Tag Archives: essays

#TheSexRadicals, Part 2: Paschal Beverly Randolph’s Anti-Slavery Sex Magick

28 Jul

Each week this summer, I’ll be posting short essays on sexual thinkers (read the introduction to the series here) who have changed my perspective on sex, and who, I believe, could be instrumental in helping us remake Western sexual culture. It will include some bits about my own life, some history, and some controversial claims. Last week was sexual freedom fighter and mystic, Ida Craddock.  The series also appears on RealitySandwich.com

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Paschal Beverly Randolph

Sex Is Liberation:  Paschal Beverley Randolph’s Divine Sexual Freedom

“…sex power is God power.”  

– Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825 – 1875)

If you want to understand why sexual freedom is so threatening to people and institutions in power, masturbation is a good place to start.

I’ll stick with the masturbation I’ve got decades of experience with: jerking off.  When a man masturbates, he closes his eyes and imagines sexual images.  Or he looks at representations of sex in porn, and alternates between seeing the porn and imagining himself as part of it, somehow.  While he’s interacting with what he’s imagining or watching, he also performs a single repetitive gesture: he moves his hand up and down his penis. The act of touching your own penis can be pleasurable in and of itself, but combine the physical and the imaginary for just a few moments and something more intense and mysterious happens. The images feel real, they feel present. They are real.  The body starts to do all sorts of things.  The brain releases endorphins.  A flush of pleasure rushes up and down the body.  After a just a few minutes, half the substance that creates life comes out.

The same is true for sex, but the imagination and action seeks out different contours: One body touches another body.  Here you feel your partner’s ankle touching yours, you feel yourself enveloping your partner, you close your eyes and feel a breath on your ear.  Your attention and awareness moves from spot to spot.  And the thoughts focus on affection, attention, the image of yourself and your partner as if you were floating above and watching.MIAPC

Sex isn’t ever merely physical and it’s certainly not a primal, instinctual mess; it’s a thinking-feeling-movement-activity.  It’s a waking dream, or a state of hyper-awake-ness.

This is why so many sex radicals are also occultists; sex is about consciousness, and however you might think of the occult, it’s undeniable that sex — from the first flush of arousal to the reeling afterimage of entanglement — is an altered state.  Crusaders for the legalization of drugs often call the government’s war on drugs a “war on consciousness.”  If we want to alter our own consciousness, they say, then we should have the right to. Let’s take a tip from this insightful rhetoric and go a little further when it comes to sex:

The war on sex is the oldest and most oppressive war on consciousness.

Sex and sexuality are intimately, totally, linked to our freedom of thought and expression.

That’s why so many repressive regimes are sex negative, jail sex workers and sexual minorities (especially homosexuals), and monitor sexual behavior.  It’s also why, if we want to change the world in a radical way, it’s important to look to sex for some answers. 

There’s radical about the notion that sex is a singular activity, special and dangerous.  That’s an ideal used by anti-sex activists and puritans who say that sex will corrupt the innocent, erode society, dement the clear and thoughtful. 

Paschal Beverly Randolph’s (1825-1875), powerful contribution was to redeem this notion and elevate it. Sex is, indeed, powerful.  But that’s precisely why it’s good for us to have it, experience it, and radiate our being out of it.  Sex accompanies us through life.  It’s not going away.  It awaits our understanding.

Randolph was charismatic, and from the one photo I’ve seen of him, he’s handsome; not a bad fellow to want to experience the power of sex with.  His parents were a wealthy Virginian and a slave from Madagascar.  He was friends with Abraham Lincoln and is rumored to be the only man of mixed race in Lincoln’s funeral procession (the records are inconclusive).  He taught slaves how to read and was a famed anti-slavery activist in his time.  He was also a prolific author, and helped people work through their perceived sexual dysfunctions. 

When he was in his twenties, the world was awash with spiritualism and religious reform.  Not long before Ida Craddock was defending the belly dancers and women’s right to bodily autonomy, Randolph claimed to channel echoes of mystics from the past:  Zoroaster, Pascal, and more.  His spiritual radicalism fueled his ideals.  As he became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement, he was guided by knowledge he said had been handed to him by Egyptian miracle workers and Indian Brahmins.  Social change would take tremendous power — real magick — and figuring prominently, in his over a dozen books on the subject, was sex.

Whereas for Craddock, sex was a path to liberation, Randolph’s major contribution was this:

Sex is liberation.

Eulis! The History of Love: Its Wondrous Magic ,Chemistry, Rules, Laws, Modes, Moods and Rationale by Paschal Beverly Randolph

Eulis! The History of Love: Its Wondrous Magic ,Chemistry, Rules, Laws, Modes, Moods and Rationale
by Paschal Beverly Randolph

The power of sex, he wrote, is the deepest and truest power, above politics and brute physical force.  It’s a bolt of occult strength, a branch of God.  Randolph theorized human beings to have a sort of electric-energetic power, putting two human beings together properly would create a complete circuit, which could unleash all sorts of positive effects.  The moment of orgasm, an altered state of consciousness for both partners, was a moment of rising into the Divine, and then returning with extraordinary results.  Sex could be tapped into to rejuvenate your skin, become a kinder person, sway your spouse, resist disease, become smarter, make money appear, and more. It could counteract and destroy oppressive circumstances, be they from marital, political, or actual enslavement.

Having sex was a prayer that could be answered with power, and it was a power that everyone had access to.

Well, not everyone, exactly.  And he didn’t mean just any sex.  It had to be sex between a man and an equal or “superior woman”, coupled with a ritualistic prayer at the moment of orgasm.  It had to be a “double crisis” that shook up the reality around both (heterosexual) participants.

Randolph was limited in his scope, but there was a shockwave within those limits.

This  investigation into and respect for sexual power utterly changed him and his many devotees.  Because sex was to be used to understand and improve the self, Randolph was an early defender of birth control, women’s rights, and one of the first people to champion the virtues of intense sexual lust.

“Sex power is god power,”  Randolph wrote.  Or, to put it in the words of sociologist Murray Davis, “Sex…is a reality-generating activity.”

Whatever you may think of God or the occult, Randolph’s message is still important and radical.  He told us that everyone had a right to pleasure and happiness and that our bodies’ ability to create pleasure out of themselves was proof of this.  Furthermore, we don’t need the State or corporations to provide us with pleasure or to sell the world of happiness to us. That is inherent in our bodies and our interactions with each other.  And to see this necessitates more bodily freedom for ourselves and others.

When we move beyond the garden variety notion that sex is powerful, to the much more radical understanding that sex is power available to everyone, we see the world differently.  Instead of slaves and masters, Randolph showed us a regenerated reality, where we are all living, breathing power centers, waiting to discover ourselves.

*

Next up:  The Man Who Destroyed Clouds with Sex

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Sources:

Deveney, John P.  Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American  Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex    MagicianAlbany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Urban, Hugh. Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western EsotericismBerkeley: University of California     Press, 2006.

When Proof Is Heaven: Why Near-Death Experiencers and Their Critics Keep Getting Science Wrong

3 Feb
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Eben Alexander

Two years ago, I published an essay on the problems with both near-death experiences (NDE) and the criticisms of it.  I used the book Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (who recently penned a new book with all the same pitfalls, The Map of Heaven) as emblematic of these problems.  The problems with NDE and its critics are themselves emblematic – of problems with science and proof in general.  As I move into writing more and more about science and culture, I thought I’d republish the essay (in slightly modified/update form) here as a good touchstone for some of my thoughts.  For another exploration of this topic, see my conversation with Skeptiko host and science skeptic, Alex Tsakiris, posted late last year.

***

Is Proof Heaven?

The story is one you’ve heard before: a man slips into a coma and nearly dies.  While his body fails, he somehow experiences lights, colors, and landscapes, all while disconnected from his body.  Messages are imparted, deep feelings are felt, and then the man is sucked back into the material world.  His whole perspective has changed, and he’s ready to talk about it. 

The difference in the bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, is that the author and experiencer, Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon.  Alexander’s near-death experience (NDE) was triggered by a rare form of E. Coli infection/meningitis — but the real weight of the book rests on his education and experiences as a doctor, which are meant to give him a more informed perspective on the whole ordeal, which featured women floating on butterfly wings, clouds, psychic intervention, and more.  His credentials are meant to serve as a bridge between these fantastic features and their facticity. After all, Alexander and his supporters ask, who could be better qualified to talk about an NDE than a practicing neurosurgeon?  To this end, Alexander counters many of the standard arguments against the reality of NDE content, using his understanding of the brain to skewer them one by one.

Neither his credentials nor his account prove Heaven, however.  Instead, the book and its subsequent critical fall-out point to deep cultural concerns, less about Heaven and more about proof.

A cursory look at online and print reviews of the book reveal what you might expect: depending on whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, Alexander’s credentials mean that he does know better than most about brain states and can trust his experiences, or that he should know better and distrust them.  I share some of his critics’ concerns, if not their vitriolic and dismissive feelings.

The ad hominem attacks constitute the lowest form of critique regarding Alexander.  That doesn’t mean they’re not worth a look, and anyone interested in Alexander’s case specifically, rather than NDEs in general should take them into account.  As the recent revelation by The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven co-author Alex Malarkey shows, some people just flat-out lie about having an NDE to make money.  But even if Alexander is a hoaxster (he’s probably not), the NDE experience is so widespread that unless you’re interested in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to the phenomenon, it’s not going to take you very far.

As for more scientific concerns, Alexander includes an appendix in the book which addresses common scientific questions when it comes to NDEs.  But questions remain.  Unanswered questions for me, which I have not yet seen raised by others, include ones about possible psychotropic substances in the E. Coli bacteria themselves, as well as the possible involvement of Acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme whose activity is studied in schizophrenic patients, and whose function is amplified by other types of meningitis.  Another question — and it’s a big one — comes from more than one of Alexander’s critics (though most vocally from famed atheist Sam Harris), who wonder if Alexander’s cerebral cortex was actually shut down.  Alexander asserts again and again that it was; his critics say it wasn’t.

If it was shut down, then Alexander believes he has the right to claim the D of NDE, because according to mainstream medical models, human beings must have brain function to live.  This won’t ever work for skeptics, because they’ve created an un-winnable and nearly tautological argument that goes like this: a shut-down cerebral cortex equals death.  How do we know Alexander’s cerebral cortex wasn’t shut down?  Because he didn’t die.  Finality serves as the marker of death for many skeptics, so there was no “after” in Alexander’s afterlife: he merely entered into a weird sort of hypnogagia.

Such questions of science and definition, however tedious answering them may seem, are demanded by Alexander’s title, which claims “proof.”  His entire account of his NDE is aimed at communicating to others that the afterlife is real, that it is composed of beings who love and care about us.  It’s a vividly written account to match the lucidity of Alexander’s NDE state, and through it, he reasons that since when he nearly died he saw a beautiful woman on a floating butterfly wing who said he could do no wrong in life, that everyone will encounter a similar experience when they die.  In other words, he tries to create a general scientific principle out of his observation.

We’re bound to bang our heads against the wall if we follow the path that Alexander or his critics have laid out for us.  The lines are drawn and no one is going to switch sides, not only because Alexander hasn’t proved anything, but because the whole enterprise of foregrounding “proof” is misguided.  Not only when exploring NDEs, but also in use of certain kinds of medicine, parapsychological phenomenon, and more.  When it comes to non-materialistic and/or individualized phenomena, seeking proof above all else blinds us to the extraordinary and profound nature of subjectivity.

There may be overlapping (though not universal) themes — in NDEs, for example, “walk toward the light” and “everything is love” —  in all non-materialistic phenomena, but they always intersect with and are informed by the unique matrix of the individual’s personality and social circumstances.  One person may see a ghost, whereas another person in the same room may see nothing.  Acupuncture may heal one person’s back pain and leave another’s unhealed.  For the latter example, skeptics might be happy to cart out placebo, but they don’t have any real understanding of how placebo works, and it, too, affects different individuals differently. 

Not only are the experiences individualized, but many of them exist within mind states (i.e., the content and contours of our thinking and feeling world, as opposed to physical brain states).  Alexander can tell us all about the clouds and colors of the afterlife, but he can’t make us see them, because they intersected with his mind alone.

In other words, for certain experiences, reproducibility (and by extension, falsifiability), a bedrock of materialistic science, seems to go out the window.

The subjective, the individual, the irreproducible, are anathema to the skeptic’s (though not all scientists’) version of science.  Subjectivity and anecdotes generally cloud our judgement of the truth, skeptics say.  In his rebuke of the book, Amitai Shenhav advocates the values of distance and objectivity.  We must, he explains, remove ourselves from our experiences to really understand them, which would be impossible for Alexander, who experienced an intense euphoria during his NDE.  Setting aside the good feelings that researchers like Shenhav feel when they believe they’ve sufficiently distanced themselves from feeling, there’s another weird paradox here.

In the materialistic demand to somehow untangle ourselves from the world completely in order to understand it, we’re asked to borrow a popular theological narrative.  

First, researchers are meant to believe there’s a way to create an experiment and not intervene or interact with it, and that they’re meant to do everything they can to preserve this principle. 

Second, they should believe that thoughts, feelings, and impressions have nothing to do with the reality they’ve set up inside the experiment and that there are laws (controls, etc.) that they’ve also created that actually prohibit them from interfering with whatever takes place inside the experiment world.  This is remarkably similar to the deist or TV-addicted version of God — an old man on a distant cloud with a billion billion TVs.  He set the show in motion so he could watch, pretending things happen independent of him.

For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God.  It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.

Of course, it’s impossible to be objective.  First, there’s a long and rich history of  the very concept of objectivity and its evolution.  This is constantly ignored by skeptics like Harris in favor of pretending objectivity has a fixed definition without history or context.  Second, in the course of its conceptual development, we were warned against the dangers of our current form of objectivity (one that was supposed to be divorced from experience).

goethe

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe 1749-1832

Philosophers and scientists like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Rudolf Steiner, David Bohm, and many others reminded us: because all our scientific knowledge comes from thinking and feeling, there’s no way to truly filter it out.  Objectivity is a subjectively chosen gesture in someone’s thinking.  More to the point, we shouldn’t seek (at least not always) to filter it out.  Rather, if we seek to include it in our scientific understanding, we amplify the dialogue the “outer” sense world has with our “inner” thought world.  We learn more deeply about the world this way, we don’t swap out one TV-watching God with another.

We don’t and shouldn’t fall for the lazy new age trap of explaining such pitfalls of science in much-babbled about but rarely understood terms of quantum entanglement, changing photons, waves vs particles, and so forth.  Using specialized and complex physics to explain away critiques we don’t like or to wistfully fill in the gaps in our understanding is a fool’s game. What we need instead is to consider the inclusion of the subjective thought world in our scientific perspective; it’s a task taken up by some prominent and respected scientists, but not the majority. For now, the inner world, mind states, and subjective experience are generally dismissed as valueless (or worse) in experiments.  Increasingly, they’re dismissed even as objects of study; we have cognitive science and neuroscience, but not thought science or imagination science.

We see just how mapless mind state territories are when Alexander struggles with descriptions of his NDE, constantly expressing how difficult it is to convey them.  While some critics are cynical about this aspect of the book, I’m sympathetic.  Alexander is trying to explain, using sense-bound detail, things he experienced without the aid of his senses.  When someone says he/she “saw” something while unconscious, with what eyes?  And heard with what ears?  These experiences are not conjured up by sense organs and so elude the entire enterprise of empiricism, which is based on sensory input.  And it isn’t just empiricism but most of our descriptive language that’s based on sense metaphors.  So trying to describe non-sensual experiences with that language must be extremely frustrating.  This is also why Alexander resorts to the truth of what he experienced.  Truth is an inner quality, not determined by empirical fact (facticity, even according to materialists, often changes under scientific scrutiny), and so employing words like truth feels, well, more truthful. 

A science more like Goethe’s or Bohm’s (and less like Alexander’s or Harris’s), i.e., a science that asks us to think about our thinking while we observe, would help create better language for moments like this.  There’s always a tension between individual  experience (subjectivity) and being able to convey things in shared language (via objectivity and proof), but we need to balance the scales better.  If we include subjectivity in our scientific processes, we do just that.  Then the kind of approach popular skepticism supports becomes an option or an aspect of our scientific approach, not the only approach that thou shalt not have any other approaches before.  That way, we can (rightfully) criticize Alexander on his deceptive claim to proof with questions like the ones I and Harris pose above, but we can also marvel at the account.

We can ask: Why did Alexander encounter these particular images?  What do they mean to us as well as to him?  What is this feeling of truth he keeps referring to?  How is it different than what is “real”?  What makes his experiences distinct from other NDEs in content?  What does it mean that human beings encounter these strange mind states when they have NDEs?

Questions like these allow us to meet Alexander as well as ourselves as human beings, and as deeply mysterious.  They allow us to encounter NDEs and other non-materialistic phenomena as having meaningful content, because they relate to subjective concerns without dismissing subjectivity.  Even if Alexander’s experience were caused by brain trauma (and I’m not convinced one way or the other), these questions would still be important because it wouldn’t be the material/external “proof” alone that mattered, because we would recognize content and form of experience as equal in value to proof. There are contours to our inner world, but if we dismiss their value, we will never understand them.      

Alexander invites dismissal by claiming “proof” the way that he does.  If I’ve been a little hard on Alexander, I understand, also, that he’s not entirely to blame in his need to display his proof.  We live in a culture awash with proof, constantly telling us that to understand truth, we must ignore or exile the existence of free will, thought, and human-ness.  But for all the good feelings of Alexander’s NDE, for all the wisdom and love it imparted, he still seeks to abandon the truth of his inner experience for the dramatic outline of proof, and so makes them oppositional.  They don’t have to be opposed, merely balanced.  It’s not that we can’t approach mind states with science, it’s just that our current version of science has not yet made itself worthy of the task.

Treatment As Metaphor: What Happened When Susan Sontag, My Mom, and I Were Diagnosed with Cancer

22 Jan
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My mom and I on my 22nd birthday. She died a little over two years later.

My essay“When You’re Sick You’ll Wait for the Answer but None Will Come,” was the cover article of a recent issue of The Stranger.

In 2007, a doctor told me I had lymphoma.  Looming over this diagnosis was my mother’s slow death of bone cancer in 2001.  My literary hero, Susan Sontag wrote about cancer and our attitudes about it so convincingly; but I found that when I was confronted with fear for my health and life, her thoughts on illness weren’t complete.  What about our attitudes about treatment?  I’ve been mulling over this essay for year, and am happy to have written (exorcised?) it and to have it finally out.

Read the entire thing here, read some excerpts below, and feel free to share your experiences in the comments.  Thank you.

***

I was on a hospital gurney in a hallway, and I’d been there, confused, for hours. I was wheeled out there after a CT scan on my abdomen.

Am I okay, I’d asked the CT technician. She looked down at the floor.

“You’re going to die,” she said.

And then, animated, “Just kidding! The doctor will see you in the hall.”

She patted me on the shoulder. That’s the kind of person she was.

I was there after being assaulted by my boyfriend; it was the first and only time he’d hit me, and I promised myself I’d never see him again. I didn’t have a job, I’d just finished grad school, and now my rib was broken and I had internal bleeding and bruised intestines that would scar up. I wasn’t sure what was next for me. The CT scan was for my liver and spleen to make sure they hadn’t split open.

My spleen was fine; my liver was fine.

“Your spleen is fine; your liver is fine,” the doctor said. I was in the kind of pain that’s not just dull or sharp but also frightening.

“The suspicion is that you have lymphoma.”

I’d talked to this doctor hours ago, when I checked in for my injuries. We talked about police reports, and he checked my breathing.

What? I asked.

“Your lymph nodes are irregularly large; you’ll have to get another CT scan. The suspicion is lymphoma,” he said again. Suspicion. Was that a diagnosis?

A smiling nurse appeared next to us. “At least you caught it early!” she said. “Think about it! The assault saved your life!”

***

Death comes, and when it does, it sounds like a creaking door. I know this because when my mom was finished with cancer, a noise uttered its way past her teeth. Like something being crushed slowly, but there was no burst or relief at the end. She died on a bed in our house. She’d spent a lot of time before that moment disappearing. No more fat or muscle on her, no more talking; she was like a piece of paper with bones in it. Each breath was a disjointed heave and hiss, and then it stopped.

I was 24; she was 56.

None of this will tell you enough about her, nothing could, but I’ll try:

My mom would tug at my sister’s hair or pinch me when we misbehaved, because she was a big sister to us. Her mother died giving birth to what would have been my mom’s first younger sibling. My mom corralled and held us against harm. She wouldn’t let us watch violent movies. She wrote a short story about a woman who slit her wrists in a library and everyone walked by quietly, trying not to notice. She read a lot. She gave classes for women at Barnes & Noble. She told me that as a little girl, she had a dream about looking out her open bedroom window as nickels rained in from the sky until the entire room was full. Sometimes she’d make me or my sister or anyone laugh so hard that we couldn’t breathe. She had a John James Audubon bird book that she’d pull off the shelf and page through with me: the colors and the brushstrokes and the scenes of struggle and beauty.

They’d told us she had cancer, bone cancer. First it was breast cancer, and then it was bone cancer. Ten years ago, they amputated her fleshy left breast. She said that on surgery day, she put a sticky note on her breast that read “Good-bye.” Treatment came to a temporary halt in a curved line of black stitches across her ribs. That should be enough, but no! A breast wasn’t enough for them. Not the cells, not the doctors. Ten years later, there was a tumor on her sternum, and then her leg. Then she was in pain. Constant pain. From diagnosis to death, it was a little more than two years.

***

Treatment” is a word made up of different words.

“Treat” is from the French traiter, derived from the Latin tractare. To handle, deal with, conduct oneself toward, tug, drag about.

“Ment” is a magical suffix that turns actions into things. To add “ment” to the end of a word is to draw it into the world.

That means treatment may be “the state of conducting oneself toward something.” That’s as gentle as a quiet, correct step.

It also means that treatment may be “the state of being dragged about, the state of being pulled violently.”

When we’re sick, or when we think we’re sick, we seek treatment. Since we all get sick sooner or later, treatment is a part of being human. It’s not separate from our lives, it’s not a feature of certain people’s experiences, it’s not optional.

EPSON scanner image

Susan Sontag

Writer and intellectual Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, wrote of this obligation to be sick in our lives. And she also wrote that to decorate our illness with metaphors and melodramas was to make matters worse. “Illness is not a metaphor,” she wrote. “The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

She was diagnosed with cancer on three different occasions. First, breast cancer in 1975. She responded to it with Illness as Metaphor, a radical mastectomy, and chemotherapy, which she opted for over a “modified radical” mastectomy, which was a less invasive treatment. She viewed cancer as a growth, so radical treatment was necessary to getting to its root (radicalis from the Latin radix or “root”). An extremity of uprooting. When a friend came to her with a cancer diagnosis and fears about the pains of treatment, she told him that when he was in such terrible pain that he may have to stop, that’s when he should take another treatment. Then another. She was expressing sympathy by encouraging defiance. I wonder why she didn’t notice that her approach to treatment echoed perfectly her approach to living, and so was alive with metaphor.

Radical in her heart, radical just above it.

***

Looking up treatment was a treatment itself. Perhaps I could calm down if there were cures.

Night sweats, itchy skin, fever, abdominal pain, cough, fatigue, weight loss, rashes, back pain. None of these are disease-specific. I found myself suddenly scratching my legs more and waking up in the middle of the night. I found myself exhausted. Was it lymphoma or just “normal” or had I been hexed?

“You should calm down,” one friend said.

“You should rest before you drive across the country,” said another.

I didn’t go back to the doctor. I wanted to escape everything, and I had to make sure I would never interact with my boyfriend again.

I put my things in my car and drove across the country alone, from Amherst to San Francisco, wondering if my back pain was from sitting or impending death. In one of those states in the middle, the ones that are so beautiful that they blend together and make you forget their names, I stopped my car and watched pronghorn antelope grazing. I’d never seen antelope before. The only sound was the wind, which rushed up fast like the grass was exhaling. Then I remembered: lymphoma. I wondered if the states were being granted to me, one by one, showing up to say good-bye or calm me down. I’d felt my lymph nodes in my neck every day. I still catch myself feeling them. I wonder how my hands got up to my throat, searching for something.

There was a feeling of spinning.

***

A question that is bound up in illness for us: Who’s to blame? If the person who chooses to pray as treatment dies of cancer, is it their fault? If so, isn’t the same true for someone who chooses chemotherapy for cancer and dies of cancer?

People will be quick to tell you that some attitudes toward health are “dangerous.” This is true. They’re all dangerous.

…But what if we eat raw food? What if we drink enough water, if we take vitamins, if we sleep well, if we exercise, if we meditate, if we go on “retreats,” if we take psychedelic plants, if we get massages, if we become vegetarians, if we eat more organ meats, if we force ourselves to laugh, if we take morning walks?

We try to avoid illness and treatment, and in avoiding it create a constant state of illness and treatment.

Porn-ing Your Way through College 101: A Syllabus

3 Oct

Porn-ing Your Way Through College 101

Syllabus

Instructor: Conner Habib

blackboardCourse Description

Every year, hundreds of thousands of barely legal teens are coerced by people more powerful than them, as well as societal pressure, to make the life-altering, no-going-back, always-on-your-permanent-record decision to go to college.

There are serious consequences for this, including discrimination based on your performance, not being able to find a job after college ends, and having to disclose to your partners and lovers what your major is.

Nevertheless, here you are, in a financially and sexually exploitative environment with no foreseeable way out.

Never fear!  Pornography is here to help.  Porn-ing Your Way Through College will help navigate the ins and outs of pornography, how to enhance your pornographic experience by being in college, and how to pay your way through porn by being in college.

Course Goals

Porn will help you develop valuable skills for navigating the difficult world of college and beyond.  These include:

Understanding your sexual boundaries.

Sex is constantly present and potentially dangerous in any college environment.  Being in porn will help you develop your boundaries by providing a safe space to experiment with your sexual preferences, constitution, and comfortability.  The general rule on porn sets is that performers have a right to say no at any time to any sexual act.  Developing this detailed understanding of what boundaries are absolute, and which of your own boundaries you’re interested in pushing, will make sex and the possibility of sexual interaction more pleasant for you off set.  Porn will help you understand not just how to say “no” when you don’t want to engage sexually, but also how to say “yes” when you do.

Understanding Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

Most porn studios have some STI protocol in place.  This means you’ll be engaging with some combination of basic STI education (including how STIs are transmitted and how to prevent and be aware of transmission), STI testing, and condom or other barrier use. You’ll also learn how to be more aware of your body and sexual health, since your livelihood will depend on it.  This will give you important information in your four years of college, as well as potentially transform you into a valuable health resource for your friendly but reckless peers.

Understanding How To Choose What You Want.

Choosing to be in porn is like choosing to be art history major: It’s widely discouraged by our culture.  Yet many people find porn and a career in other humanities rewarding and fulfilling.  By deciding to be in porn, you’ll be casting away social pressure by deciding your desire and integrity is more important than what our culture says you “should” do.  This makes you an ideal role model for incoming freshman who would otherwise throw their lives away traveling a path and choosing a major that’s expected from them.

Understanding How To Create Intimacy.

In porn, you’ll be expected to perform sexual acts with people you may not find immediately attractive.  While some people may deem such sexual acts “mechanical,”  you’ll find, instead, that they can be fun, athletic, and create a sense of healthy detachment.  One of the reasons sex workers are sometimes hired as hospice caregivers in other countries is because they don’t fear the touch of or touching a body that they may not feel drawn to.  The detachment that being in porn can help develop the ability to create intimacy rather than to expect it.  This will make you a better listener, communicator, and less apt to make kneejerk decisions with strangers, professors, or administrators.

classGrades

Whether you pass or fail in Porn-ing Your Way Through College will be assessed by a few factors. 

These include:

Integration of Porn into Your Present and Future Life. 

Let’s face it: Your friends, family, and coworkers, as well as your future employers will probably find out that you’ve appeared in adult scenes.  Make sure you’re ready for that.  Be able to approach them without apology (ie “I’m just working my way through college!”) or resentment (ie. “Yeah I’m in porn, fuck you, so what?!”).  Being able to calmly own your choices and sexuality presents a strong statement to other people and culture, and is more respectable than trying to hide your porn career, which is mostly impossible.

Managing the Rest of Your Affairs.

The down-to-earth nature of performing filmed sexual acts for money may make college, with its emphasis on theories, obedience, and beauracracy seem ungrounded and arbitrarily demanding. Make sure you keep your affairs in order, though.  Even though the academia is unreasonable and demeaning, it’s important that you stay the course and attend to your responsibilities.  It’s also important to keep your financial situation in order by keeping track of your taxes (ask your accounting professor for help!) and saving some money in the event that you’re unable to appear in porn during busy times like finals week.

Responsibility to Promoting Sex-Positivity and Other Sex Workers.

Now that you’re in porn, you’re in the public eye, people are going to have expectations of you, and be looking to you for guidance when it comes to the confusing and culturally fucked up world of sex.  People will appropriately or inappropriately bring up sexual topics and express their curiosities prejudices about what you and other sex workers do.  Everyone should have the right to express themselves sexually provided consent is present for all parties, sex work is work, and you should hold your head high for yourself and others. Make sure you’re able to patiently hear questions about your sex worker peers, including other porn performers, escorts, strippers, online sex cammers and amateurs, and to answer with compassion.

Don’t worry about being perfect, just do what you can!

Join an organization like the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC) or lend a helping hand at St. James Infirmary to interact with and support your peers.  Meet with your on-campus LGBT or sex positive student groups.

textbooksRecommended Reading

Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant

My Dangerous Desires by Amber Hollibaugh

Porn Studies edited by Linda Williams

***

With thanks to Christopher Frizzelle, Bravo Delta, and Belle Knox for the inspiration.

Guys I Wanted To Fuck In High School, Part 4. (Senior Year)

19 May

soccershirt

 

Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School is a series of short essays about growing up  frustrated in small-town Pennsylvania.  (This is the last entry in the series, and will be followed up later this year with a series of limited edition print chapbooks, each with a different cover by a different artist.)

Senior year is the year time gets all fucked up and also the year I fall in love and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

See because at the end of this year, summer won’t be summer anymore, it won’t be a break between school and school, like the place you go after you die but before you’re kicked back into life.  It won’t be a way station, it’ll just be hot and hotter and then collapse into red leaves and puffs of breath you can see and everyone will say, hey, it’s Autumn now.

And morning won’t be morning, no rushing to get ready, to hurry through the park, across the bridge, up the hill to the school, where the kids congregate and tease each other and tease me and hide their cigarettes till the doors open and swallow us all up.  I’ve known most of those kids since I was four or five, and they’ll all be gone and morning will just be the time when I wake up.

And I won’t be me, I’ll be this person with a mark, an empty little square of loss inside of me that never gets filled in.  That’s love.  Everything will change.

Which is how I know that almost everything I thought was real is arbitrary.  I figured out some of this early on – like why do we have to raise our hands to go to the bathroom?  What’s a “grade” and why should I care? Why do we have to raise our hand to ask a question?  Or sharpen our pencils?  When you see through all that haze and there’s nothing behind it, the teachers don’t like you much.  But now I’m starting to see that even more of it makes no sense, it’s all like a tight coil, unraveling.  You know, like how you twist up a straw wrapper and then let a drop of water fall onto it?  That’s what this year is like, what the right questions are like, what love is like.  A knot turning into a snake, slowly coming to life.

*

His name is Thom and he spells it it with the h and he’s new.  He has a vaguely Canadian accent, like he transferred here from a high school on a Nickelodeon show.

In the cafeteria, a few weeks into the year, he’s standing there lost and unfamiliar to everyone, with his pale blue lunch tray.  There’s an empty seat at out table, where I sit with Becky and Gwen and some boys, and I wave him over.

He’s taller than anyone else at the school, I swear – six two? six three? – so it seems like it takes longer for him to sit down, to bring his body into the seat.  When he gets there, I really see him.  He has brown hair and plain, unintentional clothes.  His face is sort of…sad?  Like he’s a little tired.  Sad and handsome.  And you know? I’m not excited about him right away.  I think he’s handsome, but it’s not love at first sight.  It takes a few minutes.

He looks at my lunch – I’m mostly vegetarian so I don’t eat much except the Tasty Klair pies, which are like eclairs but made out of pie crust.  I bite off the ends and shove Cheetos in the custard.  I drink ice tea from a carton.

We don’t eat anything that has a face, Gwen says to him.  Except chickens, because they’re ugly.

What year are you, I ask.

Senior, he says.

But you’re not in any of my classes.

That’s because I’m in with the dumb kids, he says.

You’re not dumb, I say.  Or at least, you’re different.  I can tell.

How? he asks.

There’s just something about you, I say.

Thanks, he says, and then touches my shoulder, just for a second.  His eyes are green or blue; lake-like.   He smiles, and he has a smile that makes me smile too.  And that’s when I fall in in love.  Not quite first sight, but only a little late.

*

I walk Gwen home that day – it’s out of the way, but I want to talk with her.  She’s been one of my best friends since this whole school business began twelve years ago.  If anyone knows I like guys for sure, it’s her, even though we haven’t talked about it.  You can’t just say it, because even if everyone already knows, once you say it, they’ll feel different.  No matter what you do, they’ll never forget that distance between you.

It’s just like how I know better than Gwen does that she’s a lesbian, but she’s never told me.  How did we find each other all those years ago and become friends before we knew?  See?  Time.  It’s bound up in ways we don’t understand, so we just make it all up.

Thing is, I think she’s started taking drugs or something. She’s out of it, she’s around less in our last year.  She’s skinnier.  I don’t maybe, maybe it’s just in my head.  Everyone suddenly starts taking drugs except me.  People do cocaine at parties I’m not invited to.  People shoot heroin.  This is still the suburbs, but something weird is going on.  We’re all growing up in wrong ways.

Do you know where Thom moved here from? I ask her.

No, she says.  She’s thinking about something else.

Why do you think he moved?  Does he seem sad to you?

I don’t know, she says.

Are you okay? I ask her, and she stops and jumps a little, like she’s been shaken awake.

On the sidewalk, right there at our feet, is a squirrel with broken bones, pulling itself across the cement.  There’s some blood and it’s straining with each inch.  I can see its teeth, how long its teeth are.

What should we do? I say.  We can’t just leave it.

I think, there must be people who take care of problems like this; they take animals in and usher them back to health.  I imagine a woman with a house full of little bottles to feed the animals by hand.  Cages that have hawks with broken wings, rabbits with smashed feet.

I’ll call the police and see if they know, Gwen says, and she runs to her house.

You’re going to be okay, I say to the squirrel.  It’s terrified and doing its best to move, flat on its belly.  You’re going to be okay.  I don’t like anything that comes next.

A boy, Jonathan, that I used to be friends with when we were boys – because we were all friends when we were children – walks by and sees me kneeling.

What are you doing, he says.  Praying on the sidewalk?

Then he sees the squirrel.

Jesus, he says.

I have to stay here with it, I say.

Jonathan laughs and walks away like nothing’s happening. But before that, he says, You know this isn’t the kind of thing you do if you want people to like you.

I don’t even know what that means, but I know it hurts when he says it.  Just like, when Gwen comes back, a cop shows up and says he’ll take care of it, go away now.  We linger for a minute until he tells us again to get out of here, and there’s no note of thanks or mercy.

Did he call a…I don’t know, a wildlife protector person or something? I ask.

Try not to think about it, Gwen says.

We wait for the time-stopping pop of a gunshot, but we don’t hear anything.

I really thought there was a person who took care of that sort of thing, I say to her.

Maybe there isn’t anyone though, maybe I just made that up.

*

I’m confused about what’s real and what isn’t.  All the real stuff, the stuff that’s not arbitrary, comes out of nowhere.  Like Thom, like falling in love with him.  Last year, I started automatic writing and it scared the shit out of me, but I couldn’t stop.  It’s this thing I do now, almost every day.  I have notebooks filled with phrases that don’t make much sense, phrases that sound like they’re channeled from somewhere else. I AM A PERFECT BLANK AND WILL FOLD UP TIME one says.  GIVE ME YOUR LEGS AND KNEEL IF YOU WANT MERCY says another one.  And there are stories too – one about a man who is crucified to to the ground, one about a woman who falls in love with a glass statue.  All of them have that frantic gesture.  I close my eyes and get this sort of overheated feeling and words come out in huge excessive loops across the page, the ink gathering into pools so heavy and the pen pressing down so hard that the paper tears.  I’m always in a sort of wavering trance when I write them, like I have to blot myself out so they can come through.  They all feel true, but writing them is scary.

Do you want to come over? Thom asks me.

School’s just let out and I’m talking to Becky near my locker.  Becky’s a year younger than us; she has blonde hair and wears vulgar plastic jewelry, and uncomfortably red lipstick, but somehow it looks good on her.

At first I think he’s talking to Becky, but she looks over at me like, well? Then Thom puts his hand on my back again.

When we we get to his house – an apartment in a huddled complex on the hill near the high school – his mom is smoking a cigarette.  She’s looking at her Dungeons and Dragons map, spread across the table.  She looks happy that Thom has made a friend.

Do you play? she asks, gesturing to the map and the little pewter figures.

When I was a kid, I say.  With my brother, I say.

You have a brother? Thom asks.

I do, but he’s my half brother and thirteen years older than me, and I don’t see him that much.

We just did it normal style, I say, no figures or anything, it was all just in our heads.

Well we’d do that too, Thom’s mom says, But Thom forgets everything.

Then she laughs and whips her hand out to smack his butt.  I realize she’s also chewing gum.  Chewing gum, smoking a cigarette, smacking Thom’s ass, this place feels weird.

This is it, he says, when we go into his bedroom.

There’s a mattress on the floor and a pile of clothes.  There’s one window with a white venetian blind.  We talk, and later, when his mom leaves, we watch TV.  But even though she leaves, the entire time it feels like his mom is in the room with us.  The whole apartment smells like smoke and it’s so small.  Only poor kids live in apartments in my town.  In my house, in my other friends’ houses, someone could call your name on the first floor and you’d never hear it up on the second.  In an apartment, you’re always close to someone else, but I bet you never feel like you can hear your own thoughts.

The kid who gave me a blowjob when I was thirteen lives in this complex.  We were best friends, but we’re not really friends at all anymore.  I still see him in homeroom and stuff but after the blowjob, I don’t know, I couldn’t talk to him anymore.  I think that officially makes me a terrible person.  I came in his mouth and it was like I wasn’t even there.  I didn’t feel it, I almost want to say it didn’t happen.  He’d already had sex with plenty of guys by then; he used to have a card that said “escort” on it, and the number on it was his home phone number!  Old men would call his house and his mom would answer and he’d say, “Mom, get off the phone, it’s work.”  They’d fuck him, I guess, which I’m sort of envious of.  Thirteen and getting fucked! You might see that kid now, and you might think, “just a kid.”  But he knows more than most of us about a lot of things.

If Thom gave me a blowjob, I know I’d feel it.  When we’re watching TV, I rub shoulders and I feel a flush, like I’m going to start writing something.

*

We start hanging out every day.  After school, two boys.

At lunch, I start putting my hand on his leg underneath the cafeteria table.  No one can see my hand on his leg, and if I’m afraid they will, I pull it away.  And he never pushes it off.  I always keep it just above his knee.

And I start imagining him when I jerk off.  Not just sucking his dick, but him holding my hand and putting his arm around me at night, him kissing me.  I start to imagine what it would be like living with him.  Waking up with him in the morning.

One day at lunch, he puts his hand on my head and messes up my hair, right in front of everyone at the table.  I smile and smile, right through the rest of the day.  If time stopped right there, I’d be okay.

*

The day Thom asks me if I want to sleepover, I have English class last period, and I’m staring at the clock, black lines in a circle.  I don’t usually stare at the clock during English class because it’s my favorite class.  Mr. Rothrock, my English teacher, is sort of crazy.  Not in necessarily a good way, not in the way caring English teachers are in movies.  Instead, he’s sort of unhinged.  He has a very, I don’t know…flowery? voice.  Some of what happens in his class is ordinary, some of it is bizarre, and you have no idea what you’re going to get.

Today, he’s telling us to make sure we keep an eye on our wallets in New York, because later in the year, he’ll take us to New York to see Showboat onclock Broadway, and all the jock kids will talk about how they loved it; they were so surprised they loved it, like their loving it is some grand stamp of approval.  Really, Showboat is just mediocre, but okay.

You don’t want anyone undesirable reaching into your back pocket, Mr. Rothrock says,  Someone desirable, well that’s a different story.

I stare at the clock.

The period is about to end and Scott Franklin says he has an announcement.  He just got a new car. Why is he announcing this?  Like who cares if Scott got a new car.

But Mr. Rothrock asks him if it has leather seats and when Scott says yes, Mr. Rothrock says, So you like to get naked and rub around on them?

Outside, Thom is waiting; he’s talking to Becky and Gwen and Becky’s laughing too hard at something he’s said.  People file past us, and then Gwen and Becky leave and the school looks exhausted and empty.

Do you want to hold my hand? I say.  And then, quickly, Like just friends, I mean girls hold hands and they’re just friends, right?

If anyone saw us holding hands, they’d tease us.  If Thom weren’t so tall, they’d probably beat the shit out of us.  But no one sees us.  We walk all the way back to his apartment that way, holding hands.  I’ve never done this before, and he’s so tall that I have to lift my arm up a little to meet him, but it feels perfect.

At his place, his mom isn’t home, and he reaches under the kitchen counter and comes back up with something clear, which he drinks a lot of and I drink a little of until we’re equally drunk.  I’ve had almost no alcohol in my life.

Where’s your mom? I ask.

Dunno, he says.

Then he takes off his pants.  He’s wearing white boxer shorts with thin blue vertical stripes.

I was going to ask her to get movies, he says, but whatever, let’s just watch TV.

For hours, I don’t know what we’re watching.  I don’t know what we say when we talk to each other.  Thom’s mom doesn’t come home, and we sit on the couch, close.  I mess up his hair and he leans his head back onto my chest.

Kiss me on the cheek, I say.

What?

Kiss me on the cheek.

And he does.  I expect to be totally immersed when he kisses me.  But instead, I think a lot of things.  I think about how I was too scared to try to kiss him on the mouth.  I think about how he’s taking a risk, kissing me on the cheek, how it’s brave.  Mostly, though, I think, did he only do that because I told him to?  Or did he really want to?

What do you know about Becky? Thom asks.

Nothing, but she’s one of those girls, I say defensively.

What do you mean?

Nothing, I say.  Can we go to bed?  Can we lie down in your bed?

We’re both dizzy.  We’re both drinking.  We’re both in his room, on the bed.  His shirt is off, and mine is off too and I put my arm around him and feel his back against me, his chest, his belly, the soft hair beneath his belly button.  My dick is so hard up against him, and everything else is soft.  I want to say, I love you.

You’re not going to move again, are you? I ask.  You’re going to stay here.

I’m going to stay here, he says.

I have no idea why he moved.  All that time we spend together and he remains totally mysterious, like he came out of nowhere.  I don’t know what happened to his dad, or where his mom goes, or where he lived before he lived here.  I’ve convinced myself that people at his old school found out he was gay, and harassed him, so he had to move.  Every time I tried to ask, he changed the subject.  Like that weird movie my punk rock friends showed me about the rich people who are stuck in a house.  It was black and white and strangely boring and terrifying at once.  All these people get stuck in one room of a house and can’t leave; every time they try to, the find out they just don’t have the will to do it.

You never told me where you came from, I say.

What about college? he says.

Fuck that, fuck thirteenth grade, I say.  I’m not going to college.

I listen to him breathing and wonder if he’s asleep.

What about your dad? I ask.  Does he live around here?

Thom rolls over and looks into my eyes.  I can feel his breath on my lips.

Are you hard? he says.  He grabs his dick through his boxer shorts and shakes it at me.  It’s huge, even though it’s still flaccid.

I think I drank too much he says.  Can you roll over?

I roll onto my side, facing away from him, and he puts his arm around me.  I think I might start crying but I don’t.  Instead, I kiss his arm as his breaths get longer and longer and he’s asleep.

I can’t sleep.  I can’t jerk off.  I don’t want to wake him up.  I lie there for hours, with his long, heavy arm draped over me.  I love you, I think again and again, but never say it.

In the middle of the night he mumbles something into my ear, but I can’t make it out.

What? I say.

But he doesn’t repeat it.  Whatever he said in his sleep, with his eyes closed, I’ll treat it as if it were totally clear, as if I know what he meant and it was his most alert, awake moment.  I tell myself that we only say what we mean when we’re not trying to say anything at all.  The light starts to open up through the venetian blind and I can hear the birds.

*

Thom, I write on a page in my notebook, and I underline the h.  It’s cute, that h.  Also in my notebook, is a photo of him I took from his house.  I took that and his white-with-blue-lines boxer shorts.  I know it’s stealing, but I’ll tell him about it.  And anyway, he could have anything of mine that he wants.

The photo was in a jumbled pile of photos in his bathroom.  Most of the photos were of his mom and people I didn’t know.  Maybe one of the guys was his dad, but none of them looked like him.  There were a few pictures with him in them, but in all the other ones he’s got one of those weird half-developed dirty mustaches.  They look silly.  In the one I have, the one I keep in the back of my notebook, he’s caught in mid-laugh, his eyes partially closed.  There’s a blank wall behind him.  It’s not a great picture, and I want it with me all the time.

In the school stairwell where there’s a giant Jesus painting, I drop my books and my photo falls out and all my papers are all over the place.  It’s between classes, so everyone is trampling down the stairs, and I’m holding everything up, clogging the hallway.

One kid stops and takes his gum out and jumps up to stick it on one of the crucifying nails.

Oh shit, someone else says, laughing.

We go to a public school, so that painting shouldn’t be here, but it was done by a student forever ago, so it’s not “religious,” it’s “student art.”  On the floor, in front of the painting, I’m on my hands and knees, looking for Thom’s photo. The gum unsticks and falls off the nail onto the floor.  I feel weird about the temporary vandalism and I don’t know if Jesus is made up or real; if he’s arbitrary or something else.  Maybe there’s a third thing, something that’s not real or fake; something beyond all of that.  When I find the photo, I hide it again in the back of my notebook.

*

Then the night comes when we’re supposed to go to Gwen’s house; me and Thom and Becky, and I have to tell you something, a confession.

You know how else I know time is all fucked up?  That time is arbitrary?  Because this isn’t me writing this.  I mean, it’s me, but it’s weird; I’m not myself. There’s this voice coming through from nowhere, through a black cloud when my eyes are closed.  There’s this Future Version of Me that’s messing with my voice, making me tell you this.

Maybe it’s because summer isn’t going to be summer anymore and the morning is over and there’s this moment coming.  If nothing matters the way it used to, there’s an absence where all the stuff I used to think was, and now it’s filled up by this Future Me, who just slipped through.

And because it’s from the future?  All these words pouring out of me?  Well from the beginning I knew everything that would happen before it happens.  So when it happens, it’s like I’m not there.  Like I’m in the sway of things instead of directing them.  Like someone being shown their life, touring around it with a ghost.

Me and Thom and Becky will go to Gwen’s house.  Thom and Becky will sit on the couch, and I’ll go upstairs.

Gwen will be in her room, she has to tell me something.

In the room, where she still has stuffed animals, and a book of her drawings on the floor, she’ll be crying, I can see it.  She’ll tell me about some girl she likes.  I’ll tell her I love Thom, but I won’t cry.  We’ll reveal ourselves to each other, even though we already know it all.  Even though we could see it coming.

She’ll be the first person I just come out to and tell about any of this stuff to.  It should be a big moment, it should be the thing that marks this night.  But it won’t be, because then we’ll go down the stairs.

Please Future Me, I don’t want to see it.  Please don’t make me watch my life.

On the couch will be Thom.  On the couch will be Thom and Becky.

I can see them holding each other, and their faces will be touching and their eyes will be closed and I’ll close my eyes too and that will be the truth of it all.  No one’s looking at anything.

You are a fucking whore, I’ll say to Becky.  You are fucking bitch and a whore.

The words just show up; even though I don’t like them.

The two of them will pull apart and she’ll have this look on her face.  It’s the look of someone who does not deserve to be hurt, who’s done nothing wrong.  I know how it feels to have that look on your face.

I won’t look at Thom’s face at all.  I’ll run out of the house.

That night, no one will see me for hours.  I’ll walk around our little town, in the dark, by myself.  It will be cold, and my jacket will be on the floor of Gwen’s room where I left it.

There’s the little bridge in the park that I cross when I walk to school, and I’ll walk down the hill to the creek and I’ll sit under that bridge, right by the water I’m used to crossing over.  In the dark, I’ll hear the frosted up edges of the water crack under my feet, but the rest of the creek isn’t frozen yet, the water’s still rushing by.  I don’t know how long I’ll sit there, but that’s where I’ll stay and cry.  I’ll forget everything except what it felt like to see him kissing her.

When I get back to Gwen’s house, Thom will be  gone.  I’ll have no idea what time it is.  Becky will still be there.  She’ll be smoking a cigarette outside in the cold, and I can see the makeup messed up all across her eyes.

I’m not a whore, she’ll say,

I know, I’ll say, although I don’t really know much about her.

Do you love me? she’ll ask.

And I’ll be struck at how ridiculous and unknowing the whole world can pretend to be, even when everything is laid out in front of us.

No, I’ll say.  Not you.

Oh my God, she’ll say, figuring it out.

*

A few days later, on the little bridge, in the morning before school, I tell Thom I love him.  I haven’t seen him since that night that still feels like it couldn’t have happened.  He doesn’t sit next to me at lunch anymore, he’s moved to a different table with Becky.

I’m too late.  I should have told him before.  Like we were too late for the squirrel, like I was too late coming down the stairs.  Nothing catches up to where it’s supposed to be.

I’m not gay, he says.

But you care about me, right?

Becky’s my girlfriend and you have to accept that, he says.

Where is this coming from? I ask.   I turn my head away so he can’t see my eyes tearing up.

Nowhere, he says.

I reach for his hand and he pushes me away.

Do you want to be friends? he asks, and I run away from him, up the hill back to my house.

My mom and stepdad aren’t home.  I stay inside the whole day doing nothing, being no one.  It’s the day of yearbook photos, and I miss it, so at the end of the year, I’m missing from the yearbook.  Or not even “missing,” because there’s no mention that I’m not pictured.  All those years in this place, and at the end, there’s no trace of me.

*

The next day, I go back to school in a dull haze.  Thom passes by me in the hall, but doesn’t say hi.  I know right then that he’ll never talk to me again.  The day unknots and uncoils, and I’m in and out of feeling it.

At the end of it, Mr. Rothrock’s stands in front of all of us and breaks down, crying.

I have Lyme’s disease, he tells us.  It’s interfering with my speech.  There was a tick lodged in my back, can you imagine?

I feel a hundred miles away from him.  Everyone is uncomfortable.  We’ve been making lists of all his verbal fuck ups for a couple months now, thinking about how funny it is that he uses one word when he means another.

Did everyone read the boom? he’d say, when he meant book.  And when we read Lord of the Flies, which is great, he said Lord of the Lies.  And instead of the Mayor of Casterbridge, which is boring, it’s the Sailor of Casterbridge.

I understand there’s a list, he says to us.  Is there a list?  I need to see that list.  It will help me figure out what I’ve been doing wrong, so I can improve my speech.

Gwen, who sits in front of me turns red.  She’s helped make the list.  Now all these marks against him, these terrible things – he needs to see them.

Do you know what it’s like for a man of words such as myself to be deprived the ability to speak? he says.

Then he starts crying again.  Really weeping.

Is there a list, he says again.

But no one gives him the list.

Why would he cry in front of us?  He has other classes.  Did he cry in front of all of them?  Maybe he feels close to us, but no one will ever stop seeing how different he is.

Everyone is still for a second; we have no idea how to react, time stops.  Then the bell rings and we know what to do and we’re off.  Time’s up.

He’s crazy, one boy says in the hall.

You can’t cry in front of everyone and expect them to like you, says a girl.

Yeah, someone else says, what a faggot.

Why do gay porn stars kill themselves?

13 Feb

Why do porn actors kill themselves?  Who is responsible?

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Whenever a porn star – especially a gay porn star – commits suicide, theories show up, and people act very, very certain about them.  Arpad Miklos, who was as much as a porn “star” as anyone can be in a time when we are hyper-saturated with porn, killed himself on February 3rd, 2013, at the age of 45.  As usual, many people felt sure they knew why he committed suicide, without much evidence.  It was drugs, it was studios not treating him well, it was the feeling of dehumanization, it was the vague but all encompassing “porn industry” that did it, it was the feeling of being hollow, it was it was his loss of validation after being a star for so long.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about his death, I didn’t know him very well.  We met in passing on a set; he’d just finished a scene, and I was about to start mine.  He was huge and handsome; I’m not saying anything new.  If you met him, you were impressed by his smile and his body and his presence.  Looking at him almost made you feel a sense of unbalance in the world, like his handsomeness and flawless physique were proof of some deep inequality between people.  But then you’d forget that feeling and be drawn back into the intense attraction.

He gave me a kiss and his phone number and asked me if I’d like to spend time with him later that night.  My scene ran over schedule, and I was exhausted, so I told him I couldn’t meet.  We communicated a few more times over the years by text and phone, and that was that.  I mention all of this to say:  I don’t know his motivations or who he “really” was.  We kept passing through each other’s lives without ever truly meeting.

But others who knew him even less than me flooded twitter, wrote articles, posted to facebook about what had happened.  The theories appeared as soon as the news did.  It was immediate, like flies to a corpse.  Theories arrived before grief, before honor and love and the experience of loss.  When a gay porn star dies, instead of an outpouring of grief, what we are usually witness to is a buzzing.

All of this is to say that not even death can trump many people’s confused and hostile attitudes towards porn and porn performers. That is how deeply injured we are as a society when it comes to sex, sexuality, and love.

***

It’s natural to turn events like suicide into cultural concerns.

Tragedies are supposed to pose questions to us – the feelings of discomfort that sadness brings can create meaningful action.  But these actions are always most effective when we don’t bypass grief and compassion to get to them.  Unfortunately, the people that make up the largest group involved in porn – the viewers and consumers – may not understand what it’s like to be a performer or to work for a studio.  The porn industry remains obscured by unexamined attitudes towards sex.  So compassion isn’t always available.

There’s a general confusion for outsiders about performer motivations for making porn, how much money they make, what happens during a shoot, what health and safety precautions are in place, how a scene is organized, what it feels like to be a crew member and more. The result is that a monolithic image of “gay porn star” and the “gay porn industry” is formed.  But unlike ideas of other industries – banking or agriculture, say – people’s perceptions are colored by a broader societal confusion: a difficulty in thinking and communicating clearly when it comes to sex and desire.

This confusion is generated by many factors, most importantly by social and cultural institutions that have historically leveraged sex as a way to control people (I address some of those forces here, and will write more about them in the future).  Because these forces create pressure and guilt around sex, when someone like Miklos, who had sex publicly, kills himself, people tend to think he was sad because of his public sex life.  They don’t focus on the fact that he was trained as a chemist nor do they ask what his relationships were like or if he was generally happy.  Instead, a knee-jerk reaction links his sadness with porn.

People want to know: How was porn involved in this death?

This isn’t a totally unfair question, but when left unrefined, it’s not a good one; it’s misguided at best, damaging at its worst.  Aside from not taking all the other factors of Miklos’s death into account, it’s misguided because it’s not nearly a deep enough or complete enough question. It focuses too much on the performer as victim and not enough on sex in society, nor how the porn viewer receives porn and thinks about porn performers, or how sex is legislated, or what our unquestioned assumptions about the “porn industry” are.

The porn performer is, in general, not a victim. This image of the performer as starting porn because of bad circumstance or compulsion is largely a lie (perpetuated, in part, by confused critics of porn).  Part of this false image comes from the idea that porn performers just “fall into” porn or that they’re “discovered” by unscrupulous studio moguls with big, villainous mustaches.  But the majority of would-be porn performers now approach studios, not vice versa.  They’re seeking porn work for different reasons.  Some of those reasons are aligned with the performer’s heart and integrity, others are not, but almost none of the reasons merit the label “victim,” at least not for deciding to be in porn.

The result is thousands of healthy, thoughtful, happy porn performers in gay and straight porn that haven’t killed themselves. And their ways of enacting being a porn performer are very different.  There are performers that make one movie to try it out.  There are porn stars who make a career out of it like Miklos did, appearing for years in different movies by different studios.  There are performers who shoot scenes with their boyfriends and post them to XTube; there are performers who wish they could make more.  There are people who long to be in the porn industry but can’t break into it, or are too afraid to start.

Many (though not all) have other jobs: Along with porn stars who are also escorts and personal trainers, I know gay porn stars who are lawyers, farmers, doctors, meteorologists, and artists. Some don’t have much overhead at all because they live with their parents, who know what they do and are proud of their children.

While there may be some vast archetype that encompasses all porn stars, there’s no such thing as a typical “gay porn star.”  We’re all different.

So sadness and mental health problems are not an industry epidemic – that perception is inaccurate, as is the notion that porn stars don’t have any other skills or feel compelled to do porn out of a lack of options.  Such statements simply aren’t true.

Of course, some performers do have mental health problems.  Some are suicidal, some are drug addicts.  The same is true for lawyers, farmers, doctors, etc. who are not porn stars.

If we strip misconceptions away, we still have a question of porn and mental health before us.  But it appears in in a refined version, a version that makes sense.  We can ask ourselves, what are the specific pressures of being in gay porn?  How can we make those pressures less of a burden?

***

None of the pressures that face porn stars are exclusive to porn – many of them face mainstream actors and athletes, for example.  One of the main problems is the constant inflation and collapse of a performer’s ego.

Once, after shooting a scene for a studio I hadn’t worked with before, one of the staff enthusiastically invited me to the “family.”  He told me how great I’d done and how excited he was to work with me again.  I was in a towel, exhausted, and happy to hear the news.  We were interrupted by a phone call.  He answered and entered into an urgent sounding discussion with a performer on the other end.  The studio just couldn’t hire him, the employee said, for the rate he wanted.  Then he relayed to the performer, studio by studio, how much other studios were paying.  It was significantly less than I’d been paid for work that day.  I felt a little sad for the other performer, but didn’t think much of it.  I became friendly with everyone at the studio, and we’d talk outside of work, too.

Months later I was the performer on the receiving end of this conversation.  Another staff member of the studio had warned me that I was “fat” and that I was asking for too much money.  My appearance hadn’t changed since they’d last hired and praised me.  If anything, I was more toned. I explained that I was only requesting the same rate they’d always paid me.  He went down the same studio-by-studio list, detailing rates, saying that everyone was paying less now.  But the rates he quoted were incorrect. I knew that now, because I’d worked for everyone on his list, appearing in a scene for one of them just a week ago.  It was a canned speech, created to dock performers’ pay.

Why was someone who I thought was my friend lying to me?  The first answer that comes to mind isn’t quite right : money.  Such a simple answer doesn’t explain why we couldn’t have had an honest conversation about money, rather than one coupled with insults and constructed to intimidate me in to accepting less.

Another time, I saw a hopeful newcomer come to the set for some preliminary casting Imagephotos.  A director photographed him, and gave him many encouraging words when they were done.  When the aspiring performer left, the director started complaining about how fat the guy was.

“What a fucking slob,” he said in front of me and the other performers hired for the day.  Everyone was quiet.

“Did you tell him he wasn’t ready?” I asked, finally.

“No, he should have known,” he said.

There’s a fear among many performers that what we hear from employers is not reflective of how they actually feel, and this fear is, at least in part, justified by stories like these.  I’ve heard these complaints echoed again and again by other performers.   On top of this, like many entertainment-related businesses, porn studios are extremely busy but often disorganized.  Not hearing back from a studio in a timely manner after initial emails or calls creates a  flashing anxiety; is it because they’re ignoring you, because they forgot, or are they simply, reasonably, busy? Until you learn how to navigate it, all this puts you in a weird split state.  Are your employers your smiling and nodding friends or are they harboring thoughts about you that they’re not expressing?

Again, this isn’t a complaint confined to the porn industry – it’s a problem with many American business models, where honesty and forthrightness are not properly valued.  But in porn, it’s  compounded by the fact that these concerns mix into performers’ anxieties about their bodies.  Every porn performer I know has at least some fear of how the public will receive our bodies or how “fat” or “skinny” or “small” we look, even though we may not be fat or skinny or small by any means (and if we are, that brings in a separate set of societal issues).  This situation isn’t made any better by unscrupulous internet commenters and bloggers, who are happy to leave the cruelest comments they can think of under photos of our naked bodies.

***

Seen in this light, working in porn has a healthy aspect and a dark shadow.

Porn is healthy for a performer to the extent that it allows him to detach, rather than immerse himself in his body.

***

Porn offers an amazing opportunity to think about your body.  You have to think about how it looks, what food to put into it, what exercises to do to refine it, how to relax it, how to take care of it.  You even have to consider that other people may not like your body, no matter what you do.  Your dick might be too small (or too big!) for them.  They may not like your face or think your abs are undeveloped.  In porn, you have the opportunity to hear these complaints and to love yourself anyway.  It’s very freeing if you can achieve it.  When you can think about your body, you create a loving distance from it, a detachment.  It becomes an honor to have a body when you know it’s only an aspect of your being.

One happy and surprising side effect being in porn has had on me is that it’s loosened up my response to societal standards of beauty, allowing me to see who I actually find attractive.  Before porn, I found myself having a reflexive response to men with huge pecs and six pack abs.  If a huge guy walked into a bar, I (along with a lot of the other patrons) would turn instinctively to look at him.  Maybe I’d compare myself or other guys at the bar to him.  After being paid to have sex on camera with men like that, the feeling has totally left me.  Sometimes I’m still attracted to men who fall into society’s standard of beauty, but it’s not reactive.  Being in porn, being detached from my body, has helped me see the real contours of my desire and attraction, rather than conforming to what I’m told to think is attractive.

The same detachment is what allowed me to hear from the studio owner that I was “fat” and not breakdown, or to read mean-spirited comments on blogs, or to resist the command to do steroids from another studio worker.  My body is linked to my worth, but it’s mine, after all.  I’m a caretaker for my body.  The more detachment I get from it, the more clearly I see that.  I can feel this way most of the time now, but I still dip into the shadow every once in awhile.

The shadow side is that, as a porn performer, you can begin to completely identify with your body.  You can think it’s who you are. You can stumble off to the gym and onto the set and through parties and bars, cutting off your mind from other aspects of experience.   When you’re in this immersed state, an internet commenter or mean-spirited blogger or tactless industry employee calling you fat can feel devastating.

This is problematic enough, but it becomes crushing when you start to believe that your body is all you have to offer.  While I think most arguments about objectification are shallow, I also notice how porn performers can limit their own freedom and destroy their happiness by equating their bodies with their worth (and their worth with how much people are willing to validate their bodies by paying to film them.)  This is where a cliche comes from, the one where the ex-porn actor says desperately, “But porn is all I know!”  How to perform on camera is never all anyone knows, but being in porn creates the possibility of that self-delusion.

It’s good to equate some self-worth with the appearance of your body.  Too little emotional and thoughtful investment in our bodies can lead to poor health and compulsive daily patterns.  Equating too much self worth with our bodies can do the same, but the damage is often to mental health.  We become sensitive, obsessive, or prone to taking mood- altering steroids which for some can amplify the problem.

***

But these are just the pressures porn performers face directly through their involvement in porn.

Since porn is a global phenomenon, watched by millions and millions of people, the largest part of the porn industry is the consumer.  Consumers make up a special and powerful part of pornography.  Since viewers derive pleasure from porn, they are connected to it, not exempt from shouldering some of the responsibility for the well-being of porn performers.

Despite the global popularity of porn, prejudice against performers has not diminished. Teachers have been fired, simply because they had consensual sex with another person on camera; but no one is prepared to say why being in porn should make someone unfit to teach.  Olympic hopefuls with a porn past have been banned from competing under the auspices that they wouldn’t properly represent their country; but isn’t porn part of the country’s culture?  Reality TV stars – have been disqualified from their shows for being in porn; but pornography was the original reality TV, a blend of real and unreal, and certainly full of performers that people are willing to pay to watch.

Involvement with porn becomes an automatic, unthinking grounds for discrimination.  The same people who fire or “out” porn and former performers must have watched porn.  But the porn viewer can conceal his/her enjoyment of pornography.  So long as this is true, the many people who have masturbated to pornography – and this includes most men and an increasing number of women – don’t have to feel any connection to the well-being of porn performers, who have provided the viewers with sexual pleasure.

All that is a broad, societal issue.  But what about smaller, personal instances of discrimination?  Porn viewers make discriminate against porn viewers on a smaller scale, through unthinking slut-shaming. But porn performers aren’t just a spectacle, they are, in one sense, the sexual partners of the people who watch them.  Their images and actions tie into the arousal and orgasm of the viewer.   Why are we asking, “What is it with gay porn?” but not asking, “What is it with the way society treats people who bring them pleasure?”

These are larger questions that I – and many other sex workers – continue to work through, and that are larger than the scope of this essay.  One of the reasons many sex workers are interested in these questions is because they expose something fascinating about Western culture and sex.  But another is that we want to be able to stop this unwarranted discrimination, to be able to be ourselves without reproach or dismissal.

***

So: Why do porn actors kill themselves? is not the right question.  It’s bound to prejudices, misconceptions, and shame.

A better question: What can we do to make involvement with porn easier, less stressful, and healthier?

Each of us, depending on our relationship to porn, can approach this by asking a series of different questions, and by working towards honest answers.

Performers can ask themselves: 

Am I ready to be in porn? Does porn fit into the context of my life and my vision of my future?

Can I endure the misunderstandings of others without lashing out in anger or being weighed down by sadness?  Will I be okay when my parents and loved ones find out (and they invariably find out)?

Most importantly, can I maintain the knowledge that I am not only my body, that my body is a part of me, not all of me?

 People who work for studios can ask themselves:

Am I ready to put in effort to deal with performers, who may have sensitive feelings about their bodies, in a gentle way that is at the same time honest and open?

Am I being honest and open with the performers I work with and hire?

Am I being transparent (with myself and my performers) about pay and why certain performers are being paid the amounts they are, and why they were hired or rejected in the first place?

Studio employees and owners can also ask performers the questions that performers should be asking themselves:  Are you ready for this?  Can you do this and not put your self-worth into it?  Does this fit into the context of your life? Etc.

Viewers can ask themselves:

How do I feel about porn performers?

Am I grateful for the pleasure that porn gives me, or do I feel shame about it?

If I met a porn actor I liked, how would I react?

Viewers can also talk more openly about watching porn (and sex in general), which will help give voice to just how commonplace a phenomenon pornography is.

Of course, these questions don’t have to be phrased the way that I’ve written them.  They don’t have to all be asked at once; any one of them might be difficult to answer honestly.  I’m also familiar enough with the many problems we face in pornography – the way it tangles in with some of the best and worst aspects of economics, desire, and shame – to know that questions alone won’t solve all the problems facing us. But asking questions like these can help cultivate more kindness within porn and more acceptance in those outside of it.

When Arpad died, many people rerouted their guilt about porn – stemming from a lack of openness, reflection, and care about sex, pornography, and desire – onto his life.  Instead of sympathy, many people projected guilt and shame.  It’s up to all of us involved in porn – not just performers, and studio workers, but viewers as well –  to be more loving, open, and honest with ourselves and each other.  That way guilt, shame, and confusion can be redeemed and transformed, rather than absorbed by the empty space where a beautiful man used to be.

For John Bruno and Arpad Miklos

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How to Fight Conspiracy, or, The New Old Real Fake Ones: An essay on The Cabin in the Woods

25 Sep

In conjunction with the Blu-Ray/DVD release of The Cabin in the Woods , I’m reposting an essay I wrote back in April when the film was released. This essay originally appeared on horror icon Peaches Christ’s website. The essay has some spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, what are you waiting for?

If you don’t believe in a world ruled by secret, unseen forces that control how we think, feel, and treat others, there’s a quick remedy to your delusion: Tear a twenty dollar bill into tiny, useless pieces. Better yet, do it in front of a friend. One or both of you will gasp, feel sick, feel remorse. All over a little piece of paper.

Of course, it’s not the paper itself, but the meaning in the paper (and “in” isn’t the proper word here, since meaning isn’t ever “in” anything, it’s not spatial) that is sacred to us.
If you prefer to spend your money instead of tearing it up, you could learn a bit about these forces by buying a ticket for Drew Goddard’s and Joss Whedon’s Lovecraftian film of horror, spectacle, and conspiracy, The Cabin in the Woods.

In one of its strangest and most potent moments, Marty (Fran Kranz), the nerdy Shaggy-like stoner character points out, when we’re in the sway of these secret forces, which is always, “We are not who we are.”

These forces are always magical and strange in nature – they evade our understanding, because they’re bigger than our understanding. Economy, sexual attraction, race, language, the feeling of a place: all of them invade our being and identity. Most of them aren’t chosen, and there’s no escaping them. Nature itself is the greatest conspiracy – cells conspiring without our say so, weather and elements deciding who lives and who dies. Indeed, nature is such a convoluted conspiracy that there may be no need for intention at the top at all, it may simply act out of habit, taking everyone along for the ride.

We think that science and scientific understanding give us a better handle on these forces, but in fact science is a symptom of these magical forces. Historically, science rose from religion and mysticism, linked to the spiritual at its birth, and even now as it seems distant from its occult ancestor, science pulses with magic. We build airplanes out of a magical impulse to fly, telephones out of a longing for telepathy. We bind chemicals and harness physics through a very limited understanding, demanding the world jump through hoops for us, and then pretend to understand it when it does. But we don’t understand the world, and continue to worship what we don’t understand, albeit implicitly. In labs, when an animal is killed or experimented on, it’s called “sacrificing.” Sacrificing to whom?

This tangling of magic and science, the old and the new, is on full display in Cabin, as five college students are manipulated by a secret (governmental?) organization into a weekend at a sacrificial black room masquerading as a cabin with a lake and some beautiful surrounding woods.

* * *

The movie starts by pointing to the unseen forces that rule our lives, through superstition. It’s a disorienting start – you wonder for a moment if you’re in the right theater. Where are the college kids? Where’s the party? The RV being packed full of stuff and the sly innuendo?

Instead two middle-aged men Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) hang out by a coffee machine in some sort of science-looking base. They complain about women and babies, and Hadley, in a foreshadowing you’ll forget unless you see the film again, voices a superstition – if his wife thinks it’s a foregone conclusion that they’re having a baby, if she childproofs the house before she’s pregnant, they’ll never have a baby. (Hadley is right about the baby – though he doesn’t suspect just how right. The movie starts with a small superstition at the coffee machine and in less than 24 hours finishes with the end of the world.)

Cue the title on the screen – so this is The Cabin in the Woods after all – red and loud, in an homage to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a film with which Cabin shares much in lesson and idea.

The kids, the lambs to be sacrificed, are introduced in a typical way. They’re getting ready for a trip, they’re thinking about sex, they’re lamenting lost loves, they’re excited. But how much of it is real? Jules (Anne Hutchison), has dyed blonde hair. It’s not just fake because it’s blonde, it’s calculatedly fake – we find out later that the organization, which is never named but has (surprise!) a pentagon as its symbol, has drugged the hair dye to slow down her cognitive functioning and make her dumber than she is. Her boyfriend, Kurt (Chris Hemsworth) is excited to go to his cousin’s cabin. Not his cousin’s cabin, we find out at the end of the movie. Dana (Krisitin Connolly) has just had sex with and been unceremoniously dumped by her professor, revealing her thing for smart guys (the smart guys in the organization will be treating her much much worse later). Her relationship with the professor was probably real, but it was a delusion in itself. How did she think she could maintain it? In walks Holden (Jesse Williams), who we know and learn the least about. He’s smart and nice, and maybe knows a bunch of other languages. He gets stabbed in the throat later.

And finally, Marty, who starts off and remains more knowing than the others. He pulls up in his beat up car, high and smoking a huge bong (that collapses into a thermos and later extends into a zombie-beating club). Unafraid of the police, he’ll foil them with “ancient logics,” of posturing and feigned nonchalance.

The pot keeps his head clear through the rest of the movie, and this is no coincidence. To understand how the world, as one 17th century mystic put it, is “bound with secret knots,” you have to ask big questions. For many, the big questions are too terrifying to ask without pot. Indeed, questions about god, reality, and conspiracy are nowadays ridiculed as stoner questions.

But in Cabin, as in life, these questions are what help you survive, because without the thoughtful interrogation of everything, you can’t see what kind of danger you’re in.

Their vacation world isn’t what they think it is. They pass through a tunnel, wired with explosives that go off later, that’s surrounded by a force field, that’s rigged with pheremone-emitting vents and grass, lined with underground elevators, patrolled by the organization’s hidden cameras.
Cultural theorists used to make much of such constructed vacation environments – Disneyworld’s fake castle and Epcot Center’s fake countries and Six Flags’ fake safari. The weird part about those places is that people would leave the constructs of the city and enter into something even more constructed. In contrast, the kids in Cabin are seeking the classic vacation – to be somewhere more real than their lives, but instead of getting off the grid, they’re getting on an even more heavily regulated grid, and the environment conspires against them. The woods are no longer free from being made-up. Their lives are fake. Their memories and hair color are fake. And their escape is fake. In other words, there’s nowhere real left to go.

Our world isn’t so distant from the constructed world of Cabin, and fake environments aren’t just at Disneyworld, but are now the norm. Most of our own environments now are pocked with invisible class lines (the white and/or rich people never turn left on that city street), filled with arousal-inducing advertisements, and patrolled by hidden cameras. Longing for something “real,” we mimic nature. Advertisements beep and whir in the place of missing birds, lights flash in place of blotted-out stars. It’s no wonder that most of the kids don’t notice – until it’s too late – that there are no stars out in the sky, or that moonlight seems to turn on and off like an overhead lamp.

The constructed world echoes the simulacra of Cabin’s main box office competitor, the mandatory-gym-class nightmare, The Hunger Games. And in both films, the characters are brought into the fake environments, denied escape, and sacrificed to something greater than themselves. In The Hunger Games, the contestants are forced to fight to create a sort of mini-war that will stave off widespread societal chaos. In Cabin this is literalized – the old gods that sleep beneath our planet must be appeased.

The fake world, constructed to make sacrificing real people to real and potent forces, needs upkeep. In both films, men and women in offices control the stars, the sky, the trees, and the monsters. The characters are watched and allowed no real escape. The game is always rigged, even as the audiences (of and in the films) believe there is a certain aspect of chance and therefore freedom at play.

These controlling organizations have a long history of manipulating, capturing, trapping, torturing, and killing young people. In the case of Cabin it’s a tradition that stretches back to end of time.

And so, aside from the explicitly monstrous monsters in both films, there are also the office man as monster, the scientist, the soldier, the executive as monster. There are no bystanders, not even in the audience. “We’re not the only ones watching,” says one of the organization’s men in Cabin, and the meaning is clear. The old gods are watching, the spectators are watching, but also, we’re watching. We’ve got needs, haven’t we? We need to see people die and show their tits, and scream and fight for their lives. Or our money back.

It’s a great moment. Not quite a breach of the fourth wall, but more of a little knock on it from the other side. “Hey neighbor, if you think we’re the villains, what about you?”

But we don’t have to – and shouldn’t – buy the guilt, because the movie is smart enough to let us off the hook. When the kids first arrive at the cabin, Holden discovers a two-way mirror. Through it, he can see Dana, about to undress in the abutting room, but she can’t see him. He struggles for a moment, and then decides to be a gentleman and let her know. It’s a voyeurism that we’re told is terrible – peeping at each other’s bodies, showing off (as Holden seems to be doing just moment later, as they switch rooms and Dana watches him). But then the camera pulls back and we see all of this transpire on dozens of screens in the industrial complex. There is voyeurism and then there is spying, invasion, and control. In our social-media and reality-tv-saturated world, we condemn each other for the small crime of voyeurism and exhibitionism and remain unaware of the surveillance state that has risen up around us.

As long as there’s a small battle of minor morality going on, no one notices the bigger, more important battle.

The big questions – questions of conspiracy, questions of what is real, questions of nature and culture – set us free from these low-level tangles, but we remain ridiculed for these questions. Kurt and Jules berate Dana for her interest in her books. Dana ridicules Marty for his suspicions. And then redneck torture zombies rise from the ground and start to kill everybody.

The Hunger Games’s weakest moment is when the monsters, mutant dogs or something, are released, because the monsters’ appearances don’t quite mesh with the rest of the film’s struggle to stay believable. Cabin, on the other hand, hinges on the appearance of monsters. The kids raise zombies by unwittingly reading an incantation (a la The Evil Dead) from a book they’ve found in the basement. But this isn’t a zombie flick; the movie is a vast network of monsters.

Monsters are usually the killing force in any horror film, but in Cabin the monsters are contained – and unleashed – by a larger power: technology. Underground and hidden are a whole host of monsters – a werewolf, a man-bat, a cenobite-like creature (in one of the most overt homages), a giant spider and snake – locked up in glass cells, waiting to be released. And there must be thousands of monsters, for the movie reveals that this ritual is happening all over the world, each country experiencing its own cultural version of horror. The technology, in turn, is in service to an even larger power, the old gods it serves. So the kids are the modern scientific world made victim to magic, which is subservient to science, which is again subservient to magic. Layer upon layer of power, of old world struggling to come to terms with new and back again.

Should we get used to monsters? A soldier in Cabin asks one of the organization workers as much.

The servants of the old ones are too used to them. In the film’s most horrifying moment, after most the kids have been killed by the zombies (or are believed to have been, since Marty escapes), Dana is being attacked and tortured by a zombie who wields a bear trap as a weapon. Since her death is optional (we learn that the archetype she represents, the virgin, is an optional sacrifice, so long as she dies last), the whole ritual is thought to be complete. The screens are left on, and the members of the organization party. They throw each other beers and ask each other out on dates. They blast music and tell jokes and flirt. In the background, Dana is picked up and throw to the ground, savagely attacked. Her screams are on mute.

Perhaps the organization was doing good at some point, perhaps sacrifice was important and necessary, but they all became numb to it. They ignore suffering (especially suffering on a screen); it’s just part of their job and their world. Dana doesn’t have to die, but they’re prepared to ignore the whole mess and get on with their lives. They don’t even care how it ends up. If you’ve seen one dying kid screaming for her life, you’ve seen’em all.

Of course, you can’t keep all your monsters locked up without having them break free. Marty somehow escapes death, saves Dana, and they break into the industrial underground base together. (When he shows Dana the hidden elevator that goes down – to the basement of the basement – she says, “Do we want to go down?” “Where else are we gonna go?” he replies.)

Audiences are perhaps always troubled with images of mass incarceration, and so thrill to the release of the monsters. The breakout scene fulfills the failed promise of Whedon’s fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the secret governmental organization, The Initiative, traps and studies monsters. In the series, the monsters also broke free, but it was a largely bloodless and scattered affair. In Cabin there is blood and screaming and lots of it. The jailers and soldiers, who were protecting the world, are punished. Their own party, their own version of freedom, is raided and pillaged and murdered.

As Dana and Marty make their way through the complex, dodging monster after monster and watching the employees of the organization die all around them, they stumble on the deepest truth: The old ones. The Director of the organization (played by who else but Sigourney Weaver) tells them the whole back story. And she tells them that if Marty dies, Dana can live and the world will be saved. But if Dana dies before Marty…well, then, the world is doomed.

“You can die with them, or you can die for them,” the Director tells him.
“They’re both so enticing,” Marty retorts.
Dana is tempted to kill him but fails. The Director dies. The world starts to end.

“I’m sorry I…ended the world,” Marty says.
“You were right,” Dana replies. “Humanity. It’s time to give someone else a chance.”
The world begins to shake.
“Giant evil gods,” Marty says.
“I wish I could’ve seen them.”
“I know,” Marty says, “that would’ve been a fun weekend.”
A giant hand bursts from the ground, and the credits roll.

The movie could have ended with nothing happening and meant largely the same thing. The Director would die and the ritual would go unfinished and the world would rumble and then…nothing. Calm. The gods and values we worshipped in confusion and panic didn’t have the power over us we feared.

The pentagon-symboled organization strove desperately to keep the world as it was. They tell us if we don’t keep all this falsehood and untruthfulness in place, we will be overwhelmed by chaos and panic. Well, so what? Aren’t killing people, torturing people, creating deceptive landscapes, manipulating thoughts, the very things they claimed to be protecting us from?

As for the impending dissembling of things:
“Maybe that’s the way it should be, if you’ve got to kill all my friends to survive. Maybe it’s time for a change,” Marty says.

Once you begin to see the world for what it is, once you get to the depths and ask the big questions, the world begins to change. The old world, the one you knew, ends. And of course, this is sacrifice. Real sacrifice, not fake, ritualized sacrifice made out of fake plants and hair dye, propping up a world of lies and unreal pleasures.

Cabin tells us – everything that we’re afraid a revolution in thinking and behavior would bring is already here. We’ve got to find new things to worship, or forever be in the power of forces we can’t see, understand, or escape.

(poster image by http://abayarts.deviantart.com/)

Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School, Part 3. (Neighbor Boy)

26 Aug

Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School is a series of short essays about growing up  frustrated in small-town Pennsylvania.

The only thing the boy thinks about as much as sex is escape.

The boy is me and is fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and he feels consumed by a sort of cloud.   Whenever something is not about sex or escape, it evades his thinking. Often, at school, his teachers will give him assignments and he won’t hear it.  He’ll show up clueless the next day and the teachers will disapprove – Why didn’t you do the work?  Now you have a zero for the day.

The boy is on this threshold of becoming something other than a boy, but he advances at a confused pace.

His room has bunk beds in it, and should have a regular bed.  There’s a stuffed animal on the top bunk, an artifact from a different life.  He sleeps on the bottom because he feels encased and sheltered there, as if in the bottom of a boat.  It’s dark and shielding and he starts to sleep naked.

The door is always closed, sometimes because he’s masturbating, but often only because he’s forgotten and he’s lying on his stomach on the floor, drawing pictures of comic book characters.

He stares out the window of his bedroom and masturbates, thinking of an older boy, Lee, down the street, who should show up and rub his dick all over the boy’s face – If the boy just concentrates hard enough, Lee will show up.  He believes this with all his might: Just concentrate and things will happen.

This isn’t just about desire.  At the end of every day of school – after the bullies, the boring classes, the terrible food, the dull conversations, the racists, the dead florescent lights, the cruel teachers – the boy has to concentrate on sex and on escape; they’re the only things that save him.

Life is made up of sheer will.  If he wavers from this way of living he will tip off the edge and die.

When the boy thinks about escape, it’s not escape from his little town. He’s too tired to dream of anything that real.  All he can do is think of something bigger. He concentrates on being out of his body, on being someone else who has never lived in his town or even in Pennsylvania.  Like most people in the world, he will be someone for whom Pennsylvania barely exists.  He stands in front of the mirror and turns the music up and sings.  He’s not just watching himself sing, he’s pretending he’s in the mirror, facing himself.  His room is the audience and the boy he’s staring out at – him – is someone alien.  A spectator looking on.  He asks his mom to buy him a microphone and an amplifier.  Instead of starting a band, which he tries once and fails, he uses the microphone as a prop to complete being someone else.

Like a magical tool, that microphone.  A wand.  Hold it, stare into the mirror, and concentrate.

It’s true, this trick about concentrating, though not as he imagined.  Instead of one neighbor, the boy begins to have sex with another.

*

Next door there’s a duplex that looks run-down compared to the boy’s house.  The neighbors aren’t poor, but they don’t take care of their lawn.  Their porch is drab and the colors are depressed.  The boy’s mom has remarried and though he himself once used to live in a tiny duplex, now he has a backyard with flowers and a little pond and a green stretch of grass big enough for a badminton net in the summer.  The neighbors have half a yard, separated from the boy’s by a forbidding hedge.

At night, the sounds of the neighbors fighting and yelling ricochet in the small strip of space between the houses.  The father is a drunk, the mother is mild, and the two sons are effeminate.  The younger son, Jeffrey, is the same age as the boy.  Jeffrey is overweight and has a funny walk. He spends most of his time playing RPG-style Nintendo and reading comic books.  In school, he’s made fun of or ignored.  At home, he’s trapped.  Every day, Jeffrey and the boy have sex.

*

It starts with them daring each other to take their clothes off, just for a second.  Jeffrey’s dick is fat and short and the boy feels overwhelmed just looking at it.

They try everything.

Almost everything: They never, ever kiss, but each day there is a knock on the boy’s door and each day they get closer until they’re inside each other.

The boy’s sister has left for college, and his parents don’t get home until an hour after he does.  There is a knock at the door, a secret which no one else hears, and the boy goes to it reluctantly.  He knows what will happen and he can’t stop it and doesn’t understand why.

*

The first time Jeffrey touches the boy, reaching down to his testicles, it’s so intense that the boy jumps.  Are you all right Jeffrey asks.

The first time Jeffrey fucks the boy, he eases in slowly.  It’s painful, but they’ve worked their way up to it, little by little, pushing fingers into each other.  The boy has fucked Jeffrey many times by now, sliding into his large round ass and pulling out only to cum or when he discovers his penis smeared in shit because they haven’t learned to clean out.  They don’t know anything except what they’re feeling.  There’s no example to guide them, and no one to tell them how this is done.

Yet somehow they still unveil everything.

I think it’s all the way in, Jeffrey says to the boy.  When Jeffrey is still, the boy feels okay.  But when Jeffrey starts to move, to thrust in and out of the boy eagerly, to pound his thick body up against the boy’s ass, it is so painful that the boy has to keep telling Jeffrey to stop.  Stop.  Slower.  Stop.  Jeffrey is pushing the boy open, and it hurts.  So why does he tell him to keep going?

*

At every threshold, there are mysteries, and this one is no different.

Along with being a time of will, it is a time of secrets – ones that the boy who is no longer a boy tries to keep from everyone as well as secrets that the world tries to keep from him.

The boy’s mother, for example, is always confiscating things and watching him for signs of too much sex or too much violence.  His mother has a study where the boy spends hours every day, writing novels.  One day he shows a chapter to his mother – the story is about a girl who is saved from being raped.  The boy’s mother tears the black disk out of the computer in anger.  Similarly, she takes his books away – Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, and others. Once, the boy draws a superhero with fire coming from his head. Too violent, too much.

Why is it all so dark? How do you know about all of this? his mother demands.

She rips up a comic book and listens when he’s watching TV.  If there are screams or gunshots, she comes in and turns it off.

One day he’s reading a Stephen King novel in their sun porch.  The light comes through and it’s hot and sticky.  There is a hornet touching one of the windows, and though the boy is used to saving them – catching them in a glass and then releasing them into the yard – he ignores it because he’s absorbed in the book.  There is a short passage about a gay bar in the book, and it’s a world he doesn’t understand but wants to.  He’s afraid of it.  He is so enthralled that he doesn’t think to hide the book when his mother enters.  Stephen King is an author she knows.  She barely has to look through the pages, she simply picks it up and takes it away.  Not in my house, she says.

Not that it matters.  He goes to his father’s house and watches all the violence and sex he wants.  His father doesn’t care.  His father is from a little Syrian village where all that mattered was reputation and respect, and from where – his father reports fondly – if you were a criminal, they would cut your hand off or hang you in the village’s center.  It doesn’t matter if his son watches sex and violence, so long as the boy is polite, so long as he shows that he adores his father.

*

The boy closes the door to his room and masturbates.  He wonders if people can hear him masturbating through the walls, or if, when he cums, people can hear the semen hit the blanket or the paper or the tissue he cums on.  He masturbates in school in the bathroom and into his notebooks under the desk.  He makes a list of everyone he has ever thought about masturbating, and there are hundreds of names on it.  Each time he pictures someone new, he adds a name.  His stepbrothers, their friends, his sister’s boyfriends, his teachers.  Sometimes he doesn’t know the names – someone he sees at the mall, or the construction workers that work for his father who all take turns fucking him.  He is obsessed with this list.  He does not write anything on it but the names, so that even if it’s found, its meaning will remain a secret.

*

He doesn’t include Jeffrey on this list, because he never thinks of him when he masturbates.  He tries not to think of Jeffrey at all, because every time they have sex, the boy hates himself.

Jeffrey has a certain smell.  It’s not unpleasant, it’s just a trace of him, an echo, and he leaves it on all the boy’s sheets and the boy’s hands and on the boy’s face.  So the boy washes his sheets and changes his clothes.  He takes showers.  But still, the smell will creep up.  How did it get into everything?  He’ll open a book and a brief flash, a ghost of the smell, will brush his face.  When they’re not having sex, this smell nauseates him.

He tries to locate where it’s coming from – in the space between Jeffrey’s balls and his leg?  In Jeffrey’s hair?  In his armpits?  But it’s not coming from anywhere.  It’s like an aura, an outline, and a repeating loop of history.

The boy doesn’t say goodbye to Jeffrey when they finish.  He doesn’t say I’ll see you tomorrow.  He knows they’ll see each other tomorrow.  He knows that he’ll ignore Jeffrey in school and then see him the next day and suck his dick and rub Jeffrey’s cum into his chest and the new trail of soft hair that has grown on his belly.

When Jeffrey leaves, when the boy hears the sound of the front door closing, he walks into the bathroom and looks in the mirror.  This mirror isn’t like the one in his bedroom.  He looks into his own brown eyes and slaps himself in the face, hard.  Never again, he says to the mirror.  He slaps himself over and over until his cheeks are red and he fears a bruise may develop and then he stops.  More than wanting to punish himself, he does not want to get caught.  People will ask where the bruise came from and the boy cannot allow that to happen.

There is never a question of why he should hate Jeffrey, nor why he should hate himself or what they do together.  And there is no name for it yet.  The boy isn’t gay or queer.  He just feels some deep wrongness in his guts.  It’s a despair, because the boy has not yet learned to connect his feelings with his thinking, his thinking with his will.  Everything is separate, like planets circling each other unseen.

*

He decides to be obsessed with a girl – Nicki.  He talks and talks about her as if he’s in love.  He tells his friends that she’s the best looking girl in school.  She has blonde hair and is pretty, but average.  She’s not a girl that other boys would have chosen except as an afterthought.  He never talks to Nicki except once, to tell her he loves her.  The boy doesn’t even pay attention to her response, because what he’s said is a lie.  Who cares.

There are other girls.  Lots of them.  Most he doesn’t do anything with.  He spends time with them, but never touches them.  They’re perplexed – or in some cases, his aloofness, his way of not caring, makes them like him more.  There is a girl he dates for months, never once kissing her.  She corners him in a dark bedroom and he shrugs her off.  She asks him to kiss her and the boy laughs and hugs her.  What is he up to?  When she calls him to tell him she’s dating someone else, he yells at her.  He isn’t angry, it’s just that he’s learned that this is what you’re supposed to do.  When your girlfriend leaves you for another man, you show anger.  The girl cries.  She sends him a letter full of apologies and regret.  At the end, she says she loves him and wants him back.

The boy is somehow touched by the letter and the betrayal, so he calls the girl.  But instead of taking her back, instead of explaining himself, he cruelly reads the letter aloud to her and laughs.  The girl, understandably, never speaks to him again.  He is always being hurt, somewhere inside of himself, but doesn’t understand how.

And he doesn’t yet understand that others could be hurt.  Everything seems like a great show to him.  The world is dismembered; what you show is never how you feel.  What you see in others in never what is true.

For the boy, crying, laughing, affection are all just behaviors separated from the heart by the thick, impenetrable line of his body.

*

It doesn’t occur to him, but the rest of the world is feeling its feelings and showing them.

He dates another girl that he does kiss.  This girl wears black and listens to industrial music.  They have some things in common.  The girl also seems to be walking through life in haze, and they prick each other’s fingers with a needle and drink each other’s blood.  Even this rouses nothing in the boy.

One of the girls he dates has a jealous ex-boyfriend.  He gets a knock on the door and it’s her.  A surprise visit.  Come outside, she says.  I want to show you something.  He follows her down the street to the park, and there is Joel, the ex-boyfriend.  He wants to fight you, she says.  Come on bitch, Joel says to the boy.  The boy doesn’t say anything.  He looks at Joel and feels some sort of stirring – of what?  He looks at the girl and feels nothing.  Joel has blonde hair and blue eyes.  The girl seems ugly to the boy now.

He turns around in silence and walks away.  Come back the girl shouts.  Where are you going, you pussy, Joel shouts.  The boy walks back to his house and goes up to his room and shuts the door.

He carries out all these motions as if he is someone else.  There are people that do this their entire lives.

*

At his school, there are rumors about the boy and about Jeffrey, but these rumors haven’t found their way to each other yet.

No one talks about Jeffrey, except to spread this rumor.  And Jeffrey doesn’t seem to have any friends to defend him.  The rumor is that Jeffrey masturbates by sticking a carrot up his ass.  How do things like this get started, and how do people intuit the truth?

No one says this directly to Jeffrey, because talking to Jeffrey doesn’t occur to anyone.  Everyone’s got lives to live and tests to take and games to compete in – Jeffrey is outside of all that, and beneath it, the other students think.  The thing with the carrot is just known.  It’s something people say to each other.

There are rumors about the boy, too.  That he’s queer, though this rumor comes and goes in the spaces between his girlfriends.  In these lapses he suffers taunting and bullying, and then it dries up for awhile.

There are rumors, also, that the boy still plays with toys.  No secret how this was started: a girl came overto his house and saw the stuffed animal on the boy’s top bunk.  It’s not true, though in a way the boy wishes it were.  He’s tried to play with his action figures but they no longer hold his interest.  Once he could activate them with life and meaning, but they don’t do anything anymore.  They’re in boxes in the basement.  There’s no going back to them ever; their lives are done and now they’re just things.

*

The year goes on, and every day, the boy and Jeffrey fuck.

They’re in the same biology class, and the boy is waiting for a moment.  He hopes that it will be a moment that severs him from Jeffrey and their intimacy and the punishment afterward.

He buys a pen, rubber and orange and shaped like a carrot, and carries it with him.

Each day, he hopes that Jeffrey will announce that he’s forgotten to bring a pen to class.

The boy wills it; concentrates.  Ask, he thinks.  Ask.

*

The biology classroom feels like someone stunted its growth, too dark and claustrophobic, like everything at the school.  The thirty students sit at large black tables, three students to a table, in two rows, and Jeffrey sits behind the boy in the aisle over.

The teacher is unthinking and strange, and many of the students claim he used to be a cocaine addict.  He flirts with the female students and makes them all dissect things.

The boy, who is a vegetarian, resists at first but then experiences a sort of resignation to what is real.  These animals were raised to be dissected, he reasons.  They were always dead.  All that’s left is to look inside them and hope we learn something.

*

In the pan is a crayfish, and next to the pan is a worksheet with a drawing of the crayfish splayed open.  Cut the crayfish open with the scalpel and as you pull it apart, write down what you see.

Sternal Artery.  Pyloric Stomach.  Dorsal Abdominal Artery.

On the sheet these organs are different colors, but when the boy cuts open the crayfish, he sees it’s all the same shade, a sickly dull gray-green.

From behind him, a voice.

A pen, Jeffrey asks.  Does anyone have a pen?

The boy’s heart jumps.  His hands smell like formaldehyde and are covered in a film of dead animal, but he reaches for his backpack.  Where is the carrot-shaped pen?

A girls turns to Jeffrey and gives him a regular blue pen.  The boy has taken too long, the moment has passed.  But here, in the front pouch of his backpack on the floor of the dead biology room, the boy’s fingers touch the rubbery surface of the carrot pen.  He pulls it out and cannot stop or slow down.  He announces it.

“Here’s a pen Jeffrey,” he says and stretches his arm out, far out into the empty aisle, so that everyone can see.

And they all see, and the class erupts in laughter.  One girl cries out, shocked by this joke, and then laughs.  The boys laugh.  Some of these students are enemies of the boy who is no longer a boy.  But there is this moment.  If he is cruel enough, he can weld himself to them.  They may pick on the boy and bully him, but here is a defining line – he is above Jeffrey, he is above being ignored.

The teacher cluelessly tells them all Settle down.  He doesn’t know what has just happened.  He doesn’t care.  Just no laughing.

Innocently or knowingly, Jeffrey says: I already have a pen.

And there is a knot in the boy’s stomach and everyone starts to laugh again.

*

That day, after school, the boy is sure he’s done it.  He’s ended their get-togethers.  He goes up to his room and throws his backpack on the top bunk.  But strangely, he doesn’t feel victorious.  He feels like he’s lost something and made a mistake.  He goes into his backpack and finds the carrot-shaped pen and throws it in his wastebasket and turns his music on.

Through the noise, there is a knock at the door.  Leave me alone, he thinks.  He turns the music up and then goes to the wastebasket and pulls the pen out and hides it under the bottom bunk.  A secret.

And the knock goes on, and then the doorbell.

He tries to ignore it.  Please, please leave me alone.

He starts to sing into the mirror, but the mirror has changed.  He’s not anyone else now, he sees.

He can’t stop thinking: I am just myself.

So the boy turns his music off.  Then he goes downstairs to answer the door.

Extinction

24 Jul

This essay is inspired by the ten years I spent in Western Massachusetts studying writing and biology.

The road is always lined with dead animals. Beneath the red maples bursting into velvet blossoms: groundhogs, possums, squirrels, rabbits; soaking into grass and pavement. Sometimes there’s a porcupine with its quills accusingly pointing in all directions, or a skunk I can smell from a mile away until I pass what’s left of its body, torn bits of black, red, and white. If I don’t see any animals on the road home from school, I feel a strange disappointment. Not because I want to see them dead, but because where else do I see so many? I’d miss the foxes and turkeys and coyotes if they weren’t turned over on themselves, dead and pulled at by crows.

I’m in school for writing and biology. I study the scientists and their strange motions and theories. These are crazy movements that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else, like spinning bits of mouse thymus gland in a machine. Or tearing the hindguts from termites. Hold the termite with tweezers and pull the long string of its guts out, then examine it under a microscope. There are important questions to be answered.
When you kill an animal in a lab, it’s called “sacrificing.” But sacrificing to what? To which god?
I don’t know, but it’s necessary, we say.
I know that you can’t always swerve your car on the way home to miss all the animals. Not at night, when the moths smack against my windshield, lured by the beauty of red and white headlights. The wings disintegrate into scales and dust, and the legs stay smashed and stuck until you smear them into oblivion with the wipers. Or when it rains and the black slip of road is covered in frogs, looking for food and each other. They burst so easily under the tires, that I don’t even know I’m hitting them. I know it’s happening, but it feels like nothing, and I can’t help it. Nothing should have to die that way.

* *
At the Harvard Museum of Natural History, there are blown glass flowers, bird’s nests in glass cases, and huge and humbling dinosaur bones. In the lobby, there’s a greying skeleton of a sabertooth tiger. You’ll walk in, past the skeleton and the man at the desk will smile at you.

Here’s what else you’ll see: A hall of taxidermy. You’ll walk through quietly, because if you’re too loud, you might rouse the dead animals. There are heads on the walls. White rhino heads, water buffalo heads, bison heads. There are antlers that seems as long as you are tall. The air smells like sawdust, and everything is seized in place. You will think, at some point, I do not want to die alone.

The animals are grouped by family, not habitat. The polar bear is next to the grizzly and black and sun and sloth bears. The maned lion and its stuffed cub are propped up next to tigers and a leopard. There are cats you’ve probably never seen, nor even heard of; jagurundi, ocelot. Perhaps you will walk by them, look into their plastic eyes and still not see them. They’re posed in angry gestures, and their teeth are bared. They were fearsome
before they were killed. You’ll wonder if these were the looks on their faces before their faces went slack.

Next room, ungulates: black buck, oryx, eland, impala. Horns twist up and away in different paths toward Heaven. The ungulates look noble, even now with straw poking through the seams in their skin. Seams in their skin; lines you’re not supposed to see in the skin, the revelation that they’ve been emptied out.

You will feel unlucky.

To pass through the shadow of these animals is not something you’ll want to do. You’ll be captured and curious, but only if you’re a scientist who sacrifices animals each day will you feel immune in the shadows. The shadows are like doorways to a Wrong Place.
Did I say that the animals are dead? I take it back. They’re beyond death. Either more than dead or less.

And then you’ll find yourself in the hallway of extinct animals. There are no living versions to compare these to. The great auk – its beak could have been funny, it’s such a huge beak. The Eskimo curlew is here, the reconstructed dodo skeleton. At the end of the hall, two passenger pigeons huddle next to each other as if in love or cold.

You’ve seen pictures, maybe. Flocks of them so huge and dense that they blocked out the Sun. And in the pictures, too, are men with guns pointed up, trying to make a hole for the sky to come through.

The passenger pigeons are unremarkable. Pink feet, grayish feathers, nothing special if you’d see just one. But when they lived, you wouldn’t see just one. Like weather or a flood, they’d come in waves of thousands. Then they started to evaporate. There were ten, then four, then none.

The exhibit sits as if innocent. When you walk by, the fake black eyes of the passenger pigeons follow you. Your image walks upside down inside of them.

* *
Sometimes I wonder why the animals don’t just kill us all. They could destroy us utterly in just a day. And on that day, every dog turns on its owner. Every insect flies into our homes and sinuses, every bear pushes down our doors and does away with us. One violent swipe, that’s it.

Maybe they’d begin to speak, to notice our habit of speaking, notice how it organizes us.

Imagine a word from the throat of something that has never spoken a word before.

The fish would flense our bones clean, the starlings and seagulls and hawks would smash our windows and kill our planes. The moose and antelope would pound our cars in, the snakes would snap at us. Even the snails and the slugs and leaches would patiently creep down our sleeping throats.

Soon our dogs would meet the wolves; our cats would go feral. Every building would be vacated and overrun with green grass, and deer would walk in calmly and eat there.

* *

The road from school to my house in the woods is split each day by a huge train. When it passes, there’s no seeing to the other side; just a thick, blurring line and a loud, moaning whistle.

I’ve taken this train from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, and it makes its way through woods and past water. The ride is beautiful, but people don’t take the train much anymore. Why get onto a train when you can have your own little environment? You could have a car with a stereo or a truck you can put your stuff in. So across the country, there are dead tracks everywhere, like ribs sticking from sand.

Some people are wondering: what will happen if we need that railroad again? When cars can’t run because there’s no more gasoline or oil or rubber, maybe the train could save us from whatever mess we’re in. But maybe the tracks for trains are all torn up, and the blueprints for the tracks are torn up too, unreadable now, like our thoughts.

And then what?

* *
This is not a polemic, it’s only a eulogy for the animals; we’ve all got little extinctions we take part in. There are the animals I’ve killed indirectly by eating. There are the animals I would say I’ve killed by accident, as if driving a car were an accident. There are the animals I killed on purpose, as if anything I’m about to tell you is a “purpose.”

I shot a dove with a bee-bee gun once when I was twelve. It was sitting on a branch, and then not. I walked to the tree it fell from, and it had curled itself into a prayer. Its head fell to the side when I picked it up.

With that same bee-bee gun, I shot a snake. I was fifteen, not twelve, and I should have known better. I caught it from a river and threw it on the ground and shot it in the head. It flipped and twisted like a fish held at the end of a line. But it didn’t die. It bared its little fangs and I shot it again. It didn’t die. I shot it again. The gun kept snapping the pellet out, but it wasn’t enough to kill the snake, which was not fragile like a dove. This is the hardest story for me to think of. That snake. Eventually my cousin pounded its head in with a rock and asked me why I’d done it. He hunted deer every winter but couldn’t understand why I’d shoot this snake. I mumbled that I thought it was killing the chickens on my father’s farm, but that was a lie. This little ribbon of a snake, cooling itself in a river. You can spend your whole life paying for a moment like that, for when you close your eyes, you think of it.

In between on purpose and by accident are my pets. My sister and I were allergic to fur, so we always had “exotic” pets. None of them died nor lived naturally.

One turtle was left in the car overnight. It froze to death. Another, the reverse: we left it in our backyard kiddie pool on a hot summer day. We came back to its dessicated husk. The lizards were poorly handled. They’d stop eating for some unknown reason or blackness would develop on their toes and spread up their legs.

My mother kept buying these animals for us to thrill at and feed crickets or mealworms or fruit to. And then we’d forget about them.

* *
In the woods behind my house are all sorts of animals, and most of them stay hidden. At night, I’ll hear a coyote gurgle or a shuffling in the leaves and needles. Mostly they won’t come out from the tree line or from under the stones or from the branches. When they do, it leaves me breathless. I’m sitting on the steps to my back door and a deer emerges casually from the thick line of trees. He lowers and then lifts his head, then strolls away. A tree frog crawls up the side of my house and looks over its tiny shoulder at me. The screen door is covered by an explosion of green katydids, clicking and jumping onto my shoulders. A little snake comes to visit from under the steps.

How can they not care, I wonder. Why is everything in the world so forgiving?

The bees are dying. Maybe cellphones, but who cares, forget it. The cellphone towers are surrounded by the bodies of birds. Go to one and wade through their frail bodies. The fish are dying. Not just the overfished oceanic ones, but the fresh water ones too. Viral hemorhagic septicima, melting them from the inside. Maybe from the run off of shit from pig farms, where the pigs are stuck in hot metal cages, too small for them to turn around.

Hornets touch the window of my living room, but I’m not going near them to try to let them out. What if I get stung? They fall to the sill, so weightless that they could be blown away by an exhale. Just breathe and they’re gone.

When I’m at my most hopeless, I imagine the animals killing us. I imagine the world going back to what it was, only a few people left, huddled and figuring out what’s next. But if that happened, all these disasters and extinctions would show up again – because that old world, that world of grass and calm, is where all our errors emerged from in the first place. Disaster came from peace. But at least they’d have some time to rest. At least there would be no hornets in the sills or moths on windshields, no turtles left in cars, and no snakes shot and smashed.

* * *

I don’t live in the woods anymore. I’ve moved to San Francisco, maybe to get away from all those dead animals. Here, all the trees are gone, so you don’t have to worry about hitting animals. I’m sure some people consider this sensible. It’s the reverse of wanting to go back: Go so far forward, paving over everything, that you don’t have to think about animals anymore.

The sky is open and often cloudless. There are parking meters instead of saplings. There are billboards instead of mountains. There are flashing lights instead of birds chirping. What we can’t replace, we make a steel version of. When I tell people I miss the woods, they tell me about the mountain range, a forty minute drive from here. Or they tell me to go down to the docks by the shops and the tourists. Or they tell me to go to the park. The trains here seem more alive, but they don’t pass through woods. They slip into huge tunnels we’ve dug under the ground and lined with cement and tile.

The animals here are mostly pets. There are dog parks everywhere, and on the sidewalks there are people bending over to clean up after their dogs with plastic bags. Men stride through town with birds sitting on their shoulder and the birds are restrained by tiny leashes around their legs. Cats look lazily out of windows but never go outside.
The animals that are not pets are considered dirty and repulsive. People barely notice them, except when they’re avoiding them: Seagulls and rats, raccoons and mice. Roaches, house spiders, crane flies, sparrows.

Pigeons.

Not passenger pigeons, but enough of them to darken the sky if they wanted to.
On that day they’ll refuse to clean the streets for us, to eat our garbage, refuse to have their toes mangled or to run away from our feet.

They’ll take to the sky together, and blot the Sun out like we’ve blotted out the stars with all our evening electric light. Swimming in and out of each other, feather touching feather, wing touching wing. The mass will be dotted with pink feet, pulled up close to their bodies. Thousands of them, farther than anyone can see, threading through the space between buildings and splitting the Earth from the sky like the train splitting my old town. They’ll whistle and coo, beaks open and drinking air. The wind will be musty and thick and smell like sawdust.

And on that day we’ll turn to our friends and loved ones. We’ll look up and scratch our heads and breathe the hot air. We’ll believe and not believe all at once. Then we’ll turn to our pets, who are looking up too. Our dogs will be fixed to the sight, and we’ll wonder why they’re not barking. We’ll reach to pet them.

“Hello,” they’ll say.


Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School, Part 2. (Hall Pass)

12 May

 

Guys I Wanted To Fuck in High School is a series of short essays about growing up  frustrated in small-town Pennsylvania.

 

Everyone loves Mr. Haines because he’s awesome.
That’s their way of saying it – but it’s so generic.  He’s awesome, all right, but what does that tell you?  Nothing.  Here’s what I’d say about him: he’s built and funny and young and his hair is blonde. His face gets red when he’s angry or embarrassed and he lets us get away with a lot more than other teachers.  He’s smart and really interested in us, and can you tell I’m kind of obsessed with him?

His last name is the name of an underwear brand, so it’s not weird that I’m constantly thinking of him in plain white briefs, or today when he tells me to stay after class.

He’s saying stuff, but I have no idea what he’s saying, because I’ve made this deal with myself that I’m going to stare at his dick the whole time.

I’m sixteen and I’ve really just started to read and love books that aren’t sci-fi or fantasy or horror and there’s this book by Herman Hesse called Demian and it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it has this part about staring into someone’s eyes that I’ll remember for the rest of my life:

If you stare into someone’s eyes and they look away, then you know you have power over them.
So when someone’s looking at you, don’t ever, ever look away.
I’ve got this down.

In the halls, when the guys that pick on me walk by, I don’t look away.  Maybe they pick on me more because of this, but they don’t win.  And I don’t look away from my parents or the guidance counselor or teachers.  They’ve all taken a sudden interest in my “behavior.”

I’m not dumb: all “behavior” means is that I don’t act like they want me to act.  It’s only “behavior” because they notice it.  They notice my punk rock t-shirts and the stories I’m writing and my foul fucking mouth.  They only notice it because it isn’t nothing, and that’s what they want from me, a pleasant, unnoticeable nothing.

It bothers them that I don’t look away when they talk to me, so they look at each other and lose their power.

Not looking away gives another power, too: When you’re looking around, you see all the people that are looking down or have their eyes open but might as well be sleepwalking.  Or like the handful of black kids in my school, what are they looking at?  They look at each other and they look around nervously, but that’s it.  Everyone who’s not black – which is almost everyone – is looking at them and the Puerto Rican kids, and it’s a sort of scared look, or sometimes a “poor thing” look.  Or sometimes an I-fucking-hate-you look.

I know what it’s like, I guess, because for awhile, everyone was calling me “camel jockey” or “dot.”  They were so stupid, they didn’t know the difference between an Indian and an Arab.  Arabs don’t wear dots, stupid.  They’d said when you suck your dad’s dick, does the dickhead have a towel on it?  Mrs. Rothrock, my eighth grade cultures teacher, got mad at me for talking in class and told me that if I didn’t shutup, she’s send me back to Syria on a camel.  I thought, “I grew up in Pennsylvania, you dumb bitch,” but I didn’t say anything. I just listened to everyone laughing and I shut up.  I looked down then, because I didn’t know any better, because I didn’t even know who Herman Hesse was.  I was too busy reading Piers Anthony and comic books.

So anyway, if I can look in someone’s eyes, then I figure no problem, I can stare at someone’s dick.  Mr. Haines is sitting loosely in his chair, leaning back, his legs spread open.  Why do guys always sit like this – like they’re just waiting for someone to come up and suck their dicks?  Relaxed, leaned back, legs sprawled out.  He’s talking to me, but all I’m paying attention to is his crotch, which is all stuffed and full of his dick and his balls, a big bulge in his kakhi pants.

I catch a few words – it’s about my report I just turned in.  I guess he liked it, because it had “well-done” written on it in red ink.  It was a report about skinheads because it had to be about “culture” and in my town there are neo-Nazi skinheads and KKK members, so I just wrote about my own town.

I wrote it in a night, and yeah, I made up some fake sources and fake quotes – but that was only because my real sources were kids from my school.  Skinheads.

I’m still figuring out what “irony” is, I mean, I’ve pretty much figured it out, it’s just I’m not sure about this: Is the fact that the skinheads in my school hang out with me – even though I’m half Syrian, and even though the jocks are calling me a faggot – ironic?
Either way, it’s a good thing, because if they weren’t my friends, they’d scare the shit out of me.
Actually, I take that back, they still kind of scare the shit out of me.
They’re outsiders, too.  I mean, you’d never see a skinhead on the football team.  So maybe me being a sort of outcast is more important to them than my race.
Maybe being lonely is bigger than being angry.

I asked Jay and Chris for information so I could write the report.  Jay sits at lunch with me and we talk about punk rock.  He catches the yellowjackets that tap against the cafeteria window and will eat one if you pay him fifty cents.  He brings a fake gun to school and people think that’s perfectly hilarious. He gives me a tape of music by a Nazi band called Skrewdriver, and I include the lyrics in my report.
N****r, n****r,
Get on your boat.
N****r, n****r,
Get out of here
.
It’s a dumb song, but would be sort of catchy I guess if it didn’t have the n word part in it.  There’s another song about the IRA, which at first I confuse for the IRS until I find out what it really is.  And there’s this song about violent uprising and the chorus goes,  “You can shove your fucking dove/up your ass!”

Chris gives me a newspaper made by skinheads called American Skinhead.  Well, he calls it a newspaper, but actually, it’s more like a zine.  Chris is into tattoos.  All the skinheads are.  Jay has a tattoo of the word “hatred” on the inside of his lower lip.  There’s a skinhead I’ve met once that’s supposed to have a tattoo of Hitler right on his groin, and Hitler’s arm is tattooed on his dick, so that whenever he gets a hard on, the arm rises up in a sieg heil.  I know I should be repulsed, but thinking about his tattooed hard on makes me horny. Of course asking him to see it would make me dead.  So I don’t.

The stuff from the CD and the zine go into my report, and Mr. Haines is impressed, but he’s not getting hard.  If I can just stand here, looking, maybe he’ll pull his dick out of his pants and his dickhead will be flushed red like his face gets and I’ll get on my knees and suck it.  It’s like when me and my friend Courtney found out that if you stare at a candle flame long enough, it’ll move when you will it to.  At least that’s what it seems like.  Get hard, Mr. Haines, I’m thinking.  Get hard and pull your dick out.  Now.  Now.

Courtney’s half black and we talk about occult stuff and music and monster movies, and Jay hangs out with her too, which is confusing because he’s always talking about a race war.  When the race war comes, will he save her or just stomp on her head with his Doc Martens?  If we have to pick sides, I’m not sure what I’d do because there’s no side for someone like me or Courtney.  Anyway, what is a race war?  Will there be people in the streets with guns and helicopters flying above us and fires in windows?

People have been talking about race war since Rodney King got beat up a few years ago.  Whoever was holding that camera definitely didn’t look away as all those police officers just brought their clubs up and down and up and down.  Skinheads like Jay say that Rodney King deserved it and that he probably had a weapon and that if he were innocent, he would have just stayed down.  I’m not convinced, but I tread carefully, because I’ve heard the skinheads call people “n****r-lovers” when they stand up for Rodney King.

One of the popular girls, Jess, called one of the other girls a n****r-lover in the bathroom once.  At least that’s what I heard.  Maybe there really is a race war coming, because I also heard that it got back to a Puerto Rican girl (so maybe Puerto Ricans and blacks side with each other, I’m not sure) and that this girl ran right up to Jess after school.  And Jess jumped into her expensive yellow car and started to roll the window up, but the other girl thrust her hand in at the last minute.  Then she grabbed Jess by the hair and slammed her against the dashboard again and again until her face was bleeding.  When she was done, she made Jess give her the expensive watch she wears to school.  I don’t know if this is all true, but I know I like the story.
Maybe that tells me what side I’d be on.

Is it racist against white people to pick the other side?  I know what Jay and Chris would say, but I don’t think I’d agree.  The white people always seem like the bullies.  Even when they’re my friends, I’m afraid of them.  I’m not afraid of the black kids, but maybe that’s just because there’s only a few of them.

Then again, I know when I jerk off thinking about Grady, one of the black kids, I think about him standing next to me at the urinal and saying, “See, I knew black guys had bigger dicks than Arabs,” and then I’d have to suck his dick.  I know this is somehow racist.  It’s like I can’t just think of sucking his dick, I always have to frame it somehow.  I always have to think of it happening because he’s black, because he talks about being black.

Not like Mr. Haines.  It doesn’t matter that he’s older, or that he’s a teacher.  It doesn’t matter that he’d get in trouble.  In my mind, standing here after class, getting hard in my pants and wishing he’d get hard in his, I think of him as an equal.  I think he could maybe fall in love with me if he’d just get hard.
But he’s saying my name now, and fuck, I’ll have to look at him instead of his crotch.  I don’t want to look him in the eyes, I want to stay right here staring at his dick until this works out for us.
He says my name again and I look up at him, right into his blue eyes.  They’re so intense.  His brow knots up a bit, and I say, “yes,” and nod like I’ve been listening the whole time.  And then there’s this pause.  I don’t move, I don’t breathe.

Who will protect us in this town, I think.  There are skinheads and KKK people and bullies.  There are dogs that run snarling to the edge of their yards when you walk home and stare too long at them.  There are jocks and racists and homophobes and Christian crazies and angry teachers and this school, this whole school is crazy and I’m burning like a bright moving speck of fire every single day.

I look back down at Mr. Haines’s crotch and try to stay there, but it doesn’t work, everything is dispelled. I look into his eyes and can see he knows what I’ve been doing.  He sits up straight and stops relaxing, and his face turns red.  He says, “All right, you better get going,” and writes me a permission slip for being late to my next class.  I take it and turn back, but he’s already in his own world of numbers and letters, writing in his gradebook.

And I walk out into the hall and everyone else is already in class.  The halls are empty, which feels calm.  I like times like this, when there’s no one to look at, just the lines of lockers and the sun coming through the windows and people in their classes, teachers saying things I can’t hear through the closed classroom doors.

I tuck my hard on up under the waist of my pants, but I’m never sure if people can see this or not, so I walk slowly so that it’ll calm down.  I get to English class and walk in, and the same thing happens every time a kid walks into class late.  The teacher keeps looking ahead at the class and talking, but he sort of reaches his arm out for your slip.  So I walk to the front of the room and hand it to him, and all the other kids, the skinheads and the jocks and the popular girls all look at me, because they think I’m late because I’ve gotten in trouble, right?  They think I had to be in the office because of my “behavior,” but I know them.  I know how they talk about each other and hate each other.  And how they pretend to be good kids but say racist shit in the bathrooms or pretend to be racist but hang out with me and Courtney.  So I look at all of them and keep my eyes on them the whole way back to my seat and one by one they turn their eyes back to the teacher but I never, ever look away.