Not Conventionally Handsome?

The first time we meet the romantic lead in my second novel, he is described thus (he’s the older brother):

Both boys were built along round, compact lines. Sha was still rather skinny, but Ikash was beginning to fill out with a little muscle, taking on a sleek, powerful shape reminiscent of a dolphin … They had brown skin; sweet, round faces like their mother; and straight black hair, Sha’s floppy, Ikash’s hugging his head like a seal’s pelt.

The Strange Land, chapter 1

Later, we are told that Ikash has “a tendency to appear squat.”

This is a look that might be called not conventionally handsome (i.e., not looking like the prince in Snow White or something). By the end of the book, believe me, Ikash is what Michael Knowles would call “a hulking Adonis.”

I didn’t write this intentionally to boost this particular style of male beauty. That’s just the way it worked out. Coincidentally, around the same time I was writing, Disney’s Maui gave us another spectacular example of this style of male beauty:

Though Maui is even more of a tank than Ikash.

Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crime novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?

After Twenty-Five Years

Today is a special day for me and my husband. (Happy Anniversary, Honey!)

It’s not 25 years, but it is an anniversary that I would have thought would make us old, back when I was nineteen.

We don’t look old. Our kids are still school-aged, for crying out loud.

In honor of this day, I am posting what I believe is the sweetest love song in theater.

Tevye and Golde, in this song, are about the same age as my husband and me. Possibly a little younger. But they seem older because they married and began having children very young, and their hard life has aged them. Neither of them is a prince or princess. Instead, they are a peasant couple. After having made a life together, prompted by the newfangled habit of marrying for love they are just now raising the question of whether they love each other.

The De-Mothering Project

Here is a strange, sad article about how one woman’s self-concept as a woman was formed … or de-formed.

The summary goes like this:

Strange as it may sound, the Holocaust education at my school shaped my sexuality and fertility well into adulthood by teaching me that the Holocaust brought about a complete break in the continuity of mankind. In the face of such immense suffering and slaughter, no responsible woman would choose to have children.

Susan Martin, “Conscience, Fertility and Holocaust Education”

This seems counter-intuitive. In the face of genocide, having more children would seem like a good way to fight back.

… Unless, that is, you are being told that you, and any potential children you might have, are part of the problem. And that is exactly what girls are being told. For Martin, it was because of the Holocaust (“the inevitable conclusion that humanity was evil and that all women share indirect responsibility for the atrocities”). Today, it’s more likely to be because of environmental concerns, “overpopulation,” or vague, un-stamp-out-able “injustice.”

Martin describes how being told that it was morally wrong to have children caused her to be unhappy with her body when it started developing into the body of a woman. She was infertile most of her adult life.

I can’t say that the Holocaust was used against me in my own education the way it was used against her, and in fact, I still have a hard time seeing the logical connection. But I can certainly identify when she writes,

“It was clear that my emerging sexuality and potential fertility would not be positively received in the adult world” and “We quickly discovered we got more praise from [society] for writing poetry than for pushing prams.”

Martin’s story is so tragic, and it’s yet another testimony to the fact that you can’t devalue motherhood (for any reason) without devaluing women. I have previously posted about it here.

An Actual Viking Reacts to Marvel’s Female Thor

Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen blogs here about men’s mental health, viking culture and bushcraft (“viking camp”). That’s why I call him an actual Viking.

I realize that not all of you will make the time to watch this 8-minute video, so below are some highlights of the transcript. But you need to watch the video to get the full effect of the Norwegian accent, the poignant eye contact, and especially the emotion in this guy’s voice at 6:55 when he talks about “our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.”

Highlights of Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen Talking about Female Thor

“So, you want to make Thor a woman.”

[takes swig from beer bottle]

“… you people.

“Listen.  I’m OK with a female Thor.  I don’t care!  That’s only because I’m a grownup. 

“But here’s the thing.  Thor is a symbol of masculine power.  But I do suspect that … the writers … have a little bit of an agenda and they think it’s interesting to tear down that concept of masculine power.  But let me tell you, there is actually such a thing.”

[takes swig of beer]

“My ancestors, they knew how important masculine power is for our society, for the family, and for our culture.  And let me just say that you are stepping on something now that means a lot to some of us.

“So go ahead, make Thor a woman.  But just know this: if you think it’s OK to make Thor a woman, you should never again criticize anyone for ‘cultural appropriation.’

“Every day, I walk my dog among the grave mounds of my ancestors.  And my belief system is no less important than any other belief system.

“We should all lower our shoulders when it comes to our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.  I think the world would be a better place if we did.  But never again will you cry out about ‘cultural appropriation.’  Because that’s what you’re doing now, making Thor female.”

[swig of beer] [shakes head] “You people.

“So go ahead, go ahead!  I don’t care. Thor is still out there.  All around us, as a symbol of masculine power.  He is present in every healthy society, in every healthy family.

“That’s all for now. Have a wonderful day! Bye-bye.”

An Insoluble Puzzle

Sad topic today.

An abusive marriage is a major part of the plot in my second novel, The Strange Land.

I first introduced this problem with a very minor mention in The Long Guest.  Wife abuse of some kind (not always the violent physical kind) could occur in a quarter to a half of all relationships, depending on the culture.  In The Long Guest I portray a small founding group of not quite 100 people, which means fifteen or twenty families.  Given that human nature has not changed throughout the ages, to have a group of this size with no abusive families in it would have been grossly unrealistic.

The Limits of the Options

Abuse within a family is always very difficult to respond to.  This is true in every age, but in our modern age there are at least a few options that those who care about the victim can offer.  As a last resort, breaking up the family in order to stop the abuse might not be ideal, but it’s at least possible.  It is possible for a single mom in our society to survive economically.  As for the abuser, it is possible to put him in jail, or failing that to put hundreds of miles between him and his victims.

There are fewer options available to a community when it’s tiny, isolated out in the wilderness, and consisting basically of one big extended family.  In this situation, there is no jail, there is no other place to live and it’s much less possible for a woman, especially if she has young children, to physically survive without a man.

So, how can the community handle this? A case of abuse is essentially a case of a stubborn, very hard heart.  Rebukes don’t work on such a heart.  Threats or pressure might work for a while, but ultimately tend to make the abuse worse. In a small, isolated community with no police force and nowhere else to go, the community has very few options unless they are willing to kill the abuser.   They are unlikely to be willing to do this, especially if he is related to them by blood.  If they do choose to put him to death, in the best case they must now support his widow and children.  In the worst case, it could tear the community apart, resulting in anything from more deaths to the complete end of the tribe.

When I included an abusive marriage purely for realism, I had little idea that I would be handing my community of characters a truly insoluble puzzle.

The Limits of the Law

These very questions, and others like them, are explored in the video below by the always articulate Alistair Roberts.   Roberts is answering a question from a viewer about why consent (in cases of arranged marriage, concubinage, etc.) does not seem to feature as a concept in Old Testament law. How can we square this with the idea that the Law is in any sense good?  

Roberts talks about the limits of any law to change the society it governs, and about the extremely limited reach of national-level laws to govern what goes on within a household. He mentions cases like that of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, whom Sarah “gives” to Abraham so that Hagar can have a son who will be considered his heir.  The way the founding couple treated Hagar was normal in their society at the time, but was certainly exploitative and was arguably rape.  Though Hagar’s case was not covered by the law, it is obvious from the story that God noticed the injustice and avenged it.  I never noticed that God avenged what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael until I heard Roberts point it out in other videos, and then it became blindingly obvious.  He recaps that here, as well as giving proof that God took seriously King David’s treatment not only of Uriah, but of Bath-Sheba as well (another case that today would be considered at least sexual harassment and probably rape).

The bottom line is that we do what we can to right wrongs, but our varying circumstances constrain what are able to do.  These topics, sadly, are relevant to everyone.  If you spend long enough in a community of any kind (church, school, team, family) you will eventually be forced to deal with the question of how to confront abuse.  This video isn’t going to to give you all the answers (because they don’t exist), but it could help clarify your thinking.  If you have time, give it a listen.

Another excellent resource on this topic is the book Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft.

Great Dads of History

Shout out to all the dads out there!  Happy Father’s Day!

Great dads are everywhere.  You might be one yourself.  But they are often invisible.  No one notices the person who does the job right.  If you are a great dad, you children may grow into well-adjusted adults.  They won’t become notorious for anything.  They won’t write a bitter poem about you like Sylvia Plath wrote about her dad.  They will probably not make history, unless your family is unlucky enough to get thrust into the historical spotlight (which is not an experience to seek out: see the ten Boom family, below).  They will just go quietly about contributing to society by being great citizens, moms and dads themselves.

This is why we so seldom hear about the great dads.

Here are three dads who, through accidents of history, had their great dadliness recorded.  One was the father to a daughter who wrote about him.  Another was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And the third wrote novels with his son.

Charles Ingalls: Rifle, Ax, and Fiddle

Charles Ingalls playing “mad dog” with his children.
Taken from the illustrated version of Little House in the Big Woods.

Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a friendly, adventurous, adaptable man with incredible amounts of energy and what might be described as “itchy feet.”  He had the perfect personality to survive and thrive as a pioneer.  He moved his family many times throughout Laura and her sisters’ childhood, shepherding his family through disaster after disaster on the American frontier.  (For example: floods, fires, tornadoes, blizzards, locusts, and malaria.)

Charles was able to build his family a cabin in single summer using just his ax. He shot game to provide food for them.  And wherever they went, he took his fiddle.  He was a gifted musician who used music, along with his indomitably cheerful personality, to keep his family’s spirits up.

Casper ten Boom: the Grand Old Man of Haarlem

Casper ten Boom lived his entire life in a narrow, cramped house in Haarlem, Netherlands.  The front room housed the family business, a watch repair shop.  Casper, was the “absentminded professor” type.  He was gentle and affectionate, beloved by the neighborhood children, eccentric and forgetful, a gifted watch repairer but a terrible businessman.  It was typical of him to work for weeks on a rare watch and then forget to send its owner a bill.  He was delighted that the shop across the street was stealing his business, because “then they will make more money!”

He had long white whiskers and little spectacles. Picture him looking like the old banker played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

When the Nazis took over Holland, Casper was still living in the Haarlem watch shop with two of his adult daughters, Betsie and Corrie.  Because the ten Boom family had so many connections in the city; were known as generous and helpful people; and had a great affection for the Jews (“God’s chosen people”), their house gradually became a hub for the resistance.  Its crazy floor plan made it the perfect place to build a bunker as an emergency hiding place for the handful of people that were always staying with them.

The ten Boom family were eventually betrayed and arrested.  A Nazi guard, seeing Casper’s age, tried to send him home on a promise of good behavior.  Casper responded, “If you send me home today, tomorrow I will open my door to the first person in need who knocks.”  He was arrested and died of a fever in prison. 

Casper’s daughter Corrie survived the concentration camps (Betsie did not) and later wrote a memoir about her family’s experiences, called The Hiding Place.  It’s an incredible story, but the most delightful parts of it to read are the early parts, where we watch Casper interact with his family and community.  He was truly a great dad.  Yet, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi takeover, few people today would know his name.

Dick Francis: Integrity in Life and Fiction

Dick Francis, a former jockey, wrote many terrific thrillers set in the world of horse racing.  Troubled father/son relationships often feature in his novels.  Francis was asked whether he had a troubled relationship with his own father, and he responded that to the contrary, the relationship was great.  “Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in troubled father/son relationships.” 

Francis’s main characters tend to be single men in their early 30s.  Some have more baggage than others, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of integrity.  They can’t tolerate allowing anything like cheating to happen, even when it puts them in harm’s way, and they can’t bring themselves to back down, even sometimes when facing torture.

In his later years, Francis wrote several novels with his son Felix.  The novel Crossfire (2010), from which this picture is taken, includes the dedication “to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have.”

Now, I’ll Bet You Know a Great Dad!

Leave a comment praising an unsung great dad that you know.

“The Same” is a Lousy Definition of “Equal” … Especially Between the Sexes

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

The following heartbreaking article

A Nordic paradox: higher gender equality, more partner violence

presents statistics that women are much more likely to be abused by their husbands or boyfriends in countries such as Sweden where there is more gender “equality,” with “equality” being defined as more women in the workforce full-time.

The article speculates on causes. One is that men are dissatisfied with their partners’ earnings. (Ouch.)

These findings might seem counter-intuitive to many. How could abuse rates be so high – possibly as high as almost 50% – in a feminist paradise like Sweden? In a country with such strong social pressure on both men and women to behave in an androgynous manner?

I think the problem is with our definition of “equality.” Actually, the Nordic countries are not places of high gender equality. They are instead places where women are strongly pressured to behave as much like men as humanly possible.

Women don’t make good men. There. I said it.

We are not equipped for it. We tend to choose careers that make less money. We don’t have the upper-body strength to be good soldiers or firemen or sailors. We are more likely to get sick. We have hormones and a stronger tendency toward negative emotion, which cause predictable cycles in our productivity. We might, with little warning, have a baby, which takes us out of the work force for months at a time, causing our bosses to feel (rightly) that they can’t rely as well on a woman employee. Even when we do come back to work, we are likely to need more time off because of the needs of our children. Some of us leave “the workforce” for years.

All of this baffling behavior flows out of one very important fact that highly efficient, industrialized, egalitarian societies find most annoying: women are able to become mothers. All the traits mentioned above, which look like flaws in a factory or law firm, turn out to be effects cascading from design features that equip us for something very unique. We can make new people.

However, our society does not value motherhood nearly as much as it values the ability to be a good, man-style worker (whether “good worker” means a bold innovator or a reliable cog in the machine). So these characteristic womanly traits continue to be seen as flaws that need to be minimized if we are to achieve equality.

Or, as Andrew Klavan put it in a recent podcast, “A society that denigrates motherhood will be a society that does not respect women. And feminism has made this possible.”

Here is my story about this.

I was verbally attacked in my college cafeteria by a cute, grey-haired man who looked like an aging hippie. (It’s a type that I usually find endearing … at least, until they open their mouths.)

He was very friendly at first. He asked my major, and I said English. Then he spoke a few encouraging words along the lines of “You go, girl!” “Someday,” he said, “You’ll be in Tibet reporting for NPR.”

OK, great.

Then he sat down behind me, turned around, and added, “Too bad, that probably won’t happen. You’ll probably marry some dumb guy and get stuck at home. You’ll never end up doing anything with your life after the kids ruin you.”

I wish I had asked him if he really thought I had “ruined” my mother … or if he had “ruined” his.

Instead, I said, “Why are you insulting me?”

He got excited and said with a little smile, “Have I made you angry? I hope I’ve made you angry.”

The answer, of course, was Yes, a little … but not as much as you hoped, and not in the way that you hoped.

Not as much as he hoped because I’d heard this line of reasoning before. It was America in the 1990s and I wasn’t living under a rock.

Not in the way that he’d hoped because instead of becoming angry with the patriarchy, his speech only caused me to become annoyed with him for being such an idiot. He thought he was striking a blow for feminism, but instead he was just disrespecting me and every woman out there. In order to encourage me to “do something with my life,” he had to run down one truly amazing, uniquely feminine role that I would be really good at.

So I think that we have to give up our idea that men and women aren’t “equal” unless and until they do everything exactly the same. The concept of “equal” loses all of its positive value when it means asking people to deny, devalue, or skip over a huge part of their nature. (And, by the way, it’s not the subject of this article but there are also ways in which we ask men to deny their nature in the service of “equality” — read, sameness.)

I think it would be much more “equal” if we let both men and women do what they are naturally good at.

Female Lord of the Rings Characters Ranked by Relatability

The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.

One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.

But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)

  1. (Most relatable) Rosie Cotton. Rosie, daughter of Farmer Cotton, is Sam Gamgee’s love interest not only in the movie but also in the book. She is a simple, sweet young peasant girl. When Sam returns from Mordor, she first chides him for having taken so long, and then says, “If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?” Pretty frustrating for Sam, but he likes her anyway. She just has no idea what he’s been through … and, really, how could she? Sam later marries Rosie and they go on to become a founding family in the next generation of the Shire. Rosie represents the Shire itself in all the wholesomeness and normality of its farm family life. She represents everything that Frodo and Sam went to Mordor in order to save. She is an ordinary good-hearted woman who makes a wonderful wife for Sam, the ordinary hero. That is why she wins the prize for Most Relatable.
  2. Goldberry, wife of Tom Bombadil, the “river daughter.” Goldberry is a sort of nymph, “slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.” She is a little less relatable than Rosie because of her great beauty, apparent immortality, and because she is a representation not of the farm but of the forest. However, her role is very similar to Rosie’s. Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest is a supernatural refuge for travelers who would otherwise be overcome by the wild otherness of the Old Forest. Goldberry plays a critical role in making this home. She maintains it, she serves food, she beautifies the home with her singing, her weaving, her wisdom, and her very presence there. Tom wanders all throughout the Old Forest, but in the end he always comes back to his home (and invites the hobbits there) because, as he says, “Goldberry is waiting.”
  3. Eowyn. Eowyn is the brave and beautiful niece of King Theoden of Rohan. (The Rohirrim are basically Vikings on horseback.) She feels trapped by the need to stay in the house and care for her elderly uncle. When the elderly uncle revives and goes off to fight against Mordor, Eowyn really really wants to go along. What she most fears, she says, is “a cage.” She disguises herself as a man, sneaks away with the army of Rohan, and ends up killing a demonlike creature on the battlefield, nearly losing her life in the process. Eowyn is generally the first female character people remember from The Lord of the Rings. Her restlessness is something that we’ve all felt, but her Nordic style of beauty, her superior horsewomanship and swordswomanship, and, especially, her extreme bravery are not qualities that most of us possess.
  4. Arwen. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is Aragorn’s childhood crush. Her role in the series is mostly symbolic. She represents the Elven colony that Elrond maintains in Rivendell, and hence, the whole glorious world of the Elves that is now fading away. She is an aristocrat, a queen, an ideal of beauty, grace and virtue that is completely unattainable (for everyone, of course, except Aragorn, who is himself an ideal of virtue).
  5. Galadriel. Galadriel, I have been told, plays the role in The Lord of the Rings that Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Everything I just said about Arwen is also true of Galadriel, except that in Galadriel’s case, she is not an ideal that we are meant even to try to attain to. Instead, we are (not to mince words) simply meant to worship. Gimli the dwarf discovers this when he enters Lothlorien (heaven on earth) expecting to find a hostile witch. On meeting Galadriel, he has a true spiritual experience and is immediately converted. After this, he carries a lock of her hair with him and is ready to fight anyone who criticizes her. Galadriel, in other words, is a sort of female God figure, a spiritual mother who dispenses wisdom to the travelers and who gives Frodo a light that saves him in the lair of Shelob (who, being a spider, did not make this list). Galadriel would have been the Least Relatable person on this list, but we have one more …
  6. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Ha! You didn’t think anyone could be less relatable than Galadriel? You have forgotten Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the odious relative of Bilbo and Frodo. Lobelia had always hoped somehow to legally get her hands on the comfortable ancestral hall of Bag End. She nearly inherited it when Bilbo disappeared for a year in The Hobbit. She was very annoyed when Bilbo then willed Bag End to Frodo, and made quite a nuisance of herself to Frodo by saying nasty things as only a bitter, feisty, disappointed older relative can. Before Frodo goes off on his adventure, he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and Lobelia cannot conceal her triumph. She does redeem herself, however, by getting herself thrown in the local jail for defying a constable after Saruman takes over the Shire. When she gets out, she is met with a standing ovation and bursts into tears: “She had never been popular before.” … OK, I admit it, much of Lobelia’s bad behavior is actually very relatable if we are honest with ourselves. But she beats Galadriel because, even more than Galadriel, Lobelia is not a character that anyone would aspire to be.