January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

After a long walk in the cold and a bad movie, Medicine for Melancholy, that might have worked if the lovers—the only two characters—had spoken more than a line or two every fifteen minutes, I’m sitting in bed having a cup of tea with milk and honey, remembering that classic bit from British novels where the old lady says, “Now, dearie, have a nice cup of tea and you’ll feel as right as rain in no time,” and the young heroine, suffering from a love affair or murder attempt, always does. (Question for another day: why is rain right? Because the gladiolas need it? Or the Brits don’t feel the world’s in order unless there a muzzy bit of drizzle somewhere near? Or is just the alliteration?)

Speaking of love and murder, when I was packing to come uptown, I went to put an unopened chocolate bar in my bag, and found a mouse had nibbled a tiny portion from three of the corners. I’d told Philip the mice hadn’t been around lately so I didn’t mention it but I wanted to; the nibbles looked so tidy and considerate. I was reminded of Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory making a chocolate bar last for months by keeping it under his mattress (or was it a hole in the wall?) and eating it one crumb at a time, each time unwrapping the silver paper with reverent anticipation. That’s what I want the mice to feel when they scent the chocolate chips at the end of the tunnel-shaped electric mousetrap.

See if you can spot the mouse nibbles

See if you can spot the mouse nibbles

Some people (but no rodents) can feel that anticipation even knowing that death is at hand. My aunt Vera was one of them. She was quite happy in her hospital bed at the end, having no doubt that she’d be in Heaven soon, conversing with Jesus, probably over tea or a dry martini. She was a very strict Catholic, always warning others about hell, but not the type to worry that her own soul might come up short.

Samuel Johnson famously said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Many of us have had this experience as a result of the economy’s death spiral, but not, apparently, House Republicans. Nor Mayor Bloomberg, who wants to tax movie tickets, haircuts, and cable TV.  How about a stupidity tax? Progressive, so if you’re both rich and stupid you pay more.

Updike in the Afterlife

January 29, 2009 § 4 Comments

John Updike

John Updike

Philip and I were talking about John Updike’s obit in the Times by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Philip said,  “Isn’t Christopher Lehmann-Haupt dead? I thought he was dead.” I suggested maybe it was written years ago—and we went on like that, Philip grumbling while I said why shouldn’t the dead criticize the dead? (In fact, Lehmann-Haupt is not dead. He lives in Riverdale.)

I know the Times writes its obits—of the well-known elderly— in advance because my friend Annie was friends with philanthropist Steward Mott, and a year or two before his death he had to come to New York to be interviewed for his. There was a flurry of emails back and forth with the newspaper staff about how much vodka he needed to get through the conversation.

I prefer the idea of the dead interviewing their own. Too much congress between the afterlife and our earthly existence would ruin the mystery, the fear, the je ne sais quoi of human hope springing eternal, but perhaps if one email could get through just to say, “It’s pleasure to have Updike with us. His descriptive powers are stimulating all our sexual memories—which is painful for those who don’t have sexual memories, but what can you do? He’s brought his characters. Rabbit is relieved to be really dead at last and the Eastwick witches are enjoying our multitude of devils. John tells us you’ve really been fucking things up in the world. Not that we care especially, but… we don’t want you arriving en masse. Somebody has to dust the purgatorial chambers. PS—be kinder to your writers. Without books, there wouldn’t even be an afterlife, and believe me, you wouldn’t like it. Those of us from the really old days can attest to how stultifyingly boring it was.”

My favorite book of Updike’s is “Roger’s Version.” My favorite Kingsley Amis is “The Old Devils.” Muriel Spark: “Memento Mori.” A little spite goes a long way to give fiction crackle.

Kingsley Amis, Muriel SparkKingsley Amis and Muriel Spark

After They’ve seen Paree

January 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

Old Post Office, Washington, D.C.

Old Post Office, Washington DC

Gray day, light snow and eddying pools of slush at the corners of 6th and 7th avenues. I walked in a daze—I had left the apartment in desperation, hoping that a long walk would energize me—and my neighbor John had to jump directly in front of me waving his arms to get my attention. Even then it took a couple of seconds to recognize the man with whom I’ve shared a wall for 25 years.
We talked about the people we know: those with no money, those terrified of losing their jobs, and those for whom this is a wonderful shopping opportunity. The easiest way to tell about someone’s finances now is to ask about the summer. When they say, “I can’t look that far ahead,” you understand perfectly and change the subject to the unlikely possibility that Obama will fix things really quickly.

In the mystery bookstore two people were arguing about whether a certain author was a high-level CIA agent or just a good at doing research. The bookstore proprietor remarked that when he met the man, he commented on how legibly he signed his name, and the author replied, “Probably because I invented it recently and haven’t gotten bored with writing it yet.” I fantasized about pseudonyms, which used to seem risky—you think you’re anonymous, publish things you don’t want to be known by, but you’re not safe, someone always finds out—and now seem more like Internet dating. When I first tried that, in 2000, several of my girlfriends were worried. In the end the only risk was love. The ‘stranger’ part of the equation offered novelty, entertainment, hijinks like those I hadn’t indulged in since I was 15—intrigue on the cheap.

My friend Jocelyn remarked last night that in the Great Depression, at least people could go back home, live on the family farm and grow their own food. I said that a lot of people had had no farm to go back to. She conceded this, but still thought it was an option for more people then than now. But we have far more wealth in this country than we did in the 1930’s. There are plenty of houses. Some people are going hungry but most are losing their dreams—their own home, college for the kids, a safe retirement…all the province of the upper classes in 1932.

Still, it feels like the perfect storm. Ice, snow, freezing rain; the great sinkhole of the summer when the cash runs out; the post office wanting to eliminate Tuesday.

I’m ready for a new identity.

Tenantless farm, Texas, 1938, Dorothea Lange. Public Domain.

Late Night

January 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

I just watched Stephen Colbert interview Philippe Petit and realized again how brilliant he is as a comic interviewer. Put him with any person with a sense of humor, no matter how different than his own, or how ordinary (like the “sex preacher” of last night) and he connects and charms them. He makes it look easy but it’s one of the most difficult things, to be at the same time so funny and so sensitive to the other person. Think of what you’re used to seeing—comic and straight man, whether the straight man is the interviewer or interviewee. Colbert collaborates. Without a net.

I wrote six pages of my novel today. Back in the groove. Finishing it by April is doable if I give up exercising and cleaning the apartment, avoid drinking and illness and don’t go out much during the week.

But tomorrow I’ll walk in the snow. Thursday do laundry.

What Women Want, Part II

January 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

One of the scientists in the New York Times Magazine article on female desire, Dr. Marta Meana, citing research that women are, on average, less lustful than men, theorizes that it takes more to kickstart a woman’s desire. This goes some way toward explaining why women have such frequent fantasies of sex with strangers and of rape—the latter being in the class of “only fantasy” (we hope), while the former is often acted out.

One can interpret these fantasies in many ways, and the interpretations differ from woman to woman. But what strikes me as incomplete about this idea is that while male lust on the physical level is more demanding and constant (married men retain their desire for marital sex longer than their wives do), male desire and fantasy is every bit as novelty-and-thrill-seeking as women’s. So if you explain women’s fantasies as compensation for a lower or fluctuating sex drive, what do you make of all the bizarre male porn?

I would say that desire by nature tends toward the extreme because it’s always constrained by reality. Most of what turns us on we can’t have, or won’t do, or wouldn’t like if it were done to us. How is this different from the rest of a person’s daydreaming? I want an impossible amount of recognition and well-being; I mentally murder my loved ones often; when I have insomnia I imagine terrible disasters far away, a practice that works to draw off the catastrophe demon, keep it from summoning my real fears.

The first time I went on Zoloft, I was driving my car alone in the country, in a state of calm euphoria, when I saw children playing by the side of the road up ahead. I had a sudden impulse to run them over, imagining the crunch under the wheels as being pleasurable in the same way stepping on a dry twig is.

I resisted the impulse without difficulty but kept thinking about it, as I drove on—specifically about why I couldn’t act on it. What was strange was that while I could imagine vividly the negative consequences to me should I do such a thing, and I understood that killing was ‘wrong’, I couldn’t feel that wrongness; the concept was empty; I was taking it on faith. I was, for that period of time, phantom-sociopathic. Only the fact that I remembered my previous self and was aware of this one as somehow ‘not me’ kept me not only safe but sane.

I told my sister this story and she said, matter-of-factly, “I know what you mean. Sometimes when I’m chopping vegetables and the children’s hands are spread out on the counter I have a desire to chop off their fingers. Not because I’m feeling hostile; it just seems like it would be satisfying.”

My boyfriend Philip is creeped out by these stories, and quick to see them as being somehow confined to my family. I think these things lie around in everybody’s psyche, like the most grotesque sexual fantasy you will never admit to. On the other hand, I’m put off by his tales of daily in-your-face male insult and challenge, what is sometimes banter and sometimes humiliation but for him simply part of the human spectrum. He takes for granted that men have all those macho qualities that, at 15, reading second-wave feminist literature, I thought brutal and anachronistic, soon to  be swept away. More than taking them for granted, he sees the artistry in them, and though I can’t yet see themthe way he does, I’ve learned to trust his feeling for artistry.

I guess my point is that desire has evolutionary, survive-and-propagate roots, but for a long time now it has been riffing on itself. It evades or overflows categories, finds a way out, in or around; what it’s exists to ‘do’ and ‘why’ is no longer entirely relevant. How can we tell what’s the score and what’s the improv?

Imagine the day when computers finally become sentient. Maybe this excites you; maybe you’re afraid. The one thing you don’t think is that consciousness will simply help them do the job better. If you’re human, you know being aware of yourself as a separate being is dangerous.

This has been a long post. You are now excused to your own fantasies. I’m in the mood for tea and chocolate chip cookies. I baked them for Philip but he made me bring them home. I’m glad. I like the silky pleasure of my own apartment, my poetry books, my thoughts up in the corners and my cookies.
photo31 Some books I love

What do Women Want?

January 24, 2009 § 3 Comments

The current issue of The New York Times magazine has a long article about recent studies on female desire.
Some of the studies discussed were performed with a device called a plethysmograph attached to the subjects’ genitals (in women a plastic probe inside the vagina, measuring bloodflow) while they were shown videos of sexual acts, men-women, men-men, women-women, bonobos.

Bonobos? Why not golden retrievers? Tigers? Black Widow spiders? I’ve known women who messed around with their dogs. I’ve told men to hold me down by the neck like a tiger, though their mouths aren’t really big enough (and they complain mine isn’t big enough).

Never mind. The interesting thing is that men are reliably aroused by what say they desire—the hetero scenes if they’re hetero, gay if they’re gay. Women are aroused by all of it, including the apes. They’re also more aroused by a woman exercising than by a naked ‘chiseled’ man taking a walk. Dr. Marta Meana, of the University of Nevada, explains this with a theory of female desire as narcissistic. We like to look at other women because what matters to us is being desired, being desirable, and so the female body itself is deeply interesting. A naked male body with a limp dick doesn’t do it, because he obviously doesn’t find us ravishing. I have no quarrel with this, but it doesn’t really cover the appeal of the apes.

What evolutionary explanation can there be for the fluidity of female desire? Sexologist Lisa Diamond claims women are more ‘relational.’ A woman might be involved with a man at one point in her life, a woman at another. It’s the intimacy that turns women on. Certainly it’s been true in my experience of knowing gays and bisexuals that switching back and forth is far more common in women. But the idea that she’s attracted to the person and not the gender sounds wrong because the women I’ve known who go back and forth have very distinct ideas about what’s appealing about women vs men. They don’t say, “Terry just happens to be a man (woman).” Terry is Terry, unique individual, but also their needs have changed.

Dr. Meana dismisses the ‘relational’ idea entirely because her research indicates that women are attracted to sex with strangers and that intimacy in a marriage is no predictor of desire. I could have told her that 20 years ago, if I hadn’t been so busy trying to justify it to myself.  But being ‘relational’ doesn’t have to mean always wanting nice, or familiar; what about being interested in human relationships, the oddities and differences, being both curious and cautious, wanting (needing) to learn more, and being willing to learn through sex? That, perhaps, is why women are aroused watching bonobos, who reputedly use sex to cement alliances and smooth social interaction.

Men want variety—any attractive woman, or any woman meeting their criteria, or specifically, “I’ve never had an Asian.” Women are more likely to say, “My darling, I find you sexier than Liam Neeson and Barack Obama combined,” but also, “I wonder what it would be like to be a gay man?” Or, “How cool to fuck a giant—a blind man—a werewolf?”

But perhaps that’s just me. What do you think?



Astrology and Penises

January 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’m beginning to think what MSNBC needs is an astrology pundit show (in the slot after Rachel, we don’t need Keith twice) so all the intricate parsing of the day’s events could be livened up with discussions of what Mercury retrograde will do to the President’s Blackberry and what effect the coming eclipse (Jan 26; you have to be in African, Antarctica or Australia to see it) will have on our  alpha Leo. Here’s my prediction, for what it’s worth: Obama won’t get 100 days to prove himself, much less the couple of years the press has been nattering about, but more like a week and a half. Already he’s closed Gitmo and bombed Pakistan. If he can cut taxes, pass universal health care, outfit Air Force One with solar panels and get the girls their puppy before the end of the month, the country will sigh and start shopping for valentines.

So, okay, the stimulus bill, what’s supposed to save the banks, our jobs, savings and houses: that little thing. The early draft sounds like those sex guides that define foreplay as caressing all the erogenous zones (there are so many more than you thought!) repeatedly—and never once mention what might be called the art of it: narrative, strategy, precision. I know Congress is out of its depth. Brains aren’t passed out at the door. They just want to make us and their donors and the lobbyists and the President happy, and not be made fun of on TV. They’re not potted plants, as Tom Lantos once said. (Not Axelrod—he said that the cabinet members aren’t potted plants). All I can say is, Can you help the girls find their dog?

Philip expressed his pleasure with my post yesterday about respecting his (and others’) privacy. It kind of makes me want to upload a picture of his dick. But dick pix are everywhere, and his isn’t two pronged like a kangaroo, nor bullet proof like Obama’/s inauguration suit. ( It’s just mostly perfect, like the private parts of every man I’ve ever slept with who might be reading this blog, but of course more perfect than most.

(As for Charles, he’s spoken for himself, most eloquently, in a recent comment. He knows how perfect he is.)

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