Unconditional Love

The royal baby has arrived!

Imagine being venerated by multitudes from birth, before birth, based solely on bloodline. On loan to his parents, Prince George of Cambridge belongs to Britain.

Nevermind whether he will want to be a monarch, or if he is suited for such a life, this baby is third in line for the throne and a king he will be. Unless of course he commits some royal blasphemy. Then again, Charles married a divorcee, so maybe the monarchy is loosening up.

Most Americans are tolerant of the pomp that attends these royal milestones. Some may criticize the inequities of a class-structured society; some may condemn the patriarchal policies; others may object to the phenomenal wealth and privilege enjoyed by a group of people who are only nominally in charge. But who would deny Queen Elizabeth’s dedication and probity? Who would discount her decades of unstinting service, or her belief in the importance of her destiny?

I think we may be a little jealous of that idealism, that unbreakable faith. Whether we believe in The Queen’s mission or not, she does, and in so doing, she gives the British people something to believe in, a standard to live by, a notion that some things are worth keeping.

Prince George will be swaddled in adoration and courtesy. His upbringing will be a collaborative effort, a painstaking labor of love. He will be groomed for excellence in the hope that one day he will be a man fit to be king.

I’m not sure I’d elect this noble life for myself—the security measures required, the lack of privacy—but there is something to be said for being the object of high expectation. What would the rest of us accomplish with that much encouragement? If we were told each day how fine we were, what kind of people might we be?

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The Luck of the Draw

I know a woman who talks at length about herself and rarely has questions for others. At times her boastfulness becomes spectacular, in which case she can be entertaining in a scandalous way. She does have some redeeming qualities—her wide range of knowledge and her general eagerness—and I remind myself of them as needed. Because this woman is not attractive, I have plenty of room for her, and I respect the battle she has fought to find her footing on a lopsided playing field.

There is a video circulating on Facebook, a clip of Dustin Hoffman describing a revelation he had while making the movie “Tootsie.” After the make-up artists had turned his character into a woman, he was disappointed. He wanted to be a pretty woman. Why hadn’t they made him pretty? The make-up artists said, “Sorry, Dustin, this is as good as it gets,” and all at once Hoffman understood the angst a woman in the same predicament must feel.

I was not moved by his realization that unlovely women are sidelined, or that he had contributed to this prejudice by avoiding them. What struck me was that he had not felt similarly shunned. Dustin Hoffman is not conventionally handsome. One might assume that at some point in his career he had felt a measure of solidarity with his female counterparts. Evidently not. Ambition and talent had made him a star, and the fact that he did not look like Rob Lowe had not been an issue.

When it comes to appearance, greater expectations are placed on women. Being the fairer sex can be a tough business. A homely woman works around herself, employs distracting behaviors. She can be a comedian or a wallflower; she can be endlessly accommodating or, like the woman mentioned above, defiantly triumphant. Whatever methods these women use, they must find a way to make peace with themselves. Some never do. Goaded by a culture that promotes beauty at all costs, they fall victim to disease or never-ending anxiety.

Good looks can befall any fool. Unlike genius, which can have far-reaching benefits to society, beauty is of value only to the bearer, for whom it serves as a passport. Deserving or not, those with pretty faces can sit at any table, can enter realms that others can only dream of.

If you possess an able mind and body, rejoice in your good fortune. And if in the bargain you were handed pleasing features, fall on your knees.

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The Problem With Labels

On June 28, 2013 California became the 13th state to allow same sex marriage. This window of opportunity had been opened briefly five years earlier, but Prop 8 slammed it shut, stranding thousands of newlyweds. For five years these legally married couples tread water in a state that no longer allowed their unions. Two days after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, same sex couples in CA were finally vindicated. Not only could they celebrate the renewed right to marry, they finally had access to genuine marriage, the kind with federal benefits, the kind enjoyed by….what’s the term? Straight couples? That’s a misleading adjective. Heterosexual couples? That’s a mouthful, and overly emphatic, don’t you think? Heterosexual. Homosexual. Why are we defined by our romantic preferences? How is this distinction socially significant, and how can it foster anything but division? That’s the problem with labels.

Take the term “civil union.” Many so-called Christians favor the idea of labeling same sex marriages as civil unions in order to distinguish them from.…real marriages? Why do we need two terms for the same condition? Marriage is a legal bond between two consenting adults. It is not the purview of any religion and cannot be usurped in defense of any religion. Whether you are wed in a place of worship, your own backyard, Las Vegas or city hall, you are legally united. Call it what you want, but call it one thing. For everyone.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on DOMA was not complicated. Legally married same sex couples filed a suit against the federal government on the grounds that they were being denied the benefits accorded other married couples. There are 1,138 federal benefits in all, ranging from tax advantages to pension, health and social security benefits. The Court ruled in favor of the claimants and struck down this key aspect of DOMA, declaring it unconstitutional. This decision was inevitable—life wants balance and is always moving in the direction of equality. The only surprise regarding the Court’s decision was the fact that it was not unanimous. No matter. It is done. It is law.

Given the prevalence of divorce in this country, given the shocking statistics on spousal battery and child abuse, shouldn’t we be looking for healthier examples of domesticity? The same sex parents I’ve met are wonderfully attentive and supportive of their children. Perhaps, having fought so hard for their right to be parents, this is a privilege they do not take lightly. Perhaps there are things to be learned from them. What this country needs are more expressions of love, not malice and vitriol. The Supreme Court has opened a door. This is a time of congratulations and celebrations. This is a chance to revel in our unity.

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The Ready Feast

This post originally appeared on a terrific review site, Booklover Book Reviews  http://www.bookloverbookreviews.com/

Why do most readers avoid short stories? I’ve posed this question to several people, who have offered a small range of reasons. Some say that short stories end too abruptly, or that they often have no resolution at all. Others mention a lack of plot, claiming that writers of this genre are more concerned with style than story. But the most common complaint is that short stories are simply too short. When it comes to reading material, people favor long-term investments and will not consider other options, even with the possibility of greater returns. “I make friends with the characters,” someone told me yesterday. “I want them to stick around.”

I find this both odd and poignant, basing the value of something on how long it keeps us company. You don’t see this more-is-better mentality applied to other art forms. A symphony does not trump a song, nor is a portrait less important than a mural, or a statue more impressive than a figurine. And poetry—no one accuses poems of being too short. I wish I could write poetry; the audience is small but ferociously loyal.

I understand the preference for novels only in theory. Being a writer, maybe my own characters edge out the competition, but I don’t think of characters as company—entertainers, yes;  companions, no. I ask other things of the people I meet in books. They must be credible, first of all, and informative, and interesting. No matter how scant the time I spend with them, if the author has succeeded, if the characters are well done, I will remember them, and their troubles, all my life.

Novels run the opposite risk, often drowning in their own excess. Sometimes, reading a novel, I get the feeling that the author is figuring things out bit by bit and I am wading through his thoughts, bumping into the clutter. While I’ve read many wonderful novels, I am in greater awe of the spare clean rooms, the potent distillation, of a good short story. There is a bounty of them, from the deliciously chilling tales of Edgar Allen Poe to the devastating brilliance of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. At least once a year I reread Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” just to remind myself what a writer is capable of, and I am no less stunned by the short works of Jean Thompson, Antonya Nelson, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Alice Munro and so many others.

Despite these masters of the genre, the popularity of short stories has been declining for decades, and rare is the author who can make a living off them. Who would guess that in this age of texts and tweets, the short form would be struggling for attention? Maybe this techno world we live in is just the point. People need to escape, to lose themselves in more tantalizing realms, in which case, a short story can be the quickest route, the ideal restorative, the ready feast.

In their heyday, short stories appeared every month in popular magazines. Later they were found only in published collections or literary journals. Today, with increasing frequency, they are popping up in e-readers. Now that readers have an instant and inexpensive way to access short stories, I am hoping the genre will enjoy a renaissance, that people will set aside their fat beach reads, at least occasionally, and try something more slimming. Maybe even delicious.