Monday, November 10, 2014


… this change: you'll now find future TPS blog posts here, on the Pilgrim's Staff website.


Our grandson Luka celebrated his third birthday last week.  He's quite the little man already.  Here he is in grandpa's t-shirt...

... on his birthday last Tuesday.  It's amazing how the gender differences begin to show already.  He loves trucks...

... especially monster trucks.  He loves Hot Wheels.  He loves building things and breaking them down again.  He loves to race around the garden... and he loves to win.  He loves to go wild.

He loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...

And of course he loves his little penis.  I have a wonderful picture of him lying gloriously naked on the wooden floor of the corridor in our house, legs in the air, a big grin on his face as he exposes his little fanny and his penis.  I was about to post it here, but Ellie reminded me that these things can suddenly become very public and that there are people out there on the alert for child pornography.  What a shame!  It's an image of sheer, uninhibited, shameless ecstasy, of masculine--even though tiny tot masculine--exhibitionism.  And I dare not include it on my blog for fear of being accused of this perversion.

Ah well, our Luka is a gorgeous little boy, aware already in a little boy's way of his body's approach to the pleasures of manhood.  I watch him from the perch of my advanced years with the peculiar joy known only to a grandfather.  I suppose there is some ancestral gene at work in the dark recesses of the reptilian brain, the satisfaction of the propagation of one's family, father to son or daughter, and to grandson. But more powerful than that, to my mind, is the simple experience of truly unconditional love.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

MEN AND WAR: Art Review

There's a stunning exhibition of paintings by the early 20th century American artist Marsden Hartley at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The fact that this substantial body of work spans only two years, from 1913 to 1915, is staggering in itself.  That they were made in Germany just before and at the start of World War I gives them a special historical significance.  That many of them were made in bereavement, as a memorial tribute to the gay artist's gay lover, killed during the first year of action, gives them a particular emotional poignancy and social significance.  That they are amazing paintings, as rich in symbolic value as in color, form and texture, makes this an absolute must-see exhibition.

What struck me most was the courage and defiance of these paintings.  Though set against a sheer, funereal black ground, the color of mourning, their painterly exuberance constitutes a not-so-covert thumb-in-the-eye not only to disparaging social attitudes about gay men and homosexuality, but also to the patriotic triumphalism that led so many European countries blindly into a disastrous and particularly pointless war.  The inclusion of a contemporaneous film of public military events, with troops strutting proudly on parade, reminds us of the absurdly reactionary, puffed-up image of chivalrous masculine valor that compares tragically to what we know of the ignominious slaughter in the trenches of that shameful "war to end all wars."  Stand back a ways from "Abstraction (Military Symbols)"…

... and you'll perhaps see, as I did, the ironic image of a knight on horseback, armed with lance and sword, surging forward towards the viewer.  But it's no diminishment of the courage of the millions of men whose lives were needlessly sacrificed to say that these were no knights in shining armor; they were simple canon fodder.  Add in the almost excessive exuberance of color and the emotional intensity in so many of these paintings, and the viewer comes away overwhelmed by the sheer waste and sadness of it all.

So with all their evocation of military decorations and other references to Germany military power, Hartley's paintings seem to me to carry a satirical subtext: the outward display of masculinity, the pomp and circumstance, is barely disguised vanity.  The howl of pain and outrage is as powerful, but also as restrained and subversive as it is in the poems of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, and others who experienced the brutal reality of that war.  It is of special interest, I think, that this two-year body of work also incorporates the formal patterning and symbology of American Indian artifacts…

… evoking, to my mind, the aggressive wars conducted by the American military in the course of the previous century, and the enforced cultural assimilation that followed.

Both these wars, let's face it, were the work of men, politicians and generals, and the cavalrymen and foot soldiers enlisted in their cause.  The Hartley show leads into a neighboring gallery, where we find the contemporary sculptor, Sam Durant's proposal for a poignant, if austere national memorial to those who died in the wars against the American Indians…

Proposed for installation in the national Mall in the nation's capital, it consists of two long rows of  bland, monochrome gray reproductions of otherwise widely scattered 19th century monuments to the dead.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the vast majority of them memorialize the white soldiers who died.  The handful of smaller monuments for the Native Americans killed in these actions is clustered separately, between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, marking the melancholy distance between victims and aggressors, and the historical prominence of the latter.  Dominance, dominion, colonization, these are the deplorable traditions of power established by Western civilization.

For an antidote, be sure to visit the galleries at the opposite end of the same floor of the Broad building at LAMCA.  Here you'll find a solo exhibition devoted to the work of the Chicago-based African American artist Archibald Motley, another early 20th century painter, and one inspired in part by by the Harlem Renaissance to celebrate all aspects of black culture.  Though they, too, have a satirical edge, his paintings are for the most part wild and joyful.  He is fascinated by the diversity of shades of black…

…  as well as by the teeming social strata within the black community: his life-affirming pictures feature frenetic jazz musicians and dancers…

… card sharps and criminals...

… as well as high society African Americans, ecstatic church worshippers, and the underclass of working stiffs and bums.

Motley has fared better than a number of talented African American artists of his generation, many of whom have been marginalized by the great, sweeping tide of (Anglo-American!) mainstream art.  It's good to see his work justly celebrated in an exhibition such as this.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


With so many insecure and wounded little boys running around the place these days, posing as men, it's refreshing to meet a real one.  We did, last night.  Sadly, he was a man in bereavement, so I must be careful to respect his privacy; more in a moment.  In the meantime, I woke this morning thinking that it would be useful, on this new blog "about men," to reflect a little on what I mean by that.

I tend to assess a man's character based on what I judge to be his integrity.  By "integrity," I mean, in the idiomatic phrase, "having it all together"; and by "it" I mean the four basic qualities that constitute the fullness of the human experience: the intellectual, the physical, the emotional, the spiritual.  To lack any one of them, or to have these qualities in some way out of balance, is to lack the integrity, the "togetherness" I'm talking about.  What those wounded little boys who pose as men most frequently lack is the connection to their emotional lives, and they wreak a whole lot of damage on those they purport to love--and, needless to say, upon the world at large.  Think George W. Bush.  Think Vladimir Putin.  Think other world "leaders"whose damaged egos lead us into wars...

So it was good to be sitting on our balcony last night, as the sun set, and getting to know a man who had just arrived in our lives.  No need, at all, to say more about him than that he was a man bereaved of his partner in life, the man whom he had loved, and with whom he had lived for the past ten years. We listened, rapt, as he told us of his loss with both poise and dignity, and with frequent moments of undisguised emotion.  There was no attempt to disguise, or minimize, his grief and pain.  We listened, too, as he read letters of profound wisdom and consolation from a distant, previously unknown sympathizer--a person whom he discovered to be a woman who had made the decision to live her life as a man.

And I found myself reflecting on all this, this morning, as I woke.  How our manhood has little to do with who we love, or even what we have between our legs.  To be a man belongs to what is within, a sense of self, a inner clarity about who one is and where one belongs in the world.  A man's strength derives not from the macho posturing that is often mistaken for strength, but rather from his security and the vulnerability this allows, from his compassion, his sense of purpose, and his dedication to the service of something greater than himself.

So when I write "about men," this is the kind of man I think about, the standard by which I measure other men.  I know that I'll be writing frequently about those little boys, because they are so many.  But I'll be holding them to the standard of a man such as I have just described.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Some people might find the references to 18th century sex slavery in my novel The Pilgrim's Staff, from which this blog originates, to be outrageous and unworthy of belief--and more particularly the comments by my 21st century narrator, the artist David Soames.  These readers may find it hard to believe that sex slavery is still active in the United States today.  Well, I invite them to take a look at Nicholas Kristof's op-ed piece in the New York Times today.  This is a well-informed and respected reporter, who writes fairly frequently about the subject, and always with appropriate outrage.  Take a look...

Saturday, November 1, 2014


BIRDMAN, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance: a Film Review

So much to write about these days, when you start writing about men, as this blog seeks to do!  Apple CEO Tim Cook's courageous act in coming out as a gay man would warrant an entry in itself; and I've been thinking a lot about the Frontline special that I watched, The Rise of Isis.  Then there are three exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that I saw last Friday, two of them provoking further thoughts about men at war.  If all goes well, I'm planning to write about them next week.  And I didn't have time for the exhibit of Samurai armor!  More testosterone to think about...

Today, though, I'm choosing to put down some thoughts about the movie Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) by the Mexican born director Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Along with the rest of the audience at the performance I saw last night, I sat stunned into silence while the end credits ran.  The film was that powerful, that intense.  It had had so much publicity by now that it is almost unnecessary to note that it's about an aging actor, Riggan Thomson (superbly played by Michael Keaton), like Keaton himself a one-time action movie ("Birdman") idol, now struggling to recover something of his earlier success and fame with the production of his own stage adaption of a Raymond Carver story.

At one level, this is a classic (Jungian) hero's journey: descent, ordeal, return.  The descent is triggered by a stage accident that makes way for the hubristic Mike (Edward Norton) to step in as replacement for an injured actor and provoke chaos in the play's preview run.  The clash between the desperately insecure and needy Riggan and the imperious, sneeringly confident Mike is complicated by fellow cast members, wives and women, including Riggan's flirtatious daughter (a great acting job by Emma Stone) who challenge, sometimes mock, the fragile male egos of the lead men.  The ordeal is Riggan's.  Tormented by the voice of his taunting alter ego, the superhero Birdman, he vacillates between his desire for the success and adulation he once knew, and despair and the impulse to self-destruction.  It's a powerful inner battle, and he ages visibly as it progresses.  The director stages it for the most part in the confines of the theater's dingy backstage, where Riggan slugs it out with both his inner voice and--sometimes literally--with his outer nemesis, Mike, in the interminable, ill-lit corridors and claustrophobic dressing rooms.  As a metaphor for the twisted passages and chambers of a tortured mind, the director's use of this location works to unsettling perfection.

In part the struggle is between reality and artifice, between the actor and the roles he plays, between the small stage in the theater and the great stage of the world out-there.  Mike chastises Riggan for being lost in artifice--but he himself is the shell of a man, who exists only as the character he inhabits.  Unable to "get it up" in the context of his real life as a man, he's ready for sex, inappropriately, on stage.  Riggan is agonized by his ambition and his unsatisfied--insatiable--need for recognition, but also guilt-ridden for having sacrificed wife and family (his daughter) on the altar of his actor's ego.  Goaded by Mike, he loses himself in the gap between the real and the imagined--and it is this nightmarish confusion that leads to the startling climax of his ordeal and costs him, possibly, his life.

But this is not purely psychological drama or social realism.  It's the element of Latin magical realism that makes this production more fraught with symbol, more intense, more internal, and more lyrical.  Riggan is gifted, or imagines himself gifted with supernatural powers: he can shift objects with his mind, throw them up against the wall, summon images of events and beings that have no basis in the real world.  In strictly psychological terms, we'd call him schizophrenic.  But he's more than that--he is, in a real sense, a super hero; perhaps, to be more exact, a meta-hero, the exemplar of conflicted human being, caught between raw existence and the hunger for transcendental meaning.  He's exceptional, like all heroes, yet also Everyman--for who, among us, has not in his mature years nursed regrets for what might have been, for what seems now so hard to achieve, if not beyond our reach.  It is to Michael Keaton's great credit that he pulls this off, creating a character who inspires profound compassion.

So about that leap...  At the beginning of the film--and it passed too quickly for me to have remembered the words exactly--there was the suggestion that nothing great will come without that leap that characterizes risk, the staking of everything we have.  And at several moments throughout the film, we see characters literally or metaphorically confronted by that leap.  At the end (don't ask, you must see this for yourself) we find Riggan on the high ledge of a hospital room, looking out into the void, and ready, now, to take the leap.  For him, this is the leap that will free him from everything that has tortured him: his ambition, his failures as a man, a husband, a father, the one-time mega-success that is now beyond his grasp.  And what will make it possible for him to finally take that leap is the realization of the love he longed for and was unable to find because of if "ignorance"--the ignorance of the film's subtitled--that has blinded him to the truth of his own love for others and the love that others, he now understands, have for him.  In his hero's journey, this is the moment of truth, the moment of return, of salvation of a kind.

You may be as initially surprised as I was, as the final credits rolled, to see the name of the well-known Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh included in the list of to whom the film's creators wished to express their gratitude.  On second thoughts, though, the inclusion seems natural and credible.  The central teaching of the Buddha asserts that suffering is inevitable for us human beings, but that there is a path to the release from suffering.  It is this letting-go of pain, in the final scene of the film, that the hero finally achieves.

And the rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.  Which, as noted above, is how we were left, as an audience, as the final credits ran.  In stunned silence.  Birdman will remain in my memory as one of the truly great movies I have been fortunate enough to see.


It's raining!  Can you believe this?  Here in Los Angeles!  It's not a downpour, not the deep soaking we so badly need, but what a pleasure to take George out for his morning poop walk and find the street wet with the night's rain.  In recent days, it has felt like it was never going to rain again.  Now it feels like a great breath taken and released.  There's a freshness in the air that is unfamiliar, but most welcome.  Let's hope that this is the harbinger of more to come...