Perhaps it was because some of my early crushes didn’t work out that well, like the little girl at camp who I kissed on the cheek on a hot summer night while we were playing tag. My brothers ridiculed me for that. My pre-teen love, Teresa, had a magneto-electro smile that virtually paralyzed me for six years — we locked eyes in class regularly from the fourth grade to the ninth grade — but I never, ever had an actual conversation with her. Then there were my few awkward high school dates. There was the cute girl who got me down on the front seat in the car and kissed me hard but nothing happened, except we both got a little bored and our lips hurt after a while. Inexperience. And there was the high school girl I took out on a date, and we talked, but we really had nothing interesting to say to each other and I never talked to her again. That was a bit weird; I guess you don’t know who you really like until you talk to them.
When I fell in love with Linda, who eventually became my wife, she was engaged to someone else. We were good at talking to each other, very good, but the conversations got more complicated when I confessed true love. With girls, it can get scary.
Maybe my early fear was exacerbated by not having sisters, but I kind of did, so that couldn’t have been all of it. Connie and Beth, the daughters of my parents’ friends, hung around the house for a couple of summers when their mom was working at the campground my parents ran. They were cool, not so much like girls, more like family. We played games, teased each other, made alliances with each other against other factions of our blended family and played war with playing cards. I like war with girls. My mom and I used to argue a lot. When my dad would protest we would say, “We aren’t fighting, we’re just having a discussion.” War. During our summers with the girls, it was obvious that Connie could get emotional, and so could I. I remember the time I threw the monopoly game board over on the girls and my brothers, the red motels and green houses flying through the air and me flying out of the room. It seemed like a good thing to do in the moment but later I felt ashamed and then again I didn’t — these girls were family.
My grade school teachers were all women. What is that about? Our culture is afraid of men being with young children too much. These wonderful women were smart, professional and demanding. They seemed to like me, maybe because I was smart, I wasn’t sure on that, but I feared them all. Mrs. Protova was so stern and large, but what adult isn’t huge to a first grader. Mrs. Meyers was all business. She expected things; girls do. I fell in love with my third grade teacher, Mrs. Kibby. Even at home, my family talked about how hot she was. It seemed normal to me, to love her, but of course I never told anyone. Fear! What would they say?
Then, early in high school, there was the girl I played footsie with during a movie at the local theater. I didn’t go to the movie with her, a gang of us were there together, but a spontaneous flirting game happened between us, and as a result I missed the movie and left feeling like I didn’t get my money’s worth — for the performance. Did she like me? I couldn’t tell. I liked her, but I think that all she wanted to know was that I thought she was cute. Thinking back on it now, it was a competitive sport for her. She tasered me with her foot, and I surrendered. I didn’t understand anything about girls back then, and so I left the movie feeling a bit confused and not knowing why. There was also the girl in my biology class who I never spoke to because she looked like the Venus de Milo with clothes on. And there was the adorable cheerleader in the green and white school sweater and mini skirt who I just couldn’t risk making a mistake in front of because she was so perfect to me, so I didn’t — big regret. They all fell into the category “Wow! Wow! Wow!” — fear and trembling unto death. Too beautiful can be distancing.
Then there was my mother. She liked interesting things, the iris in the front yard, the cardinals and jays that came to the bird feeder, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, which we read together, the movie Third Man on the Mountain, which she took us boys to see. She was different from other girls, because she loved me and I loved her and that took away the fear. And now I see that I grew up to love what she love, natural history and stories and children. Lots of girls follow guys around and do what they do, even though they don’t especially want to, but they do it because they love them and want to please them — fishing, working on cars, shooting guns, looking through telescopes. It’s okay, but it goes both ways. A man who loves a girl will also choose to love some of what she loves. Men who love girls follow them around.
We didn’t always do a good job of loving my mom; we teased her too much about the food, being different from us, my dad too, and when I was a teenager, my dad told me that was wrong. I thought so too, but teasing girls or joking with girls is still something I find myself doing a bit when I like them. I consider it my calling to make my daughters and my wife laugh a lot. Men like to make women laugh and women often laugh with men they like. Laughter is good between us, mostly. But we didn’t laugh when my mom got cancer. I went in and sat by her bed and talked to her. She told me a while back, now many years later, that this was meaningful to her, special, for me to just sit with her.
I like that way of relating to women, to sit beside them, to be there when they are going through something, in a safe way, in an unobtrusive and supportive way. Safe gets at it. Safe means seeing women as people and as family. A young friend told me recently that he didn’t feel so good about some porn that he had looked at. Porn is no proud accomplishment, for the people who view it or who make it. It seems to undermine progress — toward real accomplishments and real relationships. Porn girls are not family, well they are somebodies’ family but they are presented online as having no family. A woman told me recently, after she caught her husband looking at girls on the Internet, “The thing is, I can’t compete with those woman.”
I thought about it, and actually I think she can compete, really well, and win. She is real, unlike the images, a real women, not an airbrushed woman. She is a talking, thinking, a real-time-and-space woman, with bending arms and legs and she is better than any flat-screen girl. Porn girls’ pictures don’t match up well against real-girl bodies, against curvy, warmish, bright-eyed, taking girls with fun laughs and quick repartees. From my experience, girl reality offers something far better than vapid, non-relational and untouchable nudity — fascinating friendship topped off with hugable bodies, really good smelling hair and remarkable tasty lips, available for tasting if they turn out to be girlfriends or wives.
But I’ve noticed something interesting here; girls tend to check out girls as much as guys do, not internet girls with no clothes on, but catalogue girls and walking-by girls, especially thin and “pretty’ girls, their clothes, their hair, their make-up, their everything. It’s the fatal female-to-female comparison, and it doesn’t work too well for most of them. “She has better legs, better teeth, a better nose, ohhh, than me.” It’s torture! It’s self-hatred. It’s sad, and I wish it wasn’t so. All girls are beautiful girls, in some way. To love oneself, and not compare oneself with others — “ahhh” now there is the trick. It is so much about, to put it simply, being gentle with ones own perceived imperfections. A girl told me recently, “I’m not normal. I burp in public, and my husband says, ‘That was really attractive,’ and I can’t find boots to fit me because my calves are too big. It happened because I walked on my tip toes too long, when I was younger.” She repeats, “I’m not normal.”
But this kind of “normal” can be just another form of tyranny — this is too big, this is too little, this is too loud, this is too soft and squishy, this is just right. It’s Goldilocks all over again — it has to be “just right.” Individuation is a step toward freedom from the domination of the “just-right.” Love means not having to conform to exacting specifications published by the group and used to tape measure oneself. A girl once told me. “If you don’t love me, there is something wrong with you.” May her brand of insouciant self-affirmation increase. Normal is what you are, and it becomes even more normal to you as time goes on because you experience the you of you, more and more. “Pretty girl” is a fabrication of the mind, and there are so many changing ways to be pretty that the mind must be discipline to expand its neruro-electrical and phsycho-social list of possibilities. Many astutes have noticed that when we love girls, they get prettier, when we love men, they become more handsome.
Perhaps men have ruled this conversation too much. A girl once said to me, “Why would anyone have their lips and breasts made bigger?” And before I could try to reply, she answered herself, ” Honestly, because men want it! The discussion is dominated by body strength. And if women stand up for themselves and try to refute these kinds of standards, they are perceived as unattractive. Women who don’t buy in are seen as having something wrong with them. Body parts don’t make you superior. Why are men calling the shots on what is beautiful?” Whew! Somebody isn’t happy with how its gone down.Touche!
It has occurred to me that it is also true that guys compete, with each other, according to some kind of beauty standard. A guy’s sense of “handsome” is in part culturally conditioned by his sense of good skin color, eye color, cheekbone shape, chin angle and on and on. Think Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman, Olando Bloom and George Cluny; they set the modern standard. And throughout history, men have tried to settle the issue of who is superior, who is a stud, by strutting their stuff and by peeing on things, and by making conquests of women, and by making money, playing soccer, and killing each other.
What to do? I told my young friend who felt ashamed of his attraction to porn, “Go find some girls and make friends with them.” It’s the hopeful approach, the future-oriented approach, the think-about-what-is-imperfect-but-still-good approach. Friendship with real girls is the opposite of lust. It is also the opposite of a very ineffective way of dealing with your hormones — asceticism, self-hatred, the making of behavioral laws and moral rules and killing people. I don’t much admire the techniques of the flagellants of the 14th Century, marching in public and whipping themselves for their failings. Self-mortification never made anyone holy. More and more I believe that life should not be about beating up on yourself for being human, but about loving yourself for being human. No matter what standards of beauty and rules for relating we come up with, it is normal and always will be for men to adore women, and women to adore men, and women and men to admire women, their bodies, their minds, everything about them, and it is so fun and right to find ways to honor that without it becoming obsessive and sick or objectifying or depersonalizing. I think so much good can happen when we center on what is good, instead of pounding on ourselves for where we have failed.
I met my wife-to-be while I was in college. She went to the same church as me. I remember talking to her in the library. Books and girls — I love that combination. She was engaged, as I said before, but that didn’t work out. I told her, “I loved you,” which is never a bad thing to tell people, unless you don’t mean it, and true love changed her sense of the future, and so after some fall out and some talking it out and some waiting we got married. I tell her now, “I fell in love with your brain.” I am still in love with it. She in an individuated thinker, and I can never be sure what she will say about a new topic we get into. I love that in her! To love a girl is to love her brain. And there is more, because her brain is resident in her body, and I love her body too, all of it, perfect and imperfect. She is mine and we are one and I love her body the way I love my own body, in a comfortable, accepting, non-shaming, unconditional way. I didn’t always do that, when we were younger, and its been a journey to get to where I am now but one worth traveling. Acceptance and gentleness is the most advanced way of relating to girls.
Not everyone gets that. This morning I was listening to Pandora radio on my phone through the Internet. I put on “A Fine Frenzy” station. Alison Sudol was singing, “You go on and I’ll be happier,” but she won’t; apparently, according to her, he’ll be happier. Then later, Meiko was singing, “Here I am with my heart on the floor and my love out the door.” There is a lot of pain on the radio, because there are a lot of women who have been abandoned. It makes for good songs but lousy lives.
I know some of these broken-hearted women who had someone who said all the right things and then they didn’t and now they only have pictures in a box under the bed, and then maybe they get to the point were they even throw those out. But they don’t stop loving, themselves and their kids. That’s amazing. I am so impressed with the single moms, and dads. The single moms I know work so hard, in retail and in offices, making just enough to survive. They live for their kids. One absolutely beautiful single mom I know, beautiful by any standard, beautiful in mind and body, never remarried after her divorce. Why? Considering how absolutely brutal her husband had been, she chose to keep it safe, for her, for her kids, for her mom and she made a life without a man, and made it good. I honor that. She didn’t think of herself; she thought of how important it was to create a safe space for her family. Her children were so broken by the divorce.
I remember going to her house when it was the conflict was at a horrible peak. One of her daughters was hiding in the closet and wouldn’t come out , and we sat in front of it and talked to her. I asked this little traumatized girl in the closet what she wanted, and she said , “I want my family to go back to like it was before!” Ouch! So painful. This got at it. She wanted what she needed and couldn’t get. No wonder she was in the closet. The real world didn’t work for her. We couldn’t make that happen, bring back the past, but her mom did the next best thing possible: she made something safe and beautiful called a family without a husband and without a father. Her daughter is now married and has children of her own. Strong single, unselfish women — they rock.
Ever so often a new book comes out explaining how women are different from men. I find them insufferable. Of course we are different, but not in the ways defined by these purchased distortions of the popular mindset. These books go like this: women are emotional. Really? Well, I’ve noticed something too: so are men, they just nuance it differently. Then we are told, woman are nurturers. Right! Don’t leave me out. So are men. I know a former gangster who is one of the most nurturing, sensitive men I know. He totally serves and protects and cares for his nine kids. We have also been told that woman want to be rescued. Yep. Well, guess what? So do men. I know so many men who have been rescued by women. It goes on and on, these distinctions but it is silly. Some people like the women are from venus and men are from mars kinds of explanation because they can’t get along and they find comfort in explanations that don’t make this their fault. Gender stereotyping is a dodge. “We can’t relate to each other because we are different. It’s not our fault.” That is bogus.
There are gender differences, and I like them, especially the ones that you can see, “Wow, wow, wow!” Love those girl shapes, and for the girls, sculpted men — cool too. The physiological differences between men and women, strength stuff, reproductive stuff, are well-researched and published. And there are obvious behavioral differences too. Men rape women; the opposite of that is rare. Men kill each other at a higher rate than women. Women birth all the babies. Women have perfected some really cruel ways to be mean to each other that men don’t know. There are differences. But when we get inside, less so, there are less differences when we confront our core humanity. We all need such simple and fundamentally human things — to be held, to be understood, to be respected, to have something meaningful to do, to be wanted, to feel okay about our changing bodies and our shaky minds.
This kind of experiential awakening has dissolved my fear of girls. Now, I fear them not. My wife took care of that by teaching me to be human again, after I’d lost that in high school, and by liking me so much that I was able over time to begin to really like myself. I have never met a person who I am so comfortable with as my wife. And my two daughters have taught me so much about girls, human girls, who are human first and girl second. I adore them both. I am their dad and their friend and a safe human being who loves them unconditionally.
My daughter Roz and I play a game. Since she was a little girl I have asked her, “When will I stop loving you?” And she responds, “You’ll never stop loving me.”
Girls? Nothing to be afraid of here — just another form of human being to never stop loving.