Home, sick, and the Tuesday Good Men column

I’m home from Brazil, and I’m as sick as can be. It’s been many a year since I’ve felt so rotten; I was coming down with something even before I flew down, and it got worse while I was in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I made it through my two lectures, and was moved by the warmth and openness of the students of the Kabbalah Centre in those two great cities. I’m afraid that other than a brief trip up to the top of Corcovado, I didn’t have much energy for sightseeing, and spent far more time than I would have liked flat on my back in hotel rooms. (That meant watching hours and hours of CNN International’s coverage of Egypt, which was indeed gripping.)

I’m so happy to be home to Eira and Heloise. I just wish I weren’t dreadfully under the weather.

My weekly Tuesday column is up today at Good Men Project: Why Don’t Men Settle Down? It’s a familiar theme to long-time readers of this blog. And it’s nice to have a word limit and an editor with a sharp eye.

Southbound

If you can read this, you know where I’m going to be next week and what I’m going to be doing. I will be indeed be leaving for Brazil this Sunday the 6th, returning on Monday the 14th.

I will try and post from South America, and my now-regular columns at the Good Men Project and Healthy is the New Skinny will appear as scheduled on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

Speaking of the Good Men Project, I’m pleased that my most recent piece was picked up by Alternet. One key thing got left on the cutting room floor: I know that by far the biggest reasons women are more likely to leave heterosexual marriages than men are (in no particular order): domestic violence, infidelity, and an uneven physical and emotional distribution of household duties. My point in the post was that even if we take all of those things off the table (and there are marriages where there is no hitting, no name-calling, no cheating, and a roughly egalitarian approach to housework), women are still more likely to leave. As it stands, it looks as if I’m ignoring some key issues, and that needed clarifying.

See ya on the other side.

Repentant in the capital

I’ve been in Washington D.C. for the past few days, marking the Rosh Hashanah holiday with the Kabbalah Centre. We had planned to return to Los Angeles today, but our flights got cancelled and rearranged, and we’re now heading out to California tomorrow. I am very sorry about needing to miss another day of class, but will be back at PCC Tuesday morning.

My wife and I had lunch downtown today and went through some of the museums. When we hit the national mall, we were confronted by a small ocean of Tea Party activists, who’ve been holding yet another rally in the capital. I confess that the first words out of my mouth were less than charitable, tinged as much with classist contempt for the dress code among the tea people as ideological objection to their principles. After one particularly unfortunate remark crossed my lips (focusing on the inexplicable fondness for denim shorts among the overwhelmingly white crowd of rallyers) my wife shot me a look that suggested that I needed to remember the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and the rapidly approaching Yom Kippur. If there’s one aspect of my character I really dislike, it’s a smug elitism and pomposity that can show up in both my spoken and written words. I may in many ways be the walking embodiment of the comfortable urban liberal so despised by the political right, but I can do better than to play the part to the hilt by being snobby and unkind. I need to remember that when my brother and I came up with the OKOP/NOKOP expression more than twenty years ago, we were trying to poke fun at classism, not reinforce it. I do too little of the former and too much of the latter.

When the climate is charged and the stakes are high, it’s hard to be kind to those on the other side, at least those whom one does not know. I’ve written of how much I dislike the rhetoric of “the summer of hate.” I’m used to being called “unpatriotic”, “unAmerican”, and an “effete elitist left-winger” — and worse. The temptation to respond in kind, even if only with the common epithet “teabagger,” is overwhelming. But I remember the words of the man whose monument is my favorite spot in this city, upon the steps of which I run at dawn as often as I can: I want to let the better angels of my nature govern the words that tumble from my lips and pour forth from my fingertips. I can do better.

At the drugstore a little while ago, I stood in line and chatted with a few of the Tea Partiers. They were in from Pennsylvania, buying drinks and snacks before the long bus ride home. We didn’t talk politics, but chatted about the weather (thunderstorms this morning over the District) and the traffic. They smiled at the box of pantiliners in my hand. I smiled at their interesting headgear. None of the smiles were unkind. We were simply ordinary people, passing the time in a queue, with different visions of America and a shared vision — or at least what I cannot help but hope is a shared vision — of basic decency.

The not-so-quiet American: a note from St Petersburg

I’ve spent the last day or so in St. Petersburg, and will be heading back down to Moscow tonight.

I spent almost the entire day yesterday on a city tour, including much (but certainly not all) of the Hermitage. We got started in the dark and finished in the dark — given that the sunrise isn’t until after 9:00 in the morning, that wasn’t as long a day as one might imagine.

I had lots of opportunities to talk to my guide, a St Petersburg native and an excellent English speaker. Over lunch (at the famous and vegetarian-friendly Café Idiot), we talked about Russian society and (since she she asked me what I did with myself) gender roles in our respective countries. Anna (not her real name) took the same view of both politics and male-female relationships: we human beings are under the influence of forces beyond our control. She volunteered willingly that she didn’t consider Russia to be a democracy, describing it instead (as many have in recent years) as an authoritarian state which tolerates a certain amount of freedom. Anna certainly prefers the present situation, however imperfect, to the USSR in which she was raised (she’s a few years younger than me, and was on the cusp of adulthood when the Soviet Union collapsed). But she regards voting as an exercise in futility; “All the important decisions are made by powers greater than us, and our vote has no effect on that.” Anna suggested tactfully something that any American who pays attention abroad will hear often: “Democracy is not the key to happiness, and I think that sometimes the USA connects the two too much.”

Anna took a similarly fatalistic, albeit cheerful, view of gender relations. “I think what you are talking about is fascinating”, she said with the politeness of someone whose services have been engaged, “but I think most men — and most women — can’t change their nature, and don’t want to.” She made a direct comparison between her belief that sex roles ought to be fixed more or less where they were and her belief that a benign authoritarian state guaranteeing security and an opportunity for at least a little prosperity was the best system of government. Anna suggested, with tact, that I — and perhaps many other Americans — placed far too much faith in the human capacity both to change and to self-regulate. Her cynicism about democracy, in other words, was rooted less in a belief that the current Russian government of Putin and his ilk wouldn’t permit it, and more in her conviction that most of her fellow Russians were too poorly informed or too blindly self-interested to be trusted with the electoral franchise. Having lived in the Soviet Union, as well as through the chaotic (and relatively democratic) transition under Boris Yeltsin, Anna finds the current regime (as undemocratic as it may be) to be vastly preferable to either. Similarly, she argued that a system which allowed women to work and be educated was of course better than one which didn’t permit either — yet Anna felt strongly that women should allow men to lead. “It’s more in their nature than it is in ours”, she insisted with a smile, shaking her head and laughing at what she saw as my naiveté about the mutability of gender roles.

My brother and I were both born in Santa Barbara, raised in the same home and with the same influences. (My half-sisters grew up in a slightly different environment). My brother has made his home in Europe, and is raising his three children in England and Austria. His worldview is hardly fatalist or quietist; he remains a thorough democratic socialist. But if I can speak of “souls”, his is far less American than mine. The sons of an Englishman born in Vienna and a mother descended from California pioneers, we were given two nationalities and exposed to different perspectives on the world and human possibilities. And I’ve come to see that the deepest aspect of my Americanness, if you will, lies in what Tocqueville noted nearly two centuries ago: an irrepressible belief in the human capacity for self-improvement and self-reinvention. I wouldn’t be so adamant about the myth of male weakness being just that, a myth, if I weren’t absolutely convinced (on historical, psychological, and experiential grounds) of the possibility for self-transformation. My brother doesn’t disagree with me about the need for progress, but he is alternately bemused and exasperated by what he (like lots of Europeans) sees as the mix of cheerleading and hectoring and preaching that is part of how Americans make the case for personal and political transformation to everyone else. (And often, as we both know that cheerleading is accompanied by military intervention, as the most powerful nation on earth engages in one of its quixotic liberal internationalist projects. When I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, I shuddered at how much I identified with Alden Pyle.) Like my father, he also worries that in a world with such enormous and pressing environmental and human problems — the tragedies of deforestation, of the Congo, Haiti, and Palestine — this focus on self-reinvention is both myopic and self-congratulatory. And I insist, like so many Americans, that self-transformation is a necessary pre-condition for global peace and justice, something that strikes so many folks elsewhere in the world as both back-to-front and hopelessly bourgeois.

I’m typing this blog in the lobby bar of my St Petersburg hotel. Snow is falling outside; Nevsky Prospect lies a few yards away. Soft Russian voices surround me, and the smell of cigarettes (permitted almost everywhere in this country, it seems) brings back memories of my smoke-saturated childhood. And I miss my wife and daughter even as I am so grateful for the opportunity to see this city I’ve long wanted to visit; I miss my home, my Los Angeles, my city unburdened by an over-long history, my irony-and-cynicism-free zone.

The safe male traveler

I’m in Moscow, a bit jet-lagged, getting ready for a guided tour of the Kremlin. My hotel has a lovely view of at least part of Red Square, and I managed a comfortable vegan breakfast this morning. I’m on my own for this trip, the main purpose of which is a lecture next week. My wife and daughter are back home, and it’s for the best — I’m not sure Heloise is ready for the cold. It’s -5 Fahrenheit outside, not counting the wind chill, as I write.

There’s a not entirely undeserved stereotype about men traveling alone. I’m fortunate to have traveled a great deal in recent years, often with my wife (and in the last year, quite a bit with my daughter), and also frequently alone. I’ve noted over and over again the subtle (and occasionally, not so subtle) distinction between the way I’m treated when I’m by myself and when we’re together as a family. I’m keenly aware — and this is probably an awareness rooted in my work — that I’m often seen as a potential predator when I’m by myself. Young women in the service sector (in nice hotels, for example) tend to be just a bit more guarded with me when I’m alone than when I’m with my wife. It’s not that my behavior is any different whether or not my spouse is with me; it’s that a great many women the world over know that single men can be “troublesome”, particularly for young women who are employed to serve them in some capacity.

Part of being a responsible single male traveler — particularly a relatively affluent male traveler in a less affluent country — is to be cognizant of the potential threat (and in a few instances, the potential opportunity) that one poses.
I don’t hide from my Americanness (I may have a UK passport, but my manner and bearing are very much of the New World), and of course, I don’t disguise that I’m a man. I know very well the “ugly American” stereotype, and I know the stereotype (grounded in considerable but not universal truth) that men of my age traveling alone are very interested in using whatever leverage they have to get sex.

And so while I hope I’m hardly impolite when I’m with Eira and Heloise, I’m even more aware of my manners when I’m traveling abroad by myself. I know full well that though it might seem the job of hotel staff, for example, to put me at ease, it’s also my job to make them comfortable. That doesn’t mean I don’t ask for extra pillows if I need them (and I frequently do; I tend to like to build small fortresses on the bed). It does mean that when making requests, I make sure that I am cordial, appreciative, and utterly and unmistakably safe. Having a wedding ring helps, but the number of philandering traveling husbands (and, to be fair, wives) has done much to vitiate the power of that symbol to indicate a particular kind of safety.

I have a private tour guide this morning, a young woman who has already phoned twice to make sure I will meet her at the appointed place and time. I know that when we do meet in person, in about half an hour’s time, I will do my best to project myself as an earnest, inquisitive, ever-so-slightly bumbling, desexualized American. Yes, that comes naturally to me now (especially the bumbling bit).

I certainly don’t expect others to adopt my personality quirks. What I do think is reasonable is to ask ourselves — as well as our boyfriends and brothers, fathers and friends — how we behave when we’re alone “on the road” and around women whose livelihood requires serving us in some capacity. Do we flirt for validation? Do we tip more generously those who flirt with us, or those who are more attractive? If we do — and a great many men do — we aren’t having a little “innocent” fun. Ask women who have worked as a server in the food and beverage industry; flirtation is frequently mandatory. After all, there are few things more disheartening than watching a middle-aged man in a restaurant leer and fawn over a young waitress half his age merely because she doesn’t have the power to tell him off or avoid him. Most of us have seen this countless times.

It’s not enough to not be part of the problem. We — and in this case, I mean single male travelers and business professionals — have a moral obligation to make sure that those who are paid to care for us and provide us with comfort on our journeys know that we are safe. We each need to practice our own form of gentle, polite reassurance.

Oh, and newsflash, people: when you’re in a hotel, you tip the cleaning staff. Every day. Don’t wait until the day you check out to leave a single amount; the maids generally rotate, and everyone who comes to tidy your mess needs to be recognized.

Eastward ho

If you can read Russian, you know where I’m going and what I’m gonna be lecturing on next week. Hint: off to somewhere very cold. Will try and update while I travel.

For more updates on what I’m doing and where, friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m listed under my name.

The slut-shaming of Amanda Knox: an old and ugly Italian pattern plays out again

As a busy afternoon has faded into a quieter evening, I’ve been unable to get thoughts of the Amanda Knox conviction out of my mind. For those not in the loop, Knox is a 22 year-old American woman who was found guilty today by an Italian court of murdering her British housemate while both were students doing a year abroad in Perugia. Knox and her Italian boyfriend were convicted on what the vast majority of American observers considered to be circumstantial evidence, with no convincing evidence of a motive, and after another man unconnected to Knox and her fella had already been convicted of the crime. The murder of the young English woman, Meredith Kercher, took place in 2007, and the story has been given sensational coverage throughout the European media, particularly in Italy and the UK. The allegations — never proved to the satisfaction of most — that Knox and her beau had killed Kercher as part of a bizarre sexual ritual were captivating; the prettiness of the young women involved and the luridness of the story spun by the prosecution generated tremendous global interest.

In the fall of 2000, I taught a semester abroad in Florence. I traveled with one other teacher and 45 Pasadena City College students, two-thirds of whom were female. The vast majority of Americans who study abroad are women, for a variety of reasons, and our trip was no exception. We warned our students about the attitudes that many Italians have towards young American women; we advised them about the different “street environment” they could expect to find in Florence. But even I, who had traveled extensively in Italy before going as a professor, was stunned by the attitudes we encountered. The reputation of American “girls” as sexually undiscriminating, freed for the first time from the watchful eyes of parents and at least most of their peers, was nearly universal. And while it is certainly true that for the young and not-so-young, travel is almost invariably an aphrodisiac and a notorious compromiser of inhibitions, the beliefs about American women students were grounded far more in myth and media than in reality.

Still, some of the young women on our trip did have flings with the locals; a few did find Italian boyfriends, as Amanda Knox did. There were some heartbreaks and some scares. I half-jokingly told my students, in one of our pre-trip meetings, that I had only three rules for them: No jails, no hospitals, and no unintended pregnancies. We had a couple of students picked up by the cops (and then released, for smoking marijuana with local lads), we had one tragic incident that left one of our guys paralyzed for life from the waist down. It was an eventful trip. But though there was a lot of drinking and quite a few short-term affairs, for the most part our students emerged unscathed. And whatever they were doing, they treated Florence and the rest of the country with respect and the kind of wide-eyed wonder so natural among youngsters from the New World making their first serious visit to the heart of the Old.

I hated the contempt for our students that I so often heard from some in Florence and elsewhere. Though it was often tinged with anti-Americanism (and this while Clinton was still in the White House), it was directed almost exclusively towards our female students — particularly the ones who were perceived as more attractive, or who wore more revealing clothing. The prosecutor in the Amanda Knox devoted extensive time to discussing the defendant’s sex life and her occasionally flamboyant dress, even her taste in (or lack of) underwear. Her diary, replete with the personal details one would expect in a private journal, has been read repeatedly in court. The vulgar British tabloids labeled her “Foxy Knoxy” and “No Knicks Knox”; it was a world-class exercise in cruelty and slut-shaming. Apparently, to the amazement of even Italian legal experts (familiar with the guilty-until-proven innocent style of jurisprudence in that country) the paper-thin case, built more on animosity towards sexually adventurous American girls than actual evidence, worked today. Knox and her boyfriend face a quarter-century in prison, but have a chance to have that reduced on appeal.

Before, during, and after I taught in Florence I never believed that Yanks abroad ought to be above the law. A dual citizen myself, I have no patience for the “ugly American” code of conduct. (I will note, having mentioned my British passport, that tourists from the UK were often far more poorly behaved on Italian beaches and in Italian nightclubs than were students from the States.) At the same time, I have no patience with reflexive anti-Americanism of the sort that many of my students, no matter how polite, ran into all too frequently. And as a feminist professor, I was and am particularly disgusted by the mix of prudish censoriousness towards and predatory fascination with the sex lives of young women from America who come to Italy to study.

When I look at the face of Amanda Knox, I see someone who looks a great deal like many of the students I taught. When I hear the details of her private life discussed with both salacious enthrallment and affected repugnance, I think of the experiences of so many of my students who went abroad with me. When I hear the twisted, groundless narrative that the prosecution offered, something along the lines of “American girl is sexually curious and open about it and she smoked pot: therefore it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to stabbing one’s prudish roommate to death”, I’m enraged and indignant. What happened to Amanda Knox — and I am nearly as convinced of her innocence as her parents — could have happened to a dozen young women I knew and taught in Italy.

Make no mistake, I grieve the loss of Meredith Kercher and the horrible way she died. But I have little doubt that if Knox had been a little less pretty, a little less sexual, and a little less American, she’d never have spent a day in prison for her roommate’s murder. On her behalf, and on behalf of others like her, I am very angry tonight.

“Better-looking when I leave”: a short note on vanity, aging, and Los Angeles

After a few days back in Los Angeles following a dozen on the East Coast — and after a few months of living in West Los Angeles again after thirteen years in Pasadena — I’m feeling once again twinges of discomfort about spending so much of my life in a place that, for all its merits, is so famously focused on looks.

Yesterday, I chatted with Meredith, who cuts my hair. Meredith is from Mississippi, and herself recently back from a trip to her hometown on the Gulf Coast. She asked me about my trip to the East, and I remarked “Everytime I leave Los Angeles, I feel as if I get better looking.” Meredith laughed loudly, and agreed; the stylist next to her and her client chimed in with their assents. What started was a four-way conversation among the two stylists and their clients (all non-natives) about the toll that living in L.A., particularly on the Westside, takes on one’s self-image.

I’ve always struggled with vanity and body issues; in previous posts, I’ve talked about my struggle with a serious eating disorder and exercise addiction. I’m much more content and self-accepting in my forties than I was in my twenties, and that is a blessing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t, with disappointing regularity, find myself studying my figure in a mirror or assessing the fit of my clothes, wishing that I were as lean as I was when I was at my thinnest. (Never mind that my thinnest years, though they corresponded with very fast running times, were also in most respects my unhappiest.) Becoming a father has been a huge help; focusing on a child is an excellent distraction and an effective palliative for narcissism. (How awful would it be if it weren’t!) Yet there’s no denying that my desire to be thin has not yet left me. I’ve said it before: I’ve been blessed, thanks to therapy and hard work and grace, with great success in overcoming so many of my addictions. My body dysmorphia and my anxieties about weight, however, remain with me to a far greater degree than I would like to admit.

Here’s the thing: I don’t realize until I leave Los Angeles how much more comfortable in my own skin I feel in other places. In New York, I invariably feel less self-conscious, even on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, than I do here in Southern California. And when I’m in Europe — even in fashion-conscious places like Paris or Florence or Mayfair — I don’t feel that sense that I’m too old. To put it another way, I feel more visible virtually everywhere else. I’ve written before, and many other feminists have as well, about the ways in which aging women are made invisible. There’s no question that we erase “older” women from our gaze in a way that we don’t with men; I’m keenly conscious that my authority as a teacher, for example, only grows with age. But though middle-aged men (I am certainly middle-aged now) are far less often rendered invisible than their female peers, I’ve felt — perhaps because of my unfortunate character defect of vanity — the way in which I too am more likely to “disappear” as I grow older. At least, I feel this keenly when I’m in West L.A.

I’m not writing this post to fish for compliments. I’m certainly not writing to complain about how tough it is to be me. I’m a damned lucky man in virtually every imaginable respect. But this character defect that leads me to be unduly concerned with my own appearance, this anxiety about my weight and my attractiveness that, while blessedly diminished lingers with me still, this puerile self-absorption — this , this, this is exacerbated by place. I wouldn’t go back to my younger, presumably “hotter” days for all the tea in China; the anxiety was crippling and the narcissism repellant. But I will say, as I move more deeply into that long and ill-defined period known as mid-life, that there are many other places I would rather live than here.