Not purely animals

Paris, July 2016.

I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.

I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.

(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)

In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.

(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)

Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)

“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?

This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.

It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.

Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)

If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.

I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.

Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.

We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.

On eating that which is real (and being relaxed about it)

Haricots with chevre

Americans never adopt fads lightly. When we take up a cause, we commit and we go to the extreme. Moderation is a virtue that we never seem to have much needed in the United States of America. Be it the size of our homes and cars, the depth and breadth of our reality TV, our fervent denial of climate change, or our mass accumulation of guns, we do nothing on a small scale. We take on nothing lightly. Nowhere does this tendency seem more clear to me than our current obsession with food.

We could talk about how enormously fat Americans are, which is true, but I am interested in the other side of the spectrum, where people are fixated on healthy food, where we consider ourselves holy because we have not (yet) slipped into obesity. It’s one pole or the other for me and my fellow patriots: Either we wantonly stuff ourselves full to bursting with tasty processed substances or we piously nibble on quinoa patties and congratulate ourselves on our freezer full of free-range, locally butchered delicacies.

Eating the right things has become a class-conscious mania that notably afflicts the middle- and upper-class, who can afford to eat well (which is in itself a terrible injustice). In lieu of humble-bragging about our legitimate virtues, we preen over our organic, local, free-range, grain-free choices at Whole Foods, and we impute it to ourselves as righteousness.* (*Side note: Concept lifted from this great/ruckus-raising sermon by Dave Zahl.)

I am as guilty of this natural-food worship as the next person. I too got fired up years ago when Food, Inc. came out. I too read all of Michael Pollan’s books and attended my farmers’ markets faithfully. I too became a vegetarian for a solid week after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I too believe that it is certainly better to support small-scale farming and to ingest organic food.

But for me, lately, the sheen of this fad has been dimming.

You can’t ask anyone over to dinner anymore without first inquiring about all of their dietary restrictions. Remembering your friends’ food aversions has become as culturally important as remembering their birthdays. Mothers self-flagellate if they don’t feed their children 100% organic, locally grown meals. Whole Foods denizens seem to have abandoned the joy of cooking and eating in exchange for the joy of self-congratulatory nutritional piety.

We eat not to enjoy food but to brag about its origin to our friends or anyone within earshot.

It’s getting out of hand.

I’ve been inspired to think about this loss of “real eating,” while reading the late, great Robert Farrar Capon’s delightfully bizarre book about food and faith, The Supper of the Lamb. As Capon says, considering a man who is obsessed by nutritional fads and rejecting food for the sake of his diet:The Supper of the Lamb

To begin with, real eating will restore his sense of the festivity of being. Food does not exist merely for the sake of its nutritional value. To see it so is only to knuckle under still further to the desubstantialization of man, to regard not what things are, but what they mean to us—to become, in short, solemn idolaters spiritualizing what should be loved as matter. A man’s daily meal ought to be an exultation over the smack of desirability which lies at the roots of creation. To break real bread is to break the loveless hold of hell upon the world, and, by just that much, to set the secular free.

—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

A touch dramatic, yes, but I take his point heartily.

(As an aside, I am looking forward to taking a page from the Europeans this summer, especially the French, who seem to have perfected the artful seesaw between moderation and indulgence in eating. Both seem to be necessary for a full, happy life.)

If I may bastardize the Gospel of Matthew:

And when you eat organic kale, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to eat organic kale standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you eat organic kale, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Eat real food and enjoy it. Divorce guilt from eating. Share food, not food judgments, with others, and be thankful.

Why I am not a lady

Even as a child, I have loved the boob grab. Photo courtesy of @jfarkle.
Even as a young child, I have been risqué with hand placement.

When I graduated from high school, an older woman (possibly a relative; I don’t recall) gave me a copy of this little pink book, How to Be a Lady. In theory, it was branded as a guide for contemporary etiquette, but it was mostly full of advice like: “A lady always wears pantyhose to church and never dons a pair with nicks or runs.” “A lady always crosses her legs at the ankles.” “A lady never initiates a date with a gentleman caller.” “A lady never swears or uses vulgar or graphic language.” “A lady knows when it is appropriate to drink using a straw.” And all that sort of vapid thing. Basically, it came down strongly on all the anti-lady things that I loved doing: never wearing pantyhose to church, sitting like a young bro, calling boys, using an ample dose of vulgar language (especially gratuitous sarcasm and potty humor), and never knowing when the moment called for a straw.

This book came to mind during a recent conversation in which a man I know told a prospective date that she needed to “act like a lady.” This injunction—much like that pink book—has never sat well with me.

“Acting like a lady” holds a lot of social currency in the South, the region I hail from. Aside from, perhaps, being a mother, being a lady is the most important thing a Southern woman can be. Best I can ascertain, being a lady means that you are polite, demure, coy, submissive, well-groomed, and super-boring. A lady knows how to host a perfect brunch and how to keep quiet at a dinner party when volatile subjects are being discussed and how to make cute handicrafts out of some old rickrack and sequins.

When a man tells a woman to “act like a lady,” he is asking for conformity to a rigid (albeit arbitrary) code of gendered behavior. Specifically, she should be quiet, mannerly, and easily controllable. She should not express a desire for sex. She should not make crude jokes. She should not enjoy a drink (at least, she should not say that she does). She should not run or shout or climb trees. She should avoid wearing pants too often. She should wait for instructions from a man before acting. She should not express her opinions too vociferously, and she should never argue with an authority figure. She should keep her emotions and her thoughts under control at all times.

I loathe this injunction, in any form, because all I want to be is a decent human being. I don’t want to be told to be a lady, anymore than I want men to be told to be gentlemen. I want people to be upstanding humans, first and foremost.

I acknowledge that there are certain virtues of ladyship, but they are applicable to everyone, regardless of gender: Be polite and kind to others. That is all that we need to say to each other.

You can tell me when I need to be polite and kind. You can tell me that I need to acquire a sense of decorum. You can tell me that I need to shape up and act like a decent human being. But don’t tell me to be a lady.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Sodom and Gomorrah (#2)

Sodom and Gomorrah.

#2: SODOM AND GOMORRAH, Marcel Proust.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

It is easy to get lost in Proust. He writes sentences so long and lush that you have to come up for air halfway through. His narrator’s imagination is so tangled and intricate that just a page over, you can easily forget what he started talking about in the first place. Often, the conversations are rendered in such a way that you feel like you were dropped in the middle of a party, with no reference to what anyone is discussing; you’re the loner at the cool kids’ table. And the absence of any linear plot whatsoever is just another bump in the road for your tired brain.

So, why do I keep reading this monstrosity? (This is my fourth year of reading a volume of In Search of Lost Time during the summer; I read Sodom and Gomorrah while we celebrated our first anniversary at the beach, and while it didn’t exactly make for easy beach reading, its depth and thickness filled up my long, lazy days.) Quite simply, I keep returning because I haven’t found any other author who can expand my mind like Proust can. He forces you to think differently about people, to give them the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it, and to observe every wink, every movement, every quip, believing that they are small windows into the depths of the human heart.

Marcel Proust.

It is fruitless to try to describe the narrative flow of this story, but on the most basic level, it is a bildungsroman, perhaps more obviously than the other volumes are. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the shades are finally drawn from our young narrator’s eyes. The book begins with a scandalously voyeuristic vignette, in which we find the narrator spying on the Baron de Charlus and his tailor, Jupien, while they make love in a courtyard. More than ever before, Proust allows his narrator to explore the period’s complex social relationship with homosexuality, which permits the upper class to both ignore and flaunt gayness to varying degrees, and to examine his own sexual identity. While the narrator continues to pout, flop around, and toy with the emotions of his girlfriend, Albertine, there is an awakening in his consciousness that we have not seen before.

Alongside these personal revelations, the narrator is also realizing that the upper class, the people he has so desperately tried to join, are not as glorious as he once thought them. He recognizes the polite film wrapped around their coded, hierarchical speech:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The affected personas and artificial bearings of the rich come clear to him; their displays of noblesse oblige no longer charm him. Around these epiphanies, the narrator’s beloved grandmother dies, he attempts to get engaged to his girlfriend, friends betray him, and the entire upper-class is seemingly engaged in the Dreyfus Affair. It may sound like a lot of action, but Proust is capable enough to draw out all these events into a dull roar, blurring time so that our narrator’s psyche may step out in front.

In Sodom and Gomorrah, we find a narrator thoroughly possessed by his Author, who pulls the strings to move him toward adult development and social aptitude. Proust uses all of his tricks here. No character can escape his all-seeing, all-knowing eye. On a practical level, I took more pleasure from this than I did from The Guermantes Way, the previous volume. Now we find the narrator more completely realized, more in possession of his own thoughts and motives. He is still petulant and spoiled, still too conscious of rank at times, but he is a few steps closer to the goal of wholeness and contentment.

As with the others, it is a beautiful, tangled, and complicated novel, but it is worth every meticulous word.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #3

The Guermantes Way

#3: THE GUERMANTES WAY, by Marcel Proust

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be dreamily recalling #3, the third volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, English title: The Guermantes Way.

For the past three summers, I’ve committed to reading a volume of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (English translations call it either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This past summer, I read number 3: The Guermantes Way. I find that a year is the ideal amount of time to take a breather from Proust. By the time the summer rolled around, I was very eager to embark on this 900-page volume of lavish detail, seemingly inane social niceties, and a lush bouquet of memories.

By volume three, our nameless narrator–whom most critics call “Marcel,” because of the intended similarities to an autobiographical monster–has become a young man. He has continued his delicate, self-conscious obsession with Albertine, a girl he met at the beach in the second volume. But Marcel is growing up. And he is beginning to realize that finding his place in upper-class French society may be more important than anything right now.

This volume is perhaps a more complete “coming of age” book than the previous two. Here we find the narrator finally breaking into the tightly guarded upper ring of society and we share his victory. But we also come to share his disillusionment as he realizes that the Duchesse de Guermantes, Madame de Villeparisis, Monsieur Charlus, and the other exalted characters of this long-desired, elite universe are simply, well, human.

For me, a great deal of the brilliance of The Guermantes Way was wrapped up in a narrative phenomenon that I am going to call simultaneous acquisition. Instead of gaining insight before the narrator, we gain vision along with him. We make realizations at the same moment and, therefore, the power of those realizations is far more powerful to us than if we had been omniscient readers. But the narrator’s vision is not perfect, and this is something Proust will not let us forget. Even a recently lucid young man still moves in society with a film over his eyes:

At any rate I realized the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Francoise loved or hated me. And thus it was she who first gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information—a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and love.

Despite 900 pages of fabulous detail and elegantly constructed conversations, Proust wants us to remember that we can never truly have “direct knowledge” about other people. It is a necessary realization for our dreamy narrator and yet we worry about him. When you reach the final page and exhale deeply, you cannot help but maintain a sense of fear for what circumstances will befall the young protagonist. For once your dreams have crumbled, to whom do you turn? I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out this summer, when I take on the ominously titled volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have to be honest. I recall this vague plot outline with great difficulty (and a little Googling for the character names). After 900 pages of Proust’s gloriously elaborate and exhausting prose, one’s brain is awash in sensation but incapable of maintaining any concrete detail or action. At least, that seems to be consistently true for me when I read Proust. So, why do I keep coming back, year after year?

I don’t have a simple answer for you. All I can say is that, every summer, Proust gives me a new pair of eyes.