Friday, April 29, 2016

MEN

I often read David Brooks's column in the New York Times and wonder how he can square his insights into the human condition with his Republican views. The former seem right-on, the latter, way off. In today's column, he rightly disavows the Trumpism that now seems the destined path of the Republican Party (I refuse to call it "Grand," "Old" though it may be!) and proposes a new path of national "communitarianism." (Take out a few letters, and what have you got! That's an irony, no?)

He also has this useful insight:
We’ll probably need a new definition of masculinity, too. There are many groups in society who have lost an empire but not yet found a role. Men are the largest of those groups. The traditional masculine ideal isn’t working anymore. It leads to high dropout rates, high incarceration rates, low labor force participation rates. This is an economy that rewards emotional connection and verbal expressiveness. Everywhere you see men imprisoned by the old reticent, stoical ideal.
Trump's major base of support, as we know, is white men--men who have come to understand, painfully, that the system is rigged against them, who have lost trust and hope, who feel, in a word, unmanned. After centuries of male entitlement--and whether they acknowledge it or not--great numbers of my gender feel threatened by the ascendancy of women in the course of the past hundred, in particular the last fifty years. What they have yet to discover is that the empowerment of others does not necessarily entail one's own disempowerment.

What might "a new definition of masculinity" look like? Having spent twenty years as an active participant in The ManKind Project, an organization of men seeking just this new definition, I believe that the greatest challenge is to come to a recognition of the way in which unconscious, and mostly unacknowledged emotional reactivity can govern our actions. The "rage" that has surfaced in this election cycle has been roiling for years. Successfully repressed for so long, it is all the uglier when it can no longer be sublimated or controlled, and erupts with the irrational violence we see at a Trump rally today.

Ellie and I caught up, last night, with The Confirmation, which aired first a few weeks ago. It's the story of the epic confrontation between then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and the University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, who charged him with sexual harassment. The docudrama faithfully recalled the detail with which she presented her case and the dignified demeanor that persuaded myself and many others, at the time, of the truth of what she said.  The threatened male egos that rushed to the defense of the perpetrator rather than the victim conspired to trash her evidence in their eagerness to support the essentially masculine status quo of both the Senate and the Supreme Court.

It pains me as a man to assert that this masculine insecurity plays out at all levels, not only of national politics but also on the world stage. I believe that the decades-long attack on Hlllary Clinton from the right is inspired in good part by the fear of feminine power. I believe that "radical Islam" and its dire effects on world peace has its roots in the same primal fear. It's a deeply buried emotional gene, and one that does indeed require "redefinition" at a time where one half of the world's population is no longer content to accept male domination. We need to learn how to live with women, how to acknowledge and respect their power without sacrificing our own, how to collaborate with that power to the benefit of the entire human race.

I'm not one to "blame" men for all the evils of the world. I have nothing but great respect for masculinity.  It just needs, as Brooks says, a healthy, thoughtful, and honest redefinition.

Monday, April 25, 2016

AT THE MOVIES...

Ellie and I were at the Newport Beach Film Festival last night, to see a selection of short films. Here's Ellie with Philip Battley, husband of Jessica Boyd, whose film I write about below; and Fabio Tassone, a new friend...


FAITH

In the opening scene in Jessica Elisa Boyd's profoundly moving new short movie, Art in Heaven, we find her protagonist, William, an Anglican priest, in a life-or-death crisis at the edge of a large body
of water.  At the end of the scene, in which we are invited to share his inner conflict in the vast and inscrutable context of nature itself, he reluctantly chooses life, flinging into the water instead his purple chasuble--the stole that is the symbol of his priestly office and his relationship with God.

We shortly discover the cause of his distress: the death of a child and the alienation from his wife. William's worldly-wise bishop re-assigns him from his city post to a parish deep in the Suffolk countryside, offering him a period of respite in which to find redemption. His tentative welcome there includes--in one of the movie's delightful, chuckle-inducing asides--a table in the rectory laden with a plethora of home-baked cakes; but he is left with a feeling of deep disconnection, from his own family--his sister and their mother--his wife, his congregation, and his God. And not least from himself. It is astonishing that Boyd manages to weave so complex a web of emotional connections in so brief a time.

In a crisis of faith, William, is now given to struggle with the religious beliefs that led him to the priesthood. How to believe in a supposedly merciful God who condones such tragedy in the life of one who has devoted his life to His service?  This is, of course, the perennial and ever insoluble dilemma of Christianity. But Boyd's film transcends the purely religious question and asks us to consider the necessity of faith to the work of simply being a human being, in a world that is often unkind, and sometimes outright cruel.

William finds his redemption in part in mystery, in part in music. A young woman appears at the piano in his church, rehearsing a beautiful sonata by Edward Elgar. He soon takes to listening to the music, rapt, and learns from this "angel" to listen to his own deeply wounded heart. Inspired by her, he begins to reconnect with his congregation, with his faith, with nature, and with life, and finds himself able to commit himself to his pastoral work, and to this new parish which had seemed to him at first an exile. It is only in the last scenes that we learn that the young pianist was nothing but an apparition: she had died some years before, the victim of a family tragedy not unlike William's own...

Boyd excels at exploring the inner life of her protagonist with both insight and compassion. As myself the son of an Anglican priest who struggled with his faith, I found in William--played with quiet authority and conviction by Daniel Weyman--a persuasive portrait of a thoughtful, sympathetic man confronted with tormenting doubts about his life's choice to serve God. In the broader context, Boyd uses her cinematographic medium to paint the glorious, marshy landscape of that part of England, evoking the mysterious, profound relationship between man and nature in the same way as, say, Thomas Hardy managed to do in a different corner of my own home country. She has created a film that invites us to contemplate the human need for faith in, and commitment to something greater than our own small lives, even as it moves us with its compassion and reminds us of the amazing beauty that surrounds us everywhere.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

AND THEN THIS...

I'm not a fanciful person, generally, but there's this...

Here I am, sitting out in the sunshine on the back patio of our Laguna Beach cottage where Georgie loved to stretch out and relax, and quite suddenly a little bird flies down out of nowhere and perches on my shoulder. Then drops down to the patio tiles and stands there for a moment looking up at me.

And my first instinctive, irresistible thought is: this is George, come back to tell me that he's doing fine. As I say, I'm not generally a fanciful person, but the thought just came to mind. Like that. Like the bird, unprompted. And settled there in my mind for a moment, and flew off.

I mean, wild birds don't just fly down and settle on your shoulder. Ever. Do they? It certainly never happened to me in my life before. I don't expect to happen again. Not ever.

So... a messeanger? A reincarnation? A fluke of nature? You tell me.

Friday, April 22, 2016

AN ACT OF LOVE

Well, Georgie has left us. He has made that journey we all must take into the Great Mystery--or what my late sister called the Next Great Adventure. I myself choose not to speculate about the nature of that mystery, but I do know that this morning's act of love released him from any further suffering.

We had been hoping to help him last out until we could take him to his own vet in Laguna Beach when we go down there tomorrow. Yesterday, though, there was a steep decline, and by evening time it was clear he would need help sooner; we even made some effort to find someone to come to our home before bedtime.

That didn't work.  So we went to bed and made him as comfortable as possible. For some time, he lay quietly on the bed without moving, but around 2AM he stirred and gave his usual signals about needing to go out for a pee. I was up in a flash, but even that was too late. He had managed to slip out of the diaper he has been wearing at night, and had wet himself, the bed, and me...

I took him out to the garden and dried us off as best I could, then brought him back to bed with an empty bladder. He was soon asleep again, and snoring. I was not so lucky. As is his habit, he took more than his share of my side of the bed, leaving me uncovered, shivering, and tormented by thoughts about the morning. At 5:30, I picked him up from the bed and brought him to meditate with me for a half hour. He was remarkably peaceful, but remained quite limp and listless in my arms.

It seemed like an interminable wait until 7AM, when I could call the local vet. Since George's regular vet is in Laguna, we're not known to a clinic up here in LA--and the one I called said they couldn't take him until the afternoon. They did, however, give me a list of people to call, and a few calls later I found someone who would come around right away.

Well, as you can imagine, there was a lot of weeping as we waited; and a lot more as we welcomed the kindly vet who sat and chatted for a while before giving George the two injections needed, first to relax him, then to stop the heart. He died very peacefully in my arms, out on the deck, overlooking the garden where he loved to play.

There's more weeping to be done. We will miss our George sorely in the days to come. But it was clear that the time had come for him to leave us and along with the pain and sadness, there are the beginnings of a sense of healing and release.

Our thanks to those of you who have followed this saga and sent kind messages. It has meant a lot to us, to know that there is so much human compassion out there in a world where we sometimes doubt its continuing presence. We send our love and thanks to all our good friends. And George's great spirit surely will live on, if only in our hearts.