Chivalry? Nah!

When I got out of the truck last night, headed for a movie, I walked to the front bumper and waited for my girlfriend to catch up. I allowed her to pass, then took her right hand in my left before turning right down the sidewalk. As we returned to our parking spot after the movie, sides were switched–her left hand now in my right.

Later that evening, as we ate ice cream out of the carton, we remembered our first date a couple of months ago. After a burger and a beer that December night, we walked down Market Street and across the river. “Do you remember which side of me you were on as we walked across the bridge?” I asked her. “Of course. You were on my left, as any gentleman would have been.” I smiled. Never had we discussed how we would arrange ourselves on a given sidewalk, but every time, instinctively, that is the way we do it. What I didn’t realize until this conversation, however, was that she was always making room for me in expectation of my positioning myself between traffic and her. And she had no way of knowing that I would have felt terribly amiss had I not taken that place.

She also had no way of knowing that on Sunday mornings when I was a young boy my father would always walk with me, a little faster than my mom, my sisters, and any other ladies heading from their cars to the church door, so that we could, together, open and hold it for them. We would continue holding that door for men, women, boys, and girls until either there was a long break in traffic, or another gentleman insisted on taking over duties for us.

When thanked for our behavior, we would respond with “You’re welcome ma’am or Sir,” though no thanks were ever expected. That is simply the way we did things.

Since moving back to the South nearly six years ago, I have been surprised and more than a little troubled to find that the attitudes I experienced in the upper Midwest regarding manners have crept into our southern society. Even here in the South, I am chastised for “Ma’aming” someone, told that “I’m not that old!” or educated that “I can get the door myself,” by women unaccepting of polite, respectful behavior. Ironically, I’ve never had a man complain about holding his door, or calling him “Sir”, and when I unlocked and opened the car door for a good friend (a heterosexual man of 37, by the way) before walking around to my own door, I received a simple “Thanks, Man” in return.

Then, today, while having my truck worked on at a local dealership, I was offered a loaner car for the day. Before signing the rental agreement, I was encouraged to walk out and inspect the car inside and out. Beginning on the driver side, I inspected the paint all the way around until I came to the front passenger door, at which time I reached in my pocket for the key to have a peep inside. But when I looked down at the door handle, I found no keyhole. I held the key close to the door, thinking it must be some kind of new smart lock. Nothing happened. I looked at the key for a remote entry button. None.

Walking back around the car, I found the only keyhole on the vehicle in the driver’s door. This was, of course, fine for my purposes. I unlocked the door and sat down to have a look for dirt, grime, tears, or other offenses. But what if I had been walking hand-in-hand with my girlfriend and approached her door first, or dashing to the car during a driving rain after lunch with my buddy? I would be completely unable to open the door without walking around the car, unlocking it, and walking back, by which time she would have opened the door herself and let herself in, or he would have been soaking wet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into Chivalry. I don’t think that able-bodied women (or men) need my help or are any less capable than I am of protecting themselves from oncoming traffic, heavy doors, or confusing, newfangled car door latches, but I do know that doing the little things for each other, putting others’ safety first, being polite, or showing a little respect makes me feel good. And being shown the same courtesies from others has a similar effect on me.

Maybe that rental Sentra comes with a remote opener that I was not afforded for our few hours together, but even if so, eventually batteries die and electronics wear out, so why not a little backup, just in case? Would it be that big a deal to put a little keyhole in the door like we have done for decades? And maybe the guy behind you at the store hasn’t earned having a door held for him, or perhaps you just had a fight with your girlfriend and think she deserves standing in the rain while you walk around the car… Fine, don’t do it for them. But try, just once, doing it for yourself and see how it makes you feel. You might be pleasantly surprised, and so might they.

St. Valentine’s Day… For the Birds

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day and the annual battle between the romantic and the cynic within me. On the outside, the cynic nearly always wins. It is too easy to openly mock the day as one, if not created, at least cultivated and commercialized, by Hallmark.  Inside, however, the romantic always fights back, aided if I am in a relationship on that fateful day by the usually unavailable pragmatist who understands the value of proclaiming and celebrating love.  And if commercialization of the holiday is not enough to keep the cynic on top, I ready my quiver of religious objection. Martyrs supporting church politics never have fared well with me.

In spite of it all, however, the romantic cannot be denied, and just as I proclaim my objections, deep inside me a helpless lover screams with a soft voice. And then this year, with the hanakwansolstimas season finally over I began dating a lovely woman who declared Valentine’s Day to be her favorite holiday. Suddenly, the romantic who so readily surfaces for writing with fountain pens, shaving with a straight razor, cooking with cast iron, using a clothesline, and the like finds himself face to face with his one last holdout.

“Who cares if it’s a commercial holiday?” she asks. “Isn’t any excuse to celebrate love a good excuse?”

I know she is right. And after all, it’s not like I would ever go out and buy someone else’s words and images mass produced for profit. I will do the same things I love to do year round–pick flowers by the roadside, surprise her with something creative, cook for her from scratch. Why not do it on February 14th? And yet, even with the romantic surfacing, the other voices, the one’s I have honored my entire life on this one day every year, are not silent. Someone asks me about my plans for tonight, and for a moment I freeze. Can I really say, “Yes we are having a special night just for Valentine’s day?” Can I not respond to the naysayers that I love to love, that I love to celebrate romance?

A couple hours ago I Googled Valentine’s day and found a surprise. Did you know that this day, named to honor a Christian Martyr, became a day for lovers in celebration of the songbirds who find their mates this time of year? Birds partnering for a season of love and procreation. Birds!

I got to thinking about my relationship with birds. I watch them, I feed them, I read about them and write about them, tell stories about them. I have a romantic relationship with them. I do not, however, visit the Cracker Barrel store and buy cheap bluebird houses with fake flowers and bible verses painted on them.

In the same way, the commercialization of plastic disposables does not make me buy Gillette, nor does it make me stop shaving. The same can be said for coffee. I don’t run out and buy Starbucks every morning, nor have I given up coffee. I hand grind beans in my own kitchen. I do not throw the baby out with the bathwater anywhere else, so why on this day and on this subject?

If I can take this path in nearly every other facet of my life, why not refuse to buy the heavily marketed flowers and sappy cards off the rack, while still honoring a day for romance? I am an undeniable hopeless romantic 364 days out of the year. This year I will turn over a new leaf and add one more day.

So, Vive la Valentine’s Day… for the love of birds! And I can’t wait to surprise my Valentine tonight. She will never expect the sunflower seeds I have in store for her…

Kings, Queens, Popes, and Jesters

We have all heard that George Washington was offered the position of king, and turned it down. Of course historians debunk this notion as flatly as the idea that the young George “could not tell a lie,” and confessed to chopping down a cherry tree.
And who doesn’t remember Camelot? I wasn’t born until 1967, and yet the images and rhetoric from the Kennedy presidency have been so prevalent in print, film, and text over nearly 50 years that I feel like I remember the actual events.

We are fascinated by the idea of royalty. By holding on to Washington’s myth, he somehow becomes much larger, grander, wiser to us. The same goes for Kennedy. When his widow Jacqueline described her husbands years in the White House as being a period of hope and optimism–an American Camelot, the media jumped on it and we embraced it, and as a result Kennedy’s legend has become…well, just that, legend.

It is not hard to see how easily that happens. We want to believe in people at their unbelievable best. Want a Moses to part the water, a King Arthur to rule benevolently, a Robin Hood to take care of the poor.

Problem is that such extreme greatness never seems to happen in our lifetimes or even in the verifiable past. So many of our religious leaders have affairs, or abuse children. we have seen not-for-profit charities being dishonest in their financial dealings. And don’t even get me started about our presidents.

But Americans have never given up on having our own royalty, so in the absence of the leader or hero to crown, we must look elsewhere for our kings and queens. Because with royalty comes wealth, we have a tendency to confuse the two, mistaking wealth for royalty, but wealth, even when coupled with humanitarianism doesn’t seem to be enough.

If it were, we would be crowning Kings Ted Turner, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who remain largely above the tabloid fray and try to use their wealth to better our world. Or, if royalty were more about power than benevolence, we need look no farther than the largest corporations–Walmart, Exxon, Chevron and the like, but again, the American people don’t view them in that light. Nobody wants to put a crown on the head of Exxon’s Director Michael J. Boskin. Who even knows his name?

No, American’s don’t look for power, kindness, or morality in the ones on whom we place our crowns. Money seems to be important to us, but when it comes to granting royal status, we tend to turn away from the more kingly traits and place the castle jewels on the jesters.

Just yesterday I heard a reference on a popular NPR radio show to  “American Royals, the Kardashians.” When Glamour Magazine polled it’s readers as to whom they consider America’s royal couple, along with the names Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and Beyonce and Jay-Z. And a recent poll by Public Policy Polling recently declared Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers King of Wisconsin. I don’t know which is more frightening, that a quarterback would be crowned king or that time and money were spent determining which quarterback should wear the crown.

I could go on and on with my list, but I think you get the point. Americans want to be entertained, and we worship those who entertain us best. We would sooner crown a jester in all his pomp, buffoonery, and scandal than a wise, benevolent, even altruistic leader, which brings me to the clown who got me thinking about all this.

On Christmas Eve in his homily, Pope Benedict XVI came down on the commercialization of Christmas and suggested to his followers to “ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season.” Later in his address, he spoke of the barn in Bethlehem believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and of the entrance to the chapel on the site with an opening merely one and a half meters high. He suggested that this small opening–much smaller than the original–was “above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down.”

I couldn’t help but ponder such words from a man whose house and real estate value over 900 million dollars, who rides around in a specially-designed one-of-a-kind car, whose wardrobe eclipses those of Elton John and Elvis, and who appears to his followers from a high balcony overlooking a massive courtyard.

It all seems a bit hypocritical to me, but it also fits the American model of royalty. He is wealthy beyond belief, his business is riddled with sexual scandal and coverups, he dresses like Liberace, claims a special relationship with God, all the while espousing the nature of Jesus–a man with no business, no house, no money, by all accounts morally pure, and who preached that his followers could do greater things than him.

It makes perfect sense then that royalty-loving Americans would be big fans of the Pope. He brings it all to the table. Step aside Kim Kardashian. To the sidelines Aaron Rodgers. By American standards, Pope Benedict is more king-worthy than either of you. And he has one more qualification–birthright. I’m pretty certain that Brad and Angelina’s parents weren’t royal, and there is no guarantee their children will amount to anything, but this pope, the last pope, and the next pope will certainly come from the same Vatican fraternity–the college of cardinals.

Makes me wonder…if the Vatican sold all its holdings, and the pope were left  with one humble outfit, a single pair of sandals, and a bowl, would anybody care what he has to say?