Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Alvy Singer Effect

In the 1977 movie Annie Hall, the main character, comedian Alvy Singer, saw hidden anti-Semitism everywhere. One example is his hearing the quickly spoken question “Did you eat?” as “Jew eat?” I know people like this.

Who you are often determines what you see…or hear…even if it’s not meant that way. And nothing can convince you that you might be wrong.

Also, when George Lucas was making The Phantom Menace, he paid special attention to language. It bothered him that in SciFi movies and TV shows, aliens all spoke perfect English with no accents, or no speech impediments because of sounds that didn’t exist in their native tongues. So he spoke with linguists about what people from different planets and cultures should realistically sound like, and used what he learned for the speech patterns of the Gungans and members of the Trade Federation.

And for his efforts he got criticized by many Asians and blacks as being racist for “mocking” their speech patterns. Those, and the supposed characterization of Jar Jar Binks as a “Stepin Fetchit-like character”, have been used as examples of his unconscious racism.

Even though that was probably the farthest thing from his mind.

Again, who you are often determines what you see…or hear…even if it’s not meant that way. And nothing can convince you that you might be wrong.

A saying often attributed to Sigmund Freud, who saw phallic significance in everything, and loved to smoke, says that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes who you are prevents you from seeing the plain old cigar, and insists on imbuing it with some deeper, and darker, meaning. Being a member of certain oppressed groups prevents you from seeing an honest coincidence as a coincidence, and instead has you seeing it as either a conscious or unconscious attack on your group.

All of which brings us to book titles.

In library circles, there’s a popular book display idea of books with titles like The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and a sign over the display that says “Her Name Is…” These books are seen as signs of the pervasive and unnoticed misogyny in our culture, where women have no identity aside from their relationship to some male.

I call “bullshit” on this one. I say that if you look at the books carefully, if you look at the genres, if you actually read the books, and if you look at the data for thousands of book titles, you’ll find that it’s nothing of the sort. But if you’re like Alvy Singer, who saw anti-Semitism everywhere; and the blacks and Asians who saw racism in the application of George Lucas’s linguistics research to the dialogue in The Phantom Menace, well then, this is just proof of a problem that’s so common that we don’t notice it.

But let’s face it…we tend to notice the things that affect us and bother us, and not the things that don’t. Did anyone complain about Wonder Boys, The Boys in the Boat, or The Bishop’s Boys? How about Navy Husband or The Husband’s Secret? What about The Man in the Iron Mask or both Invisible Man and The Invisible Man? Are there reasons for the man in question having no identity in the title? Is it part of the genre?

And what about those thousands upon thousands of titles that have no one’s name in them at all, male or female? Books like Gone with the Wind, Cold Sassy Tree, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Color Purple?

I think that if you look at the data, you’ll find that this perceived “hidden misogyny” is nothing of the sort, and it’s just another case of the Alvy Singer effect.

But I know that I’ll be told by many people that my opinion here, backed up by facts, counts for squat…because I’m a guy.

And that’s oppressive.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Compliments and Objectification

Sigh…when are we ever gonna learn that there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” rule for everyone? When are we ever gonna learn to make room and allowances for different realities without trying to enforce our reality on others, as if it were the only truth? When are we gonna learn that things might indeed be different for different people, for people of different groups…and even different people of the same group?

I ask this because of a discussion about objectification that happened on a particular online forum that I’m a member of. 

I’m pretty sure I understand about objectification, but when I suggested that what many people, many young people, many earnest young people are calling objectification might be what we old people used to call “paying someone a compliment”, you would’ve thought I’d invited Hitler to a bar mitzvah. And what these people are calling “objectification” is noticing or commenting on any aspect of a person’s body or appearance.

When I mentioned that a female library patron’s comment that I was much better-looking in real life than I was in the caricatures on the library’s posters made my day…no, I take that back…made my week, I got a huge frowny face from one of those people who thought it was not only inappropriate for the woman to say, but wrong for me to enjoy the compliment.

Like I said, I understand about objectification, but is every incident of noticing something about a person’s body or appearance really objectification? Are you really gonna tell me that “You have beautiful eyes” is in the same league as “Nice ass”? Because if so, then two things are true.

The first is that I’ve been “objectified” since I was five years old. That’s right, women have been coming up to me for almost 60 years to comment on my beautiful eyes. And over the years, I’ve learned to accept it with good grace, and even enjoy it.

The second is that we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, objectification of women is a problem, but saying that an innocent compliment like “You have a nice smile” is on the slippery slope to “Nice tits, toots” seems just a little ridiculous to me.

But here’s where an important difference lies…an important difference that many of those earnest young people don’t want to admit to: there may be a difference in the way that men and women perceive compliments…or “people paying attention to their bodies.”

Most guys I know enjoy getting compliments from women…it’s the kind of attention that we don’t get enough of. On the other hand, many women don’t enjoy getting compliments from men because it’s the kind of attention that they get too much of, and too much of the wrong kind of.

I remember all too well noticing that a female friend of mine had eyes as strikingly blue as mine are strikingly hazel, and the reaction she had when I told her how beautiful her eyes were. You would’ve thought she had caught me staring down her cleavage (which I wasn’t, I was really looking at her eyes), and the rest of our time together that day was really awkward for both of us.

But when I suggested in this forum that there may be a difference in how we each see compliments, and that we need to take that into account before we try to impose a “one size fits all” rule about “objectification”, the torches and pitchforks came out from those who insisted that their reality was the only valid one, and that those of us who enjoyed getting compliments were just encouraging guys to objectify women.

To be sure, the objectification of women is a problem, but so is a ham-fisted rule that tries to make any compliments to anyone a form of objectification.

Especially when it’s different for some of us.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

When You're No Longer the Standard

When I was in college, back in the 70s and 80s, I had a friend who hated the Sexual Revolution. She had many reasons for this, which I may go into in a later post, but one of her big reasons for hating it was that it meant that she was no longer an example of the standard. You see, before the Sexual Revolution the “standard”, which was part of an infamous double standard, was that “good girls” waited until they were married to have sex. Oh yes, we all knew or knew of girls who were doing it beforehand, but that was an open secret until they got “caught” and “shamed” by an unplanned pregnancy. My friend was a “good girl”, was proud of being a “good girl”, and looked down her nose to make “special allowances” for those “sluts”, as she called them, who had sex with their boyfriends…even their boyfriends who they were engaged to.

But the Sexual Revolution was a total game changer. Not only did no one really care whether or not you and your boyfriend were sleeping together, but it was pretty much assumed that if you’d been together for more than three months, you were. Not only that, but if you weren’t, then people might make “special allowances” for you due to “religious reasons.” But most likely, they just didn’t care what you did or didn’t do. If you had sex, it was OK. If you didn’t have sex, it was OK.

“Special allowances”? My friend was incensed. How dare the people she used to make special allowances for make special allowances for her, when she was supposed to be the standard? How dare people not care that she was being “good”? How dare not having sex become just another acceptable option, and not the standard to which everyone should be held, and that she was the flagbearer of?

She was pissed. And 40 years later, I’m still not sure if she’s gotten past this.

But I’m not really here to talk about my old friend’s attitude about pre-marital sex. I’m here to talk about changing social standards...of all kinds, and how many of us react when what we grew up thinking was the right way, the only way, becomes just one of many acceptable options in the buffet of life. How do we handle it when people graciously “make space for us”, rather than us sanctimoniously making space for them?

You see, that’s what I think one of our big problems is today…people who once exemplified the standard, or who thought they exemplified the standard…which may have only been the standard in their little corner of the universe…coming to grips with the concept that, unless we’re talking about human sacrifice, their ideas may not be a standard at all, but just one of many acceptable ideas out there for people to choose from.

The problem is people who are used to looking down their noses at those who didn’t believe or act according to their standards being told that maybe it’s more a case of steak or chicken than Luke and Darth Vader, not being able to handle that…and feeling a little resentful that all their hard work to live up to that standard doesn’t matter. The problem is also when these people try to force others into either living by or codifying their stricter standards in order to defend their choices and hard work.

But maybe, just maybe if we spent less time looking down our noses as we defended our choices, we’d be able to see into the other person’s eyes…

And enjoy a good dinner together at the chicken and steak buffet restaurant.

May the Force be with you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Can't We All Just Agree to Disagree?

Back in January, some of you may remember I posted a piece titled Crazy, Not Mentally Ill. It was a piece I had been thinking about for a long time. The idea for the piece would always bubble up after one person had made a comment about crazies, and then someone else castigated them for talking about the mentally ill so insensitively…or after someone mentioned someone they knew who had committed suicide, and beseeched us to be careful with our words about mental illness.

Each time this came up, I wanted to go into a little linguistics lesson about how “crazy” didn’t necessarily, and didn’t always, mean mentally ill the way we understand it now. But every time I thought about writing that piece, it was the wrong time, because the wounds were too fresh for some people.

Eventually I got around to writing that piece, and had it set to auto-publish on a date that had nothing to do with anything…just some random Tuesday in the future.

I did, however, tell one of my friends who was among the “we use the word ‘crazy’ too often” types that this piece would be coming up in the next few weeks, and that she should look out for it so that she could see my feelings on the subject.

Eventually that piece showed up here, and her response was, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this topic”, with a little smiley face.


Not only did she say that we’d just have to agree to disagree, but she did it with a little smiley at the end!

Why can’t more of us be like that?

The two of us belong to an online forum where there seem to be way too many people who have a “take no prisoners” attitude about their opinions. They’re right, and there are no other options. They’re right, and they will fight to their dying breath to prove you wrong. They’re right, and if God himself were to come down and say, “Excuse me, but you missed the boat on this one”, they’d argue, and then decide that this couldn’t possibly really be God, because he didn’t share their opinion on the subject.

Worst of all, these people won’t let you try to create a situation where you might both be partially right. When you try to suggest that you might both have some valid points, or that perhaps it depends on where you’re starting out from and your particular life experience, they will ramp up the volume to 11, and insist all the louder that they’re right, and you’re wrong.

When you try to point out to them that there are many shades of opinion on the subject, even within their own group, they will ignore or discount those opinions because they and they alone have the true wisdom.

These people won’t even let you agree to disagree. They can’t leave it alone. Long after they’ve stopped trying to bludgeon you into agreeing with them, you know the desire to continue doing so is still burning inside them like the coal fires of Centralia PA.

And then there’s my friend…my friend who said, with a smile, that we’d just have to agree to disagree on this one.

I get that. I understand that. I can appreciate that. I can appreciate someone who doesn’t agree with me, but understands where I’m coming from after I’ve explained it. Just as I understand where she’s coming from…but disagree.

But, as a wiser person than I once said, just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable. This issue is maybe one of four or five that we disagree on, while generally agreeing on everything else. Should we fight to the death over this…as long as we understand each other’s feelings about it?

I don’t think so.

Can we at least agree on that?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fred and Barney: Closet Episcopalians

Imagine two characters you’ve known of for 50 years, and whose religion you never really thought, or cared, about. Two people whose religion never once entered your mind, because it was a non-issue. Let’s call them Fred and Barney.

Now imagine that based on totally circumstantial evidence, people from a particular denomination decided that these two people were “one of them.” Let’s say it’s because they happen to know a certain hymn that members of this denomination also happen to know. And let’s say that members of this particular denomination feel underrepresented in the media. Let’s say that the denomination in question happens to be Episcopalians (a denomination I used to be a member of, have fond memories of belonging to, and hold absolutely no malice toward).

And imagine that when this idea that Fred and Barney were Episcopalians first started going around, their publicists politely denied it.

But a large, and loud, number of Episcopalians kept insisting that Fred and Barney were “obviously” one of them, and started loudly asking, “Why can’t you just let Fred and Barney be Episcopalians?” While others who weren’t Episcopalians, but were sympathetic to them, said that “a valuable teaching moment” was being missed by if not “admitting” that Fred and Barney were Episcopalian, making them Episcopalian.

And their publicists still denied and resisted it.

Imagine now that an important court case is decided about Episcopalians, and a number of media outlets feature pictures of Fred and Barney as examples of Episcopalians; and that Episcopalians start using them in their own media materials.

And now their publicists have had enough and sue.

This now pisses off the loud and activist Episcopalians, and their supporters; who say that the denial that Fred and Barney are anything but Episcopalians shows antipathy toward them, and implies that Fred and Barney’s publicist thinks there’s something wrong with being an Episcopalian.

Except for one little detail…Fred and Barney are actually Lutherans, and didn’t think it was anyone’s business what they were. That one hymn they knew that “everyone” said was proof that they were Episcopalians, was also in the Lutheran hymnal (and the Presbyterian one, and the Methodist one). Fred and Barney, and their publicist, didn’t think there was anything wrong with being an Episcopalian…they just weren’t themselves, and they were getting tired of being told that they were secret Episcopalians, and being used to represent Episcopalians.

Now is this really about Lutherans and Episcopalians? No. Some of you may already have figured out who it’s really about. It’s about our old friends Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street.

There’s been a movement in the last few years to “admit” that Ernie and Bert were gay lovers, because that’s what certain people in the gay community see them as. That’s what certain people want to see them as, simply because of the circumstantial evidence that they’re two guys who live together and are friends.

Many people in the gay community, as well as many gay allies (and “there’s nothing wrong with that”), want Ernie and Bert to be gay, or want it to be “admitted” that they’re gay, so that there are some positive gay role models on children’s television. And when the people at Sesame Street repeatedly say that they’re not gay (because that was the farthest thing from their minds when they created the two characters back in the late 60s), the activists accuse them of denying the obvious, and acting like there’s something wrong with being gay.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Ernie and Bert aren’t gay.

They’re Lutherans.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

One Fine Day and the Man Who Can't Be Moved

There I was, in the bathroom taking a shower, when the song came on, and I had to laugh. It was the old song One Fine Day, and I had to laugh because it took me back to the summer of 1979, when I played it almost every day after having my heart broken by a girl I was in choir with…we’ll call her Paula...focusing on the line “some fine day, you’re gonna want me for your [guy].”

I laughed about the fact that almost 40 years later, it’s safe to say that some fine day she probably never did come around to wanting me for her guy; but that’s OK, because I got over her.

Which caused me to laugh again, because the other song that was my mantra that summer was Crystal Gayle’s I’ll Get Over You; and by November of that year, I had gotten over her, and was in a relationship that lasted for roughly the next six years.

Funny, isn’t it, how when we’re in the midst of a breakup, or in its immediate aftermath, it can seem like the most important thing in the world…the most devastating thing in the world, and the thing we’re sure we’ll never recover from. Funny how when we’re in the midst of it, it’s very hard to see how a breakup that you didn’t ask for can be opening the door to something else…to something that’s perhaps better than what you’re leaving behind. And so you work your hardest to try to hold on to what you’re losing. And once you’ve lost it, you think about ways of getting it back.

Here, the song Until You Come Back to Me comes to mind. When it first came out, it was a simple song about someone who is so singled-minded about getting their old lover back that they’re gonna “camp on [their] steps” and “rap on [their] door, tap on [their] windowpane.” Now it seems more like the anthem of a stalker who needs to be given a restraining order.

Which brings me back to the summer of ’79. You see, it was more than I’ll Get Over You that got me over Paula, there was an internal conversation I had with myself that made me see everything in a whole new light:

Wise Keith: So she was the perfect one for you right?

Sad Keith: Yeah.

Wise Keith: And you’re miserable because she left you without saying a word, right?

Sad Keith: Yeah.

Wise Keith: But if she was the perfect one for you, would she have treated you like that?

Sad Keith: Wha…? Huh? Whoa! Thanks, I needed that!

My heart was still broken because I had been treated badly by someone I had trusted with it, but…I was no longer pining over her. She treated me badly, and that was a sign that she wasn’t right for me, and I should just move on. Which I did…and was happy about a few months later.

Which brings me to The Man Who Can’t Be Moved. A beautiful song about a guy who just can’t move on from the fact that his girlfriend broke up with him; and hopes that one fine day, if he just stays in the spot where they first met, she’ll come back. I want to smack this boy around and say, “Get over it! Move on! There’s someone better for you out there, and you’re gonna miss her if you keep obsessing over this one!”

“If she was the perfect one for you, she wouldn’t have left you like that!”

I want to tell him that one fine day he’ll just think of her as a nice memory, and a lovely footnote to his romantic life.

Just as one fine day I felt the same about Paula.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Wrong Lens of Love

For years, the story I told, and the story I believed, was that as an adolescent and young adult, my social life pretty much sucked, and that except for a few rare strokes of luck, I couldn’t get the girl to save my life. But in looking back, I realize that it really wasn’t that bad, and that my social life was relatively average.

I mean seven “real girlfriends” and dates with at least seven others over the course of 13 years is nothing to sneeze at...even if some of the relationships lasted as little as five weeks.

So where was the problem?

Two of my dear friends from grade school will tell you that I’ve been an incurable romantic since at least first grade. It’s true. I’ve liked girls ever since I knew what they were, and obsessed about having a girlfriend probably since age four.

And I mean obsessed about it. It wasn’t just that life was so much better if you had someone special to share it with, but I also believed that, as Dean Martin so famously sang, “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.”

But I know now that it’s not true, and that all those years that I was desperately trying to get a girlfriend...and annoying the crap out of every girl I came into contact with...I was missing the point. I was missing the point of enjoying life in general. I was missing just being friends with girls (not that there was a whole lot of modeling of that going on back then). I didn’t realize that I was practically the only one stuck on this romantic ideal, and that most people in high school or college (and definitely not in grade school) weren’t paired up with someone. I didn’t get the fact that the “sexual revolution” that I heard and read so much about wasn’t happening for everyone but me.

Well...OK...when you wake up on several different occasions in the middle of the night to your freshman roommate and his girlfriend going at it, it definitely seems like the sexual revolution is rudely thumbing its nose at you. But still, I didn’t get that he was one of the exceptions, and not the rule; and while maybe five people on my floor were sleeping with someone, the other 50 weren’t even seeing anyone.

But now, looking back, I get it. And I wish I had known that then. I would’ve been a lot happier. And a lot less depressed about being lonely.

My social life was pretty good. I just had unrealistic expectations from popular music, TV, and movies.

I know that now. But I wonder how many other adolescent and young adult males there are out there now who are just like I was then. How many guys are there out there right now, willing to do themselves, and others, harm, because they’ve gotten the wrong message about romance and being loved. I wonder how many lives might be saved if we could reach them and tell them to chill, and that their social lives are decidedly average.

And…and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough…if you haven’t been there yourself, if you have never been in that dark pit of loneliness and depression yourself, do not minimize this as someone being sad “just because they couldn’t get a date.” When you’re in that pit, it is so much more than that. It is so much worse than that.

This unrealistic expectation, and this obsession with having someone, anyone, also explains why many people stay too long in relationships that are not good for them...and why I did so myself.

And the moment I finally realized once and for all that I didn’t need someone else to make me happy; the moment I saw in someone else what I must’ve looked like to all the girls I’d thrown myself at, and said “eew”; the moment I decided to just give up on this romantic obsession...was when I met my wife.

Well...two weeks later, to be precise.

But it took me 30 years after that to realize that I'd been looking at my social life through the wrong lens.

How many of the rest of us still are?