Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Men Don't Cry

Owen Gleiberman wrote an interesting piece in Entertainment Weekly entitled "Message to Men: It's Okay to cry at Toy Story 3". While I think he's only touched on parts of the reasons why the movie could hit men hard, he has a point: Real men do cry.

I have a confession to make: while watching TS3, I did try to force my tears to stay put but I failed; I did try to hide the fact that I was shedding a few tears behind those 3D glasses; and I did feel embarrassed until I heard the sobs coming from all around me at the theater. Then I realized: yup, real men do cry.

We just don't cry at every single thing, or little things, or "girly things" like "awww, they live happily ever after!" or "I got a 60% discount on these pants!"  Gee, no, we're no sissies!

But real men also are courageous enough to admit that they, too, have emotions and are totally capable of expressing them. Show me a man who didn't cry (or at least have teary eyes) at his wife's funeral, when sending his children off to college, or right after 9/11... and I will tell you he's either too damned sissy to show his emotions, or he's a sociopath.

So, I think it's tremendous that men openly admit that they cry at Toy Story 3 -- an animated MOVIE, no less. That shows us the power of the story, characters and themes. In my own review, I talked about the themes and the layers of meanings and emotions conveyed, especially during the last reel, in the movie, and why it hits us hard. And here's the thing: the universal themes and emotions.

Regardless of gender, race, age or cultural backgrounds, we've all been children. We've all gone through the process of growing up (and some of us are still going through it). We've all have toys (even just a box and a stick). We've all had to "let go" of our childhood and transitioned to adulthood. I think that's why the ending of Toy Story 3 is so poignant and relevant, because it touches all of us (unless we've had some kind of weird, broken childhood that we never experienced any joy). Nostalgia is a bitch, and TS3 finds that nugget of truth and pounds on it. And yet, the ending is quiet and bittersweet that it doesn't feel manipulative -- because it is so true. No embellishment is needed to drive the point home and make us feel.

In fact, that's always been my goal when I write my fiction. I want to reveal the universal truth and emotions without over-exaggerating them. I want to stir something deep inside each of us. Yes, I want to entertain, too. But I also want the entertainment to mean something. And Pixar has been an inspiration for me since Toy Story 1 -- how they've succeeded in blending humor, action, excitement, entertainment, heart and real emotions in ALL of their films is beyond miraculous. And I want to achieve that, too, with my fiction.

I want to make grown men cry.

My novels, with their strong emotional cores, have built-in female audiences. Not that I think women are weepy, sentimental easy-targets. It's just that I do think, in our cultures, women are raised to be more in tune with emotions and relationships, while men are conditioned to hide these emotions, because it's not "macho." We'd be called gay, sissy, EMO, "a girl," etc. etc. as if being "womanly" is a detriment -- that in itself is an insult to women, after all. But alas! That's the reality for many men. As for me, I am very in tune with my emotions -- my parents never discouraged me for showing emotions -- but still, my cultural conditioning tells me I should be "embarrassed" if I cry, or that it's not "manly" to talk about feelings and relationships. We men are encouraged, by our peers and societies, to keep our mouths shut and drink some more beer and scream at a football match. If you want to fit in, as one of the guys, you need to keep your emotions under wrap. That's true even for those women who are "one of the guys." The minute they start talking about feelings and relationships, they're out of the group.

With novels though, I hope to create an environment that encourages men to feel, to get in touch with their feelings, and to be able to let go and express those feelings without public embarrassment. Isn't it kind of a contradiction? I mean, what's the point of expressing our emotions in the comfort of our private space? Baby steps.  Baby steps. I think most men need an outlet to let go and be themselves, and that includes bawling like a baby without the scrutiny of someone else. As in touch with my own feelings as I am, I often find myself unable to cry or express my emotions in public places such as a theater. I often find myself having to hold back my tears, or brush the feelings aside, or think of something else so I don't feel it anymore. That's enough to cause major constipation. Thus, I think novels are the better outlets for men -- the reading space is very private, and we men would have the opportunities to let go and let loose.

It's better for a man to express their feelings through crying than through violence. Talk about pent up frustration.

Thus, my stories tend to have strong male themes that men could identify with, without feeling embarrassed. One of the common themes is father-son relationships. I think for me, that's as universal as beer and sports. Another potent theme is men's places in the world: our legacies, our friendships, our families. Some men may try to deny it, but these are all very important to us.

Even the love stories -- men want to be loved as well, but in a different ways than most women do, I suppose. And thus, in my stories, I try to present both sides. Obviously, not all men or women are like that, and there are gray areas in everything. Still, if the Toy Story franchise has taught us anything, it's that we can put heart and emotions in something that boys and men could easily identify with and not feel embarrassed to engage in.  Pixar knows that (most of their directors and creators are men!) If you can make the men want to take their spouses and children to see those films, you've done it. You've made something as universal as it can be.

That's why I have problems with some of the "guys' movies" or novels out there. They seem to perpetuate the myth that men should control their emotions. It's okay to show excitement and pump our fists in the air (YEAH, blow that up! YEAH, we win! YEAH, we are heroes and we kick ass! YEAH!) and cheer when the hero gets the girl. Or else the "guys" are mostly overgrown boys who will never grow up (Adam Sandler, I'm looking at YOU!) What a sad thing, to continue to encourage boys and men to shut up and keep our emotions in tow, to discourage us to reveal our inner selves, our true fears and needs and emotions, and above all, love. Men sneer at anything "romantic" as if that's the death of our masculinity, and yet men want to be loved just as much. We just don't want to talk about it. You -- women -- are supposed to just know that!  How sad.  In many ways, the fear of showing our real emotions and talk about them lacks the courage that makes us real men.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

LOVE

What I mean is: LOVE scenes.  Those beasts.

Yeah, I chose to write love stories -- not "romance" per se, and definitely not erotica, but still, they are love stories and it's kind of difficult to avoid love scenes.

Sure, I can simply "fade to black" and let your imagination take over. I do that. There's no point of describing every detail. I'm not writing a sex manual. I'm not even writing erotica. Still, I think it's important to convey the emotions and not just cut away. So much about sex -- well, making love -- is about sharing and the intimacy shared by the characters. And so much about love stories is the love, connection and intimacy between these characters. To just "cut away and fade the black" seems like such a copout.

Then again, it's really difficult to do a love scene justice. Seriously, how many times can I say "they kissed" and how many different ways can I describe the kisses? It gets old. And unless the readers are voyeurs, I doubt they would want to witness all that lovey-doveyness.

Love scenes are difficult to write for a reason. You either go into the erotica territory and go all out with the details, or you cut away. But if you decide to delve into it to convey the emotions, then how do you go about it, to make it just right -- not too explicit, not too coy. How do you make your readers feel the heat and intimacy without making them squirm (or squirt!)?

I'm still learning.  I've written one love scene before (it's in my novel The Pacific Between), but the scene was not about love and intimacy, but more about role-playing, aggression, and self-awareness. That scene was less erotic and loving and more of a crude "mind-game."

The scenes I'm writing now are much more intimate and emotional and passionate, and it's been rather difficult for me, to know where the line is and how to do it just right. Of course, my own advice to myself would be to just write it, then fix it later. Still, I'm having some kind of resistance and my inner editor is screaming at me as I write.

It's going to be very interesting.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Aging? What aging?

A friend of mine, Jyoti, always says the cutesy things. Once she said, "You're only as old as you are." We laughed. We cried. We made fun of her until she threatened to not saying anything cute anymore - it didn't last long. But in a way, she was right. We are as old as we are.

It doesn't mean we have to feel as old as we are. Or look it. It is true that most of us are still mentally young no matter how old we are. Sometimes we still feel like we are teenagers, full of young ideas and childish thoughts and behaviors. We still like to play. We still fall in love. We lust. We act like foolish teens when we are around people we like. We bicker like we are still in high school. Some of us never grow up.

I think it's a good idea to keep yourself young at heart. The soul should never grow old. Your mind should grow wiser, but not older. Alas, if only our bodies could do the same. No matter what we do, our bodies age.

That's why it's very important to take care of ourselves. Mind and body. I truly believe in making an effort to fight aging, by living healthy and exercising both the body and mind. Sure, genetics has something to do with how we age. But if the oldest person in the world can live to over 150, it's incredible how our minds and bodies could work together to defy aging.

I keep my mind busy. I try to not stress about anything (stress is the #1 cause of many ailments, including premature aging). I exercise regularly. I check up with my doctor periodically to make sure everything works under the hood as well.

I never thought I would say this: I'm now in even better shape than I was in my 20s. Generally, I feel better, I work better, I look better. As the cliche goes, I'm at the top of my game. I look years younger than my actual age; in fact, a recent test puts my "real" age at 26. Everywhere I go, people ask me where I go to school, and that tickles me.

I'm not bragging, though. My point is that this is the only body we have, and we must protect and take care of it, as much as we take care of our minds. So many of us abuse our bodies, what with drugs and alcohol, or bad eating and exercising (or the lack of) habits. I mean, if you have only one child, would you abuse it? If not, why are you doing that to yourself?

Most people, though, don't realize they are not taking care of their bodies, until it's too late. Health related problems cost Americans hundreds of billions a year. It's now an epidemic. 1/3 of Americans are clinically obese. When I go to restaurants, I'm aghast by the food they serve and the portions, and how eagerly Americans consume the excess. We only need 2500 Calories to function properly, and we need certain nutrients, so why are we taking in 3500 or sometimes 5000 or more Calories heavy on fat and carbs and light on veggies and grains? It baffles my mind.

The other day I was at a public pool at the Y and I was alarmed by the number of obese children there. At least 40% of children and 80% of adults at the pool were significantly overweight. I'm not talking about a few extra pounds here. OBESE. It was astounding. What are those parents feeding these kids and don't they care! When pediatric diabetes is on the rise, how could they not know they are in danger?

This whole thing of "we eat and do what we want and worry about it later" has become a lifestyle in America. We consume so much food, enough to feed a nation with twice the US population. On average, we are carrying 30 pounds per person more than we should. If you don't know the effect those 30 pounds have on your body, do this: carry a 15lb dumbbell in each hand and walk around your house for an hour. How do you feel? Now, multiply that by 24 hours. Then multiply that by 365 days.

What did I just say about stress? If you put too much stress on a bridge, it will break eventually. Why do you think your body is any different?

A healthier America becomes a richer America - we won't have to consume so much; we'd have better productivity; we'd live longer, spend more time with our family; and we wouldn't have to spend so much money on healthcare. This is not rocket science. And yet so many people simply don't care enough to change.