Dia de los muertos

We would not be here were it not for those who went before us.

I was at an October Día de los Muertos event in Arizona when my phone rang. The Day of the Dead is an ancient Aztec holiday honoring those who have gone before us. Historically celebrated in August, the holiday was moved to coincide with All Saints’ Day when Catholicism took over. A similar process happened with the Celtic holiday Samhain. The evening before All Saints’ Day, or Hallowmas, became known as Halloween.

But Día de los Muertos is not Halloween. The Day of the Dead isn’t about scary ghosts. Though painted skulls are ubiquitous at Day of the Dead events, the purpose is to show reverence for the dead.

My father couldn’t talk long. He had a lot of phone calls to make. He told me that my grandfather had died an hour ago. It did not come as a surprise. He was 95 years old and had been in failing health for the past few months.

How you feel when told that someone close to you has died is revealing. My grandfather, whom I called Pepere (pronounced “pepay”) was my last grandparent. My mother’s father died over a decade ago, and that was cause for great sadness for me. He was a quiet, decent, hardworking man whose latter years were stolen by Alzheimer’s. Both of my grandmothers died a year later, and my childhood memories of time spent with them were replaced with an empty space.

When I learned that Pepere had died I felt a sense of relief, but not sadness. His declining health caused him great suffering, and now that was over. But I never felt as close to him as I did to my other grandparents.

The eighth of eighteen children—all born to the same woman and man—his childhood was one of work. A native French speaker who grew up on Maine’s Canadian border, he quit school after seventh grade to help support the family. After a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps—a New Deal program to put young men to work—he served in the United States Navy throughout the entirety of World War II. After the war he married, had four children, and owned a grocery store.

Fathers from his generation were not known for close relationships with their children, especially their sons. But most modern fathers, including my father, have chosen to be emotionally available.

I can’t say I ever really knew who my grandfather was deep down. I’m not sure if he knew. It’s all in the past now. But were it not for those who went before me, I would not be here.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Way of the Superior Man

Carrying around a book with a title like this might lead people to think I’m a narcissist. So I leave the book at home.

The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida has some good points, and some significant problems. It’s billed as a spiritual guide, but I found its spirituality to be over the top. Then again, I’m an atheist, so take that for what it’s worth.

Deida sets the standards for manhood quite high, to the point where keeping up could feel like you’re putting on a show. He also promotes simplistic stereotypes. It’s not as bad as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, but it’s not much better. The worst example is chapter 28, which informs us that “each woman has a ‘temperature.'” Deida explains that, “In general, blonde, light-skinned, Japanese, and Chinese women are cooler. Dark skinned, brunette, redheaded, Korean, and Polynesian women are hotter.”

But Deida’s book does have some important insights. These insights also can apply to how women should treat men, though Deida is writing for men.

These include:

  • Don’t analyze your woman: She wants to feel loved, not picked apart.
  • Don’t tell a woman that she needs to fix her emotional problems: It’s her prerogative to make that decision on her own. Nor does a woman need a man to fix her problems for her. Instead, he should do everything he can to support her while she takes responsibility for her own issues. But if she chooses not to address her issues, and if these issues make a good relationship impossible, then he should leave her.
  • Stay with her intensity – to a point: When someone gets really emotional it’s easy to either sucked into the psychodrama or to withdraw from it (“We can talk about this when you’re not acting so crazy”). But Deida writes that, like “surfing ocean waves, mastery involves blending with your woman’s powerful energy and feeling the rise and fall of the moment.” And a man can do this “by standing your ground and loving so strongly that only love prevails.”
  • Don’t force her to make decisions: To do this is to abandon your responsibility and accountability.

Male Stoicism, Traditionalism & Progressivism

Stoicism’s core idea is straightforward: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest of it. Stoicism appealed to Roman soldiers who had little control over their lives but faced great danger. And some took Stoicism to the extreme of subjecting themselves to great pain without flinching. That’s Stoicism’s dark side.

Problem is, emotions happen. Repressing our emotions only causes them to rear their heads elsewhere, and in unexpected ways. It’s better to accept our lack of control over experiencing emotions and instead focus on controlling our reactions to these emotions.

But the world over, men are honored for their ability to endure physical and emotional pain without flinching. Men who show their vulnerability or who cannot endure pain are mocked and despised by women and men alike.

One perspective is that society teaches male pain endurance while disallowing expression of vulnerability as a way of training boys to become men capable of fighting in a war. A boy’s training may consist of enduring sports injuries; being bullied; learning never to cry; and hazing in the military, fraternities, and the workplace.

Male Stoicism has been challenged in recent years, however. Feminism rejected the narrow traditional female role and fought to make it more expansive and less rigid. And this changed the traditional male role by proxy: women need men to accommodate and support a less rigid gender role for women. Feminism also connected male insensitivity toward pain to men’s violence toward women. Further, second and third wave feminism have mostly been anti-war, thus opposing the push to socialize men as warriors.

Flexibility for the male role in ways that are not needed to accommodate an expanded female role, however, hasn’t been pursued to the same degree. But this creates a double bind. A man must know (without being told) when to adhere to the traditional male role, and when to step outside of the traditional male role to accommodate women.

This ethos has been integrated into progressive politics and ideology. For example, men must support women with greater emotional openness. But emotional openness that doesn’t reflect positively on women (such as a man talking about a woman’s controlling or abusive behavior) is taboo. This also applies to discussion of issues that don’t directly affect women, such as dads being treated like they’re disposable, boys falling behind in school, or male suicide being three to four times more common than female suicide.

As such, both traditionalism and progressivism promote male Stoicism to varying degrees. Feminists and progressives quickly put the kibosh on men who are emotionally open in the wrong way, sarcastically asking, “what about the menz?”, declaring that they “bathe in male tears,” or smuggly lamenting “masculinity so fragile.”

Traditionalists will tell a man to stop acting like a girl. Progressives don’t say that because it’s misogynist, but the intent of saying “don’t act like a girl” and “I bathe in male tears” is the same: they silence men’s emotional expression.

At least traditionalists are straightforward about it. But progressives are often passive-aggressive. They deny they’re promoting male Stoicism or being insensitive to men’s feelings. They claim that bathing in male tears is ironic. And it is ironic because it represents feminism and patriarchy being on the same page, though they fail to see that irony.

Considering this insensitivity toward men, how can we expect men to be more sensitive toward women? More to the point, if we only value men insofar as their actions affect women then how can we expect men to value themselves for who they are?

Yet, the advice that men simply need to open up is simplistic. To change society so that men feel more comfortable opening up we must:

  • First must recognize early 21st century expectations for male Stoicism, how both traditionalism and progressivism contribute to it, and how progressivism has worked to partially dismantle it.
  • Articulate the problem in order to challenge it.
  • Increase societal support for open male communication, even when it means looking male vulnerability in the eye and not putting women on a pedestal.

At the individual level, I’m trying to set the unhelpful aspects of Stoicism aside by:

  • Being honest about what I’m feeling even if I wish I didn’t feel that way, and even if someone else doesn’t want to hear it.
  • Articulating the emotion in a calm, matter of fact way. Though it’s a cliche, stating things in the first person (“I feel…”) is important for personal responsibility. Saying, “You made me feel…,” blames the other person.
  • Following up with a statement of my needs or wants in a way that respects other people’s boundaries, and without the expectation that others will respect my needs (because at some point my needs will be mocked).
  • Refusing to be treated like a doormat. Others might not respect my needs, but I can still set boundaries.
  • Recognizing the value of Stoicism’s message of chilling out when I lack of control over external things, even if the aspect of detaching from my emotional experiences or silently enduring pain as a path to self-discipline is not valuable.

The Mask You Live In: A Documentary Review

The Mask You Live In is the second documentary by the Representation ProjectMask “follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.”

Released in January 2015, it’s still hard to find in many places. But like its sister Miss Representation, Mask eventually will be available on DVD or streaming. The screening in my area was sponsored by a local organization called Maine Boys to Men, whose mission is to “support the happy, healthy, non-violent development of boys and those who help raise them.”

Mask hits the ground running with the gravelly voice of former NFL defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, who remembers his father teaching him (at five years of age) to be a man – tough and stoic. And what Ehrmann details can only be described as child abuse.

Mask then informs us that gender is a social construct, noting that males and females psychologically are 90% similar. Of course, some may challenge the notion that gender is not biologically innate, but Mask is focusing on gender roles rather than gender identity.

Culture certainly looms large. The interviews with various psychologists, teachers, and ordinary men and women detail American society’s definition of a real man: powerful, dominating, wealthy, and promiscuous. But above all, not weak. Not like a girl.

Educator Tony Porter talks about a boy who said he’d feel destroyed if his coach said he played like a girl. Porter asks, What are we teaching our boys? What are we teaching our girls?

Mask advocates for a less rigid definition of masculinity. One that encourages greater emotional expression and openness for boys and men, thereby discouraging violence and destructive behaviors.

The film observes that a rigid definition of masculinity means boys and men constantly have to prove their manhood. But a man can never definitively prove his manhood because every new challenge threatens a loss of this identity.

This can lead to extreme behaviors, or what the film calls hypermasculinity. Most notable is men’s violence, which Mask illustrates with statistics, and clips from popular action movies and violent video games.

The film’s biggest impact, however, is the everyday boys and young men who tell their stories and talk about how they really feel. Teacher Ashanti Branch runs a support group for teenage boys. The film shows him leading an exercise where boys draw a mask on a piece of paper. On the front they describe how other people see them. On the back they write how they really feel. Then they crumple the papers and throw them at each other. Opening up someone else’s mask, each boy reads what’s on the outside, and what’s on the inside.

The funny, nonchalant, and cocky personas turn into sadness, anger, social isolation, and low self-worth. It’s a painful place to go. But Branch’s Ever Forward Club claims that 100% of the kids in this program (many of whom are from low income families) graduate from high school, and 93% go on to college.

Mask is full of boys and young men who confess that they feel like they could never measure up to the image of a “real man.” They describe their loneliness, isolation, despair, and anger. They describe coping with alcohol, drugs, and risky behavior. But they play the game because not doing so means being socially ostracized, bullied, and rejected.

For some there’s a larger price, however. In a prison support group, inmates describe horrifically abusive childhoods, and joining gangs because they craved a sense of belonging.

Mask describes gender socialization as beginning the moment boys and girls are brought home from the hospital, dressed in blue or pink, and given gender specific toys. Still, little boys are often as emotionally expressive as little girls. When puberty arrives, however, male friendships cease to have the same level of emotional connection because boys try to conform to the emotionally independent requirement of manhood. And so they don’t look gay. But with this emotional isolation we find an enormously higher suicide rate among boys.

The film also profiles several boys and men who grew up without fathers. Luis’s father was deported, and Luis got involved with a gang because he craved male role models. Cody’s dad was in prison for much of his childhood. Steven never had a father figure but later became a single dad. And an awesome dad at that.

Interspersed throughout the clips is a sea of statistics. The film could use a thorough fact checking, however. For example, Mask uncritically presents the unscientific statistic that 35% of men would commit rape if they thought they could get away with it. The claim is based on a non-representative, non-random sample that is too small (only 86 men) to draw any statistically significant conclusion. But this follows along with the film’s claim that the United States is a rape culture (the belief that American culture encourages men to rape women). Though this is debatable, it’s presented without any counterpoint.

I also would have preferred the film to explore the larger systemic issues of fatherlessness. Further, though Mask discusses father wounds, the issue of mother wounds is absent.

Also absent is any discussion of how girls and women’s expectations of men can marginalize less stereotypically masculine men, and encourage male silence. Likewise, men’s violence against women is discussed at length, but women’s violence against boys and men, and women’s not uncommon desire for control over males, is barely mentioned.

The most jarring omission, however, is that male disposability is never acknowledged or even alluded to. Yet, a culture that makes a global issue of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of girls while completely ignoring the group’s mass murder of boys (because they are boys) illustrates how little society values the lives of boys and men relative to girls and women.

Despite these flaws, Mask is a powerfully moving film that had a strong effect on the audience. The discussion after the film showed its impact. A grandmother commented that she thought boys had it easy, but now she’s seeing a different side of things. A young man said he just found out that he has a son on the way, and is joining the Maine Boys to Men new father’s program.

Though the dialogue about problems boys and men face so far has barely reached the mainstream, The Mask You Live In presents an excellent opportunity to spark a national conversation.

Grandma & Rita. Also, Nurse Jackie: Another Mixed Up Not Quite Movie Review

I don’t really write movie reviews. I’ll say I liked a movie without saying exactly why, then I’ll point to something about the movie that made me think, and I’ll go off on a tangent. So bear with me. Oh, and spoilers everywhere.

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as grandma, aka Elle Reid. I’ve loved Lily Tomlin since I was a little kid. In the 1970s she would guest star on Sesame Street as a character my sisters and I called the retarded girl. I know, not a nice thing to say. And not something I’d say today as an adult and a social worker.

Tomlin sat in a giant rocking chair, dressed like a child. It was a skit she had done since the early ’70s on Laugh-In. As a five year old watching Sesame Street I thought she really was a child, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. My mother claimed that Tomlin wasn’t small. Instead, the chair was big. But Jean Piaget told us almost a century ago that little kids don’t get stuff like that. Hence a child’s conclusion that Tomlin had special challenges.

Lately she’s played Frankie in the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, which is about two women whose husbands divorce them for each other. It’s an ingenious and hilarious look at gay marriage.

But I digress.

In Grandma, Tomlin’s granddaughter Sage is pregnant and has decided to have an abortion. The film doesn’t hem and haw over a choice that’s she’s already made, nor does it debate the issue. The problem is finding enough money to pay for the abortion. Bravo.

Grandma is really about women mending relationships. There’s grandma’s grief over the death of her long time partner and fear of committing to the new woman in her life. And there’s grandma’s broken relationship with her daughter while Sage deals with similar mother-daughter issues.

But in the tradition of feminist films such as Thelma & Louise and Maleficent, every man in Grandma is either an asshole or is useless.

Sage’s boyfriend is an irresponsible kid with a beard that looks like an armpit on your face (I laughed out loud at that line). When grandma tells the boy that he is responsible for half the cost of the abortion, he threatens her with a hockey stick. So she grabs it and slams him in the nuts.

Later, grandma finds her ex-husband (played by Sam Elliott), and he manages to extort a kiss from her in exchange for loaning her the money. But then he tries to extort sex. And once he finds out what the money is for, he adamantly refuses because grandma aborted their child 50 years ago without even telling him she was pregnant.

The only (presumably) decent man in the film is married to a woman with a women’s studies degree, but she won’t let him speak.

Still, I enjoyed the film Grandma (and Themla & Louise and Maleficent), and I recommend seeing it.

But Grace De Rond, writing for the Good Men Project, asks “Why Is America the Home of Male Bashing?” She married a man from the Netherlands, and she writes about questions he had when he first experienced American culture first hand. “Why was Papa Berenstain clumsy and over-reactive? And why was he portrayed as a poor husband and dad?” I would add, why is every TV dad a variation of Homer Simpson?

De Rond observes that “This stereotyping of males was new to him because his country doesn’t have a male bashing culture.”

The Danish TV show Rita (which Netflix said I’d like because I watched a Swedish film) illustrates De Rond’s point.

It’s a great show about a nonconformist teacher who really cares about her students, but whose personal life is a bit dysfunctional. Rita’s ex-husband is a narcissist who isn’t involved in the lives of his kids. He left Denmark for London long ago.

Rita is flawed too, however. Yes, she cares about her students. But she’s unable to maintain adult relationships. The headmaster, Rasmus, is a kind man who’s looking for a relationship. But Rita just can’t maintain it, even though Rasmus is great with her kids, one of whom is her gay teenage son.

Rasmus ends up leaving Rita for a woman who’s serious about wanting a relationship. Meanwhile, there are plenty of cads hitting on Rita.

Finally, though Rita’s heterosexual son is a somewhat irresponsible young man, upon becoming a father he does a 180 and become a devoted husband and father.

Rita’s fellow teacher is a young woman who grows personally and professionally as the show goes on. She also struggles with a boyfriend who might not be up to the task of fatherhood, but he eventually comes around too.

My point is that Hollywood has long featured women in push up bras and low IQs, and feminist themed films turn the tables on that. But from what I’ve seen of Scandinavian film and TV, there’s far less gender stereotyping and more character complexity. No wonder De Rond’s husband looked at American culture and was like, seriously?

But there’s hope. The American cable TV show Nurse Jackie features a Rita-like lead character who goes the extra mile for her patients, but who totally fucks up her personal life because of drug addiction. But she tries her hardest to turn her life around.

Her husband (and then ex-husband) is not perfect either. But he is a devoted dad who provides his daughters with some stability. The show has other positive male characters as well.

One of the most interesting characters, however, is Zoey. In the first season she’s nurse fresh out of school, a callow and naive girl. But her character develops bit by bit, and suddenly you realize she’s become a professional and in-charge woman who fills the professional void Jackie has left behind.

Mass Shootings Are a Gender Issue: But What’s the Right Response?

It seems like mass shootings are becoming more common. I’ve written before about mass shooters being almost all male (though the claim that mass shooters are disproportionately white is false). Today I want to ask if the intersection of American culture and masculinity plays a role. After all, mass shooters are almost all male in other countries too, but most other countries (including Canada) don’t have the frequency of mass shootings that we find in the United States.

American culture has always been militaristic. The original colonists warred with America’s first nations over land, which culminated in the Wild West’s genocidal campaign against Native Americans. And The Atlantic notes that controlling slaves played a huge historical role in the development of America’s gun culture. Further, while opposed by most of the world, Americans over a decade ago were largely supportive of the offensive (“preemptive self-defense”) war in Iraq.

The predictable response to the most recent mass shooting in Oregon by conservatives is a call for more people to arm themselves. America’s honor culture, which accepts violent vigilante justice and distrusts the government to properly administer justice, is alive and well. It’s a common motif in Hollywood films.

Honor culture is particularly about masculinity. Writing for Patheos.com, Fred Clark notes the theory that when a person’s identity is questioned, that person is “likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.”

Toxic masculinity is a hot topic, but it lacks counterbalance due to the failure to also discuss positive masculinity. That’s why I wrote for insideMAN that masculinity has never been monolithic. Supportive and nonviolent forms of masculinity have always been with us.

Unlike honor culture, a culture of dignity doesn’t blame others for personal failings or take offense at small slights, but it does respect other people’s rights and boundaries while assertively and nonviolently defending one’s own rights and boundaries.

And dignity isn’t just a human trait. In my post about the myth of the lone wolf/alpha male, I noted that zoologists have found that “within the pack he [the male wolf] is most often cooperative.” Nor are wolf packs as male dominated as popular culture believes.

I concluded that the masculine qualities pop culture promotes should be more Captain Picard and less Captain Kirk. Like it or not, pop culture defines our attitudes to a huge extent. I think the stories we tell ourselves need to reflect the distinction between honor culture and dignity culture, and counterbalance the destructiveness of honor culture with the positivity of dignity culture, and the implications for both on masculinity.

But there’s something else that stands out. On the CBS Evening News (15:57) on October 2, Dr. Kelly Posner (who founded Columbia University’s suicide prevention program) claimed that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts. I haven’t fact checked that statistic, but it’s consistent with the fact that almost four out of five suicides are male.

The claim that the male suicide rate is far higher because men use more fatal methods (such as firearms) avoids the issue. It’s like saying men get more speeding tickets because they drive faster. Why do men drive faster? Why do men use more lethal suicide methods? If masculinity is why, then what is it about masculinity?

Though women attempt suicide more, this cry for help shows they want help rather than death. But men are much less likely to believe they’ll get help or even be listened to. (Men are listened to when talking about impersonal things like sports, but often not with personal and emotional issues.)

Expecting men to be more empathetic toward others is only half the equation. Society must also be more empathetic toward men. Yet, a casual glance at Internet comment sections shows that even women who support egalitarian gender roles are sometimes dismissive of men who express personal concerns, frequently referring to men as babies or suggesting (with zero sum reasoning) that women’s issues are more important so men shouldn’t talk about men’s issues.

But as one woman noted on a Facebook discussion board for the masculinity documentary The Mask You Live In,

I strongly believe society has told men what they expect in the form of “girl power”. In my opinion, and I have a son and a daughter who are tweens, the expression “girl power” has become all encompassing. Instead of teaching both genders of children they BOTH have “power” inside them we exclude young boys and relegate them to sports only as ways for them to express themselves. Take a look at most rural or suburban schools, they have programs after school for girls only that teach them about peer pressure, body confidence, etc beginning at a young age! Such programs do not exist for young boys. I have heard of such programs for young boys in urban schools however, they are not a national program like “Girls on the Run”…My son is almost 12, he has asked me “do I have power?” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, until he explained the signs at school for girl only events…Boys need nurturing too, it’s ok as a nation to emotionally nurture boys outside the home.

The enormous male/female suicide gap first appears in adolescence and widens as boys progress to manhood. If it’s true that 90% of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, then imagine the effect that programs for boys could have in reducing these tragic events.

#MasculinitySoFragile

Bustle says criticizing toxic masculinity isn’t the same as criticizing men. The controversy Jaime Lutz writes about centers around the Twitter hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile.

She begins her Bustle article with a fair minded statement: “Masculinity isn’t inherently ‘bad’; neither, for that matter, is femininity. But there are certain brands of both that are toxic.” She then “reminds us how important it is to remember that criticizing a concept or a construct isn’t the same as criticizing a specific person or group of people.”

The distinction between constructs and the people who belong to groups associated with those constructs is a fine hair to split. My fellow atheists argue that criticizing religious belief isn’t the same as criticizing those who hold those beliefs. But Christians don’t agree. Though we’ve all heard Christians say that it’s not homophobic to criticize the gay and lesbian political agenda because it’s the issues and not specific people that they’re criticizing (“love the sinner, hate the sin”). And using the same logic, some say that criticizing feminism isn’t the same as criticizing feminists or women in general.

I’m neither feminist nor anti-feminist, and I’m not a men’s rights activist either. I don’t think feminism is anti-male in general, but I don’t think feminism always understands men and masculinity. Just as a man could never understand what it’s like to be a woman, a woman could never understand what it’s like to be a man.

Well, I take that back. Never is a strong word. It’s an absolute. Max Wolf Valerio’s autobiography is called The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation From Female to Male. A radical lesbian feminist prior to coming out as transgender, he writes that his feminist education did a poor job of preparing him for the realities of the male gender role. He states that he lost feminist friends not because he is transgender, but because he spoke openly about the male experience and contradicted some feminist beliefs in the process.

The overreactions of many men, however, only seem to prove the point of #MasculinitySoFragile. Challenging feminists to a fist fight, telling women to go make a sandwich, claiming that feminists are destroying society, and so on show how easily offended some men are.

And as Lutz notes, many of the points made on #MasculinitySoFragile highlight serious problems men and boys face, but which society isn’t adequately addressing. For example, “that boys are taught to hold in all their emotions and that’s why boys are far more likely to die by suicide.”

However, the sentence structure {noun} so {negative adjective} is a classic taunt. While I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that #MasculinitySoFragile is intended to demean, there’s an obvious insensitivity.

Further, opposition to something believed to cause great harm often assumes a position of moral superiority aimed at people believed to be unenlightened. In other words, moralistic movements are often patronizing. This is true of evangelical Christianity and New Atheism, as well as feminism and the men’s rights movement.

The distinction that feminists are criticizing toxic masculinity and not men is problematic because most people (right or wrong) unconsciously associate certain characteristics with their core identity. I’m a man, men are masculine, you say masculinity is fragile, therefore you’re saying I’m fragile.

And everyone knows that a weak male is not a real man. A man cannot rely on others to protect him – he must sink or swim on his own. A man is expected to protect others, but if he can’t even protect himself then obviously he is of no use to anyone else. In a social experiment posted on Youtube, bystanders intervened when a male actor appeared to physically assault a woman. But in a separate scenario when she appeared to initiate violence against him, no one intervened. Some laughed.

A hashtag perceived as taunting men about being weak is like taunting women about being slutty. I anticipate disagreement on this point. But I doubt the creators of the hashtag meant to hit that hard.

However, I do think they approached their campaign from a moralistic rather than an empathetic position, and that’s the source of the problem.