Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ankles Away

Be careful what you want: you might live to see it. Men are now expected to be as luscious as women were once expected to be, not merely in choice of fashion (which was plainly industry and advertising driven) but the body itself. The option to be sloppy - rarely permitted to hetero females (or those afraid of being thought otherwise) in my youth, and a major barrier to my entree to the gay male world in the clone era - is now denied to high school boys who don't yet know what they want. Their only escape these days is behind a computer screen (in my boyhood: into a good book). The latest absurdity ( is stark naked and hot while singing three acts of a Vivaldi opera. (I thought Hercules was not only bearded but uncut. Is that costume or makeup?) When I was a lad, even Salome never bared all - and since she was usually Birgit Nilsson, neither she nor we wanted her to. (Nilsson's naughty bits were always verbal. Remember?)

One sees evidence of this (if one reads as many old books and plays as I do) in the gradual roving of the focus based on what was visible or, rather, what was not quite visible. In 1900, women's ankles still raised temperatures more than breasts did - breasts (and shoulders), after all, had been at least on half-display since the mid-century. (Queen Victoria never wore evening gowns after Albert died; her sole reason for wearing them, she said, had been for him to admire her shoulders. Anyone stared at a lady's shoulders, lately? Men's shoulders, sure; but that too came later.) Even in my father's youth, men were forgetting the ankle - they knew a thigh when they (almost) saw one, and they lived for those moments. Today, the thigh is almost passé - literally - time has passed it by, heading ever higher towards (as it were) the empyrean.

Men's fashion has been slower to pursue, perhaps because women did not have (and men did not admit) the wealth to command and the will to desire bare male flesh. (Victoria fell in love with Albert when she was walking down a staircase and he was walking up, in full court uniform - beauty used to mean the face - which seems so quaint to us now.) (Today, she'd be walking up the stairs and he'd be coming down dressed only in tighty whiteys and a Prince Albert.) Consider: before the invention of the bathing costume and the rise of swimming as a family sport, only men (as a rule) jumped in, usually bareass. That includes kings like Charles II and presidents like John Quincy Adams. Since the men were naked, there was no reason to look - there was nothing secret to glimpse. Adams couldn't have looked much more preposterous nude than he did clothed, or much less either. Women were not supposed to swim - in ancient times, only the Empress Agrippina ever had (thereby thwarting, but not for long, son Nero's attempt to kill her); it was Leander who swam to visit Hero, not the other way around. If a girl was in the surf back then, she was usually a nautical deity of some sort. No wonder Ophelia drowned - she'd never had lessons.

Then Clark Gable took off his shirt in "It Happened One Night" and undershirt sales famously dropped. By 1936, it was a giggle for a Rodgers & Hart character to observe of a man, "When he would swim, he would always wear the top." Real men had chests. Not good chests - those came later - but chests. And women had legs, even thighs - so why look at their ankles or shoulders? Been there, seen those, got the sarong and Dorothy Lamour within it.

Or such is my theory. I had a thing for nipples as a pre-sexual youth - men's nipples - they gave me a frisson when I had no idea what "tingle" truly meant. My guess now is that the nips have reasons that the mind knows not - mine were already sensitive before anyone (even I) had properly played with them. I thought classical statuary was rudely nude too. And yet I stared. As I was a pious believer in the classical gods, this seemed sacrilegious as well, but I got over that - like any good religious, I was able to find rationalization: the gods probably like it when they turn us on. Why not? They're very sexy if half the tales be true. It's a fecund planet. The whole system wouldn't function if the sex urge didn't occupy a considerable part of the brain - everything's brain. Why should they care if, perversely, we desire them or their representations? (As Goethe and Schubert suggest in "Ganymed," such lusts could merely be a metaphor for the yearning of the soul for union with the supernal. Yeah, right. Okay, when the song is sung right, I believe it.)

But nipples ("the windows of the soul," as Andrew Holleran once said) will no longer do: they are too constantly on display, indeed, suggestively enhanced on dummies in gay men's shop windows. Now we're going for primary sex organs on both genders - by primary, I mean the organs that used to be kept primarily for private acts but are now public enough to enhance Vivaldi opera revivals and are seldom not on display in Terrence McNally plays. My problem with that is: if the primary sexual organs have become ornamental, non-functional, secondary in fact, what is left? What acts remain private enough to be worth waiting for with bated breath, will give us a frisson, will inspire the next generation of fashion designers with filthy, sensational minds?

When did you last kvell at an attractive pair of ankles, eh? I vaguely remember the last time I did. And they were ... looming ... out of the darkness ... over my own head. An attractive pair of ankles! Ooops, wait - those are my own. How did they get there?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Columbia hosts Ahmadinejad

Comment posted to the NYTimes forum:

Louis Brandeis put it well (as usual): Freedom of speech includes freedom for the thought we hate.

We make Ahmadinejad look good back home every time we revile him here. On his own, he looks lousy at home -- like a tinpot bigot and the marionette of the mullahs. The urban and educated classes of Iran detest him. But every time America attacks him, he becomes a little stronger back home, can ignore the economic implications of his policies a bit longer. (The same is true of OUR tinpot bigot president: when did overseas Muslim opinion of him ever hurt him with the American electorate?)

Let the man talk. Who's he going to convert? I'm proud my alma mater gave him a podium. And delighted with the recent Times article about just how powerless he really is back home: very clear, very accurate.

Iran is a nation state, almost the oldest one on the planet. They may detest their government, but they'll fight for it if it's attacked. They used to be our best friends in the region and they would be again if we offered them half a carrot. For 2500 years (read the Books of Daniel and Esther) they were the world's best friends to the Jews and they might be that again too. But not if they're pushed into a corner and threatened with bombs.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Happy Reflection upon the War in Iraq

(This is a comment posted to Times blogger Kurt Campbell about Bush's -- really our -- "Siberian dilemma" in Iraq.)

Bush doesn't have to get out of Iraq and there's no reason for him to try. He'll be off the hook on Jan. 20, 2009, which is not too far away. Other people's bloodshed doesn't harm him in the least, and in retirement he can snipe at whoever's in office as much as he likes. Some people may even believe him. As Mencken said, so long ago, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

If the war goes on for a few more years and our country is near ruin and civil war over it, maybe it will be a lesson to future generations not to start a war just because we CAN; to wait until we're under attack (or credible threat of attack); to wait on war until we HAVE TO. That would be a good rule to follow.

Look on the bright side! Maybe we'll learn! Austria-Hungary started a little war in 1914 out of sheer whimsy, and it got way out of hand, and sure enough -- Austria-Hungary hasn't started a single war since.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A letter on Iraq to the New York Times

To the Editor:

What will Iraq look like when it is sufficiently at peace for us to leave? Granted we should never have gone in (I was demonstrating against that when we did), and our original vision was absurd, and the folks who planned and carried out the invasion were as ignorant as they were arrogant. If we could just shoot them and make an end, I'd be all for that. But it wouldn't help anything now.

We can't just leave, no matter how much the American people want to leave -- the situation we leave behind will become an aggressive civil war, and the winner will breed terror for all our friends in the region, and in Europe, and in the U.S. To leave now (unlike Vietnam, where cutting and running was the wisest thing to do) would just produce greater disasters down the road.

I would like to know what the administration (not that I expect them to care) and the military (who do care, because they will have to fact it) and the candidates for the presidency (one of whom will also have to face it) is the Iraq we are hoping, realistically, to achieve, and how will we know it has been reached and we can leave. Benchmarks don't cut it; I want a comprehensive vision.

How will we know we are getting there? It is just turbulence and escalating disaster and more and more refugees (for whom we are morally responsible) now. What would be a step towards improvement? What would be success? Is there any possibility of that? Or has Bush really given us eternal war?


John Yohalem

Monday, September 3, 2007

The flat with the 40-foot ceilings, ocean vu

She was impossibly glamorous, a famous actress, so renowned and so rich and so in charge and still handsome at her age. How I ever got a gig to house-sit for her is difficult to explain. I think the dream began after I was already ensconced. She professed herself charmed by my writing, by my personality. (People are, now and then.)

But never mind all that - let me tell you about the flat. Forty stories up in the air, off a small urban boulevard but high enough to realize that for 360 degrees there was nothing on view but ocean and sky and a few other similar towers. The ceilings were easily forty feet high. Great gauzy draperies hung down to shield us from dazzle. (How did they clean the windows?) The ballroom (nothing but a grand piano and a couple of sofas - I wouldn't swear I remember the sofas) gave onto her grand bedroom at one end (I barely glimpsed that) and her "office" at the other, which was much lower but still large -- and that view! And that was where I was to stay. It was much too distracting to get any work done, I can tell you. Not too much art on the walls, but what there was low down and classy and very elegantly spaced.

The months passed, the house-sit concluded, my hopes for a live-in job as her secretary, amanuensis, butler, stableboy, whathaveyou were in ashes, and I had returned unexpectedly to pick up my things. A cocktail party was in progress. I wasn't dressed for it. (At least I wasn't naked, which has happened in other dreams.) She was grand and elegant and polite; she introduced me around the room; everyone was someone you've heard of; I couldn't quite recall where I'd heard of them, but they were famous; not exactly my crowd. And something about the way she introduced me implied to them, "I'm just being polite; you don't have to notice this person at all." Whereupon they didn't. Even the servants were snooty. I got into a conversation with someone quite interesting in the office, my old room, but when the Lady returned I hit behind the drapes as I was supposed to have left. I did everything gauche and everything wrong, and she was exquisite about it, if at each time with a greater degree of "why doesn't he just GO?" behind her exquisitely tinted, weary old eyes. But I couldn't tear myself away from that fabulous view -- not at sunset. (It was winter now; it had been summer when I first saw it. But also with a thunderstorm happening, I now recalled. That thunderstorm through those windows, a I got off the elevator -- "That usually captivates them," she had smiled.)

A brief reflection on her career, rise from poverty, change of name (though she proudly admitted her original, Italian peasant name), and so on through journeyman to grande dame on everybody's short list. And now, that flat.

Downstairs, in the street, I overheard two women talking as they went past me towards the front of the building, and realized one was Carol Burnett and that I had something important or at any rate amusing to say to her. She appeared to be going into the building, so I dashed around the back and realized I could get into the elevator from there. I did so -- the elevator too was forty feet high and eighty feet wide -- this is all very Bruce McCall, isn't it? or just a memory of my own childhood when all the interesting people were enormous and inexplicable and I was trying to charm them and not be too destructive -- and Carol Burnett wasn't there. The two women in the center of the elevator were -- you guessed it -- my late hostess and someone she was chatting with. Again the faint, charming repression of annoyance. I couldn't escape. We rode up. The door to that ballroom opened again, once again with a magnificent thunderstorm (on cue, or perhaps she had ordered it up from room service) out the window. Only I had no right at all to be there now. A stranger. An intruder. An outcast.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Depeche Melba

My name is John and I am addicted to caffeine.

This has been a sickly week for me: nine days ago (Thursday) I developed an ear ache not unlike having an icepick jabbed into my brain for an hour or two at a time (until the hydrocodone kicked in). The pain throbbed down from my ear to my teeth and was plainly an infection of some sort, but having put off visiting the doctor on Friday, I had to wait till Monday to call him, and he couldn't see me till Tuesday. (This is cash on the barrelhead medicine by the way -- think how long I'd have to wait if I belonged to an HMO?) My doctor gave me eardrops and a lot of free samples of very expensive medicines I take daily (he is a nice man, if very busy; I never get the sense with him -- that I got with my late father -- that the patient in his office is getting the total focus of attention -- but my father was a doctor in a different time and he loathed the new, race-against-time-and-charge-a-fortune doctoring he all too accurately foresaw).

The eardrops worked in a day or three, but meanwhile I had two jobs to finish, two books to copy edit: one of them rather interesting (novel about Chinese immigrants), one of them awful (presidential trivia). Mercifully the editor of the latter let me postpone it. (The author identified Dorothy Parker as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsy mysteries. And misspelled Wimsy, to top it off. When editors really hate an author, they are tempted to leave that sort of statement untouched, but I can't quite do that. I'm supposed to be checking facts.) Anyway, I can barely edit while in pain. And the pain of the ear infection was soon replaced by a belly ache and nausea due to all the Tylenol with codeine I'd been gobbling. So I gave up painkillers and I gave up going out and I ran low on groceries, which included caffeinated coffee. And the belly ache was followed by a low-grade but persistent headache, for which I dared not take pills.

My body is unbalanced, y'hear? It is old and unkempt and ill-cared for and nobody wants it, least of all me.

The ear cleared up and the belly cleared up but the head remained in pain. I needed sleep (universal cure-all), but I wasn't going to get it with low-grade head pain vying for position. My neck felt impossibly stiff and my body woozy from inactivity and any attempt to read anything was making my head pound. I studied five tour guides to Istanbul -- am I insane with this sort of health problem to think of traveling, on my own, to a city of 14 million people five weeks hence and I don't even speak the language? -- yes, but remember how energized I felt on my 16 days in Italy in April 2006 -- but that was Italy -- I can handle Italy -- Istanbul is much larger than Italy -- and just as full of interesting sights -- how many countries can say that?

So I fell asleep over the guidebooks, regretting for the umpth time that I didn't go to Istanbul when I was a kid whose back and feet worked properly and it had only about three million people and was dirt cheap, even though it will be more convenient perhaps now that some restoration work has been done and the ATMs will take my bank card.

I fell asleep, head athrob, and found myself in the (London?) tube, small cramped narrow cars packed with people, mostly Polish, who wanted directions. I love to give directions but this was not New York and I wasn't sure I was giving the right ones. (Two guys stopped me on the corner of Waverly and Gay the other night to ask where the West Village was. "All around you," I said. Really -- it's hard to get more West Village than that. You're blocks from anyplace else. "We mean the gay part," they said. Another time I'd have loved to help them, but my belly was unhappy and my head throbbing -- no, the big one. I suggested Chelsea or the East Village, which seemed more age appropriate for them (and they were slim and pretty); then I relented and ushered them towards the Monster where someone would point them someplace.)

But back to my bad dream: I knew it was London because everyone was Polish. And I studied the makeshift signs (trackwork, delays, new routes, sameold) and they got on one train and took off, and then I tried to figure out where I would spend the night, and the signs did not get any more helpful, and a pretty blonde said, "Do you need a place to stay? 'Cos I know a place -- I mean, the bathroom's rather a mess -- and you'd have to buy me something to drink --" It was clear what sort of financial transaction she was suggesting, and I had no idea how I could afford it (in pounds sterling no less!), never mind the fact that I doubted very much that I could accomplish the Act itself (it's been years; no doubt women's bodies all take different hardware upgrades now), and really she was very sweet but I just wasn't in the mood for company, ta and all that. and I thought of neighborhoods in London with cheap hotels (in the very old days) and wondered which train went to them (the 2? the 229W?) and if I had money and why my head was aching, and then I was awake and for once glad to be so. In my own bed. Dawn approaching over Chinatown on little bound feet. My head pounding. No coffee in the house but decaf and black tea just wasn't going to cut the mustard.

I put on some clothes and went to Dunkin Donuts, open all night half a block away, got a large coffee, feel really much better but obviously will not sleep till mid afternoon.

I guess I'd better take some coffee with me to Istanbul, eh? I hear splendid things about Turkish coffee, said to be strong, sweet and heavily mustached (the way I like my men), but I dare not risk the possibility that they do not do filter, they only have Instant (as in Croatia and Amsterdam) in the misapprehension that Americans like that garbage. In both places (and Italy) I survived on cappuccino.

If I am bedridden, who will come bring me coffee when my head is splitting? Bunny would have but he died last winter. I am still grieving and still blaming. "I can't die; I have things to do!" he cried to me from his hospital bed. I thought at the time, "You should have thought of that three years ago when you stopped taking your hepatitis meds, buster." But didn't say that aloud. Now who can advise me on electronics, or computers, or bring me food or first aid when I need it, as I brought him last winter when he finally admitted he needed it. And who is going to introduce me to Depeche Mode, eh? I never even had him cut me a CD or two of them. I've still never (knowingly) listened to them. I'm going to die alone and decrepit of something stupid like tripping on a cord to something electric, and dying slowly.

All of this anet: decision to go to Fire Island for a week to try to finish some writing on the laptop I should really have repaired before the warranty runs out. I enjoyed the Belvedere so much when a bunch of us went there in late June to scatter Bunny's ashes and talk about Depeche Mode and other rock bands I'd never heard (or even heard of) that I and Guy and Mario decided to return in September. But they acted promptly and got the rooms with bay views; I could not make up my mind as usual. But I have. But it may change. Are Depeche Mode worth it? Should I get an iPod? If I do, I will fill it with Rodgers & Hart and rock will remain a dead letter. That would not be bad. There are too many Mercadante operas to worry about rock bands, don't you agree?

Tim Page describes me in The New Yorker

In the August 20 issue of The New Yorker (yeah, them), music critic Tim Page has an article about Asperger's syndrome, a form of mild autism, and he includes this description:

"The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information, a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand.

"The Asperger’s spectrum ranges from people barely more abstracted than a stereotypical “absent-minded professor” to the full-blown, albeit highly functioning, autistic. Symptoms of Asperger’s have been attributed ex post facto to successful figures, but these are the fortunate ones—persons able to invent outlets for their ever-welling monomanias. Many are not so lucky, and some end up institutionalized or homeless. (In the late nineteen-seventies, I saw a ragged, haunted man who spent urgent hours dodging the New York transit police to trace the dates and lineage of the Hapsburg nobility on the walls of subway stations.) For some—record collectors with every catalogue number at hand, theatre buffs with first-night casts memorized, children who draw precise architectural blueprints of nineteenth-century silk mills—a cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric, something around which to construct a life."

As it happens, I may or may not mix well with other children in age-appropriate ways (can I give you my card? can I form yours into a paper plane and hurl it across the street?) and I certainly get down and dirty with the minutiae of pointless tasks (let me show you my mandala art work sometime), but I have never been homeless or institutionalized (not even close) (unless you count college as an institution) (or the Democratic Party and that joke was old in Will Rogers' day) but that was definitely ME back in the late 70s scrawling the genealogy of the Habsburgs, the Capets, the Hohenzollerns and the Comneni on the blanker spaces of the New York subway walls.

Hey, man, this was the age of Keith Haring.

I was not oblivious to the world at such times. In fact, I welcomed commentary. (I only got ticketed once, a mere four generations into the royal house of Aragon.) Every now and then someone would say, baffled, "Is all this TRUE?" and I'd reply, "Yes, but if I were making it all up, you'd never know." Ah, but this is New York -- someone would, you know. One guy used to annotate my Habsburgs with the names of the artists each one patronized -- quite a list. Back and forth we went. At last we met, spent a charming afternoon together -- and never met again. The magic was gone. (Hey, it beats airport rest rooms.) Once, as I drew the royal Capetians while waiting for the no. 4 after a very late Next Wave concert at BAM, a guy said, "What's dat?" I told him: the kings of France from 987 to 1328. "And who's that?" "That's John Ist -- his father died before he was born, in 1316, and he was born already king and died five days later." (An event that led to the Hundred Years' War, indirectly.) "Well then, he don't count, man. He cancels out." "No he doesn't. He's still John the First," I fought back, peeved. (I feel a kinship with kings named John, a misunderstood lot by and large.) "No man. You can't include him. He cancels out."

Well the point of all this is that I can relate to people (unlike Aspies) and much as I would like to blame certain unsuccesses in my life on a mental affliction, those friends of mine (usually teachers and parents) who have studied the thing say I just don't make the grade: I am alive to signals from those with whom I attempt to relate. Sometimes I'm even good at it, though it took a while to emerge from adolescent isolation. I once related the complete history of the Byzantine Empire to a girlfriend in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Took six hours. She put up with it. Women are terrific that way. Why did I ever switch to men? (Digression; ignore.)

Another event that comes up in the Tim Page article is the world premier of Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" at Town Hall in 1976. As it happens, I was there, too. Everyone tranced out, stoned or unstoned. I was impressed, but preferred (and still prefer) his "Music for Mallet Instruments." (Always liked Reich better than Glass anyway.)

What I recall more fondly is a later performance of "Music for 18 Musicians" at the former New York Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian). On the ground floor of this beaux arts confection is (or used to be) a huge rectangular room with a huge oval in the center of it, walled off by a low balustrade-railing. The musicians set up there and played, and the fans lined the walls, trancing out. Except for one, who spent the time dancing around and around the central space, happily oblivious of looks (but most people had their eyes closed), just doing what seemed to him the right thing for that music and that space and that time.

Yes: It was I. The self-conscious, can't perform on a stage or improvise a ritual to save his life, quasi-Aspie me.

I've always remembered it as one of the great moments in my life, a time when I just didn't give a hoot what anyone else thought or did: I did it my way, and all was right with the world. Don't know where that guy went, or why I cannot access him at will, or why he so rarely appears, but -- there you have it. He's part of me, too. He can still reel off the Habsburgs if you are interested. (No one is interested.)

I've always wished the Philharmonic or Carnegie or the Met would install a mosh pit but so far they have ignored my suggestions. I'd enjoy the experience so much more.