My enemy, each morning in the chill
  Of shining white and biting light,
My enemy, so close at break of day,
  Our lips too close to kiss,
  Our eyes too close for sight,
My teeth are bared,
  Your flesh too close to bite.
        Your smile is strange, this morning, oh my love,
           Did you forget the chessboard that we set?
        You slid your bishop, can you then resent,
          The queen I prod against your parapets?
          The knight your king's engaging in a tete-a-tete?
        The same way that we spoke
          When first we met!
My enemy, I thought that black and white,
  Sufficient stirred, by deed and word,
Could blend into a self-sufficient grey.
  My enemy, a thought occurred:
  That I was like a broken-winged bird,
And broken winged birds must learn to love the rats.
  In retrospect, it seems absurd --
        Hush now, my best beloved! You are mine.
          Bound closer than a wedding band,
          Upon your shriveled hand.
        Hush now, my best beloved: You are mine,
          Bound like the tide is bound unto the land.
          You be the lady, darling, I will be the man.
        Our body is a little girl's tea party, now,
          Where we two sit, and play at pat-a-pan.

Mine enemy, I beg of you, one day,
A single day, let it be today.

        Hush now, my best beloved! Go to sleep!
          You wished to be the one who lives within the mirror-glass,
        We signed our banns, and you agreed,
          You said that all you wanted, now, was rest.
          Your labors, then my darling one, are past.

(Image: Madame Jeantaud by Degas)

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Ten Thousand Forgotten Things

When I was young, I saw ten thousand things
Of which my older eyes have now grown blind.
The shadows of them haunt me, but the sight
Is now forbidden. Secrets they might tell
Have poured into the belly of my ear
But they are past recall - the child's mind
Is painted white,
A house where nothing dwells.

And it was queer,

To try to think of things when I was young,
To try to tell the secrets I had heard.
Until I learned the way of elder men,
And learned to keep them safe within
the keep of memory:
The virtuous sin,
Of turning flying thoughts into caged birds
So as to know the songs that they had sung.

And then the birds without the cages flee,
And leave the keep to memory and me.
The mind builds moats around its  storyland:
To keep what's in within, what's out is banned.

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The Three Gifts That One Remembers

So the other day, for Ms Amy's collection of ideas for meaningful gifts, I gave practical ideas. Today, I shlal be esoteric and useless. I wouldn't want you all getting used to that other extreme, and start expecting to get value from my suggestions - I don't know that I could live up to that.

I have been thinking about gifts for the last little while a great deal (it is that time of year, after all), and about what makes a memorable gift. I've gotten many over the years, from many people, of many sorts, and so I've been picking them apart in my mind to see why I remember them. In the grand tradition of classical rhetoric, I seem to think in the Rule of Three when I categorize, and so I believe I can seperate them into three basic categories.

Now, let it be said that I am leaving a few simple categories of memorable gift out, simply because of the constraints of Ms Amy's original prompt. The gift one truly needs, for example - say, an anonymous box of food when one is in a period of hard times. Or, the gift one couldn't afford on one's own. Both of these are wonderful gifts, but the first is very specialized, and the second the terrain of those with greater resources than me, in general. So, these I will not spend much time on. But, if you're rich, and want to pay off my mortgage for a Christmas gift, believe me, my friend, when I say that it will without doubt be a highly memorable gift...

In addition to this, I think its important to approach a category that I have skipped on purpose, perhaps with some debate to be made: the gift one wants. This may sound a bit stupid when I say it, but the gifts one asks for, I think, are the ones one remembers most seldom. This is particularly true when the giver is on a limited budget. If you have 5 or 10 dollars to spend, then its simply a fact of life that the gift ITSELF is going to be small and incidental. I'm not deriding the listed gift. I think that the gift one wants is a wonderful thing - but it is not filled with meaning. The act of GIVING the gift might be filled with meaning, as giving almost always is, and so I do not mean to say that giving a requested gift is meaningless. Just, the gift ITSELF is seldom memorable or meaningful, if that makes sense. It says 'I listen to you', and that's good. But, the gifts I have gotten for people that they explicitly requested have been used and useful sometimes, but I do not connect them with myself.

Which brings up another point that might engender disagreement: when I talk about a gift being meaningful, I believe there are two sides to this: the meaningful gift must mean something to the recipient, but it must also mean something to the giver. I don't mea that gift giving is a selfish act, that one must give simply in order to puff one's self up, not by any means. But in my mind, the best gifts I've received have been conversational transactions rather than declaratory. A rule of thumb - a meaningful gift, in retrospect, should be associated with a memory, instead of a fact. It should be more than simply 'In 1994, I got my mom a bowl." That's a declaration, not a conversation. Hopefully that becomes clearer as I go through the examples of types.

So, then, something tangible - or less intangible, anyway. The first type of gift, and I think the simplest to attempt when one is trying to give something meaningful - the gift one did not know existed. The unique gift, is how this is often advertised. Art is a prime example. A friend of mine who knows I love fairy tales, for example, once got me a beautiful postcard of Little Red Riding Hood that I still have hung above my desk. It does not HAVE to be art, per se, however. In fact, one of the wonderful things about this category is that it shows not only that one listens, but that one understands - just as the first friend understood my love of fairy tales, and given the artwork, clearly my aesthetic sensibilities as well.

Here's the trick with the unique gift - you have to have taste. ITs horrible, that. But in getting someone something they did not know existed, one is, presumably getting something that one knows that the other will ebt hrilled to LEARN that it exists. And that's tricky. I've mucked this one up MORE than once with Amanda, and one always knows, EVEN if the recipient is ever so polite. There is a particular energy in opening a gift one is delighted with that one can see when it is lacking. Taste is a very, very tricky thing. Some people are very good at it. I applaud and wonder at these people.

The second type of gift is subtler, and requires a different skill-set: the gift one would not buy for one's self. I will warn you ahead of time, I have NEVER mastered this one. But the basic idea of it is simple - there are some desires we each have that we feel we cannot fulfill for ourselves. There are many reasons for this - the gift that is too expensive to buy for one's self is a simple example, after all. But it can be different. Sometimes it is a logistical difference. For example, I cannot buy Shreddies or Mackintosh Toffee even though they they are both delicious, memorable parts of my childhood, because I live in the United STates (And Old Dutch Ketchup or Dill Pickle Chips... Mmm....). Other times, we each have out own reasons. Sometimes one cannot accept something because it seems so frivolous - real silk stockings, when one really ought to buy regular hose, perhaps. Or it is something one is  too old for - Adults are horrible about this one, many of us refusing to buy toys for ourselves. Particularly, this is wonderful if one can understand the nostalgia of a desired recipient. There is a power in that, because it connects you with your friends, not only in their present, but in their past. IT is a way of saying that you are friends with their whole life, not just with the moment you are exposed to. Then, there are gifts one simply feels one cannot buy, for personal or social reasons, things which are forbidden to one, but which, if they're a GIFT after all, one can accept.

Of course, wrapped up in all this is two difficulties - one is to know what one's friends yearn for but cannot ask for. This is tricky business, and requires a cautious ear, and a close relationship. And then, there is the fact that just because one wants somethign doesn't mean one woudl be glad to receive it. OFten, the things we forbid ourselves, we forbid on a very complex and deep level, and receiving them can cause complex reactions inside our minds. What this requires, tehn, is a very deep and powerful sense of empathy and emotional closeness. You have to understand, basically, what it is tat you're doing by giving a given gift, not simply discover what the gift is. And, perhaps, to understand how and when a gift should be given.

The final type of gift, and one that I think has been lost to an extent in our day, is the gift that is about the giver. Again, as when I talked about who gifts shoudl be meaningful to, this sounds perhaps odd, but if you look into the past, you see many examples of this. The medieval lady who woudl give a ribbon or garter to a knight is a good example - the knight wants, as a gift, a piece of the one he loves. Another example, one I came across entirely by accident long ago is from the Victorian period, when women would sometimes cut off long locks of their hair and braid them into watch-chains for people they loved. Handmade gifts often fit into this category - whether one has NEED of the things one's children bring home from school, whether one even LIKES them really, one is always happy to get them - and those after all usually are barely personal, being a template a teacher had each student follow. At this very moment I'm wearing one of my favorite gifts, a scarf that a friend of mine wove by hand, and its dearness, in part, is that it bears the imprint in it of the hands that made it, that I was given, as much as a piece of fabric, a story to have.

The great impediment here is that one must be confident that the other person wants a piece of you. This sounds petty, but in practice, its very difficult (at least for me) to imagine someone receiving something the message of which is basically, "I know you love me, so I wanted you to have something to remember me." There is almost an arrogance in that thought that its very frightening to face up to (hence my handmade gifts usually being a combination of this and, for example, the first type of gift). And there is the very real risk that a gift given in this way WILL come across as a bit self-indulgent, like receiving a signed copy of Gadding With Ghouls from Gilderoy Lockhart (Harry Potter reference, ftw!).  I don't know the solution for this.

Which is really, in some sense, the trick with any meaningful gift - they are fraught with risk. The commonality with any of these gifts is that one is invested, personally, in them - that, to put it crudely, the success of the gift is a reflection of one's personal character, at some level, of one's empathy, perception, skill, or wisdom. This makes meaningful gift-giving a terrifying concept. I won't deny this. I spend about a month and half after finishing Christmas gifts cowering under the weight of my own expectations. In a sense, though, I think that subconsciously, this is why we value these gifts so much, because aside from anything else they say, I love you enough to want to do something difficult for you, and I trust you enough to do something dangerous with you. There is an intimacy to this that is some ways much closer than holding hands or a kiss on the cheek - there are people I would hug that I would never make a doll for, because I do not know them well enough. So that's really the LAST warning I'd give - meaningful gift giving is a selective activity. IT is something that one must do only with those one feels one can do it with - if you try to do it with your whole Christmas list, then you'll hurt yourself.

Anyway, I sound very authoritative about all this but I'm not - really (and my gift giving history reflect this) I've no idea what I'm doing when it comes to gift giving. Its a clumsy, difficult practice. I'd love to hear remarks, rebuttals, contradictions in the comments.

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Time Gifts

Ms Amy at My Friend Amy put up a wonderful little meme yesterday where she is looking for people's ideas for meaningful christmas gifts. This has been a little struggle at our house over the years, that we've worked around, so I wanted to put in my ideas, and hopefully read better ideas from other people.

So let me tell you where I come from on this. Here we have the very definition of a first world problem:

"My kids get so much stuff every year at Christmas that they don't know where to put it."

Its true. I don't understand this - the whole idea of it is mysterious. I don't remember this problem as a kid. We had nice Christmases, I always got a number of presents. But never THAT many. Perhaps the difference is that we never lived close to our relatives.

I'm a horrible person to deal with this in the first place, because I actually really don't like traditional presents (not that anyone who has a spare iPad laying around isn't welcome to send it along wtih a bow on top, or anything...).But what this all added up to was, a few years ago, Amanda coming with the best ever idea for gifts: The Time Gift.

The basic idea of the time gift is simple anyway, and I don't think we're particularly original in coming up with it: basically instead of getting a thing, the recipient gets the promise of an experience. For example, my youngest son one year got, for one of his gifts, to cook a whole dinner of his choosing with me. 

The nice things about this is that it allows for flexibility. There are those who think, on the one hand, that they should be spending money on a gift. They can give movie tickets, or ice skating, or what-not. There are those who don't have any money to give things. They can give relatively less expensive things: cooking or making something together, going out to split a banana split, etc. The boys can anticipate and get excited about these gifts too - actually because of previously mentioned too-many-christmas-gifts, the boys have a MUCH easier time coming up with their time gifts lists each year than they do with their physical gifts. One of my boys this year in fact asked if he could JUST get time gifts.

On the other hand, there's a few things to be careful of with the time gift, we've learned over the last few years:

1) Some people don't like to give them. Sometimes this is because they want to give something the other person can hold in their hand, I think, and sometimes for that reason, time gifts are sometimes paired with small physical gifts (one year one of my sons got a camping trip, so he received a flashlight as a physical gift with it,for example). Othertimes, though, its simply that they don't want to devote the time to it - it is a lot of work giving a time gift. Which brings us to the second pitfall:
2) It is a lot of work giving a time gift. In a sense, I actually like this about time gifts. I like that you have to put in a great deal of effort and sacrifice a big chunk of a Saturday afternoon to give it. But it does mean that you don't want to give 20 of them out. I have three boys, and if between Christmas and birthdays I gave them each, lets say, four gifts, then out of the 52 weeks in a year, I'd be taking a kid out on 12 of them. That can add up as a time commitment very quickly, especially if you have lots of people you're giving to. So, don't make all 12 of them overnight weekend affairs, or you'll drive yourself crazy.
3) Its easy to forget to do them. Way too easy. We actually have learned to keep a list of all the gifts anyone gave to our kids of this sort - because they will come back and ask what it was that they promised to do with the boys. And this year I actually ended up taking Laurence out for one of his gifts a few weeks after his birthday - and the gift had been for the birthday before. Yeah.

But the WONDERFUL thing about a time gift is that it means that the recipient gets a person, instead of just an item - they get to spend time with someone they love, and you get to spend time with them. Even if its someone you know very well, even with my own kids, taking them out somewhere unfamiliar, you learn a great deal about them. 

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Sonnet on Friday Nights

On friday nights, I feel as if the world
  Is so intense and fragile it avoids
  My clumsy hands. I listen to the noise,
Alone, my ear pressed tight against the door.
To hear the snap, the rustle, the dull thud
  Of heavy buttons dropping to the floor.
  My own heart, so unsteady and unsure,
Sends rattles through my frame. I know I should
Lie down across the room, and go to sleep,
  But I've held sin against my naked skin,
  And felt the beating heart of it therein -
What point in seeking virtue? So I keep
My ear upon the panel, and what's more,
My hand, upon the knob of the unlocked door.

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Down With "Male Role Models"

(Dear, Ms Amy - you did ask me to write essays, so I am doing my best for you!)

As a preface, I have to apologize to all my friends who write such lovely well organized essays, as well as to my children for my marked hypocrisy. I tried, I truly did, to outline this post before I began, to give it some semblance of organization. Alas, I failed. You get what you get.

At the prodding of a recent link from @booksmugglers on twitter, I recently read this at the LA Review of Books, the latest in a long string of essays about how little boys are being destroyed by 'girl books'. I will leave that where it is. I sound snarky about it, but that is unfair, because the whole subject really IS personally troubling to me - not because I think there are a dearth of books where stuff blows up and boys don't have to think about feelings. In a culture where major outlets of high culture are celebrating the release of James Bond films, to be perfectly frank, this concern seems just a WEE bit overstated to me. But that isn't much of a response. Luckily, there are so many other intelligent people on the internet who formulate the rsponses that I might feel, but can't really think out into words.

One response I've always found intriguing (aside from the marvelous numerical suggestion that there is NOT a shortage of boy authors and books, etc, etc, etc in our culutre, and the decline of male performance education is not due to an evil cabal of lady fic writers trying to bore boys to tears by forcing them to read the Hunger Games... or something), is the counter argument that perhaps, we as a culture need to accept that if a boy wants a role model of how to be strong and brave and what not, well, he could make Katniss as his role model just as easily as his sister, just like many a girl in my childhood fought to be able to Robin Hood when we played on the playground despite his conspicuous lack of breasts. 

But I did say intriguing, not compelling, and I couldn't figure just exactly WHY I could never COMPLETELY buy into this theory. I mean, this is me. I spent my childhood wishing I could be Princess Ozma, for goodness sake (and by the way, if you liked the Wizard of Oz and you're not reading this webcomic, go try it - plus the artist is a terrifically nice lady (the one I've met online (triple parentheses for the win - I'm a programmer, I'm allowed))). I ought to be the first one to say 'YES! ROLE MODELS FOR THE WIN! WHO CARES IF THEY GOTS BITS!' And, let me emphasize, I don't DISAGREE with this statement entirely either. 

In the words of Luther Heggs, let me clarify this.

So, turn for a moment to the aforementioned essay in the LARB. Read this quote:
But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?
Now, let me say, I took some playful jabs at the idea of gender essentialism, but I do not mean them as any sort of attack on the author of the article. Her essay was written in general with much more care and erudition than I imagine I'm putting into mine, honestly. But this line carries the thread that, for me, when you pull it the entire sweater falls apart. Because ask yourself this - do you think Ms Meyer is actually hoping that more little boys will end up like Edward and Jacob? To reference elsewhere in the article, do you think SE Hinton wants more boys to act like the characters from the Outsiders? Do you think, say, the point of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to give boys a model to live their lives by?

This is the problem with the comparison to the good old days of Uncle Tom's Cabin elsewhere in the essay: to compare Eddie Cullen to, say, the boy from Uncle Tom's Cabin is to make a mistake, because undoubtedly, Ms Stowe WANTS boys to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and think 'yes, yes, that is the kind of boy I should be like.' To say that boy characters are troubled and negative, then, is very different from saying that boy ROLE MODELS are different.

After all, though, the problem is that this whole problem could very easily be turned upside down - do you really want your girls to read Bella Swan and think, "yes, this is who I want to be like"? For that matter, in many ways, I'm not sure that even that popular counterpoint to Bella, Katniss, is really intended to be a role model. If the purpose were to encourage girls to be strong and stand up for what they believe in, why give the book such a bleak ending? And then on the other side, do you want to encourage boys to be like, say, the main character of the Lightning Thief? Spngebob Squarepants? Captain Underpants? Where the Wild Things Are?

There is a marked difference between portraying what it is to grow up as a boy (The Outsiders, for example) and portraying how one should try to be as a boy (Uncle Tom's Cabin). And frankly, when it comes down to it, noone is really writing Uncle Tom's Cabin anymore. Even the language of POSITIVE characters has changed - when I hear friends of mine who write say why, for example, they might put in a positive female character, they say they want to portray that girls can be strong, for example. They don't say they want to teach young girls how to be strong. That is a different matter. And that is how books are written now - and I think that is how things should be, perhaps, this is the fine point I take up with the Katniss-as-role-model argument: I don't think children are SEEKING role modeling. They're seeking understanding.

Now comes the part where you might ask if this is a problem. Perhaps. Perhaps one of the reasons for our cultural upheaval is that we, as a people, have not agreed on what a positive male role model is, and we are not, thus, teaching our children the way to grow up to be a man. This is perhaps even worse in a culture where many children do not RECEIVE the normal socially mandated training in manhood, because they are raised without a man in their life. Perhaps. I don't think so.

I think rather, that the problem with this argument is in the underlying assumption that being a man is a role. And that's where I just can't agree with the reviewer in the original article. Being a man is not a 'role'. Its a condition. Its like being tall. Its like being black. Its like being a redhead. Its ismply something that one is. It isn't a thing that one does. A role is defined by actions, not by genitalia. I am a parent because I raise children. I am a programmer because I write programs. I am a citizen because I fight for what I think is right, and I vote, etc. I am a male because... I stand when I pee? Because I have to fake giving a damn about sports in order to have necessary social grease at work? This is a condition of my life, not a measure of my soul.

This isn't to say it doesn't AFFECT my life. Not at all. But it isn't WHO I AM, because who I am is what I do, not what I received in the genetic lottery.

And there IS ways literature helps us to understand our genetic lotteries - this is done not by modeling behaviors but by empathizing and normalizing reactions to conditions. As someone who found the process of transitioning into the expectation of societal manhood as an external factor in my attempts to forge my actual identity and role in the world, a book like Catcher in the Rye was meaningful to me, because INSTEAD of telling me how to be a man, it simply acknowledged that, yes, having a penis in our messed up society is intensely confusing and filled with immense pressures and expectations that may or may not be fair. And that requires explicitly NOT creating model behaviours. IT requires human behaviours. You sympathize with and admire, perhaps, Christ, but you EMPATHIZE and RELATE to Thomas, or Peter or Mary Magdalene.

This is why a book like, say, the Hunger Games DOES present value to a boy - I'm only 32, I'm little more than one, after all. Because as a boy myself, I could look at, say, Gale, and understand that, yes, other people feel angry sometimes, too, and that I must be careful beause society has a way of tying anger onto ships that pull us along behind them and dump is in the sea. I can look at Peeta and understand that some boys, some boys even that other people love and admire, are as fragile,  sensitive and emotional as I feel sometimes. And yes, I can look at Katniss and say that yes, it is a hard fact, that sometimes I will do what I think is good, and in the end, I won't be any happier for it, but that if I could only see myself from just outside, I would still be proud of the hero who could act thusly. But NONE of these are people I want to be - they simply are a voice whispering, "You are a little bit of this, and that's okay."

Frankly, perhaps the fact that we cannot think of how to teach our boys how to be men is a sign that we shouuldn't teach them to be men at all - we should instead teach them how to choose their actions. We teach them that whoever they are, they should be kind, and thoughtful, virtuous, brave, quick to defend those who are in the right, and to struggle against the wrong. Then watch, adn see what they become. They will become strong and brave kindergarten teachers. Or pensive, sensitive paratroopers. Or parents. Or dancers. Or friends. Or revolutionaries. Or nurses. Or mothers. Or mediocre essayists. These are roles, they are actions of which one day we will look at your boys and be proud of them - just like our girls. Whether they are strong and square chinned while they fill these roles? Immaterial. The best of heroes are those who would be the precise same human whether they wear a dress or dungarees - because the things they do would be the same.

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Love in November

What is love? A pillow for you head,
When you're falling from a thirteen story ledge.
What is love? A smile before your eyes,
While sinking to the sea-floor.

                                              I imply,
Perhaps, that love is futile: not at all -
The falling soul wants comfort in its fall,
It is her place to learn the pillow's place:
to cushion? No -- it's something to embrace.

The sinking soul must take a crooked mouth
As evidence the business she's about
If not to get afloat, at least might be
To rage against the power of the sea.

(Image Credit: Dan Barak)

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