Thursday, June 24, 2010

Suburb of the Soul

I spent yesterday in a nightmare world of telephone calls to and from Time-Warner Cable.  I've disconnected my cable television (but not the Internet connect), so now, damn it, I'll miss out on True Blood, Mad Men, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, except to the extent that I can keep up via downloads from iTunes and other sites.  But I had to make the break.  The digital feed (or whatever it's called) sucked--staggered images, asynchronous sound, some channels totally inaccessible; it was getting to the point that I had to unplug and reboot once or twice every time I turned the TV on.  (I don't even remember rabbit-ears being this much of a pain in the ass.)  Then there's the robotized "customer service" to contend with.  It all put me in a J. G. Ballard frame of mind this morning:
"I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that's my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again ... the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul."--J.G. Ballard (interview, 1982)
"For me the intentions of background music are openly political, and an example of how political power is constantly shifting from the ballot box into areas where the voter has nowhere to mark his ballot paper. The most important political choices in the future will probably never be consciously exercised. I'm intrigued by the way some background music is surprisingly aggressive, especially that played on consumer complaint phone lines and banks, airplanes and phone companies themselves, with strident non-rhythmic and arms-length sequences that are definitely not user-friendly." --J.G. Ballard (interview, 1994) 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Such a Lonely Word

Honesty ought not to be served up in half measures.  The only honesty that has value is hardcore honesty, the kind of truth-saying that makes people flinch, that puts the speaker on the spot, that forces everybody's hand, that says, "Deal with this."

Tell the truth about yourself and you are naked.

I'm not sure, then, that "honest" and "politics" belong together.  Politics has to be pragmatic.  Sure, the confrontation and contention that truth demands play a part in politics sometimes, but only when they serve a purpose.  In politics, truth is a strategy, to be used sparingly and cautiously.  (Ask Machiavelli.) Without buffers, honesty is going to upset the apple cart. 

I would like to see more honest politicians, yes, but I am not sure the nation is ready for it.  It is, after all, the "American dream," not the "American actuality."  For the foreseeable future, successful politicians here will have to serve up that dream--as sugar-coated reverie or as panic-inducing nightmare--to gain the people's votes and to hold on to power.  (Assuming that power is the name of the game in politics.)

Honesty is essential to argument.  But politics is drifting away from logical argument, towards image making, branding, talking points, and damage control.

Honesty is in the service of truth, make that capital-T Truth, the kind that may not even exist, almost certainly cannot be grasped, but acts as a constant (if intangible) pole star of intellectual, social, and artistic effort.  It's not so much that the truth will make you free as that it will make you squirm, thus making it harder to pin you down, which entails a sort of freedom, I guess.  The truth is a tough motherfucker.

The shocker is that dishonesty, too, serves truth.  Dishonesty may even serve as high a concept of truth as honesty does.  No less than an honest opinion, a lie goes through the tests of definition, evidence, good will, and probability.  It tries to look like truth, if nothing else.  As Harry G. Frankfurt put it, lying shows a "concern for the truth"--the effort is made to make the lie exact, plausible, testable--unlike bullshit which ignores truth and its conditions entirely and aims only to amuse, sway, stall, and cajole.  A lie respects the importance of the truth even while violating it.  Bullshit simply tries to put its speaker in a good light and the listeners in the palm of his hand.  So calling a politician "dishonest" may be gilding the lily a bit, since most politicians are just bullshitters.

Great liars are almost as ballsy as great truth-sayers.  If you have to lie, at least lie with vigor and gusto.  To hell with half measures here, too.  Make the lie hard to believe and then make everybody believe it.  Also at least don't lie to yourself.  And lie, if you must, in the interest of higher principles.  If I perjure myself in court for the sake of a friend, it's because I honestly believe my friend should not be punished for holding up that liquor store.  (See how I snuck the word "honestly" in there?  You can't do that with bullshit.)

Bullshit is shaving five years off your actual age just to fit somebody else's idea of attractiveness.  Bullshit is speaking on behalf of the American people--as if the American people have ever spoken in one voice.  Bullshit is rationalization--"I'm not a racist but--," "I have many gay friends but--," "I care about the environment but--."  Bullshit is more about being "right" (or just perceivable as right) than about being (or even just seeming) "true."  Bullshit is evasive.  Bullshit relies on imprecision, vagueness, generalization, equivocation, and begging the question.

Bullshit is too good to be true.

I'll take a liar over a bullshitter any day of the week.  You can argue with a liar.  A bullshitter will backpedal, explain away, change the subject, blow his top, go for a laugh, or start weeping, anything to avoid having to deal with unpleasant, unpopular, unattractive, or inconvenient reality.

Truth is not nice.  Truth is messy, frustrating, infuriating, and ultimately unaccommodating.  And getting to the truth is slow going.  Even a lifetime may not get you there.  Truth is inefficient.  Truth is unprofessional, even unbusinesslike.  Truth will not fit on your schedule or meet your deadlines.

"A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it," as Oscar Wilde observed.  The test of truth is not martyrdom, or sincerity, or good will, or need, or feelings, or values, or even intelligence.  Hard reality is the only test of truth.  And the only thing that can be said with confidence and conviction about hard reality is that it is indeed hard.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


I missed an opportunity to give some of my money to a boy this past week.  He had curly hair and halfway-hurt puppy-dog eyes.  A bit wispy for my tastes, but still, a couple of twenties might have made his eyes shine prettily on me for a few seconds.  Instead, I got a look that was somewhere between dejected and offended when I said I would not be contributing any money to help in the Gulf of Mexico's cleanup.

It might have been the Natural Resources Defense Council he was seeking members for.  I can't remember.  I have no doubt that it was a good cause, responsible and legitimate.  Mostly I didn't contribute or join because I didn't have money on me.   But for a while now, I have stopped contributing to charities.

Five years.

The last time I gave--and gave sacrificially--was to help New Orleans, a city I love dearly.  I donated a chunk of my Visa card to the Red Cross--and to another organization that expressly intended to help New Orleanians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (partly because my understanding was that the Red Cross has had a bumpy past with the LGBT communities--an understanding that has been challenged since then by a gay friend who works--or worked--at the Red Cross).

At first I thought the boy was asking for signatures, as he rattled off his prepared spiel.  Now a signature I would have given him--even a phone number.  But money is a different matter.  The phrase "blood from a turnip" springs to mind, but then so does "a cold day in hell."

I love the Gulf of Mexico.  The most beautiful beach I have ever seen is the white sands of Pensacola Beach, in 1987.  And, as I said, I do not doubt that the organization the boy represented was (is) legitimate.

It's not that I'm a defender of BP or a drill-baby-drill conservative (so ironic, isn't it, that the only things conservatives tend not to want to conserve is the planet they live on and the government of the nation for which the flag they would never burn stands, the same government established in the Constitution they interpret so strictly constructionistically sometimes).

I don't doubt that, had I just been paid, the boy's dark eyes would have melted me, and I would have given him everything I had just to belong to whatever it is he belongs to.

But I don't give to the Human Rights Campaign anymore, or to, or to the Democratic Party, or to NPR.  I've given to all of them in the past and still they harangue me for more.  Who can blame them?  They need the money.  They can do all kinds of good things with it that I can't do.  And prior donations of $20 or so have convinced them that there's more where that came from.

I will still sign things.  Just ask me.  I refuse fewer than a third of the requests I get for a signature.

I am especially reluctant to support financially organizations that lobby Congress.  I'm tired of lobbying.  It's no longer enough just to write letters to one's representatives.  It's no longer enough just to vote.  Now it's imperative to send money to organizations that know where and when to pass over a small bundle of unmarked bills to get a favorable vote ... to save the environment, to counteract the religious right, to counteract the greedy corporations, to find somebody who will say a few kind and tolerant words about apostates and homosexuals like me.

I can't see the point of paying elected officials something extra to do the right thing.  I realize the real politics roll on money.  But the thing is I don't have a whole lot of money.  Not only do the bad guys (BP, the Mormon Church, Wall Street) have more of it than I do ... so do the elected officials whose palm is out for some greasing.

So I will keep my money ... unless, that is, I have some in my pocket when somebody pretty with curly hair and sad eyes asks me for it ... and then I may ask if, at the very least, I may stuff the bills into the waistband of his Ginch Gonch.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Regrets, I've Had a Few

Last night I went to a party at Laurie's.  Laurie is a person who has parties like Jews have holidays.  In fact, I'm pretty sure Laurie has more parties in a year than there are holidays for every religion known to man.

Anyway.  At one point I was talking to our friend Farley and the topic of regrets came up--as in "Christ I'm fifty-seven what have I done with my life?"

Good question.

I would have to say I don't have many regrets, mainly for the simple reason that I don't have the imagination to conceive of things being very different from what they are.

My explanation to Farley, also true, was that at some point in my twenties I decided to live with a consciousness of what I imagine that twenty years on I will wish I had done now.  (Note: if you know anything about English grammar, you should recognize what a fucking miracle I just worked with that sentence's verb tense sequence).  So now at age fifty-seven I look back at myself at age thirty-seven and think:  "Damn, what a good year!" while at the same time I am thinking of what I, at age seventy-seven, should I live so long, will think of how I am living my life right now.  As philosophies of life go, it's not much of one, I know, but it's doing the trick for me so far.

This, of course, does not mean that my life has been perfect or that I have made only good decisions.  I have my regrets.  Some of them are for things that were totally out of my control at the time, but hindsight fools me into thinking that maybe just maybe I could have played it a little differently back then.

Still, sticking with reality, as my old ex-friend Dutch used to say, "You've got to play the hand that's dealt you," or to cite Joan Didion, "play it as it lays."

So what, then, do I regret?

I regret not coming out of the closet sooner than I did.  I was around thirty when I finally got around to telling everybody I know that I enjoy sex with men.  Now I won't shut up about it.  But I can't help but think how much kinder I could have been to myself had I done the deed some ten or twelve years earlier.

I regret going to Christian colleges--first Bob Jones University (I know), then Baptist University of America (which doesn't even exist now), and then Tennessee Temple College (an OK school, truth be told, but I wish I had gone to Florida State, instead).  By my mid-twenties, I recognized the error of my ways and tried to compensate by attending graduate school at secular institutions--Marshall University for a master of arts degree and University of Miami for a doctor of philosophy (in English literature).  Yes, I would like to have gone to an Ivy League school, but realistically I don't think I ever had the capabilities for it.

I regret not trying harder to hold on to my relationship with Vince, though my recollection is that I did try pretty damn hard, just not with a whole lot of savvy.

I regret not moving to a big city--New York, San Francisco, Paris--when I was young.  Simultaneously I regret not living on a beach somewhere, in a houseboat with a cockatiel, doing odd jobs while I wrote poetry or a novel, or directed gay porn movies.

Like many of my regrets, this last one contains obvious self-contradictions--doing things differently, as pertains to even my earlier regrets, would have effectively negated some of the best things that ever happened to me--a smoky night of sex with a guy named Brandon (don't ask), shaking hands with director Robert Altman, directing the Marys and Rob in a production of The Hot L Baltimore, going to Shane and Barbara's wedding in Prague, spending $300 on a go-go boy/hustler in Key West (easily worth three times as much), taking any one of my trips to New Orleans, seeing the Goya paintings with Dominique at the Prado, bonding with my dog Ripley, and on and on.

So, then, here's another reason I don't have many regrets:  Even my fuckups have led me to some pretty good times and, when all is said and done (which it by no means is yet), to a good and reasonably productive life.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

Just 35 days too late for the curve, I went to see Iron Man 2 with MK yesterday.

It is a blast, a fun ride, better in many ways than the original--Downey repeats a winning formula (narcissism on wry, with a twist of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots), and Mickey Rourke steals every scene he's in with a thumb of Stella Adler swirled in an old-fashioned glass, the excess discarded, then equal splashes of top-shelf sleaze and menace on ice.

(Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson are here too, on the side, in the roles of Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie, respectively.  Not much here for feminists, sorry ... except for a passing genuflection to the idea that girls can be CEOs too and may not need a man's help in a fight.)

((Oh, yes, and there's Samuel Jackson, too, in the role of Samuel Jackson with an eyepatch, but this man apparently hasn't needed an actual character to play since Pulp Fiction.))

The movie is a brilliant example of the ways that Hollywood blunts political messages.  As in the original the sequel focuses on a military-weapons genius industrialist and part-time superhero, who defies Congress by refusing to give up his secret "weapon" to the government, insisting that he, as a private citizen and gaZOOKillionaire, can best protect the nation in a laissez-faire economy with limited (i.e., no) oversight and regulation.

But we don't get the message, thank God, the way Ayn Rand would have written it; instead, we see Tony Stark as a flawed, ill, out-of-control, daddy-haunted soul.  (Daddy is played, in flashback, by Mad Men's John Slattery, in a stroke of genius.)

This is typically the way Hollywood handles politics--by buttering its bread on both sides (while trimming off the unsightly crust).  So a cameo by Christiane Amanpour is "balanced" with a cameo by Bill O'Reilly--with a fleeting glimpse of comic-book genius Stan Lee to please the who-gives-a-shit-about-politics fanboys.  The villains are a disaffected Russian (commies), the government (Them!), and a playboy trillionaire, motivated by greed alone, Stark's nemesis and foil and a sop for the liberals.

We discover that, on two fronts, Stark and Ivan Vanko (Rourke), father issues can really stunt a boy's development--either through too much influence (Vanko Sr.) or too little (the coolly distant Stark Sr.)  The trick for fathers appears to somehow effect a happy medium, which regrettably the movie fails to produce for our edification.

We also get the pairing of white man (Downey) and black man (Don Cheadle, always interesting, but underused here), with the black man showing more style, grace, wisdom and common sense than the white man--a formula as old as (nod to Leslie Fiedler) Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but endlessly retreaded, through I Spy, Miami Vice, and The Matrix.

But all that aside, the reason to see Iron Man 2 is its quip-filled dialogue (screenplay by actor/writer Justin Theroux), the sumptuous display of impossible wealth, and epic fight scenes (though my favorite is the low-tech fisticuffs of Jon Favreau, as Stark's driver but also the movie's director, in a savage, flesh-based brawl with one of the bad guys--Favreau played Rocky Marciano, after all).

Is it something I would watch again?  Probably not.  Will I go see Iron Man 3?  More than likely, perhaps even within two weeks of its initial release.  Will it be eerily like Iron Man and Iron Man 2?  I hope so.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sex in Public

What is privacy in an age of GPS, blogging, Twitter, reality television, and post-9/11 security issues?

Is the natural right to privacy becoming obsolete in a show-all, tell-all, nothing-to-hide new era?

I have some thoughts.  They are tentative answers to these questions, off-the-cuff responses to a complicated moral, legal, and social issue.

Privacy is what it has always been, the right to autonomy, the "right to be let alone."  And, yes, citizens of the present century, who view privacy as posing greater risks than benefits, seem to be friendlier to the idea of its no longer being protected under law.

First, let me try to distinguish privacy and secrecy.  Secrecy is the practice of hiding or concealing.  As far as I know, there is no right to secrecy.  Democratic states are allowed to keep secrets in the interests of security and the public good (and only in those interests), but this is not a right--it is a privilege accorded by law, given the consent of the people.

In addition, we are usually allowed to keep secret what we wish to keep private,  though privacy does not always require secrecy--and not every secret is related to a person's privacy.

Privacy, as I said, is the right not to be interfered with by others.

Two dogs may fuck in public--they are not keeping the act secret, yet they might very well object angrily or cower fearfully if we try to interrupt them.  So far our laws, through their silence on the matter, accord dogs the privilege of not having to keep their coupling secret.  It's a privilege usually denied to humans, perhaps unfairly, perhaps even in violation of our natural rights.  Public displays of affection among human beings are expected to be oblique and symbolic (through dress, dance, kissing, speech, etc.), which are not in fact sex acts.

However, the dogs' privacy is not protected under law.  We are free to photograph them in coitus without their consent; we can even pull them apart, if we dare, if we don't happen to like what they're doing, and the law will do nothing to stop us.

Human beings, however, cannot legally and should not ethically be meddled with like this, even if we happen not to like what they're doing.

(Children are often taken to be a different matter.  They are frequently imposed upon by adults, without their consent--legally under the pretext of moral education or proprietary interest.  The law does little or nothing to protect children's privacy.  Adults may pick them up without their consent and strictly prevent them from acting on their free will, even in the pursuit of interests that we regard as rights when practiced by adults.  In this respect, perhaps pro-lifers ought, consistent with their claim that even fetuses are already persons with all due rights, to respect the autonomy and privacy of the born, as well, regardless of their age ... that is, if they are supposed to be in fact fully persons.  The fact that so few care about children's right to privacy is another indication that a right to be let alone is and has been at best only peripheral in the American conscience.)

In recent years, torture or extreme interrogation techniques have been proposed as means of obtaining secrets that may (we are often told) be crucial in the protection of thousands of lives.  To say the least, torture is a violation of a person's privacy.  Proponents of the necessity of extreme and invasive interrogation techniques often state that the secrets are more important than the individual's autonomy and privacy--even in cases when it is unclear whether the individual has secrets to discover.  Here is one area where we see the public support for a right to privacy deteriorating in recent years.

The high interest our culture shows in people's personal business is relatively new, historically speaking.  In the past communal living was the norm, and individuals kept their private affairs secret only with great difficulty, yet, with some exceptions, society left them alone.  Supermarket tabloids and reality television succeed in part because we have become a society of voyeurs.  Celebrities live in the public eye, but the extent to which the public has a right to intrude upon them or meddle in their affairs should be decided by the celebrities themselves.  We expect the famous to be role models and exhibitionists at the same time--neither expectation respects their right to privacy.  The public may want a tell-all book, but a celebrity is under no compulsion to write one--or to cooperate in the writing of one.

According to my understanding of privacy, a person who chooses to disrobe and masturbate on video and upload that video on the Internet is unveiling what most other people would prefer to keep covert and secret.  But she would be entirely within her rights still to object should a peeping Tom look uninvited through her shutters as she does so.  She has a right to privacy, even if she chooses not to be secretive.  Her video is an autonomous act of free will, but being watched without her consent is a violation of her privacy.

To the question of whether government or corporate wiretapping is ever permissible, many people will say, "If I have nothing to hide, why should I care whether the FBI reads my e-mail?"  This only begs the question.  Even if I am comfortable having no secrets, I still have a right to privacy.  I might say, "Ask me anything and I'll tell you everything," but the disclosure is, in this case, a free and autonomous act on my part.  For the government (or Facebook) to intrude upon my life, without my expressed and well advised consent, I may be thought to have no right to privacy at all.

If I pass through airport security, knowing that there are cameras that see through my clothing, I am not exactly sacrificing my privacy--if, that is, my knowledge of the surveillance is a tacit form of consent.  This example is tricky, though, since a refusal to give up my privacy will prevent me from traveling--a pointed affront to my autonomy.  The full body search may be all right if I have other options, more problematic when intrusiveness and meddling are mandatory in every mode of transportation available to me.

My willingness to share personal information (on my blog, for instance) that others might prefer to keep secret in no way diminishes my right to privacy.  It is wrong and illegal for me to assault a professional boxer, even though he trades punches every day in the ring.  Likewise, I cannot rape a prostitute or escort; such behavior is beyond the pale of decency and law.  What a person does by consent cannot legally be coerced.

Even if no harm is done, apart from the fact that my privacy is breached, it is not only my right but also my duty to object.

Still, there are real and serious problems with privacy.  It poses risks (as, by the way, all rights do).  There is a risk that my partner may give me AIDS.  There is a risk that my employees are cheating me out of money.  There is a risk that otherwise law-abiding citizens may have secret information that could save the lives of thousands of innocent people.

I suppose the question is, for those of us who acknowledge privacy as a natural right, whether its benefits are worth its risks.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Classics

Reading Stanley Fish's encomium to classical education in yesterday's New York Times has me wishing I had had one.  "[F]our years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics," along with extra-curricular activities and clubs, sounds like too perfect a high-school curriculum ... and to think it was at one time the norm of American public education!

Instead, at the Christian school I graduated from, I got a Darwin-free biology class, a civics class with a focus on end-times prophesies, and one year of Spanish, taught to me by a tiny lady with a frosted beehive, who took us all to the Taco Bell in Hialeah on a field trip.

Even with a PhD degree from the University of Miami, I am awestruck at the thought of how much knowing all those languages and sciences at eighteen might have changed the course of my life.

And now as a teacher at a community college, where students think a word count is the key to a quality essay and a twelve-page reading assignment is exhausting, I am at the front lines of the dumbing down of America.  (I was flabbergasted last year when I heard that one of my colleagues, an extroverted and popular instructor, bluffed her way through the first three weeks of British Literature by showing her students a DVD of the 2003 film Luther, starring the very shaggable Joseph Fiennes as the sixteenth-century German reformer, ostensibly because it would illustrate what life was like in the days of Beowulf!)

At least at the Christian school (and colleges, sad to say) I attended, I got a hefty dose of the bible, which is about one third of humanities education right there.  Most of my students--and I'm including the ardent bible believers among them--know less about the bible than I remember after twenty-seven years of apostasy.  They can barely communicate clearly in their first language, much less make do in a second or third one--and only a few of them, mostly Hispanic students, speak better Spanish than I do (and this is me:  Me habloy espanol uno pequito ... which roughly translates as "I habloy a pequito Spanish").

Gore Vidal once quipped that every American school child knows his country is a world leader, yet hardly a one can name a tenth of the 195 nations of the world or find more than ten on a globe.

My mother once showed me my grandfather's sixth-grade spelling book from a one-room schoolhouse in Goshen, Alabama.  I never met the man; he died a year or two before I was born.  He never went to college.  The book could barely hold itself together, its leaves more browned than yellowed; there are Old Kingdom mummies in better shape.  And yet the vocabulary words in it averaged five or six syllables each, words like "eleemosynary" (well, that's outdated), "acculturation," and "heterogeneity" ... sixth grade.

Instead of knowing who Herodotus was, how photosynthesis occurs, what a fermata is, why Jephthah killed (or perhaps didn't kill) his daughter, or where the Caspian Sea is, high-school students are expected, I am told, to develop amazing eye-hand coordination and visuospatial skills playing World of Warcraft.  (I will have to admit that their thumbs move impressively fast as they text.)

Perhaps four years of Latin would be redundant in a country where most people aspire to have their own reality television shows and a holiday weekend in Forks, Washington--and that's among those who read sometimes.  We're a nation who by and large still believes in the devil.

Most of us suffer information overload watching CNN, while 81-year-old Noam Chomsky reads six newspapers a day, front to back.  How long he will be able to keep that up is hard to say.  I'm not talking about Chomsky's longevity here; I mean, How much longer can we expect there to be six daily newspapers in the world?

Still, as Chomsky once observed, Americans who claim not to be able to follow the ins and outs of American politics (while nineteen year olds in Roman coffee shops follow it avidly) can cite baseball stats dating back to the 1910s.

And then, of course, there's Twitter, in case Demi Moore should hiccup and we are the last to know.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


“I want to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him.”  --E.M. Forster, in his diaries
The Times published an article on E.M. Forster today, which I found by way of Towleroad.  I read everything by Forster I could get my hands on back in the 1980s, at the same time Merchant and Ivory were mining him and Henry James for everything they were worth.  Unlike James, Forster had an easy style, subversive of the starched middle-class manners of his characters.  I was particularly struck by the imperative "Only Connect" in Howards End, as terse and strong as Rilke's archaic Apollo: "You must change your life."

The article reveals that Forster stopped writing novels in his late thirties, after he had sex for the first time.  After that, he says in his diaries, he couldn't bring himself to write anymore about the tepid heterosexual lives he had built his reputation on.  Even Maurice, his homosexual romance, published only after his death at age 91 in 1970, was written long before he'd ever experienced actual sex with a man.  D.H. Lawrence read it in manuscript and wrote a heterosexualized version of it in the notorious Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928).

The idea of the erotic mixing of classes--Forster's longtime lover was a working-class policeman--was one Forster picked up from the social reformer Edward Carpenter.  It was an idea more radical in England, with its strict class boundaries, than in the ostensibly more egalitarian United States--though Walt Whitman's similar ideas were revolutionary for mid-century (slavery-era) America (and, frankly, even today Leaves of Grass strikes Americans' ears as faintly seditious, one more reason I love it so).

Coming from a working-class background, I find the idea of mixing classes less transgressive, and on bad days, I suspect that Forster might have been unconsciously "slumming it," for all his socialist airs. 

The quote above, however, I can totally relate to: "to love a strong young man of the lower classes and be loved by him and even hurt by him."  If our desires are shaped in large part by our cultures, it seems odd to me that so little changed in the 74 years between me and E.M., especially when you think about how much the world changed in those 74 years.

I knew a young woman in graduate school, a jovial but strict Roman Catholic.  I was still in the closet, though sexually experienced, still professing a faith in Christ and the Republican Party.  Once, when the subject of homosexuality arose--perhaps the only time it did between us--she observed that, from what she had heard, it was all wrapped up in a lot of sado-masochism.

Mine was.  Is.  Well, I wouldn't say "a lot."  But the allure of being "hurt" by my "strong young" lover is something I could and still can understand.

My friend the Catholic certainly took the S&M thing to be proof of there being something wrong with the whole nasty business.  After I came out, I read articles in GLBT periodicals saying something quite similar:  that "rough trade" and the wrestling fantasies of the 1950s-60s era of the Athletic Model Guild were all vestiges of self-loathing internalized homophobia.


Maybe the younger gays, most of whom seem now to be striving for pseudo-hetero-quasi-normalcy--marriage, white picket fence, children--reflect the wholesome future of homosexuality.  I applaud and wholeheartedly support them.  They should have what they want.   I particularly admire their desire to raise special-needs children most heterosexuals do not care to adopt.

For me, though, the white picket fence sounds dismal.  Boring.  Homogenized, and neatly wrapped in cellophane.

Admittedly, what I desire is perhaps not very good for me ... or very good of me.  My desires were forged during a childhood and adolescence in a sexually repressed, economically hierarchic society and in a religion fueled by guilt and wrath.  And it probably did me no good at all to watch John Wayne spank Maureen O'Hara, or Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones shoot each other through the hearts.

Still, the idea that true love hurts--and that the hurt is delectable--so beautifully evoked by gay writers, not just Forster, but also Gide, Proust, Genet, Tennessee Williams ... and more currently, with less sentimentality, Dennis Cooper and Kevin Killian--that idea is not unique to the gay experience. 

It was an idea that Lawrence thought was easily translatable to the heterosexual experience in the 1920s.

But it is perhaps an aspect of romantic fantasies of love that is fading away ... as men and women become more comfortable with each other as equals, as homosexuality becomes normalized, as the evils of incest and sexual abuse become exposed and repudiated.

Fundamentally, though, there is a difference between what Forster speaks of as "hurt" in his diaries and the "hurt" caused by the inequalities, intolerance, and violence I just described.  The difference, I believe, is autonomy ... consent, privacy, freedom, along with the urge to feel and to cross boundaries.

It is perhaps the invitation to love and hurt me that makes the act something other than a fantasy of rape or a bashing.

I don't want to seem too certain about this, though.   E.M. and I may be sick puppies, our concepts of love soon to be washed away with a new wave of wholesomeness.

Honestly, I'm not sure why Forster's words still resonate with me, even now in the first glow of social toleration, acceptance, and assimilation.

But they do.  Still.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


This morning while making a quick sweep through my belongings in search of objects not ordinarily thought of when packing for an overseas trip (note: in three weeks I am heading to a small and apparently somewhat isolated French Mediterranean village, to escape, one would think, the exhausting clamor of the press and my fans), I found several bottles of expired over-the-counter medications, ranging from hemorrhoid creams to eye drops to painkillers, the most recent of which passed its sell-by date in April of 2001.

I am not, as my friend Barbara once put it, "a consumer of health care."  I have not seen my "regular" physician in seven years, not since I turned fifty, in fact.  I did make a surprise visit to the Duke Hospital ER just over a year ago, after a short series of fainting spells that had no immediate explanation.  In my mind, that visit constitutes a "checkup" (and, apart from the fact that I had just passed out three times in a row, I was, I was told, in remarkably good health!)

I have no prescribed medications--and I only irregularly take my megadose of vitamins C, B-complex, and I don't know what else.  I don't "watch what I eat"; it simply speeds past the eyes at rates a hummingbird could not keep up with (with some embarrassment, I admit I am known for how quickly I consume large quantities--to hell with the food pyramid--it's sort of a claim to fame, no doubt what I'll be remembered for when I'm gone).  I don't have a regular bedtime--but the alarm clock awakes me at 5:30 every morning to the cool sounds of mainstream jazz on WNCU 90.7 FM.

I walk the dog three times a day and dance around in my living room three or four times a week for exercise.  I masturbate at least once a day.  Then often I write up the accompanying fantasy for another blog--one which decent people like yourselves should not take an interest in.

So, no, I am not a healthy (or wholesome) man.  On a positive note, at least I am not a hypochondriac.  I wonder if "hypochondriac" has an antonym?  "Unneurotic" was the best I could find after a quick Internet search--a word my "check spelling" feature questions--and, intriguingly, I can find no synonym for "unneurotic."  (So what does this tell us about the state of the English-speaking world?)

"Hyperchondria" pops up on the Urban Dictionary ("never thinking you are sick even when you really are"), but elsewhere appears mainly as a result of people's not knowing how to spell "hypochondria."  I should point out that "hyperchondria" is a word that defies the logic and method of etymology, that gentle science of word roots and origins we English instructors persist in taking an interest in, despite its doubtful relevance in the modern world.

I am not proposing that the way I live makes a lot of sense, but it is the way I live.  Perhaps I have an irrational fear of healthcare personnel, even though I worked for about four years as a medical editor and writer.  (By the way, nothing I found out through the experience swayed me to the arms of the US healthcare system.)  For an atheist, I have gone to extremes in my faith in divine providence that most fundamentalists would shy away from.  My friend Ann thinks I am a closet Christian Scientist.

So I chucked the expired meds into the trashcan, realizing that all I really needed to take to France was toothpaste and deodorant--and I'll probably pick up some ibuprofen and Claritin, just in case I drink too much or come across something in nature or a sidewalk cafe to which I may be allergic but will never bother to request the tests needed to find out if an actual allergy exists.


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