REVIEW: “LOOK ALIVE OUT THERE” BY SLOANE CROSLEY

In her 2008 debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Sloane Crosley established herself as a humorous essayist to be reckoned with, inviting comparisons to masters of the form like David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, and Sarah Vowell, and landing its author on the New York Times bestseller list. In the fifteen essays that comprise that collection, Crosley held forth on every-day subjects such as the irritating circus of Manhattan real estate, dating in one’s twenties, losing one’s wallet, and being single at weddings—all in a sharp, sardonic voice that managed to be laugh-out-loud funny and, at times, profoundly moving. Her second collection, How Did You Get This Number, was in many ways the same book as the one that preceded it—no less satisfying, just more well-traveled (indeed, with essays detailing trips to Alaska, Lisbon, and Paris, among other locales, it’s almost a travel book). In 2015, Crosley published her first novel, The Clasp, a Mary McCarthy-esque riff on the Guy de Mapassant short story The Necklace that was exceedingly well-written but perhaps too hilariously funny (funnier, even, than some of her essays) to be taken seriously, despite its moments of deep sincerity and pathos. Fans of Crosley will be happy to hear that her latest, Look Out Alive Out There, is for the author a sure-footed and gratifying return to the essay form.

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In the decade since Crosley first arrived on the literary scene she has honed her talents considerably. She’s always been a preternaturally gifted writer, one capable of infusing her perfectly constructed, staggeringly graceful sentences with the crackle of her wry observations and savvy insights. In Look Alive Out There, she is in full command of her talents, as mordant and caustically self-deprecating as ever. She’s older now, and it shows, mostly in her subject matter. Where her earlier collections largely chronicled her social and romantic foibles as a twenty-something urbanite, these new essays find her grappling with the onslaught of her thirties and impending middle-age. “Outside Voices,” one of the longer essays in the book, chronicle’s Crosley’s years-long battle with a noisy, much younger neighbor. In “The Doctor is a Woman,” she details the invasive and expensive process of having her eggs frozen—a series of procedures she endures at the casual suggestion of her doctor, for no apparent reason other than why not. Such predicaments are not the purview of a slightly neurotic twenty-something who keeps a secret drawer full of toy ponies in her kitchen or travels impulsively to Lisbon to get drunk with a troupe of aspiring clowns. These are the predicaments of a grown-ass woman in possession of a health insurance package that affords her the privilege of being, as she puts it, “pro-active about [her] health,” however unnecessarily (her aforementioned “harvest” yielded more than 60 eggs, which I guess is a lot), who just wants to get to bed at a decent fucking hour.

This maturity is not unwelcome, or at all ineffective: “Outside Voices,” after all, is one of the best essays in the book. Its paragraphs are packed with enough laughs to serve as a comedienne’s standup set—laughs that are honestly won (elsewhere, Crosley is not above resorting to the cheap gag) and which never come at the expense of more astute revelations. Indeed, this essay, which opens the collection after the brief preamble of “Wheels Up,” (more on that later), is very much about the passage of time, of getting older. For years while living in Manhattan’s tony West Village neighborhood, Crosley was plagued by the constant noise of a family who lived in a neighboring brownstone. Most of that noise was caused by Jared, the teenage son, who, when not “watching viral videos on his phone at full volume” or playing music loudly from the backyard, was busy hosting his coterie of friends for rowdy, beer-fueled revelries that lasted late into the night. When calls and visits to her local police precinct resulted in nothing and her kindly requests for her neighbors to keep it down proved similarly futile, Crosley found herself becoming “a curmudgeon before my time,” and resorted to extreme measures to silence her neighbors. She wrote a letter, then watched as Jared and his mother laughed about it in their kitchen. Inspired by an art installation exhibit, she bought a set of 600-watt halogen spotlights and aimed them at the neighboring backyard.

Crosley’s best essays are always a little bit nostalgic, and “Outside Voices” is no exception. Crosley is initially hesitant to make too big a deal out of Jared’s noisiness, confessing that she is “mostly concerned with something mortifying: Jared’s impression of me.” “Jared was cool,” Crosley writes. “He just was. What’s worse, he plugged into some residual teenage part of me that wanted to be cool, too.” Her irritation with Jared flares alongside her obsession with him and his friends. She’s repelled by his discourteous nature but drawn in by his cool-kid appeal, Shazaam-ing Jared’s musical choices “even as I wanted to destroy him.” In the end, however, her rue overwhelms their allure. The spotlights are successful, and Crosley, officially Over It, yawns at their resultant objections and insults. The essay’s central-if-subtle anxiety—that specific brand that accompanies the late-twenty-something as they bear witness to the emerging adulthood of the generation on their heels, when one first starts to truly feel their age, specifically its accumulation—is ultimately taken in stride by Crosley, who both acknowledges and accepts the distance between herself and the young rabble-rousers next door: “Their lives were out there and mine was in here. They were forever behind me in time, as unable to catch up as I was to wait for them.”

Not all of the pieces collected here are successful. This is especially true of the shorter pieces, such as “Wheels Up,” which totals not quite three pages and is only truly funny in the final paragraphs and feels otherwise unnecessary. “Brace Yourself,” about the same length, is marginally better but likewise fails to convincingly merit its own inclusion, at least after one reading.

One aspect of Look Alive Out There that struck me is the absence of virtually any engagement with current events. I’m not sure whether I mean this as a criticism or not. On the one hand I feel obligated to confess that there was something wholly enjoyable about spending time in Crosley’s practically apolitical world (to be fair, there are passing references to feminism and a few supporting sentiments—details that suggest liberal leanings sprinkled throughout like Easter eggs), which is apparently devoid of the frustrations and angst that have been harrying much of the country and dominating most realms of entertainment. Slipping into the book was somewhat like slipping through a portal or a time-warp and being transported to a world not villainized by totalitarian-leaning oligarchs and Russian e-espionage, where black men are routinely executed in the streets and children are gunned down in schools. On the other hand, however, it did occur to me that this might be what people mean when they refer to “liberal coastal elites” (that Crosley is a New Yorker is a large part of her writerly persona, and the idiosyncrasies of living there influence much of her writing) who are out of touch with those of us in so-called “real America.” Here is a woman—occupation: “full-time writer”—whose biggest problems are the cyber-bully who unethically obtains her domain name (after SHE let it expire, mind you) (though she annoyingly refuses to accept responsibility for this) and a sudden onset of chronic vertigo. I’m not a fan of the sort of oppression Olympics that sometimes infiltrate otherwise well-intentioned investigations of privilege and power structures, but it’s difficult to muster whatever sympathy Crosley might hope to extract from her readers here, especially when the vertigo eventually goes away basically on its own and she barely balks at the nearly 5,000 dollars she has to fork over to re-purchase her domain name. In “The Doctor is a Woman,” the essay in which she has her eggs harvested, one shudders when Crosley blithely confesses to ruining fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of fertility hormones in the freezer (it is replaced by her pharmacist, at no charge) when there are people, surely, in her same city who are forced to choose between paying their rent or paying for their chemotherapy treatments or their blood pressure medications. Certainly, these disparities are not Crosley’s fault; however, her unabashed detailing of her own excesses—there’s an entire essay about her guest role as herself on the TV series Gossip Girl—whatever their true intentions, register as somewhat oblivious and tone-deaf.

Nevertheless, Look Alive Out There is as charming and delightful a book as one is likely to come across, at turns beguiling and shrewd, flippant and discerning, funny and revealing. One of Crosley’s greatest strengths is her flair for self-creation. That self is spared the fate of caricature because it is so deliberately and meticulously constructed, and so inimitably precocious. It’s hard not to imagine that the Sloane Crosley one encounters on the page is not without her fabrications; however, one is so taken by her zany, incessantly amusing worldview, one hardly cares.

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Looking at the Obamas: On The Presidential Portraits

Portraits are a tricky subject. So much of what makes a portrait successful has to do with the interplay between viewer and subject. A portrait of someone you’ve never seen before can be easily judged on the merits of its composition alone, while any recognition at all of the subject immediately brings to bear upon the viewing the viewer’s previous knowledge, which necessarily factors in to any judgement as to whether or not the portrait in question is any good. One needs no more evidence than the continued obsession with answering the question of who, biographically, the Mona Lisa was, to understand that a large part of the awe she inspires has to do with her anonymity. Because we don’t know anything about her, we’re free to project onto the lady pretty much whatever we’d like. Because we have only the one example from her catalog of facial expressions, presumably as extensive as the average person’s, we’re able to call her legendary gaze unreadable, intractable. If we knew her, we might know that it is simply the look she gives when she’s tired, or when her children are bugging her, or when she wants to go to bed with her husband. That is, despite its reputation as being so, it’s not really that her look her is unreadable, it’s that we can’t read it. Conversely, the more familiar we are with the subject–the more exposure we have to the subject, especially when that exposure is not quite to the subject itself but rather to the subject as image, which is for most of us the nature of our exposure to famous people–the less likely we are to project anything onto it except what we know to be true.

There are few Americans whose likenesses are as well-known as those of Barack and Michelle Obama, the former President and First Lady of the United States of America. When you make history by becoming the first Black President, you’re bound to get a little press. And few presidents have proven themselves as adept at maneuvering in the media so skillfully–and few first ladies have been so spectacularly up to the task–as these two. Aside from the the sort public appearances that typify most American presidencies–news briefings, public addresses, state dinners, generally being in the news–the Obamas were (and remain, even though they’ve left the White House) frequent guests on talk shows and sketch comedies, and made regular fodder for all manner of blog and magazine outlets. As such, we’ve become uniquely attuned to images of the couple, together and separate. To say that we know what they look like is, I think, a vast understatement; what’s true about people with famous faces is that although you’ve never actually seen them (IRL), you could pick them out of a crowd. The acquaintance is visual, and intimate. This is doubly true in the Internet age, when images of famous people are endlessly redistributed over a range of social media, their various reactions and mannerisms recycled, in memes and gifs, for applicability to a myriad of contexts.

I suspect this has a lot to do with the uproar on certain parts of Twitter over the new portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which were revealed on Monday. Although no one usually cares about such things–the last time “president” and “portrait” were together in an interesting sentence was a few years ago, when Dubya picked up a brush and committed to his canvas a bathroom selfie–the unveiling of these portraits was notable because they are the first portraits of the first Black President and the first Black First Lady to hang in the gallery, and because the Smithsonian made the wise decision of tasking the portraiture to two African American artists. What mostly made news, however, were complaints that the portrait of Michelle Obama bore little likeness to the image of Michelle Obama we recognize.

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Mrs. Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, is stunning. Perhaps it doesn’t look exactly like her–I suppose that’s ultimately debatable. The portrait does, however, capture the woman’s essence–her effortlessly regal demeanor, but also her warmth and charm; her humility, but also her gravitas. Michelle Obama is always the woman in the room you most want to talk to, and also the one to whom you are most terrified to speak. So is the woman in the portrait. Perched almost jauntily, with her legs crossed, one hand drawn up to support her chin, she surveys the viewer seriously, her face neither inviting nor standoffish, neither promising or expecting anything. She is neither passive nor engaged. Indeed, it’s something of a triumph that, despite our deep knowledge of what Michelle Obama looks like, Sherald is able to imbue her with something of Mona Lisa’s illegible expression. We’ve seen her smiling, laughing, rolling her eyes, even grimacing. Yet here, her gaze does approach the cacographic, going somewhere past you, the viewer, even as it seems not to exclude you, somehow.

There is, however, another sense in which the Mrs. Obama of Sherald’s portrait is immediately recognizable, and that is Michelle as Fashionista, she who stunned in a custom Brandon Maxwell gown at the 2016 White House State Dinner and Oscar de la Renta for a visit with the Queen of England that same year. More than anything, the portrait references Michelle The Glamazon, draped in a halter-neck gown that does not evoke any specific dress worn by Mrs. Obama so much as it suggests, with its incongruent geometric patterning, its intermittent stripes of color, the utter grandness of its flowing skirt, the high-fashion ethos that informed so much her wardrobe during her years in the White House.

The grayscale effect of the painting is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it muddies Mrs. Obama’s vibrancy. Through that icky gray her tone comes across sickly and pale, her skin a gray, dry version of its real-life always moisturized, ebony hue. It’s hard not to imagine what the effect of Mrs. Obama’s dark skin against the truly lovely blue Sherald has chosen as her background color might have looked like, were it not for the grayscale; instead, the contrast is bland and unappealing, a tepid brown whited out by the gray. Even so, this error detracts only slightly from the portrait’s overall arresting quality.

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Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Obama is somewhat more successful. In it, he is seated on a wooden chair upholstered in red while the leaves and flowers of a large plant threaten to overtake him. In the portrait, Mr. Obama is slightly leaned forward, his arms crossed at the wrists, his left hand grasping the crook of his right elbow while his right hand rests open on his left knee. There is no trace of Mona Lisa’s (or, for that matter, his wife’s) impenetrability in his expression: we know exactly what the man is thinking, or at least we can imagine to our satisfaction that we do. His years in office have wizened him–the graying hair and all of that–yet they have also enlightened him, and enlightenment is sometimes heavy. Surely, Obama’s enlightenment must be polished by everything he’s achieved and burnished, however slightly, by what he did not. It is the portrait of a man with Barack Obama’s legacy: the first Black President, the fabled game changer, that glorious tipping point.

It is not hard to remember the prospect of an Obama presidency when it wasn’t yet a thing, or even when it was still new; what such a thing could mean for America, the progress it portended. To be an American seeing a Black man get elected to the highest office in the land–to see his Black wife and their Black daughters in the White House, and know they were living there–felt as tremendous and historic as it was, and it was easy to believe that it represented a fundamental shift in our national reckoning with race. Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s hard to be equivocal about such matters. It seems fair to say that, in terms of what is possible for Black people to achieve in America, yes, Obama’s presidency changed things. However, it is also true that his presidency ran parallel to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland. The expression on the face of the man in the portrait contains that dichotomy, which is a similar dichotomy to the one which arises when one considers that it was the fact of a Black American president that in many ways stoked the hate and racism that elected the current administration. The man’s expression asks, as so many of us have been, “How are we electing Black men to the presidency but also shooting them dead in the streets?” and it asks, “How have we gone from there”–there being ’08, or even ’12–“to here?”

I don’t know about the foliage that makes up the background (and some of the foreground) of Wiley’s portrait. I do appreciate the bursts of purple and orange and yellow blooms here and there, but this may be because they play into my understanding of Mr. Obama growing up in Hawaii. Still, the way the ivy-like plants grown around his feet and encroach upon his shoulder seem silly to me–a little corny, even. What is it supposed to mean? Is the President emerging from the plant as if from the jungle, thereby linking the modern Black American to his pre-diasporic history? Or is the jungle taking him back? I don’t know what to make of it. Like the grayscale effect in Sherald’s portrait, though to a somewhat lesser degree, I just don’t get it.

It is often more important what a piece of art represents than how well the art represents it. These portraits will ostensibly hang in the National Portrait Gallery for as long the building stands, a constant tribute to the indomitable spirit of Black America and to America’s unique, sometimes contradictory capacity for reinvention. This thought comforts me, as we barrel through a presidency that every day proves itself more horrifying than we could have imagined. Looking at the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which are not perfect portraits, as their subjects are not perfect, I’m reminded of the joy and wonder I felt at the beginning of the Obama Era, the faith I had then that America could truly be “the land of the free,” a place where liberty and justice truly were extended to all. That this is a belief that grows more ragged with each passing day only proves how necessary it is to hold on to. These portraits represent a small tightening of that grasp.

 

 

I loved Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” just like everyone else

One of the books I’m toting around right now is the recently published collected short stories of Susan Sontag, Debriefing. In the collection’s first story, “Pilgrimage,” the 14-year-old narrator (also Susan Sontag) has this to say about reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

“For a month the book was where I lived. I read it through almost at a run, my excitement winning out over my wish to go slowly and savor…After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud…”<

Sontag’s recollections of reading Mann are the near-perfect summation of my experience with The Idiot. I did not tear through Elif Batuman’s spectacular novel so much as I devoured it. And like Sontag, as I neared the end, I felt a low pang of sadness at the pages diminishing quickly beneath my fingers. I wasn’t ready to abandon Selin, the book’s 19 year old narrator, nor the sprawling, perfectly imagined cast of characters that populate the year of her life she recounts for us. I was entirely consumed by this book, completely beguiled by the unique pitch of Selin’s narrative voice, and by the exasperating clarity of Batuman’s authorial vision.

A blurb on the book’s back cover describes The Idiot as “mundane,” and I truly cannot think of a more accurate statement. To say that nothing much “happens” in the book would be true but misleading. It’s more like what does happen is so heartbreakingly normal, so small, that it barely registers as a happening. Selin, a Harvard freshman, in 1995, of Turkish-American descent, dispatches the tale of her first year in college in a voice so droll and un-impassioned it’s positively flat. An aspiring writer, Selin is observational nearly at the expense of interiority, a pair of eyes and poised pen recording her experiences with an almost journalistic adherence to objectivity. Yet nothing is sacrificed to the stark, spare, even flat quality of the prose: the characters (and there are many, encountered by Selin in Boston, in New York, in Paris, in Turkey and Eastern Europe) are all drawn with precision; the every detail zings. Freighted conversations amount to nothing, such as when Selin discovers she and her doomed love interest, Ivan (who is basically a composite of every withholding, manipulative jerk any of us has ever dated), has booked the same trans-Atlantic flight as she:

I stood beside Ivan. “Hi,” I said.
He didn’t look at me. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“I didn’t recognize you because of your haircut,” I said.
His gloom seemed to intensify. “That why I got the haircut.”
I thought that was funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“I didn’t know you were going to Paris,” I said.
“I didn’t know YOU were going to Paris,” he said.
Then we stood there not saying anything.
“Well, see you later,” I said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asked Svetlana afterward…

The book is replete with these sort of exchanges, anti-climactic to the point of banality, and they thrilled me.

Yet the book’s simplicity is a front: this is not some frothy tale of collegiate love gone wrong; rather, this is a rigorously intellectual, deeply theoretical book about the possibilities and limits of language. Again and again Selin, whose major is linguistics, brushes against those possibilities and limitations, discovering in most instances the difficulty of communication, the impossibility of true understanding. The many languages that flit through the book–English, Turkish, French, Russian, Spanish, to name a few–some of which Selin is conversant in, others in which she is not, are the stage upon which the author’s theories are presented. The big takeaway seems to be that misunderstanding is so easy–even likely–whether or not two people speak the same language, for language is basically a trick: words taken on their own mean nothing–or, more precisely, they have multiple meanings, and in this way the meanings can be impossible to decipher. This at least seems to be Selin’s lesson, as the novel’s BEAUTIFUL and PERFECT final passage makes clear:

“When I got back to school that fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in philosophy or the psychology of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

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, with such grace, cohesion, whimsy, and cool, reveals a creative mind as messy, distracted, interested, and exciting as the album itself, and I’m here for it.

 

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.