Sunday, November 28, 2010

The End of Men

The July/August Atlantic Monthly feature article this year was entitled "The End of Men", the words on the cover overlain on a flaccid, drooping Mars symbol (the circle with a [normally] erect arrow sticking out). The article is a engaging read (who can resist the age old question of whether men or women are better?). I expected it would piss me off, but I felt it was fair, if a little over-enthusiastic, and appropriately provocative. I haven't been reading the Atlantic very long, and I still don't entirely get what they do, but it seems to be fairly breezy articles based on an insight into current cultural trends, filled out with a broad base of supporting examples (for this article, everything from interviews to psychology papers to chick flicks and [of course] Lady Gaga), more or less reading as an opinion piece rather than what you might call the hard journalism of a Mother Jones.

The article posits that in a economy evolving from raw industry to service and tech, men's skills no longer give them the advantage that we held for the rest of human history, and that men have so far been unable to adapt, while women are, essentially, taking over. Variously through the article, men are identified as: dominant, faster, stronger, hardwired to fight, emotional, aggressive, competitive, assertive, controlling, and reckless, among others. Women are described as: nurturing, flexible, educated, conscientious, stable, smart, dutiful, reliable, empathetic, consensus-seekers, lateral thinkers, and morally sensible. As the basis for this shift in roles, the article states that "the attributes that are most valuable today - social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus - are, at a minimum, not predominately male. In fact the opposite may be true."

Maybe you agree with these characterization and maybe you don't. Maybe you noticed, as I did, that almost all words associated with women are positive and almost all those associated with men are characterized negatively (or maybe that's just how we've come to understand those terms). What's really alarming about this article is the repercussions of this shift.

In the second half of the article, the author states that secondary education is disproportionately sought by women (60% of enrollment), to the point where schools are going out of their way to promote a kind of affirmative action to draw more men and maintain their idea of a balanced gender dynamic. The dynamic isn't balanced in education, and it's shifting in a large way in the workplace (with a few exceptions, notably engineering and hard sciences). Increasingly, the job market requires these more academic skills, as well as the credentials that come with them, and this leaves those who don't pursue secondary education at a disadvantage. The article suggests that the result of this trend is a society full of educated women who are smart, assertive and employed and more or less neanderthal men who are either anachronistically macho or impotent, defeated and unable to reach out for help. The good working class job - the mine job, the steel mill - that you could get without even a high school education has left our country for parts of the world where labor isn't valued as highly as it is here. Marriage rates are down, which the article suggests is tied to this proposed intellectual and fiscal inequality between men and women. The very fabric of society, it would seem, is coming apart around us.

To see this idea of a world dominated by women taken to its extreme, I recommend Y: The Last Man, the graphic novel series. The story follows the last man on earth after a mysterious event simultaneously wipes out all the males of every species (except him and his pet monkey - yes, I know, I'm pretty sure they intend that). It has interesting gender dynamics, sex, nudity, graphic violence, thoughtful provocation and everything else you could want in a graphic novel. The writing and characters at times feel forced, but it's an interesting read if you're into graphic novels.

So, is it true? Are the women taking over? Are we men destined to revert genetically into mindless cringing animals the women tolerate only for the purposes of breeding? Are action movies a dying genre as romantic comedies take over? Is the information age leading us into a feminist utopia of cooperation and holding hands and thinking about each other's feelings?

It was an interesting article with a doubt. I thought some of the ties and conclusions were a little stretched in the service of generating drama, the falling marriage rate, the suggestion that women make disproportionately more money than men. The numbers presented in the article seem to suggest that many of these trends are just now becoming equal between men and women, and the sense of alarm is extrapolated from there. It's a worthwhile thought to consider, though, given that our culture is so thoroughly defined by masculinity, and that any change in this fabric will be deeply unsettling to both men and women.

I felt entirely outside the debate for most of the article. In high school, I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track and spent a good deal of the summer in the weight room with guys screaming at me to finish that last rep or out pushing myself to run until my legs were shaking and I threw up. I've gone nose to nose with guys in basketball games shouting over fouls, but I can also shrug off an insult, step outside myself, and walk away. I'm smart, well educated, and I read prodigiously. I'm confident, I can be decisive and have agency when needed, but I'm humble and tend to seek out other opinions, draw others in, and prefer copacetic group dynamics over accomplishing a task at any cost. The way the article was presenting men and women in such diametrically opposing lights didn't seem to apply to me. The thing that caught me up and brought me down to size was when the article discussed the way women and men apply to college. The women, it said, tend to take a lead role to their application process - filling out the apps themselves, planning ahead, arranging school visits, filling out the FAFSA - and this is very much true of the way Anita ended up at Oberlin. Men, it says, tend to sit on the couch and let their mother take care of things, and this is more or less the way I ended up in college.

I remember it getting on into senior year in high school and every adult you interact with asking you what your plans are. I remember very distinctly refusing to plan in that way that serious, upwardly mobile types are supposed to. I very much wanted to enjoy my life and live in the moment, follow my feelings and allow things to unfold as they would. Maybe this isn't the same type of apathy this article identifies as distinctly masculine, but the result was the same. Fortunately, I was raised in a family that supported me and that valued education. And that, I think, is the answer to this male-female skill and success divide.

I think I very much have learned to be who I am. Certainly genetics plays some role in basic aptitude, but what you do with your abilities is learned. My parents had me in their mid-thirties, intentionally giving themselves time to live a little first, so that they could focus their attention completely on their children. They read to us as kids, sent us to summer camp, art classes, swimming lessons, and sports games. They stayed together, had stable, good-paying, union jobs, and we lived in the same house my whole life, where they still live. They choose the house as much by its merit as by the school district it's in. The area is wealthy and has extremely well-funded, well-regarded public schools. In high school, I was in a program called Flex that was a sort of entrenched liberal arts school within the high school. It was composed of about 200 students, 7 teachers and took up the first 3 hours of the day. It had it's own wing of the school and we were known as Flexies by the rest of the students.

The Flex learning environment was more laid back than a normal classroom, promoting active, involved discussion rather than rote memorization and testing. We watched serious films, took elective classes, wrote heady essays, made bold declarations, and, 3 or 4 times a year, took monstrous 100 or 200-some question Flexams. When I got to college, I found that I had already encountered some of the material in many of my intro classes: psychology, sociology, anthropology. Flex was an incredible experience and could accurately be described as teaching you how to think rather than teaching you to know. All the teachers were wildly liberal, of course, and an attitude of social responsibility and engagement was an unstated assumption.

Mr. Craig was a self declared communist who drove an old Volkswagen bus and insisted he was waiting for the next capitalist crises of over production to buy a new car (wherever he is now, I'd bet he has one). Mr. Shaheen almost definitely smoked pot and was always willing to let you run with a idea and see where it took you. Mr. Pare started each day off by playing guitar and didn't care if you were 10 minutes late (he was fired as a result of some sort of sexual scandal with a student I never got the full story on). Mr. Pavlov was somewhat of a jock, his only claim to fame being that he was an extra in the movie Newsies. The women tended to be less bombastic, but equally adamant about their values. Ms. Rabideau and Ms. Kirchoffer were stern, large woman of the old world type. The other woman (I forget her name) was French and a little willowy and flighty; I don't think I ever had a class with her. We had one black teacher, Ms. Moten, who was about 4 feet tall, fiery, funny, and informed us (to our outrage) that black people couldn't be racist because they weren't in positions of power in society (we insisted she was in a direct position of power over us).

In school, I was in advanced classes, got exclusively B's, did very well on standardized tests, and went to college at a place that was to the rest of the world what Flex was to high school. College took my alternative education to a new level: I encountered openly gay people, had a gay roommate, my social circle freshman year was the women of the Kalamazoo College Women's Resource Center, learned not to use gay as a derogatory adjective, encountered trans-gendered people, sort of figured out what they were, was introduced to and resisted using gender-neutral pronouns, studied other religions, was outraged at social inequality, encountered feminism, socialism, anarchism, cooperative living, hippies, and drugs, learned to play, learned how to be physical with others in a way that wasn't about goals (as with sports), learned how to cook, learned about local food and environmentalism, got comfortable with all these radical ideas and ultimately learned it's okay to use gay as a derogatory adjective if you're in the right company and they understand you understand and are using it ironically or intentionally or whatever. In short, I had the liberal arts education to beat all liberal arts educations, and I gave myself over to it completely. It was amazing.

I'm bringing all this up not to talk about how great I am in front of a captive audience, but to show my path to becoming a more or less balanced person. I think something the Atlantic article neglected in its all-female utopia is that men have some very valuable traits that women tend to have in shorter supply. Men tend to be confidant, decisive (as in able to see the scope of a situation and make decisions quickly and assertively without becoming mired in self-doubt or the emotional undertones, implications and general mess of all the people involved), men can be brutal, honest, objective, and efficient, men can force themselves to do something hard that they don't enjoy (even for years and years), and I think men are especially more apt to be able to focus on a single thing, to get caught up in it and zoom in so completely as to block out all distraction. You can see how many of these traits are negatives as well as positives, and I don't deny that.

I think, in general, that this article is right about where society is heading and that, in general, men are woefully juvenile in how they deal with their emotions and in handling group dynamics and complexity of any sort, but I would also posit that an excess of femininity is no more desirable than an excess of masculinity. This is why I think a liberal arts education is so valuable. When we open ourselves up to see and understand the perspectives, opinions, processes and lives of others, our worldview expands; we grow. By making ourselves vulnerable rather than deciding we already understand how the world is, we become broader, stabler and stronger for it. I think the longer a person delays deciding that they understand something in life, the more conflicting information they will take in and the better off they will be. And this is simply something that you don't get from going to bars, watching TV, or talking to people at work - or at least you don't get enough of it to really effect a change. Perhaps this is a way in which marginalized people are at an advantage over white men - women and minorities have been forced to come to terms with a complex world full of many different perspectives, while men have been able to march blindly through history waving our fists about and shouting, up until now. I think a formal education that's engaging, active and responsive (rather than being focused on tests and memorization) is the best way to acquire new perspectives and expand the scope of who we are, man or woman.

This only leaves you with one problem: How to get a job with your worthless liberal arts degree?

Monday, November 15, 2010

William Livingston House, Detroit

William Livingston House, Detroit (demolished in 2007).

And my drawing of the same.

Photograph taken from this great book called Ruins of Detroit that came out this year.

Detroit is maybe the first post-industrial city in this country. Or maybe it's just the first post-apocalyptic city. Smaller cities have come and gone and been blown away with wind, larger cities have retooled, taken on new industries, and continue to thrive. But it's Detroit I keep hearing about on NPR. The country seems to have a collective fascination with Detroit right now - with its spectacular failure.

Maybe this is something like what happens when you have a limb amputated and continue to feel it for years afterward. But it raises a much broader question for our country. What do we do with all the infrastructure we built up after WW2? All that steel and concrete, red brick and ceramic facade, and what about those storied assembly lines? Just think of all the machinery!

Do we retool to produce solar panels just as we retooled to produce Buicks after the War? Do we clear the abandoned lots and plant seeds? So far, it seems that we've granted 42% tax breaks to films, guaranteeing that ever post-apocalyptic movie for next decade will have a little piece of Detroit in it.

There's something irresistible and important about Detroit. This is the city where people came from across the country to make $5 a day, unskilled labor, on the assembly lines. Detroit invented the middle class. And now, as we slowly lose our middle class, as income disparity grows greater and greater while wages stagnate, as unions decay and compromise themselves out of existence, corporations overtake politics, and the left moves to the right while the right moves toward fascism, there's something quaint and important about Detroit. There's also something of the sense of driving by an accident on the freeway. We're all rubber-necking a little bit, but we're also thinking about ourselves. What happens when we stop producing goods in this country? How long can we maintain our standard of living based on imports and debt? How long can we lie to ourselves and bully the rest of the world into serving us? What happens when the middle class disappears and the working people of this country start getting pissed off? It's a volatile time we live in. There is no security in an unsustainable system, even for the people at the top. This is what I see when I look at Detroit. It is perhaps a mirror. We can't help but become absorbed in self-reflection as we watch.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I'm thinking about drawing tonight. There's something powerful and amazing about drawing. It's a simple act, nothing mysterious about it, a skill that anyone can learn. The real value in drawing is in learning how to see, how to be present.

Whenever I draw, I see the object of my attention in greater and greater detail as time stretches out. I begin with the exterior boundary line of an object, usually somewhere along the ground or horizon line of the scene. From here I begin to fill in detail. I see texture, slight curves, detail, detail. I get sucked in to this other world so quickly. I become like a horse with blinders on, the tunnel vision zoomed in so far I lose my normal awareness of the world around me. It's a process of seeing in greater and greater detail. I find myself reaching and surpassing my own sight by degrees. I draw something and then look closer, my sight penetrating further and further in. My drawing is a rough approximation at best. I am fabricating lines. I see new details. I go back, include them. These become real. I have represented the object adequately. Then I see new details, smaller, more precise details...

Some time later it has been 3 hours hunched over a paper clutching a pencil in hand. I'm hungry, my back hurts, my hand is cramping up, I've lost all sense of the passage of time, of my narrative of things I should be doing, what comes next what comes next. I don't draw very often.

Deer Skull, 2008.
3.5 hours.

I don't draw very often. I don't know why. I think of myself as someone who is good at and enjoys drawing. And yet I'm finding I have almost nothing to include in my portfolio for school. All my drawings over the years have been on scraps of paper and card board. They've been weird things like animal skulls and the sprayer in the school cafeteria dish washing sink. Nothing with depth of field or perspective. Why don't I make drawings more often?

We get busy, caught up. We're tired at the end of the day. We do what's easy. Engagement, in anything, takes effort, energy; it seems much too hard. It's a shame. I wish I drew more.

William Livingstone House, Detroit.
Maybe 4 hours in to this one.