My friend texted me just before Halloween last year:
“I thought of you because I’m listening to a Robert Heinlein book with a female reader and was imagining how much of a better job you’d do…”
This was a nice compliment. I’ve been narrating audiobooks, off and on, for about five years now, mostly fiction. I shoot for grounded, muted dramatic expression. I’d rather capture the right emotional, contextual emphasis than jump through my own asshole doing voices and accents. Nick and I will be embarking on a new adventure starting today, actually — a jointly-narrated project, with alternating male-perspective and female-perspective chapters. It’s about a sexy bodyguard. I’d love a Robert Heinlein but hey.
“…and also curious about your take on a male author writing in the first person female POV, doing a rape experience,” he continued.
“Some of the best writing comes from authors doing first person across genders…but some of the worst as well lolol.” Not naming any names, but Isaac Asimov. “Why not!?””
My friend replied, “All I know is I wouldn’t touch it…not in today’s climate. It happens in the first chapter, to a spy in a context of being captured and interrogated.”
“Today’s climate is not something to live by lol,” I quipped.
“You’d have to read it, I think.”
“All I care is if it’s good writing or not.”
“Ha—!” he said. “It’s been too long since we’ve talked, my friend.”
When someone is truly excellent at anything, I believe it’s especially worth my while to listen to what they have to say about anything. Not with reverence, necessarily, but with sharpened interest. This is because excellence in any area represents limitless, myriad inner connections, awarenesses, quantum leaps, and surrenderings. No one becomes really excellent at anything visible without being able to successfully juggle quantities of invisibles.
So, my classical guitar teacher in college was literally world renowned in his field. Still is. Performance at that level, in regards to that instrument, is a meritocracy in the truest sense. There are no stage antics or shenanigans to rhetorically fluff, or distract from, what’s going right. Or wrong. Classical guitar pieces are so manually and mentally complex that (a thing we insiders call colloquially) a “train wreck” is astoundingly difficult to recover from. You just watch, mortified, as your own hands flounder, striking cascades of obviously wrong notes; you yearn towards the reconnection of muscle memory. A catastrophe of even several seconds’ duration feels like years —deeply aware that the entire, carnivorous audience has now leaned forward in its utterly safe seat, scenting blood in the water. Assholes! Performance of classical guitar is the greatest personal risk, subject to the most excruciating chagrin. I’ve taken a lovely bow, in my formal wear, with tears of enraged humiliation streaming down my face…a handful of times. Notably, once.
Anyway. I was only in my 20’s during the classical guitar years, and not able to follow much of what Mr. Sheeley said, outside of frequent exhortations to play slow and loud, with a metronome. He had all kinds of thoughts about all kinds of things, and either mistook me for someone who could comprehend them, or just appreciated my basic receptivity. I hesitate to say his perspectives were “political”, although that would be the right subheading. They were, rather, deeply-felt convictions that originated in his personal value system, which he refined at every turn, and then extended outward, grappling spider-like with the entire panoply of human self-governing arrangements through time, about which he constantly educated himself, and about which I constantly did not.
I grew up on a reservation, where I had received an aggressively sub-standard education. I was lucky to understand that governments existed at all, let alone that they borrowed and bastardized blocks of thought and precedent from prior civilizations, consciously and unconsciously, at every turn. The man read voraciously, and constructed letters which he submitted to societies for their edification and betterment — etcetera and so forth. I vaguely grasped, at the time, that some people were Republicans, and some people were Democrats, and some people were Libertarians, or scraps of other things. You know how most people identify as straight, or gay, but some people are bi, and then a few people are just — flaming so hard, there’s no box big enough, or queer enough, to contain them? But when you talk to them, they make a lot of sense? That’s how Mr. Sheeley was, but politically.
At the time, I felt bemused by it all. If I could play guitar as well as him, and was invited to be the star of the most famous guitar concerto in Europe every single year, I’d be too happy to give so many shits about so many things. I would just sit around playing scales so fast the shingles would fly off the roof.
But anyway, I had my lesson once per week, and we absolutely took care of business. But as the years went by, and I became a more and more skilled player, there was enough time for political pontification — him to mostly offer, and me to mostly receive. And out of all that spaghetti he threw at the wall — which I’m not at all certain I’d grasp even now —and after all this time that’s passed, twenty years worth of thinking about a bunch of other stuff, for the most part — there’s one thing that stuck.
“America has utterly rejected the notion of aristocracy,” he noted, fiddling with his tuning pegs. “And yet aristocracies arise, in all societies. A formal aristocracy takes its responsibilities seriously — the cultivation of art, thought, athleticism, oration, debate, leadership, civic duty — all the expressed values to which humans can aspire, when not beleaguered by the drudgery of survival. The unofficial American aristocracy benefits from none of this, and so none of us benefit from them. The American aristocracy is a sham, a flagrant parade of idiocy.”
“Oh!,” I said, flipping to my next lesson. “Gosh.”
Nick and I had a talk that escalated to a debate, and then to an argument, yesterday. It was on the subject of routine circumcision. A Facebook friend of his had posted to the effect that Americans abhor the acceptance of female genital mutilation (FGM) in some parts of the Muslim world, and yet we genitally mutilate our baby boys (MGM), wholesale.
Nick feels that FGM is so disturbing, so horrific, that any comparison between the two is borderline unethical. After all, circumcised boys go on to lead sexually and socially fulfilling lives, sans foreskin; whereas girls with clitoridectomies (a nice, science-y term for the most insanely non-elective “surgery” imaginable) must negotiate the entirety of the rest of their lives, sexually and reproductively, on a spectrum between dullness and pain. Even urination can be impacted. I’m not here to get specific about FGM but I read a first hand account in grad school and I’m satisfied that I want to spend as little time thinking about FGM as possible.
The argument arose, not between his perspective and mine because no one’s on the other side of that issue, but between his perspective and my advocacy on behalf of this Facebook friend’s ethical right, essentially, to compare the two — FGM and circumcision. The thought of FGM makes Nick so mad he would probably, in those moments, press the big red button on the missile directed to those areas of the world, if it were put in front of him at the wrong time.
I get pretty mad, too, when I stop and realize that I’m living in a society that has apparently no ability to self-inquire as to why we, or if we should, continue cutting off baby boys’ foreskins, based on, of all things, a Biblical anecdote. The rest of the developed world has peaced out on this archaic practice — it’s only in the US that we feel boys are essentially born genitally “disfigured”, and we have to surgically fix them.
Nick felt that even putting the two, er, “procedures” in the same sentence is a slap in the face of all women who’ve been forced to endure FGM.
I felt that his friend was right to assert that an ethnocentric judgement about something definitely wrong, for girls, represents a great bouncing off point for a much more close-to-home critique of something likely wrong, for boys.
“What kind of objectivity are you pretending to, here?,” he fired.
“I don’t know! Maybe…the objectivity of someone whose genitals haven’t been mutilated?,” I fired back.
Ultimately, we realized neither of us knows what the fuck we’re talking about, as usual when we argue, and that we should probably watch that feature-length documentary on Netflix about circumcision in the US. Perhaps I’ll revisit, in a future blog, when I have something smarter to say.
In any case, these three anecdotes have one thing in common: they highlight, for me, how much I value and appreciate those in my life who have challenged me, over the years, to consider, and re-consider, and re-re-reconsider my own ideas. May I always remain humble and yet brave enough to do so.