Monthly Archives: August 2021

A dick move

The thing about hanging out is that it’s not like it used to be. Jeremy and Emma both remember a time, an adolescent time, when certain aspects of their experience will have been similar enough. Meaning, on some things they would relate. After school, on a Friday, say, they’d be allowed to go out, meet a group of friends, and go to a movie. Going to a movie. That’s what both would’ve said to an inquiring, supportive if somewhat suspicious and “protective” parent. Don’t just hang out—that would’ve been the parent’s tacit injunction. Hangin’ out is idle time; it is the devil’s work.

             Jeremy and Emma agreed to hang out on a Friday night. Each was weary from their respective work weeks, yet eager to meet the other: first time “live”. Both had suitably professional yet murky, middle-of-the-road, 21st century jobs. Jeremy was something called an operations manager with a facilities management company. Emma was a platform coordinator for a start-up. When they’d first announced these facts it had been with flat disinterest, like they were comparing specs on an electronic device they’d just purchased through Amazon. That was their first time speaking on the phone, sometime after each had stopped swiping on the dating site in order to…I think the word is gaze, at each other. The talking was more careful than the writing. Once, over text, Emma quipped that while hers and Jeremy’s educational lives were comparable, and their ages and work experience more or less equal, their salaries likely weren’t. Jeremy’s reply had been cautious. “No doubt”, he appeared to concede while being coy, also over text. Over their one and only zoom meeting, he was less reticent, and more openly accepting of Emma’s implications. He seemed to get that he’d better say the right things, evince the right attitude, if this thing with her was to have any legs. Emma was quietly impressed. Jeremy, she decided, was brave. Jeremy, she further summarized, was “woke”.

If Jeremy had tests for Emma they weren’t apparent to her, though she might have noticed that he had noticed the lightness of her examination. After all, he didn’t have to do much to demonstrate correct thinking, and neither did much to demonstrate sublimated passion. The banalities of the workplace had been one topic of conversation so far—a shared affinity for anime was another. Jeremy had a guilty pleasure around video gaming, he affably confessed. Emma, not so much. However, on the question of bad behavior she didn’t leave him hanging entirely, betraying a habit with social media. Jeremy assessed this furtively having heard maybe one too many references to friends whose latest deeds were known via Facebook or Instagram. Neither shared about big stuff, closeted or taboo material. Twenty-somethings from in-tact families peopled with numerous siblings, they’d had their share of problems. Both had been in therapy for stereotypical reasons: Emma had struggled with eating disorder her first and second years of college. Jeremy had spent those same years “talking to someone” about things he looked at on a computer other than video games.

Secretly, they’d both heard the term sex addict from at least one mental health professional. Jeremy’s experience of this had been squirmingly painful. His counselor was bluntly manful about the whole thing, urging his patient to see pornography for what it really is: a life-dulling, women-objectifying monstrosity. Despite that agenda, the air of those sessions was self-consciously “compassionate”. Jeremy felt pitiable as he was warned about the problems of sex addiction: that he’d be at risk of being impotent; that he was contributing to the mistreatment of women; that he’d struggle to achieve half-mooted goals of being a stable, decent, vaguely religious and largely conformist family man. Frowningly uneasy, Jeremy couldn’t decide which consequence sounded the worst. Emma’s take, as in what she “took in” from therapy, had been quite different. She binged and she purged. That was the problem, so she wouldn’t “take in” easily. Regardless, the consequences that she’d been warned about relating to sex were more conventionally urgent: she was in danger, either of getting pregnant in an unwanted away, or of catching an STI; of getting raped, maybe. In her case, religion was invoked, sort of, though the problem there was her persecution via others’ judgements, not the incongruency of her own values with her actions. As for treatment of the opposite sex, it seemed that men were only relevant as victimizers, not as people who might be harmed by anything she did.

As they Ubered together to a restaurant in Bat Guano Plaza, Jeremy and Emma rolled by a group of kids hanging out on a streetcorner that was kitty corner to a mall. The pack of seven or eight were a middle-school-to-high school milieu, hovering in that stage of life wherein sex beckons acoustically. Jeremy and Emma chuckled and pointed, each dredging from memory the familiarity of shuffling movements, the sideways, fragmented exchanges that were nothing like what had been desired, much less rehearsed, ahead of time. Emma gestured at one boy and voiced a sympathetic moan. He’d ill-advisedly brought a back-pack but not a phone, so he looked a little like a refugee from the twentieth century: someone who might stand alone, gazing at a group, bereft when there’s nothing in his hands to play with. He was a runt destined to be left behind by the group; perhaps eaten by a lurking predator. That was Jeremy’s remark, which Emma thought morbid, if just about funny. Over dinner and its strolling-in-the neighborhood aftermath, Jeremy and Emma spoke further of this scene and the memories it had triggered: reflections on youth that each shared verbosely.

They were close to something; close to each other, potentially. Multi-tasking, deploying a work persona and a skill first practiced in settings like middle-school, Jeremy maintained a light if credible interest while plotting how to voice his budding, fragile desire. He fashioned in his mind how to phrase something like, “do you wanna hang out some more, at my place maybe?”. The light was dim. The hot day was ending and the moon, burnt orange as if touched by wildfire, was peaking above a mountain. Emma was strolling more athletically, keeping a step ahead of her date, he noticed with piqued curiosity, possibly consternation. Was she poised to run away, bored by him all of a sudden? Was his half-listening demeanor not nearly as winning or intriguing as he thought it was? Perhaps he should abort the whole hanging out further thing? A quick retreat and re-think: that was in order, he seemed to decide.

Emma laughed. They’d hit a private stretch, several yards before and behind them with no fellow pedestrians. Alone time. Phones were in pockets, not yet summoned for an escapist Uber ride or a shared trip to….the question lingered, the possibilities in play. What did she want? Jeremy fretted. What was she laughing about, he wondered, seeing no hapless kids around to make fun of.

“What?” he asked.

She contrived hesitation, seeming quite confident and pensive. “I dunno…I was thinking about how we talk, what we talk about. I was thinking of sending you a text, asking for a dick pic”.

He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right, was about to ask “what?” again, only in a voice that was shriller. But he knew. There was no denying what he’d heard, try as he might to erase it. Jeremy felt a wave of tension cloud over him. A pressure front stormed in about his shoulders and worked its way down, cooling his feet and then crashing on a pavement beach.

Seconds passed: a pregnant moment in which thought was past its due date. Emma’s head turned away, and pressure re-ignited, further mounting in Jeremy’s chest. He felt a crushing sensation, something familiar if forgotten arising for a second wave. Had she done something wrong? Was this another test? There would be only split seconds left for him to decide what to do…to respond somehow. Nothing said would be a response, but it would be a killer. Something said could induce a variety of effects, all of them better than silence, contrary to what Jeremy implicitly believed.

“Yeah, I don’t think so”, he uttered finally. He’d taken one moment—one more split second—to craft the words, measure his sound. No judgement. No stammering. No affect. A perfect response, he thought—one that would bring matters to an end. No more discussion. The end. The dinner date was over. Emma would soon return home to her apartment, head straight for the bathroom and purge the disgusting shrimp entrée she’d earlier pretended to enjoy. As for Jeremy, well, he would settle in for an evening before his laptop and a spell of “Catherine: Full Body”, satisfied that he would not get eaten on this occasion.

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Put on your stage face and keep the show rolling

Well, the talk happened. Some said it was good. The ‘talk’—it was good. The video slide presentation: not so much.

I felt comfortable the morning of, waiting in the wings of the stage to the “Creativity and Madness Conference” (that’s right—not the Bat Guano jamboree), chatting with a woman who would soon talk at length, detailing her life, her family, her recovery from addiction, name-dropping all the people who had saved her life. Sounded like she owed a lot to a lot of people. Me, not so much. We took a selfie. I thought that would do it. I’d wanted a few moments to myself. No matter, I soon thought, thinking I was alright, that I’d prepared well enough for my “Dr Strangelove” presentation; that I deserved to relax, indulge a garrulous conference attendee and wait patiently for my moment under the spotlight.

All was good as I started. I didn’t even need the videos for the first twenty minutes or so of my presentation, so I was free to orate about Sigmund Freud, give an overview of his career and theories, then spin a funny bit about a would-be You-Tube channel devoted to Freud and psychoanalysis. It was the opening gimmick of my presentation-wide motif: “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century”. I remarked that the 1964 black comedy had once asked its audience to laugh at the horror of nuclear war, but added that this was neither unique nor the ultimate in unthinkable laughs necessarily. Alluding to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, I offered that a great comedy about cannibalism or incest has yet to be realized. Showing off my knowledge of cinematic history, I suggested that Chaplin had done something similar to Stanley Kubrick with The Great Dictator; that Robert Altman had contributed black comedy with his thinly-veiled Vietnam protest-pic, MASH.

I brought up pictures of the main cast, made fun of General Jack Ripper, Buck Turgidson, Major King Kong, President Merkin Muffley, and the eponymous Dr Strangelove. I spared the character of Mandrake from ridicule, describing him as an everyman, a hero, or at least a kind of therapist, trying to penetrate Ripper’s disturbed mind. I roasted the minor character of Bat Guano, then added that for years I hadn’t known what bat guano is—just thought it a funny pairing of words. Then I was schooled: oh yeah…bat shit crazy, I finally learned. Little did I know that I was foreshadowing my foolishness in these moments. I indulged the “women of resilience” theme of the conference, pointing out the sexually objectified role of Miss Scott, plus observing her denial—her internalized misogyny, apologists might argue. I transitioned to a brief discourse on master Kubrick, celebrating his surrealist genius, and reflecting upon his Freudian bent: that his films observe man’s obsession with order, the pretenses of civilization, but tell stories in which that order invariably collapses. Think of HAL from 2001 as an example.

All was well in my life of order. Noting Mandrake’s holding of “temporal reality” I noticed that I was about twenty minutes into my talk, and about to detail Mandrake’s drama with a portable radio—his displacement of anxiety onto a thing, when I had my own drama with a thing. The video. The first video, of Ripper schooling Mandrake about fluoridation and then implying that it caused his impotence, was frozen in neutral, unmoving, and therefore failing to entertain. Have you ever turned an ignition to start a car only to feel its deadness? Nothing was happening with the video. It wouldn’t start, and this not starting thing was happening in front of two hundred people!

I don’t remember what I felt, for I think feeling was deferred. “I need some help, I think”, I uttered haplessly, gesturing to the AV man, a confident and casual twenty-something who quickly stepped onto the stage to assess my problem. The conference organizer, a genial patriarch, also stepped up to oversee matters and direct, Kubrick-like, the correction of disorder. The moments blurred, especially as the techie stepped offstage again to replace my laptop, only to reveal a minute or so later that no internet connection could be found by his device either. I skipped past denial, somehow taking in the news that my videos—all ten-to-fifteen minutes worth of film clips—would not be shown, and that my presentation of “Dr Strangelove in the 21st century” had been undone by this century’s signature technology, and that the crowd would be at the mercy of my oratory, not the great acting from the film itself.

For several more moments I was struck dumb, but I found my voice soon enough when the conference organizer took to the mic and seized time to make program announcements. No way! I thought. I had an impulse to kick him offstage, like Pete Townshend once did to Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock. Fortunately, another impulse took over. Serendipitously, I recalled a skit-in-progress about Mandrake and Ripper that I thought I wouldn’t have time for, and instead of collapsing in shame due to the cataclysmic glitches, I took out my prop cigar, stuck it between my lips, and told the audience that I’d give ‘em a real “live” show. I might have interrupted the organizer, but at that point I didn’t care. I had nothing to lose as I launched into a bit that mocks the Ripper thought process and transfers the drama to an imagined hijacking of vaccine-shipping aircraft in a modern scenario. Hilarious, several said later. The audience laughed and applauded when I was done with that and, buoyed for the remainder of my time-slot, I simply took my time with the remainder of the material, ad-libbing here and there.

Somehow, I made it to the finish line without falling short of my allotted time to an embarrassingly significant degree. Initially, as I hopped offstage, I was something in between numb, satisfied, and cynical. Technology had let me down, or I had failed to manage it. Regardless, either truism had at least diminished my presentation about a film that is arguably cinema’s greatest satire about the failures of technology. How apt, the organizer quipped, beating me to the trite joke. I was too embarrassed to laugh at my own misfortune or foolishness. Anyway, the rest of the conference transpired with flat yet modest interest. With the energy of anti-climax, I sat through the last presentation, an impressive non-malfunctioning, video-filled profile of jazz singer Nina Simone, who was let down in her life by racism, by men (another motif of the conference), by society as a whole but by Mississippi in particular, but not by her own instruments of music or any other technology, I thought enviously.

Perspective. I sighed, knowing I lacked perspective. I sighed, knowing I was still in a public space, inhibited from expressing my true emotion, which may have been hard to pinpoint anyway. Did I want to cry? I should have. This opportunity to talk about a pet love in the context of my work, psychoanalysis, had been long-awaited and sought after—my day on stage had been a dream come true, to invoke another trite saying. Therefore, I had reason to desire perfection, even if fate, irony or its analogue, aptness, were to prevail. Perhaps someone would, or will, delight in the connections, see the glory in the failure; the shining truth amid the glitches.

The woman who bent my ear prior to the talk hung around afterwards and kept popping up to offer support and more solicitation. Later that day, she was at the airport, getting on the same flight as my wife and I, heading to the first hub of our two-part journey. Regarding my presentation, she was kind, complimentary, and self-effacing, observing that I’d managed something (the improv) that she couldn’t have pulled off had the same problems befallen her. She affected astonishment, was hyping me to onlookers, even TSA agents who stolidly heard our conversation as they poked at our bodies and belongings. The woman was a character, I’ll give her that. She knew how to mingle, to engage, and amid the patronage of my efforts, she knew how to self promote. Before our flight, we continued to chat, speaking mostly about her, I noticed. She wanted to show her art—acrylic paintwork mostly—that was abstractly expressive about trauma and recovery from addictions. She was verbose, as many “in recovery” are, but she was earnest, and despite the feint air of manipulation, she seemed authentic.

However, things got messy as we prepared to board. She was in pre-boarding, which meant she’d be getting on first, about a hundred people ahead of us. She’d save us a pair of seats, she declared, which seemed unlikely given how full and “first come first serve” the flight seemed, but she was willful and persuasive, so the prospect at least seemed plausible. As my wife and I reflected upon our comparative passivity, we also mulled over the offer. We tentatively accepted the plan, despite our tacit recognition of fatigue and the shared desire to withdraw, perhaps nap for a portion of our journey. That unsaid plan was indeed realized, partly due to another glitch—a glitch in a system at least, if not of a thing. When we got on the plane, we saw that the woman had managed to save two seats for us. Her leg was aggressively stretched over a row of three, and as I stood next to her, poised to set down, she looked like an ardent protester who had staged a sit-in.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. An equally officious flight attendant was directing me elsewhere to store our bags, and wouldn’t let me set my valuable (if malfunctioning) laptop down by my feet as the seats next to the woman were in the first row. Quickly, I made a decision, and with apologies I said to our would-be companion that our plan wasn’t to be. She stretched out her hand with a grim look of blessing. She was letting us go, though not without a smidgen of attitude. She might have thought ill of me in that moment—that I just don’t fight enough, or something, for what I want. That might be true, though I fashioned a different meaning, one that reinforced the values of passive acceptance. Just like me, I thought, of her and of the situation. Best laid plans, and so on. Roll with it. Put on your face. Let it slide. Move on. Let us inventory the cliches, and if nuclear war, climate change, pandemics or racial war all beckon, as my talk was meant to convey, or if friends lose homes in wildfires, and if an old colleague can lose her life in a car accident, let me learn to live with imperfection.

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Sabbath’s Indecent Theater

Life is fragile. Such a cliché. It’s something we take for granted. Also dull and yet true. Next, it seems true that we are selectively moved by events, as life is proven fragile everyday, only recently it hit close to home, sort of.

I could act out on it, exhibit another truism; another banality. I could displace onto other stressors, lurking and ominous, and wholly plausible. The latest pandemic scare, the so-called Delta variant, is disheartening because it emerges upon the heels of progress. Hadn’t we thought we’d turned a corner? Seriously, hadn’t most of us gotten vaccines, observed the number of cases plateau? Everything was opening. I’d gone back to my office, invited a few patients to come in “live”. Spring had turned into summer. The sun was out and it was time to play again, in groups even.

Ugh. Are we going backwards? I know I don’t like change, and I can tolerate plateaus of varying kinds. But I thought I was okay with the past, except for that I thought I was done with. My routine hadn’t changed much, I must admit. My interior life of daily analysis, reading, work, as in listening, sprinkled with oratory, hasn’t changed much. Next week I’ll be amongst a crowd, indoors, speaking to an assembly. Not a good idea, I contemplate? I don’t wanna cancel. It’s a risk I wanna take…I think.

Do I wish I could be like Micky Sabbath, the devilish yet down-and-out protagonist of Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater? Over the last several weeks, I’ve envied some of his exploits, if not so much his fate. My experience of this novel has juxtaposed against my spring revisiting of Nabokov, and specifically Lolita, whose detached, erudite yet hebophilic narrator, Humbert Humbert, annoyed me with his elaborate denials, his tiresome reaction formations. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I’d first read Lolita in my 20s, long before I’d ever worked with sex offenders. Did I think my skin had thickened? Did I think my reactions to character, if not so much the details of sex, had changed that much? Micky Sabbath has induced a quite different experience, and he is an opposite to HH: a sort of noble savage, living mid-century 20th century, straddling wars and social movements, having lived a deceptively humble professional life as—get this–a puppeteer, and hitting his peak as a kind of circus freak in 1950s Manhattan, but gaining special notoriety for his “indecent” fingering; his generally lascivious, masculine gift.

Frankensteinish, living out a late middle age in the early nineties (and latterly set in a small New England township), Mickey’s story is largely told via flashbacks, as the reader learns about his life of pleasure and loss, plus that of the long-suffering women in his life: of his lusty Croatian mistress, Drenka; of his first wife, the actress Nikki, perhaps overwhelmed by Mickey’s toomuchness, whom he privately claims to have murdered after her never-resolved disappearance (signifying that he may not be above a crime passionale); of his second wife, the simple-life coveting, recovering alcoholic, Roseanna.

Mickey Sabbath: a backwards ascetic, described by Roth as a monk of fucking, an evangelist of fornication. The unapologetic pornography of Roth’s prose stands in contrast to the glib, avoidant phrasing of Nabokov’s character. With Mickey, we have a muscular, disrobed, phallic yet vulnerable beast, moving like a predator but eliciting concern because he is not otherwise a power player. As the author states, he has simplified his life and, unlike most womanizers, he doesn’t fit his fucking around more pressing concerns; he fits other concerns around his fucking, as if it were life’s raison d’etre. In today’s parlance, he might be termed a polyamorist, and possibly a sex addict, but one who might credibly argue that he does not fit the profile of either type: that of an objectifying narcissist with a case of closeted misogyny, for example. Instead, Mickey fits the alternative, declining yet ever lingering model of a man whose libido is simply excessive; whose desire for novelty, or perversion, or appetite to love women who are for the most part consensual, seems insatiable.

He does not exploit. On that point he is clear and especially defiant. A committed non-monogamist, he proclaims that he is deformed only by a society that demands infidelity, and challenges his mistress’ hypocrisy for demanding fidelity of him while cheating on her husband. However, he turns the tables on that score. Paraphilias? Certainly. Grieving the loss of Drenka from cancer, he masturbates in the cemetery, and comes on her grave. A voyeur and fantasist, he’d once offered to give up other women if she’d suck off her husband twice a week, all because “it would excite me”. Or, he revels at the prospect of urinating on women, and their reciprocating with their “warm juices”. Unlike Nabokov, Roth does not deflect from gory details, hoping to hide behind decorum. In this way, Mickey Sabbath curries sympathy, like a last man standing, doubly erect. A one-time puppeteer, and master of what was once dubbed “indecent theater”, Mickey skated by for most of his life, playing the role of the “dirty man”, the grinning satyr that adorns the book’s cover. With his sinewy, innate sexiness, it would seem that he’d titillated and aroused much more than he’d offended—that is, until the late 80s when, upon teaching workshop on the art of puppet theater and then supervising students individually, he disgraced himself by sexually harassing a girl forty years his junior.

Aging (into his sixties), jobless, penniless and arthritic, he presents to the reader as a hapless dependent, yet with the reader’s approval he may yet assert his individuality as he tells his back-story. In reading Sabbath Theater, I was aware of a solemn biography, of a character reminiscent of a Bellow protagonist, or an Amis lecher—of a man skirting dignity and drifting towards a wayward and lonely end, perhaps bringing to mind any one or all of the high-profile, disgraced men of the post-MeToo era. Throughout the novel, death hovers, firstly because of Drenka, as a point of focus—but also with a touch of family history. Early, for example, we learn that Mickey once had a brother named (appropriately enough) Mort, who had fought in WWII as a pilot and died at the end of 1944, shot down by the Japanese. We further learn, or at least divine, that the doomed Mort had been the favorite of a doting mother who otherwise neglected Mickey and sunk into depression after his brother’s death. It is reasonable to presume that Roth intended something like an Oedipal play within his novel’s subtext, and that a once neglected Mickey Sabbath has acted out over the course of his life an insatiable need for female substitutions.

Don’t take life for granted. Recently, I’ve had cause to think this bumper sticker wisdom due to some bad news: a one-time colleague, a supervisee, mother of two and a wife, was killed in a car accident that made local news. I’m shaken. It happens everyday, this kind of thing. It’s just that I knew her and could imagine her living her everyday life, going about her practice among other things, and then taking a vacation, unaware of the cruel fate that awaited. I’ll be going on a vacation soon, thinking I need some rest from a life that is generally lacking in risk. And I’m not even in disgrace…yet. For now, I plan to write more, spend some time reading novels like Sabbath’s Theater, whether they are salacious and brimming with life instinct, or else droll and sinister, like Lolita. I guess I’ll keep doing “live” things, and taking everyday risks, like getting behind the wheel of a car. Despite the horror, I’ll have a dirty thought or two, I guess, and let my dreams do their thing, to excess or not. Meanwhile, I’ll hide a bit in daytime, try to live simply. Or wear a mask, anyway.

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