The Ambages – How a Fictional Family Became the Cornerstone of My Mind

Ambage: noun – an archaic term for intentional ambiguity or indirect ways or proceedings (usually presented as the plural “ambages”; Middle English via French and Latin)

Intentional ambiguity is not a literary device that most writers would seek to employ, but if we’re going to talk about the secondary definition regarding “indirect ways” then it does describe my first drafts well. After the word “the,” I think my most frequently used words are “but,” “though,” and “although.” It’s about putting forth an idea and then immediately easing off so as not to cause offence because I’m a socially anxious person.

The significance of “Ambage” is both deeper and more superficial than the library definition though. At the time “Ambage” first occurred to me, I was unaware that it was a term beyond Grammarly recognising the spelling. It serves as an acronym that a reader could pronounce without much difficulty using the required letters, the idea of which being to serve as the surname for a family in my writing.

For the purposes of today’s post, it serves as a sort of flashpoint for several topics that have been weighing on my mind because the name and family exist at the intersection of those ideas.

Little Women, a Little Man, and Identity

I have written several times about Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” as it’s my favourite novel and now one of my favourite films (if not number one). When I first read the novel in my younger years, I fell in love with Jo March but what hooked me was the character of Laurie. Jo is someone with whom I identify thoroughly; Laurie makes the story accessible in a different way though. He’s a boy living next door to a quartet of sisters and desperate to be part of their lives. He begins as an outsider looking in, having important moments with Meg and a complicated relationship with Jo before finally marrying Amy.

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation unlocked more depth to the story. For one thing, she (and Florence Pugh) transformed Amy from the annoying baby of the March clan to a complex character that begs compassion. She forms a wonderful foil to Jo, as well as a natural counterbalance (the sense who understands the mercenary nature of marriage) to Meg (the sensibility who married poor for love despite having occasional lavish wants).

By taking the second half of “Little Women” and laying it on top the first half to tell both in parallel, I also found that it had something profound to say about the nature of womanhood. The March sisters are girls in the first half of the story, focused on their artistic endeavors (Meg acts, Jo writes, Beth plays music, and Amy paints), future wants, and being sisters. The second half features them as titular “little women,” with Meg getting married, Beth dying, and Amy venturing off to Europe before returning as a married woman.

Jo, the protagonist, exists amidst all of this action, lamenting the death of their childhoods as things start to change. She is attempting to navigate a tapestry of contradictions – women are more than pretty things for men to desire, but she also wants to feel desired. She wants to be a great writer, but she pursues cheaper topics that will sell and fulfill a practical purpose (which Bhaer congenially challenges at one point).

Full analysis of the novel aside, it paints a picture of girlhood, for all its own challenges, as an idyllic time before the harsh realities of life dig into a woman (it’s not specific to girls; boys also have a degree of insulation that gets ripped away year by year). It furthered cemented my identification with Laurie as a boy so desperate to be a part of it.

More personally, I have said many a time that I “feel like I was supposed to be a girl and someone got it wrong.” I said it in a joking tone with only the most trustworthy company, and then assumed an even more hushed tone as the subject of trans rights grew in the public discourse. It felt insensitive to discuss the subject because, at the end of the day, I was a man.

Society identifies trans people as one thing at birth and then they correct it. I was born male and identified as a man, which remains true, and I am therefore cisgender. It’s an important distinction but I think one that has helped me to understand better and sympathise with trans experiences.

The Ambage Family

Before the name existed, the idea did. Much like Laurie with the March sisters and my genuine experience (oldest of boys only, no neighbouring kids, mostly boy friends as a child), I was a boy outside the feminine world and looking in, wanting to belong. A few other posts here discuss the impossibility of that. It’s like the existential concept of the Look and the Other – I could observe the world from the outside, as one through a keyhole, but the moment that world met my gaze and I become an active part of it, it also changes to accommodate my (male) presence. Even among a group of women who trust me as best as anyone can, I’m still a man in a space filled with subconscious biases that change the environment.

AMBAGE came about as a result of several fictional “families” in my writings. The exact nature of the family changes depending on the project, but they maintain a similar relationship with the male protagonist in that they represent a window into the feminine (each member amplifying particular characteristics through those relationships), much as the March sisters do in “Little Women.”

The origin of “Ambage” was a silly idea of trying to make a word of the first initial of important women in my life – a sort of real-life March “family.” A, A, B, E, G, and M, rearranged in various configurations (Bagame, Gambea…) until I found something the felt like an actual, not silly name.

Only two lend themselves to full disclosure.

The first A pulls double duty as both Aislyn and Alice – neither of which represent an actual person but rather aspects of myself. Aislyn Quirke (first name from the Irish aisling, “dream or vision”; surname an Anglicised version of “Ó Cuirc” or “descendant of Corc,” a given name meaning “heart”). So, her name was derived as, rather literally, “a dream/vision of heart.” I have had recurring dreams (hence the role of “dream” in the naming) of a woman with raven black hair and piercing blue eyes for years.

A particular dream occurred with some regularity. I am laying on a sofa in a library, facing large windows that look out onto a freshly snow-covered yard surrounded by woods. She lays against the back of the sofa with one arm behind my head and her other hand resting on my chest, her head nuzzled into my neck with the smell of her hair and perfume filling my nose. We look out into the yard where a girl is playing around a snowman with our two dogs.

That girl would become Alice, named simply for the Lewis Carroll character whose curiosity made her a favourite of mine. She’s the same Alice referenced in one of my first posts, and someone I reference anytime the prospect of having a child arises (also why, though I would be happy with a son, I do have a hope that if we have a child she is a daughter – which my wife and I have already decided would be named Alice).

The other letter I can reveal in full is E – that being Emma Watson. Funny that the name should start with one and end with the other, as they represent the two most extreme cases in the set (A being fictional and E being parasocial – the rest are real people with whom I have actual relationships). I have written about Emma Watson on several occasions as well, with varying degrees of restraint because I feel awkward when it comes to the truth. She is a the celebrity crush and represents a different sort of ideal in my life – one based in parasocial distance. Obviously, I do not know her personally, so the crush reflects my perception of her as a person through her public appearances rather than direct experience.

That perception represents my ideal person though. What I would say accurately describes the situation is that if Emma Watson is anything within the realm of my perception, she reflects my ideal person. And ideal is itself something of a problematic notion there because between my OCPD and social anxiety (as I said a flashpoint for all of the topics I often discuss) I am dreadfully afraid of shattering that perception. When something pokes at the anxiety, I get into a catastrophising, binary way of thinking, and in this case, it means either that I would realise how wrong my perception is and lose that sense of enchantment and adoration or that I would realise my perception was correct and how inadequate I am to be in that situation.

Still, I think in the context of this piece one can appreciate the significance of her persona.

The M refers to my wife, a profound relationship in life and one that I get to share with my perfect complement. We balance one another extremely well, providing equal measures of support and challenge in a cooperative environment – my wife and I disagree but rarely fight because of our commitment to one another and making life easier. We love each other deeply and dearly, complete with an openness that I never would have thought possible in my younger years.

I must refrain from naming the other three as well, except to say that they also have something of an archetypal role in the “family”. B was my first “girlfriend,” someone that I met in grade school at a time when girls were, to many, still rife with cooties. I found her cute and charming in a vaguely romantic way. Who understands romance all that well in the fourth grade though? We were a couple for quite a while, which consisted of attending birthday parties and school dances, with all of the slow dances reserved for each other. My social anxiety, present even then, made things a challenge because I could not find the courage to kiss her and struggled even with the dances – resorting to a “Frankenstein” dance where we kept at arm’s length with my hands as strategically placed on her hips as possible. I wanted to be respectful. Too low was inappropriate, but I felt that too high would also offend her. When she made the move one night to dance in a full embrace, I had my first of many panic attacks as I felt her heart racing both against my own chest and in my hands. The social anxiety caused enough distance she eventually moved on to pursue other boys when it was clear I was not ready to advance to an actual romance.

The other A was a coworker who appeared at a low point in my life (shortly after the death of my grandfather, my first real loss and an unexpected one at that). Being old enough to start work, I distracted myself from the grief by throwing myself at it (something to which I was already prone with my as-yet undiagnosed OCPD). She was a stabilising force and also a peer, though she was two grades ahead of me in school and someone I regarded physically as an absolute goddess. It was her tendency to look after me as an older sister might while I developed a stronger and stronger crush – one on which I could never act because I had no business being with her.

I have written about her before because she is my biggest regret in life. Not because I never told her how I felt, but because I did tell her in a most inappropriate way. It was years ago in the days that Facebook was competing with MySpace in terms of social media dominance, and profiles had the option to include phone numbers and addresses for friends to access. We were friends on Facebook, and she had that information posted.

For several weeks, I kept with me a letter I had written as an effort to break the crush, a letter written to her that I had no intention of delivering. One weekend I found myself in her city visiting a museum with friends and the idea occurred to me that I could deliver the letter if I wanted. I went to Facebook, got the address, went to her apartment building, and asked the employee working at the lobby desk if she would pass along the letter.

What upsets me to this day is that I can never apologise for that violation. To me it was a matter of convenience and selfishness, an opportunity to let her know how I felt without expecting anything as she could decide to ignore it altogether if she wanted. Less than an hour later I received text messages asking if I’d hoped for a response and why I wasn’t still there, and by the time I’d arrive home she and I were still friends on Facebook, but her address was gone. Even then I thought selfishly of it, “She removed it because she realised someone bad might use it.” After all, I was one of the good guys TM who would never do anything inappropriate with it. It would be another couple of years before I understood how impossible it is for women to tell the good guys apart from the good guys TM and therefore just how egregious a violation my decision was. I always wanted to apologise for it, but I can’t without committing the same violation again.

The final letter, G, was a high school classmate who existed alongside B and A at a tumultuous time. Despite the story I just shared, I was starting to awaken to matters of gender equality and feminism. Elements of toxic masculinity were obvious to me, and I was attempting to sort my grief and confused sense of identity while competing with that. B and I had “broken up” many years before and I never dated A, but both were also present in school with me during this time. In my senior year of high school, a mysterious note that I was “hot” had been engraved into the paint on my locker with a pencil eraser. Others indicated to me that B was behind the message, but I had recently started my first real relationship and felt bad about the idea of ending a definite one for the prospect of starting one with B.

Amidst all of that chaos, G was a kind, intelligent, and beautiful classmate of mine who I felt transcended the archetypes common in high school. She ought to have been one of the “untouchable hot girls” in our class, the popular “it” girl who was only available to date for the elite boys and who could date any boy she chose. G was not like that though. While she had friends in that circle who would never talk to me unless they needed something, like help on a school project, she always had time for a kind word or conversation. She was someone my gut kept saying, “Asking her out – she’s too good for you but let her be the one to decide that.” I never could work up that courage though. On looks alone I thought, my anxiety could never survive her saying yes to dating me. The alternative is rejection.

The Feminine Side

Men get to be a mixture of the charming mannerisms of the women they have known.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

While the Ambage sisters of fictional pieces assume different characters based on the needs of the story, the six (technically seven) women who provide the letters for the acronym are my real-life March sisters. My experiences with them form the core of my experience with the feminine, and that’s something I cherish.

As stated at the outset, I have said on occasion that I feel I was meant to be a girl, and something got changed. I am not a woman, but I am a man who enjoys and even prefers traditionally feminine things.

One of the biggest incidences of this is scent. I have struggled for many years with my gendered associations with smell. Somewhere in my mind it became wired that men sweat and have a natural tendency towards body odor as a result. When I think of guys, I think back to the gym bags of soccer gear and, worse yet, ice hockey equipment bags. Both of those have an odd appeal to me because they recall memories of fun and competition, but they are objectively awful smells (quick side note: if you are watching an ice hockey game and see a player put the palm of his glove in another player’s face – called a face wash – and wondered why, it’s because the palm of that glove has one of the most objectionable smells on this planet). On the “positive” side, we have cologne. My opinion was always that men’s cologne smelled like chemicals or gasoline, and I based my decision on cologne entirely on whether I thought other people would like it. I possessed only a sociopathic ability to identify that others would find a cologne pleasant while disliking it immensely myself.

Women, on the other hand, possessed bouquets of natural beauty. I’m sure cologne follows a similar approach, but my sense of smell is not refined enough to appreciate it. Kind of like someone who possesses zero musical knowledge but still enjoys music, I enjoy scents on an instinctual level driven largely by familiarity over an academic ability to articulate why it works. The familiar florals and fruits of perfumes speak more to me, and they represent a freshness and charm. I slowly gave in over time and decided to try a “women’s perfume.” My wife, with her bloodhound nose, noticed immediately that I had a new smell about me but kept inventing her own reasons why that might be, such as candles about the house. When she realised on around the third day that it was directly coming from me, she remarked at how nice it smelled. I confessed that it was a “women’s” scent rather than a “man’s” and she embraced how much it improved my mood, adding that it suited me very well.

I think that’s an important part of the overall conversation. “Traditionally feminine.” At the end of the day, it’s a perfume. Cologne is literally a perfume from the city of Cologne, until someone decided that marketing fragrances to men required a clever change in nomenclature (men have journals, not diaries; they were chains, not necklaces – and other sorts of fragility like that). There are people born men who identify as women – transwomen, who are women. I’m a man who likes scents that are “traditionally feminine” but ultimately not gendered in any real way.

I find this important to mention because, in my younger years, I viewed transwomen simply as men who embraced feminine things. They were equal to men just as any woman is, but I did not understand it well enough. I also mention it here because gender equality and civil rights matter to me, so I try to be open about my thoughts in this area so I can learn more. I am secure enough in my masculinity to embrace “traditionally feminine” things more openly.

That remains a balancing act in my life, especially when it comes to characteristics. We have all of these qualities that misogyny identifies as masculine or feminine. Men cannot possess the feminine ones without being seen as weak, and women cannot possess any of them. If they possess qualities that are “too masculine,” society labels them as bitchy or mean or angry. The truth is that women are always too anything though, in the sense that people will just as quickly weaponize a woman being too [feminine quality] if the situation calls for it. As one dramatic example, one woman who has had four sexual partners can be simultaneously a “whore” and a “prude” depending on who is making the judgment.

For me, the question is how to celebrate the things that I personally enjoy like kindness, diplomacy, parental compassion, and so forth, things misogynistically referred to as feminine without reinforcing them as feminine-only and while supporting the LGBTQ+ community by not implying that gender is non-existent. There’s saying the right things, and then there’s living the conviction and having the courage not to hide behind privilege and gender roles when situations feel tougher.

Some things, especially these qualitative things, I have always found more myself and more enjoyable in other people – they just happened to be things that society said were “feminine.”

Other things I enjoy, but I do so from more of a distance. For example, my wife and I often talk about clothing. Men’s clothing is remarkably pragmatic. I walk into a store, find a pair of pants that is roughly 33/33, and walk out with them. I don’t even have to try them on to guarantee a good fit. Shirts are similar (unless they button, in which case Seinfeld is right and the top button makes or breaks the shirt). My wife is a size 4 to 14 depending on the store and, more miserably, depending on the fit of the particular clothing item. Within a store and even with a brand, her specific size may differ, and she has to consider what she is wearing with that item to ensure a fit. Plus, nothing ever has pockets.

All of that said, men’s clothes are boring. We do have a variety of styles, but generally speaking one walks around a store and finds a finite selection of styles in a finite selection of fabrics and they fall in similar styles. What I have long adored about women’s clothes is the artistry. For all of the challenge of building a wardrobe, once done it is something to behold. I see so many different textures and fits and weights – looking at one top that looks warm, heavy, and cosy while looking at another that appears weightless and breezy. The look of the clothing conjures up emotions, feelings, and memories.

I feel the same way about our bodies in the most generic way (there are, of course, a host of body types for all genders – this is 1000% a generalised observation). To quote Elaine Benes:

Well, the female body is…a work of art. The male body is utilitarian. It’s for getting around, like a Jeep.

It’s not that men are inherently charmless, it’s that we again have gendered stereotypes of what is attractive and while delivered as a joke nearly two decades ago, what I recognise in Elaine’s comment is that the male standard of beauty is quite utilitarian. It’s a standard based largely on physical strength and stamina, with the unanimous votes for male beauty going to men like Idris Elba, Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans. It is beauty derived from physical work. I won’t deny that it’s a fair assessment (I regard them all as beautiful people), but it’s a narrow definition with a utilitarian focus.

Women have a more artistic appeal. I am fascinated by the line of a woman’s body, perhaps only because of the juxtaposition with a man’s, and there’s something to be said about how the fashion opinion interacts with this. Again, this is speaking generally in a “traditional femininity” way, because if we consider any specific element (I, for one, like upper arms, shoulders, collarbones, and the neck area), there will be men who have a similar appearance – still attractive.

I think a bigger aspect is the attachment of those other qualities to the aesthetic. Objects can be beautiful as well, but they’re objects. Animals and other people have personalities, character, and a soul behind it that amplifies the effect. Take someone with a kind heart and their physical beauty radiates. Take someone who meets a more objective social criteria of “beautiful” with a cruel heart and decent people still find them off-putting.

It’s another of those personal truths that I don’t like to discuss. We’re going back to the good guys TM discussion from earlier. I find a wholesome sense of casual adoration in quiet moments with someone kind, taking a moment to appreciate how beautiful they are as its own reward. Unless I have a strong enough relationship with the person though, I try to repress that because I don’t want them to feel that I’m putting that on them. It’s a version of “you should smile more” where I start to feel like, “She doesn’t want to know that you think she’s attractive. She’s not here to be attractive for you, she’s simply existing.”

Do people think that? I don’t know – all I know is that I don’t want to risk it. I have been around plenty of conversations with men to know that comments about whether a woman is physically attractive can turn to comments about sex far too easily, and I have no desire to be associated with that. When I was younger, I did not understand the correlation between physical attractiveness and sexual appeal. It wasn’t until a few years ago that a friend introduced me to the concept of demisexuality and I learned that maybe it was just my particular attitude towards it. Without an emotional and intellectual connection with the specific person, sex is something unappealing to me (it feels like using another person for selfish reasons – the connection makes it about the specific person).

One of my recent (poor) attempts at poetry was about the image of two water droplets coming together, and that’s the version of sex I developed. One hears that corny analogy of the “special hug” people use to describe it to children, but that is kind of how the idea formed in my head. It’s a feeling of being so enchanted with the other person that you cannot get close enough, like you’re both trying to defy physics and occupy the same space. In my head, sex exists simply as an expression of a particular type of love. The idea that sex enters into just any interaction (an idea based on the general tendency of men to catcall and objectify) is enough for me to repress most expressions of appreciation towards women. One of my biggest truths and yet one that I am least inclined to speak.

Anyway, I think that is quite enough for one post (especially by Internet post standards – “indirect ways,” am I right?). It’s covered mental health, feminism, LGBTQ rights, “Little Women” fandom, and plenty of other topics, but they all orient around a sort of “psychic turbulence” that I’ve battled lately (mostly thanks to the Wizard Lady never biting her tongue). Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks!

Until we speak again!

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