A 45 for 45, or "Love Letter to a Hollow Masculine Icon"

OrangeHeapA question I’ve tended to ask since being absent here for quite a few moons: why even “blog?” It‘s certainly not as though there's any sort of viable business model in terms of creating and/or trying to peddle one's musical wares.

I guess the answer to that is: there are things of late that have come to capture my attention, my concern and my imagination even more than music – even as music has always been my go-to outlet. For one, I do wax nostalgic for the days when "45" referred to RPMs. Brimful of asha there, baby.

For two, I’ve pretty much fallen in love with Gabor Maté. But that’s another love story for another love time.

As to love, a dear person did once suggest my heart was located primarily in my forehead.

As to precisely such cerebral diversions, why not release a single?

Since Clutching At Straws I’ve written a large handful of songs. Some largely complete, some more largely works-in-progress. Either way, it’s good exercise in getting the lead out. By and large.

Speaking of all that heft, not to mention my complete inability to stay on point without redirecting, sidetracking and outright obfuscating, I can assure you my hands definitely aren’t small. But what if they were? Or what if they were merely – *gasp* – average?

In any event. No overarching themes seem to be emerging yet with the overall batch of songs. But this one seems timely. Maybe even well past due (dad always used to say, “Jonathan, you were born late”). Which, technically, I was – by one week (sorry, mom). But I don’t think he meant it in the technical way. Or even the nice way, really.

As with most ventures into song – historically speaking, at least – I began with it on acoustic guitar. But, after having dabbled late last year with an album’s full of electronic instrumental music, I wanted to see how things might play out if I crossed the singer-songwriter thingamajig over into the electronic medium.

Which brings me, quite obviously and directly, to our current Commander-in-thief.

But first, I digress. Again.

In therapy, Therapy Guy and I often chat, with both jest and inquisitiveness, about John Wayne as an archetypal representation of the American male and, indeed, America's ostensible infallibility overall. Rugged, stoic, incorruptible, tenaciously self-sufficient, always on the side of righteousness and integrity – you know the drill. Strong and silent, too, of course. You may even buy into it. Because how dare you subject the wholesome romanticism of America’s self-image to scrutiny or question.

It's akin to defiling a corpse.

Me? I do some internal battle. I can, at times, fall prey to that romanticism, and the surrounding expectations. Even when it doesn’t necessarily resonate with some of the things I hold nearer and dearer in my heart (head), these ideas – constructions though they are – exert tremendously strong pull on the psyche; indeed, on the culture at large.

John_TroughRecently, I stumbled across this article, which scrutinizes the creative relationship between Wayne and director John Ford, and how meticulously Ford shaped the image we now take as gospel truth. It asserts Wayne’s fabricated male modes are a reflection of Ford’s own fakeness; Ford being a man ashamed of his own femininity (some affirm he was gay – and no, I don’t personally equate homosexuality with femininity, but I do understand how rife that notion is) who hoisted onto Wayne an ideal to which no man could realistically live up – “a by-product of nostalgia, a maudlin elegy for something that never existed – or worse, a masquerade that allows no man, not even John Wayne, to be comfortable in his own skin.”

Marion. That was Wayne’s given name. A fellow who Ford saw as doughy, naïve and stupid in his youth. Pliable. Someone capable of being molded. It portrays Wayne as a sycophant, and Ford as a cruel pretender trying to put across a rigid standard about which he actually knew nothing. And, as the author notes – Ford was “savage in his mistreatment of Wayne” – it does make me wonder how such a strong and self-assured Wayne would have ever acquiesced to such a thing.

It goes on to articulate, “toxic overcompensation and status jockeying – this is what’s unleashed when masculinity no longer has an obvious function." At that, American masculinity itself becomes propagandist kindling for the fiery rhetoric of patriotism and ultra-nationalism. Either you’re with us, or you’re against us. Naturally. No room whatsoever for nuanced debate.

“John Wayne the icon has always appealed to men who are smaller than they think they deserve to be.”

Do I spy the letters e-n-t-i-t-l-e-m-e-n-t sequentially enumerated therein? “As men become less socially relevant, they become recognition-starved; and it is here that ‘being a man’ expresses itself most primitively, as violence.”

I won’t delve too deeply into guns here, other than to reference this, and the quote therein:

The ancient Irish had a saying: “You don't give a man a weapon until you've taught him how to dance." In other words, a different kind of learning is required before someone can be truly trusted with social power and potent things like weapons. If a man does not know the wounds of his own soul, he can deny not just his own pain, but also be unmoved by the suffering of other people. More than that, he will tend to put his wound onto others. He may only be able to see the wound that secretly troubles him when he forcefully projects it into someone else, in forms of abuse or violence. (itals mine)

Besides round and round, where am I going with all this?

(Advance apology for not being a “straight shooter.”)

Ah, yes. The song. Recently, as part of my personal John Wayne symposium, I watched True Grit (to be clear this particular film was directed by Henry Hathaway, not John Ford). And there’s this line directed at Wayne’s character, Rooster Cogburn, by one of the story’s antagonists, Ned Pepper: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”

It stuck with me. And somehow, my mind made the instantaneous leap to Orange Heap #45. What unfolded rather quickly were the lyrics to today’s featured ditty. Or oddity. However you prefer to frame it.

Yes, it is a clear and contemptuous slam. And, unlike this here potentially tedious discourse, fairly tidily stated.

JohnDon2When it comes to 45, we hear the word narcissism bandied about quite a lot. I understand research also tends to indicate narcissism as a whole is on the social rise. I’ll openly disclose it was indicated to me a few years back that even I might be somewhat of a narcissistic sort. Which was a rather painful thing to consider because, seeing how certain things played out in my household growing up, I had to confront the manners in which I had absorbed certain toxic qualities myself. When you’re a kid in the midst of a turbulent family dynamic, you insist, “I’ll never be like that when I’m older.” But apples, as a rule, don’t fall far from trees. A Law of Gravity thing; something I've come to ponder with... substantial gravity.

I don’t honestly think I have NPD. I’ve had to learn both healthy and unhealthy narcissism exist; each of them on a spectrum. And I’ve had to learn unhealthy narcissism stems largely from deep-seated shame. And I tell you when you grow up in an environment where the alcohol flows, the codependency follows – and shame is an ever-present specter.

If anything, it's been suggested to me I exhibit a high degree of echoism. Which may sound musically cool, but I assure you it's rife with problems all its own.

Back to Trumpery (a word I'd heartily encourage you to look up). While I cannot deny my disdain for this man (feelings of revulsion arise automatically in my body; something over which I have fundamentally little control), I want to proceed with care surrounding the ways I nurture that anger. I want to be careful about allowing it to spin into a sense of my own self-righteousness.

I do feel one of the primary gauges of his particular variety of pathology (and my armchair diagnosis: he is indeed pathological) is his utter incapacity to self-examine. I attribute this tendency to both him and perhaps more than a few who offer him their seemingly credulous support. There is a vast difference between actual, principled strength of consistent character and an unyielding, grandiose sense of one’s fundamental rightness. In this regard, I see a certain destructiveness on all sides of the political arena. I see anger fueling anger and hatred fueling hatred. Discord leading to more discord.

We become hooked, in the Pema Chödrön sense of the term. Snake devouring its own tail.

It’s difficult for me to even speak with authority toward this without acknowledging certain vast personal shortcomings. Still, I feel strongly that it’s true.

I’m not talking about the type of anger that is rooted in an immense desire for justice. That is productive anger, proactive anger, transformative anger. But I do see it’s come to a point where the mere back-and-forth of our daily communication itself is plagued with violence.

Seeing we’ve spent $6 trillion on war since 9/11, to the tune of 500,000 lives lost, I’m asking my fellow fellows in particular to consider what a non-destructive masculinity might look like?

Further, I want to suggest how the people we perceive as our greatest foes can be our master teachers, because they mirror for us precisely what aspects of ourselves are most difficult to swallow. This offers us opportunities for our own growth and change. And this embodiment of our own personal best – not the endless chucking of feces within the safe confines of social media – is what will bring real growth and change in the world. I hope.

As James S. Gordon from The Guardian wrote: “Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots. The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

For my part, life has demanded in the last few years that I ask several questions.

MonkeyMirrorFor one, in what ways have I adopted a persona – even if unconsciously – that collides with my own sense of inner truth? While “calm and composed” may represent an actual and commendable personal value, how often do I bury a certain degree of turbulence as a means of remaining disengaged, withdrawn, invulnerable? How do I adopt a certain “flat” expressiveness or aloof affect so as to remain hidden; to not stick out? How do I sometimes experience disdain surrounding certain people’s attention-seeking behavior, all the while remaining enigmatic myself so as to draw people in as a means of – you guessed it – garnering attention? How am I overly self-reliant and in what ways do I utterly refuse help, even when generously offered? In what ways were these simply instilled in me as boilerplate male ideals? In what ways were they adaptive behaviors in a dysfunctional, antagonistic household – conflict-avoidant strategies that helped me survive as a kid but no longer serve me as a complex adult who wishes to engage more expressively and more passionately with my cohorts and my community?

What’s more – what sort of arrogant self-narratives do I maintain as a means of propping myself up vis-à-vis others? When I argue, do I fight fair? Do I argue to augment understanding, or just to “win” at any cost? How am I callous, cold, calculating, controlling, cowardly? Per the lyrics of the song, in what ways have I participated in “locker room talk?” In what ways am I grotesque? Nay, sinful?

How do I behave and/or act from my feelings-of-the-moment, rather than proceeding from the deep wellspring of personal principle?

In sum, in what ways am I the toxic person, too?

Maybe my friends and family would be surprised to read this. I’d wager most of them think I’m fairly thoughtful, mostly considerate, well-measured, basically agreeable, sometimes witty. All of which are probably true, to degree.

Trump, however, is a guy with seemingly zero sense of his own limitations and obviously zero capacity for enduring criticism. To boot, he’s humorless and utterly incapable of taking a joke (although, admittedly, he seems to find his own penchant for insult exceedingly hilarious). He sleeps with porn stars then pays them to shut up about it. Meanwhile, astute women of courageousness and integrity speak up and he calls them “nasty” and “filthy.” I call that projection, sir.

He is not a leader. But he is most definitely, as Gordon maintains, someone who can serve as an “instrument of awareness.”

I've become of the general mind that the places from whence men's wounds stem are where they will find their gifts, even their genius. I suspect that’s precisely the place from which they will lend their most meaningful contributions to their respective communities.

If, as Schoenberg writes, Wayne’s brand of positive male energy – fabricated though it may have been – resides in qualities like stoicism, humility, gallantry, self-sufficiency and loyalty, at least those embody certain timeless virtues.

But Trump? He's not stoic, but regressively childlike in his volatility; not humble, but exceedingly boastful; not gallant but boorish and crude; not self-sufficient but a parasitic opportunist; not loyal but treacherously deceitful.

It’s time for those who would champion both Wayne and Trump in the same breath to take a somber look at themselves and what they claim to stand for. As fraudulence and dishonesty reside on such blatant display, let’s reconsider what comprises actual positive male authority in our world. Let’s champion men of intelligence and valor and sound mind, men of goodwill and generosity, men who listen and reflect and then act with decisiveness. Let’s agree that this is the sort of authority we can readily accept and champion for the best possible well-being of our communities and our land.

Am I that sort of dude? Oh, I doubt it. I mean, it was Rumi who said, "What you seek is seeking you." So there is that. At bare minimum, I'm working on some shit. But either way: I'm not your fucking President.

Too, it was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This, duly noted, while undergoing a trial that resulted ultimately in his death (I’ve tended to notice we humans have an uncanny penchant for doing this to actual truth-tellers).

People. We can do so much better than this. It’s within us.

In the meantime: Donald, a.k.a. Mr. Locked-and-Loaded – you’re in my thoughts and prayers.