Thursday, June 30, 2005

Bert Jefferson

I was reading Halley's Comment a few days ago, and she pointed to this on-line article from Best Life about the Top 5 male character traits. I'm not sure how significant it is, but i noticed that the top 3 traits for men are also the top 3 traits for a pet dog. Best Life is basically Men's Health for the mid-life crisis set near as i can tell, with articles about flattening abs and removing chest hair so it probably shouldn't be treated as a peer-reviewed journal. Still, i'm skeptical that what attracts women is faithfulness, dependability, kindness, etc. I'm suspicious that women are not entirely honest about what they really want in men, because men are not often honest about they want in women. Especially since what men often want in women is variety.

I've been married for 18 years and my wife is an attractive woman, so i figure i must possess these traits to some extent. But i can't say that i'm really all that excited about it. Deep down i think that most men don't want to be thought of as "the marrying sort". The sort of man that you'd take home to your mother is precisely the sort of man that no man who has ever wanted to be a pirate wants to be. And pretty much every man wants to be a pirate.

There's this line in The Man Who Came To Dinner where the Maggie Cutler character (Bette Davis in the movie) is talking with Sheridan Whiteside about her relationship with the local newspaper man, Bert Jefferson. She says something to the effect that her time with Whiteside has been exciting and glamorous but there comes a time in every woman's life when she wants... Bert Jefferson. The way she says it makes me feel sorry for Bert Jefferson. I always secretly wish that he'd run off to New York with Lorraine Sheldon, produce his play and become a star.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Reflections on Fatherhood

Most people live among several subcultures: where we work, where we live, where we socialize, where we play, etc. (and god save us from those who don't). In my work subculture, it's fairly common for people to wait until their mid- or late- thirties to get married or become parents; it's also common for people to never get married and never become parents. So, although i would have been considered a very old first-time father (i was 30) by the standards of the community that i grew up in, i'm still something of an aberration within the community in which i work (probably in more ways than one, but here i mean because i'm a parent of 11 and 8 year old sons). So, as the wise old man of this particular subculture, i've been asked on a few occasions if i think that parenthood is a requirement for fulfillment in life. My answer, which might surprise you, is no.

My children are by far the most important thing in my life; and i love my sons, as most good parents love their children, with an intensity that borders on the pathological. I can't imagine life without either of them. I don't know if you can call this a purpose in life, but it certainly gives life more meaning for me. But the terrible secret of being a parent is that the joy you derive from having kids has a fairly significant price. That price, to put it simply, is the end of your own life. I don't mean that your children will sneak into your bedroom some night and snuff you out with a pillow (necessarily). It's just that you have to subjugate your own desires to those of your kids for a fairly long period of time.

Most parents do this willingly, and accept the consequences to career, freedom, social life, etc. A certain percentage do not (most are probably men). Not surprisingly, it's often the older parents who have the greatest difficulty. If you've been doing things your own way for 40 years, it's very hard to change. And, yes, i've personally seen this happen more than once. It's not that hard to understand. Everything that makes having children wonderful and worthwhile can also seem like a crushing responsibility because of the drastic change it causes to your life.

But i know many women and men who i'm sure would have been great parents who chose not to be. Frequently i've become envious of people i know in this category. They often have had significant career and financial success, but more relevant to me is the freedom they have to travel and to alter their own lives to find new experiences or meet new goals. I don't regard these people as selfish because of their choices; in fact it's my experience that my good friends of this type are extremely generous, and are often the sort of creative, high-energy people that draw other people to them. Most of the people i'm thinking of are entrepreneurs or educators.

I know enough people who've been successful at both aspects of life that i can't regard a happy family life and personal success as mutually exclusive. But i think that fulfillment in life can't be reduced to a list of experiences that you have to check off. I doubt that it can be reduced to anything: there is no formula because there is no simple answer. Every path you take in life requires you to skip at least one other path; and if you're an intelligent, compassionate person you'll always wonder about the path not taken. For me though, fatherhood reduces whatever doubts i might have. If i weren't a father, i wouldn't get to read things like the following, which my younger son Henry wrote in my father's day card:

Dear Dad,
I love you more than anything in the universe. Except mom. I love you the same.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


When i started this blog i made a conscious decision to be relatively sincere, which is hard for me because sarcasm is encoded in my DNA. I've become so practiced and effortless at sarcasm in my speech that many people are unaware that i'm attempting it. But sarcasm is to humor what the National Enquirer is to literature, and ultimately it's as tiresome to produce as it is to read.

The problem with sincerity is that it requires knowledge, both of the world at large and of yourself. With sarcasm i can expound endlessly on things about which i know nothing, and i don't have to ever reveal anything precise about what i think and feel. It's trivial to accomplish, but also trivial period. It seems that quite a few bloggers, especially of the political sort, can achieve the same effect without sarcasm, but that's beside the point. Attempting to be sincere is hard. Even a minor confession or opinion must expose something about how you think and what you know. If i make a completely non-controversial statement like, say, "I really like the early music of REM", reactions might range from "Who gives a shit?" to "What a surprise! A middle-aged guy who likes inoffensive alt rock" to "Listen to Velvet Underground or Big Star or Television to hear where those guys stole all of their ideas". But the truth is, i really do like the early music of REM (from Chronic Town through Document). It might not be an opinion that is original or interesting or informed, but it's sincere. Sincerity requires that you both expose yourself to criticism and that you confront your own peculiar mind.

I still resort to sarcasm when i can't figure out how i feel about something. For example, there's been a lot of press recently about the Kansas debate over teaching evolution in schools, and about intelligent design more generally. My reaction to evolution opponents and ID proponents tends to be more visceral than it needs to be. I really want to call these people stupid, willfully ignorant, or worse (like, while making the rounds of my favorite blogs i somewhere learned the pseudo-word "fucktard"). But the reluctantly sincere part of my brain knows that most of these folks are moderately intelligent, well-intentioned people whose profound wrongness is a result of either failing to grasp a fairly difficult concept or desperately attempting to find flaws in something that is opposed to their world view. They piss me off, a lot, and to some extent it's because i grew up around similar people and i know that their opposition to the teaching of evolution is just a tiny part of a regressive agenda that would oppose anything (art, music, literature,speech,behavior) that's not of Biblical origin. Still, i don't want to simply call them idiots though that might be my sincere feeling, so i might borrow phrases such as that they are "people who understand the 10 Commandments but not the Second Law of Thermodynamics" or that "the monkeys are not so crazy about being their ancestors either". Sarcastic, still cruel maybe, but not quite so blunt.

Another problem with being sarcastic is that nobody can take what you say seriously. Of course, in the vast majority of cases nobody will take anything you have to say seriously regardless of how earnest you might be. But sarcasm announces to the world that no matter how extreme or vitriolic is the statement you want to make, you don't expect to ever have to defend it. Both Al Franken and Ann Coulter suffer from this. Though i agree with Franken most of the time and i find him to be funny, it's no easier to discern sincere from glib than it is with Coulter's yappy chihuahua act.

So, no sarcasm here. I might occasionally try to be funny, but it'll be in a completely honest and forthright manner. No really, i'm being totally serious. Really. I swear.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Girl Fight

The older i get, the less of humanity i understand. Recently i've found that many people are of the opinion that women should not participate in or even be exposed to violent sports, even though they don't necessarily oppose fighting sports for men. I can understand that a man might not want his wife to fight, or a mother might not want her daughter to fight, out of concern for her well being. But i'm perplexed as to why the same person would therefore decide that it is inappropriate for women in general to fight. To be fair, some of the people who oppose women's boxing oppose boxing in general (though without exception more vociferously for women because apparently the brutality of boxing is magnified when practiced among women).

My wife boxes, which is to say that she does the training that a boxer would, she spars, and occasionally she fights in the ring (obviously, as an amateur, which means that she wears head protection). When discussing this with male friends or colleagues she often hears comments like "I would never let my wife box". A cursory search of the web will show you far more idiotic pronouncements, such as the idea that women get into boxing only because they have been culturally conditioned by feminists to believe that they need to match men in all endeavors, or even that the desire of a woman to participate in fighting is somehow pathological. Another common complaint about women's fights is that they are inelegant; that the women display less skill than their male counterparts so that the only interest to the audience can be that of a bloody spectacle (which is true in some cases, e.g., Tonya Harding). But fights are frequently pretty damned ugly, whether between men or women. Like auto racing, there are always going to be fans who are there to see skill and fans who are there to see wrecks.

I train with numerous women in the martial arts, and i understand their motivation to be the same as mine: self defense, physical conditioning, the desire to participate in something with an interesting history and culture, the beauty of the art aspect of martial arts. They, like my wife, don't seem less feminine, or determined to challenge my masculinity. The desire to learn how to fight is, i think, an entirely human urge; even if it's shared by only a small percentage of the population. In a sense, fighting is the original extreme sport: it's about athleticism, discipline, grace and beauty, but it's also about adrenaline and risk. Fighters are the best all-around athletes in the world.

In some ways fighting, particularly boxing, seems like an ideal sport for women. In most sports, women are compared unfavorably with men because of perceived differences in strength, size, or speed. But sport fighting has long been designed to match opponents with similar physical stature, so in principle the reasonable comparison would be between women in the same weight class just as male boxers are compared middleweight to middleweight or bantamweight to bantamweight. But even though women's boxing has gained popularity in recent years, media reports on the subject are frequently about the most negative aspects.

For example, CNN Headline News recently ran a report on Katie Dallam, a female boxer who suffered severe head injuries in her first professional bout. The tone of the CNN report was that of a cautionary tale, as if Dallam's injuries were the predictable outcome of a woman fighting. Some, including apparently Dallam herself, believe that her story might have been the inspiration for the equally bleak movie Million Dollar Baby. Except that there's one major difference. The character in Million Dollar Baby was a good boxer, who was injured by a cheap shot that lead to a freak accident. Katie Dallam was not a good boxer. The video of her match against Sumya Anani shows that she was not ready for the fight, and that it should have been stopped in the first round. That the fight went on as long as it did required insanely bad judgment on the part of several people at ringside. Dallam's story is tragic, but it's not evidence that boxing leads inevitably and immediately to brain damage, any more than having a car accident while not wearing a seatbelt proves that driving is inevitably fatal.

Significant coverage was given also to the story of Becky Zerlentes, a college professor who is believed to be the first woman ever to die in a boxing match. Supposedly, she died of blunt force trauma from a jab thrown by her opponent. An autopsy revealed no aneurysm or other conditions that might have caused the bleeding in her brain. There's really nothing that can be said to minimize the tragedy. Had this been a case of a man dying in the ring, a subset of sportswriters would have used it as an opportunity to call for an end to all violent sports, but most would have taken the approach: "He knew the risks, it's a dangerous sport, but he died doing what he loved, yada yada". But because it was a woman, many writers opined that it is a shame, in general, that women are being drawn into boxing despite the thousands of fights that conclude with no injury. I think Becky Zerlentes would have hated that.

There's a more general trend toward protecting women from violence that also mystifies me. Duncan Hunter (who is the congressman from my district) recently introduced a bill to congress that would have eliminated numerous jobs in the military for women, motivated by the fact that it's hard to differentiate between combat and non-combat situations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not clear why women are excluded from combat situations in the first place, but to attempt to remove them completely from harm's way seems contrary to the spirit that caused them to join the military. On the other hand, the most recent cause celebre of the Fox News crowd is how youth sports have become wimpified by liberals who are too worried about the participants' self esteem. I assume though, that they're only worried about the wimpification of boys sports (what's worse is that the people complaining about said wimpification look like the sort of folks who regard getting off the couch to find the remote a form of exercise). Personally, i believe these are all symptoms of the same disease. The people who want women to be more like June Cleaver and little boys to be more like Huckeberry Finn are quite simply people who are afraid of the potential of women.

I doubt that boxing will ever become a popular sport among women, if only because it's not that popular among the general population. Despite the recent spate of boxing movies, The Contender on TV, and a surprising number of good high profile prize fights; boxing is not going to challenge golf or tennis in terms of participation. Even if you eliminate the hitting part, training to fight is hard work. I believe that women's professional boxing will thrive, though for the foreseeable future its popularity will be driven by talented fighters who also happen to be attractive women, such as Laila Ali or Elena "Baby Doll" Reid (who, incidentally, is one of my wife's cousins).

Do i get concerned when my wife fights? Yup. I also get concerned when she drives on the California freeway or flies in a commercial jet (But i also admit that i'm comforted by the fact that unless you're in reasonably good condition, she could probably beat the crap out of you). Fighting is something that you choose to do, it doesn't have anything to do with self defense. It's a conscious decision to assume the risk of being hurt and to assume the responsibility of hurting somebody else. You might think it's stupid or insane, you might think it's immoral, you might not want to watch it, you almost certainly can't comprehend the desire to do it. None of that translates into a right to disallow the choice.