29. Selfie #7

This is my favorite song right now:

 

JANAE: Why’s it called Drew Barrymore?

ME: Beats me, except she makes a cameo near the end of the video.

Listen, you know I love me a messy girl with big hair and and even bigger voice. If this were 2002 and I saw SZA’s debut album (there’s also an EP from last year) amongst the new releases at the FYE that used to be at the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, Indiana, I’d have bought just simply for the cover art. I’m totally here for streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music (I subscribe to both, because I like to throw my money way) because it’s super fucking convenient to just have the complete discography of Mariah Carey always at my immediate disposal, and really, the $23 or whatever it is those two subscriptions cost me per month is pocket change compared to the hundreds of dollars I used to spend on compact discs each month. Still, some of my favorite albums of all time are ones I discovered by accident, purchased on a whim because I happened to see the CD on a rack at some record store and responded in some way to the cover. But I haven’t bought a CD in a years.

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As it happens, I first heard SZA on Rihanna’s Consideration, the opener of her 2016 album Anti. The song, co-written by and featuring SZA, has all the spunk, sass, and cunning lyricism she pushes to even more gratifying extremes on CTRL. Most easily classified within that burgeoning sub-genre of music known as “alt-R&B” (which I think means R&B that ostensibly “hip” white kids have decided is cool, re: Frank Ocean, The Weeknd), CTRL in fact resists labels and categorizations without quite eschewing them completely. There are, certainly, heavy elements of R&B throughout; inspirations from hip-hop are also prevalent, and there are strong whiffs of soul jazz, indie rock, and mass-appeal, radio-friendly contemporary pop. (A girl I know who has absolutely zero taste in anything, hearing Love Galore for the first time, pronounced it, “A really good song.” She’s not wrong — it’s a slick, sexy jam that contains some of the album’s baddest and most innovative lyrics, but it’s minimalist production is firmly rooted in the now.) It’s this perfect (if unruly) combination of influences that make CTRL such a pleasure. It’s specific and unique, happy to suggest all sorts of identification yet refusing to pick just one.

On the album’s inaugural track, Supermodel, SZA sings over a grungy electric guitar about, according to the Genius-powered “Behind The Lyrics” function on Spotify, “an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong.” Her vocal delivery here (and elsewhere on the album) evokes songstresses like Amy Winehouse or Macy Gray with hints of Lauryn Hill and Nicki Minaj. “I could be your supermodel if you believe,” SZA sings on the hook, “If you see it in me, see it in me, see it in me.” Its poignant, somber sentiment is juxtaposed against the graphic aggression of the verse, in which she declares, “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy” and taunts her estranged lover with, “How am I so easy to forget like that/It can be that easy for you to get like that.” Here and elsewhere on CTRL, SZA reveals herself straddling the delicate balance between the fast-talking, smart-mouthed bad chick who’s down for revenge sex and sharing dudes on “The Weekend,” and the one whose loneliness might push to put up with the bullshit. The way SZA fuses these apparent contradictions together with such grace, cohesion, whimsy, and cool, reveals a creative mind as messy and exciting as the album itself, and I’m here for it.

What these tensions apparent contradictions reveal is the mutifaceted nature of a personality, the textured quality of existence. SZA knows herself; she’s in her own head, rhyming about the Netflix series Narcos –her penchant, as she sings on “—” for “dirty boys,”

27. Short essay on eating out

I do not enjoy eating in restaurants because I work in one and I cannot bear to participate in putting someone else through it.

When I do eat out, I tip extravagantly. I’m the friend who checks your credit card receipt and has zero qualms about calling you out for leaving less than twenty percent or who just leaves an extra five or ten dollars on the table just in case. I always try to tip in cash because I know anything left on a credit card is going to get reported and split three or four ways between three or four other staff members who also aren’t getting any practical hourly wage.

When I’m working and people tell me I gave them excellent service it means nothing to me. All it means is that I fulfilled whatever haphazard, half-conceived idea they had about what their dining experience should be, which usually means modifying dishes until they are practically unrecognizable from a dinner they’d have made for themselves at home, only consumed in a setting where for an hour and half they get to confuse themselves for royalty and their servers for servants, apathetic to the messes they leave for others to clean up. The rest of what most people expect when they go out to eat they make up along the way, only deciding that the price of their meal entitles them to something at the point that they realize they don’t have it. And often it is that one intangible, formerly unneeded thing down to which comes the server’s entire night. So you enjoyed yourself. Good. So you were well-served. I’m glad for you. Can I go home now?

I’m taking a vow of celibacy

I’m taking a vow of celibacy. I’ve had it. I’m not fucking anymore guys. I don’t want any more dicks in my mouth. I’m no longer interested in the intimacy of someone else’s body, its scents and noises, its imprudence, its imposition. I just now decided.

I just now decided because about ten minutes ago, apropos of nothing, and sans any sort of alternate greeting, a guy sent me a picture of his cock on Grindr. That’s not why I’ve decided on celibacy–Grindr is the Land of Unsolicited Dick Pics, and I’ve been around long enough at this point to know that a seemingly out-of-the-blue snapshot of a guy’s cock via one electronic medium or another is basically gay-speak for the once-popular “hey man how’s it goin.” In school we used to send tightly-folded notes to our crushes, confessing our emotions and asking if they felt the same. These days, we sends close-ups of our freshly bleached assholes. As Carrie Bradshaw says in the pilot episode of Sex & The City: “Welcome to the age of un-innocence.”

The point is, I wasn’t offended that he sent me the picture. I was offended, however–not to mention mildly repulsed–by the shoestring he’d fashioned into a home-made cock ring. Listen, we all have our kinks and fetishes, and I SUPPORT YOU, but if there’s one thing I can’t get it up for, it’s a cock ring, store-bought or otherwise. Upon seeing the picture, I immediately removed Grindr from my phone, typed up a celibacy contract, printed it off, and signed it. Later today, I’m going to have it notarized. I’m telling you, I’m done.

If you think I’m overreacting, please consider that only a few days ago, I was chatting with a different guy–it was going well, actually, as far as chatting with guys on Grindr is concerned (translation: we managed about ten blocks of text before the photo-sharing commenced, which is significant; I felt like I was being courted, like a straight girl). His face was visible and I didn’t hate it, he was conversant and friendly, and even though I’m prone to interpret any interest at all from a man as a sign that he’s thinking about wifeing me, we objectively seemed to be hitting it off. Once we got to the pic-exchange portion of the evening, though, things took a turn for the worse, when a full-body shot he’d unfortunately failed to crop his feet out of revealed an accessory far different from the other guy’s homemade cock ring, but equally distressing: a county-issued house arrest anklet, black and boxy and unmistakable.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed. It seemed perfectly reasonable to be like, “Are you on house arrest?” The evidence was there, but who knows how recently that photo had been taken. Perhaps he’d been but was no longer legally confined to the perimeter of his parents’ property (yes, he lives with his parents, a common phenomenon among twenty and thirty-something gay men here, which warrants a post of its own). Still, I didn’t want to be rude. By then, I’d already seen homeboy’s dick (moderately sized) and ass (maybe too hairy) and had felt zero compunction about asking him his preferred sexual activities, but somehow, inquiring after his criminal background seemed forward adn gauche. Instead, after suggesting that we get together sometime, I asked (innocuously) if he would be able to travel. (In gay dating, where, in my personal experience, the word “date” has come to encompass anything from a formal excursion involving drinks, dinner, and maybe a movie, to a date-like hang-out session consisting of awkward small talk and obligatorily viewing about thirteen minutes of something on Netflix pre-sex so that it’s definitely not a hook-up, to one guy Google mapping the other’s address and showing up for approximately twenty-eight minutes of definitely hooking-up, “can you travel” means do you have a car, at least in cities without adequate public transportation. Its opposite question is, “can you host?”)  He revealed (quite casually, I thought) that no, he couldn’t travel because, yes, he was on house arrest. Since he’d already admitted to living with his parents, it didn’t feel necessary to ask him if he could host, because fucking guys in bedrooms they’ve occupied since they were prepubescent, amongst tarnished soccer trophies and race car curtains, is something I gave up when I turned thirty, thank you very much.

To be clear, I don’t have a whole lot of qualms about hooking up with or even casually dating a man with a criminal record. In fact, there’s like a 90% chance I already have. Frankly, I’m not that choosy, and also, I find felons to be kind of hot. One has to be realistic about these things, especially if the goal is not so much a steady and/or long-term life partner (I don’t think it’s realistic, in my situation) as an occasional companion for casual sex. His home-bound status was hardly reason for disqualification, especially considering that I hardly ever leave my own house. The only difference between our situations is that his is court-ordered and I don’t live with my parents. Nevertheless, the thing about house-arrest anklets is that they don’t come off until you’ve done your time, and something about the thought of having sex with a guy who was wearing one didn’t do it for me. I guess I thought it would be a distraction, that I’d feel it clanking against my own ankles as we rolled in the proverbial hay (or maybe actual hay: he’s a white guy who lives on the outskirts of South Bend, so who the fuck knows what kind of delinquent country bumpkin life he’s leading), alleviating any ability I might have had not to wonder the whole time about what he’d done to land himself in hot-water in the first place (I couldn’t bring myself to ask him outright). Call me old fashioned, but if I’m fucking a guy with a rap sheet, I want the proof to be tear-drop tattoos under his eyes or an proven talent for carving shanks out of bars of soap–not some unfortunate accessory ruining the line of every outfit he owns. As such, I decided that if you’re on house arrest and you want to get up in this? You need to be Shia Labeouf in Disturbia.

So anyway. Celibacy. Really, it shouldn’t be difficult. Abstaining won’t take as much effort as finding someone who doesn’t offend all of my terribly refined sensibilities or who measures up to my really not very high standards. I really cannot express for you what it’s like to be a gay man trying to date (or even fuck) in South Bend, Indiana. There’s the guy who suggested we fuck in his Jeep in the Kohl’s parking lot, or the guy who wanted to fuck me on an un-sheeted mattress on the floor of his unbelievably filthy bedroom, mere feet from a dried but still reeking pile of dog shit, or the guy who invited me over to smoke but failed to warn me that his grandmother was dying on a rented hospital bed in the living room, her oxygen tank hissing rhythmically the entire time he was inside me. There’s the guy I dated for a few months a while back who was such a talented kisser that I didn’t mind that he “wasn’t mobile” (gay-speak for “doesn’t have a car”) and regularly unemployed, until I did. There’s the guy I dated for a shameful nine months (off-and-on), even though he was, I realized about two and a half months in, virtually homeless, or the guy I was seeing last year who used to come over and we’d fuck, yeah, but we’d also have actual conversations and watch Law & Order: SVU and he’d stay the night and we’d wake up together in the morning who I eventually discovered, when I finally got around to looking him up on Facebook after he suddenly stopped replying to my text messages, was married to a bubbly-looking woman with whom he had not one, not two, not three, but four bubbly babies. And I have way worse stories I could tell you, but I’m hanging on to them for now, because something’s gotta go in the memoir.

The thing is, I’ve flirted with celibacy before. Seven years ago when I moved to South Bend from Chicago, I was so depressed at having left he Windy City and so wrecked by an unfortunate relationship with a guy that I had zero interest in sex. I would look at men and feel nothing. I’d jack off a couple of times a month but mostly I got high and read biographies of famous writers and artists and smoked as many cigarettes as I could fit into a day without throwing up. This went on for just over two years, and you know what I learned? A person doesn’t really need to have sex. We think we do, because our culture is permeated with sex. We go around telling our friends, “I haven’t gotten laid in a week,” as if we’re telling them we’ve just been diagnosed with some incurable cancer. In another episode of Sex & The City (yeah, I have a problem), Carrie is horrified when Miranda confesses that she hasn’t had sex in three months, and recently, a straight male friend of mine wondered if he shouldn’t break up with his girlfriend of almost a year because she was going to Europe for two weeks and he wasn’t sure he could “go that long without getting any.” A complete gentleman, he reasoned it was better to break-up with her before she left than cheat on her while she was gone.

There’s no shortage of philosophers and sociologists and other theorists who have written extensively about the correlation between (especially) American capitalism and our modern conceptions of sex/love–I’m thinking, for instance, of Beatrice Preciado, writing in her essay Pharmaco-pornographic Politics: Towards a New Gender Ecology, “The mutation of capitalism that we see in our time can be characterized by the conversion of ‘sex,’ ‘sexuality,’ ‘sexual identity,’ and ‘pleasure’ into objects used for the political management of life, and also by the fact that this ‘management’ itself takes place through the innovative dynamics of advance techno-capitalism.” We are bombarded with sex and sexualization at every pop-cultural turn, and even when we’re not, we’re thinking about it because suddenly it’s taboo. Look, I like to get off as much as anyone, but as someone who gave it up for a while, I’m telling you, there are other things. Sure, I was in the midst of a near-crippling depressive episode, but my depression typical manifests itself in poor sexual decisions, not zero sexual decisions. I’m not saying it’ll be the easiest thing in the world. I’ll get horny watching Game of Thrones or Flip or Flop (mmm TAREK) and wanna find someone to bang and I might even download Grindr or any of the other apps gay men are using to find each other these days, but when that happens, I’ll just remind myself of Preciado’s words and take a particularly obnoxious solace in the fact that my celibacy is a choice that exempts me, at least in a small way, from the horrors of late capitalism.

 

 

On Holding Grudges

A little grudge-holding is good for one’s health, in fact. This flies in the face of common knowledge. We’re told that stewing on past offenses is the purview of the small person, that an unwillingness to forgive or at least forget old transgressions is its own defeat. If someone wrongs you–say, if they cut you off in traffic, or appear in front of you in the express lane at the grocery store with a haul far exceeding the twelve-item limit–and two or three weeks later you’re still harping about it to your friends, for instance, you’re not righteously indignant; you’re obsessed. If a relationship goes south and results in hurt feelings, however deeply, and you’re still trying to make your ex’s life hell two years after the fact, you’re no longer heartbroken; you’re wallowing. If you’ve got time to hold grudges, you likely don’t have a whole lot going on in your pathetic, miserable, emotionally stunted life–at least according to the cultural wisdom.

The common wisdom is wrong. In fact, one ought to be ardently cultivating at least two but never more than four grudges at any given time. Just as with children, it is unwise to hold only one grudge, because devoting too much time and attention to just one thing exclusively is never wise. Conversely, more than four grudges (or children), and each grudge is not likely to receive the proper amount of attention it requires–nay, deserves. I personally find three grudges to be perfectly manageable; however, one should proceed according to one’s own skill set.

One should not devote too much time to deciding which transgressions to cling to. Say, for instance, that it’s Friday, and your best friend does something awful, like gets engaged, or cancels on you at the last minute, when you’ve already gotten dressed. Either of those things are perfectly reasonable violations over which to harbor ill will, if one is so inclined. But what if you still totally haven’t forgotten that on Monday your co-worker Steve, who you hate anyway (for no particular reason, something to do with this affability) “mistakenly” ate that individually sized Oikos you had stored in the staff refrigerator, and you’re also still working black magic against that ex who wronged you? And say you’ve decided that two grudges at a time is your personal limit. What to do? No worries! Merely trade out one grudge for another. As grudge holding is an essentially personal endeavor, one is free to change one’s mind about which specific hatreds to foster pretty much whenever the hell one feels like it. In this regard, there are no hard and fast rules. As in anything–for instance, acrobatics, or being one of those gross men who travel a lot for work and secretly have entire an secret family in Baltimore or some place–balance is key.

The Nate Parker Problem

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Nate Parker is having a hard time. Although for the actor and filmmaker 2016 started off roaringly–in January, Fox Searchlight acquired his Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation, for an astounding $17.5 million after it screened at Sundance–by summer that roar, no less garrulous, revealed a marked tonal shift when we were reminded that as college a student back in 1999, Mr. Parker had been accused, though ultimately acquitted, of raping a classmate. (His friend and co-defendant, Jean McGianni Celestin, was convicted and sentenced to prison, but this conviction was later overturned. Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin have, apparently, remained close over the intervening sixteen years: Mr. Celestin has a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation.) The discovery that their accuser committed suicide in 2012, coupled with Parker’s disastrous apology, in which he repeatedly evoked himself and presented that “painful moment” in his life as something that had happened mostly to him, only bolstered public calls for a boycott against Mr. Parker’s film, with popular writers like Roxane Gay vowing in The New York Times that she would not see it. Touted since Sundance as a definite front-runner for all manner of accolades this coming awards season, this praise was quickly replaced with speculation: would Mr. Parker’s troubled past hinder his chances for, particularly, Oscar glory? Would audiences be satisfied with the word of the court, which found Mr. Parker innocent of any wrongdoing? Would audiences, critics, and Academy voters be able to differentiate between Mr. Parker’s past and his present, his work and his art? Or would the bad press prove to be the proverbial nails in the coffin of Mr. Parker’s once-promising career?

Whether or not The Birth of a Nation will be embraced when it is formally released in October remains to be seen. In the meantime, things keep getting worse for Mr. Parker. This month, an interview the director gave with BET surfaced, in which Mr. Parker, among other things, laments the sorts of roles available for black male actors in Hollywood, noting that such performers are often required to perform in drag or play “men with questionable sexuality.” “To preserve the black man,” Mr. Parker is quoted as saying, “…you will never see me take a gay role.” The internet is still grappling with this: Ms. Gay notes that Mr. Parker’s comments “read as homophobia,” and Goldie Taylor, writing for The Daily Beastthough she plans to see the movie anyway, as well finds Mr. Parker’s comments distasteful. Ebony.com’s Michael Arceneaux was less forgiving, declaring, “He’s never getting a dollar of mine again.”

All press is good press, perhaps, and while Mr. Parker’s repeated public bunglings might not speak to the merit of his work, they do speak, I think, to the content of his character, and what seems very clear is that Mr. Parker is a misogynist. Because he was acquitted of those rape charges in 2001 it’s not fair to call him rapist, but his public attitude regarding that “painful moment” — as Gay notes, “The solipsism is staggering” — and his blatantly homo- and femme-phobic comments reveal the internalized chauvinism he mistakes for masculinity and the propagation of harmful systems of oppression he mistakes for a “legacy.”

Mr. Parker’s observation that black actors, especially black male comedians, are routinely given roles in which they have to perform as women is not inaccurate. The list of black actors and comedians who have performed in drag is long and includes, to name but a few, Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Ving Rhames, Arsenio Hall, the Wayans Brothers, and Tracy Morgan. Keenan Thompson routinely portrays women on SNL, just as Flip Wilson, in the 1970s, regularly donned a dress on his own television show, and Tyler Perry has built an entire career (and amassed a considerable fortune) upon pretending to be a woman

Mr. Parker is certainly not the first to comment on the phenomena. In 2006, Dave Chappelle famously discussed the issue with Oprah Winfrey, recounting a story in which he “took a stand” against producers who wanted to put him in a dress for a Martin Lawrence picture. The following year, director John Singleton griped to Black Star News, “I’m tired of all these black men in dresses,” and wondered why no one was organizing protests against the tradition. It’s a frequent enough occurrence to bear discussion, and the emasculation of black men as a tool of continued oppression is not without its theoretical merits: the condition of the black American male as he navigates a society bent on his destruction, and the tactics, both subtle and overt, upon which that society might rely, always bear consideration. Nevertheless, the argument that images of black men in drag or portrayals of black men who are not necessarily heterosexual are somehow detrimental to, as Mr. Parker would have it, the preservation of the black man is both disparaging and reprehensible, and that too bears discussion. Aside from suggesting that there’s something shameful or grotesque about femininity (his self-pitying recollection of those rape allegations drip with this same, thinly veiled misogyny), it’s a deplorable act of erasure and exclusion, attempting the removal of gay black men from the equation–as if their homosexuality somehow cancels out their blackness.

If it seems like I am here conflating homosexuality with cross-dressing or drag, it’s only because Mr. Parker’s comments conflate the two. While he expresses, explicitly, an unwillingness to play gay, the roles he offers as examples–Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma in Big Momma’s House and Mr. Perry’s multiple Madea movies–are hardly gay roles. These characters aren’t even of dubious sexuality: Mr. Lawrence’s Malcolm Turner is a straight cop who only puts on a dress because he needs to go undercover, while Madea, matriarch to an ever-revolving band of relatives, is an ostensibly heterosexual (and apparently progenitive) woman. (Indeed, Mr. Parker’s attribution of homosexual subscript to the Madea films is laughable, when one considers Mr. Perry’s consistently flawed perception of black homosexuality, wherein same-sex desire necessarily leads to disease and the destruction of family.) Mr. Parker, lacking the depth to see things like sexuality and gender as textured issues requiring textured terminology, uses these terms interchangeably, a collusion as offensive as his insistence that queer roles would be contrary to “material that I can be proud of, that my kids can watch, that my grandmother can watch.” This view upholds a rhetoric that frames homosexuality as somehow crude, distasteful, or otherwise inappropriate for the family. (And let’s not even talk about the hypocrisy this point of view betrays, considering Mr. Parker’s drunken college three-way–as if there’s nothing even a little gay about running a train on a girl with your bestie.)

It’s evident that Mr. Parker’s version of black masculinity, with its obvious macho underpinnings, is one that considers homosexuality as not only deviant but obscene, and likely fails to recognize the boundaries of sexual consent. That he cops to these notions under the guise of faux black empowerment and concern for the black community only is equally discouraging, as his positions, far from advancing any cause of liberation, in fact encourage further animosity within the larger black community and strengthen divisions between marginalized groups, which only benefits the status quo. In a time when Hollywood has been confronted with its own diversity issues and has vowed to work to address those issues, it’s disheartening — and perhaps a bit terrifying — that someone with Mr. Parker’s insidious message might become the beneficiary of that change.