Amusement Parks and Masculinity

 

We talked about Lena Dunham wanting to be loved not for her writing but for her half-naked figure in grungy underwear as we sat by the lake watching boys split into rival teams; ISIS vs.soldiers and super heroes.

One hundred and fifty years ago both Union and Confederate soldiers “spoke routinely of deluded people, dupes of the politicians, and ignorant masses. Both  Northerners and Southerners feared that democratic institutions were not adequate to deal with the realities of nineteenth-century America–they relied too heavily on the existence of a virtuous and intelligent citizenry.” Civil War Soldiers by Reid Mitchell

After the Civil War there lived some men and women who imagined high art and expositions like  the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 could pull the native and immigrant masses from their ignorance and childishness. For these men and women believed that real manhood and womanhood were attained when one practiced thrift, sobriety and volunteerism. This Yankee discipline and religiosity had served the North well. The aristocratic South lay in ruins and many veterans of the war remembered the South as a bizarre, other-worldly place of sloth and heat.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is never an empty place, thank goodness. On most weekends the front stairs are crammed with students, tourists and people needing a seat to eat their hot dog lunches, but many, many more people have rejected this “high” art as bizarre and other-worldly.

As much as we hate to admit this about humanity, there are many people who would rather not work at liking something. They’d rather go with their feelings and fuss over strained muscles (brains and brawn). Informational booths at a fair do only scant business compared to the corn dog stand (I like corn dogs–do you?).

Man/boys may have always existed in Western civilization, but for a good, long while in Yankee American culture they were looked down upon, seen as missing a key element of manhood and suspected of deviant behaviors. There is a certain sad and pathetic element to men who play too many games and wear funny pajamas. Women/girls who do photo shoots in bathrooms, give lip service to an ever changing feminism and then complain when young, handsome athletes don’t fawn over them are pathetic as well.

The once famous man/boy Fred Thompson who created Luna Park on Coney Island in the early 20th century had an epiphany at the Buffalo Exposition when the high-minded men of learning nearly bankrupted the endeavor for failing to realize the simple fact that most people didn’t want to be uplifted. They didn’t want to know about lost civilizations and proper canning methods. What they wanted was to be carried along the Midway where amusements abounded. Exotic dancing girls, loud music and incandescent lighting mesmerized and excited the people who already felt too old. Peter Pan was (and is) the hero of the day.

Even among the boys at the lake  some  created strategies and lofty goals. Some boys interrupted with random thoughts about nothing. Some led and some followed. The less ambitious waited to be picked on a team but offered nothing more than their feelings and soon wandered off to cool themselves in the lake before getting a snack from their mothers who probably like us were talking about inane controversies involving childish women we would never actually meet.

Sometimes, even beside a beautiful lake, it’s difficult to stay in an elevated frame of mind.

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It is the mystery of the unknown
That fascinates us; we are children still,
Wayward and wistful; with one hand we cling
To the familiar things we call our own,
And with the other, resolute of will,
Grope in the dark for what the day will bring.–Henry W. Longfellow.

 

 

Books I’ve Known And Loved

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My favorite catty man moment when a cavalryman, Benteen is a no-show for a visit:

“I guess he did not care to trouble himself- He is a true Cavalryman & would rather superintend the work of his stallion than attend to the courtesies of life– Nothing lost to anybody–but one feels degraded to think that he is socially on par, with those who voluntarily make of themselves third class livery stable keepers–However if the Nobles & high gentry of England find their highest pleasure in doing the work of a stable boy, I suppose I ought not to growl at our Cavalry. There seems to be something demoralizing in the love of horseflesh. I don’t believe a thoroughly horsey man can be a gentleman or a thorough gentleman a horsey man.”

While  Colonel Richard Irving Dodge wasn’t the looker Grenville Dodge (the transcontinental railroad guy) was his journals are a fun read.  I enjoyed even the slow parts about needing a nap or having bowel troubles because of the bad water sometimes found in the Black Hills on the scientific expedition of 1875. The best parts are when the gentlemanly colonel is trying to keep his temper around all sorts of catty intrigue. Here is a man who quotes Shakespeare and Homer, feels sorry for a captured beaver and has the men set it free and worries about his nerdy son (along on the trip) who’s spent far too much time around women.

He wants to like the grasping and at times incompetent young head of the scientific survey Professor Walter P. Jenney but has a tough time of it. He tells of cowardly journalists along for news of gold (Custer’s earlier findings were being questioned in the East) being duped into believing a hooting owl meant an Indian attack in the morning and useless, lazy miners who weren’t supposed to be on Indian land. His writing style is so modern proving people weren’t all too different back then.

Manhood In A Certain Time And Place

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First off, I’m giving everyone permission to objectify this man–he’s most likely dead so I don’t think he’d mind. Let’s assume that he’s looking so proud because the baby is his own. A book came out a few years ago describing a study of the present day working class white male which found that the traditional role of man as provider had suddenly disappeared and that any young man still sort of into the idea of raising a family, getting up early for work and being proud of his manhood for doing it was now considered a chump. Better to stay unmarried, father a few kids that the government could take care of and party with the boys. The working class girls had no intention of marrying these guys and fair play to them–why marry a child in a man’s body?

I don’t have a lot of wisdom on this subject, just a few ideas floating around my head about boys and men. My son used to watch me sew on an interesting looking machine. He mentioned he’d want a machine like that so as a joke my father bought him a pink Barbie one for Christmas. He opened the gift, but as soon as he saw how feminine it was he shoved it aside and never talked about sewing again. I sort of bought gender neutral toys for him only because blocks and Lincoln Logs were just that way though I was fine with him being boyish. My daughter was born loving pink and purple.

Boys are just different. Not bad. Different. The good men that I know have this drive inside of them that sometimes they have to hide. It’s a drive to be admired as a hero. Since forever people have enjoyed this about them, but it’s gone out of fashion for a while–as if by forcing men to remain irresponsible children will somehow give women more space to grow into whatever it is we’re aiming for.

I, for one want a place in the world for admiring heroic men–not super men in movies who are still kind of pathetic these days, barely able to hold their own against kick-boxing women. There is way too much ambivalence about manhood! Does this automatically mean I want Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire? No. I just believe that men who claim their roles as strong fathers and brothers, workers and friends are to be celebrated. I laughed at Everybody Loves Raymond, but do all men have to be portrayed as stupid fools?  What a miserable existence for women if when we marry we have to put up with an idiot and turn into a carping old hag.

Take a look at the picture again. This guy is proud of his manhood–as he should be.