Thursday, April 28, 2005

Correspondence

So, I replied to my brother’s last email, the one in which he stated that I was a Montreal bagel. I said, politely, that I wasn’t sure what he meant by this. His response:

A Montreal bagel implies that you aren't posing, that the eye follows you around because it sees you and that you've taken a lot of care while making up your aura. Your aura. The reason you make the news and are seen by young adults (builders) in the lounge/airport bar/city. Soul, not white flour which is blown around by the wind, itinerant and has no ties to the community. You've got soul V., where'd you get it?

I am realizing that my relationship with my brother now consists largely of reciprocal acts of interpretation.

I have noticed certain recurring metaphors. For example, my brother conceives of the university as an airport lounge, something akin to Marc Augé’s non-places. The lounge is remarkably Platonic, a sphere of ideas that is at a remove from everyday life. It is weightless and arid; I can almost hear Eno’s Music for Airports playing over the PA system. It is where he thinks I spend my days.

I haven’t the heart to tell him what it’s really like.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

More other people's stuff

Some posts I've been meaning to write, but better writers got to them first:

First up, a fine piece on the current and likely fleeting celebrity of Montreal (among other things) by the recently exiled Iso G. It's funny how all the hoopla started after you left, isn't it G.?

Next, a veracious account of the insomniac life by fellow sufferer, Kirsten Cameron. This is one of my favourite blogs, by the way.

Finally, a thought-provoking obituary for the late Andrea Dworkin by, well, since everyone else has a nom de guerre here, let's just call him the Professor.

More soon.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Risk management

A quiet, rainy Saturday. I was supposed to have dinner and drinks with Atomic and the girls, but due to a pandemic of lingering hangovers, we decided to reschedule. My meeting calendar cleared, I spent the remainder of the day puttering around the apartment and enjoyed this immensely.

Last night, Jonathan asked me about my relationship with Phil, and I found myself explaining that, for about ten of our thirteen years together, we had an open relationship. It was strange to talk about it, since it feels so far away, but it reminded me of how I used to think about these things.

It was my idea, of course. After reading too much de Beauvoir at far too young an age, I decided that open relationships were the only kind that made any sense. Ada likes to call them “hipster relationships,” which they may well be, but that’s not the reason I had them.

My decision was informed by an earnest blend of pragmatism (why end a perfectly good relationship simply because you want to have sex with someone else?), romanticism (if we’re meant to be together, then being with others is no threat to us), Marxism (human beings, and women especially, are not property), and Kantianism (people are ends and never means). I genuinely believed in these principles, insofar as I understood them, and I made a sincere effort to conduct my relationships accordingly.

These days, I’m not at all sure what kind of relationship makes sense. Maybe pragmatism is accepting that relationships end for myriad reasons, and that there is really nothing you can do to eliminate the risk? Maybe romanticism is letting yourself fall into them anyway? Maybe the Categorical Imperative is more firmly grasped on the level of moments, rather than structures? And maybe, just maybe, Marx is best left out of the bedroom entirely? (Sorry, Karl – I’ll call you tomorrow.)

I suppose, as Jonathan and I talked about last night, it always and inevitably comes back to fear. The more I talk to people, the more I realize that we’re all desperately afraid most of the time, of being hurt or of hurting others. What if he doesn’t feel as I do? What if she leaves? What if I leave? What if I don’t? I actually know someone who, at the moment she first feels desire for another person, promptly envisions what their break-up will be like. Like me, she has been single for quite some time.

Then there is the fear of being alone and apart, the one that keeps us in dying relationships and blinds us to their death; the one that makes us lie and cheat and become slowly smaller. In time, there we are: a congregation of cowards, martyrs, assholes, and shrews, all itching to escape what we have become.

When I set out on my time alone, I imagined that, eventually, I would find a way to make sense of these things again. I haven’t. I can’t even guess. I’m less afraid than I was of being alone, but I am more keenly aware of the risks of relationship than I have ever been. (What if he leaves? What if I leave? What if I don’t?) But the need to draw close to someone remains, and it is no less insistent for being untheorized.

What if I let myself draw close anyway? What would that be like? I could tell people they’re beautiful when it occurs to me that they are. I could stop talking for a minute and kiss them instead. I could conceivably love someone again. What would that be like? What would it be like to be fearless?

This is why grad students drink so much, isn’t it? It must be.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Catching up

Where to start?

My bicycle came home from the shop this week. I rode it to Alice’s place on Thursday, and it was good.

Atomic has returned from Iran, which pleases me. However, she leaves for Afghanistan next week, which does not. (By way of explanation, she told me, “I am more afraid of unemployment than I am of Kabul.” See below.)

I received the following email from my brother: “Just writing to let you know that you are a Montreal bagel.” I have not responded yet.

I blew off a meeting with the Dean of Graduate Studies today, and went to see The Birthday Party with Jonathan and his friend Leila instead. I have no regrets.

Oh yes, and I am now quite drunk.

Leila went home at an entirely reasonable hour, leaving Jonathan and I to our pitcher of cheap draft. Inevitably, the conversation turned towards sex and relationships and the minefield that is desire, and I realized that it all comes down to risk management.

I will have to elaborate on this when I am sober.

BTW, if you Google the phrase “smoking and fucking” you will eventually be directed to this blog. I think this is cool.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

5613

I went by Ada’s place today. Ada’s old place. The movers came for her on Saturday morning, and by noon she didn’t live in Mile End anymore.

I went to her apartment to take pictures. I have a strange habit of taking pictures of people’s apartments after they move out. I’m not sure when I started doing this, or why, but it has become a ritual I feel obliged to perform.

I took a few pictures as Ada was packing on Friday, but I knew it wasn’t right. Today was right. I let myself in with the set of keys she gave me, years ago, when we became godmothers to each others’ cats. I walked up the stairs and almost called out to Bella, but didn’t; the upstairs key stuck like it always does. Inside, there was nothing but dust and afternoon light.

The apartment is what Montrealers sometimes call “charming.” Charming apartments have exposed electrical wires that may or may not work; cupboard doors that refuse to stay closed; gaps between the floorboards that are impossible to clean. They have furnaces that labour to warm the drafts, and toilets that debate the merits of flushing as you wait and hope for the best. Their ceilings sometimes fall down, but only very occasionally.

Charming Mile End apartments are, above all, cheap, or they were before the real estate market heated up and the evictions began. After a while, they started to feel like they were ours, and we accepted the illusion that they were home.

I took pictures of all of the rooms, each in their turn. I noted the lines of doorframes, the angles of pipes and ductwork, the stray objects that were left behind. I went out onto the front balcony and took pictures of the church across the street, then came back inside.

The kitchen was the hardest room. I knew it would be. It’s where we all ate dinner when we played at being married couples, Ada and James and Phil and me. It’s where I sat and smoked when I came to look after Bella, reading over Ada’s instructions for how much food to give her and where her treats were kept. It’s where the bookshelf remained after James moved out, empty and impossibly sad. It’s where I realized that I had stopped being in love with Phil long before he left.

I don’t understand why I need to do these things. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t, that I could live without always fucking memorializing everything. I wish I knew how not to look back. I suspect things would matter less if I did.

In point of fact, Ada has done quite well for herself. Her new apartment is as large as the old, and cheaper as well, which almost never happens anymore. You can see the restaurants and sari shops of Little India from her living room window. The place feels good. I think she can be happy there.

When I finished taking pictures of the kitchen, I smoked one last cigarette, flicking the ashes into the antique sink. And then I said goodbye to Ada’s apartment and all of its ghosts and went to buy bagels.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Elusive images (cont.)

I found it. Well, something close to it at least. I suppose I ought to explain.

It is a photograph I encountered in my first year of undergrad. I was taking an interdisciplinary fine arts class, one of those ridiculous survey courses that careens through a thousand years of cultural history in thirty-four weeks, minus exams. By winter term we had reached the module on dance, and the instructor rightly devoted a full lecture to the shift from classical to modern ballet, which entailed a lengthy discussion of the Ballets Russes.

Midway through her lecture, the instructor turned down the lights and narrated a series of black and white slides of the troupe’s ballet performances, neatly summarizing the plot lines of each while drawing attention to their stylistic innovations. Knowing almost nothing about dance, I found the discussion fascinating, and the images even more so; modernism just looks so good on film, even when it’s trying to be ugly. I suppose it couldn't help being an attractive zeitgeist, in contradistinction to that which followed it.

Suddenly, there it was: Vaslav Nijinksy in L’Après-midi d’un faune, the enormously campy ballet that took Paris by storm in 1912. As the Faun, Nijinsky cavorts with a group of nymphs adorned with silk scarves, who tease him to the edge of rape before abandoning him to an empty stage. One forgetful nymph, however, leaves behind her écharpe, which Nijinsky makes the object of his frustrated ardor.

The photograph was taken at precisely the moment that made Paris gasp. Nijinsky has laid the scarf down on the floor of the stage and raised himself up over it, his body fully extended and his every muscle as taut as piano wire. I imagine that he paused for dramatic effect, which must have seemed an eternity to the audience, then, knowing full well the effect his movements would have, he begins to slowly thrust his pelvis against the scarf.

Sitting at the back of the darkened lecture hall, with the instructor gently describing the image before us, I was, I am compelled to confess, overcome with desire. Was this how the Parisians felt? Did they lose their breath like this, the women bringing their thighs together under their skirts, the men shifting awkwardly in their seats? Or, was it even worse, with the aura of Nijinsky’s body there and the warmth of a thousand other bodies around them? Surely, every member of the audience made love that night with Nijinsky in the room. I did too, but I didn’t tell.

I haven’t seen the photograph again since, but I drift back to it occasionally, and did last night. I decided to go looking for it, and though the performance image eluded me, I did discover a studio shot of the same scene. It’s not at all like the photograph I remember seeing in class – there is no sense of movement in Nijinsky’s pose, and therefore no narrative – but it’s just enough to evoke the other, and to provide incontrovertible evidence of the encounter.

This is it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Anniversary

I have been writing here for six months. As I've mentioned before, I didn’t write anywhere for a long time, so this is actually significant. Well, to me.

It’s good to have this in my life again. I’ve remembered that it’s one of the things I enjoy doing alone, like walking, or riding my bike, or daydreaming. Things that get you someplace else.

There’s a rhythm I fall into when I walk by myself, a particular pace that gets the words going. I write all kinds of things in my head when I walk: essays, stories, love letters, emails. I have walked across the city and written complete plays; the dialogue is rapid-fire and perfect, I can feel the characters speaking as I walk. But I never stop to write it down. And then it goes away.

I have thought about carrying a recording device with me and speaking what I walk-write into it. But that would be strange, wouldn’t it? I’d feel like Agent Cooper. The best thing would be to have a cell phone that was actually a tape recorder. Then no one would even notice.

I wonder if it’s possible to write and be in a romantic relationship? You’d have to disappear sometimes, and that’s hard to do when you’re with someone. Maybe that’s what I’ve been learning this whole time -- how to disappear? Maybe that’s the freedom you learn when you’re alone.

All I want to do lately is write and have sex. If the government gave out grants for this, I’d be phenomenally prolific. S. is a stop-gap measure, a compromise, but already I’m bored. I get bored when my heart’s not in things. My grade two teacher told me that and it’s still true.

Uranus is transiting my relationships sector. Duh.

Maybe there’s a way to be lovers with someone and still be able to disappear? When you came back, you could tell each other where you’ve been and then fuck each other’s brains out. And that would be love.

Anyway, it’s my blog’s six-month anniversary. I’m going to eat chocolate.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Footnote

A follow-up to Wednesday’s post, which consists of a Salon interview with the adolescent psychiatrist Lynn Ponton. Ponton shares my admittedly pessimistic take on the fellatio vs. cunnilingus issue, which James and I briefly debated at a book launch last night. He is, apparently, an optimist about these matters, if few others.

I like Ponton’s approach to the problem, which is sympathetic to teens of both genders and based on her twenty years of clinical experience as well as several recent studies. Still, I’m left feeling saddened, in part because of quotes like this:

“Girls are really educated about what's involved in boys' sexual pleasure -- not in class, but by their peers. They spend hours devoted to how to give a good blow job. And they talk about technique. I don't want to go into it in great detail, but there's a lot of discussion about it. In my entire existence -- some 20 years of listening to kids talk about sex -- I have never, ever heard a group of boys discussing how to give girls good [oral sex].”

Obviously, the only solution is to implement a government program that would provide all female citizens with a vibrator on the occasion of their twelfth birthday. Then they’d know better.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

On Difference

I keep coming back to Nick’s last comment, and although I don’t disagree, I keep wondering, “why?” I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but I can’t let it go. Bear with me, will you?

I don’t think it’s as simple as “men and women are different,” although sometimes they are. Sexuality is too amorphous a thing, and far too malleable. Besides, there’s too much intra-group variation for the statement to hold, or at least for it to tell us anything more than what we already know.

Sex is a biological impulse that acquires form through culture. We learn sex in the world as it is, which is why those first glimpses are so important, and so memorable. They are our first encounters with an experience we are inexplicably drawn to, but which has no pure form except as a refraction of the world as we encounter it, in real bodies and in real time.

Boys live in a world of erotic images that are meant for them; they attract that vague impulse and shape it, refine it, pull it toward the visual realm. Girls have fewer images, and those that exist are a thousand times more elusive: the video image in China Girl that escapes in an instant. Quick, rewind, did you see it? No? Then rewind again. There, and then gone.

So that itchy, insistent need draws some of us elsewhere, to sounds and smells and the written word. The blind senses. And so we learn to respond to the colour of a voice, the rhythm of breath; we catch that smell on someone and it’s game over. Oh yeah, the smell thing. That goddamn smell thing...

More than anywhere else, girls find sex on the page. In less than a decade we make our way from teen magazines to Harlequins to real novels, and eureka, we’ve found it: a few passages by Miller or Lawrence, more by Anais Nin, or whole genres of erotic fiction. And so we learn sex in narrative, even when it’s macho and ridiculous, or frustratingly femme; we can still imagine this world and ourselves in it.

I’ll let you in on a secret, though: sometimes, we look too. The shirt that rides up, exposing the crest of a hip; the calf that tightens as it bears down on a bike pedal; the faded jeans that hang just so. But I think the way we look is more idiosyncratic; we catch glimpses of sex in a thousand places because that’s what we’re used to, because no one thought to direct our gaze. Girls have wandering eyes – consider yourselves warned.

Clearly, I’m obsessing. It must be spring.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Another study that blows

By now, many of you will have seen the following headline, or some variation thereof, screaming from the front page of your favourite news source: Teens view oral sex as safer choice.

In a nutshell, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have discovered that young teenagers are opting for oral sex as a strategy to reduce the risk of disease transmission, unplanned pregnancy, and peer disapproval. Sure, makes sense, right?

But something about the study has troubled me since I first happened across it yesterday morning. Reading the article again, I realized that nowhere in the piece is the term oral sex actually defined. Curious, no? As I progressed from feeling troubled to mildly suspicious, I commenced the following investigation.

First, I read over twenty different articles about the study published in reputable national newspapers. No definition. I then turned to articles about the study that have appeared in scientific and medical publications. Still nothing.

Finally I went to the source, the April issue of Pediatrics, whereupon I discovered the following:

1. The authors of the study, who account for the aims of their project and its methodological approach with the customary rigour, do not define the term “oral sex.” From the study:

“(A)lthough vaginal sex was defined explicitly on the survey, oral sex was not well defined and thus we cannot be sure which behaviors were included in participants' understanding of oral sex.”

(Blinks.) Are you kidding me?!

2. Though the authors assert that “there were no gender differences in adolescents’ sexual experiences or intentions”, they briefly note two “significant interactions between gender and outcome estimates”:

(a) "Male adolescents believed that one's relationship is more likely to get better from having vaginal than oral sex than did female adolescents"; and
(b) "Female adolescents believed that pleasure was more likely to occur from vaginal sex than oral sex".

Pray, how to account for these variables? Allow me to speculate.

Had the study’s authors bothered to define their terms, and, more importantly, had they defined them to their interview subjects, they may have realized that there are, in fact, two broad categories of oral sex: (a) fellatio, and (b) cunnilingus.

Consequently, had their interview questions been reformulated to ask: “Have you ever engaged in fellatio?” or, “Do you intend to receive cunnilingus in the next six months?”, they may also have discovered that, among teenagers, the former is typically more prevalent than the latter. Which just might explain the responses noted above.

What I suspect all of this really means is that, throughout the United States and, presumably, Canada, a distressing number of young girls are not getting off. Worse, their experience of their own sexuality is being limited to furtively blowing their boyfriends and others without receiving the same consideration in return. Forgive the pun, but this totally sucks.

Don’t get me wrong: fellatio is a wonderful activity – at its best, an artform – one that can provide great pleasure to the giver as well as the receiver. But it galls me to think that a generation of girls – and boys, for that matter – may reach adulthood without any experiential understanding of the principle of sexual mutuality.

Didn’t we just have a sexual revolution? Or has it passed its expiry date? (Sighs.) I'll go get my lighter...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Rites of Passage: The Girls

As previously noted, us girls got no Swank. So, how did we first stumble upon sex, if not in the pages of a mislaid porno mag? If memory serves, we had to go looking for it – and look we did, so desperate were we for a glimpse of what this world was like. Some random recollections:

Wifey (Age:10) – The adult novel by Judy “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” Blume, and the most popular book in Mrs. Posivy’s grade six homeroom class. Explicit, to be sure, but also profoundly depressing, as its protagonist is a married mother of two who has a wrenching mid-life crisis, and, predictably, a series of dour extra-marital affairs. All I remember is one awful passage: “Wifey” starts to bleed during a particularly rough sexual encounter with her husband, and although she derives absolutely no pleasure from the act, she positively revels in the guilt her husband feels afterwards. Ugh, no thanks.

China Girl (Age:12) – The year was 1983, the album was Let’s Dance, and the song was inescapable. There were two versions of the video: one for music television, which was heavily edited, and one for nightclub play, which was not. Both featured the politically confused spectacle of David Bowie’s obsession with the “China Girl” of the song’s title, but one featured a little something extra: an homage to the love scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, complete with setting sun, rolling surf, and Bowie’s fully naked ass. Ahh, that’s better.

The Hunger (Age: 13) – Bowie again, this time in a vampiric ménage a trois with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. In my view, this film should be required viewing for every sexually curious thirteen-year old girl, for obvious reasons. The film also featured Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a scene that inspired both my appreciation of the band’s music and my rampant lust for its lead singer, Peter Murphy. File that one under "guilty pleasures."

Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (Age:14) – Again with the vampires. Lots of neck-biting, strong hints of male bisexuality, and a subtle thread of female voyeurism. Not exactly hardcore, but when the only alternative is Chris Makepeace grinning like an idiot in the pages of Playgirl, you’ll take it.

Betty Blue (Age:15) – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s wildly-acclaimed film, based on the novel 37°2 le matin, about a relationship between a frustrated writer and his certifiably crazy admirer. Notably, this was one of the first erotic European films to get past the newly rechristened Ontario Film Review Board (formerly, the Ontario Censor Board) intact, as well as an entire generation’s first encounter with filmed sexual intercourse. Of course, after Betty gets herself off, she is for some reason compelled to gouge out her own eyeball, which rather dampens the mood. Still, the sex scenes were good, and the music was infinitely more tolerable than the dreck that accompanies most porn videos.

OK, so it ain’t Swank, but it was the best that was on offer at the time.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Other people's stuff

I had hoped to get down to the mountain this weekend to see the purple cross, but the near-constant rain dissuaded me from leaving my apartment for any purpose other than buying cigarettes. Fortunately, Andre Nantel made the trip for all of us, which is documented here.

Should this rare spectacle arouse any unsettling feelings of piety, you might restore your innate sense of sinfulness by reading Nick Taylor's touching account, Serendipitous Porn: A Timeline. You might also wonder why women have no Swank to call their own? I certainly do.

And speaking of porn, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to Uberfrau's -- aka Madame D.'s -- insightful piece, Vegan Desires and Grad Porn, which made me laugh very, very hard. Wanna start a porno mag, D.? Please?

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Hearing the news

All the city's bells are sounding. It's a remarkable thing to hear, through the steady fall of rain. I am sitting at my computer, and outside it is five hundred years ago.

It’s better to regret something you have done...

Now playing: Butthole Surfers, “Sweat Loaf”

Oh my fucking god, that song kicks ass!! So why haven’t I listened to it in ten years?

Deep, deep, down, in a long-buried part of myself, you will find the sticky residue of a scrappy punk rock chick. Yes, children, back in the eighties I would get myself all dolled up in my best black miniskirt and torn fishnets and set off for the clubs, whereupon I would get really, really fucked up and dance with wild abandon to the Butthole Surfers. Yes, they used to play the Butthole Surfers at nightclubs back then. And yes, I used to dance with wild abandon.

They also played Grandmaster Flash and Parliament-Funkadelic and the Buzzcocks and P.I.L and Prince, music that wrenched you out of your seat and flung you onto the dancefloor whether you felt like dancing or not, and kept you there until you were covered in a thick film of sweat and that strange grit that hangs in the air at after-hours clubs just waiting to make contact with your damp, exposed skin.

When you couldn’t dance anymore, you’d retire to the co-ed bathroom to towel off, edging past the cokeheads and the lisping, eyelined boys giving each other blow jobs to try to get a fix on yourself in the clouded, lipstick-inscribed mirror as you splashed cold water on your face and tried not to actually look at the sinkbasin and the matter floating therein.

Then N. would come in and perch his skinny, rock-star ass on the edge of the counter like it was a smooth, wet throne, and the bathroom would fill to bursting with everyone at the club who was looking to buy good acid, and you’d debate the merits of taking some more but decide against it because, as it was, you were going to be awake for another eight hours at least.

Then you’d make your way back to the dancefloor where the dj was playing the Sisters of Mercy, who were a crap band but for some reason, Temple of Love always sounded really good coming through the speakers, and you’d start dancing again and the guy in front of you with the leather pants and the pointy buckle boots would do his best goth dance, which consisted of a slight back and forth shuffle punctuated by slow-motion air kicks, and you’d see that guy every single week and he always danced the same way and this made you laugh every time but you were still glad that he was always there.

Then all of a sudden they were playing Hope so you knew that it was morning, and you’d stagger down the stairs into the stark light of day and you and a bunch of other squinting punk rockers would go for breakfast even though nobody felt much like eating, and you’d giggle as you skipped past the businessmen on their way to work, feeling delightfully freaky and never imagining that someday you’d be the ones going to work and a bunch of kids fucked up on drugs you’ve never done would look at you the same way you looked at the businessmen, except that you know exactly what they’ve been up to all night and how good it can be and that it won’t last forever.

And by the way, if you see your mom this weekend, will you be sure and tell her...

(C'mon, anyone?)