Siege Diaries 1/1/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt:  What things are truly in my control?

One of the biggest learnings of being bullied as a kid was that the bullying didn’t change if I tried to change my clothing, hair, activities that I loved, or those sorts of things to try to “fit in”–because bullying really wasn’t about me.  What stops a bully is the realization is that their behaviour is unacceptable–which is why the role of bystanders and authorities is so important.

How people react to me is not truly in my control.  This is why taking the route of being a people-pleaser is so fraught.  That is not to say I should not strive to act ethically, with kindness, courage, and justice–but I should do these things because they are the right things to do, not so people will like me or respect me, or so I will be more popular.

So.  New Year…new me?   Actually, no.  I am the same person I was yesterday. But there’s  a new word:  Agender.  

If you’ve read what I wrote about my religious beliefs/beliefs about the universe yesterday,  this will not be a surprise, because it’s a similar outlook, something I am realizing is fundamental to who I am as a person.  Specifically, these statements resonate with me:

  • Not knowing or not caring about gender, as an internal identity and/or as an external label.
  • Deciding not to label their gender.
  • Identifying more as a person than any gender at all.

Throughout my life, I have been conscious that I am attracted to things–clothing, toys, activities, etc.–associated with both traditionally-defined genders.   I played equally eagerly with Legos, Hot Wheels, and Barbies as a kid, but always with my own narratives unrelated to what toy companies wanted me to use with these toys.   I was a Star Wars kid.  I was a girl who loved horses–and the sport of horse racing.  I loved Ohio State football, but I also had a ton of fun with ballet.  In some ways, I have embraced the traditionally feminine, particularly in terms of love for jewelry and clothing (although my clothing preferences in adulthood have usually veered towards what we’d read as “masculine”–clear, strong lines, absence of details such as lace or ruffles–even when designed for a female body).   But in a lot of other ways, I have never felt in tune with societal “feminine” roles.   First and foremost, I have almost no maternal instinct, and I have never wanted kids (although the idea of teaching kids–usually older ones–has always had some appeal).  I didn’t “hate” kids–I just had no strong feelings at all about wanting to have my own.    I have always struggled with what I would term “how to girl”–such as using makeup, or flirting.  And I struggle with close, emotional-based friendships–I just do not find them instinctive, even though I also think they are a positive aspect of the traditionally feminine.  Sexually, I’m almost exclusively attracted to men, but there is often a strong thread when the man is a public figure of imagining myself not with the man, but as the man–from a completely non-sexual standpoint.   It also tends to explain the features I find attractive in others–hands, eyes, cheekbones, a certain angularity of form that is often read as “androgynous.” Often, when I have written what little fiction I have, I have written from the perspective of a male character.  But I have no desire to actually be a man from a physical standpoint, or to change anything about the body I occupy.  It’s mine, with all its physical characteristics–dark hair and eyes, long legs, narrow feet, nose that I like, birthmark on my left arm that has faded over the years, and yep–female equipment.  I am not going to “celebrate” it, but I also have no real desire for it to be anything else.  

 I don’t think my biological sex has anything to do with a concept of gender.   I am me, and I have certain qualities and lack other qualities that society likes to associate with gender that I refuse to label accordingly.   My  voice, my mannerisms, my personality, my personal beliefs and philosophy, my ideals, the things that I oppose–none of these are a reflection, for me, of any gender identity.  They are a reflection of me as a person.  My hair, my clothing, the jewelry I wear, even the tattoos I have–to me, they are not gendered.  They are expressions of some aspect of me.   Society may read things differently.  I do not care. In terms of control, I know I do not control how society sees me.  This statement is about how I see myself.   

For me, pronouns do not matter. You may use what you like; I have no preference as I have no defined identity beyond that of human being.  All pronouns are both right and wrong for me.   I am at the same time absolutely adamant about using the pronouns for my friends and others I meet that align with their identity.  This is likely why I have been able to pivot so quickly when friends change their names (for any reason) or recognize different gender identities or sexual orientations than those society usually assigns as defaults,  My lack of gender identity does not negate or invalidate yours or your experiences.  What matters most to me is your humanity–your kindness, the way you treat others, your personality.   And I see how this may be impacted by your own lived experiences, as my lived experiences have formed who I am.  

Nothing changes for you.  But for me, everything does.  You hear a note that you call a D flat.  I call it a C#.  It’s the same note, but the understanding of what to call it fundamentally alters how it functions in the music, even if it sounds just the same.

Yesterday, from 8:20 am all the way through to 9:05 pm, I listened to all 15 Shostakovich symphonies.  Many of these have become wonderful companions of mine, and so there were few new revelations, but it was in the final symphony, the 15th, that I found something new. (The photo above was taken in the midst of that final work).  The recording I listened to was one of my relatively new acquisitions, with Kyril Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic in a 1974 recording (three years after its premiere).  Kondrashin’s other recordings of Shostakovich symphonies have always, to me, stood out for their energy and angularity.  He tends to like fast tempos, and the sound–albeit partially because of the recording technology–has a certain brilliance.  The recording of the 15th was different.  There is a lushness and depth I hadn’t expected to find, and the 2nd movement (and the ending) have a sweetness, a kind of dark haziness, especially in contrast to the louder episodes, that was entirely effective.  The ending–the clock-like ticking of percussion over a pedal point in the strings, and that final, glorious, heavenly C# (pulling the ending into A major with a Picardy third) in the glockenspiel and celesta–felt as if they were being heard at a distance, within an immense, empty room. One gets the sense of life dissipating into eternity–not a painful process, but simply a release of tension (that Picardy third being a classic technique) into the background A major pedal point of the universe.  It reminds me of the 4th Symphony’s concluding notes, but there the resolution is minor, and there is no sense of completion, no sense of perfection.

Last night, after the Shostakovich marathon, we watched the movie Becket.  I actually knew this movie before I knew that other movie where Peter O’Toole plays Henry II, The Lion in Winter.  Becket dates to 1964–that is, four years before The Lion in Winter–and its story concludes in 1170, 13 years before the events of Lion.  The movie is most effective when focusing on Thomas Becket’s transformation, and in, strangely enough, his investiture as Archbishop of Canterbury (which seemed to mostly ring true from a liturgical standpoint).   Otherwise the film, based on a play by Jean Anouilh, seems to fundamentally miss significant points of Henry II’s life and personality.  He’s portrayed as a womanizer –not an inaccurate portrait, but accordingly the role of his wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine, is reduced to a cipher.  There is no affection or sense of alliance evinced between the two (Eleanor had been the one to propose the marriage to Henry, a cousin of hers), no sense that their marriage is anything other than a conventional political one for purposes of obtaining heirs, and no mention made that Eleanor had once been married to Louis of France or had gone on Crusade with him.  In one scene, she sits placidly knitting beside the Empress Matilda–who was Henry’s main administrator in Normandy until her death in 1167.  Matilda gets a few words in about Becket (as she did historically), but there is no sense that either of these women were the political and cultural powerhouses of the 12th century that they actually were. 

 Likewise, there is a scene where Henry proposes crowning his son (the Young Henry) as king.  The Young Henry (who was indeed crowned in 1170, but never reigned independently) is portrayed as a weak, cringing young man, quite at odds with the picture history has left of him as a gifted tournament fighter, the “best king to ever take up a sword,” popular and affable, but chafing under the restrictions placed on him by his father on actually exercising political authority and perhaps lacking some of his father’s canniness.   And on that particular note?  Henry is portrayed as a decadent, conniving monarch.   This is the man widely known as a competent administrator who began to expand the role of royal justice and courts within England, leading to the creation of the first treatise on common law at the end of his reign in 1189 (a date known as the beginning of legal memory).  This is a man who ruled more of France than the French king did (often governing through political marriage alliances and who consistently won military victories.  “Decadent” is not a term I’d ever use for Henry II.    Another unnecessary touch was the focus on a Saxon-Norman conflict.  There were doubtless still residual issues around this, but they had nothing to do with Becket, who was of Norman parentage.

There is also the issue of costuming–although this is more a product of the era of the film.  The clothing is relentlessly 14th century-inspired.  The men look like Prince Valiant, with their short velvet cotes (although there are, thankfully, no tights).  The women wear sideless surcotes and huge headdresses, making them look more like figures of the Virgin in altarpieces than actual women.  Servants were houppelands, and peasants a lot of brown.  On the other hand, the ecclesiastical garments are often quite good, and the investiture scene involves many of the pieces of regalia for bishops that were conferred, including gloves and especially the pallium.    A clutch of cardinals wear the traditional wide-brimmed cardinal hats about 75 years too early, but given that the rest of the costuming is so firmly 14th century, this is no surprise.  But the Bishop of London spends most of the time in an eggplant purple silk and velvet cope and close-fitting (probably stretch velvet) cowl that looks preposterous.

The verdict?   This film pales in comparison to The Lion in Winter, which makes Eleanor the formidable force that she actually was.  Of course, in Becket she is a supporting character rather than the lead, but in focusing almost solely on the conflict between Henry and Becket–and in making Henry such a one-dimensional character–the movie loses its punch.   It has not aged as well as Lion in Winter by any definition.

I am posting this not because it’s autobiographical for me, but because it’s perhaps the rawest, most genuine expression of pain by a popular musical artist that I know.  Cash was in his final year of life when he recorded this cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”   He didn’t record it because he loved the original version–in fact, he found it unlistenable–but once he had the lyrics and was able to boil the song down to its barest bones, he found something in it that spoke to his life.  Trent Reznor, likewise, thought it was gimmicky–until he saw this video, after which he stated: 

“Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.  It really made me think about how powerful music is. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in. Somehow that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era and still retains sincerity and meaning – different, but every bit as pure.”

I had only seen the video once, years ago.  I watched it this morning because a friend had a Facebook thread going about favourite songs by particular bands, and as much as I love several songs by Nine Inch Nails–particularly “The Hand That Feeds”–this cover version is the one that always stands out for me.