Friday, April 27, 2012

A Real Man?

This week, a friend and I watched Clint Eastwood's film Gran Torino--and the premise of a tough, old white guy who's learning to embrace new culture, new tenderness, and new possibilities about masculinity was all intriguing to me. But the tragedy of the film wasn't in the final scene, when Eastwood's character offers up his life in a pacifist sacrifice to stop the cycle of death in his neighborhood. As moving and incredibly poignant as that moment is, the tragedy of the film occurs earlier, when Eastwood's character takes the young learning-to-be-a-man Tao to his local barbershop so that he can learn how men talk.

And, watching the film, the moment that became the deafening defeat, for me, was when Tao and Eastwood walk into that barbershop. The barber--whom Eastwood has prefaced as a "real man"--is sitting on his chair, waiting for business, looking through a porn magazine.

The Education of a "Real Man"
in Gran Torino (which begins with porn use)
The magazine is never referenced by any of the characters, though. No one talks about it. But the fact that Eastwood's character has already denigrated Tao for his weakness and complete lack of "real" manhood sets up the barber as the definition of the authentic thing: masculinity in action. As viewers, we're prepped for the scene and we're supposed to laugh at Tao in his weak attempts to become a real man. Yet, this question is paramount to how our culture views men: can we really become "real men" by using pornography? Do we men reveal strength and courage by purchasing a glossy magazine for a few bucks in which women are made to look like meat and overt notions of domination, subjugation, oppression, and misogyny are rampant?

The barber's answer--and by extension, Eastwood's character in Gran Torino--is a resounding yes.

But the real paradox of this moment is that, only a few scenes prior, Eastwood's character watches from his front stoop as a middle-aged woman drops her groceries on the sidewalk as she's trying to carry them from the back of her car. A group of teenagers walks by. None help, and one gesticulates with an overt sexual enactment. The others laugh. Eastwood's character bemoans this display--and rightly so--and is impressed when Tao (the character displayed as the total opposite of a "real man") comes over to help her. It's a moving scene, and rightly so.

Yet, the irony is here: Eastwood's barber friend is fanning the pages of a magazine where women are portrayed as objects--totally useless other than to arouse men's appendages--and yet here, Eastwood's character expects these teenage men to help the women rather than see her as a sexual object through which to make themselves laugh.

So, we're teaching men two things, here: the women in porn magazines are not real women. Those are the kinds of women you're supposed to use, abuse, see as meat for your hunger, and basically dominate. In essence, they're not real and they have no emotions. So the disgust Eastwood's character evidences when the teenage boys make fun of the middle-aged woman is essentially this: That middle-aged woman is a real woman. She has emotions and feelings. You can't treat her as a sexual object or a punchline to a dirty joke.

It's the same old misogynist practice: some women are to be respected, others are to be treated as less-than people and used for pleasure. That's the only reason Eastwood's character can walk into a barbershop where the "real man" is using porn, yet he serves as the model man. A tough man. A real man.

We see the same kind of overt misogyny is the fodder of Tucker Max. In the sickening chants of a Yale Fraternity. Among e-mails of the previous Duke Lacrosse team. Ultimately, young men of every class, race, and place are adept at learning a tragic lesson from the men who are supposed to be their models: some women matter; some women don't. And a real man learns to tell the difference. A real man learns how to abuse and use women.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
The time for tough bravado and pretension are over for us men. It's high time we learn to display a more authentic kind of manhood--the kind that Michael Kimmel, Atticus Finch, Nicholas Kristof, Cornel West, Jackson Katz, Sut Jhally, Michael Kaufman, and so many more reveal. These men--among many others--are using their lives to show that a real man doesn't sit in a  barbershop looking at porn. They don't buy the excuse that pornography empowers women. (Gail Dines and Robert Jensen have powerfully articulated how a system of male dominance and oppression feeds off of pornography, not anything that empowers freedom for women.)

Instead, a real man is one who is able to listen to the stories of others and look full in the face of another human being, granting them autonomy, respect as a citizen of the world, and deserving of dignity. Real men live to enhance the voices of others, offering opportunities for women to be empowered, not denigrated. Real men seek to quit the addiction of glossy magazines and instead see the reality of the world in front of their faces. Real men know that all women deserve dignity. And in empowering others, real men also become empowered in an authentic, honest, and yes--dare I say it--even vulnerable way.

Cornel West is right when he says, "We know that misogyny is shot through the culture. It's in country. It's in rhythm and blues. It's in the White House, and it's on Wall Street." But the men of this generation and the next will be able to choose what kind of men we are going to be. It's high time we put down the glossy magazines portrayed women as objects and pleasure sites. And it's time we call out misogynist actions, jokes, businesses, and ideas as unacceptable--whether they're on the campus of Ivy League schools like Yale, on the fields of sports teams, or in our own hearts and bodies.

Like much social change, it starts by turning away from one ideal, and embracing another. Goodbye, Domination. Hello, Empowerment.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Gratitude for Puddles

Going on Day Seventeen of a Ten Day Forecast for Extensive, Hard, Seldom-Ceasing Rain--and today: I love it. Even though I've watched Jennifer tuck her jeans into her boots ("wellies") quite a few times, today was the first time I actually tried it myself and with Tyler. Our plan: a stop at the Lollipop store and then a jaunt to the little Fulford Library. But the rain, relentless as a dog who has to urinate, wouldn't let up. So I realized that it was high time Tyler and I got with the jeans-tucking-in program.

And--who knew!?--it really is an incredibly effective program. I stuffed the ends of my jeans into my black, given-for-free-from-a-neighbor wellies, and helped Tyler stuff his jeans into his newly-bought-pink-strawberry wellies (self chosen, and yes: Jen and I are totally loving the fact that he loves pink boots.)

En route to the lollipop store (where lollipops make up actually only about 4% of Val's little corner shop) Tyler and I manged to find every single puddle that lay between us and our destination. No puddle could escape our masterful gaze. Nor was any puddle too deep, too shallow, too muddy, too clear, or too wormy for our cataplutative leaps.

I am going to run through this one super fast, Daddy, watch me do it LOADS of times! Tyler's roars escape from a visage that knows a few drops may even reach its height. But the Tuck In Jeans Program protects Tyler like a miracle, and the pink boots are the recipient of about 96% of the splashed water.

My turn Tyler-Man! Here's comes Daaaaddddyyyyy! My shouts aren't feigned or exaggerated to help enhance his joy. They're actually an authentic part of my own joy at the newly accepted Tuck In Jeans Program.

When we finally get a lollipop from Val and end up at Fulford Library, we're dry. We are remarkably, miraculously, and can't-touch-it-like-Ryan-Gosling's-smile dry. We choose 16 picture books--including the perennial favorite The Pink Bicycle by Gill Lobel--and load them into my backpack.

En route home, we embody the Tuck In Jeans Program with glee. It's becoming a part of us--thanks to the tutelage of my wife and the glory of Rain. After seventeen days, I finally find myself looking up at the sky, waiting--no, hoping--for more puddles tomorrow.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Gratitude: Matthew Bednarz

When I was five years old, I joined the Cub Scouts. My mom was a den mother, which officially meant that she joined the thirty-plus fathers in the "troop" to which I belonged. But my mom wasn't alone as a woman among men: she was joined by five other mothers who played the same role for their sons: women all who exhibited great strength, powerful love, and voices that refused to bend.

I could write a lot about these den mothers--Mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Armstrong, Mrs. Dlugolenski, Mrs. Wahl, Mrs. Panos, and Mrs. Bednarz--but their full story will have to yield until another day. Today's words are focused, instead, on one of their sons, a guy who quickly became my best friend.

Matt and I at the Grand Canyon, 2007

Matthew Bednarz is one of those extremely rare people who actually has loads of wisdom and love. He's the kind of person who can read the subtext in life. He's able to bring out its humor, joy, and worth--and he's been doing that for me ever since we were in the Cub Scouts at age five.

We rose, together, through the ranks of John F. Kennedy Elementary School and what I remember most about Matt is his incredible ability to make others laugh. But Matt was unique in that he didn't make people laugh at other people--instead, Matt just made people laugh. Anybody. Everybody. Matt could find the humor in any situation, whether it was discussing the small cartons of chocolate milk or the onset of puberty and the realization of girls. Matt's quick wit was evident to all of us, and my stomach often ached with joy whenever I was with him for more than five minutes (which was often).

But Matt's humor was only the beginning. because his ability to make people laugh was grounded in something even more rare: his wisdom about people and the world around him. Matt was able to see the good in everybody--and I mean everybody. he would talk with anyone, share with anyone, listen to anyone.

And Matt could write (can write). His stories, in elementary school, always evidenced something that made the rest of us say,. "Isn't Matt our age? How can he write like that?" And we'd listen to him read something he wrote or talk about a story or movie idea of his, and we'd elbow one another and think, Damn, that's really, really, really awesome the way that only fifth-graders can.

We both had Mr. Robert Looney as our teacher in fifth grade--a man who deserves a medal and his own tribute for the inspiration and joy he shared with us--and that year Matt and I were encouraged to write wildly creative and free stories. So, we did so. What we'd once penned as "Voyagers" in the second and third grades became even zanier and more twisted now. And all the while, Matt was visualizing how to film things, how to bring stories to life in a way that no one else I knew even talked about.

On weekends, Matt would hoist the large VHS camcorder onto his shoulder, pass out scripts to his other Cub Scout friends (now we'd moved on from the scouts but still got together regularly), and he'd guide us in his own self-written, self-produced, self-directed, self-edited movies. (They were, of course, always awesome). Whether it was a movie about Mars Bar and Almond Joy--anthropomorphized into mafia-esque men at battle for power--or the nuances of young love, Matt's movies always had one central message: life can be hard, crazy, unexpected, painful, weird, confusing--but it's always, always worth living 9and living to the fullest).

As we entered high school,. the characters in Matt's movies and stories grew more complex--and the stakes within the scripts were raised--but that central message remained: that life, for all its horror and pain, is still worth it. Life is still amazing, even if it's nearly impossible to see it that way sometimes. The characters in Matt's stories and movies--like Matt himself--always chose to fight on, to embody courage towards whatever they faced.

And in this regard, they always succeeded, because they always kept on going.

When Jennifer and I moved to Flagstaff in 2006, after I'd left high school teaching to go back to school for a couple of years, Matt flew out to visit and spend five days with us. We saw a lot, talked a lot, did a lot. But what I remember most about that trip was a single moment: we were outside Jen and I's little campus apartment, and the unequaled Ponderosa Pines surrounded us. I looked up at Matt, and it was like I could still still the five-year old friend with whom I played kick ball, whose jokes I laughed at till my stomach revolted against me, whose generosity of spirit, warmth, and creativity had grabbed hold of me and inspired me even then. And I looked at Matt, and it was like the 21 years that had passed from our Cub Scout days until then hadn't changed a thing.

Not at all.

Instead, we were both five-year olds, still, albeit with harrier faces, a few more battle scars. But we still saw that thing inside one another that only a friend who's known you since you were five even can see: your character arc. Your journey. Every protagonist needs to face incredible odds in order for his story to become beautiful.

In this manner, Matthew Bednarz becomes even more than an incredible protagonist. because his story isn't only about him and the odds he's had to face. Instead, it's about me, too, and every other person on whom he's had a remarkable impact through his laughter, his wisdom, his creativity, and his love.

Today, I say happy birthday to my best friend and a guy whose character arc is, to me, amazing. I'm grateful  that you've let me be a part of it for so long. And I look forward to the stories still to be told, the movies still to be made, the laughter still to be had. I love you, friend.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finding a Way Forward

About a month ago, the Treasurer of the Fulford Bowls club passed on--a man named Brian who was 89 years old, had proposed twice but both times was returned a negative and never married, and whose gentle smile led to easy sharing, kind encouragement. Each Thursday evening, as I talked with Brian, it was easy to see a certain longing in him: a great love of children, yet never having his own; a great love of community, yet never creating one inside his home.

The Fulford Indoor Bowls Club, then, was his route to connection. He began the club in 1984, and had served as Treasurer ever since. When I first met Brian, his words, "Welcome, now your first two sessions are free, so make sure you don't pay" were indeed music to my ears. And over the past year and a half, as I've had the chance to get to know so many men and women of an older generation, something about Brian has always captivated me.

He didn't storm the beaches of Normandy like others in the Bowls crew.

He didn't almost lose a daughter at age two.

He didn't travel to five continents and possess stories galore to make those journeys reverberate as if they were still occurring today.

Instead, Brian's story was quiet, as was his voice and even his stroll. The subtext of his words spoke to me about a man who had tried hard in this life--sought love and ended up creating a community every way he knew how. Even though it wasn't his ideal, it worked, and it brought a lot of connection and joy to others as well.

As I now try to balance the books for the Bowls club--an English major and poetry-loving teacher--I find that the numbers don't always add up for me the way they did, I'm sure, for Brian. As I hold the ledger in my hands and read through his script, each number checked with tiny dash marks in pencil, I feel a certain quietness that saunters into the room and glances over the books with me.

For Brian, even though his highest hopes never materialized, life was still beautiful because the quality of his connections ensured it. The people he treated with dignity, the stories he listened to and shared, and the quiet manner of his willingness to put his hopes into any avenue for community that he could--these all speak to the way a river finds a course. Though it runs into rocks, though it may be blocked at many turns, if it keeps seeking, then somehow it finds a way to move forward and still bring water. Like life.

Monday, April 16, 2012

We, Teachers

We stand at a place where justice meets grace.
In the thousand-thousand words we share and hear,
Constant mystery lingers from ear to ear.
Is it wrong, what I said?
The mark I gave, the essay I saved, the student whose song
I let reign today?
The questions we ask lean in towards answers,
And the answers we hear
Are echoes of the souls within the stories.
They are you.
They are me.
They laugh at the off-beat themes, 
Cry at the agony, grow wide-eyed at the dreams.
At our best, we are momentum itself--
Staggering forward without a water-break, destroying the fake.
At our worst, we clutch faith like a flame,
Burning ourselves again, and again, and again.
Somewhere in between lies both the promise and the present.
We, teachers, merge the two.
We make something whole even as its blinding holes
Blink back at us.
We, teachers, every day shut our eyes against what was and
Make something new. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Boris and the Queen

Last week, Queen Elizabeth visited York for a service at the Minster, and thousands of Yorkers lined the streets to welcome her. Jennifer, Tyler, and I were among the thousands--excited for our first glimpse of the enigmatic, long-standing Queen. Tyler sat atop my shoulders, waving a British flag for which we paid a  pound along near Stonegate street.

As we waited, we talked with people all around us. We met Justin and Allison, a young couple from Oregon who had been in York for seven months so far. Justin is pursuing a PhD at the University in Medieval Studies, and Alison is working part-time as a speech therapist.

We met a lot of small children, all waving flags.

And we met a young woman carrying a collar-less dog named Boris. She smiled as we pet him. "Boris isn't happy that I dragged him all the way to York for Queen." She laughed. We pet Boris--a small, brown-white mix that looked a bit like a Terrier--and laughed too.

After thirty minutes of waiting, enduring an array of questioning from Tyler ("Is she coming now? How about now? When is the Queen coming? Is she here yet? When will I see her? Will she wave to me?"), she arrived. Protected behind a thick layer of glass in the backseat of a shiny black car, she smiled from underneath the brim of her bright blue hat.

She waved at the thousands of us. And she waved, specifically, at Tyler.

Once she passed, the thousands shifted, rearranged, already jockeying for position to catch a second glimpse as the Queen left the Minster and made her way back.

That's when we spotted Boris again. Yet this time, the young woman was nowhere to be seen. And Boris was sniffing around the small grassy area behind the sidewalks. People nearby all called him a stray. They said he'd been there for about twenty minutes, just sniffing around.

I scooped Boris up and looked him in the eyes. It was definitely him. Same dog--his eyes bespeaking the reluctance of this Queen thing, and his collar-less neck proudly displaying his brown-white mix.

"Can I hug Boris?" Tyler raised his arms high. I bent down low.

Tyler gave Boris a massively affectionate hug.

"Can I give Boris a kiss? He might be sad because his Mommy is not here anymore. Where is his Mommy? Why is Boris's Mommy not right here with Boris?"

I answered all of the questions, let Tyler give Boris a kiss, and sat down on the ground. Suddenly, I forgot all about the Queen. Now, it was all about Boris.

"Boris's Mommy! Hello, can the Mommy of Boris hear me?" I started shouting.

"Boris's Mommy! Boris's Mommy!" Tyler began shouting in echo.

People around us began looking with odd eyes and raised brows, then a few smirks, even a couple of laughs.

"Boris's Mommy! Are you here?" Tyler and I continued yelling for her, our voices mixing and mingling and which of us was the child in the family was difficult, I'm sure, to decipher.

We spoke with a police officer named Chris, who took down the details of the woman we'd met (the first time I'd ever given a physical description of  a person to a police officer). Chris was an immediately friendly guy.

"I know you have bigger things to worry about on the Queen's day, of course," I said, a bit apologetic for taking up so much of his time.

"Everything is big, no matter when it happens," was the delightful Chris's reply.

"Can we bring Boris to OUR home?" Tyler asked as he tugged on my coat.

Chris smiled.

We ended up carrying Boris around for the next hour--holding him, hugging him, kissing him, shouting for his Mommy.

We never found her. And in the end, after I let Boris down to pee, he lifted his leg, urinated, and then ran off in the direction of a noise.

The Queen was exiting the Minster. Perhaps Boris wanted to get closer to catch a glimpse; perhaps he had gotten excited, finally, about her time here in York. More likely, though, is the possibility that Boris just wanted to go. he wanted to continue the search for his Mommy on his own.

In the end, we never saw Boris safely home to the arms of that young woman. Chris's face showed his concern. And I'll be honest: it took me most of the day to realize that Boris was going to be okay: some way or another, he was going to find his way into safe arms again.

The Queen made her way back along the street to much fanfare and flashes. I didn't see her face, this time, though I'm sure that enigmatic smile shone brightly from underneath her glowing blue hat. Funny thing, though: the face of a collar-less, reluctant dog was all I could see.

Like all of us, Boris was asked to go to a place he didn't want to go, and in the end, he lost his way. he found safe arms for a while, found some smothering hugs and kisses, and then continued on his journey towards being found again. Like us, Boris will continue searching for his one true home--the arms where he really belongs. Until then, here's to hoping Boris finds more safe arms along the way. And here's to hoping that we find those kinds of arms, too, whether for a minute, an hour, or days and years.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Today, our three-year old son Tyler did something that made me weep. In public. Eyes watering, chocking back gobs of gasps and becoming a mess--and the unprompted thing that prompted my emotional reaction wasn't something I would have expected of a three-year old: not a tantrum (though Jen and I have enjoyed our fair share of those parenting joys); not a fall from the top of a super-tall, unbelievably-high, can-a-slide-be-this-high-in-a-child-friendly-playground-come-on-can-it? slide; not an emotional or physical collapse due to hunger, exhaustion, or the terrifying mix of both.

This morning, we headed out to a day in the city--ready for a jaunt to the National Railway Museum, the City Centre Library, a stop to pick up vitamins at the Holland & Barrett vitamin store, a stop at Ryman's Stationers to pick up a fountain pen refill for the Lamy Jen got me last Christmas, and the occasional stop to peer at cracks in the sidewalks, rather large puddles, or various animal poopies that lay like a trail of Who's Been along our journey.

Right at the beginning of our excursion, we stopped to chat with Jock, the friendliest man who has ever lived anywhere. (You can read a little more about him here). Today, after chatting, Jock reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins, extended his arm towards Tyler.

"For you, laddie!"

Tyler smiled wide and said, "Thank you!" Then, he grabbed the handful of coins, put them into his digger-coat pocket, and turned to me. "Daddy, we can get twenty-ten treats with this money!"

And we were off, continuing onwards towards the centre. After taking the number 7 bus into town, we got off a ten minute walk from the museum. We crossed a lot of roads and made it to the small tunnel that leads to the museum for pedestrians. In the tunnel, we met Galf, a young homeless man we'd seen often before. Previously, Jen and I and Tyler would stop, talk, and share food. Today, Galf had his hat out in front of him, a beige blanket covering him, and he looked sick in the cold and wet.

Tyler jaunted ahead of me, stopped in front of Galf, reached into his digger-coat pocket and pulled out his handful of coins. He dropped them all into Galf's hat.

Galf laughed and his eyes rose.

I cried and my eyes closed.

Tyler asked, "Are you feeling sick?"

Galf said, "Yes I am. But thank you for your money."

The three of us talked for a while longer, and then we exchanged high-fives.

The thing is, generosity is an act of love that knows no bounds--but only when it doesn't really even know what it's up to. Generosity that makes a show of itself or seeks a microphone to announce what it's doing isn't really generosity at all. It's something more calculated. Sure, it can yield beautiful results, and it's important, but there's something sublime and remarkable about unprompted generosity--sharing that just happens automatically because we know that we have something and someone else is in need.

Tyler didn't have time to calculate what he was doing. It was obvious to me that he wasn't considering his twenty-ten treat-buying capability. Instead, he was considering Galf.

How often does it happen to a Dad that he's shown something by his son that challenges and inspires his own heart?

So many forms of generosity have become bounded by a system that most of us use to skirt the sheer act of reckless generosity. We pass the homeless, we witness the oppressed, we watch the sick and feeble, the lonely, and the disenfranchised, and we say, Well, if we gave money, they'd probably buy alcohol with it. Or we say, They must have done something to end up where they are. Or--worse--we say If they had worked harder. It's not that giving money is always the wisest choice--giving food, or talking can sometimes be best--but it's the fact that we so often claim an excuse for not doing anything because we assume the worst, and use our assumptions to avoid loving someone who is--at core--just the same as we are.

In essence, we're so used to legalistic and, really, love-voided forms of giving, that we tend to veer away from generosity for the sake of hoarding. We tend to see ourselves as deserving; ourselves as working hard; ourselves as rightful owners.

And maybe ownership is the problem. I one read that a wise Rabbi welcomed guests into his home for a meal. The guests walked in and realized that he owned practically nothing--almost no furniture, no real possessions, not much to take up the small space he occupied. The guests asked him, "Rabbi, where are all your possessions?"  The Rabbi responded with a question, "Where are yours?"  They laughed at him, replied, "Why, we're just visitors here." The Rabbi laughed back and said, "I, too, am just a visitor here."

But there's also generosity that goes beyond possessions / money, and into the realms of time, hospitality, kindness, presence, encouragement. I can look at the situation with Galf today and feel deeply emotional about watching Tyler what he did. But it was also obvious to me that Tyler didn't think he was doing anything important--just a natural act. In this light, another layer of status-quo thinking became clear to me: who is to say that when Jen and I and Tyler stop and talk with Galf, or give food or money, we are the generous ones? Galf gives his time to us, his presence, his story, his eyes, his emotions and experience. Galf shares with us, just as deeply-- and more deeply perhaps--than we share with him.

Our conditioning teaches us to think that some people deserve money and opportunity because they were born into the right places, or because they worked for it. Both of those mentalities are merely two forms of one lie.

Everyone deserves opportunity. Everyone deserves the kind of unprompted love and generosity that we all can offer. I do, you do, Galf does, all of us.