The Hard Work of Sex Equality in Fiction, Part I

It began, as all good stories do, with a conflict between a want and a need.  My want? To write a story, and get it published. My need? Write what you know. The conflict between these two emotional states is explained by my character backstory.

True confession: I am a white, male, CIS, hetero, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  I was raised in the suburbs by two parents who have remained married for more than sixty years. I went to college, got a job, got married, and fathered a couple of kids, in that order. My culture, if I even have one, is the standard against which minority cultures in the US are compared.  My life is one big cliché.

I discovered this when I started researching story tropes in an effort to avoid clichéd writing. Publishers claim to want unusual stories with characters that grow, so it’s really important to me that I avoid the typical two-fisted male action hero of pulp fiction.  I thought this wouldn’t be too hard, because that’s not me. I’m more verbal and more cerebral than that, so I started with characters I could at understand, expecting to write something different.  After all, men who discuss their emotions and admit their insecurities certainly don’t fit the stereotype.Olympus Mons as seen from space.

Enter “The Clouds of Mount Olympus”.  Inspired by Hemingway, Clouds is at its heart a love story between two senior citizens, set on Mars. The protagonist, Connor, has suffered an accident, and while his wife Lexi rushes to rescue him, Connor struggles with self acceptance because he feels she is too good for him. I believe in this story, but it hasn’t sold. In fact, I’ve acquired as many rejection letters for Clouds as I have for any other story I’ve written.

The problem seems to be my passive protagonist. Perhaps if I could have inverted the point-of-view on this tale, readers would have connected better, because it is Lexi who is active. Still, it is Connor who is changed by this story, and I really believe the story is his. I tell myself that while Eudora Welty can succeed with a passive protagonist, I haven’t got the literary chops.  Still, I wonder if I’m not running into the flipside of Men Act, Women Are, the ultimate sexist cliché. People may tolerate and even accept a woman who needs to be rescued, but if it’s a man, they can’t respect him.

Accepting this, I decided to reach further outside my comfort zone in search of a cliché to overturn, and settled on writing a female protagonist. While hard for me to implement, the decision itself is an easy one:  I have two brilliant daughters who enjoy SF, and I want them to like my stories. They deserve female characters with lines more sophisticated than “Yes, Doctor” and “Hailing frequencies are open.” I have read any number of stories by female SF authors with realistic male characters.  I ought to be able to cross that line in the other direction.

At least, that’s what I tell myself — but so far, I haven’t succeeded. My laptop is littered with unfinished short stories — and one novel — starring women or minorities, and even one woman of color.   I have hope for a few of these tales, but most I have set aside. I can’t finish them at present because I simply don’t know the subject well enough yet. Still, I think I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and in part II of this saga, I’ll elaborate.

Photo Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark.

 

The Continuing Effects of a Good Reputation

The year was 1950, and Italy was rebuilding after the Second World War.  In the small working-class city of Mestre, a girl was growing up. Like much of Italy, Mestre had its share of American soldiers. They came with money to spend in their caffes, and they brought gifts:  candy for the children, and silk stockings for the ladies.  She had received some of each over the years, and while the young soldiers would often ask for a dance or an evening of conversation, they never demanded anything she was unwilling to give.  Perhaps it was an order from their commanding officer that held them back, or perhaps it was simply a difference in culture, but these young men seemed almost shy when they were around her.autobus-mestre

Fifty years later, the girl had become an old woman. She had married and raised children, who in turn married and had children of their own. Finally her husband died, and she was alone again.

One day while returning from the market, she stepped aboard the bus to return home. The bus was full, as it always was that time of day, but a young man rose upon seeing her and motioned for her to take his seat. Once he saw her seated, the young man lifted his gaze to stare out the window at the passing shops. The man seemed so peculiar, both in appearance and behavior.

Sitting there, it all came back–the soldiers after the war, and how they had treated her family. She looked up at the young man, his hair tousled, his clothing so different from what the other young men in town were wearing.

“American?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, and blushed.  She gave the man a gentle smile, and he looked off into the distance again.

Unlike most of my personal stories, the background on this one is mostly fabricated, but I was that man.  Somewhere in history an American soldier was kind to a local girl in post-war Italy, and I have reaped the gratitude he deserved.

It makes me wonder what kindness I can do that someone else may win that gentle smile.

Photo of an  autobus in Mestre cropped from “IRISBUS_ACTV.JPG“, licensed under attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

One Year Later

The past twelve months have seen a lot of hidden changes in my life. I stopped serving in youth ministry, and joined the stage crew.  I wrote — and discarded — fifty thousand words of my first novel, and built a lot of connections with writerly types in my community. My technical career unfolded into mostly management with no change of title or position. It hasn’t been specifically good, or bad, just different.

And I realized, while cleaning up my Facebook timeline, that the start of this cycle was the death of a young man I knew from church, and whom I considered a friend. Even today, I find myself wondering if his life would have ended differently if I as a leader had been more engaged, better engaged, in his life during my years of influence. In the end, his life choices were his own, but still.

By way of retaining the vital memory of this man, I post here a poem I composed the afternoon of his funeral. It’s not terribly good, but it’s honest, and in that way it reflects the subject better than Homeric verse could do.

pic-for-zach

This post should be about the man who as a teen
in football, blocked my neck and took my voice away.
My lost falsetto scar is now a badge of pride
remembered every time my children criticize.

And I should talk about the one who burned a mix
CD for me because my tastes were too mundane,
and tell of how he loved the music trade instead
of how I listened on the road when I was sad.

I ought to mention how he somehow lodged his foot
beneath the pastor’s rolling tire, or what he said
to make us laugh, or how he always made me smile.
All true, but still my selfish heart says there is more.

For he is young, and I am not, and he is gone,
And I am not. He leaves me crying out “Unfair!”
In selfishness I skip the thing I ought to do,
And weep for me instead, and wish I wept for you.

The Never-Changing Story

To a significant degree, the posts on this blog exist to record my old stories. Over the decades, I have told and retold them, to the point where they form the oral history of my life and my family.  Stories are a common way for us to connect with our history, but they aren’t the only way.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a single graduate student, and my then-fiancée was a special education master teacher of preschool-aged children. My summer schedule held a significant quantity of free time back then, so I was able to chaperone when she took her class on a field trip to Hoffman’s Playland, a small amusement park in our community.Hoffmans-Sign

I was given responsibility for two students — Decoda, and Stephanie — and spent the morning supervising them as they went from ride to ride. The two inner-city girls clamored and competed for my affirmation and attention, and I suspect they had no male role models at home. It was sweet and sad at the same time.

At the end of the field trip, we put the children on their buses for return to their homes in Albany. The school day was over, so Faith and I didn’t have to go with them. Instead, we took a few minutes and sat together on the Ferris Wheel, enjoying together the end of a day well spent. Faith calls it one of our first dates, and I guess it’s true.Ferris-Wheel

Flash forward twenty-five years, and we’ve been married for twenty-four. Unlike many couples, we probably date as often these days as we did back then. Certainly my budget can handle the prospect of a night out better than it could in those days. Hoffman’s is still there, but just barely — they will be closing permanently at the end of the 2014 season. In recognition of this, Faith and I went back this week to ride on the Ferris Wheel one last time. Like the field trip it recalls, the evening left me with bittersweet emotions.

A significant chunk of my family history is tied up in in amusement parks. My high school prom was concluded the next morning with a day spent at Paragon Park in Nantasket Beach.   This is the same place, my grandfather told me, that he and my grandmother, with my great aunt and her husband, became “stuck” atop the (then) worlds-largest roller coaster and had to be rescued.  Paragon Park closed the year I graduated, and only the carousel remains to remind me of that place.

"Scene in Paragon Park, Nantasket Beach, MA"  (see below for attribution)

Faith holds even earlier memories of a park in New York:  Storytown USA.  During our lives, the park has morphed from a simple Mother Goose-themed amusement park for children into a full-blown teen-and-adult theme park, renamed The Great Escape, and purchased by Six Flags.  Though popular, the park as it is presently constituted does not hold the same nostalgia for us as it used to. Real, physical amusement parks are too ephemeral.

This is, I think, the reason our stories are so important. My daughters tell me that my stories have the unusual characteristic of stability:  they are the same today as they were when I first told them. Other tales may drift over time, with different facts, features, and interpretations, but mine always open the same, include the same key descriptive elements, and end with the same moral. It has become a comfort to my children, not least because they can quickly identify a known story and ignore it, safe in the knowledge that they won’t have missed anything important.

Oddly, though, these same children want me to record my stories online, fixing them in space forever, to endure long after the amusement parks of their childhood are gone. I consider myself a writer of fiction, but it is these Mostly True stories they desire the most.

“Scene in Paragon Park, Nantasket Beach, MA” cropped from an original postcard published by M. Abrams, Boston, Massachusetts. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Other photos are the author’s.

A Late Night in Crawley

Every city has a neighborhood like it:  poor, heavily populated by minorities, avoided by the local gentility. In Albany, they call it Arbor Hill. In Schenectady, it’s Hamilton Hill.  For Crawley in West Sussex, England, that neighborhood is Bewbush.

Almost twenty years ago, I had the good pleasure of working in England for approximately three months.  I say good pleasure because, unlike most of my business trips, this one actually provided me with time off on the weekends. As a result, I often had some time to visit a local pub on the weekend. Everyone in England seemed interested in chatting with an itinerant American, so I was never lonely.

One weekend, I walked a few blocks from my hotel (the George in Crawley) to to a pub at the end of the High Street, a pub I had selected on the basis of the Guinness sign in the window. They didn’t sell Guinness, and I suspect they never did, but the nice young lady at the bar recommended I try Newcastle Brown Ale, so I had one.

1467801861 ae07518ec0My bartender was the epitome of punk chic, and I soon found she fit the style of this pub’s clientele as well.  Dressed in black, her copious patches of bare skin were decorated with a constellation of silver piercings, and she was young.  Armed with my beer, I settled in to watch the people around me, expecting to meet some new friends and perhaps learn a thing or two.  I was soon invited to join a group nearby.

The leader of this group was an older gentleman whose heavily-pierced body bore more tattoos than I had ever seen before that time. The remainder of the group were all in their late twenties or early thirties, and stood out as more conservative in appearance than most of the crowd at that pub. I joined their circle, and soon learned a bit about each. Sadly, I cannot remember their names.

  • The tattooed man, though fearsome in appearance, was actually the most mild-mannered of the group. By comparison,
  • the activist cared passionately about the fate of animals, and while physically small, was perhaps the most frighening of them all.
  • The BFF was close friends with the activist, and had organized this gathering on behalf of her boyfriend,
  • the muscle, who had just been released from prison.  He seemed nice enough, but he was sufficiently muscular that I didn’t want to learn differently.
  • Lastly, we had the schivuz[1], who had apparently attached himself to this party in search of free liquor.

In retrospect, I think a more intelligent man might have taken one look at this group and decided to move on, but I am clearly not that man. Having accepted a round from the group, I was committed buying one myself (and likely drinking four others)[2], even if it took me all night to accomplish. It was only after this round had been completed that someone in the party suggested we relocate to a more amicable pub across town.

The six of us piled into a cab (Britons are fastidious about avoiding DWI, in my experience) and rode a few minutes down the A2220 to Bewbush. They were right about the pub: it was a large brightly-lit space with a high ceiling and plenty of room for pub games.  Quite unusual for an English building, I think, and the broad range of available beers exceeded that of the small country pubs with which I was more familiar.

In any event, my round to buy came up, so I pulled out my wallet, and everyone placed their order.  At the time, reproductions of imported american beers were just coming into fashion, and the schivuz tried to order a Budweiser. I almost gagged.

“You people have the best beer in the world, and you want to drink that swill?” I asked.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at people’s bad taste (the Spice Girls were topping the charts at the time), but I was.

Appropriately mollified, the schivuz changed his order — to a Grolsch.  From this I was able to determine that he was more interested in spending my money than in buying a high quality beer.

Shortly after this, the activist indicated her desire to get back to Crawley, and the BFF placed a call on her cell phone.  We were told it would be 45 minutes before a cab could arrive to pick us up. I continued drinking my beer and played a round of pub billiards, losing horribly.  It is a very good thing I do not gamble.

After another round the activist tried to shock me by leaning heavily on her BFF and loudly proclaiming “she’s my mate!”  Probably she expected me to interpret her phrase sexually, but I was by that time bilingual (in both English and American) and knew exactly what she meant. There was plenty of joking all around, and we were having a good time.

Roughly an hour later, the cab still had not arrived. The BFF called the cab company and learned that we had somehow missed the cab, and it would be roughly another hour before we could get one.  This made the activist exceptionally unhappy, and she seemed to be the kind of person I didn’t want to see upset.  At the same time, the schivuz had somehow managed to get the muscle to pay for his round of drinks, and the two of them were beginning to argue as well.  The whole scene had begun to look like someplace I did not want to be, so I excused myself to step outside for some fresh air.

The sky was clear that night, and light pollution was absent in that part of Bewbush, so I was treated to a starry sky the likes of which one cannot get in my part of New York.  Looking up, I noticed the Big Dipper, then followed it by habit to identify the Little Dipper, the handle of which contains Polaris, the North Star. The peace of a starry night overtook me, and then I realized what I was seeing.

Inside the pub a conflict was brewing, a conflict I wanted to avoid.  Less than two miles to the northeast, though, lay my hotel, and now I knew which direction I was facing. My decision was clear.

It was a pleasant hike home in the cool night air, and the only person I encountered along the way was a little old lady pushing her shopping cart down the empty sidewalk. Buoyed by my self confidence and three or four Newcastle Brown Ales, I practically floated home.

When Monday rolled around, I was still feeling proud about my late-night orienteering, and told my office mates about my adventure.  One coworker was particularly stunned.

“You walked home?” he asked.  “Through Bewbush?  Are you out of your bleeding mind?”

I still think I made the right decision.

[1]schivuz (pronounced skee-vootz) is an Italian word used to describe someone of marginal ethical character. I use the word advisedly.
[2]in the US, a group of strangers (or even acquaintances) will frequently purchase their drinks on separate bills to insure that each one pays his share. In England, each person in the group buys a round for everyone in the group, and receives one from everyone else. This is a far more social practice, I feel, though it does force one to drink more heavily than I am normally inclined to do.