thomasibenton

Fictionish tales of hillbillies and stuff.

Month: August, 2014

Boys will be boys, but we don’t have to be creeps

I was driving through town this morning while a pretty young woman in a sundress walked down the sidewalk beside the street. She couldn’t have been much older than my own daughters, probably just barely old enough to buy herself a drink.

Maybe she had a college class to get to, maybe she was going to work. Maybe she was just getting a walk in before the real heat came later in the day. I confess that I thought about none of those things this morning, as my male eyes flicked sideways behind my sunglasses to track her a little longer as I drove by. Then I felt a little silly as I fixed my gaze back upon the street before me. She was certainly not there for my benefit, and I needed to mind the driving. Still, I am a straight guy. My attention inevitably lingers, at least a little extra bit, on an attractive woman. Boys will be boys.

I have heard a lot of men complain that feminists insist we shouldn’t notice attractive women, or maybe even that we shouldn’t be physically attracted to women at all, and then complain that those feminists crazy, or just hate men. As I am trying to feel charitable, I simply note that those men are wrong. To my knowledge no prominent feminist tells men that our innate attractions to women are wrong or oppressive. That would, in fact, be crazy. None of us can fully control who catches our flitting attention, all we can do is behave appropriately once we realize where our minds have gone. Other than a few fundamentalist preachers, I have never heard anyone insist that the very fact of attraction was a sin.

I have heard feminists say that when I, or any other man, finds a woman attractive, I shouldn’t catcall. Or gawk. Or actually go and grab her. I used to wonder why anyone felt the need to point out such obvious things; now I simply despair that such basic principles still need to be pointed out at all.

Certainly, I didn’t gawk, or catcall, or worse this morning. To do any of those things would have made me at best a creep, and quite possibly a criminal. A blog post about being a pretty typical dude who tries to steer well clear of the Creep Zone is a rather silly thing to write, I realize. No one deserves accolades for being an absolutely minimally decent human being, and I certainly aspire to more than meeting the absolute minimum of human decency.

Alas, it appears that some of the most powerful men in the US, and indeed the planet, somehow fail to clear even this lowest of low bars. I certainly understand why Senator Gillibrand prefers not to name the perpetrators, but I confess that I would love to have the opportunity to donate money to someone running against those bastards.

Our bar should be higher.

PS: Of course, the interwebs always can provide examples of worse offenders. They are bastards, too.

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Why be a writer?

In the not-remotely-new-to-the-internets-but-new-to-me category, with the help of @lswopemitchell on the twitter machine I recently read Cathy Day’s thoughts about what it means to be a writer:

Don’t be a writer because you have something to prove. Don’t do it because you think writers are celebrities. They are not celebrities. Don’t do it because you think it will bring you a happy life. I’m sorry, but it won’t. You shouldn’t write because you want to create something lasting, although that probably surprises you, doesn’t it? What better reason could there be? I’ve only found one good reason to sit on your ass for four months or four years, one good reason to give so much of yourself for so little in return, one good reason to create something that fewer and fewer people care about—and that’s simply because you want to.

And that, for me, sums up why I used to think that I wanted to write, back when I didn’t actually do much in the way of writing, as well as why I actually am writing now. 

When I was a young pup, people told me that I was good with words, that they enjoyed my stories of teen angst. My poems got me a date or two with equally angsty girls who wanted to play beatnik with me. It was a fun way to be a minor celebrity in an obscure part of the world effectively connected to the outside only through radio waves bringing in television programming. Plus, it was easy, since I could recycle the same few poems and stories over and over again with each new hillbilly girl.

Once I started at a college far from the home where I was raised, angst-ridden guys with too much black in their wardrobe where a dime a dozen, so my minor fame disappeared. Still, I figured I would write to create something lasting, and maybe along the way get famous, and maybe rich and popular with women again.

Guess what? It didn’t work. Not only did I not have the first idea how to actually get my work read in the larger world, I discovered something far worse: my writing really sucked. Sure, I was plenty talented for the little town that couldn’t even support a bookstore, but I wasn’t in the Ozarks anymore.

With the acceptance that my writing was not going to make me famous, or rich, or a playboy, I had to set about living my life. I got an education and a job. I met a girl the old fashioned way — I actually had to walk up and introduce myself to her and strike up a conversation. We got married and raised a family. Somehow I wound up with a career, a career other than writing.

It hasn’t been too bad, not too bad at all. In fact, it has mostly been fun. Several years back, though, I started writing again. I’m not entirely sure why I began chiseling off spare moments of time to put my thoughts and stories down. Maybe I remembered that I used to enjoy the process, even aside from my prior ulterior motives. Maybe I just had something to say, if only to myself.

So, here I am, pecking away on a blog for the parts of my writing that I actually share in the here and now. I write a post, read through it once and fix the grievous errors, and then click “publish.” It’s fun. It’s low stress. It’s not hard work. I work harder on my weird stories, but I am not writing and editing those with an eye towards making a living off of them, or securing my spot in literary history. I just want them to be good enough, so I am having fun.

I am not getting famous or anything, but the site stats here tell me that at least a few people come by and read what I have to say. Thanks! I appreciate that.

I am not making any money at all, much less getting rich, but I have a regular job to pay the bills. (I will go on the record as being willing to entertain offers for seven figure advances from anyone reading this, however. Yes, I am writing for my own pleasure, but I would be totally willing to sell out if the price is high enough.)

As for being an author-playboy, well, with the clear perspective afforded by age and experience, I realize it isn’t so much that that ship has sailed as that it never really docked or even was built. I am not, never have been, and never will be, a playboy, author or otherwise. We all think precious things when we are young.

So I peck away. I had bettered click the “publish” button quick, though. I have work to do.

I am an optimist

Really, I am an optimist.

Even if there are many things that outrage me about our contemporary world, on the whole I think that we have come a long way. I recently received one of those annoying chain emails from an older relative extolling the halcyon days of the 1950s, and as a result I was extraordinarily grateful to have not been alive in the 1950s.

Good news may not sell papers get clicks, but there truly is plenty of good news about the world and my little corner of it, here in the US of A.

That epidemic of rising teen births due to the break down of the family and cultural morals? Not only is it not an epidemic, both teen pregnancies and teen births are way, way down. Sure, we could improve further, but it isn’t as if we don’t know how.

The violent crime that terrifies my in-laws, to the point that they have installed cameras and alarms all over the suburban home? Also not really a thing, and generally falling instead of rising.

True, perhaps much of these benefits are mostly due to us not aggressively poisoning ourselves so much anymore, but that we are not as aggressively poisoning ourselves anymore is also good news. Even better news is that children born today are far less like to be filled with lead than children born in the recent past. They are far less likely to be born into an unstable home environment and less likely to be surrounded by violent crime. These are gifts that keep on giving to our society as those children grow into adulthood.

Even the bad news of today shows that we are advancing, even if painfully, to a world that grants basic dignity to a fuller measure of humanity.

The cluster in Ferguson is terrible, and the powers-that-be should be embarrassed and ashamed, but the kind of racist brutality involved was pretty much the standard operating procedure around most of the country in the lifetime of my still living grandmother. While I despair for attaining true justice in this case, the outrage may at least bring meaningful change to a few communities.

As college students return to campuses, scandalously high sexual assault rates have deservedly been in the news. As the father of college bound daughters I worry, but I also remember my own college days, not that long ago. It isn’t like sexual assaults didn’t happen back then, but I certainly don’t remember the highest levels of government being concerned about that reality. And that isn’t even considering the (lack of) higher educational and professional opportunities for Americans who happened to be female even back in the wonderful 50s.

Do problems remain? Yes, really huge problems remain. We certainly can all still manage to kill ourselves off, and we hurt one another more than we ought. Still, we are getting better.

Heckling murdering racists is the least that I can do (but it is something I can do)

I am watching an American city spin apart on Twitter.

Tanks roll through streets in mid-America, and men in camo and body armor point automatic weapons at Americans just like me, only with darker complexions. Reporters who rushed into the chaos instead of away are ordered to stop their meddlesome reporting; they are roughed up, arrested.

I am just a guy. I live too far away to go to Ferguson, and I have too few skills to be of any help even if I got there. I don’t really know what kind of skills I could have that would be helpful, short of a magic wand.

My revulsion at the police state imposed by petty little men with titles and a lot of weaponry cannot be readily translated into direct action. Sure, I can do all of those big picture treat-people-the-way-I-would-like-to-be-treated and being-aware-of-my-own-biases things, but those are more than a little abstract in response to what I am seeing transpire from a few hundred miles away. I want to do something now, right now, to bring — if not peace — at least an end to the violence. And yes, I want the people rioting to go home or go away, too, but I don’t see how that is going to happen while the police force indiscriminately directs military grade weapons on the people they are supposed to be protecting. Jackbooted thugs, indeed.

There is one thing I can do, though: I can point and laugh at the monsters, even as I weep for their victims.

I can note, at least to my own small circle of family and friends, that when organizations existing solely to advance White Supremacy are on your side you are almost certainly doing something wrong, badly wrong.

I certainly can observe that despite proclaiming itself a “Playful City USA” community on its website, I really don’t want to play their games.

I most definitely can question the manhood, not to mention the basic humanity, of police who hide not just behind body armor, but also the cloak of anonymity.

I can steal a line from a hero of mine, and observe that when you treat your world like a combination game preserve and whorehouse, you are going to get bad results. Bad results like riots when people get tired of being killed.

I can recall that the vile racists of the 60’s didn’t change their minds so much as they became too embarrassed to say and do certain things when they thought the world was watching.

Ferguson: we are watching.

Old man noises

After recent rains, the plants around here have diligently set to pollinating the world, particularly what the weather report calls simply “weeds.” As surely as those goddamn weeds spew pollen after rain, my allergies flare up in response to the pollen. I don’t enjoy the experience, but there’s no use complaining about a little vast amounts of sinus drainage. Complaining doesn’t change anything.

I will, however, complain about the sound I heard myself make as I rounded the corner from my kitchen this morning, some combination of a sneeze and a cough and a dry heave as many different responses to the pollen came at me simultaneously. I recognized that sound: my great grandfather used to make that sound.

Well, shit.

Tribes

This morning Seth Godin made me start thinking about tribes and threats to tribes, and in particular the tribe I was born into.

I was born into more of a clan than a tribe, really, with a big bunch of hill folk on both sides of the family. We were poor, but so was everyone else. We took care of one another, at least that’s what we told ourselves. That’s what we would have told any reporter with a notebook who asked, but reporters with notebooks were all busy talking to the Appalachian hillbillies, not us in the Ozarks.

I was born into the clan; birth was the only real way of joining. There was no way of departing the clan other than total exile. I had an uncle who chose that route. He joined the Greater Hillbilly Diaspora and got a job working construction in a city far away. He made good union wages, and pretty soon he never came back for holidays anymore. His brothers and sisters took their straying brother as a warning, so they never went far; their life was the life of our clan.

Most of my generation cannot tolerate total exile. The contours of the hills stir us too much, somewhere deep that we can’t name; we can’t stay out of them for long. Even now when I return, even grudgingly, my heart beats faster as the hill crests reach higher and the hollows plunge down steeper, until finally I top a ridge and see the landscape curving below me like a strange, beautiful woman — a lover long lost but not forgotten. I tear up sometimes, behind my sunglasses.

Most of my generation cannot live the life of our clan. When I return, so often grudgingly, I hear about how good it is to have me home, not that ersatz place I’ve been living all these years. The rhythm of the clan closes like dark water over my head, there in the old farmhouse. My second cousin I haven’t seen in twenty years is in the hospital, so his kids are staying with their momma, and you know how she is (I don’t). The calves weaned on Thursday have torn a hole in the fence, we had best go put them back. My aunt is on the phone, she just kicked her boyfriend out again, maybe we should go see her.

The rhythm of clan-life intoxicates and sickens. Outside of the hills, we admire clans in foreign lands who hold tight to their traditions and take care of their own, even as armies advance and modernity intrudes. They are noble savages, those tribes in PBS documentaries and limited release movies. In the hills, our own sometimes noble savages hold on in the face of modernity, with deers hung from trees both in and out of season and meth cookers instead of moonshiners now. Our native clans seem to cling tighter to their straying members than in the past, now that modernity can come from a cell tower instead of being hid down at the end of a highway, but maybe that is just because I was too young to hear the whisper of modernity when it had to call from the other end of the road.

In the hills either you are on the ridge or you are in the hollow, otherwise you are just traveling from one to the other. I cling to the brush in between up and down, unable to entirely leave the foggy valleys and the wakes by another name in garages and porches when a family member passes, but unwilling to be swallowed by the life of the clan and foreclosed from the entire life I have made. So I write from the hill fringes of a love I cannot fully requite and of a lover I can never truly leave.

The Surprising Benefits of Reciprocity

Over the past few days two different writer friends of mine flattered me by asking me to critique their work. They each separately told me that they wanted to polish their newest piece up before submitting it to journals. Both of these friends are engrossing writers, so reading to spot opportunities for improvement was a bit of a struggle, since their short stories had a tendency to sweep me along with the fun.

I sincerely wanted to help my pair of friends, though, so I buckled down and tried to look beyond their pretty words to spot the flaws an editor might highlight. I didn’t spot many, to be fair, but I did catch a few. I hope that my comments help two talented writers get their work read by a wider audience than me.

Here’s the thing: the few comments I made were all about things that I do too. That critiquing improves your own writing is an aphorism tossed around in writing circles, but the mechanism for that improvement is left to the aspiring writer’s imagination. Spotting something in another’s work and then realizing, “crap, I do this all of the time, only more and harder,” is a wonderful opportunity for self-improvement.

Perhaps I should remove the plank from my own eye before removing the speck from my friends’ eyes, but the reality is that helping my friends remove a few specks helps me extract planks of errors from myself.

Oh, by the way, if you two are reading this, be warned: I will be giving you a chance to improve your own writing by spotting my errors shortly. Since you helped me so much, I feel like I should reciprocate.