Monday, November 29, 2010

Welcome to Jupiter

Mars and Venus aren't real places. Men aren't from one and women from another. It's just that certain cultural habits of mind lead men to wound women in a particular way and women to wound men in a different way and some members of each sex would rather retreat to the sureties of the same-sex societies they knew before the whole sex-and-love issue came up. Wouldn't it be great if you could get everything you needed from your gang of girlfriends at brunch? From your gang of guy friends banging each other over the head with toy light sabers? It would, wouldn't it?
But it would also get boring. Women need men to shake up their perfection and pointless fussing. Men need women to give them a reason to stop being barbarians and work toward something, anything. Women need to get their hands dirty, go outside GirlWorld's safety zone: men need to learn how to take care of babies and get a glimpse of the bigger picture, beyond competition, prizes, money. The problem with the patriarchy is not that it's never right, but that it is only half-right. Same with the matriarchy. Those who believe if only women ran everything it would be a more humane world are overlooking the fundamental flaw: half of humanity would have to try to deny their very nature, just the way many women have to in a patriarchy.
And are these really sex-linked traits? Woe betide the sensitive individual born with male apparatus, the mainly rational individual born with a vagina.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tyranny of the Tablecloth

How I have expressed my love all these years--by listening. How they have expressed their love for me all these years--by giving me presents that if they'd been paying any attention these many long years, they'd realize I have no interest in. Purses, dishes, stemware, linens, towels. I'm supposed to like this stuff because they like this stuff and the way they imagine their own continuation on this planet after their death is in the hands that have learned how to smooth the ironed crease from a tablecloth. The ability and desire to take these things seriously will be passed down genetically, and the skills involved will be transmitted from mother to daughter in apprenticeship mode. My mother honors her mother by requiring me to wrangle my offspring into following her canonical rules.
But the slavery to the tablecloth stops here. I have no daughter. Even if I did, I'm sure I wouldn't require her to enter unquestioningly into this traditional progression. But because I will not do this thing, uphold the proven moral order in this way, all my choices are thus suspect. I am not taking my responsibilities seriously. I must be a shirker.
My point is different. I do not shirk my responsibilities as I see them. Please allow me to choose from the heavy smorgasbord of responsibilities available to a woman my age. Clearly some that I find important mean nothing to them and I have refrained from scolding them about them for years. But if they begin scolding me too frequently, I can always start!
Whenever I express my thoughts on such topics as this, I am told I just don't understand how normal people feel. I do see how they feel, I just don't believe it's my job to fix their problems. Especially their self-inflicted problems. Like Thanksgiving.
The holiday season is now upon us. For me, it starts the moment my mother brings out her lists and begins assigning roles. This is her theater, the theater of happy family relations, of papering over the vast cracks between competing worldviews of the many-eyed beast that is our family. I am enjoined to slave at the rock face of family togetherness and to slave with a smile pasted on my face. I am a daughter; I'm supposed to please my mother. I am a woman: I'm supposed to like this holiday fussing. Don't we all? It's only natural.
This is the season during which I am expected to force my two abstract randoms to not only go along with customs that have little or no charm for them and no reason or nostalgia value, but also to enter into the spirit of the season. They are Jews by birth, actual or honorary, and atheists by choice, so Christmas especially is a species of voodoo to them. Symbols of an ancient mystical cult. Why? they ask. And my extended family does not know why and is angered by the question. Because. That's their answer. Because we've always done it this way and we had so much fun in the past doing it this way that the only way to have more fun now or in the future is to follow the format. The proven format.
And when my two abstract randoms fail to enter into the spirit of the season, all heads swivel towards me. They believe I have failed. Failed to explain how important this is. Failed to take my native tribe's side against the outsiders.
I have failed.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Men Want Paradise Too

We've probably all seen one of these recent fart-driven comedies on TV or the movies about what men want: Wedding Crashers, Two and a Half Men, The Hangover, The Ugly Truth, etc, etc, ad nauseum. Knee-deep in dirty sweat socks, pizza boxes everywhere, constant TV or video games, in fact a grimy pigsty inhabited by cavemen who still somehow believe they are attractive to women.
This is, of course, a gross exaggeration in order to ratchet up the humor stakes--at least, I hope it is. Anyway, the reason it is funny is the grain of truth within: Most men don't like to clean up, themselves or their den. They don't want to dress up, go out, hit craft fairs, art crawls, or fancy restaurants. The only reason they do any of these things is when women, women who might sleep with them, want them to. Require them to.
But most men are not cavemen. They believe themselves to be nice decent human beings who perhaps see no reason to shave, put on a tie, or God forbid, a suit. Let's not talk tux. What they share with these over-the-top Oscar Madisons is this deep-seated belief that no matter the exterior, they deserve female companionship. They, unlike many women, don't believe they need to change something about themselves to deserve love. Lots of women will agree in principle that they should meet men halfway. Many men want to be met more than halfway. With little or no reciprocation. There are even those who want women to give it up freely, for nothing--and then go away.
I am reminded of Elizabeth Bennet refusing Mr. Collins' proposal in Pride and Prejudice. My husband often accuses me of having no compassion for the slimy Mr. Collins. That's not true. I do feel sorry for him. Just not as sorry as he feels for himself. Obviously he does not have the skills he needs to find a wife in the regular way. He has to resort to a version of shooting fish in a barrel. No, what I object to is such a common women's complaint about men that it crosses all centuries and all cultures. Mr. Collins wants to be understood by Elizabeth, loved by Elizabeth, given every benefit of the doubt--without having to bother his thick head with seeing anything from Elizabeth's point of view. Mr. Collins has worked out what he wants from her and he just doesn't understand what the problem is. Why won't she do as he asks? (Of course, in Jane Austen, the only time a woman can make herself heard is in refusing a proposal. The culture is so constructed that that is the only moment in a woman's life when she has any say in the direction it will take.)
Even today, some men have this weird belief that women should be more like men: moral, independent, untied to any other consideration than their own desires. Just like men. But as soon as women actually begin to live exactly like men, as independent moral beings, women find their own need to understand, pamper, and forgive men for being short-sighted and me-centric all the time just dries right up. Some men think that women should just let men do whatever they want--because they'd let women do that too, wouldn't they? (Well, not really. It's just a talking point, but whatever.)
But women, many of them, want harmony. Even if they do no go so far as to want perfection (see below), they are not so wedded to having their own way that they couldn't compromise to suit all parties. Many women want to do things together, not separately fulfill separate desires. They want to bake the cake and eat it too. Not just gulp down the ingredients serially. They want love with their sex. They want sex with love. They want the visuals and the essentials. They're not afraid of work; they just don't want to be the only one doing any. In their search for harmony, they continue to hope that there is something they can do to improve the situation. Sometimes there is. Sometimes not. Sometimes the guy is too close to Mr. Collins to be affected by any action of theirs.
Obviously, this is far from the last word on this.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Persona

So I'm reading Philip Lopate about how even personal essays need conflict, how you have to examine your flaws, but without giving in to self-disgust, not constantly underrate yourself nor give yourself too much credit. Parade your quirks, then implicate yourself . . .
So the trick it seems is to hone a slightly insecure persona, one that has bizarre, faintly ridiculous foibles that make you more like the Twizzler-munching Twiggies who want to be on TV or at least in a magazine.
Even if that is not who you are.
Even if that type of persona does actual violence to your real self. Because what are doing having a self that can't be sold? Buffed, tweaked, positioned--sold. That's what everyone wants--right? And if you dare claim you do not, get ready to be painted self-righteous and moralistic and no fun at all. You are impeding commerce.
But then Philip (I can call him Philip, can I not?) ends with this quote: "The process of turning oneself into a character is not self-absorbed navel gazing but a potential release from narcissism: You have achieved sufficient distance to begin to see yourself from the outside. Doing so can be liberating."
And I love Philip all over again.