Irv’s Phantom Strength

“You might call it ‘false masculinity’, I suppose,” said the skeleton of my father, philosophically. “It was a kind of hyper-masculine pose where I pretended nothing could penetrate my armor, and that anyone who didn’t wear armor was a weakling who couldn’t take a punch.  It embarrasses me now to realize how transparently weak that pose is.”

It’s a pose of strength, with an emphasis on pose.  It’s a stance taken to give the impression of great strength, by revealing nothing but disgust poised to explode into righteous anger.  It answers need with silence, withholds that which is most needed.  

“Well, it is a pose, and it does create a certain impression,” said the skeleton. “The thing is, I suppose the beauty and horror of it, is how easy it is to do.  You can completely negate your opponent solely through body language, facial expression, non-verbal cues and, if words are needed, a few clipped, terse ones are all it takes.  The main thing is to give nothing, cede not a millimeter.  Less is more.  Think of that mask of masculine malice Clint Eastwood wears in so many movies.  The squinted eyes, the stony stare, the upright posture, the monosyllabic rejoinders, the unstated but perfectly articulated threat of violence.  It is an implacable pose, for sure.”  

Here’s the really devilish part, that pose of strength works best when deployed against vulnerable people, people prone to fear, like children, naturally weak and dependent, intuitive and easily confused.  It takes nothing to make a child feel like the innately inferior race ruled on summarily in Dred Scott, ‘with no rights that the white man was bound to respect.’  

“Well, listen Elie, you have a problem here.  What you’re saying is true, but it’s not a story element.  You’re committing the cardinal undergrad writing shortcut– telling rather than showing.  You want your reader to feel what you’re driving at here, abstraction won’t do.  You’ll have to dredge up some painful ancient memory where you were made to feel exactly the way you are describing here.  You have to narrate it, show us this mechanism in action, make us feel how it felt.  Just laying it out abstractly isn’t going to butter the biscuit, as your friend the madman was wont to say,” said the skeleton.  

Funny you should mention my friend the madman, dad.   The way he turned into a hissy, provocative version of Uncle Paul in the end.   Mom always hated Uncle Paul because she found him to be a bully.   He bullied her because he thought he could get away with it.  He was afraid of you, so he was overbearing with mom, whenever they were alone.  

“Well, that’s the classic bully, the person was bullied by someone stronger and it instills this burning need to take it out on somebody. In my brother Paul’s case he was bullied by his much bigger older brother, me, and he takes out his rage by tormenting people he feels like he can dominate.   Funny, you always saw Paul as a mild-mannered, bright, kind of corny guy who just wanted to be liked.  Mom saw that other side of him early on, which you saw for the first time much later on, that year you and your sister went to spend Passover with him and Barbara.  You were an adult already when you saw that enraged, autocratic Paul that mom was so repelled by.”

Yeah, it is funny how it can sometimes take literally decades to see exactly what was on the end of your fork all along.

“Naked Lunch,” said the skeleton.  “Well, anyway, you’ve transcribed your full-color notes on this point and can fold up the tents for the night.   Why not go get some sleep?”


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