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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Novel Excerpt: My Life with Michael

I couldn’t tell you how many times I checked the clock. I’m sure you know how it went, anyway. You look at the clock and it’s only two minutes later than it was the last time you looked. Next time you check it’s only been three more minutes. The next time you hold out as long as you possibly can until you’re sure it’s been at least twenty minutes, and then you look and it’s still only been five. And then finally you start thinking about something else and you don’t look at the time and suddenly it’s been an hour and if you don’t hurry up, you’re going to be late. So rather sooner than I expected, it was after four and I still had to find the hotel, so I decided I’d better get going. I hastened back to the car, and it was almost a relief to be rushing around because if I instead had to think about what was going to happen in less than an hour from now, I was worried that my brain might implode and I would have come all this way for nothing.

I must have made half-a-dozen wrong turns on my way to the hotel. I’d always had a lousy sense of direction, but this was unusually bad, even for me. I was downtown, and each misstep resulted in an eternity of turning around or circling the block and waiting for traffic lights and pedestrians. By the last time, I was half-convinced I was trying to get lost on purpose. But then I realized that if that happened, I’d have to call and tell him, and having that particular phone conversation sounded even more unendurable than seeing him in person. And when I crept around the next corner, fingers clenched to the steering wheel as if it were a life preserver, the street sign told me it was the right one and there I was, driving into the hotel parking lot at last. I still had twenty minutes to spare. Why wasn’t it over yet?!

I sat absolutely still for five of those minutes, mentally commanding my heart to cease its infernal yammering. I spent the next five gathering up my things and checking to make sure that all of the windows and doors were locked and the parking brake was set six or seven times. And then it was ten till and I still had to get to the tenth floor and I figured I’d better hurry because I didn’t want to be late. What was this, a job interview? Contempt for my own foolishness finally got me going. I made it through the lobby and all the way up the stairs to the tenth floor without hesitating, and then I was in his hallway and the room was right there, but I was panting and sweating and I couldn’t go in just yet. Unless it was the thirty-eighth floor or I had a lot of baggage or companions, I always took the stairs, and now I regretted that age-old resolve on my part because I was a mess and even worse, I’d lost my physical momentum and had started thinking again about what was going to happen here. Big mistake.

The hallway was high-ceilinged and dim. Phony candle-type lanterns hung in iron brackets every ten feet along the walls, spilling what little there was of their eerie light onto the blood-red carpet. The only windows to the outside were at the very ends of the protracted hallways; I could barely make out the tiny breaks they carved into the pervasive gloom. I wondered briefly if they were large enough for me to jump through. Hoping for respite from the strangling sensation that clutched at my throat, I craned my neck skyward. The ceiling was decorated with some sort of bronze gilded pattern, and where a moment before it had given the impression of loftiness, now it seemed to be pressing down, ever closer to my unprotected skull, and the gilding wasn’t an artistic design, it was a web of interlocking chains poised to drop down and trap me there, where Michael would undoubtedly find me the next morning, huddled in a whimpering ball and ready for the insane asylum. I peeked reluctantly back towards his door. It stood tall and ominous, a large black iron knocker dead in its center. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” I seemed to hear it clamor, surely in order to summon the damned spirits within. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” And then there was a slow creaking sound, like that of a poorly-oiled door or the gates of hell opening, and I leapt into the air and from that elevated vantage point finally saw that there was a visitor entering another room down at the other end of the hall.

I exhaled. Somewhere in my head I heard chicken noises and that was annoying so I ran a brush through my now mostly-dry hair, resettled my bag on my shoulder, and took a fortifying deep breath. I took the teeniest hold possible of that big black knocker and gave it the most timid tap I could muster. “Boom!” it resounded. I heard movement inside the room, and then a chasm was opening before my eyes, threatening to swallow me up, and I held my breath as the door separated slowly from its jamb. I don’t mind telling you that in that moment I was scared out of my wits and not in the least bit horny. And when he finally appeared in the doorway the expression on his face told me that he felt about the same way.

“Hi,” I said, showing off my quick wit and brilliant conversational skills.

“Hi,” he answered back, with equally impressive eloquence.

And then we stared at each other, motionless with fear.

“Can I come in?” I asked finally, speculating with some justification that the answer might be no.

“Oh, of course.” He moved aside about three inches, and I wiggled my way out of the hallway and into the room.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Layperson’s Bible: Sexual Behavior Part IV - Chastity

Much has been made of the concept of Christian chastity; it has, in large part, governed churchly as well as secular matters, leading, among other things, to the belief that priests should be abstinent and that pre-marital sex is a sin. In fact, the virginity of unmarried women was, and to some extent continues to be, a prize to be safeguarded. Well, sort of.

For example, if a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin, and her father has the tokens proving her virginity, he must pay father 100 shekels of silver, and keep the wife. If the tokens (likely cloth showing the blood that results when the hymen is broken) cannot be found,

“Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house.” (Deuteronomy 22:21)

But, interestingly, a woman who voluntarily surrenders her virginity might also find thereby a means of securing a husband, albeit in a somewhat backhanded way:

“If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

In other words, a man can have his wife killed if he can prove she was not a virgin when they married. On the other hand, the man who actually does the de-virginizing can be forced to marry her. (I guess that’s necessary, since the poor woman who is no longer a virgin seemingly can’t marry anyone else under potential penalty of death.) In short, the woman who is trying to land a particular husband will do well to sexually seduce him. But by the same token, a smart man carrying a torch might employ the same strategy to obtain a wife who might otherwise have been unattainable.

These, however, are Old-Testament regulations. What does the New Testament have to say on the subject?

Well, interestingly, not very much. In fact, except for on the subject of marriage and adultery (see my previous post), the Gospels have surprisingly little to say regarding sexuality. Jesus in his teachings does not seem to have been overly concerned with carnal behavior; indeed, not one of his famous parables concerns the big Biblical bugaboos of homosexuality or bestiality, nor even, for that matter, the concept of chastity. So where does that come from?

If you ask me, the modern conception of Christian abstinence comes not from the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but from Paul in his Epistles. One day I will sit down and count up the number of times Paul disparagingly utilizes the word fornication; I’m willing to bet that it occurs more times in his Epistles than in the rest of the Bible combined. Furthermore, the whole concept of virginity, or at least male virginity, appears to derive from Paul, who concedes that:

“Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.
I suppose that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.” (Corinthians 7:25-26)

So here for the first time, three-quarters of the way through The Bible, arises the first suggestion that chastity is desirable for both men as well as women. Paul’s advice to both sexes? To marry, as a means of staving off unsavory and perhaps illicit sexual desires; that is, of course, if those desires cannot be quenched entirely:

“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”(Corinthians 7:1-2)

“For I would that all men were even as myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.
I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.
But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” (Corinthians 7:7-9)

In other words, the conception of sexuality as a need or desire to be squelched and frowned upon comes not from God, nor from Jesus, but from Paul’s admittedly ungrounded interpretation of what he personally thinks is best regarding carnal behavior. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere else in the Bible does any other person, however holy, recommend abstinence, which is untenable at best, as a preferred way of life. While certain behaviors may be seen as abominations, and adultery in the form of the time is strictly forbidden, no one besides Paul seems to view sex itself as a thing to be shunned and avoided.

Read, for example, Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins who went forth to meet their bridegroom. (Matthew 25) Really? Ten virgins for one bridegroom? This reads more like modern porn than like Bible-talk, and like some pretty outrageous porn at that. But does Jesus judge the virgins, or the bridegroom? Not in the slightest. Because while heavenly matters are certainly superior to earthly ones, God is, and always has been, practical; recognizing since the day that Adam and Eve left Eden that man was and always would be a slave to his flesh; that He, indeed, made him that way.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Layperson’s Bible: In Which God Forbids Fighting Dirty

“When men strive together with one another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:
Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her." (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)
Grabbing a guy by the balls in a fight? Not cool.

Friday, February 8, 2013


Twilight was always the best time of the day. In summer it fell late; hung suspended a full hour after dinner was over, waited patiently for the neighborhood to venture outside to enjoy it. And when the dishes were cleaned up and put away, while the fathers were leisurely perusing their evening papers and peacefully puffing on their cigars, the mothers would escape from housework for a time and come out to relax on their peeling painted front porches in the darkening light, relishing the cool breeze which would waft away the sweat of kitchen life. They would sit, two or three or maybe four of them at a time, and talk abstractedly together and watch their children play, allowing them even to stay out past dark, because their mothers were sitting right there watching them, making sure they were safe.

It was only on nights like these that she got to see the streetlights turning on, waking one by one for their night’s work. She loved that. How simple a thing each day to create, after a nearly-imperceptible sunset occurring beyond the hills around the town, this half an hour of silent electrical beauty. The lamps nestled amongst the trees would brighten first, scattering the evening that grew dimmest fastest in their natural shadows. And as dusk settled in, as if lit in roundabout succession by a dazed firefly which drifted distractedly from the trees to the sidewalk to the road, each in turn blinked tranquilly, almost naturally, into an evening of life.

Their street was lined with trees of all kinds, though she couldn’t identify any of them but the maples, which littered the gutters and sidewalks with helicopter seeds in the spring. But the unnamed foliage which merely shaded the street during the day enchanted it at night. There was one particularly magical section of road just a block up from her house, where one of the electrical light-poles was isolated from the others. In summer, when the coat of leaves arraying the occupants of the tree-belt was thick and full, it stood like a lonely sentinel earnest in its duty, casting its beam in the center of a vast shadow the other streetlights could not or would not penetrate, describing a near-perfect circle of yellowish brightness on the asphalt.

She would strap on her tag-sale roller-skates and head for that spot, telling her mother only that she wouldn’t go far, knowing that she would be hidden from view by the hedge lining the neighbor’s yard and that idiosyncratic bend in the road. She was a good child, and worthy of trust. But if her behavior was open, her thoughts were kept secret. Private dreams and imaginings were her own.

With a thrill of apprehension, she would approach that spotlit stage, pausing with trepidation in the shadows at its edge before daring to expose herself to the circle of light. Then, abruptly, it would happen; she would be drawn irresistibly into it. Skating shyly at first, in simple ovals, and, when she had gathered her nerve, daring to progress to figure eights. Wise she felt, tracing infinity with the motions of her body, wise enough even to pretend that her surface was smooth, her steps inaudible, her very presence undetectable. And when at last she had forgotten the fathers, and the mothers, and the neighbors, and was aware only of the dark, and the light, and the street, then it would come, the highlight of her performance: right leg extended in a slow perpendicular, erect in what she imagined was a perfect arabesque, maintained until her momentum bore her resolutely into the shadows. It was the only move she knew, but it was the only one she needed. For she was strong, she was beautiful, she was graceful. Even if it was only in twilight that it showed.

Then her mother’s familiar shrill tongue-whistle would sound, and she would hurry back home, the scarred rubber wheels rolling roughly and noisily across the worn asphalt, the memory of her performance still replaying itself before her eyes. She would sleep well that night.

* * *
"Twilight" is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $0.99 Kindle, $5.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book's webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Every Day Fiction Publication: Baby and Me

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Perfect Filmic Appositiveness of Jack Smith?

“Juvenile…trash…” Jesse Zunser, N.Y. Reviewer, on a Maria Montez flick.
“Trash…” Theater-goer’s comment, on viewing Flaming Creatures.

One man’s, not an actor’s, vision, outrageous to many, accessible to few. If we fail to perceive its “magic” it still exists, despite (or perhaps because of?) our repulsion. The film makes the vision and the world, and he makes us all believe along with him. We believe in his belief so strongly that his work is deemed a lethal danger to good American morality… “The movie was so sick,” said the senator, “I couldn’t even get aroused.” Perverse, yes, degrading even, because it demonstrates the ultimate in objectification, the most clandestine and venerated parts of the human body treated as mere toys, even as background noise or scenery. Imperfection in the accepted fantasy-land: sex minus arousal equals obscenity.

Compare to the world of Maria Montez – Montez-land – endowed with a vision, magic because it expresses one woman’s belief – and perverse because to those who can’t feel it, it cannot pretend to be real. And Jack Smith-land, the twisted vision of all the maker knows how to believe or express, so real, in fact, that its players can’t even perform it. No good perfs, lousy perfs; no one is fooled into believing the woman is really screaming. Montez minus magic. Phoniness, a seemingly endless application of lipstick, an attempt to color what remains mired in gray. “Why resent the patent ‘phoniness’ of these films – because it holds a mirror to our own, possibly.” (Film Culture #27, Winter 1962-63)Possibly, but perhaps it’s more a fear that it’s not phony enough to be harmless, and not beautiful enough to be enjoyed. With the constant revelation that what appears to be is something else: man is woman, woman man. The badness of the perf as central theme. The dead man/woman comes to life – the act alone is reality; opposites exist on the same plane, as equals.

Then Blonde Cobra. The stylized “beauty” of Venus matched with the queenliness of the good/bad twin/double repressed self. But here the Other wins; ventures into the open then is fixed as truth. “To see one person…exposing herself – having fun, believing in moldiness (…but if it can be true for her and produces delight…then it would be wonderful if it could be true for us.)" To believe, in spite of facts and feelings: impossible. Further contradictions – a moving corpse, a church profaned, more senseless stories drawn merely from words. Accepting perhaps opposing realities as one, truth the same as fiction, in not his film, but his exposure. Even in blackness his voice survives whether we want it or no. The creation of a void in which one slowly grows to hunger after the image, any image, something else to engage the attention, the eyes, for the sake of which we go to the cinema. In such a sequence of non-events/images each shimmering glimpse of his face becomes prized. We don’t have to like it to want to see it. Was that the plan?

“A highly charged idiosyncratic person (in films) is a rare phenomenon in time as well as quantity. Unfortunately their uniqueness puts a limitation upon itself.” (Ibid.) Giving himself up to “personal tweakiness,” recognizing, perhaps, the limitation; using it as a starting point. To be a creature – not man, woman, child, beast, but simply one undefined creature of the many who populate this earth. Can we find “redeeming qualities?” Why even look. If we are only driven more steadfastly into a love of “normality,” if we are disgusted and offended (as often we must be), at least we have responded. “What is it we want from film?...Contact with something / we are not, know not, / think not, feel not, understand not, / therefore: an expansion.” No one leaves Jack Smith-land feeling neutral. If we could then he would have failed. “We punish such uniqueness, we turn against it…” An easy appeal to the “open-minded” to appreciate the work, but true nonetheless. We may never miss you, Jack, but you could not be forgotten.