Thursday, September 07, 2006

Secret De-Coders And All That Kind of Thing – Who Needs ‘Em

I recently read Pete Hamill’s memoir A Drinking Life, mainly because it caught my eye on the shelves of my local small town library, and because I remembered reading an article by Hamill on the same subject at least ten years before, perhaps longer, and because I had also just read his Why Sinatra Matters, an excellent essay. As I’ve previously written (and quoting admittedly William Powell in The Thin Man), I’m way behind on my drinking. This unusual “drinking problem” leads me to pay attention to tales of others who discuss the more conventional variety.

Before the drinking, Hamill the boy was obsessed with comic books, started drawing his own, received professional training. Captain America, secret code rings, and that kind of thing, kept Hamill fascinated through his formative years, when you had the easy-to-hate villains of the Second World War. Reading all this made me think: none of this happened to me. Was I robbed, or was there a benefit?

An entire species of boy/man phenomena passed me by entirely. As the drinking didn’t happen to me, the superhero comics didn’t either. Of course you’d encounter them at the houses of friends, and I am familiar with their catch-phrases and references, but I’d never buy them (later I would never buy cigarettes, and still later never buy drugs, both good strategies if you don’t want to turn into bad habit that to which you may be exposed). No, the only comics that attracted me then, to the point of purchase, and even now, to the point of a browse, were the Archie comics. Teenage love is the theme, and is there truly any other kind of romantic love? (It’s a rhetorical question; you’re supposed to answer, “nope, I guess not.”). Oh, there are other types of love, and I guess more mature kinds of love, but romantic love, that’s a teenage phenomenon. When you go goo-goo- and gaa-gaa over someone, isn’t that the teenager talking? (Don’t answer if you actually are a teenager, or if you haven’t quite gotten there yet; bad, go read about superheroes, go eat something.)

This brings me back to the time when I was in fact a teenager, fourteen and a few months to be exact, and it was at summer camp. Understand this: when you’re walking with a girl and you’re fourteen and you want to kiss her, you are at a disadvantage if you have been imbuing yourself with all that Superman, Batman and Aquaman imagery. Oh, you want the kiss, you need that first kiss as much as the next guy, but all those flashing comic colors and sci-fi terminologies have got to be mind-numbing just at the wrong time. You hope that it will all happen automatically; maybe she will take the lead. You don’t know what the hell you are doing.

With Archie as your guide, you do know what you are doing. You have a model. You can divide all femininity into two types: Betty and Veronica. (Later you theorize females have six types, then twelve, even later they all act as one in league against you, but the comic’s producers conveniently bypass these themes in favor of hammering home their one insistent point: real heroes don’t fight evil, they smooch.) So Carol and I walked around the path to the back of the lake. Carol was at least two inches taller than me. I had to go on tiptoe. Didn’t Archie have to do exactly the same thing, the tall girl routine? I am sure I had seen this more than once.

What an advantage I had, all those impressions in my brain, those templates, those paradigms, of full-color smooching, all that was Archie. And Archie is still around; let’s not forget that, as action heroes come and go; kryptonite can get Superman, but even Mr. Lodge cannot truly nonplus this hero.

What I don’t remember is whether or not I stood on anything to reach Carol’s lips; what I do know is that I did reach them, tasted them, and can still taste their magnificence. Thank you, Mr. Andrews. (And thank you also, Carol, since you did have something to do with it.) Think of the years of drinking and dissipation you both saved me.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Making A Choice

Strange to think, at this point in my life, I persist in the opinion that men and women differ. I should have a more thorough understanding of men than I do of women. I have, after all, logged considerable experience (that is pronounced ”trial and error”) as a man. I have had wives—yes, plural—and a son. I have had a business. I have both owed money (though not at present), and have had the onerous task of collecting it from others (some of whom, theoretically, still owe it from long ago; you know who you are).

I have never been a soldier, but I know that all maleness involves some kind of soldiering: the tasks soldiers usually do, surviving, getting rained on, enduring mud and slime, peeling potatoes, hauling out the trash. Glory is extremely rare in life, and then, Sic transit gloria mundi: when it comes, it leaves. You cannot count on fine moments. Everyday life is the vein you must mine. It’s one of those mines from a western, with desperadoes out there with guns waiting to steal your gold; if you finally do get down the mountain to the assay office, they rob you with a pen. You do what you can with what remains.

Despite the wonderful quote from Ray Davies—“girls will be boys and boys will be girls/it’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world”—I think the contrary applies: except for certain people who are genuinely confused, men are men and women are women. You hear popular talk of a man getting in touch with his “feminine side.” Claptrap; men don’t have feminine sides. Oh, they do have receptive abilities, nurturing instincts, gentle and sensitive aspects, but they are receptive, nurturing, gentle or sensitive as men, not as women. These sides of the male persona are admirable—necessary—just as strength, perseverance, courage and the like are indispensable in their female manifestations. Male nurturing and female nurturing, male courage and female courage, are not identical. I can sense and even be awed by these qualities in a woman, but I can go further than that and live them as a man.

The fact that the female is outside our male cognizance presents us with a great trap when we forget the fact that women, individually and in general, are real, not our fantasies. (I cannot speak of the distortions women may make of men in their imaginations, but undoubtedly I have female counterparts who may treat this issue.) One man, who represents the blundering all of us undergo from time to time (or in perpetuity, in the case of those of us who really are fools) was Paris, prince of the royal house of Troy. Troy is in ruins now, buried beneath successor cities that are themselves buried, all the fault of Paris.

Eris, the goddess Discord—nasty, for sure—threw the apple of discord among the gods. Picture this sphere as about as benevolent as a hand grenade; on it was engraved the rubric “for the fairest.” Zeus, king of the gods, lacked the confidence to tackle the question of who among the goddesses qualified. (Today’s equivalent of this unanswerable question may well be, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?”) Zeus was no slouch, however. He had a W.C. Fieldsian instinct for finding a sucker; Paris was a natural.

Paris chose Aphrodite as “the fairest,” spurning the goddesses Hera and Athena, because Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, whom Paris had to abduct to get, causing a war of revenge, devastation, and ruin. This war was a cauldron that tested the mettle of every one of its participants, Trojan or Greek. The twin epics it spawned raised questions relating to the male role that we have been debating ever since.

I am glad of Aphrodite, but I am not calling her to my corner. Aphrodite is called the “goddess of love,” but she is better termed the goddess of the “narrow feminine archetype,” that fantasy woman every man wants but who will never be. Fantasies are about as fleeting as glory, even if they appear more often. Fantasies don’t work. They are fun when we perceive them as fun, ruinous when we confuse them with reality.

From what I know of Hera, wife of Zeus, I’d have to be alone on a desert island to have anything to do with her, you’d have to hold a gun to my head, I’d have to be sure it was loaded and that you’d actually pull the trigger. I’ve run across Hera many times in my transit across the arc of life; I’ve paid my dues. I’m already on her bad side, so these words shouldn’t make my lot on this earth any worse.

I will take real women in the real world as they present themselves, without expecting of them the benefits and burdens of a goddess, but if I must have an archetype, let it be Athena, so-called goddess of wisdom, though I would rather call her “goddess of considering the moral basis of action.” Spiteful Hera sent Hercules on his mighty labors; Athena stood beside him and allowed him to prevail. Athena stood behind Theseus as he slew the Minotaur. Athena guided Perseus in his high-risk raid on the terrifying Gorgon Medusa. Athena protected Odysseus during his ten-year ordeal after the sack of Troy; she inspired his son Telemachus to seek his father and protect his mother Penelope. Athena is responsible for great things: the courage of action, to be sure, but also the courage of endurance. For every morsel of action, we live a thousand chunks of endurance.

Athena is a demanding goddess. She is both a war goddess and the goddess of peaceful assembly and political affairs. She protects the brave, in all aspects of life, but she does not give them their bravery; instead she expects it.

Men have enough of their own momentum toward baser things in life: appetites and all that. Athena provides a balance: an austere standard of heroism, integrity, intelligence, capability, leadership. Athena represents the finest attributes women bring to the table of life. You can get kissing and snuggling with a real woman, you can certainly get nagging, but if you’re talking about a goddess looking over your shoulder, Athena is the one who can really help you make the most of yourself. Athena is not your wife, not your girlfriend, not your sister, not your mother, not your beloved nanny, and yet she is a woman, that other phenomenon out there, that difference. One of your teachers—the one who first credited you with intelligence and judgment perhaps—may have been Athena. That wonderful real woman in your life takes on what you think is the beauty of Aphrodite not because she is Aphrodite but because she is Athena. Athena is the fairest.

You, reader, may actually be a woman. Good for you. Keep at it. You can see Paris for the dolt he really is. I do hope he isn’t too familiar to you. You are right to want your man to be a hero, to look to Athena for his standard, not a shoot-em-up action hero to be sure, but the do-the-right-thing workaday hero just the same. Everything a man does well—be it leading, be it nurturing—he does with courage. Do not think for a moment that this courage is bluster, bravado, or boast; it is difficult, multi-dimensional, and exacting. Men do not understand their courage, yet they have no choice but to live it. Athena stands and reminds them.

Monday, October 24, 2005


Five years ago, my entire family found itself together in one place for the last time. There is no sense in romanticizing the family gatherings we had for holidays; they were excruciating. My father was a man who always had something to say. He was vulgar, and if a woman, especially a young one—one of my sisters’ friends or my son’s girlfriend—were at the table, he could not help but make references to sex, scatology, or bodily functions. If it came into his mind, it had to be uttered. One time when he was trying to tell a story he’d told before and no one seemed to be listening to him, he stormed out of the room. We all let him, without protest, and this became one of our stories.

My son, on the contrary, never seemed to say much to me. There seemed always to be something on his mind. At these gatherings, most of our communications involved patting each other on the back. I guess that counts, but I am a man of many words. I had always envisaged profound, ongoing conversations with my son, precisely those I was unable to have with my father. Instead I would exist in a limbo between the silence of one and the drone of the other.

My wife found these gatherings to be nearly unbearable. She cared little for any member of my family, especially my son (not her child), and they returned the sentiments in kind. Fortunately, we lived nearby and had separate cars. Often, she would beg off, and would hardly be missed. I cannot quite judge whether it was better having her around, as a foil, or absent, as one less irritant.

My three sisters rarely argued with me, but now and then they would have what I like to call a “frank exchange of views” with each other, or with my mother. Other than the general stress and the difficulty of being in the same house as my father and mother, two things about these family gatherings at my parents’ house were especially disturbing to them. My mother had a way of destroying perfectly good food, usually by overcooking or under-seasoning, always due to a maddening failure to organize and attend. In addition, she kept poor sanitary habits in the kitchen and in the house in general. My sisters were not shy about letting their displeasure with this be known.

The house itself could cloy on you, suffocate you, make you yearn to flee. Every room would be crammed with books, papers, unread magazines, mismatched furniture. Lamps did not work, or if they did they would droop in the wrong direction. In one drawer would be a dozen locks without keys, in another two-dozen keys without locks. It would have been charitable to have called the pervading odor of that house “stale.” You could never ignore it, and you couldn’t get it out of your lungs when you left. The house was always damp, always dank, which is perhaps the reason I live in the desert now.

I was spurred to write this because I was about to review a culinary book based on the warmth and conviviality of another family’s mealtimes with each other. We hadn’t a shred of that, simply the solid fact that we were together. My father is now dead, my marriage is over, my son lives in Australia, I live two thousand miles away, we finally emptied the house, engineered its sale, and moved my mother to an apartment she can afford. My grief at losing my father has yet to present itself, I am happy no longer to be in a marriage that wasn’t working, I am thrilled that my son has a wonderful wife, career and lifestyle in Australia, and I am ecstatic that the house has finally been liquidated before an oak tree careens into it. I cannot argue with any of these things. Each in itself makes sense. But we were together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Writing By Hand

I have been used to writing using keyboards for more than 30 years, harking back to the days of the typewriter (look it up if you are not familiar with the term). There is something wrong with either my hand, that part of the brain that controls it, or both, in that writing by hand with a pen actually causes me physical pain. Back in school, I never learned to write cursive script except for my signature. When I do write by hand, my handwriting is usually very large. It’s torture for me to fill out forms by hand, especially since I live in Albuquerque. People who live in Taos or Hobbs have it a lot easier.

Sometimes when I am in bed, however, I handwrite notes to myself. I also do crossword puzzles, filling in the spaces using a gel pen, one block letter at a time. Now and then, when I have to cross something out because I got the answer wrong, I wish I’d done it in pencil, but I’d have to press too hard to use a pencil effectively. The ink in the gel pen oozes out in some marvel of physics, insinuating itself onto the porous paper of the crossword (these are from purchased compendia of several hundred). This species of lettering requires positioning, but no pressure and hence no pain.

I do my puzzles on a clipboard. When I finish one, I unclip it and let it waft onto the floor. Sometimes, before I sleep, I see a layered pile of several sheets, showing the stamp of my primitive lettering. What a shock it would be if I glanced bleary-eyed at the pile and a phalanx of precise letters, not my own, glared back at me. I would instantly want to know the name of the trespasser. My lettering, after all, is my space, my own.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Public Speaking Techniques

Back in June, I completed a draft of my book You Have A Voice, my key rules for public speaking success. This week, after allowing the book to ferment for several months, I added a number of example sections. It’s time for a second fermentation, which, as in the case of Champagne, should add some effervescence. I put up the basics for a web page for the book.

In writing the book, my aim was to distill my experience over a 25-year period and give some real perspective on what makes public speaking special. There are plenty of books out there about public speaking. I don’t agree with everything that has been written on the subject, but there is a lot of quality material. It seems senseless for me to treat subjects that have been covered at length. What I do give is my own set of ideas.

In my original outline for the book, I stressed that the actual “how-to” of public speaking may be less important than what I call the “why-to” (why speak at all), the “what to” (the subject matter), and of course the “who to” (the audience). If you know why you’re out there speaking, what you’re speaking about, and who your audience is, you can work on the “how-to” techniques as you go along. Many commentators believe that the method, the way you project yourself, is more important than the message. I disagree with this common view. I believe what you have to say is most important. I write a great deal about attitude, and respect for the audience.

Many public speaking trainers come to the profession from the world of the theater or have credentials as psychologists. Some may have degrees in communications. All that is well and good, but my background is from the world of front-line speaking: Rotary clubs, community groups, Toastmasters and the like. I am a philosopher, and theorize aplenty, but in this book I put constant stress on the pragmatic, real-world side of speaking. Fear is a constant subject in public speaking. I know how to deal with it.

In You Have A Voice I lay out 22 “rules” of public speaking, a distillation of the original 33 rules I keep on my web site (not every one of the 33 is pithy enough to generate a full chapter section in the book). Some of these rules deal with fear and nervousness directly; all of them tend to keep fear in its place. I really think in writing this book that I have put the lid on fear. I’ve never myself been afraid to speak in front of a group. Being silenced, to the contrary, seems the worse fate.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Moods and Brain Activity

Reacting to stress has always been difficult for me, since I am not a naturally calm person. I’m sure there are many counterbalancing positives for my brain chemistry, but I wish I didn’t have to go through such changes for what are essentially small things. Being with people usually helps me snap out of the agitated state. I believe I have the opposite of social anxiety, or perhaps it is this: when I am alone my imagination takes over and leads me into agitation; when I am with others I am better able because of the circumstances to focus my energies on the moment.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Exercise: Keeping Up The Supply

I’ve never been much of a sports buff, either in doing or in watching, but exercise keeps catching up to me. I have to admit I like the feeling of having done a good routine. I must have hiked three to four miles today in the desert. The coyote, rabbit and prairie dog sightings are a plus. It’s always a treat when you see a dozen hot-air balloons doing their runs, though hardly the thrill we get in October during Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta when the sky fills with many hundreds and you can watch them stage before dawn.

After the walk, I did weights: fifteen pound dumbbells. I do not wish to build impressive muscular bulk, though I do own a pair at twenty-five and thirty-five pounds. I am soon going to get into the habit of walking to do certain shopping and errands. I imagine walks of between one-and-a-half and five miles each way, carrying ice packs in a backpack when I need to buy perishables. It’s the routine of doing this that really brings the benefits. Of course, in Albuquerque, you have to be careful crossing boulevards, even at crosswalks.

I’ve never quibbled at the price of gasoline, yet I keep mileage down on my car as a means of being good to it. My 1997 Mitsubishi Galant has just over 60,000 miles and has never needed a major repair. Every errand done on foot saves several dozen startups, turns, backups, and other “wearing transactions” on the car. Since I may be driving the car to New York and back this summer, it can use the extra babying now.