Saturday, December 15, 2012

What Do Men Want? (American right-wing men, that is)

There are a lot of hunters in my neighborhood, and I like that. I invite them to set up a deer stand on my wooded land, so that they can harvest the bucks, and perhaps share the meat with me. We also have a lot of wild turkeys, and when turkey season comes around in the spring, I hope we will share some turkey meat.

The older hunters in my neighborhood are very careful: they know how dangerous their weapons are, and they never, ever shoot at a deer if beyond the deer, they can see a neighbor's barn or shed. The younger ones, though, seem almost drunk with the power of their weapons: one told me that he wants an automatic rifle because of "the adrenaline rush" of firing many rounds per second, and because of the respect that he would get at  the shooting range toting such a powerful weapon. This is childish, and this young man is in many ways still a child.

The shooter in Connecticut was barely out of his teens, and also still a child, it seems. We don't know what was going on his head--yet--and we may never know. He must have been crazy; we can be pretty sure of that. He must have been pretty angry, and his anger was directed in part at his mother, because he killed her in their home, and then went to the school--in full combat gear--and methodically executed kindergarteners with semi-automatic weapons that fire up to six rounds per second. All twenty of them died, as did five of their teachers.

It's always a man that does this, and usually a young man. He's often described as a "quiet loner," little known to the people in the neighborhood.

Why don't women shoot up schools? Women go crazy as often, maybe even oftener than men. Women have access to guns; apparently the shooter picked his guns from the arsenal in his mother's home. But there has never been a mass shooting where a woman has gone berserk in a mall, a movie theater, or a school. Maybe it will happen some day, and we will be shocked all over again in a new way.

But one has to ask: what is wrong with American men? They shoot their fellow citizens, and even littler versions of themselves, little children, at a much higher rate than men in other countries, who are presumably wired the same way. American men do have more access to guns perhaps than, say, men in Japan. But men in Canada and Switzerland have a lot of guns too, and they don't shoot their neighbors at the same rate.

We can look at our politics and our culture for the beginnings of an answer. Right-wing American men in high places have made themselves famous in the past year for waging a continuous war on women: trying to take away birth control; trying to make rape seem normal and acceptable; trying to force women to bear children conceived in rape; trying to shame women about having sex at all. And they are succeeding: many states have passed laws that make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, or birth control, especially if she is poor. Women who are raped during military service are not entitled to an abortion. The fact that women get raped at all, by their fellow soldiers, while serving in the military is shameful enough; it is beyond shameful to force them to bear the children of those soldier rapists.

Why the resurgence of 19th century ideas about sex and women, at this time? Because, ladies, we are winning. And these right-wing men know that. They are afraid they can't put the genie back in the bottle. Thus the Taliban-like "purity movement," that requires girls to be under the total control of their fathers until their father picks a husband for them, at which time they pass to the control of their husbands. Thus the obsession of the religious right with the sexuality of all women and some men (the gay ones). Thus the passionate hatred on the right against powerful women like Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.

This kind of backlash has happened before. During the Civil Rights movement, whenever the movement scored a victory, it could expect a church bombing or an assassination of one of its leaders. As Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win." We're in the fighting stage now. American right-wing men are fighting desperately to hold on to the last shreds of their male privilege. Their guns are a potent symbol of that privilege. That's why they grip them so tightly and sometimes explode with berserk rage, showering kids and women (in this case) with bullets.

One might ask, why American men? Men in other developed countries are also seeing their male privilege erode as women take more power in public and private life. Why aren't Frenchmen shooting little kids in schools? To understand the peculiar psyche of the American man, we have to look back over the last sixty years. At the end of WWII, white American men were on top of the world: our cities were still standing, unlike the cities of Europe, and our manufacturing had no rival.  We had defeated fascism, so the Greatest Generation men told themselves. Black people were still firmly under their thumbs. Women were herded back into the confines of the nuclear family and locked up there.

But then the sixties came. First black people, then women, and then gay people demanded to be first class citizens along with white men. The struggle for equality is still ongoing, but white American men know that their days as Masters of the Universe are fading. And it makes them angry. To add insult to injury, working-class white men have lost a lot of ground over the last thirty years: their wages have stagnated, and then declined. Whatever sense they once had of themselves as superior to blacks and women has eroded. Women are graduating from colleges and graduate schools at higher rates than men, especially in families of first-generation college students. Women are making as much money, and often more money, than their brothers and husbands. The twilight of the gods is upon us.

European men seem to be making the best of this, perhaps relaxing a little now that they can share responsibility with grown women for the family and the state. But American men, particularly right-wing men, do not like it one bit. They had more to lose, maybe, and like a lot of immature  young men, they don't really understand the down side of war and violence in the same visceral way that Europeans do. Europeans saw their populations decimated and their cities leveled twice in fifty years. The two world wars just made Americans richer and more narcissistic, drunk on military might and economic hegemony.

Essentially what we're witnessing is a narcissistic male culture reacting with rage and fear in the face of narcissistic wounds: loss of white privilege, loss of male privilege, and loss of economic hegemony. We can expect the tantrums to continue for a while. I've just recently realized, in fact, how much American men fear each other. There was a story recently about some men in some states turning in their guns as part of a local government buy-back program, and the reaction of one of my male friends was, "Please don't make public the list of men who have turned in their guns. When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Apparently the only thing that makes this man feel safe in his home is his personal arsenal!  I guess when you have made government small enough to drown in the bathtub, you have to take law enforcement into your own hands. The idea that you might support government--which is another name for the things we choose to do together--rather than being a lone wolf never seems to occur to these men. Lone, invulnerable, heavily-armed wolves are these American men.

 It will take a long time to change this. In the meantime: let's tell our young men that having powerful weapons does not make them men. Learning to do something, having a skill, that is useful to your community: that's what makes you a man. Learning to do something takes some work and some persistence, and a guy might have to get over his laziness. It's easier to take a short cut and just go out and buy a gun.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unpacking Christmas

Now that we've survived one winter holiday, it's time to start thinking about the next hurdle: Christmas.

It struck me today that Christmas is  like that big black pack that Santa brings down the chimney. But inside the pack are a lot of half-truths. Ok, let's call them what they are: lies.  "He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!"

First, there's the lie about the Man With All the Toys; that's an  obvious one. That's the first lie you find out about. Then there's the lie about the Virgin Birth, which you figure out later.  Then finally, there's the lie that you have to go out and spend $700, pronto. Let's unpack Santa's bag of tricks one at a time.

Why do people tell kids that there's a man that comes down their chimney (even if they don't have a chimney, which most new houses don't) and leaves toys for them that were made at the (melting) North Pole? And why do kids believe this patent nonsense? I figured it out this morning: it's a kind of initiation ceremony for kids. About the age of six or seven, you figure out that Santa is not real. Perhaps you discover a drawer in your mother's dresser that has presents in it that are clearly intended for children. Perhaps you find your presents in a closet. Perhaps you just think one day, "This is an improbable story that doesn't conform to the laws of the space-time continuum as we know it."

And what is your next thought?

 "They LIED to me!"

This is the most important part of the initiation. You discover that you can't trust The Man. You discover that every edict handed down by the authorities should be examined carefully for inconsistencies,  illogic, and scientific fraudulence.  It's especially important not to trust those in authority when they tell you that you will get some prize if you are good. Because you will NOT get a prize or reward if you are good.  Being good is its own reward. This is a hard, but important auxillary lesson.

It takes a little longer to shake that idea that The Man is watching you: "He knows if you are sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness's sake." (No, not for goodness's sake: in order to get the toys!)  I didn't fully shake this notion that somebody was watching not only my actions but my innermost thoughts until I was well into my thirties. I remember that I was driving down I-40, and I suddenly realized that it was not true that God or Santa was watching my every thought. Getting rid of that constant surveillance by The Man was really liberating, but I had to keep reminding myself for years that I was the only one who knew my thoughts, and that I could have any thought I wanted to, no matter how blasphemous, and nothing would happen.

I probably failed as a parent by not setting up this initiation ceremony for my son. I told him from the beginning that Santa Claus was not real, that he was a game that grown-ups like to play on kids at Christmas. It was interesting to find that he did not believe me at first, because all the other grown-ups and kids told him that Santa was real.  After one particularly bounteous Christmas with a lot of remote-control robots and cars, he told me that now he knew Santa was real, because I could never have gotten him all that stuff! I reminded him that he was the only person under thirty in our family, and people over thirty love to buy toys  that they wished they could have bought for themselves when they were six. This did not fly. He believed in Santa for a whole nother year. And there was never a satisfying "I told you so" moment. It just went unspoken that I was the only grown-up in the universe who had not lied about Santa to him. Well, maybe I reminded him a time or two when he was older.  In the end, though, it worked out ok, because he is reasonably cynical about people in power now.

On to the second lie: the Virgin Birth. This disturbed me a lot as a kid.  We were always told as girl children that after you get married, God puts a baby in your stomach, and that's how you get pregnant. But, for mysterious and scary reasons, there were some girls who got pregnant BEFORE they got married!  We learned this because my mother was a volunteer at the Florence Crittenton Home for Wayward Girls. Apparently sometimes God got the sequence of things backwards, and when this happened, you had to leave your family and go live in this home until the baby was born, and then you had to give it away!  This thought was terribly frightening to me. I knew that somehow going to that home was shameful--you were "wayward"--but yet, God had done it, so...And then it happened to Jesus's mother too! For her, the whole thing worked out better:  Joseph took her back despite the fact that somehow she was at fault for being pregnant with Jesus. But the Bible clearly said that he had at first planned to "put her away quietly."  At age eight or so, I knew exactly what this meant: it meant she would go to the Florence Crittenton home. If it could happen to somebody as good as Mary, could it happen to me? Would everybody be so understanding? Or would I end up a wayward girl?

This lie clearly has to go.  The idea that you can get pregnant without having sex, or that a bodiless spirit can "overpower" you without your consent while you're asleep and get you pregnant, and that then you would be blamed and punished, is just pre-modern and unfair. There's nothing nice to say about it. The fact that Mary is idolized for the fact that this happened to her, while ordinary girls are punished for it, just makes it a more confusing, and thus pernicious, lie.

Growing out of this lie is a little different from growing out of the Santa Claus lie. First, you find out that ordinary girls don't get pregnant by the Holy Ghost; they get pregnant from sex with boys. But there's a kernel of truth to the old fears you had about impregnation by God: it turns out that you CAN be overpowered, and then blamed and punished! (And you can't necessarily "shut it down," as I hope everybody now understands.)  But the perp is always just an ordinary guy, not a god.  Apparently for this reason, you don't get a pass like Mary got, although it's not clear why there's a difference in culpability.

Finally, there's the lie I wrote about last year: the lie that $700 must be spent by every grown-up in America before December 25, or else. (Some people are clearly spending a lot more than that, because I'm spending a lot less.) I will link here to my previous analysis of this lie.  The only thing I will add is that this year Walmart employees decided that they did not want to be stampeded to death by Christmas shoppers on Thanksgiving night, and they took a stand against (among other things) the earlier and earlier encroachment of Christmas shopping onto everything that is sacred about Thanksgiving, namely food and a day off. I think this is great. I did not shop at Walmart on Thanksgiving or the day after, in order to support the  destruction of this lie about compulsory spending.

This is the lie that we need to work on outgrowing now. And like the others, outgrowing it is ultimately healthy, although embracing the reality around it can be hard. It may be true that some people will get mad if we stop spending so much money on them at Christmas. (Others might be relieved because then they can scale back as well.) It may be true that some retailers might not make as much money in December. But what is NOT true is that less shopping in the month of December will collapse the economy. What is bad for our economy is borrowing and borrowing from China, in order to buy their plastic gizmos.

Let's face it: Santa doesn't bring the toys, there are no Virgin Births, and we can't keep borrowing like this. A reality-based Christmas could be a perfectly wonderful winter holiday. Could we try it this year? A few used books, a photograph or two, a hand-made card, some cookies will be plenty. Maybe some real toys for the people who are still actually kids.  The rest of us could treat the holiday as another round of great food, music, and visiting.  The real magical miracle would be if everybody really got several days off to rest, eat too much, and just hang out.  It would be something you never have to outgrow.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cut-out Cookies and Icing

After months of nothing but hamburger meat and vegetables, a girl can start hankering after some flour and sugar. But there was none to be found in the house, so I made a trip to the wonderful Main Street Market in Algood, TN. Of course they had flour and sugar, but they also had lard! Unhydrogenated lard. But that's not the subject of this post: I didn't put lard in these cookies!  However, the moral of the story is: you don't always have to go to Walmart. And, if you can't find it in Algood, you can probably get along without it.

I used Mark Bittman's "Refrigerator (or rolled) Cookies," from How To Cook Everything. It's a basic sugar cookie recipe, made with butter, sugar, flour, a little baking powder, and a little vanilla flavoring. I mixed up the dough last night (just using a fork, not the electric mixer) and refrigerated the dough overnight.

This morning I surveyed my cookie cutter collection. I have some great ones!  I got out the heart-shaped one of course, it being almost Valentine's Day.  Valentine's Day is associated with the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which I like because it involves running naked through the streets, shepherds, wolves, and fertility. Makes sense to me! So I got out my coyote cookie cutter too. Also, I have two Star Wars cookie cutters: Boba Fett and a generic storm trooper.  I used the storm trooper. It doesn't have anything to do with Valentine's Day. Also, I used my wooden Buddha cookie mold. 
These are apparently traditional in China for making mooncakes. There was a very impressive full moon last night, so it seemed appropriate. It's useful for using up extra dough too: you simply press it into the mold, then rap it on the table and a Buddha pops out. Then you cook him and eat him.

I used all those cutters and baked the cookies about 6 minutes. The Buddhas took a little longer because they're thicker. The coyotes' tails mostly fell off.

Then I did something that was pretty challenging for me. I made icing and piped it onto the cookies! I used a recipe for "decorative icing," from Gourmet. 
I didn't have any Just Whites powdered egg whites, so I just used real egg whites and decreased the amount of water. That is, I didn't add any water. This turned out to be a mistake: the icing was way too thick and wouldn't pipe easily onto the cookies. I added some more water to it (I did use the electric mixer this time) and voila! Icing you can draw with! So point taken: to draw with icing, it can't be too stiff.

It's fun to draw with things other than pencils. Once I got to draw with a free-arm sewing machine at the Quilt Show in Houston. So alternative drawing media are attractive to me. To draw with the icing, I had to get it into one of those pastry bags with a metal tip on it. My sister gave me one of those cake decorating sets years ago, but it has taken me years to figure out how to screw on the tips. Today I got it working, and it was really fun. I put the "writing tip" on the bag.  I found out why cakes always have cursive writing on them instead of printing: when drawing or writing with icing, you can't really stop and start too easily. You have to go with the flow.

As for the coyotes, it was a little harder to figure out what to draw on them, so I just kind of scribbled:

The storm trooper got some highlighting on his eyes and helmet, and the buddhas just got scribbles too.