Monday, January 11, 2010

In Praise of Women I: Inside Out

I promised my friend Lisa that I'd talk a little about my thoughts on men and women. Several of you, wise counselors that you are, warned me off the idea on the grounds that anything I said would constitute fighting words for someone and that the subject was too loaded to be safely handled, rather like an old Soviet shoebox mine, or a family crime, or an angry puff-adder.

It's a chilly Sunday night that promises to become a chilly, rainy Monday morning, the small child is cuddled in her bed in the back of the house,

the big one snuggled up to mommy our big sleigh-bed in the front bedroom, and I'm here with my couch-bed (no, not one of those awful Castro Convertibles but the beamy down-stuffed chesterfield in the front room) and my computer, thinking about the women in my life and women in general.

For what man doesn't? It starts with our mothers - even for those of us who never crave another woman, she is there. that all-encompassing feminine godhead of comfort, love, often correction, sometimes wrath. Then we pass on to sisters, perhaps, and neighbors, soon classmates or playmates, enemies, friends, passersby, marked or not...monkey-girls to our itchy little monkey-boys. We mock them, tease them or ignore them, but for our childhood they are merely strangers that look softer or rounder than we do.

Until that time where our testicles descend and their ovaries ripen and our glances become overbold, or hesitant, or shy, or speculative.

And then we embark on a lifetime of precession, that wobbling, toppling motion of heavenly bodies that turns the axis on an axis; hoping, fearing, dreading, craving and wishing to be craved. Dizzy, bemused, frustrating and frustrated, trying to sort out our feelings from our knowledge, our hopes and desires and fantasies from our understanding of reality and probity.

In many ways, we never do return to that prepubescent serenity, that solid understanding that boy-things and girl-things are just different and never to be confused. Perhaps the final arrival of senescence dims the hormonal and emotional din...I don't know. Certainly many of the old people I've talked to evince a version of the same man-woman double helix I've felt for almost forty years, that almost every man I know has felt and feels. It's not as simple as the old joke about coming out at birth and spending a lifetime trying to get back in - although there's some truth to the stale canard. It's spending a lifetime with this woman, these women, the other half of you, the yin to your yang, the other side of the spinning coin, and trying to understand her and her effect on you.

Aside from the images of the hunt, perhaps the oldest effigy we men created was of a woman. We've prayed to her, feared her, courted her, raped her, loved and desired her, treasured her, trashed her. We try and know her, often think we have encompassed her...and then realize that we know nothing about nothing, or that our comprehensive understanding is the merest skim, a glittering pool a thumbnail's thickness deep.

But the oddest thing is - we often insist that she is "different" inside, that her very thoughts are alien, that she thinks and reasons in ways, that she believes in things, that no man shares and cannot comprehend.

If we were honest, we'd admit that we often think of her as soft, sentimental and a little foolish. Some of us go even further, and insist that her brain is fundamentally different from ours, that she is good at "emotional intelligence" and not at the hard sciences, that the reason that Nobel winners and conquerors are overwhelmingly male is determined by the genitalia more than anything else.

I have no honest idea whether there is some sort of physical difference inside men's and women's heads. I have no studies to cite; frankly, I am skeptical of attempts to "measure intelligence". Somewhere I recall reading that Jared Diamond did a little test of the observational, assessment, and decision-making tasks required of an average day and concluded on that basis that it required more critical thinking skills to succeed as a tribesman in the mountain forests of New Guinea than it did to work arbitrage at Goldman Sachs. (Which, since its publication several years ago quite a number more of us would agree with now than then...) Context is crucial, as is background, and the society surrounding us. And, besides, this isn't a blog about science, or anthropology, or gender studies. It's just me, maundering.

And in my experience there is as much or more variation between the way individual women think than there is between men and women.

There are women who fit the "traditional" (read "the way most well-fed Caucasian Christian Westerners think") female stereotype of the foofy sort of person, all emotion and reaction, more at home with love stories and gossip than firearms or sports jargon.

There are also women who would kill you with a smile, who would jack the blade up underneath your sternum and watch your eyes cloud over with no more emotion than satisfaction.

In my experience women can work, play, think and discuss everything from sports to music to art to war to children. Their imaginations are as barren or as rich as anyone's. Women can be gentle, artistic, passionate, soothing. They can also be fierce, boorish, brutal and stupid.

I have had conversations with women about means of killing and I have heard them expound lovingly on explosives. I have put my shoulder to a load alongside a woman who cursed and stank as badly as I did.In short, I find there nothing about women that suggests that they somehow think and act fundamentally differently than I do.

And yet...

...there are ways that women ARE different. Some delightfully so, some distressingly so, but different, all the same.And that is the subject of our next post.


rangeragainstwar said...

I went into a public toilet and sat down to pee just to get with the vibe of your essay.

FDChief said...

Jim: Before you get all hormonal, keep in mind that I can be just a big a jerk about women as any other guy.

The moment my old buddies like to remind me of is when my troop SP4 Varney got dear John'd. He was moping around and I was trying to ignore it when SSG Randall, our medical platoon old soldier and general issue smart guy, drove around to my hootch and told me "You man Varney is hurtin' - you need to have a talk with him."

OK, so I went to see the big lug, all sniffly and watery-eyed, asked permission and sat down on his rack, and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Tough luck, cowboy," I began, "But, y'know what? There's lots more where she came from. You gotta look at it this way - some women're like coyotes; if they didn't have a pussy there'd be a bounty on 'em."

At this point some of the other section sergeant intervened and I was hustled out, protesting that I was just trying to get him to look on the bright side.

Lisa said...


I am so glad you have undertaken this study. I am with you in that women have no special claim to delicacy or tenderness, and can be as brute as the next guy.

When you say, "We try and know her, often think we have encompassed her...and then realize that we know nothing about nothing," you are speaking more truth than perhaps you know. What about those cases when there really IS nothing that a woman brings to the table in her coupling with a man (And vice versa)?

I mean, it SEEMS like something -- copulation, insemination, parturition, yards and riding lawnmowers and Vanagons ... But those are just physical manifestations, and then people feel disillusioned and divorce, repeat.

I think understanding womanhood (and manhood) comes down to lifting off the impostions -- religious, familial, generational -- and finding out who one really is. Painful process at times, and no one can get you there but you. Who tells us any of this? No, girls read "Twilight" and "Cinderella" and take it from there.

And why do those myths even exist? As I see it, there are two primary ones: The Cinderella/knight in shining armor myth, and the Princess and the Pea myth. Both involved being discovered and saved by a man, but one involves a higher level of entitlement than the other.

Socialization has taught women certain wiles, which usually serve to obscure their true motivations. This is unfortunate, as many women I know have one objective (snagging a man), and dissimulate thoroughly in the acquisition process.

Who are they? To many men, they are a vagina, to which they must plead their troth. To paraphrase Shakespeare's double entendre, "I shall lie you, and you with me" and all will be well. Many women spend little time understanding themselves, much less, a man, who is often merely a mirror to her of her vainglory.

So who really knows anyone? Who even knows himself? When Mr. Le Bon says of women, "They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason," I can show you just as quickly a man to fit that bill.

I would even argue that women dissemble when they appear fickle; in fact, they have their sight laser-set on their target, and all else is gamesmanship. And yet, the men love it! They are more-than willing prey.

What of a woman who is true to herself, and desires only to be known for that quantity? If she is too analytical, she disposes of the thrill of the hunt; too self-possessed, she risks achieving partnership by not piquing the male's interest.

Over our pitiable short evolution (60,000 years, =/-), we have evolved certain patterns of interaction. If we are the exalted things we tell ourselves we are in the Bible, let's say, then ought't we be able to figure a way to transcend our limiting programming?

I have read that our epigenetic programming can change even within a generation, and things like diet and environment can produce heritable genomic alterations. I find that fascinating. Could we will such changes through intent and practice? We are just now discovering the brain's plasticity, so who knows?

But to the question: What makes a woman, and how does this differ from a man? Gerber baby food labels to the contrary, what is the compass of a woman, and how does this intersect with that of a man?

Oh, only the stuff of a psychology tome, I s'pose ... :)

I'm awaiting the next installment ...

FDChief said...

Lisa: I skirted around the issue, but I think that you've done the exposition regarding the question of "nature/nurture". I wanted to get past the subject of how we think and who we are - because I do believe that we are far more different from one another as individuals than we differ as genders - to this notion of how we see each other through the refraction of our social lenses and our cultural myths and all that other baggage we drag behind our asses.

I'll talk more about this next time, but the bottom line is that a HELL of a lot of how we perceive each other is distorted by what we're told (from birth, practically...), what we read and see. We look at each other and see what we want to see, what we're told to look for, by our stories, by our parents, by our friends, by the world we live in like a fish lives in water, nearly unconcious of it surrounding and affecting us.

Can we change that? I think. Some of us already have.

What I am intrigued by is that, for all that I believe that our thought process and reasoning (and most of our emotions) are similar as humans, that we differ intellectually more as individuals than as genders, we are attracted to each other generically and not just individually.

So what we are, and what we're looking for in the opposite sex (there's a revealing term - the "opposite" sex!), is something both more and less than the individual's quality. There are non-person-specific "feminine" things that we men find fascinating (well, the obvious...but let's say that there are some who look for something more female than a life-support system for a vagina!) and some non-person-specific "masculine" things that you enjoy about us and look for in a man you wish to spend your time with - otherwise, why NOT bind to one of your own gender?

The whole question fascinates me, and I do want to talk more about it at length.

Lisa said...

Oh, yes, and the "stories" may even permeate the amniotic fluid. Maybe in utero we are being prepped, when a parent imposes her hopes and wishes upon an unknown quantity.

Certainly, at the point the baby emerges, a blue or pink cap is plunked on its head, and that's the beginning. (I am told my mom insisted on green, so as to be undeterminative, which is not to say I am not a known quantity.)

Definitely, our perceptions trump our reality. But how to get behind the doors of perception?

NPR ran a program this Sunday ("To the Best of Our Knowledge") on the nature of reality, and one of the points made was that the brain may not differentiate between the ersatz, virtual experience and the real. In fact, it may prefer a constructed or artificial tableaux to the actual, in recollection.

You say, "we differ intellectually more as individuals than as genders, we are attracted to each other generically and not just individually." I'd like to hear you expound upon this.

It is a fascinating notion, that idea of the noumenal man (or woman). What accounts for this construction?

rangeragainstwar said...

Don't bullshit an old bullshitter-you were trying to get Varneys old girlfriends address.
I'm feeling more centered since reading this post. Thanks.

FDChief said...

Lisa: Perhaps that accounts for a lot of our public policy and private lives since the dawn of the "Information Age" - we find it increasingly hard to distinguish between what's going on around us and the layer upon layer of unreal reality we move through.

I am always tickled by the people (and there's one in particular I'm thinking of) on my FB page who are obsessed with characters on TV and the actors who play them. "I HATE so-and-so" they write, as if that person was the IRL friend or enemy. WTF? How can you "HATE" someone you don't know?

Jim: Thinking back, if I'd had the chance, I'd have macked on one of my other troop's GFs - Echevarria's little gal was a Panamanian cutie. But, no, I had no interest in a long-distance relationship. I wan't looking for Ms. Right. I was looking for Ms. Right Now.

Ah, sweet bird of youth...

Lisa said...


And that was one of the points of the program: We are so saturated by our 24/7 media that we (our brains) have little time to sort the wheat from the chaff. Maybe we don't want to. If comfort is our imperative, it may behoove us to stay firmly ensconced in our chosen delusion.

When we interact with another, with what are we interacting? Their appearance, their knowledge base, their soul? When do we get to authentic apprehension and communion, unmediated by our filters?

That is a pretty hard thing to accomplish. Goodwill, interest, vulnerability -- a whole host of preconditions must be in place before we begin our exploration.

I don't want to lose hold of your statement: "we are attracted to each other generically and not just individually."

[Ranger is making of himself a troll. If we didn't know him, we could have some great fun at his expense :) ]

Lisa said...

"When we interact with another, with what are we interacting? Their appearance ..."

Y'know, I'm supposed to be an editor. The pronoun would be, "his". Ahem.

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