Oct 30, 2013

Loss And Magic

It's a strange experience, to mourn someone you never knew.

To write of the horrible shock I felt Sunday morning would be too easy. In public, amongst a throng of people on the Lower East Side, I had to swallow my grief and wait -hours - until I had the privacy of my room and the quiet half-lit space of familiar wood floors and white walls to fully mourn. Tears came -and appreciation. And love.

Along with a bevy of beautiful songs streaming through my mind - hell, my heart (because for all of Lou's impressive, deep intellectualism, he was, above all, a musician of the heart for me) -my thoughts all through Sunday turned back to my first night of living in New York City. I'd been on a bus all night, and had arrived at Port Authority on a grey March morning, bleary-eyed, coughing, exhausted. But I summoned the energy to scamper off to Le Poisson Rouge that very evening for a Japanese earthquake benefit concert featuring Yoko Ono and Patti Smith. The special guest  -a poorly-kept secret as I waited in line, stomping feet to keep warm outside -was Lou Reed. Performing a raucous, gloriously loud and chaotic version of "Leave Me Alone", he focused intensely on the performance, directing the backing band with a nod or cock of the head, a small frown, a vague hand gesture.

But it wasn't all dark moods; more than once, this legend, this King of New York, this Factory Poet, this Velvet Transformer, was just a man thrilled to be playing to people in an intimate setting, sharing his work and feeding off the love and appreciation we so gladly provided. He smiled gently at us tiny women rocking out in the front row, and, more than once, our eyes met. His warm smile, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the soft mouth, the sincere gratitude, the joy of sharing this sound, this moment, this rock and roll, this magic... taken together, it was intoxicating, holy, beautiful.

There's a kind of intimacy that happens between artists and admirers of their work; words, melodies, voices, the colors chosen, the textures conjured, the shapes and shadows dance and smudged and murmured of, the breathing and sighing incantations with a through-line to divinity, striking chords individual, collective, intimate, epic, to rejoice, to contemplate, to worship. From artists' bearings in live settings to the way they behave alone, bending and shaping lights, shadows, notes and soon-to-be familiar phrases, the thorny-rosy path of creativity always has overhanging clouds that whisper of the intangible connection between artist and audience.

Something I really enjoy about Lou's work, no matter what it is, is its insistence on being itself -whether that's noisy, strange, uncomfortable, irascible, or, alternately, beguiling, thoughtful, romantic, dreamy. His artistry defied easy categorization, definition, or labeling. From the rocker-cool of Transformer to the static chaos of Metal Machine Music to the tender poetry of Magic And Loss, Lou was nothing like anyone, but entirely, unapologetically himself. His genius lay in his ability to fuse pop culture with the avant garde; he could capture the most abstract ideas sonically or in words, and simultaneously write very, very genius, and usually very catchy, music. "Walk On the Wild Side" and "Waiting For My Man" are perfect examples of this fusion, painting a debauched portrait of a seedy situation, while nonchalantly mainlining a catchy, earworm-ish  rock sound. It takes real skill to integrate like this -but Lou wasn't merely a skilled technician; he actually liked -identified -with his cast of characters. He was one of them. That didn't make him "cool," as he has been reductively described since his passing; it made him Lou.

There are plenty of articles posted now, from a variety of famous/impressive music and culture sorts: Sasha Frere Jones, Michael MustoLegs McNeil. There's also a lot of curiously reductive stuff being written, nay, proclaimed; everyone has a version of Lou, a little box they want to put him in. But his body of work, his sometimes spiky nature, his occasionally contradictory statements throughout the years, they all lend themselves to a sort of Rorscach- like interpretation, as if one could create a Lou-Identi-Kit, piecing him together with any of the pieces that gelled with one's tastes and beliefs: a dash of Berlin, a dollop of "Dirty Boulevard", a slab of Bowie, a crumb of Warhol. "The First Openly Bisexual Rock Star",  a male (perhaps wannabe) Patti Smithhis Spotify listswhat and where he ate -- everyone has a tidy category or click-friendly angle (hiding a dull cultural cliche) in which they want to slot him. But as Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wisely noted,
Poet, songwriter, singer, guitarist: the labels don’t matter. They never did. “But you know,” he wrote in “Street Hassle,” “people get all emotional and sometimes, man / They don’t act rational / They think they’re on TV.” 
There it is again, that intention, pop culture blurring into something deeper, something darker, something that tells us who we are. 
As a teenager, I immediately attached to Lou's rebellious spirit, clever lyrics, and dark-shaded image. Growing older, I find image matters less, and poetry matters more. Lou's music and words made me accept age and all it brings, good and bad; he understood "passing through the fire" happens at all stages of life. Lou's was a wisdom of acceptance and rebellion simultaneously existing and manifesting in the most authentic way possible, whether in the ballsy experimental Lulu with Metallica, or in writing about his intense admiration for Kanye West's Yeezus.

On Sunday night, all of New York City's evening news reports reported on his passing. Like many, I identify him with this city. Walking around the Lower East Side earlier that day, everyone seemed to have a connection: one woman did his assistant's hair; another woman is friends with Laurie Anderson; another woman organized a private event he was booked to play in November. Everyone in NYC has a memory, an opinion, an idea of who or what Lou Reed was: he was kind, he was arrogant, he was grumpy, he was generous, he was full of himself, he was jovial. No matter the opinion, one thing is certain: his work proclaims its innate authenticity, of being one's self without excuse, and asks -nay, demands - one manifest that authenticity within one's own life. That is sometimes a tall order, and yet it feels like the right one, as I wake up every day to a time and place asking for masks, images, lesser, more pliable versions of myself. Authenticity is easy; it's our need to be liked that sometimes gets in the way. Lou didn't seem to feel the need to be liked much. Yet he understood gratitude, and the intesne connection between an artists and admirers. That intimacy expressed itself beautifully in the silent / loud rock and roll moments we shared in March 2011 at Le Poisson Rouge. It was and remains the best welcome ever: welcome to the city; welcome to your next life; welcome to You.

When the past makes you laugh and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You'll find that that fire is passion
And there's a door up head, not a wall... 

...There's a bit of magic in everything 
and then some loss to even things out...

- "Magic And Loss: The Summation", 1992.

PHOTO BY AFP/STRINGER/GETTY IMAGES

Oct 8, 2013

Something Old

Orpheus & Eurydice, Auguste Rodin, 1893.
The first Friday of every month sees many New York City museums waiving admission fees.

Keen on seeing the newly opened Kandinsky exhibit at the Neue Galerie (a spot I have some history with), I rushed to catch the uptown train, amidst a sticky, stinky, mid-autumn heat wave. Several stops later, with sore feet and aching shoulders, I exited, and found myself nearly running along 86th Street; it was getting onto 6:30pm and I knew the lines might be fierce. Worst fears were confirmed with three-plus blocks of eager, sweaty faces and shuffling sneakers.

Not being keen to deal with the suffocating effects of the oppressive humidity (bugs! sticky armpits! ruined hairdo! oh yes... asthma!), I decided I'd keep on the Fifth Avenue path, and take another look at the Balthus exhibit on at the Met (review forthcoming). The cool air of the Met was a beautiful respite from the heat, and Balthus' beautifully geometric paintings were a sight for my over-computer-monitored eyes. 


Notes duly taken, I sauntered, enjoying the dusky quiet, and just ...looked, a pleasure I rarely allow myself in the cultural realm anymore; it feels like a luxury, dawdling amongst artful things. And yet, as Guardian editor (and part-time classical pianist) Alan Rusbridger writes in his recent memoir, there is “a mundane need to have moments off the hamster wheel of editing [... an] instinct to wall off a small part of my life for creative expression, for ‘culture.’ ”

Serious, capital-J journalism -and its study for me, right now, at NYU -has been eating up every available ounce of creative/mental/emotional/intellectual energy the last five weeks or so. I'm beginning to resent something so central to my being - my arts passion -being ripped away from me, and the chorus of quiet, snarling voices of doubt uttering some uncomfortable phrases: no one's interested in culture; the arts isn't real news; you're wasting your time; no one cares

Reliquary Arm of St. Valentine, 14th century,
Swiss.
And yet, Friday night's visit to the Met reminded me of the fallacy of those statements, but underscored my determination to find new ways of sharing my passion, and blending that with my writing. Some of you seem to like it. (Thank you to those readers who've followed me through the years.) My artsy walkabout allowed me to stare, in the face, two truths: I need to keep writing, in my own way, about culture. There's a certain sort of longing I'm experiencing, between past and present and future, between what I want and what's in front of me, to try to take this passion somewhere else, somewhere higher and more powerful and... to be remembered, appreciated, loved in grand and intimate ways, probe, create, fail, and always, always stay authentic to who and what I am.

"Saudade" is a Portuguese word which, roughly translated, means "longing" or "nostalgic longing." I first heard it used at a lecture in Dublin given by singer/writer Nick Cave. He defined it thusly:
We all experience within us what the Portuguese call “saudade”, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up though our wounds.
Whether or not you believe in God doesn't matter in order to understand saudade, or to appreciate its power in a writer's (or creator's) life. The idea (and experience) of longing is a very, very old thing, one expeirenced in the biblical cry, "why hast thou forsaken me?"; it also colors the entirety of Psalms, in fact, and is glimpsed in the hieroglyphic scenes of ancient Pharoahs raising their hands in praise of the sun. In the act of worship (surely a consummate act of love joined with faith), or musing on the nature of the divine, or amidst faulting that which we love and want to be joined with, we express our nostalgic longing for something beyond ourselves, and yet, deeply of ourselves.

Like the German "sehnsucht," saudade has deep, earthy roots, and divine, heavenly aspirations. The calm and cool of the museum, its lack of usual noisy visitors, the enveloping darkness and the shadows cast by the strategic, subtle lights, all created the contemplative environment I so craved, one where I wondered at the role of this oldest of emotional experiences, and its role in creation: of life, ideas, even... hey, new, artistic ways of telling and sharing stories.

Cleopatra, William Wetmore Story, 1869.
Saudade sits at the heart of the art I love most: it is a longing for something beyond itself. That "thing" -historically expressed as an old man with a beard, a round disk, elements of the earth - doesn't have to be specifically religious. Lately I've wondered at the line between the earthly and the divine, and how it finds expression: marble, ivory, ink, oil, bronze, walnut, granite, graphite, silver, glass. Then there's sound (singing, music, the plucking of strings, the beating of drums) and of course, bytes and pixels. We engage these things out of a certain love. Don't we?

What is longing? Why do humans engage in it? There are no concrete answers, but again, I think such a feeling has to do with trying to scratch at the transcendent - something beyond us, past us, past our comprehension, and yet of us, with a certain familiarity and perhaps, a certain chemistry. Maybe it's canvas, a slab of marble, maybe it's the act of creating itself, maybe it's God's face, a lover's face, our newborn's face, the sunrise... the sunset. The cycles of life, death, sex, regeneration. We long for this kind of connection - to divine things, human things, beauty and pain wrapped together. Some of the best love songs capture this with a swoon-worthy precision (listen to anything by the aforementioned Mr. Cave or Leonard Cohen); other works of art -whether they be religious or secular -also distill this "saudade" into a grand, and yet deeply intimate, experience that whispers secrets of that most bewildering of trinities: love, lust, longing.

Bellini's Norma, which I had the pleasure of seeing recently at the Metropolitan Opera, offers a heartbreaking portrait of just that trinity, with generous dollops of transcendent belcanto splendor. There's something about the title character that seeks something beyond herself, her distant lover, the friendship of her handmaiden, the power of her tribe; it's only when she is burned (with her beloved, no less) that she will come to be joined in a kind of union with divinity. Even as she faces disgrace and punishment, there is a discernible quality of saudade -in the libretto as well as the music -that lifts the opera out of the tawdry and into the realm of awe-inspiring beauty. There's something divine about not only the story but the music, in and of itself. It scratches at a divinity it channels, pouring out its longing for a sort of union that is expressed physically in the love between the two main  characters at the opera's end.

Diptych with Scenes of the life of Christ, Carved in Germany, 14th century
The opera whispered the questions; Friday night's museum walkabout said them right out loud, confronting me with some uncomfortable feelings. Not only did I need to be reminded of my passion for arts and culture, but to underline the role of saudade in my life and work. There's something magical about visiting dark places you're familiar with; you know what's around every corner, but you're not quite sure how it'll present itself without the safe filter of daylight. Darkened corners provide opportunities for dalliances, an empty tomb brings thoughts of permanency, changeability, communion with divinity and the folly of desiring such a thing. Beautiful sculpted faces remind one of a lover both human and divine. Night whispers its sad, beautiful song of saudade through such moments, and such intimacy with art, old and new, solid and not. It colors everything, personal and professional. Living with saudade feels like the right position for the artist -and the journalist -living, sometimes battling, inside of me. Experiencing the feeling of intense longing - for God, for blessings, for perfection, for failure, for permanence, for change, for flesh, for spirit, for love... for creation itself.




Sep 28, 2013

Writing Inside (And Outside)


Grad school has left little time or energy to write (/think / dream) for myself, in my own space and in my own way. Inspiration's been backed up, dried up, squished, smushed, almost forgotten. It hasn't been a good feeling.

But a recent exercise in something called "intracranial" journalism (another term for stream-of-consciousness writing) got things flowing (or, semi-flowing) again. It was like putting on a favorite nightie found at the back of the closet -an experience not altogether foreign, what with the huge move back this past August.

After some nice encouragement to continue exploring this genre, I wanted to share my first formal attempt with readers. I'm starting to re-think my place lately - in journalism, in arts, in social media, even in NYC -and seem to keep circling back to finding a spot where I can integrate all my passions. Maybe this is a first step? You decide.

______________

The green jewels of salad leaves, the ruby red of berries, oil gleaming and dancing with the salty-sweet balsamic river, extra sweater and out the door, whooshing down elevator and clomping across lino lobby, footsteps echoing off ancient tile. Small hands wrapped around hot tea in purple tin, quick broad steps down a drum-filled street, to more steps, NYPD peering down stairs, badges glinting against the orange-red setting sun. One more down, another set of stairs, another... and another. Grime, grub, a million days and a million sweating bodies, a million sad bored faces, tracing and trudging over cold concrete and still, hot air. Over right, over left. Take the M, don't take the M. Wait. And wait. Wait.

Headlights. Hope. A quick trip. Lower back yowl. Empty seat. Relief. Glum silence and squeaking brakes. Elbowing past ladies in heels and men in too-tight suits, the shiny shrieking harpies of neon beckoning, a shrine of Kodak and Samsung, of Annie and Once, of Big Macs and sunglasses. The land of the free, the home of the brave.

Follow the voices. Follow the music. Follow what your soul is telling you to do, where you're being pulled... by God? By light? By love? By nostalgia sentiment qua qua qua divinity in denim smirking at you from a vintage steering wheel in a stupid youth misspent and half-forgotten? Let's say it was magic, always the magic, the silent, loud, calm, chaotic wordless wonder of this... this grand Russian madness, this functioning chaos, this opera, of cars and buses and tourists and fans and lights, winking, beckoning...  and red chairs set up in rows, red carpets set up in rows, you're royalty, come sit down, come listen.

Tatiana's writing a letter, she's berating herself, she thinks she can convince him, she can change his mind... she can't change his mind of course, we all know what's coming, but the music... the sound, Tchaikovsky's wall of gorgeous vibrant sound washes over the assembled, the bypassers in suits frown and pause, looking up, around, then straight ahead, cocking head at that square with the singing bodies and the big dresses, the men with muttonchops and the fake falling snow. That grand, gorgeous sound.


There's a scramble for seats, mittened hands holding steaming cups of hot chocolate, it's so cold now, but it's so hot... the sound is coming like a gush of joy, of grief, of relief, of youth and hope and a full, fat embrace of life and all its painful gut-pulling glory... even Elmo stops, Cooke Monster stops, Spider Man stops, Batman stops, everything and everyone absolutely stops... and ... and... and... surges, gushing... moving, feeling, flowing, dancing, breathing, fucking, eating, drinking, waving, walking... walking away... but you're not.

You know why you're here, not even the cold could keep you away. Nothing will. Nothing could. Nothing else matters.

Jul 31, 2013

Carlotta Danger?

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Maybe it's the Weiner news, or the Bender effect, or the recent full moon.... whatever the case, I've been thinking a lot about sex lately, and the ways in which men and women view it, approach it, ask for it, and enjoy it.

Following Anthony Weiner's surreal press conference (muppet-head included) last week, during which he announced continuing his bid for NYC mayor following further revelations about his lewd online activity, I came upon a fascinating essay published after the fallout from the David Petreaus scandal early this year. Half-ribald, half-deadpan, writer John Richardson has written a burner of an op-ed in which he takes on marriage, martyrdom, sex, worship, and male-female relating, all within intriguing historic-social contexts (with generous dollops of mythology and gender politics on the side). Even if some bits make you want to throw your head back and laugh (or forwards, to throw up), the piece inspires further thought about the ways society perceives cheaters -particularly how we, collectively, mete out punishment and judgment.

It was surprising to note, during last week's presser, the extent to which my twitter stream filled up with vitriol and sarcasm toward the disgraced politician. Those reactions intensified when his wife, Huma Abedin, spoke after him; the advice-giving, the know-it-all-ness, the psychologizing, the pitysupposed takeaway, the sheer mean-spiritedness that followed in subsequent days offered a stunning if unflattering portrait of a society - us - desperate to label a woman in difficult circumstances. Another depressing aspect was, and remains, the lingering image of a couple feeling pressured to maintain the everything-is-fine! status quo of marriage normaldom. It's as if they were on a stage, acting parts in a play they seriously didn't believe in but desperately wanted audience approval for. Looking back on the day, I was reminded of a compelling New York Times article about the royal baby, labeling his presentation a piece of great "salesmanship."

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images, via)
Being a couple in the public eye can't be easy. You're not allowed to be normal and have problems and challenges like everyone else. You're held up as a role model, facing an enormous amount of pressure to consistently portray an image of The Happy Perfect Family in the public realm. (I googled "the perfect couple" and came up with roughly 293,000,000 results.) That role-playing is depressing, dishonest, and mostly, stupid, because every relationship has bumps, every marriage has rough patches. There is no such thing as perfection, but there's this sick need for public figures (whether they be politicians, actors, singers, or broadcasters) to provide a sort of smooth, perfect fantasy image for the rest of us to (supposedly) aspire to. Such an aspiration is pedaled by various advertisers (and fellow celebrities) who stand to gain from the promotion and promulgation of that fantasy: men, you are like this in a relationship, women, you are like this in a relationship. Conduct yourselves accordingly (no matter how difficult things may get). Smile. Hug and kiss. Publicly talk about how much you love your husband/wife/kids. Repeat. It's what is expected, ad infinitum, and, ad nauseum.

Flavoring the fevered pitch of mockery to the Weiner sexting news was Slate's "automatic" name generator, posted shortly after the presser. A parody of Weiner's alleged Formspring handle "Carlos Danger"(which makes me smile; it points so clearly to need to be perceived as stereotypically masculine and heroic, doesn't it?), the site allows you to put your own name in, and *poof* out comes your very own wild-and-sexy-crazy name. Mine? "Edourdo Risk" -a male name. In fact, they're all male names. A commenter on the page responded to another commenter's complaint about the lack of gender parity thusly:
Until female politicians start humiliating themselves and their families by getting into sex scandals on a regular basis, I'm afraid you'll have to just do without the female name generator. 
Awww, just do without, ladies!

But that's hardly the point, the supposed lack of indiscretion by women in politics (though it is a possible future blog post). The point is that Anthony Weiner is a politician with a funny/unfortunate name who decided to use another name that reaked of machismo (and is possibly connected to Chuck Norris, a living, breathing example of machismo if ever there was one); is it not possible to consider women being afforded the same luxury, of hiding (even in fun) behind a name that both milks and mocks their gender roles and the expectations around them? Males and females having salacious online connections re-name and re-adjust images accordingly, just as the porn industry re-names its performers to conform to gender stereotypes; men conform to a mold of hyper-masculinity (or, in James Deen's case, riffing on the dreamy, doe-eyed, good guy image), women are, by and large, jammed into (pardon the pun) the mold of soft, compliant, passive-if-eager (but not too aggressive) fembots, keen to be "taught," to please, to pleasure. The whole point is to create and sustain a fantasy.

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And it's precisely fantasy that is being created and cultivated when people (married, unmarried, dating, cheating, curious) hide behind an online alias. Does Slate really think that fantasy doesn't apply equally to women as it does to men? It doesn't matter -it's just a bit of fun, right? But that's precisely why it matters. Doing something for fun doubles - triples -the importance of leveling the playing field when it comes to sex, roles, and ideas; both guards and expectations are down. People are smiling, even laughing. That's where change happens. That's where attitudes shift.

Would it have taken so much longer to create a code that is inclusive? I want to believe we aren't so narrow in our definitions of cheaters, cheatees, horndogs and lustmuffins that we'd limit who is allowed to make themselves appear flamingly ridiculous in public -even or especially for fantasy. Women aren't that holy and pristine, are we? That's a tiresome (and burdensome) female cliche that fits a certain New Age image: nurturing mothers, peacemakers, wisdom machines, goddesses. To buy into any of them is to buy into the image of the Perfect Couple too. I'd say women deserve every chance men do -good chance, bad chance, loud chance, quiet chance -to make themselves look like total horndogs, bullies, idiots, cheaters, asses, and pigs just as their male counterparts have done. Women deserve that opportunity. I, for one, would take it.

So please Slate, don't call me Edourdo; call me Carlotta... or this.


"Don't dream it; be it."

Jul 21, 2013

The Women Understand

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Confession: I finally saw the classic 1980s movie The Breakfast Club in its entirety last week. I'd only ever seen it in bits and pieces before, like a giant, talky jigsaw; viewing it all the way through, uninterrupted, proved to be a revelation.

As a child of the 1980s, it's strange to think this symbol of an era passed me by, because of all of John Hughes' films, The Breakfast Club is perhaps the most celebrated, widely known, and deeply loved. It's surreal seeing symbols from my generation being embraced -indeed, appropriated, worshipped, and idolized -by far younger generations. Following the movie's screening, I combed through various websites and tweets, curious to gauge reaction, get a sense of the age of these new fans, and investigate how they expressed their love. The level of passion for a 28-year-old film, from a generation populated by those sometimes young enough to be my own kids (gulp), is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, the film is fascinating, funny, and captivating in its poetic simplicity as well as timeless in its themes -but I honestly did not expect the intense love from millenials that I found.

In the years since John Hughes' untimely passing, I hadn't thought much about his films, or his characters -or indeed, the chemistry of his ensembles, the genius behind his casting choices, or the thought-provoking subtext of his characters. At the time of writing my 2009 tribute to Hughes, I was floating in a sea of nostalgia. I recalled how Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off made me feel then, as a kid -not now, an adult. While it's strange to think I missed the TBC (and perhaps it's a bit of a shame, because I was strangely oblivious to the cultural earthquake it created -thanks very much, MJ, Duran Duran, and childhood best friend), seeing it now, as an adult woman, has allowed a very unique insight into the nature of youthful infatuation versus adult attraction. While the "popular" boys of Hughes' films have implied sexual histories, there's precious little to indicate they enjoyed "it." While that's partly down to language -Hughes seriously toned down the vulgar vernacular that so characterizes teenaged boys -it's also deeply related to how he portrayed female characters. Hughes consistently placed his "good" boys with supposedly "skanky" girls. It's curious (and, looking back on them now, depressing) that sexually experienced females are portrayed as mean sluts.

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Perhaps this was a symbol of the director's identification (/fascination//obsession) with his (perennially virginal) female lead, a sort of latter-day outcast Elizabeth I, who was never allowed to be friends with "those"sorts of girls (if Ringwald's character in TBC was, we never saw it). Andie's buddy Jena in Pretty In Pink is a possible-maybe exception to this rule, though the nature of female-female relating in that film seems geared entirely toward Andie's glaringly absent mother. Regardless of the "good" boys dating the "slutty" girls in Hughes' movies, I get the sense now, watching them as an adult woman, that there is an implied (if very identifiable) subtext of the boys never really enjoying the sex they were getting -even though it happened to be with females who had considerable power on the social ladder and were aware of that power. The boys were getting it, not feeling it, and that was an important (if romantically teenaged) distinction in the world(s) Hughes created.

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The act itself comes across as dirty or perhaps ridiculous (ie, The Geek or Long-Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles) -surely not pleasurable, but silly, reckless, something belonging to the (supposedly) joyless world of adulthood, and as a result, there's something curiously sexless about the male characters; sure, that's part of their innate charm -they are awkward teenagers, after all -but, viewing them from an adult perspective, it's still curious. Hughes was portraying class-challenged kids (his forte), but the sexual dynamics, and the realism of their energy, are of particular importance for to the works' continued watchability; casting is central to this energy. Michael Schoeffling, Andrew McCarthy, Eric Stotlz, Matthew Broderick, and Emilio Estevez, as they appear in Hughes' movies, are all boyish, pretty, and entirely unthreatening. In The Breakfast Club, Estevez' Andy fits in perfectly with the handsome-boy archetype Hughes was developing -heightening the idealizing is Andy's being an athlete (albeit unwillingly) -and proves himself a nice guy in making himself available as a confessional figure in whom the shy Alison can trust. All these male characters (who appeared in Hughes' films between 1984 and 1987) have two important things in common: conventional good looks and moral fortitude. You could take Jake, Blaine, Keith, Ferris, or Andy home to mom, and mom would surely approve.


The Breakfast Club's John Bender however, is a different breed. Unsettling and damaged, he's the guy you'd never take home to mom. But despite - or because -of this, I think Bender is far and away Hughes' most interesting creation -and perhaps the one best-suited to an audience beyond the one intended. Featured between Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty In Pink (1986) (The Breakfast Club was released in 1985), the role was originally meant to be played by John Cusack, but eventually went to then-25-year-old Judd Nelson, who was so committed to the role he emulated "Bender" between takes and ad-libbed some of the film's most beloved moments and lines. He brings a mesmerizing, deeply authentic sexual heat unlike any other actor in the Hughes canon. It is certainly not a teenaged vibe (at least to my mind), and while it's fair criticism that quality lessens the "realism" of the film Hughes was so keen on capturing, I'd argue it's greatly contributed TBC's enduring popularity for close to three decades.

Unlike Hughes' other male leads (including Estevez), Nelson is not conventionally handsome (though very striking, he is certainly not from the same mould as model-turned-actor Michael Schoeffling), and his character is clearly not morally upstanding. Nelson transcends his character's wrong-side-of-the-tracks cliche, using charm, smarm, a jangly physicality and greatly contrasting speaking volumes (shouting/silence); his attractiveness is intensified as a result. The ensuing soupcon of tangibles and intangibles (bad attitude, tender vulnerability, physical prowess, louche fashion and verbal dexterity) is something online fangirls understand, just as they try to analyze him and daydream about his future with Claire. It's interesting how Hughes gives short shrift to sex appeal and its role in attraction; The Breakfast Club, interestingly, hints at just this. Claire's correcting Bender in his pronunciation of "Moliere" is fascinating (Ringwald's flashing smile suggests, to me anyway, far more than mere friendliness), and in another memorable scene, we see the "Princess" looking through the various photos of females the "Criminal" keeps in his wallet. He simultaneously examines the contents of her purse, and the two converse. He asks her why she carries so much stuff around; she asks him why he has so many girlfriends. Claire eventually tells him she never throws anything away, to which he neatly responds, "Neither do I." The look on Nelson's face here, similar to when Claire later visits him in the closet, is wonderful to behold. Voila, a Hughes character who clearly, unabashedly enjoys sex. Bravo!

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There is a distinct (and refreshing) lack of innocence about Bender that goes far, far beyond the romantic "bad boy" image so popular in cinematic history (and which many fans revel in). This isn't to say he isn't sensitive -he is, clearly -or that he isn't afraid -again, he clearly is, as are the others. But Bender is menacing -an angry, abusive, violent figure living in a violent situation, horrified at exposure of his own vulnerability but simultaneously dying to put it on a stage for attention. He is also sexually confident. When he's hiding under the table, he sees Claire's white-pantied crotch beneath her skirt, and, integrating both sexual and provocative instincts (perhaps correctly guessing at this point that she's a virgin), moves his face between her legs before the mortified Claire kicks him, surely a perfect example of the repulsion/attraction principle at work. Bender openly questions others' virginity and is looked up to, becoming a de facto leader of the "club" not only because of his detention experience, but, I suspect, because of his sexual experience. This, to my mind anyway, is in line with teenaged mores.

What's more, Bender is able to use language in a way the others may not because of that experience -even when he's only talking to himself. His joke as he crawls through the air duct, with its vulgar element of the "two foot salami" and the naked, poodle-carrying blonde, is left famously unanswered; it's an interesting (and I think, genius) choice Nelson made in ad-libbing the punchline-free joke, with Bender bolstering his own confidence and soothing his nerves by referencing images with such clear sexual underpinnings. It reveals so much about Bender as a person -his past, his attitudes, his values, even, dare I say, his self-opinion.

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That doesn't necessarily mean he isn't sexually confident, and it's notable, therefore, that the character isn't punished for his carnal confidence or knowledge (unless you count his abusive home environment), nor is he rewarded for them (though some may argue the virginal Claire is his reward, but it's interesting their overture is left purposely unresolved); he is, rather, used as a symbol for the alienation all of the characters feel, his raised fist, both defiant and victorious, closing the film. Might he also be an unintentional beacon of a burgeoning sexual confidence in the others? And can he, through associating with the virgin Claire, "redeem" himself? Of what?! Should he be sorry about his past deeds? Should he burn all those girlfriend photos? Should he go hawk Claire's earring? Some contemporary fans seem devoted to the idea of romance between the two (or not), and though my little teenaged heart sighs at the thought, my adult heart scowls.

It's rather ironic an image of Bender closes The Breakfast Club; never again would film audiences see such an unapologetic, likeable, sexually potent figure in a John Hughes movie. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), Hughes never cast Nelson again. (One can only conjecture over why.) Does all this now mean I don't enjoy Hughes' movies? Certainly not. I look at old favorites like Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off as warm, comforting old chums, momentos from the "woolly cotton brains" of youth. Twenty-first century teens, saturated as they are with internet culture, with easy access to porn, having grown up with a myriad of saucy images and sexting, feel an affinity with his work (especially TBC) and it lives on in various ways, through various media. Perhaps, if I'd seen the movie when it came out, my reaction would've been similarly worshipful. Then again, as a youngin, I always preferred the smooth, pretty boys, the ones with the nice cars and the good manners who I could bring home. I loved Duckie because he was sweet, silly, and protective of his best friend; I loved Ferris for his posh tastes and intelligence. Fantasy was fun, but those fantasy figures had to conform to a certain standard of acceptability in my social and familial circles. No creeps were allowed, especially sexy, dangerous creeps. Eeeeek.

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It's only been with time and experience -life -that I've thrown out ideas around acceptability and come up with my own definitions. These days, my head has been turned, not by aesthetics or fantastical ideas, but by that undefinable quality that manifests itself as a mix of confidence, charm, curiosity, respect, and knowingness. Everyone gets older, and in the process, everyone gets clearer on what they want in life and love.

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What happened on Monday? That's the question everyone who's seen The Breakfast Club asks. Forget romance! My rose-colored glasses of teendom are long gone; I hope Bender ditched class and paid a visit to the Principal's wife. I'd expect nothing less -or more. Neither should you. Life goes on... carpe diem. Don't you forget.

(Photo credits: Emilio Estevez as Andrew Clark via; Andrew McCarthy as Blaine McDonnagh via; Eric Stoltz as Keith Nelson via)

Jul 17, 2013

Yesterme. Yesteryou. Yesterday.

It was somewhere between coffee and cleaning up from a dinner party on Saturday night that I learned the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. I stood gawping and silent, coffee and kahlua still dancing on the palate, staring at the multiple Twitter streams telling me: Not Guilty.

There followed a restless, late night, one spent exchanging ideas across social media networks, listening to old soul songs, reading various articles, thinking about America and its founding ideals, about youth,  about justice, about relationships near and far, about differing perceptions across different lives, in different places and in different circumstances. About the notion of "different-ness" itself.

The incident sent me back in a time machine somehow, to recall a childhood friend I hadn't thought about in many, many years. Tanya and her family moved to my old neighborhood in suburban Toronto when I was in seventh grade. It was a strange time, of shifting hormones, changing tastes, swirling, sometimes intensely passionate feelings; my once-strong friendships were disintegrating, changing faster than my hairstyles.

My twelve-year-old self was experimenting with new tastes in music, in clothing, in food, in books, in ways of seeing and experiencing the world; Tanya seemed to show up at the exactly right time, helping me navigate through the terrible trauma of first periods, the weirdness of my single mother dating, the importance of forging notes for gym class (we were possibly the only non-sporty types in the whole school and hated the athletic mean girls), and the joys of hitting up the local record shop to scope out the latest dance records. I was introduced to Janet Jackson's music through Tanya, and we'd spend hours dancing in my basement to "Nasty" and "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" as well as hits by both Michael Jackson and Duran Duran. It was refreshing to find a (female) friend who never put the two in competing camps, as so many around me already had. (Either you liked MJ or you liked DD; there was no in-between, which, to me, seemed absurd.) I introduced Tanya to the wonders of the Eurythmics. We'd go to the cinema Friday nights and laugh loud and hard, at whatever absurdity we'd paid our $7 for; sometimes people would try to shush us and throw dirty looks. Our response was to throw popcorn and quickly duck down, giggling.


Janet Jackson - Nasty by trashfan

We didn't know about history, or what we did know, we barely cared about or paid much attention to. We were young girls being... well, young girls, whispering, giggling, sharing, crying, being loud and obnoxious one minute, weepy and dramatic the next. When I visited Tanya's house, I just saw people getting along with life, their jobs, their kids, their responsibilities. Tanya's parents seemed tired, and her father was older than I expected, but they were friendly and very welcoming, delighted their rambunctious daughter had found an ally in a quiet, bookish, then-shy piano-playing local girl, and perhaps pleased at my mother's church-going habits. Her mother's smile as my eyes bugged out trying jerk chicken for the first time, her younger brother excitedly dancing with us in the basement and acting out the scenes from the "Thriller" music video ... it was the mid-80s, and suburban Canada felt about as far away from the racial boiling-pot of America as you could possibly get.

Very often Tanya and I would relate the way many young women do, talking about the strange weirdness of our changing bodies and the absolute, utter mystery of male bodies. Tanya used to do a hilariously vulgar sort of pelvic thrust walk, making a funny wakka-wakka-sound in her throat - I can't remember why, or the circumstances for such a creation -but I do remember howling with laughter. Tanya was, to me, a very cool girl, with her perfectly filed, long fingernails, Chuck Taylor sneakers, light-heartedness with the whole mysterious s-e-x thing, and, of course, a very chic-casual purple cheerleader-style jacket. For all that, I never thought she was any different than me; it never occurred that she was a black girl from California with a very different set of life experiences to my own -hailing from a large family with many siblings, her parents having recently moved to Canada and settled in what was then a very Wonder Bread neighborhood. She was sometimes laughed at in the schoolyard, with more than a few sporty, slim girls rolled their eyes at her in gym class (when we went), what with her hole-speckled socks, baggy shirts, and dimpled knees. Again, I never noticed those things, and she was just my cool, funny friend. I remember how I felt when we were together, whether in-person or on the phone.



It was with more than a bit of surprise that I thought of Tanya when Rachel Jeantel was interviewed recently. Her awkwardness, her self-consciousness, her mannerliness, her sparkling, shy youth... Tanya's face came flashing into my mind, particularly the moments when my friend used to interact with my mother or my mum's church-going friends. There was, in retrospect, a weird over-compensating going on that I, in my fuzzy-cotton-shielded-from-everything upbringing, hadn't noticed as a youngster. As Laura Beck wrote on Jezebel, "I don't know how you watch this and see anything but an unfiltered, genuine teenager. One who suffered  the tragic loss of a friend she spent hours and hours on the phone with each day." Maybe that's what set me off to write this blog post, madly typing out rough thoughts in the middle of another restless night recently. There is a truly real, touching core of deeply-felt friendship so extant in Jeantel's reminiscences, it's almost painful to watch. You feel like you're intruding on the lives of two teenagers who are super-tight with each other -literally to the point of death.

I'm not sure why, or how, but Tanya and I stopped talking -a petulant tween fight, as I recall -and soon after she moved away. I ran into her a little while after that at the local mall, when she was visiting; Tanya had moved back to California, her parents had separated, she was living with her mother and siblings. She was, somehow, such a grown-up at sixteen. I often wonder where she is now. Tanya would be about the same age as me, and looking at the date of Trayvon Martin's birth - 1995 -I wonder if she chose to have children. What would she tell them? What might be be telling them now? Can she - can we -possibly return to that beautiful place in childhood, of laughter and love and shared secrets and innocence? Perhaps Christy Moore says it best:
I want to meet you where you are
I don't need you to surrender
There is no feeling so alone
As when the one you're hurting is your own. 


(Bottom photo: detail of Kenny Scharf mural, 2011; both top & bottom photos from my Flickr photostream)

Jul 8, 2013

SLUT.

Here I am, almost seven months since my last blog, writing about the word "slut." It's strange, what passes for writing inspiration these days, especially since I promised in the past I'd be doing less personal-life-issues blogging. But, this word, and its usage, occupies a strange place in my mind.

Perhaps I'm blogging about this now, at this time, as I undergo some radical life changes, assessing and re-assessing the role authenticity plays in my life, and how sexuality is key to embracing that authenticity in a more complete and satisfying way.

Sex columnist Dan Savage's response to a young woman being called a "slut" hit some buttons, mainly because I have been called the same thing, by a woman who is friends with my mother, no less. it wasn't said in front of me, and perhaps I wasn't meant to ever know of it, but, it didn't surprise me, to once again be called "slut," especially by another woman.



In dealing with female friends in the past, I used to feel a particular pressure to cover up, dress down, go shapeless, never be too revealing. That was thanks to a youthful lack of self-confidence in my appearance, but it was also a way to fit in with my chums' idea of how females "should" look: no bare shoulders, no decolletage, always tasteful and subtle. There was still glammy makeup and vampy nails, and a growing passion for lingerie. Like the veiled ladies I used to see buying hoards of lacy knickers in Harrod's years before, I felt I had a fabulous secret to savor hidden underneath the high-necked velvet tops and long skirts.

Gradually, I began to bust out of the mold. I attended a concert in the late 1990s wearing a tight, low-cut, vintage halter-dress; the concert wasn't great, but boy, did I feel good, powerful even. Such boldness complemented an already entrenched taste for literary erotica, sensuous writing, and the naughtier side of history. That's to say nothing of how much bellydancing aided in recognizing and embracing what God gave me too. Such pursuits helped me gain the confidence to claim my womanly body as my own, to express the person it contains, outright, -through dress, through manner, through every single visual and aural element shrieking "AUTHENTIC" loudly, proudly, finally. I realized the absurdity in dressing -and thinking, speaking, choosing -just to make other people comfortable.

None of this is to say I don't believe in work-appropriate wear (I do), or that I don tube tops and micro-mini skirts daily (I don't) -in fact, I'm typing this in jeans and a t-shirt. But stepping out in public still, inevitably, frustratingly, invites judgment: Your jeans are too tight; your top is too low. (Never mind that I'm wearing bare-bones-makeup and tiny stud earrings.) Perhaps it's the nature of human beings to judge, maybe it's our madly media-heavy, super-connected world making things worse (those "things" mainly related to the business of cultivating female insecurity around looks). Maybe it's that depressingly common female competitiveness rearing its ugly head. Does the awareness of such human fallibility make it okay to call someone a "slut," a woman who's taken years to come to terms with body, soul, flesh, spirit, and all the mixed twisted vital veins pulsating, glowing between them? Why this desire for a slut and a saint, at once? A vixen / mother? A seductress / soother? Peacemaker / homemaker?

Choice is a funny thing, and sometimes it's in embracing choice fully we court the snap judgments and narrow perceptions of others. It's stunning, and sadly unsurprising, to be called a "slut"in 2013. Dan Savage suggested such the use of such a term is rooted in jealousy: she's getting laid, you're not, how shitty. The reality is more simple than that, I think: even if you're not technically getting laid, if you look like you could, conceivably, be perceived as somehow sexually desirable (and the assumption is almost always to men), boom, out come the knives. One has to, as Savage suggests, take the mindset of, "who gives a shit what those bitches think?" Right. But I wish they didn't have to be bitches. I wish things weren't set up thusly. I wish I could have more pity in my heart, more consistently, for those who close their minds and hearts to others. Walt Whitman puts it a bit more poetically in I Sing The Body Electric:
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!
(Photo of me from my Flickr photostream