Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tact or Cowardice?

When it comes to speaking my mind, I suck. Not exactly.... I mean, I find some way to get what I think out there. Usually it involves this blog or reams of notebook paper or the word processor on my computer. Sometimes it involves a more public forum, something like Twitter or Facebook where family or friends can see what I've written and more easily respond.

This is where it gets sticky.

I have friends who fall all along the political spectrum on all manner of issues. Guns, animal rights, taxes, abortion, creationism vs. evolution, censorship, sex education, gay marriage, the death penalty. You name the issue and I guarantee I've got very good friends as far to each extreme of it as you can go.

How does this work, exactly? I'd like to be able to say that if a serious subject did come up in conversation and tempers started to flare that we'd just back away from it, "agree to disagree." But such an idea implies that I not only have an opinion but am willing to voice it, which is... untrue. In fact, I usually do the exact opposite: I avoid these subjects at all costs.

Of course, people don't necessarily have to talk about these issues all the time. There are plenty of other things we can agree on: television shows, favorite ways to spend a rainy afternoon, best ice cream flavors, amazing books you have to read, etc. But when the subjects do come up, when the times come around when such remarks are only natural... well, I fall back on silence.

Tonight my twitter feed was filled with celebratory messages about the vote approving legalized gay marriage in New York. I scanned all the messages and retweets and felt jealous and a little sad. I envied these people their ability to speak their minds without fear.

Because inevitably if you speak an opinion, someone whom you love and respect is going to disagree and will call you on it. It's awkward and uncomfortable. It often involves arguing back and forth, each trying to prove your point to the other, to get the other person to change their minds. I hate arguing. I try to avoid it at all costs. Thus: silence.

It's not just the arguing. It's that I hate disappointing people, and I feel like if I speak my mind someone will inevitably think "Oh, she's been brainwashed into that school of thinking..." When you're silent, when you're a blank page, when you're an empty vessel you can navigate throughout your sea of diverse friends and family without ever making waves or causing problems. I call it tact because I don't want to hurt anyone, and I don't want to lose anyone's respect. But I think it's really cowardice because it is rooted in a desperate, panicky kind of fear.

There are times I will speak out: I call out racist and homophobic comments, oppose people who advocate censorship, and even occasionally get the nerve to remind people who gripe about their taxes that without them we wouldn't have schools, roads, and libraries. If asked about guns, I'll tell the truth: they make me really uncomfortable, I never want to have one anywhere near my house, and I would have no problem at all with hand guns being completely banned in the U.S. I'll often quote Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring to explain my stance on the death penalty: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” I will gladly list the reasons that I despise Sarah Palin. I may even revisit the Gandalf quote to tentatively enter a discussion about abortion.

But for some reason this gay marriage thing has me stumped. Maybe it's because it isn't as clear-cut to my mind as these other issues are. I can see very clearly how both sides see their way of thinking as logical, and why both sides would be offended or disgusted by the views of the other.

I love C.S. Lewis; I think he was a very wise man. In one of his works, probably Mere Christianity, he talks about homosexuality as if it were a sexual disorder. As if it were a logical thing that might occur if the original design were to go awry. As horrifying as it sounds, I get that. If the original design is two biologically unique individuals whose combined anatomy creates new life and perpetuates a cycle of a romance/sexual relationship followed by the creation of a family, then yes... I can see how homosexuality would put a kink in the works. The logical and scientific part of my brain could see how an aberration from the biological norm would be seen as a disorder or flawed way of life. In a Darwinian sense, lacking the ability to procreate would definitely negatively affect your status when it comes to "survival of the fittest." And that's not even getting into the psychology of relationships, traits of gender or personality, roles within the family unit, etc.

But the creative part of my brain says, "Wait a second! Is that really how you're defining relationships? Can you even define relationships? And since when has 'being a couple' been only about having kids? Not to mention, why be limited by old-fashioned ways of doing things when modern technology has given us the tools we need to perpetuate the cycle regardless of your significant other's gender?" There's also the old, rather romantic refrain of "But why would you want to stand in the way of LOVE?" The idea is to paint those who oppose such a notion as hatemongers or ignorant, prejudiced fools. Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of those in the world. But many of the people I know who oppose gay marriage aren't hateful in the least, they're just very entrenched in their definitions of traditional gender roles or are trying to make sense of a religion that calls for us to love one another, even our enemies, and yet calls homosexual behavior an abomination and advocates the death of those who engage in it.

I don't think people who oppose gay marriage are all evil close-minded bigots, and I don't think the people who support it are all sex-obsessed hippies with loose morals. I think people are confused. I think a lot of changes are taking place in terms of gender traits and identity and that it's redefining the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people. I think there are waaaaaaaay to many other issues at play here for us to be flinging mud at one another.

So here's what else I think, the things I was afraid to say on twitter and facebook: I'm so happy they legalized gay marriage in New York. I think in terms of our government and the way that it is set up that it is ludicrous to deny a citizen basic rights allowed to other citizens because of a single distinguishing factor like sexual orientation. What's more, I like seeing people make each other happy. I love seeing people in love getting a chance to express their love publicly and without fear, and to have it recognized by the government. This picture makes me happy:

But at the same time, my mind is not completely made up about homosexuality. I know it seems backwards of me to say this, but there is so much logic in the way the natural world functions that I sometimes wonder if the "thinking-outside-the-box" mindset humanity brings to the table will do more damage than harm in the end. (I know, I know... homosexuality does exist in nature. That's a whole other rabbit trail I'm not going to go into right now.) Basically, if we take this step to redefine relationships, marriage, love, sex, gender, and family, then we're going to have to live with the consequences, good or bad.

See how many different people I've managed to make angry in just those last two paragraphs? This is why I keep my mouth shut. Before I called it tact or cowardice, but maybe it's just self preservation. Maybe it's just me realizing that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, so perhaps I should just keep my opinion to myself.

I don't know. But for now I'm done. So let's return to silence...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Fictional Men of My Dreams

There's a blog I love reading called Forever Young Adult where adult ladies (as in, over 18) review books that are targeted for teens but actually appeal to a broad spectrum of ages. Among many other criteria, they often rate a book's romantic lead based on a scale of "swoonworthiness." This made me ponder who would top my list in terms of "swoonworthiness" and why.

Here are some fictional boys and men that I’ve swooned over in my day… The following list is in no particular order.

(1) The Wizard Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

I should emphasize that the Howl I’m in love with is Wynne Jones’s Howl, the one from the book, not the anime-ish Miyazaki version. But it’s pretty much impossible to find a good picture of him that hasn’t been at least influenced by Miyazaki’s movie. I mean this in terms not only of looks, but also of personality and actions. While the movie Howl captured some things well (Howl’s sulking, his confidence, his habit of keeping secrets and not wanting to let people in, his reluctance to get involved in the affairs of the kingdom), Miyazaki went off in a completely different direction with the story and lost some of what I loved about Howl. I love his snark, his witty comebacks, how he and Sophie are always at each other and yet underneath a layer of affection and deep respect is forming. I love how he’s bound by this secret, this spell (there’s something sexy about a man that’s at war with himself). What is interesting about Howl is that we know his faults—he’s irresponsible sometimes to the point of recklessness, vain to the point of being utterly annoying, and confident in his abilities to the point of being cocky—and yet can’t help but love him anyway. It certainly helps that Sophie is a strong woman who loves him enough to not be willing to put up with his nonsense. So yes, the first guy on my list is a free spirit, a loose cannon, someone who Thinks Big and usually gets away with it. Plus, you’ve got to admit, he’s pretty darn good-looking.

(2) Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

In stark contrast to Howl, there’s Samwise Gamgee. Sam is fiercely loyal. He’s the heart and soul of the group (at least I think so). He loves the comforts of home and yet he’s willing to give that all up to go face new horizons and dangers to try to save the people and places he loves most. He is the utter pinnacle of bravery and sacrifice. Yes, he has his faults. He’s unwilling to give Smeagol the benefit of the doubt, and lashes out in anger and mistrust when compassion could have gone a long way. He’s not perfect, but he’s kind, funny, honest, fierce, brave, and true. And that makes him one of the most amazing hobbits (and characters) EVER.

(3) Josh Lyman from The West Wing

Where to begin? He’s very intelligent. He’d kind of have to be to become Deputy White House Chief of Staff. He’s also funny, charming, a fighter, can be totally badass… things you would expect in a politician, or at least an idealistic one. But, that said, he’s also kind of like a kid in a grown-up’s body. He can sometimes get himself in trouble by speaking before he thinks. He is the king of wisecracks, though all the other characters on the show (especially his assistant Donna) are pretty fierce competition for that title. When it comes to romance he is adorably clueless, even explaining outright to a girl he likes, “Somewhere along the way, probably in college, when everybody else was figuring this stuff out I missed learning the whole part about what to do after you’ve figured out you like someone and they might like you back.” I mean, gotta love that honesty.

(4) Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling

If there’s one thing I absolutely love, it’s seeing someone come into their own. Watching Neville go from a kid who was petrified of his own shadow (or at the very least Snape’s shadow), to the total BAMF who slays Nagini with the Sword of Gryffindor in Book 7… Whew! Bring out the smelling salts! No seriously… Neville has always been brave - as recognized by Dumbledore at the end of Book 1, he was willing to stand up to his friends when he saw them doing something wrong. That’s courage. We tend to think of it as smaller scale courage than, say, taking on a murderous snake with a sword, but it takes the same strength of character. Like Harry, Neville has a tragic past, and is dealing the whole length of the series (most of his life, really) with the loss of his parents. What makes it even more tragic is that they’re not dead; they’re still alive, but have lost any capacity to even recognize him any more. The gum wrapper scene in Book 5 utterly broke my heart.

I think I like Neville so much because I identify with him. He wouldn't seem like a natural leader, and when Harry and company are around he blends easily into the background. But when the need arises - starting with the rise of Umbridge and the formation of the DA in Book 5 and reaching a climax in Book 7 when Harry, Ron and Hermione don't return to Hogwarts - if something needs to be done and there's no one else to do it, he'll gladly step up. I've always been reluctant to consider myself a Gryffindor (though Pottermore cleared that up for me!) because I felt like I didn't have the obvious, Harry-Potter-ish kind of courage. But maybe I'm more like Neville. His gentle, bumbling exterior masks a true and loyal heart and a fierce courage and determination to fight for what's right.

(5) Jess from Gilmore Girls

My Dad would kill me for including Jess on this list, but I’m sorry… (a) it’s really hard to resist a bad boy, and (b) over the course of the series Jess matures a great deal. At the beginning he has the whole irresistible “mysterious loner” vibe going on. He’s well-read, intelligent (seriously… a huge turn-on for me!), witty, brooding. That said, he does treat Rory like a jerk for a while there. In fact, I was really sad about what they did to his character…. but then they brought him back in a later season and gave him a really cool ending. He’s had time to reflect on what he did wrong and apologizes to her. He’s still in love with her kind of, but what he wants is for her to be happy, even if that means that he can’t be a part of her life. How cool is that? Plus he’s written a book by this point, one that’s about to be published, which is pretty freaking awesome. Mysterious-And-Troubled-Loner Turned Man-Of-Letters? SWOON.

(6) David Tennant as the tenth Doctor from Doctor Who

The Doctor as a character has been around a long time, and prior to David Tennant arriving on the scene he’s been played by nine other actors. That’s the beauty of the Doctor; he can regenerate in a new form when his life is in peril. I’ve only ever seen three Doctors in action: Christopher Eccleston (Nine), David Tennant (Ten), and Matt Smith (the current Doctor, Eleven). But David Tennant, along with being my favorite portrayal just in terms of the series as a whole, is also definitely the most swoonworthy of them. Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal was more serious; Matt Smith’s is more silly, almost like a little kid. David Tennant brought the perfect combination of these traits to his portrayal. He could bear whole universes of sadness in his eyes; he could become quite grave when reflecting on the possible genocide of a helpless alien race; but he could also crack a ridiculously corny joke and leave you utterly enchanted with a flop of his hair, wag of the eyebrows, and a flash of that goofy lopsided grin.

He has this Willy-Wonka-ish madman-meets-genius quality to him. In fact, one of my favorite lines describing the Tenth Doctor is this exchange of two minor characters observing him at work for the first time:

Character One: “He’s completely insane!”
Character Two: “That, and a bit magnificent!”

That’s exactly it. He’s insane, he’s larger-than-life, he’s kind, courageous, big-hearted (better still—he has two!), wise, tragically sad, buoyantly funny, hopeful, optimistic in the face of often-impossible odds. He’s lonely. He’s curious. He’s playful. He’s always on the lookout for a new adventure. He’s open-minded. He’s very anti-violence. He’s sometimes ridiculously cocky, but it’s never really a turn-off because he always manages to back it up. And perhaps best of all, he’s offering a chance for you to come away with him, to see the vast mysteries of time and space unfold before you, to see worlds and histories that would normally be beyond your imagining… and to be back in time for tea. Who wouldn’t want to fly away with him in that amazing blue box?

(7) Cpl. Eddie Birdlace from Dogfight

This last one may seem pretty obscure. Dogfight is one of my favorite films of all time, mostly because of River Phoenix’s performance. It came out sometime in the 90s, but it was set in the late 60s I believe. Since it’s not as familiar a film, here’s a brief plot recap:

Corporal Eddie Birdlace has a night to kill before shipping out to Vietnam in the morning. He’s gone in with a group of his fellow marines for a “dogfight,” their name for a dance that’s really a contest to see who can bring the ugliest/most embarrassing/most outrageously odd date. The guy with the worst “dog” of the group wins prize money. While scouring the town trying to pick up a hideous enough date, Eddie comes across Rose, the doudy daughter of a cafe owner. She’s plain, a little boring, but very idealistic, strumming along (slightly off-key) with folk songs and talking about changing the world through music. He figures she’ll do for a date. The problem? As the night progresses, he starts to actually like her, to enjoy spending time with her, but there’s really no way to go back. When she inevitably finds out what the shindig was really all about, things of course sour very quickly. After a hard-earned apology, he takes her out for a night on the town to try to make it up to her.

I can’t say exactly what it is that I like about him. Of course there’s the fact that River Phoenix was very easy on the eyes, even with that military haircut. I prefer him with floppier hair, like this:

But it’s more than that. Eddie is quiet. As much as he kind of laughs at her idealism, in a way he’s very idealistic himself. He’s immature, but he’s willing to try to change. I love the scene where they go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and Rose, tired of scolding him for cursing so much, decides to make a point by inserting expletives for every other word of her dinner order. The shell-shocked waiter is funny enough, but Eddie’s response and the aftermath between the two is just hiliarous. What else do I like about him? Well, the fact that he was willing to change his mind about her. That he could see beyond the surface, that she may not be a knockout but that she’s kind and sincere and not worth hurting. That she’s someone he wants to spend more time with. I don’t know… he’s an odd one to have on this list, I know. But something about his soulful way of looking at her, the fact that you know there’s so much more brimming beneath the surface than is ever being said or expressed, the fact that while he is a stupid kid who doesn’t know very much about the world he’s still so very willing and eager to grab at life… which makes the ending that much sadder, but perhaps also that much more hopeful.

I think I like that he pursues her, but that he respects her. That he’s annoyed by her sometimes, but also intrigued by her. I like that he allows himself to change in some ways while sticking to his guns on other things. I like that he’s soft-spoken and shy in some ways, and also that he’s very big into the military/group dynamic, but that once you get him beyond that initial turtle-shell he can be independent and has clear opinions and is very passionate about certain ideas. I like that he’s gentle and I like that he’s strong. He’s a study in contradictions.

So yes, two things: (a) you should probably see this movie, (b) to sum up, I think I like him because of his contradictions, because he’s flawed and interesting, complicated and real.

Okay, so that’s my list of seven.

This list excludes figures of classical literature, like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice

or Sydney Carton from Tale of Two Cities.

It also excludes classic films, otherwise you'd have Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Whoa momma!

Here are a few others who almost made the list:

Edward Scissorhands (the quintessential outsider longing for love and companionship),

Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother (yes, he’s a man-whore for most of the series, but near the end he really matures and becomes quite lovable… that, and he’s freaking HILARIOUS!),

Spike from Buffy and Angel (villain-turned-warrior-for-good),

and Shang from Mulan (one of the first times I realized a cartoon character could be sexy!).

There are some I’ve purposefully avoided mentioning (sorry, but characters like Edward Cullen or Jace Wayland who are obviously supposed to be swoonworthy don’t do it for me. I like my guys to earn it, thank you very much, by having things like a backbone, not being super stalker-y, and treating the women in their lives like free-thinking independent people, not fragile things to be protected at all costs).

But I stick by my choices. I really like all of them, faults and all. I'd be lucky to fall in love with a man anything like any of them. Please let such men exist out there somewhere... let them not be simply the creations of fiction!