What We Mean When We Say Earned: On ‘Winesburg, Ohio,’ Fact-Based Beatings, and the Fight Against Toxic Masculinity
By Dan Bjork
I thought I found my hook for Winesburg, Ohio early on, in the “Mother” chapter, soon after we spent the previous pages with Whig Biddlebaum, formerly the Pennsylvania school teacher Adolph Myers, falsely accused of being improper with his students, now in hiding in the town of his aunt. The trauma of his former life has manifested itself in his hands — his hands were what the townsfolk in Pennsylvania kept referencing as they beat him — and he keeps them hidden at all times, except where his story peaks, while giving an inspirational speech to George Willard in which he touches the youth’s head and then shoulders and then runs to his house, still in mid-sentence. The next chapter shifts to the perspective of George Willard’s mother, who sees “a secret something in him which is striving to grow,” and is considering killing her husband after she hears him telling her son it’s time to wake up and make something of himself.
I have a soft-spot for this clockwork narrative structure, especially when used to approach the nature of a group of people, partly because one of my earliest reading memories is of a series about a high school football team, which, on a book-by-book basis, functioned the same way. (Which I could’ve sworn was called Blitz. But that doesn’t exist on the Internet; no YA series from the ’80s about a high school football team does.) Each book focused on a different member of the team — the running back, the wide receiver, a defensive lineman — and just like here, the characters you’ve met in previous POVs drift into others as ancillary characters. Reading this so young, it formed my romantic expectations of the high school experience, similar to the way other ’80s babies from back home talk with longing about Saved by the Bell. I was eager to spend this week’s entry probing this strain of sentimentality inside me — I’ve almost come to blows defending the clockwork structure of the middle section of The Savage Detectives — it was the perfect way to tie this week’s book to football in a way that was germane to both.
(There might or might not be an internal Football Book Club e-mail chain discussing the difficulties of linking Winesburg, Ohio to the NFL. An internal e-mail chain I smirked at — you all should’ve been reading organized football propaganda when you were six, like me — until our fearless leader jumped in and said we’re a book club first, such connections are unnecessary.)
Which is good, because I could not shake the chapter about the falsely accused school teacher. The chapter titled “Hands.” I wrote what follows on my phone (or at least the jagged first draft of the rest of this) sitting on the wooden bench at the 110th Street, 1-Train subway station, after my first day of work this school year, sweaty and exhausted and wanting more than (almost) anything to check out for the day, as train after train stopped and then passed without me. (If you missed last week, I’ve spent the eight years following my MFA on the most amazing fellowship: I’m the afterschool daycare of a [now] 11-year-old boy.) The worday began with a four-year-old girl (whom I’ve never officially been employed to watch) running to me and jumping in my arms and then preceding to tell me how long my hair was now –– “you’re silly, actually, because only girls have long hair” — while playing with it. In full view of at least three dozen other adults, including her mother and grandmother.
In connection to that moment, here’s the description of the main character of “Hands” as a school teacher.
With the boys of his school, Adolph Myers had walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster’s effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.
I tousle hair. I give hugs. I put an arm around shoulders. At this point, eight years in, I’m pretty much an open receiver and returner of tactile affirmation. And to some of these boys, I am the default male source of such in their lives (none of whom, I should mention, I am being paid to watch).
Those are two scary paragraphs. Or at least, they are scary for me to type, even when the hugs and hair tousles and arms around shoulders are buried deep beneath those cold, Latinate words. It feels like a mathematical certainty that I’ve lost some chunk of you already — “that shit’s just creepy, man” — and that’s completely understandable. What sort of subjectively — or benefit of the doubt — with you all have I truly earned?
(Which, of course, I’m now going to spend the next seven paragraphs futilely attempting to do.)
I do have the memory of a Rubicon moment, although given the malleable nature of these things, I can’t be certain it was the first. It’s simple enough, a rainy day on a standing, once-a-week playdate, when the boy I watch and a few of his friends were all gathered around a television, going life for life in Mario Galaxy. The boys were around seven years old at this point. At the end of one boy’s turn, he came to me to give me the controller and mindlessly climbed up into my lap. Something that wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if I were a woman, or maybe even his sitter. But I was neither. There’s no simple-fact correlation between the two of us. I knew this was one of those “never go behind a closed door” situations I was supposed to run from as quick as possible.
But I remembered a different rainy day, not too long before, at the same apartment but when we were to play a board game instead. It was soon decided we would play Monopoly, and I went to their game closet (which is about the size of the room I rented in graduate school) and pulled out a San Francisco themed edition of the game. The plastic was already removed. As I walked back to the dining room I opened to box, to make sure this set had two dice (and money and houses and whatnot; more than half of the board games I’ve come across at work are dreadfully incomplete), but here I had a complete set, miraculously so, even the money was still sorted. I emerged from the box well into the dining room, with the same seven-year-old boy staring at me, crying.
“My dad gave me that,” and he snatched the game from me as he ran past to his room.
Now, his dad hadn’t passed. This Monopoly set hadn’t become infused as some family artifact because of a single-sentence tragedy. His dad was in the next room, playing with his laptop, waiting for a car to come to take him to yet another business flight out of the country.
And I just said fuck it, this boy can play Mario Galaxy in my lap if he wants to.
Back to my first day of work this school year, the day that immediately proceeded the wooden bench at 110th Street (and murdered my maybe-amazing ’80s YA high school football entry for this week). It was this past Friday, and the first day of school. A half day, noon dismissal. Solely to get the kids acclimated to their new classrooms. I picked up 10 children. Ten young boys, between the ages of eight and 12. Which then swelled to 13 once we’d finished lunch and found our way to the park. That’s 13 young egos that ate pizza or spring rolls or Five Guys for lunch and then will run around in the 85 degree sun for hours until their bodies rebel and they morph into low-blood sugared, emotional time-bombs, with something as small as a clash of ankles making them well up and writhe on the ground.
I’m going on eight years of this. A dozen or so half-days (or non-public school holidays) per year, in NYC, where half-days are fucking golden because by 4pm someone to whom NYC Parks has rented wherever you’re playing shows up and this happens (and, on this very day, it was by the Red Bulls-associated West Side Soccer, which had a permit for 4pm, but kicked us off promptly at 3:32pm.) Eight years with the boy who owns San Francisco Monopoly, who now has no problems simply running across the field to hug to me. And it’s contagious. Other boys will ask for a hug when they see it. And as corny as I sounded last week, I think I’ve done a pretty good job creating a space where boys can play team sports competitively, but without most of the toxic masculinity that comes with this. And this spontaneous evolution, this group of friends who (now) have no issue whatsoever with innocent tactile affirmation as a form of currency, as a corporeal indicator of empathy (between each other; nowadays I’m a part of only a small fraction of this), is a huge part of it. A huge part I don’t really deserve credit for, except maybe because I didn’t squash it. Because I did nothing when faced with those Rubicon moments.
And the four-year-old girl from the very beginning? Her brother is best friends with the boy I watch. They too have a standing, once-a-week playdate. We eat dinner there before we leave. That’s a full afternoon and half an evening I spend with her. Her father is out of town 15 to 20 days a month. This makes me, at the generous least, the number two male influence in her life. We’ve been there the past three Halloweens, I’m the adult who’s taken her trick-or-treating — I have a series of amazing photos — and she’s going to be heartbroken this year when Halloween falls on a Saturday (she’s already told me about all the costumes she’s considering).
But how far can a cascade of facts really go toward earning subjectivity? What can eight years of such day-in and day-out invoke in someone else, if they weren’t actually there to experience it? Let’s head back to “Hands.”
And then the tragedy. A half-witted boy of school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts. Strange, hideous accusations fell from loosehung lips. Through the Pennsylvania town went a shiver. Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men’s minds concerning Adolph Myers galvanized into beliefs.
The tragedy did not linger. Trembling lads were jerked out of bed and questioned, “He put his arms about me,” said one. “His fingers were always playing in my hair,” said another.
That second paragraph is a headshot. It was to Adolph, as it would be to me. It’s all true. Adolph was dragged out of bed, by a mob led by an irate saloon owner. And he was beaten to within an inch of his life while the saloon owner and the mob almost chanted in unison about his hands. Keep your hands away from our kids. The truth wasn’t why they were beating him, but it was the truth they were invoking while they did it.
Now, for our purposes here, I’m interested in this solely as an exploration of the nature of earned subjectivity. (And not at all as the plight of those accused by a single source — I’m writing this from the library of a university that gives the plight of young men accused by a single source enough benefit of the doubt for the entire of the human race. Also, fuck that noise.) As a (aspiring) fiction writer, as an MFA holder and veteran of at least a dozen workshops, this is how I’ve always wanted to take our trampled usage of the word “earned.” As a subjectivity slowly infused in the audience, in the rest of the opinion-forming populous, that does hold up in the face of an irate saloon owner and the rest of his mob, screaming about your hands.
Which might only be realistic in fiction.
And yet, if I were Adolf, I have complete faith the boy I am paid to watch would not waiver. In the earned subjectivity between us. He knows me; he knows he knows me. And I have a reasonable hope that his bloody-fist insistence is all his parents would need; they know me as well. And, in addition to them, I have a little less than one handful of people (not from work), in whom I feel confident in the earned subjectivity between us. But my real question is: is this what we’re asking of our fiction? For a door to the sort of earned subjectivity of an interpersonal connection that comes but a handful of times in one life — so rare and amorphous and impossible to communicate in simple declarative sentences that it could never be more convincing than even one irate saloon owner. (And really, how much did those seven paragraphs sway you? As content as I am with them, they’d never fly in the face of such a man. In the face of a mob that can beat you while chanting facts. I’m not even so sure they fly in the face of the potentially creepy paragraphs that preceded them. Earned subjectivity is fucking hard.)
If this is how we’re using “earned” when we talk about fiction — if we’re saying fiction is the best (and maybe only) way to communicate such a connection between people; or moreover, that fiction can create a reasonable facsimile of this between an author/character and its audience, and maybe even that fiction is the only shot we have at such an experience on a large, shared scale — then I am all for it. Whatever helps people feel less alone.
Image Credit: Flickr.