Sunday, August 07, 2011
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Monday, July 18, 2011
Last night’s Litquake event, Cabaret Bastille at Cellspace, was almost a smashing good time. I admit I am disproportionately delighted by parties with costume themes, and there were some glorious vintage and vintage-inspired get-ups. Yvonne Michelle Cordoba (and friend?) performed lovely quasi-burlesque/belly dance at intervals. The problem was that the entertainment emphasis of the night was on the readings (popular contemporary authors reading the works of the lost generation greats). Cellspace is cavernous, and its sound system inadequate for the readings to have been audible to anyone further than four rows back. Except for Alan Black’s bellowing from James Joyce, most of the readings simply didn’t register (through no fault of the readers themselves).
Thursday, July 14, 2011
For several decades and 150 Vogue magazine covers, Irving Penn worked within these confines to produce images iconic for their beauty and graphical power. Compositions uncluttered by props, and frugal with color (usually black and white) left the simplest and most arresting elements for the eye to focus on: the sweep of a ruched sleeve, the black grid of netting against white plains of skin, the neck as long as the waist, the waist as slender as the neck.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Friday, July 08, 2011
Thursday, July 07, 2011
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
No stranger's wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
Survivor of that time, that place.
-- Anna Akhmatova, 1961
Monday, June 13, 2011
The great number of people (and the fact that many of them were wearing fancy hats) made getting a good look at most of the art from the formidable, and painstakingly amassed, collection impossible; I enjoyed it the most when I gave up on the art and abandoned myself to bald-faced people-gawking.
Thursday, June 09, 2011
Friday, June 03, 2011
Thursday, June 02, 2011
Thursday, April 21, 2011
But I’m now at an age when many of my friends are getting married, or have already gotten married and are now starting their own families, or are even divorcing. And yet I feel just as distant from the woman I imagine myself needing to become in order to be married as I did when I was a child. It has in fact become more difficult to imagine myself so, because, unlike the enormous changes to my person I could take for granted would happen between then and the imagined now, I have to accept that I actually am mostly as I will be for the rest of my life. For instance, my skin color won’t change, but then neither will my personality; I’ll probably never be the sort of career woman and mother who can subdue her family with a sexy stare-down and then be at work at 8 in the morning to start a day of subduing New York’s legal system while wearing pointy high-heeled shoes and power suits. I don’t mind this, but it’s something I know won’t happen. The person I am now is basically what I have to work with, and my imagined married self has to look, and act, something like I do now. But I couldn’t be married and act the way I do. I mean, I could, but I wouldn’t want to be married to someone who’d put up with that.
What man could prepare himself for the size and scope of my vanity? It is epic, it is legion; I am the Beowolf of self-regard. I’m not exactly ashamed of this, but neither do I want someone beholding its hugeness every day, straining his philosophical faculties to make sense of his own minuteness in comparison with it. It’s not like I could hide my mountain of beauty products somewhere in the bathroom where he wouldn’t notice it, or get crushed under it, or sucked into its gravitational pull. I can’t just leave my toothbrush and some baby shampoo and an unassuming white washcloth out and pretend that’s all it takes to achieve this fresh-faced fakery that is my look. It’s not that I’m profligate with my products either; I use everything up and then buy more. How can I explain that I really do need one cleanser in the morning and a different one at night, and an exfoliator twice a week and a mask and a peel and different moisturizers for day and night and parts of my face and times of the month and it all makes perfect sense to me, but yes I understand there’s not enough room on the shelf for all these bottles so please build some more shelves? It is almost impossible to convey what eyelash conditioner is without appearing ridiculous. And also, I know aging drag queens who own less makeup than I do.
And clothing—I have a walk-in closet. It is my bedroom. I also have an annex of bulging wardrobes challenging the floorboards of my apartment in the Bronx. I like vintage clothes, which went out of style before I was born and thus will never go out of style in my heart. Unless I gain weight and they no longer fit me, why would I get rid of them? Yet I shun jobs that have a dress code that doesn’t include Uggs and yoga pants. I once turned one down in London because it would have required me to teeter about in high heels on Harrod’s marble floors for 6 hours a day. Any job that starts before ten in the morning is a job that will never see me in mascara, and only occasionally with clean hair. So I can’t even promise a consistent payoff to the avalanche we would be living under till death by suffocation do us part. I don’t like imagining my future husband trying to look manly while being crowded out of his own house by a burgeoning forest of chiffon ruching, bias-cut crepe, and those fake pashminas with pictures of peacocks in metallic thread I love so much. He would try to talk sense to me, offer to drive me to the Goodwill drop-off locations, or even help me to start an ebay boutique. I would grow to resent him for refusing to acknowledge the value of a minidress I wore both to my senior prom and to opening night at the opera twelve years later, or the fact that yes, gorilla fur is un-p.c., but totally worth it and so much warmer than any of my other capes, or that these are not rags, these are my Bag of Sentimental Panties and no, they are none of your business.
And what about our domestic life? Obviously I am too much of a feminist to ever willingly take on the role of housewife (and my secret is that my feminism in this regard is buttressed by a generous helping of laziness and apathy that eliminates housework as a serious consideration for me anyway). But normal couples cook, or take turns cooking. I know people who enjoy it. They buy ingredients, and read recipes, and wait patiently for stuff to boil. They close their eyes and lyricize about the near-spiritual satisfaction they get from communing with the various twigs and animal parts and different-colored dust they flavor stuff with. Then they sit down, fully clothed, at a table, with mats and serving spoons, and eat in silence or while exchanging civilized anecdotes about their lives. I only want to eat if I can sit pantsless in front of the internet while I’m doing it. And I only cook for parties. Spending time in the kitchen is only worthwhile if at least two dozen people will adore me afterwards. Otherwise I can just pick the M&Ms out of a trailmix bag, sprinkle them over a cup of applesauce and be done with it. I only use my stove to store my wicker basket collection and for my weekly death-by-garlic pasta binge, during which I prepare enough food to feed Haiti, and eat it all myself. I’m not sure I’d ever want a man to know these habits of mine, let alone be legally bound to share in them with me. And after ten or twenty years of letting him cook for me, I might start to suspect I’m taking advantage of him, and feel guilty about it.
As I get older, I wonder about how much of my life depends upon privacy, how much of my daily routine I would suppress if there were someone watching me. Do I want someone to witness me choosing to watch LOLCAT videos rather than read a Great Book, or even a good book, or even a full HuffPo article, before bed? Do I want to inflict my apocalyptic hormonal mood swings on an innocent man, or worse, stifle them for his sake and just guess at when the ulcer’s going to hit? Do I want someone possibly taking a dim view of my frequent daydreaming and then telling me to put some pants on and go get a job at Starbuck’s or Home Depot or wherever? I suppose that’s the fear, isn’t it, that the proclivities of mine I secretly suspect aren’t entirely benign but that I usually assume will appear charming to most other people, will be seen and comprehended in their unsimple totality by someone who would get to be as much of an expert on me as a husband would. And if he’s a man he would then encourage me, maybe even try to help me change, put his hands on my shoulders and turn me to face reality, which I always hate doing and which is why I generally can’t ass myself to do it on my own. And then I’d have to admit that I clung to a basically childish version of myself for longer than was seemly, and that instead of dragging myself up out of it, I needed a man to compel me to. God, I hate him already.
Thursday, March 03, 2011
A friend turned me on to The Believer magazine, which is now my bus and train reading. In the February issue, there’s a fascinating series of essays by transgender author T Cooper on different aspects of his transformation from female to male: unsent letters he wrote to his parents explaining his decision, personality changes he has gone through since his transformation, elements of womanhood that one would think he’d understand considering his past but doesn’t. But one essay, on the subject of his frustration at the “slip-ups” people still make regarding his gender such as accidentally referring to him as a “she,” suggests his frustration at not having his identity acknowledged and respected has surpassed his empathy for human error. It’s ironically the one closed-minded part of an otherwise illuminating, and entertaining, treatise.
Of course, his frustration is understandable, and so is his pain. But I’m not sure his impatience with people who slip-up, and his dismissal of them as somehow lazy or dismissive themselves, is fair. It got me thinking about how I “group” people in my mind, what the most basic thing about them I remember and associate with them is. What are the characteristics that, no matter how the signals they deliberately send change over time, identify them to me?
This analogy might not immediately be apparent, but the essay reminded me of the way I think of words: how I group them, how I remember them, how they affect me. Sometimes when I’m trying and failing to remember a word that is “on the tip of my tongue,” the closest attributes of the word itself that I can remember might be the number of syllables, or the rhythm of it, or perhaps whether it was Germanic, Latin or Greek in origin. If I remember speaking it aloud to myself, randomly throwing in a few rough breathing marks for fun and imitating a recording I once listened to of The Iliad recited in a dialect believed to be similar to Old Ionic, I know the word was Greek. If I recall intentionally mispronouncing it in an Italian accent, I’ll know it is from Latin. If it sounds sexy or romantic, I’ll know it’s Frenchified Latin. If it’s phlegmy and uncouth, it must be German.
But more palpable than my memories of the attributes of the word itself, are my memories of how I felt when I first encountered the word. I can remember whether I was happy or sad, in love, depressed, feeling accomplished and smug, or put-upon and useless. I can remember if I was eating at the moment, and if so, whether it was sweet or savory, and how I felt as I was eating, if I was just grazing or eating until I was full, or ate too much and felt sick. Or maybe I was just having a coffee and felt the acid tenderize my stomach as I first read or heard that word.
That’s another thing I can remember even if I can’t remember the word itself: I know if I heard the word on TV or read it in a book. If it was from the television I can remember whether it was on a news or commentary show or in a movie or serial. If it was news and commentary, I can remember if I agreed with the person who used the word, and if it was a serial, whether I had a crush on the character who used it. If it was in a book, I can remember if it was fiction or non-fiction, and if fiction, which voice spoke the word aloud in my mind’s ear: if the narrator was female, regardless of the cultural origin of the book, it was my own, as I pride myself on being good with dialects. If male, the voice belonged to Jeremy Irons, naturally. If it was non-fiction I can remember whether it was British or American, or a translation. I can remember if I learned the word in conversation, and whether that conversation was in America or Europe, and if in America, on what coast, and if on the west coast, whether it was with a friend from high school, the theatre, or the opera, and if in New York, at Saks or some other job, over drinks or lunch or shouted at a noisy party. I can remember my status relative to the person who used the word, if it was a boss or a teacher, or a colleague, or a nuisance—did I feel intimidated, worried, delighted, or annoyed when I heard this word? Do I associate the word with satisfaction (words I learn while happy) or frustration (words I learn while trying to distract myself from unhappiness)? I can remember that, if not the word.
The clues are ghosts, and ghosts of ghosts, not of the thing itself, but of who I was at the moment of reception. It’s why, whenever I hear or read the word “assuage” I recall myself, if ever so faintly, as an 18 year old crushing on a teacher, or why “parameter” triggers a surge of disdain: I remember my father, in our Oldsmobile some time in the ‘80’s, complaining about the clichés of the day, the trendy words he was so tired of hearing, such as people droning on about the “parameters” of something when they just wanted a fancy word for “limit.” “Diminute” makes me think of London, Shakespeare, a Kensal Rise flat filled with books and art, good friends, Turkish rugs, grass and red wine. This is because, having heard my teacher Ben use the word several times in class, I asked him one night at his home, where I spent my best English evenings, why he didn’t just say “diminish” (the answer is that “diminish” is a reflexive verb, and “diminute,” an obscure active one, or less obscure adjective). With “pervasive” I’m back in Santa Fe on a warm dry autumn night under a sky the color of rust, reading my classmate Chris’s freshmen biology essay, astonished at the brilliant 16 year-old’s ability to interpret the sodden innards of our dissected cat, and wondering if I’d ever be able to hold my own with such scholars. The sentence itself wasn’t too spectacular, something about how the arterial system of the cat was “not quite pervasive,” but I recall that mix of admiration and apprehension perfectly, for it revisits me every time I use, hear, or read that word. “Abstruse” places me back as a breathless stagehand over ten years ago, working a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in which the word appears), always over-sugared, over-caffeinated, and hungry from eating dinner too early before the marathon play. The fricative “s” escapes the plosive “b,” breaks the tab “t” and gushes out through “ru” and suddenly the coca-cola is spumy in my empty stomach, its sugars caustic on my teeth.
These peripheral experiences that I recall with every word, or instead of the word, if it eludes me, only mean that more than the literal or technical definition of a word, I remember how I felt at my initial encounter with it.
I’ve realized, however, that out of all this mnemonic detritus my experience attaches to a word the most basic thing I project onto it is gender. I can remember if it was a male or female who spoke it or wrote it when I noticed it. If it was a man, I remember which category I had placed him in: guide and mentor, friend and equal, romantic interest, romantic interest and friend and equal, romantic interest and mentor, or pest. If the speaker of the word was female, I remember if she was a mentor, a friend and equal, or if I felt threatened by her or confident that I threatened her, or if she was a friend I felt threatened by or towards whom I was careful not to act threateningly. But ridding the word of my collateral experience, it remains, to me, male or female. “Atavistic,” “frisson,” and “palimpsest” are all male, because I encountered them reading Martin Amis, A. A. Gill, and Will Self respectively. Female words are “Effulgence” (Wharton), “tautology” (another great Gill, my former classmate Karina), and “limn” (Fuck You, Michiko Kakutani). “Droll” is female (mother) and “subsume” is male (Michael Schneider). “Judicious” is female, and “histrionic” is male. The gender I associate with a word has only to do with the gender of the person from whom I first learned the word, however long ago, regardless of the actual definition, etymology, connotations, or the gender, if any, with which the word is usually associated. “Histrionic” is a word I usually hear used, justly or unjustly, in connection to femaleness (or to me specifically, totally without basis). But my first hit of it came from a male drama teacher, so male it stays.
Of course I’m not really talking about words, I’m talking about myself, and the associations I make that make no sense of anything but my own experience. However disparate my experience is from the truth about something, it provides a deeper meaning for me than the objective truth about that thing. And gender, somehow, is the most basic element of that experience. I wonder if it is so for other people as well. If I’m alone in a room, and my back is turned to the door and someone else walks in, I can tell if that person is a man or woman. And it’s not from some obvious “signal” like the sound of high heels on floorboard or the smell of perfume. It’s visceral and I can’t justify with evidence, but I’m almost always right.
Cooper analogizes the slip-ups people make regarding his gender with a slip-up no sane or sensitive person would make in two hypothetical examples, of the whoring buddy now settled and the basketball partner now paralyzed. But the activities one enjoys with a person, however regularly, and for however long, are not nearly as identifying as that person’s gender. The two examples Cooper uses are a false equivalency because it is much more natural to dissociate a person from the hobbies you shared with them than it is to suddenly start thinking of them in a whole different gender. Yes, one should acknowledge dresses and cherry lipstick as signals of how a person prefers to be regarded, but in the moment of a “slip-up,” one is guided by something deeper than the part of one’s brain that acknowledges and interprets signals, before that part of the brain can catch the mistake and correct it. I had a friend while living in Europe, a male who had made the transition to female long before I ever knew her. She did not tell me of the change she had made at all. I heard about it from a mutual friend but didn’t think much of it, since I’m from San Francisco and don’t find such stories to be too exotic. I would have known anyway, as her past maleness was unmistakable--again, not because of any signal I can put words to—I’ve known women who were taller, broader-shouldered, slimmer-hipped, deeper-voiced, had more, er, manly facial features, and wore less makeup on them. No, there was just something “male” about her, and, months into our friendship I slipped up once while ordering in a restaurant and referred to her as a “he.” I was mortified, of course, and hope I did not make her feel like shit, as T Cooper describes such gaffs as affecting him. But I also can’t quite agree that this slip-up is on the level of accidentally inviting a man in a wheelchair to play basketball. Hobbies and the accidents we suffer do not occupy space in the same atavistic chamber of our psyches as gender. I can understand “how abnegating it would be to have the world decide that you are something you are not” but a slip-up is not a decision, and cannot be resented in the same way.
Cooper and other people who have undergone gender transformation say they did it to honor what they know to be the truth about themselves. “…to be trans is to feel the truth so acutely you can’t fake it. It is to be so consumed with the truth of who you are that you are willing to risk everything to inhabit it.” But it is unreasonable to expect the world you live in not only to acknowledge that truth (that is indeed reasonable) but feel that truth as acutely, as unmistakably as you do, and to be offended when the signals you labor to exhibit are no match for what millions of years have hardwired into us. I read a study recently that told me I am likely to behave more protectively of myself around men when I am ovulating than when I am in the less fertile phase of my cycle; I will avoid sketchy areas, I will dress less provocatively, I will subconsciously regard men as potential rapists and try not to act as if I’m “asking for it,” in a biological mechanism designed to cope with my greater attractiveness during that time. My body wants to be impregnated and so subtly enhances the signals of my fertility, but it also wants to minimize the chances of the “wrong” male taking advantage (i.e. it wants a baby-daddy and not a rapist). Of course this is offensive. As a level-headed woman I prefer to think that I gauge my safety from situation to situation rationally, based on observations and crime statistics and the like. I also resent the implication that the hormones sloshing around in me will soak my deductive powers so thoroughly that on some primordial level I think any dweeb on the street is a threat to me in my fecundity. Who knows if the study itself will stick, but it says something about people and gender. Our reactions to maleness and femaleness are beyond what our conscious selves can grasp. It is what makes people like T Cooper know, in their deepest selves, what they are, despite all the contrary signals with which nature has assembled them. But it is also why (I suspect) it is unlikely that trans people will ever feel understood and acknowledged as totally as they understand and acknowledge the truth about themselves, whatever level of enlightenment our culture achieves. Not everyone ascribes a gender to words as I do (but, ahem, many cultures do), but everyone comprehends and reacts to gender, in ways that may be partly societal, but primarily evolutionary. Millions of years have taught us to recognize and react to gender. It is asking a lot of people that they not only reject, but forget.