Monthly Archives: October 2012
I usually find memoir more fascinating than fiction. My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey is no exception. I heard a piece on NPR about this book and called the bookstore immediately; the number is in my cell’s emergency contacts Some people order food-to-go—I call in for books.
Charles Rowan Beye, now in his eighties, writes about the innumerable friendships, fun and utter sexual pleasures of life. There are two other main branches of Beye’s tree of life (besides sex): family and teaching.
I have come to expect tragedy and angst, disaster and HIV diagnoses when reading memoir by gay men. Beye is a healthy, retired professor of Classical Greek. He writes of his emotional growth, turmoil, and development as a man, a father, and a husband (to two wives and a husband). He scrutinizes his experiences, acknowledges his failings and illustrates the power of memoir for the writer as he reveals understandings found in hindsight.
Beye’s professorial tone is evident in his slightly stilted sentence structure as well as in the details he selects about his life long coming of age. Everything he includes in this work has a purpose. There are moral, sexual, and educational points throughout. As a teenager he found that his gregarious nature, humor and fellatio thwarted danger, especially from town bullies. Beye discovered a deep longing in men for sexual satisfaction and expression, even in the smallest towns of Iowa where he spent his youth. Beye was endowed with money as well as an insatiable libido. He had public and boarding school experiences so he learned early on how to cross the economic and social borders. Despite my anxiety that some great harm would suddenly occur during encounters in cities or in bars deep in the depths of Iowan cornfields, none did. He led a charmed life because he is so charming.
The sexual content is a lot of fun and the writing about it is filled with intention. I’m not just being a voyeuristic when I say this. Well, maybe a little… Beye explains in the introduction, “I mention the sex act only because it reflects in some way on the psychology or life circumstances of one of the two people involved” (11).
Beye found sexual explorations with men engaging and exciting. He married women twice in efforts to fulfill the heteronormative social contract and establish a career as an academic. He and his second wife had four children before the Stonewall riots in June of 1969 made the general population aware that gay people were also seeking liberation from unjust harassment by police or the public. There was a national awakening: Blacks, Women, Vietnam and Queers wanted change.
But Beye wasn’t among the street kids and queens on Christopher Street those hot June nights. He didn’t care for Provincetown and the Castro in San Francisco was too much. His circle included Athens, Rome, Brookline, New York City and the home life he created for his kids wherever they were. He astounded the Greek and Italian women when he cooked and cleaned and got the kids to school during his sabbatical stays. No Nellie Queen nor Butch Bear he. He missed the protests because he was working, cooking, taking care of house and kids. He had to play the straight guy, the wonderful neighbor, the chair of the department.
I always wondered how my gay boy friends could have encounters and not get tangled up emotionally. I aspired to this behavior with no luck at all. I always felt a responsibility or found myself taunted by the puritan refrain “you made your bed now you have to lie in it.” I never figured out how to just leap out of hot sheets and start a new day without commitment. The joke, “What does a lesbian bring on the second date? A moving truck!” was too true among my peers. The fact that women are considered sluts or whores when having sex for fun didn’t necessarily hold me back. It was more a lack of time, creativity, and probably courage. I just couldn’t figure out how to slip a quickie in to my day so easily. To think I could have inspired Raunch Culture decades earlier than those Ariel Levy describes in Female Chauvinist Pigs—the gay girl version! Oh, I could have been a contender if I had lived in a city, had more to drink, gone off with more cutie-pies.
A lifetime is not too long to wait for one’s prince or princess. After his second wife and he filed for divorce, with the kids pretty well on their way, career established and retirement just ahead, Mr. Right arrives. There are only a few pages commenting on this bliss of his third marriage. They legally married after being together for eighteen years and one hundred and forty-four days. The book ends in this glow of contentment.
My eyes popped a few time during some particularly engaging sexual encounters and one could romp with Beye and call it a good book about growing up gay in the Midwest Forties and a queer in a long career in Greek Classicism. However, the theme I found equally, if not more, captivating was the professor learning from his students. Four such life-altering events anchor the narrative. Each epiphany involved particularly smart students and insight he discovered through coursework and each resulted in a book, which was terrific for tenure and new job opportunities. The final epiphany occurred while he was the Distinguished Professor of Classics at Lehman College, and as far as I can tell, resulted in this memoir rather than another academic tome. After a forty-year career in the classics Beye met the diverse youth of the Bronx: contemporary society in the epic tradition. Beye lost his verve for the classics as he worked with students struggling to construct meaningful lives in tragic surroundings. The glorification of war and the idealization of manipulation and devastation no longer held any glory. “The literature of antiquity is all seen from the perspective of the ruling class; its characters are exploiters, controllers, conquerors” (240), Beye concedes.
This Odyssey includes no super sexy superheroes (despite how handsome Beye’s photos). However, a teacher who is also a learner is a true hero to me. Beye learns constantly from his students and finally comes to see the wreckage of power and betrayal (true epic formula) in contemporary social dynamics among students and communities. This realization topples his love of the ancient perspective and heightens his awareness of his own fallacies and feats. Epic indeed.
Books by Charles Rowan Beye
- Odysseus: A Life
- The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic Tradition
- Ancient Greek Literature and Society
- Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil
- La tragedia greca: guida storica e critica
- Ancient Greek society and literature
- My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey
HOW TO BE A WOMAN by Caitlin Moran (2011)
I’ve always found it befuddling to be a woman. So I am grateful British writer Caitlin Moran has finally explained it in How to Be A Woman. She is also a feminist, and even though she gives in to the request for a sound byte definition on television (see BBC, 5 Minutes with Caitlin Moran, May 4, 2012) she takes her time to fully illuminate the possibilities of living feminism in her memoir-manifesto.
There was a time when I blamed the patriarchy for everything –the economy, sexism, racism, gender rules and the incredible lack of imagination we have about how we act (being gendered, sexually oriented, and racialized.) Then my son arrived. I loved and adored this new male in the house. I was determined to raise my boy and my girl to change the world, and define their own selves rather than be defined by patriarchy. Or as author and activist bell hooks says all in one exhale, “the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.”
As I see it, the burst of women’s rights activism in the Seventies and the legal efforts of the Eighties led many women to think all was well for womanhood. Feminism has had a hard time gaining any momentum over the last few decades. Rush Limbaugh, the epitome of archaic patriarchy, condemns women who ask for justice as “FemiNazis.” His extremism, and the media misconstruing the efforts of a few zealous women using “hegemony” in every other sentence, turned off a lot of girls. The academy lassoed feminism into aloof theory, which only further alienated women on the ground.
In the US the extreme right males who dare to assume their authority in these matters have the topic of reproductive rights locked down. Sandra Fluke brought this to our attention when she tried to testify before the all male House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the need for insurance coverage for birth control. Limbaugh rushed to defile her (February 2012). Despite even these very immediate issues, few young women will embrace the F-ism word.
Moran wants a kick-ass Feminism for all humans. Her experiences of childhood poverty provide the foundation for this desire. She found her way out of deprivation through writing and pop culture. Her absolute chutzpa landed her a career as TV celebrity, music critic and columnist. I don’t know how she has time for so much sex and drinking (Reviewing Moran’s book in Slate in July 2012, Peggy Orenstein offered the subtitle: “The drunken, furious, delightful life of Caitlin Moran…”) but she sustains a loving marriage, motherhood, career, and much popularity.
Moran is at her most savvy and daring in the memoir entering the discourse on reproduction. She offers three chapters “Why You Should Have Children,” “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children” followed by “Role Models and What We Do with Them” before she presents “Abortion.” Moran’s party girl antics and the espresso martinis evaporate as she pulls her craft and insight together to write that chapter, which snaps every synapse discussing this complex, divisive, private, hot button topic. She offers her denial, her realization that she may indeed be pregnant, takes us to the doctor’s office, through the ultrasound, through the abortion procedure and through her clarity and precision regarding her decisions. Most of us have been on this journey with relatives, friends, or alone. “Abortion” offers a very refreshing mindset of a woman profoundly knowing what is best for her and her family.
As a reminder, in Why Have Kids? (see the 9/14 post in this blog) Jessica Valenti tells us that only a third of U.S. children are planned, and that the abuse of children in our country is higher than any industrialized nation. Why? Moran writes, “And the most important thing of all, of course, is to be wanted, desired, and cared for by a reasonably sane, stable mother.” This to me is the most clear and profound response to any antiabortion argument, and an answer to why so many children are abused.
Moran goes on,
“I cannot understand antiabortion arguments that center on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain, and lifelong grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred. I don’t understand, then, why, in the midst of all this, pregnant women—women trying to make rational decisions about their futures and, usually, those of their families, too—should be subject to more pressure about preserving life, than, say, Vladimir Putin, the World Bank, or the Catholic Church” (268-269).
This is a life-saving moral standard. Health care and the widest assortment of options for pregnant women would bring us a planet full of children who are wanted, who can be cared for by parents, and grow up to be creative and contribute rather than destructively unemployed and angry. This has got to become a global effort global effort in the face of the hate we see streamed across the Internet. That hate has no borders, and the consequences are dire. The energy that gets put into antiabortion efforts distracts from the real work at hand.
Moran, this luscious heterosexual, takes this on. She describes the details of birthing (sex, birth, breastfeeding, exhaustion and joy) two bouncing baby girls, and then deciding to have an abortion. It is a decision she and her husband make with utter respect and love for one another and their family.
I do have a confession to make here. Some women love being pregnant and they love the birth experience. I actually bless my blocked fallopian tube and have such gratitude for the birth giver of my children. I am so grateful she decided as she did, for the infants, for her and her future. I have learned more than I even know as a Mom. I wanted these kids, oh I wanted them so. I send her over a zillion thanks regularly. I thought I had to be pregnant to be a real woman. I’ve come to know that birthing a child doesn’t make you more of a woman or even a mother. Women having choices does.
From what I see in my undergraduate classrooms, most young women and men agree, and they wonder what the fuss is all about. Gay Marriage. Reproductive Rights. Interracial Couples. Women Executives. Most of the young people I meet think old people and old ways of thinking are just in the way. I want them to be right. Move over patriarchy, the next generation has you dismantled already.