27 September 2009

Life is Big, People Are Small

It really is, and they really are.

On Friday I went to London. I was originally going to see a William Blake exhibit at the Tate, but then my father sent me information about a Turner exhibit at the same place and urged me to go, so I did that, too.

I don't like Turner. I never have. But I've never known why. My reaction to art is at first always emotional, and I reason about it only if I'm interested in doing so. There is much art in the world, and most of it isn't Turner, so I chose to spend my time until Friday afternoon exploring other art rather than thinking about why I don't like Turner. I went to this exhibit, in fact, because I thought perhaps I'd like Turner better if I saw many of his paintings rather than the relatively few I'd been exposed to. The exhibit was Turner and Other Painters - those who'd influenced him, or whom he'd copied as a means of doing them better. An excellent way to come to appreciate someone's art, its uniqueness and richness. And, indeed, there were many wonderful paintings there. Unfortunately, none of them were by Turner.

Turner is sort of the Thomas Kinkade of the early 19th century: he's a painter of light. This is what he's best known and most admired for, and it's what I dislike most about him. Until Friday, I would have said, "Ugh. I can't stand those giant swirly canvasses, with all that..." and I would have circled my arm in the air swiftly and repeatedly. Looking at all the canvasses on Friday, though, I realised that what I can't stand is the emotion. Turner substitutes a kind of hazy emotion for visual precision. The first few times, this substitution is just, for me, irritating and masking; after that, it becomes obtrusive and vaguely pretentious. I don't like to be told how to feel about the light, or about what's presented on the canvas: I like to see it, and then decide how I feel about it. Of course, art always coerces one to feel some way or another about what it portrays; it's just that Turner is more openly coercive than most.

The other artists were, almost without fail, more appealing to me than Turner's work. To be fair, I loved Canaletto before I saw him hung in that room. But Girtin, Rosa, Whoeverthatdutchguyis: this was my first viewing, and I found them, simply, better.

This isn't to say I didn't like some of the Turners. I did. But I just didn't like most of them (the very first one in the exhibit I actually found physically repellent! But that response did not recur), and I didn't like almost all of them as much as I liked the ones by other painters. But then, that's always been my fate: I dislike the things that others, especially critics, like, and I like the things they don't.

The Blake exhibit, incidentally, was fabulous. Oh, could the man paint! And they'd done something similar with him, placing on the wall opposite that which held his paintings (all exhibited at his 1809 exhibit) a series of paintings other artists produced in 1809. But in his case it worked: I could see very clearly not only how terrific he was, but how absolutely bizarre and alien his works must have seemed.

And no Mr. Fallen. Which was a relief, and probably just as well, if also a little saddening.

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All of a sudden, the nights here have got really cold. I stood outside talking tonight, and I realised I could see our breath! There's a great song by the Divine Comedy called "Don't Look Down" (chiefly notable for its excellent explanation of why not to believe in God - spoken to God), in which the singer describes a terrifying situation by saying, "The air gets clammy, and we hold each other's breath," and I thought of that, thinking that if I reached out my hand and grabbed, I really could hold the other person's breath.

BUEno. My friend O. herself has a friend, a man named U. He comes to tango, and he's obviously had a lot of experience, because he's very good. But in addition to this, I think he's perhaps the most beautiful dancer I've seen. I don't mean he's physically beautiful (although I do find him attractive). I mean his dancing is beautiful.

First of all, he has this hand. He holds his left hand in a way I've never seen in another leader: he curves it around so that the woman holds his thumb and his fingers are wrapped around the outside of her holding hand. Maybe it's wrong, but it looks beautiful - like a twining vine , fluid and curved and elegant. And then he has a way of stepping at certain moments. He steps into the woman's space when he leads a giro, and that too is very elegant - and very unexpected, which makes it even more elegant.

Mostly, though, it's his posture and his face. As far as I can determine, one thing you have to have to be a good male tango dancer is a straight back. If you hunch, or if you lean in, it doesn't look good and it doesn't seem to work well for the dance, either. This guy has a back so straight that he suddenly makes me understand what the expression "upright" means, but he somehow looks simultaneously upright - drawn up - and comfortable being upright. It's hard to explain. He looks as if he's making a point to stand upright, but as if that point is a pleasure for him. And his face! He has one of those straight noses, and when he dances he flares his nostrils, and appears to close his eyes: he looks as if he's filled with the spirit, and as if that filling leaves him simultaneously filled with satisfaction.

And the thing is, he's nothing special really. He's not elegantly dressed and suave in the dance, like my FTT, and he's not tall and unexpected in the hips, like my VTTT. But get him on the dance floor and I could watch him forever. So beautiful.

Speaking of elegantly dressed, here's a DC video I found unexpectedly tonight. I wish the men I knew dressed like Neil Hannon in this: that's a suit so sharp you could cut yourself looking at it.

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24 September 2009


I should be going to bed, because tomorrow I'm off to London, and I'm not really yet well, but it's been so long since I've written that I wanted to do so.

So, the other day a friend of mine and I were talking about intimacy and boundaries and public behaviour. In the course of this conversation my friend explained that, for him, there are things that you just don't do in public, or that you only do with your significant other: ways that you move your body, or things that you do with it.

Now, normally such a conversation would be a passing thing for me, except that a few days later I had another discussion about bodies with another friend, who said to me, "You're very comfortable with your body." The question of whether this is true or not is a complex one, and depends a good deal on how you define "body," but I want to leave that aside, because the conjunction of the two conversations got me thinking about bodies, and about intimacy.

Now, I happen to agree with my first friend that there are ways you should move your body only in certain circumstances, or only with certain people, but it has very little to do with intimacy for me. It has to do with wisdom. When I move my body on a dance floor, say, it's just a tool, a very interesting mechanism the manipulation of which gives me delight. Unfortunately, the people watching may not see it this way. As a recent post suggested, certain kinds of moving are generally read in a specific way by other people, and I don't want to send unintended messages. Most people, I think, are profoundly uncomfortable moving their bodies, so much so that they only do it when they lose control, and the most common way of losing bodily control is having sex, so they associate bodily movement with sexual accessibility. I do not make this connection, but being aware that other people do I'm reluctant to move my body with just anybody.

If I were comfortable and certain, though, I'd pretty much dance however I felt with whomever was there. So the body is not really a source of intimacy for me (although, again, it depends on what you mean by "body." Perhaps I should say the dancing body is not a source of intimacy for me). What is a source of intimacy for me is the...not exactly the mind...how can I say...I don't know how to say it in one word. The revelation of thoughts, and beliefs, and experiences. This I try very hard not to do with most people, and in fact I have quite a careful inner structure of what I'll reveal and what I won't. One of the things I find most interesting about myself (that's never a good opener, but please believe me when I say I mean interesting about myself as an exhibit I observe) is the almost Byzantine series of constructions I have for short-circuiting revelation or accessibility. In many ways I suppose that's bad, but the truth is I feel very uncomfortable revealing most of my beliefs, and certainly most of my fears, and certainly certainly most of my wants and worries. I have no problem shaking my ass in your face, but if you want me to tell you a secret about my childhood, you're going to get one of perhaps four carefully selected and prepared secrets. And if you want to get something truthful and under-the-surface about me now, I'm not sure how you'd get that, but I am sure that once I told you I'd be bitterly sorry and wish I could take it back.

I believe you tell yourself to the people close to you, and most of yourself you tell only to your lover, or your partner - revelation does not create intimacy; intimacy licenses revelation. To make confidences about myself to a person who's not my partner is to be too intimate and also, for me, to give away something. If you are a woman, I'll only tell you real things about myself after a very, very careful and lengthy inner vetting process, and if you're a man I'll probably only tell you those things if I want you to, or wish you did, love me. I'm explaining it wrong. What I mean is, to reveal not physical motions but inner thoughts and truths is something I only do with someone I love, and if I'm not sure you love me back it's giving those things away pointlessly. So I won't do it. It's a waste. Your body holds you, you know? It just holds you. But what it holds, that's valuable, and to give it away to someone who doesn't care a very great deal is painful and angering. People think that when they've got your body they've got you, and that's true to a certain degree with sex - or at least, once sex gets introduced there is a kind of having, or knowing, that there isn't when there hasn't been sex. But it's not really your body that's you: it's your thoughts, and your fears, and your confidences of belief and worry. And those, for me, are off limits until you're sure you're not throwing them away.

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20 September 2009

Mal a Tete

I am sick. In fact, I'm sort of spectacularly sick. I don't mean I have a fever and am writhing dramatically on my sweaty bed, or anything, but I'm sick in a way I haven't been sick for a long time: although I have no fever, and strictly speaking probably just have a cold (cough and runny nose), I'm light-headed, weary, unmotivated, and only able to concentrate for about 15 minutes at a time. I associate all these latter symptoms with the flu, but I know I don't have the flu.

In fact, though, I'm slightly better yesterday than I was last night, because last night I had a
terrible headache. I know I've written about migraines on here before, but I don't think I mentioned that perhaps about ten years ago migraines started to be the only kind of headaches I got. I don't mean they arrived as full-blown migraines; rather, every headache I got developed into a migraine, and it was clear from the start that they would.

Headaches are very interesting things for me. And one of the most interesting things about them is the course and recognizability of their development. Theoretically, when your head starts to hurt, if it's just your head hurting (and not the kind of withdrawal I mentioned in an earlier post), you shouldn't be able to determine what kind of headache it's going to turn into. But this is, in fact, not the case. I always know when it's going to be a migraine, and I knew this before they all started being migraines. If I draw my focus out of the front of my brain (frontal lobe: thank you, BF) and into the back (occipital: two for two!), the feeling back there will tell me. I'm sure that's illogical, or physically inaccurate, but it's how I know: the back of my brain feels different. Also, a migraine will frequently lodge at the top of my nose (which makes it, I suspect, a sinus headache to start off with).

Because I've spent a lot of time with migraines, and because they completely incapacitate me physically but don't shut off my thinking, I've spent a lot of time examining them and their stages as they occur. One of the most interesting aspects, for me, is that I can tell when the pain begins precisely how bad it will grow to be. I wonder how you get those predictive skills.

I should have worked on the brain, really. Differently from BF, though. I would like to have worked on the way in which the brain acquires and deploys the knowledge that occurs subconsciously -- the knowledge that is so base that we think of it as instinct, or as an integrated part of the brain. I'm sure there's a scientific term for this kind of judgement ("My head will hurt this much"; "I can grab that pan before it hits the floor, but not that one"), but it's the interconnection between mental and neurological that interests me about it.

I should say at this stage that I'm usually able to circumvent these headaches. I carry aspirin and migraine aspirin with me everywhere, and the moment my hurt starts to hurt I take either one or the other. In this way, most of my headaches are nipped in the bud. (Before you give me a whole lecture about how aspirin is hard on the stomach and I should be using ibuprofen, let me cut you off by saying that aspirin works much more quickly and effectively for me than ibuprofen, so I prefer it. In the UK, they apparently no longer make aspirin tablets, though, so I am forced to take ibuprofen.)

Bueno, to get back to the original strand, last night I had a headache that was not a migraine! But, man, did it hurt anyway.

In case you would like to know, here is what a migraine feels like: it starts in my right temple, and the pain stretches from that temple down to my jaw - to such an extent that in the early days I used to think I had a toothache causing a headache, and to such an extent that even now in the midst of the experience I think that if I could just have my tooth taken out I'd be fine. This pain lasts for roughly ten minutes, then it spreads and increases into the migraine itself. That feels exactly - exactly - as if someone were shoving a red-hot wire up my nostril (left or right, it depends), while at the same time laying another red-hot wire against my brain. At a certain point I usually throw up, but not so much, it seems to me, from the pain as from a kind of bodily instinct that dictates that when you reach a certain level of physical stress you vomit. That is, I never feel nauseous: I just throw up. In almost the most extreme cases, the head pain is so bad that if I want to move
my head I have to lift it up with my hands - the very act of moving the muscles is agony (I always feel like the Elephant Man when I do that, which makes me think of the movie, and sometimes David Bowie [because he played the Elephant Man on Broadway: there he is doing so], and those distract me for a second). In the most extreme cases, I just don't move my head. I lie there and think I've never felt such pain before, and then I try to describe what it's like. Then I fall asleep.

Last night's headache, however, was not like that. First of all, it never left my right temple. Second of all, it wouldn't let me fall asleep. I think it was a good old-fashioned sinus headache, because my right nostril was stuffed up, and a right-temple headache seems likely to be connected. But, wow, did it hurt. It was like a cracked skull all night, and the problem was that I'd used up all my aspirin/ibuprofen during the day, in a vain attempt to ward off illness. So I kept falling vaguely asleep and waking clearly up, until finally I got up in the dark, yanked out the box I haven't yet unpacked but in which I saw the Nurofen Migraine, found the Nurofen Migraine, remembered with absolute vivid distinction (you are there!) the moment when in an act of what I realised in that darkened moment was moronic generosity I allowed a friend to scarf down an uneven number, leaving me with one, took the one, and staggered back to bed.

And it worked! Look at that, a happy ending. So when I woke up this morning I felt, well, like hell, but at least I had and have no headache. And I can now breathe through my nostrils, which is a huge plus.

I have other thoughts to write, but I prefer to wait until my head isn't spinning.

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17 September 2009

Illness A-Pending

I think I'm getting a cold. I hate getting colds. I hate having colds, but I hate getting colds because the harbinger is always a sore throat, and as much as I hate a runny nose, I hate sore throats much worse.

Today I received an e-mail from the Director of Studies of a college where I did some tutoring last term. Her college offers its students lectures in "study skills," and although she handled it last year, she then stepped down. She told me that she'd recommended me to take over right from the start: it involves lectures! it involves meeting students and doing what I call "snuggle work"! (which is when you soothe worried students, or gently guide those who aren't quite up to snuff) Alas, it has nothing to do with writing, but it sounds like fun, and she says it is. Plus, it sounds like a position of organisation and crisp power, and I love those. Suddenly, I had visions of myself striding personfully about in my calf-length boots and a stern pencil skirt, wearing tights and organising things (because, you will not be surprised to learn, all my visions of myself as a successful person involve quite detailed ideas of what I'll be wearing).

Of course, the second thing that I thought was, How much does it pay? Like...do they pay by the lecture? And if they do...could it be a lot? My FTT is a bit strapped at the moment: Could it be enough for me to help him out?

Not 30 seconds later came an e-mail from the Senior Tutor at this college, telling me he "understood I was still interested in teaching in our study skills programme," and asking to meet me to talk about it next week. Oh. That's a slightly different-sounding thing. Can I wear my calf-length boots and stern pencil skirt if I'm just teaching? And more to the point, will it pay as well? How will it pay at all? And how much time will it eat up? Especially since the lovely Director of Studies might have some writing work for me. If I get to run the study skills show, I'm happy to give up a lot of time, but if I'm just teaching, I want some time left to teach writing.

Like I have any right to get all picky about something completely hypothetical and hazy.

All of this is rendered even more amusing and ironic by the fact that I have the study skills of a gnat: I get through on obsession and fear. My study skills advice is, "Study frantically and worry A LOT." If I just say that, will they still pay me for the bunch of lectures?

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16 September 2009

Panic in the Aisles of Lakeland

This weekend I'm thinking of cooking something that requires a baking sheet, so this afternoon (while I was picking up my bike, having finally found the spare key) I went to Lakeland. Lakeland is a decidedly bourgeois purveyor of cooking equipment here, and like most decidedly bourgeois establishments it provides you with the near-knowledge that everything is overpriced, but because this is a university town it does carry some cheap items as well.

I should have known there would be trouble, since I went in at 5:15. I didn't know what time Lakeland closed - and given my propensities that's just as well - but since it was 5:15 and this one had an ominous emptiness, I don't know why I entered.

At this point you should know something important about me. I thought I'd mentioned it on here before, but I searched the blog and can't find anything, so forgive me if I repeat myself: I have a phobia about getting locked in stores. I should be absolutely clear, because this matters: I do not get scared when the store starts to close; I do not begin to be plagued by nervous imaginings when they start turning off the lights; I'm not worried that the shop will shut. My concern long pre-dates (or I guess pre-times) the shutting of the shop, and it begins quite a bit of time before the shutting does. If I am in a shop any time after about 15 minutes before closing, I am convinced, at an absolute and visceral level of certainty, that the shop will close with me in it, and I am petrified that I will then be shut in the shop. This means that I almost literally cannot enter a store that is about to shut. It also means that if I enter a store 15 minutes before it is about to close - or, in more extreme circumstances, if I enter as much as an hour beforehand and know that the shop will shut in an hour - I will feel nauseous, I will be panicked; and if I remain in the shop I will end up having a full-blown hysterical fit (this has only happened twice, but it's a sight to see).

(Incidentally, no one ever believes this when I tell them. I can only say, Come along and see me in a store that's about to close sometime.)

Anyway, I went into Lakeland, because it was still light out, and because I didn't know what time it was, and because there was another person there, albeit paying at the till. And no sooner was I two steps into the store than I became nauseous and terrified. Extremely so. And then I remembered a time a number of years ago when I was at the mall and I went into a store at 8 that was scheduled to close at 10. I was absolutely convinced that I was going to get locked in the store, and my level of panic and fear was precisely the same as if I'd entered at 9:55. I was under
a lot of stress that day, and today as I raced out of Lakeland (I did look for the baking sheet, but they didn't have one, and as I exited the staff were standing in the terrifying "serried ranks by the door to bid you good-bye" formation, so I hightailed it out with a chill in my bones) I realised that my fear must be connected to the residual stress from the phone/keys theft.

I bought a new phone, incidentally. It's a later version of my beloved now-ex-phone, and although not as good, it's nice. And it's probably better in terms of what it can do, and all those sorts of things.

ANYway (or, as I've learned to say in Spanish, BUEno), none of this is what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about dancing. As you know, I went out to the Mexican Independence Day party. Olé! And at the Mexican Independence Day party there was mucho baile (that's "a lot of dancing" for you Anglo-Saxon oppressors). Which was superfun, and you have to like a culture that embraces a song called "Culo." Or at least I have to. But as I danced (my culo off, figuratively speaking), I began to notice the way all the girls around me danced, and it gradually became slightly disturbing. Leaving aside the ones who plain old couldn't dance, every girl on the floor interpreted "dance" to mean "grind" - without exception, the most popular dance was a woman perched on a man's leg, smack up next to him, grinding pelvis to pelvis; second choice was butt - culo! - to pelvis. And even if they weren't against a man, the dancing was essentially grinding.

Now, don't get me wrong: I like a good grind as much as the next person. But it is merely one in a repertoire of dance gestures, for me. And thinking about it the next morning it struck me that all those girls must have learned "how to dance" from hip-hop videos, whereas when I was growing up almost no one danced in videos (they had things like stories, or people playing instruments, or stuff going on, or groups of questionably hairstyled men standing around in various stages of gloominess). Well, there was Madonna, or Palmer girls, but even they didn't do much dancing (and, okay, the Palmer girls showed their breasts. But it was tame stuff. Incidentally, Robert Palmer was almost the last of a breed: the soul performer for whom a suit or at least a tie was de rigeur. At the time it made no impression, but now I see how elegant he was). And Madonna, if you watch her dance, you can see that much of that dancing is simply for her own pleasure: it requires no other person to watch, let alone participate, to make it interesting or enjoyable. But these girls...There was no sense, for me, that they knew how to dance for their own delight, that they knew how to move their bodies for the pure pleasure of that moving. Did the women I grew up with gain something because we didn't have a kind of dancing dictated to us?

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that they weren't enjoying that dancing. Any kind of cultural trend eventually becomes performed disassociated from its original intent - which is a fancy way of saying, at a certain point we do things because they're the things that are done, or that we do - so I have no doubt that this dancing, as dancing in itself, was enjoyable for them. But I was saddened that, even though probably without knowing or understanding it, the kind of dancing that was giving these girls enjoyment was designed entirely to please others.

Although perhaps it doesn't make any difference: perhaps if they enjoy it, it doesn't matter if it's designed for men to enjoy.

I wonder sometimes, although not very often, what it would be like if we lived in a world where women cracked the whip and men did the jumping. Now, I know very very few heterosexual men - even those I know who like to dance tango, or who like to dance - who are good regular dancing dancers, so perhaps even if we lived in such a world heterosexual men would still not do much of the dancing (and yet homosexual men are generally excellent dancers, so it's clearly not gender-specific, and presumably in a female-dominated world men would be sexualised the way women and homosexuals are now). But what would it be like if they did? Rather more often, I think it would be a most worthwhile and salutary experience for most men if they spent 15 minutes in a world where gender roles were reversed: if they watched videos in which men writhed around, or if they were hooted and cat-called the way strippers are, or if (as I've discussed before) they were barraged with an endless stream of pictures and discussions about what men were hot, and why, and why that was absolutely fascinating.

Of course, these are feminist statements, and I also often think that it might be worth my while to stop and look at where my feminism has got me. If I had been less feminist, would I have stayed with my husband, and been happy? Well, if I were less feminist I would have been less focused on my own distractions and less inclined to give them legitimacy, so I wouldn't have cheated. Nor would I have, at an extreme, complained about his smoking, or been uncomfortable with how much he drank. So, yes, I would have stayed with him, and been happy after a fashion. But even if we had simply been mis-suited, and had broken up anyway, would I have been happier if I were less of a feminist? Well, I would have placed less value on developing myself and my interests, so I wouldn't have priced myself out of the market. And I would have been less inclined to feel I deserved better (since I would have had no notion of myself as someone who deserved anything at all), so I would probably have been satisfied with any one of my partners. And I wouldn't have been strong or independent, or proud of that strength or independence, and that certainly would have attracted more men. And, as a result of all of these, I wouldn't have been forging through my life alone. So, yes, on the whole I would have been happier and more contented if I hadn't been a feminist.

But...but...you will say if you are a certain kind of person (probably, specifically, a certain kind of woman)...I would have been terribly thwarted, and suppressed, and so I wouldn't have been happy. But, I will say in response, maybe not. Maybe, like those girls, I wouldn't have known I was being thwarted or suppressed, or thwarting or suppressing myself. I would have been unenlightened, but I would have been, a part of me whispers, happy.

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15 September 2009


Just back from the Mexican Independence Day party, which was terrific right up until the point where I discovered my phone and keys had vanished from my jacket pocket. Did someone steal them? The phone, maybe, but the keys are no good to anyone. So I have to go back to the club tomorrow and check. I love my phone, so I hope they have that, too. It's irritating, as I have a VERY limited amount of emergency money, and I don't really want to spend it on a new phone (I was saving it to buy Christmas presents).

Actually, I'm very upset.

Anyway, my friend M.O. and my FTT and his CG (charming girlfriend) were all there, and they very kindly walked home with me. It was nice, but it's funny the things that strike home when you're single. My FTT and his CG were play-arguing in Spanish, and when he was trying to get her to agree with him he'd say, "Pero no, amor, blah blah blah..." I don't want my FTT to call me "amor," and I don't begrudge him calling his girlfriend that, but it was a poignant reminder to me that no one calls me that. Not that anyone Anglo-Saxon is ever going to call me that anyway, of course. But to listen to someone call someone that as if it were her name, and so obviously with natural tenderness, is a small sorrow.

I know I've talked about this before, but I think this is the worst thing about being single: there is no sense that you're supported on a day-to-day basis. Friends support me, of course, but not in the same way. There's no one to sit on the bed and chat while you unbind your hair; there's no one to guess that you need your hand held even if you don't look like you do, and there's no one to do that hand-holding in a permanent way (anyone who held my hand would get up and go home at the end of it). And it's funny: Dr. Higher, with one exception, was not supportive, and Mr. Fallen, although potentially so, was not in my life enough to be so. Which means that one way and another I've been without a person to metaphorically call me "amor" for about ten years - the last 1.5, the six months before that, the five years with Dr. Higher, and the 2.5 years of singletude before that.

Anyway, I lost my phone, and my keys, and my tarjeta de universidad. But I had a great time dancing away, and earlier today I was thinking how lovely it is to have friends.

And that's okay.

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14 September 2009

El Woe

I'm a little worried about the absence of my VTTT. I know he hasn't put a full halt to our lessons, but I don't see them continuing any time in the near future, and here's the thing: I want to get better. I still have things to learn, and I think they're things that can be best learnt one-on-one, rather than in a class. I can't get my FTT to teach me one-on-one for an hour, because (a) he has a life that keeps him busy; (b) he's my friend; and (c) I can't seem to get him to comment on my dancing (although I also can't determine whether he likes it or not). So I think I need to strengthen my spine and talk to my VTTT about getting another TT (an LNTT [less nice tango teacher]). I'll wait another week or so, and then I'll explain it all to him. I have volcadas to learn, and barridos (or whatever they're called), and fancy boleos to feel comfortable with! Oh, VTTT: you have left me half-formed!

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The One We Won't Ever Mention

I've been doing some writing this weekend. And Friday night I wrote a chapter describing what it feels like to give a blow job (I hope it's needless to say that this was not academic writing, but given that I'm a Byronist, I suppose it just could have been). It will go later in the book, but because I'm having some difficulties getting the plot structure sorted out I thought I'd write it up now, then go back and work out the links. Well, it turns out that describing this particular experience is quite difficult: you'd think it would be pretty straightforward, but it isn't. While I wouldn't say I found myself with a newfound respect for pornographers, I will say that it suddenly became clear to me why all those descriptions of sex in books are soul-crushingly embarrassing: it's because in order to describe sexual acts in writing you have to be either hopelessly abstract and woolly, or worryingly clinical, or embarrassingly lyrical/metaphorical.

At the same time as it offered these literary challenges, this writing also offered me a most unusual experience. I think I talked once before on this blog about how quickly the memory of sex vanishes, so that after about a week you can remember that you had it, you can remember abstractly whether you liked it or not, and you can even remember in a non-re-creative way the feelings and sensations that you had - but you can't really remember viscerally and somally what those feelings felt like, or what the physicality of it felt like. Well, this turns out to be true of what you might call para-sexual acts, too. In short (although perhaps short is a word one might object to here), I found myself sitting at my desk wishing ardently that I could perform fellatio on someone, but without an ounce of sexuality behind the wish: I wanted to do it as an act of objective research. And I was really irritated that this wasn't something I could just ring someone up and ask to do. Yes, yes, cue many hilarious "Anytime you want to call me, I'm happy to help out with this" comments, but that was the irritating aspect: I was angry that I couldn't ring someone up and say, "I need to take some notes on what it feels like to perform fellatio: do you mind helping me with that?"

I feel safe in saying that this was the only time in my life that I was irritated for reasons of research that I couldn't perform a sexual act, and it was certainly the only time in my life that I forgot a sexual act was a sexual act, and simply considered it as an object of investigation.

Well, I can certainly say that my literary endeavours have offered me the opportunity to look at the world in new ways. Although, unlike Mr. Chater, I cannot say I have received satisfaction.

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11 September 2009

La Finita

You have to love a man who says to and of you, as he guides you into a tango step, "Belliiiiissima." Yes, you do.

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09 September 2009

King and Kings

Whenever I read a piece of writing that surprises me with its wit, I always feel an intense desire to kiss the writer and give him a hug. This happens all the time when I read Don Juan, and it's just happened now while reading Tristram Shandy. It's the delight induced by unexpected cleverness that prompts the feeling. It's just a pity that both Lord Byron and Laurence Sterne are dead.

But this has nothing to do with tonight's thoughts! Tonight's thoughts, in fact, have in a roundabout way to do with Percy Shelley, the least kissable of the younger Romantics - a man who, I suspect, never made a joke in his life. If you took a course with me, you would learn that Shelley is "the master formalist of the Romantic period." He really is. Even if you haven't taken a course with me, you may know him from "Ozymandias," a wonderful poem of brevity and power:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said, "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Reading the first two lines of this poem, you will instantly become aware that Shelley is the master formalist of the Romantic period because, clever reader that you are, you will notice that,
  • for one thing, he uses "trunkless" so that the stress falls on "trunk," while "less" remains so unstressed as to be nearly absent - thus, the word enacts itself (that is, it describes something that is missing half, and it itself is missing half); and,
  • for another thing, he encapsulates the irony of Ozymandias's situation - supposedly powerful, but now in fact irrelevant - by having those legs hang out there at the end of a line with great importance ("vast and trunkless"), only to reduce them in the next line ("Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" Yes? What about them? "Stand in the desert." Oh. That's it?); and,
  • for a final thing, he encapsulates the one of the poem's central themes, the ephemerality of permanence, by ending line 2 with "stone" and line 3 with "sand."
Percy Shelley: he's the master formalist of the Romantic period, you know.

Ozymandias (please note that it is pronounced OzyMANdias, not OzymanDIEass, as in Watchmen) is Ramses II, and people have been looking for the legs for decades. Here is quite a good candidate set. I show this picture to my students.

But I also like to show them this picture, because I love the reduction from sublime to cute that occurs when those legs become feet (feet are inherently charming, I think. Just say the word "feet." It's cute!)

When I teach Shelley (MFRP), and I do the little biographical sketch at the beginning, I explain to the students that Shelley seems always to have been most domestically happy when his household consisted of two women, one of whom he was sleeping with, and one of whom he was not. There is no good way of telling this to students, because if I say it the way I said it above, no one understands it, and if I say it the understandable way, it just sounds bad: "Shelley was happiest in triangular set-ups: when he was living with two women at once." Yeah, ouch. (Nonetheless, this does seem to have been true of Shelley. In fact [draw in your breath between your teeth to indicate awkwardness], it seems to me that the optimum paradigm was the woman he was currently involved with and her sister. I'm not really sure why this is. I've sometimes thought that it was because he himself had two older sisters, and so was most comfortable being petted by sisters, and I've sometimes thought it was because sisters can be seen as two parts of the same woman, because related, and so Shelley had his longed-for anima, just split in two.)

In any case, my response to this facet of Shelley has always been to think he was a bit of a weirdo. But then, brushing my teeth this morning, I suddenly realised that, with the exception of the "living with" part, the same is true of me. Consider my VTTT and my FTT! Consider that when I was in college I made up a triumvirate with M.V. and B.B.! Consider that I really really love hanging out with my FTT and S.A. at the same time!

Oh. Wait. Now I remember that I love hanging out with my FTT and S.A. separately, too. And I remember that the same was true of M.V. and B.B. But nonetheless, it is true that I like triads of two men and me (see how that just sounds horrible?). And I can't help but wonder, thinking about it here as I write it out, if that isn't because, really, I'm a little scared of men. I'm certainly a little scared of men I don't know, but then I'm scared of people I don't know (optimally, in any given social situation, I would like to hide behind someone tall and clutch on to the back of their jumper). I'm certainly a little scared of men in their 60s, but that's because men in their 60s find me weirdly attractive, and that freaks me out and scares me. And generally speaking I find it hard to talk to one person at a time unless we're very close friends - I'm always afraid that I won't be able to keep the conversation going and that the person will find me boring. But I do wonder if there's some way in which men in particular scare me. I wonder if it's because somewhere, quite far down inside, I'm worried that if I hang out alone with a man there will end up being some weird sexual vibe, and the next thing you know you end up in that awkward position where you're kissing someone you never meant to kiss (Because, if you stop and think about it, the slide into sex is always rather awkward. Not while you're doing it, but if you stop and think about how you get from "having a chat" to "naked with each other," it's difficult to see how that ever gets engineered smoothly. But we are off the topic...). Of course this never happens, and intellectually I know that, but what is thought emotionally is rarely conquered by what is known intellectually.

Then again, the truth is that no one of any emotional thing can really satisfy anybody. Most people, for example, seem to need several different families, and obviously they need several different friends. Perhaps Shelley just realised that one female companion wasn't going to fill all his needs - indeed, that one companion couldn't fill all of anyone's needs - and he found a sensible way to deal with it (or would have, if there hadn't also been all those other women he kept getting infatuated with and clinging to and writing poems about. Creep).

Hmm. Let us pass on. Did I mention that I had a fantastically good writing day today? Really quite marvellous. One of those rare days when the writing just flows out. None of it was academic writing but, interestingly, that just made me happier. God, I was so not meant to be an academic!

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Oh, Noooooo!

A Bad Thing has happened. In fact, it's such a Bad Thing that I think I have to say A BAD THING HAS HAPPENED.

My VTTT might not be able to teach me anymore. He has a new job, and it's taking lots of time. He can't see me this Thursday, and he isn't sure about next week, and in fact hedidn'tlooksureabouteveratall!

But I love my VTTT! I don't mean I looooove him; I mean I love him. He's like a cross between a dad and a really cool friend! And he's the reason I got as good as I am quickly. Without him, I might not get any good-er (not better, more good). Don't get me wrong: my FTT is, of course, F. But my VTTT does the same step with me ten times, and makes me understand it with my body, and gives me body-centred explanations. My FTT is like magic, and is a much more emotional and intuitive teacher. It's the combination of the two that works for me. Plus, my VTTT is just for me, for a whole hour, but my FTT has to spread himself around.

Plus, I like my VTTT. I mean, I just like being with him in the lessons. We get on well. He's a friend. And he's part of my weeks. And I was looking foooorward to him. And now, for the next little while at least, he won't be around. And I'll feel off-balance, dance-wise. I'll feel ungrounded.

Oh, poo.

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05 September 2009

Eden and Privacy

The thing about living in a college is that you can never be sure when you're being seen or overheard, and you have to assume that you are pretty much always being one or both.  This means that pretty much the only non-personal spaces in which you can safely have private conversations are the gardens: there, you can always see who's coming, and if you stand in the centre you can be reasonably sure you won't be overheard.  This means that as I walk around this campus I pass through several garden areas where I have had significant conversations.  An odd experience.

I just recently found out that, in fact, the likelihood of being overseen, at least, is larger than I imagined, because it turns out that there are CCTV cameras everywhere.  No wonder the porters know everything.  This means that the only really private place on campus is someone's room - although even then, if the person has a sharp-eared or determined hallmate, I'm not sure.

I must remember that if I'm going to do anything I don't want overseen I need to do it off campus.

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Are You Grieving?

From the window of my college's tiny gym, I can see the tree that last year developed bright yellow leaves in the autumn, then shed them.  I keep a special eye on it, because when the leaves turned yellow last year I kept thinking that I must photograph them, since I imagined they looked just like the "goldengrove" in Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring and Fall."  Of course, every day I would forget, and then one morning I got up and they'd all fallen off!  At that point I realised that I had, for what I then thought would be the only time in my life, seen goldengrove unleaving:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep, and know why.
Now, no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same;
Nor mouth had, no, nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It was the blight man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Remember to pronounce the name Mar-ga-ret to get the rhythm right.  This is not my favourite Hopkins poem, although it is the one I know by heart.  My favourite would have to be "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," a poem so depressing that I'm not going to quote it here, beyond its most beautiful phrase, "like dead letters sent to dearest him that lives alas away."  I told my students this summer that the theme of most Hopkins poems is, "Things are bad. And they're going to get worse," but looking out the gym window at the soon-to-be-Goldengrove tree, I think not of these sorrowful poems but rather of the one Hopkins poem that seems to me not to be so, "God's Grandeur."  I love this poem.  

The world is charged with the grandeur of God:
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.   Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,
And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil
And wears man's smudge, and shares man's smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West wind
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I don't believe in God most of the time, but in the spring I waver.  The world looks dead, and it comes back to life:  that always seems a miracle to me, and that seeming miraculousness brings a suspicion of God.  I often think of this poem in the spring, then. But I think of it even more in the autumn, when the sun glints off the yellow and pale and hectic red leaves in that peculiar keen light that seems unique to fall.  I come out of my house, or my building, in October, and I think, The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  And these days, for some reason I haven't quite worked out, I have been thinking repeatedly of the line "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."  Perhaps because, despite whatever odd setbacks there were this afternoon, I have been coming out of the trammels of Mr. Fallen and am amazed that this should be possible; perhaps because I have come to recognise that while I'll never be free of that unhappiness, happiness will grow over it, or from under it, or any way regardless of it.

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04 September 2009

Where Did That Come From?

 A strange afternoon.  It started out perfectly normal, with a highly enjoyable tea and catch-up with a friend.  Then I met my friend I. in town, and as we chatted the afternoon took a plunge - and I do mean a plunge.  Suddenly it was a grim conversation about the miseries of life, and the miseries of my life specifically.  And since up until it took this turn I hadn't been feeling that my life had any miseries, I was somewhat taken aback.

I'm not sure what brought it on.  I suspect it may be connected to the fact that I received a rejection letter for a job in this morning's post, and even though I figured I would get rejected, and even though I assumed the rejection was as the result of overqualification rather than underqualification, it's always frustrating and disappointing to get turned down.  Perhaps this bubbled under for five hours and then came out inopportunely.

Now, however, I'm sitting at my desk writing this, and there's a milonga in the clubroom of my college just across the courtyard.  I'll be going in a few minutes, but at this moment I'm looking out of the window into the clubroom, where I can see the people dancing.  I hear no music, of course, so it's like watching figures in a restaurant, or some sort of private ritual.  Not like spying at all, but like a scientific observation.  Nice, in a funny way.  That is, their pleasure, although I am at one remove from it, gives me pleasure, too.  Curious.

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Mermaids, Nymphs, and Lamiae

On Wednesday I went to London to see Arcadia for the second time, but before I saw it, I went to the exhibit of J.W. Waterhouse paintings at the Royal Academy.  This exhibit reminded
me how little I like seeing major exhibits (there are masses of attendees, and you're either squashed, or unable to see over people's heads, or both. I like to view art with lots of space, so I'm unhappy - on the other hand, it's quite like representations of 19th-century RA exhibitions, so I suppose I'm having le vrai experience).  I do, however, like Waterhouse very much, and I didn't know how crowded it was going to be before I went, so I was eager to go.

It was...interesting.  Yes, that sentence is never a whole-hearted endorsement, and it isn't one here, either. Waterhouse is a Pre-Raphaelite, but he seems to be a Pre-Raphaelite of a certain stripe:  where most of the others portray powerful women, or at least women who give the sense that they are powerful presences,

Waterhouse specialises in what I'd call supplicating maidens. Often they're not actually supplicating, but whether in positions of power, 

or caught in intra-painting actions, 

or actual supplication, 

they all appear somehow vulnerable - or sweet-faced in a way that suggest vulnerability. Needless to say, there are exceptions to this broad generalisation. 

But fewer than you might suppose.

One of the most curious things about Waterhouse, as you may have noticed from looking at the pictures above, is that gradually the women in all his paintings come to have the same face.  This is most disturbing in a painting like Hylas and the Nymphs, where all the women have the identical face,

but it's also disturbing via progressive accumulation.  No one knows who this woman is, and there is a suggestion that she's a product of Waterhouse's imagination.  The thing I noticed about her increasingly as I walked through the exhibition, though, is that she's not very interesting.  That doll-like face, with its great soft eyes, slightly over-indented straight nose, and strangely vacant pleading expression, is ultimately rather tedious:  there's no variation in mood or movement, and you get the feeling that there couldn't be, that this face is only capable of that single expression.  Since the expression is permanently and repeatedly that of a confused and not terribly intelligent or capable Barbie, and since it's also represented as resolutely non-sexy (which it need not be, supplication often being a sexually arousing attitude in women), I increasingly began to think, God, I hope this wasn't his ideal woman.  How off-putting!

Waterhouse's most famous painting is The Lady of Shalott, and that was in the exhibit.  

I've never cared for this picture, not least because she's dragged the whole tapestry into the boat with her, which is utterly out of keeping with the personality of both the Lady and the poem, so I didn't bother to spend much time on it.  I did spend some time on La Belle Dame Sans Merci (up at the top there), since I've written an article on it.  I was pleased to see that
her hair really is brown, and that the photographs I saw seem to have been true in detail and colour to the original representation. I also spent some time in front of Lamia, a painting I still find very clever because of the way he captures her change from snake to woman in her dress's progressive upward alteration from a pattern of scales to a simple rose colour - and, less effectively for me, in the discarded wrap that lies across her legs and the forest floor (incidentally, this very pretty Lycius is also repeated in other paintings, most obviously Hylas and the Nymphs, above - apparently Waterhouse had only one face for men, too).  Finally, I both spent a lot of time in front of and went back to The Mermaid, perhaps my favourite Waterhouse painting, for reasons I think you'll be able to guess:

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02 September 2009


Sex.  Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex.  Why is it so difficult to talk about?  Whether you want to do it, or have done it, or have done it but don't want to do it again, or have done it and do want to do it again, it's always an awkward subject to broach.  Part of it is timing, I suppose:  when, except for right afterward, is an appropriate time to say, "That was very enjoyable"? - this is scarcely a remark that can be made naturally or casually at the water cooler, say, or whilst getting a hot dog from a street vendor.  And when is it ever an appropriate time to say, "I don't want to do that again with you"?  Then, of course, there's the issue of one's own feelings.  Even if both parties appear to have enjoyed themselves, one risks a small chip of self in saying, "So, are we going to do this again?" And if one of the parties does not appear to have enjoyed her or himself, how much riskier to say, "Do you no longer wish to do this with me?"

It's the privacy and the intimacy of it, I suppose. We pretend these days that sex is an open topic, and some of us pretend that it's a thing among things.  And indeed, I think it can be.  But even when it's a thing among things, it seems something instinctual or very nearly so in us recognises that it's private - that is to say, something to be broached at particular times, and in particular places. And something recognises, more clearly, that it's an intimate act, no matter how casually we do it:  to have someone tell you you tie your shoes badly causes a momentary twinge, but to have someone tell you that they no longer wish to have sex with you causes much more.  Both acts are allegedly casual, but apparently one is less casual than the other.

Ah, sex.

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