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.

 

 

26. Some lame things that have already happened to me today and it’s only ten am.

The Ancestors were speaking to me this morning, and they were saying, “Stay yo ass in bed, child.”

Mornings have always been a personal struggle. For most of my life I was not a morning person. All through high school I struggled to get out of bed each morning, sleepily groping for the snooze button on my ringing alarm clock a dozen times before finally summoning enough will-power to peel myself from my mattress and feel my blindly in the morning light into the kitchen, where I’d drink coffee straight from the spout. I was the kid stumbling into homeroom several minutes after the final bell had rung, grasping a to-go coffee and rubbing sleep out of his eyes. In college, naturally, I arranged my schedule so that none of my classes were before noon–telling myself, of course, that a later start to my day meant a few hours’ buffer in the mornings that would be perfect for finishing up any homework I’d inevitably neglected to tackle in a timely manner, but knowing damn well it was because even though I was a Serious Student and Committed To My Education, I didn’t want it interfering with my habit of staying up late watching Mean Girls (ON FUCKING DVD) or reading fourfour.typepad.com and chatting about it online with my friend Charlé from the comfort of our separate dorm rooms. After college I waited tables for a while, and that was perfect because the earliest I ever had to go in was usually eleven o’clock. Then I fucked up and got a job in a public library about forty minutes from my apartment, which meant I had to get up at about six am to get there by 8:30, which rarely happened. I got “talked to” weekly about my “truancy,” and that early call time definitely factored into my decision to leave the library after a few years.

Now that I’m older, I don’t mind getting up early (meaning early for me, which is like nine or nine-thirty), but I still don’t like to go anywhere. I’m back to waiting tables now, which is a job I’m technically super proficient at but which doesn’t suit my personality (or my interests) at all EXCEPT in the since that my shift never starts until 4 pm. That’s one of the approximately four things there are to like about my job, ranking just below “cash in hand” and “shifts that last an average of five hours” but just above “atmosphere among staff of sexual fluidity.” (By “atmosphere of sexual fluidity” I of course mean that there are two ostensibly straight male servers with whom it is fun to trade sexually suggestive barbs as they fondle my rump in the server station.)

Anyway, I’ve worked out a schedule over the past couple of years. Each night I pass out drunk go to bed anywhere between midnight and two am, usually falling asleep to the sound of a VHS tape whirring and squeaking in the player, practically drowning out the on-screen action because these things are fucking antiques, bruh. Who needs a Better Image sleep machine when you’ve got a TV/VCR combo from 1993 groaning rhythmically at the foot of your bed? I keep the alarm clock on my iPhone set to three times: 8, 8:30, and 9 am. I’m still a big fan of riding that snooze button like its a surfboard and I’m Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush (underrated, btw), but I’m still kind of an idiot where my phone is concerned so I’m always hitting the “stop” button instead of the “snooze” button, and setting it to go off at three different times helps with that. By 9:30 I’m usually up and tripping over my cat Bobby Brown while I pull on whatever clothes are crumbled on the floor closest to me and either stumble toward the kitchen to make coffee or stumble out of my apartment, grabbing the biggest, most-light-blocking pair of sunglasses I own, and heading down to Chicory Café to get my coffee to-go. “Grande coffee to go, please, dark roast,” is about all the conversation I can manage first thing in the morning; then I return to my apartment where I like to browse the Internet while watching the Today show until 11 o’clock or so, when I usually try to get to work on something.

Anyway THE POINT IS today did not go quite like that. Or it did, but with disruptions–which is sometimes worse than if things just go wrong altogether. I’m not someone who is in interested in the semblance of normalcy; I want normalcy. I want my schedule the way I like it and I don’t want to deviate from it in the slightest.

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  1. Well, my cunning system with the alarm clock didn’t matter one fucking iota today because they’ve been paving the street I live on, which means that each morning bright and early they’re out there with their jackhammers and their street cleaners making all sorts of ungodly noise, and I’m a poor person who doesn’t have central air and the window unit is in the living room which means I have to keep my bedroom window open WHICH MEANS there’s absolute no buffer between me and the cacophonous noises down on the street. Noises that are keeping your from your allotted amount of beauty sleep that you can’t control because no way you’re going down there in your short shorts and kimono and head wrap and morning breath and yelling at a bunch of construction workers who would probably laughingly drown you in cement if you did, are really the worst, and one of the worst ways to wake-up. (The worst way to wake up is probably to a rapid pounding on your door and an unfriendly voice shouting “POLICE! OPEN UP!” which happened to me last week, in connection with the street resurfacing and my Scion XA that was still parked on it.)
  2. Now, there were no signs when I got home last night saying anything about not parking on the street, as there had been the past few days, so when I realized what that infernal racket waking me up was, I flew into a panic, certain I’d rush downstairs only to find that my car had been towed. Yes, panic: I could feel it pooling in my gut like hot acid, because look ya’ll, I AIN’T GOT NO MONEY TO BE GETTING SHIT OUT OF IMPOUND. Plus I’m not sure I’d even know how to go about doing that if I did have money. So obviously, I’m freaking the fuck out because even though I don’t really like driving or care about cars, I got places to go and South Bend is neither pedestrian friendly nor does it have adequate public transportation. All of the many places I absolutely have to go that aren’t within walking distance–therapeutic trips to Target to spend money I don’t have on things I don’t need, for instance, or to my weed dealer’s house–flashed through my mind as sprang out of bed and threw on some clothes.
  3. I’m sort of frantic and half-cognizant in the mornings anyway, barely functioning, but considering how dire the situation was, I was extra-clumsy, and I stubbed my toe (HARD) on a 12 lb hand weight I don’t even know why I have because I’m definitely not into fitness. (Impulse purchases are myjam.net). THE UNIVERSE: 2, ME: 0.
  4. After cursing the idiot who left that fucking weight right in the middle of my walking space (me) and grumbling to Bob about how fucking rude and inconsiderate it is of the city to commence this work at such an unreasonable hour, I hurried downstairs. Thankfully, my car was where I’d left it in the night before, and I got it in and drove the few blocks to Chicory for a cup of coffee. I was glad that there was no line of faux-happy “professional types” in their business casuals not bothering to look up from their emails to order their double no foam lattes with skim milk or whatever shit they drink, but whatever blessings I thought the universe was sending my way were quickly subsumed when I saw that the barista on duty was the one I’m certain hates me, probably because I never tip more than the change from the three dollars I give her for my $2.64 coffee. When she informed me that “We’re out of dark roast right now. Do you want to wait or is medium okay?” I knew the world was out to get me. Medium was most definitely not okay but I told her it was because the only thing I hate less than coffee that isn’t a nice, robust dark roast that gives the shakes after three sips is waiting around for anything. I begrudgingly accepted it, slightly suspicious that home girl was lying to me.
  5. Back at my apartment, sipping the sub-par coffee while my friends Al Roker, Dylan Dryer, and Jenna Bush rattled on about some new app that helps you hook up with people who are dopplegangers of your favorite celebrity crush, I navigated to newyorker.com because I’m an intellectual, only to discover, after clicking on the latest by Jia Tolentino, that I’d met my number of complementary articles for the month. Say what? But I have a subcription! (Sort of.) WHAT IN GAY HELL, I muttered, checking to make sure I hadn’t logged-out by recently purging my browser history after sifting through all the porn to find that piece I read in The Believer last week made me feel like a pervert. I hadn’t. The option to purchase a subscription or link my current one only confirmed that the day I’d been fearfully awaiting had arrived: the library I used to work at had figured out that during my tenure there I’d been using the online benefits of their subscription to the magazine. Needless to say, they cancelled that shit. I attempted to get around the paywall by opening the page in an incognito browser, but I didn’t have any luck. (Which is really weird because usually that works, right?) I sat sadly at my computer, wondering what Jia had to say about From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and why–WHY–life is so endlessly awful.

I should probably just cut my losses, play it safe, and go back to bed.

Here’s a picture of Bobby Brown lookin’ all dandy in an ascot:

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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.

 

 

Round Up: June 2017

I’m about a week late, but nevertheless: here’s the run-down on what I’ve been reading/watching/listening to/etc. over the past month.

BOOKS:

MUSIC:

MOVIES:

  • ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
  • WONDER WOMAN (2017)
  • CHRONICLE (2012)
  • THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
  • THE NET (1995)
  • GOSFORD PARK (2001)

TELEVISION:

  • ORPHAN BLACK, Season 4 (BBC America, via Amazon)
  • QUEEN SUGAR, Season 2  (OWN)
  • FIXER UPPER (HGTV, via Hulu)
  • SUPERGIRL, Season 2 (WB, via Netflix)
  • I LOVE DICK, Season 1 (Amazon)

Selfie #5

Recently, I bought a wig. I’ve been threatening for years that I’m going to star wearing wigs–not all the time, just when I’m in a very particular mood I’ve come to identify as my wig-wearing mood–and just lately I’ve decided to prove that those threats, unlike my vows to quit smoking or stop blowing straight guys, weren’t empty.

Actually, I had a wig once before, a couple of years ago. I purchased it for Halloween; my costume was Andy Warhol. It had occurred to me then that any wig that resembled the self-altered ones Warhol sported during his lifetime would very likely be one I wouldn’t mind wearing in public as myself, but the one I got was cheap, purchased for twenty dollars at one of those costume stores that pop-up for a few weeks around Halloween and then shutter their business until next year, plus, it was advertised as an Andy Warhol wig and though it suited that purpose, I couldn’t really bring myself to wear it out of the house after the holiday had passed. I did enjoy wearing it at home several times, experimenting with style and pairing it with different outfits and taking selfies. Eventually, though, I attempted to give it purple highlights, effectively ruining it. I threw it away recently.

In any case, I call the new wig The Cobain:

As you can probably tell from those selfies, I’m really feeling it. Wearing it has been interesting. I live in South Bend, Indiana, and though within the city limits the populace is rather progressive, this is no San Francisco. Indiana is so specific and one-note that it’s nearly impossible to evoke it adequately in any neat turn of phrase or succinct comment, so suffice to say that South Bend is the sort of place where the residents are perfectly happy to elect a gay mayor, but where there’s actually only two gay bars. Go figure. In any case, I’ve not so far had any bad encounters whilest wearing The Cobain. I’ve received a few double-takes and discriminating glances, but all the verbal feed back has been positive–which is to say, no one has shouted slurs at me from across the street. I guess that says something, considering this is a town where I was once informed by a sales associate at the mall that I couldn’t buy a certain pair of shoes because they were “for women.” That’s progress, right?

Happy Anniversary!!

According to a notification I received sometime last week and promptly forgot to open until just now, I recently celebrated–or, more accurately, failed to celebrate–the one-year anniversary of Full Ashtrays. Yes, hard as it may be to believe (or not; I probably lost your attention at “according”), it was a full year ago that I launched this blog, and once thing is certain: the intervening months have brought me no closer to any totally clear idea of “what kind of blog” I want this to be than I was when I started it last July. I took a few minutes just now to browse my archives, and the posts range from somewhat myopically personal missives concerning the mundanity of my day-to-day, to formal reviews of films and books, to cultural criticism that engages (or hopes to engage) with mainstream conversations, to lists and random ephemera. Basically, Full Ashtrays, conceived, like every idea I’ve ever had, mostly spontaneously, and probably during one of my manic phases, is something of a mixed bag.

And I’m okay with that. I don’t mind that it’s incoherent and wily and digressive, that it ambles from this to that to that other thing. Perhaps the only ambition I ever had for this thing (except, you know, that it lead and quickly to a robust readership and worldwide, Beyonce-level fame) was that it be something that represented me–as a writer mostly, but also as a person. On that count, Full Ashtrays has been a success, because guess what? I’m a fucking mixed bag, too. As a writer and as a person. The truth is, I never know which me is gonna show up. All I can do is go along with whichever one does–and hope to God it isn’t the one who likes to get drunk, wear caftans, and insult people’s children. My point is, I’m going to keep rolling with this little chronicle of my experience, as it were, this diary, this account. So look out for more thoughtful reviews and directionless ramblings and, of course, more selfies–because I really like the selfies.

Thanks for reading! As a token of my appreciation, please accept this gif of Mariah Carey getting out of the pool she just dove into from a second floor balcony because she’s a secret agent on a mission and that was absolutely the only way to escape her captors in the music video for her number one single Honey, which is actually symbolic of her still-fresh divorce from record industry bigwig Tommy Mottola, who tried his patriarchal best to squash home girl’s spirit, not to mention HER DREAMS, not to mention her RACIAL IDENTITY, and keep her in a cocoon-like stasis, but Mimi was like nah bitch I’m a motherfuckin’ butterfly. May we all have the same courage to fuck our haters and demand our freedom–and flesh-toned bikinis under our little black dresses, just in case.

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