different past for myself. And so it is, that through the cursorily-glimpsed lives of transient characters, we may construct new worlds in which to escape the miseries of memory.

To survive is to turn and embrace the miseries that would overwhelm us. To live is to rise above them.

When describing inspiration, we often fall back on the Biblical metaphor of Pentecost, that is, a decanting from above of mental energy—thoughts, images, ideas, wisdom— gifted by some higher intelligence outside and separate from ourselves. A more apt metaphor may be that of a geyser or a volcano erupting within ourselves. Though inspiration may be initiated by external stimuli, those things—mentally abstracted—must come into contact with something uniquely the artist’s own. Inspiration comes, not from above, but from within.

Magical thinking is the confusion of a metaphor with the thing it is supposed to signify. One might artfully compare the human body to a mechanical system; but the magical thinker’s mistake is to take the comparison literally and believe accordingly, acting as if the body truly were a machine. 

When I was young I aspired to be a great man, and ended up being an asshole. Now I know that the highest aspiration is not to be a great man but to be a good one. I thought that being unusual made me great; but uniqueness is not the same thing as greatness. In the end, I would rather be a simple, good nobody than a famous jerk.