Towards a Less Essentialist Christmas

[Hi, readers! I know I owe you all a Budziszewski post. It’s coming.]

Taylor Marshall has put out his annual list of “manly” gifts for Christmas 2013. And you know what? There’s a lot on that list I want. But there are also a few items on the list got me thinking: why are these “manly” gifts, again? Why not just “awesome” gifts?

Okay, okay. The vintage razor and shaving kit is pretty decisively a man’s gift. But my grandmother has a whiskey decanter like the one on the list—if she didn’t it would be something I would definitely buy for her. And even though her camping days are past, she would love the thermos, which is also the sort of thing I would love to pass on to my daughter.

So here’s a different sort of Christmas list. I’m not sure who it’s for: maybe for your favorite feminist man, maybe for a man who needs more feminism (or less gender essentialism) in his life. I don’t know. Mostly it’s just a bunch of stuff that I would love that will never make it onto a list like Marshall’s.

1. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (Joan Didion)

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Katie Roiphe writes, “I don’t think I have ever walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring writer, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.” And Caitlin Flanagan says that “to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.”

Bullshit, Flanagan. I love Joan Didion, and I’m blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase. As Roiphe points out, Didion’s writing is the way we write now or, at least, it’s the way I wish we all would write. Roiphe’s essay “Joan Didion” traces Didion’s cadences, her themes, her neuroses and even her vocabulary into some of my favorite contemporary writers: Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Kolbert, Meghan Daum.

Roiphe concludes: “Nearly forty years after her essays first appeared… we still imitate Joan Didion, and if we don’t imitate Joan Didion, we imitate people who imitate Joan Didion.” She doesn’t mean that as a compliment—though, as with all things Roiphe, it’s complicated, because no one is more Didioniesque than she is—but that’s exactly why I love the contemporary essay. Roiphe says that Didion has become mundane, but I’m happy to swim in that sort of mundanity.

One of the best things about Didion is that there’s so much of her writing to read. And I’m a late convert, so I’ve only read a fraction of it. Which is why every time I go to Book People in Austin, I visit the bookshelf that holds this thirty-five-dollar volume of her collected nonfiction with the same awe Wayne Campbell saved for the glass case that held the white 1964 Fender Stratocaster. It will be mine. Oh, yes. It will be mine.

(If your man is too cool for Joan Didion, who is kind of hot right now and therefore not cool in some ways, the next writer I want to check out is Michelle Orange.)

2. 12 Stories (Brandy Clark)

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Has this ever happened to you? You get into a (male) friend’s car, he starts it up, a female voice comes through the speakers, and he rushes to turn the stereo off, mumbling something about it being his wife’s CD.

What’s behind that embarrassment?

For no good reason I can see, music is as gendered as movies (chick flicks vs. action films), books (see “the Midcentury Misgogynists”), and food. And, as with eating and reading books and watching movies, this gendering limits what men will listen to (or admit to listening to) far more than women.

But songs are stories, and all stories attract us through a mix of the foreign and the familiar, so there’s no reason a man can’t relate to songs of a woman’s heartache and aspiration.

And, as Alice Bolin recently observed, the most interesting country music (Yes, country. I’m from Texas.) is now coming from women. Actually, that’s being too kind: country would be dead, or it would be fit for nothing but soundtracking pontoon-boat parties in SEC-land, if not for a handful of women songwriters who are both thoughtful and defiant about life in Sarah Palin (or Rick Perry) country. Miranda Lambert is one of the only popular country singers who doesn’t make me change the station, and I’ve worn out the Kacey Musgraves album on Spotify (if you can do that). But Brandy Clark is an even newer singer garnering raves in Nashville. “That girl’s gonna save this town,” said songwriter Shane McAnally. High praise.

3. Ballet lessons.

Recommending a leather-bound pocket Bible, Marshall writes, “Oh, and please buy him the black leather version. If you buy him a white Bible, you might as well throw in ballet lessons.”

Har har. Except, wait a minute. Why would ballet lessons necessarily be a bad gift for a man?

My daughter loves her ballet lessons, and there are boys in her class who love them as much as she does. And there’s an adult class that meets at the same time, full of grown-ups my age, none of whom look like professional dancers. They’re just having a good time, getting some exercise, working on something difficult. It seems pretty cool to me.

I mean, I love personal expression, and I would jump at art lessons, or writing lessons, or lessons for a musical instrument. And I love testing my body’s limits and challenging it in different ways. Ballet seems to be right at the intersection of those two things. What’s not to love?

Anyway, I don’t mean to bust Marshall’s chops too hard, even though he often comes up for criticism here. The truth is, with Emily Stimpson and precious few others, he’s a writer on the Catholic right who I enjoy reading, even if I vehemently disagree with about 1/5 of all of his posts.

It’s just, again, why exclude the women?

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One thought on “Towards a Less Essentialist Christmas

  1. Ball;et lessons for men? Great idea. Dancers don’t get just “some” exercise: many professionals get more exercise, every day, than their counterparts in sports.

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