On my flight to Houston today, I sat next to an older, black gentleman, a Baby Boomer, who introduced himself as we waited for the plane to lift off. I’m reserved when I travel, protective of the quiet it affords, and I politely turned to the window I was sitting next to and admired the landscape as he took a nap. About 20 minutes later, we fell into a conversation after ordering our beverages, and I found that you can cover a lot of ground in 90 minutes up in the air.
My new friend, I learned, was ex-military, a paratrooper who had been injured and retired. He had been prepared to serve in Vietnam, stationed in Thailand, but never saw the combat zone as he was the only male child his parents had, and the military, at the time, was consciously sparing them. He moved to Albuquerque from Southern California on request of his first wife, who was from the state, and said that when he woke after driving into the valley for the first time the night before, his first thought was, “where did the city go?”
I learned that his son was born using Lamaze, which is how we start chatting, as he asked me what I was traveling for, on my way to the Lamaze annual conference. He was in the room when his son was born, and caught his child, which is a pretty radical practice for 1975. He told me about being stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana when he was in his 20s, his first wife 3 months pregnant, and being told they couldn’t provide housing because they were an interracial couple, and the General telling him they just “don’t allow that here.”
We discussed the war machine, and how I disagree with continuing unnecessary military operations when we cannot take of the people of our own country. Domestic terrorism, and particularly school terrorism was a topic we batted about, and he told me how he grew up surfing with white boys in Santa Monica, and doesn’t feel he endured the same discrimination that so many black people face now, particularly encountering police. I told him I moved away from my home of Pittsburgh intentionally because of the racism I knew my children would encounter. And he told me that he feels his generation dropped the ball, allowing us to be in the political quagmire we are currently sinking into, the days following only seemingly finding us deeper and deeper in a self-created pit of despair.
As I said, a lot of ground.
But the most interesting element of conversation to me was the relationship between men and women that went deep. He told me he grew up in an era where he felt “no was just no” and that his parents taught him that you only use your hands for women in a loving manner. I told him that I felt men are confused, and lost, because the toxic masculinity that weaves the narrative of male culture is becoming an unwanted and recognized poison, and that men seem to be struggling for how to be. I said that I felt that women grasp the work that needs to be done, but that men are the ones who must put in the hours of emotional labor. He countered that maybe ‘men are just pigs’ (he said this 8 times, I counted), placing the responsibility on the shoulders of how men are raised and taught to value women. I shared the story of my son being suspended for sexual harassment, and the countless times we have discussed consent. We discussed my feeling that women are often taught they should say yes, even when they mean no, as a cultural conditioning that emphasizes self-preservation, something I have experienced myself. He told me he believed that it ultimately falls on a man’s shoulders to ‘know’ if he is wanted emotionally or sexually.
I told him about a movement of men who are not only opposed to the concept of marriage, particularly regarding what they as an imbalance due to alimony, but also take umbrage with issues such as the wage gap, declaring that men often do the dangerous, structural work that builds society, whereas women, as nurturers, have their own distinct place. Of course, this doesn’t account for women who do not wish to nurture, and those who often bang on the door of wanting to do the more complex work that men tout they provide, but are often told no for a variety of reasons. It also doesn’t balance out that yes, men may be providers, but not every woman wants to be dependent on a man.
This led us to get into the nitty gritty of inequity versus inequality. I told him that I felt we may never find ‘equality’ and that I am not sure that we should strive for that, as women and men each bring different things to the table, intellectually and emotionally. However, inequity is an issue that needs attention, as it constantly puts women at a disadvantage financially and regarding positions of power. We discussed equity in the military, and how women may be able to perform the same duties, but he didn’t feel that they should necessarily do the same work. He told me how they have done studies that show that men react differently to watching women fall in combat than they do men. The gist is that men struggle with watching women injured, and want to hover, which can be dangerous in the field. He told me that he would prefer women be nurses and accountants in the military, and I asked him about women having the right to determine their own way. “But if she understands the potential danger, and is capable, isn’t it her choice?”
That was the roadblock right there. He didn’t want to see women hurt, didn’t want to see them damaged in the field, treated as if expendable. I asked him if he felt that his urge to protect was biological, and he told me yes. I then asked him, if his role was no longer to protect women, what was his role as a man? And didn’t that come full circle to men being ‘lost’?
I believe that women and men carry both potentials and possibilities for protection and nurturing. Part of what we can accomplish, I feel, is a soup of genetics and ambition. But another larger aspect is what society tells us we can do, how to do it, and why. It means we shouldn’t judge others for those choices. It also means that we should allow enough malleable freedom for both sexes to wander back and forth, straddling the line between protector and nurturer. More than ever before, we are seeing fluidity in gender and sexuality, which I believe is an evolutionary development. If we are to understand each other better, wouldn’t it make sense that we need to inhabit and adopt aspects of each other to better understand who we are and what we want? Someone recently told me that he felt women were secretly in search of alpha men, that they didn’t want men who are as emotionally vulnerable. Not only do I feel that is untrue, but I believe that men can’t really handle alpha women, who challenge their views of themselves and who they are by holding up a mirror of their values and saying, “but I don’t need this from you anymore, I can do it myself.”
As we landed, my companion told me that he felt that change, if it were to happen, was going to come from moments like ours. Individual conversations. Fleshing things out. Hearing both perspectives and finding common ground. I can’t agree more. As much as I love solidarity and a good women's march, I believe that real change is more likely to occur when we talk to our fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends, and strangers, sharing our perspectives and experiences, hearing each other on a human level. There is something about one to one interaction that cuts through pretense, bullshit, and the layers of defense we weave around ourselves to preserve our beliefs. It is much easier to hate a concept than a person. It is much simpler to generalize a group, than ignore the pain of the individual before you who is sharing a personal experience. So, I challenge women, men, and all those in various stages of one, the other, or both, to have a conversation today. Pick one person, family or friend. Talk about what it means to be feminine and masculine. Try to see where the other comes from, put yourself in his or her shoes.
Preparing to get off the plane, my new friend looked at me and chuckled. “How about that? I learned something new today. I learned that I am lost.”
Here’s to us, one by one, human to human, slowly being found with the help of each other.
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