Monday, June 27, 2005

Recuerdos de Nueva York

So, my trip to New York was good. However, unlike the trip to Madrid, it would be impossibly boring to write up, since it was pretty much just meeting up with friends the whole time, along with, of course, lots of just hanging out with the BF. In the strictures that I've set up for myself here, we would end up with a veritable alphabet soup! For the record, I saw, in order of first vocal appearance: the BF, Dr. K—, GF, McC, D—, GO, A—, and M&M. (Can anyone make those letters spell anything?) Basically the only actual New York sight we saw was The Cloisters (more because it was a beautiful day than anything else) and Century 21. (BF got shoes; I was tempted by a denim jacket, but resisted.)

In addition, upon arriving at Dr. K—'s (gorgeous) apartment, she said, cheerfully, "I have a surprise for you!" And guess what? The Advisoress happened to be in New York that very week. What luck! (Thank you, all of you who completely failed to warn me about this.) Although I'm fairly certain that all color drained from my face upon hearing that she would meet us after lunch, it was actually wonderful to see her. She did mention that I had promised a chapter by the end of April, but didn't blame me too much for not being in contact more (which, to be fair, is not entirely my fault). And the baby! She is so big!

I was, I think, forced into revealing the address of this blog during the afternoon. When I saw Dr. K— later in the week, she apparently had read the entire thing, and opined "I don't think [the Advisoress] should read this..." She may be right.

NOTE TO NEW READERS OF GREG'S LONDON RAMBLINGS: This isn't really me! It's, like, a literary persona! Y'know, poetic license and stuff!

Anyway, I've officially made my debut at that Famous London Website. They've also made it clear that they do NOT, in fact, expect a post every weekday. My beat is classical music, and that would be just too much. One or two posts a week will be the speed for now. And I would say for the record that a certain post on the site last week, that thankfully sort of did not have my name attached, I am rather embarrassed about. I had saved it as a draft, fully intending to tone down the polemical rhetoric, um, substantially. But then my editor went ahead and posted it while I was in New York, because it was a slow week on the site generally. I appear to have received some hate mail already, which I have so far been too scared to read... Eee!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Big News, Dinner Parties, Departures

The big news: I am the newest contributor to a very popular London website. They put out a call for new writers, and, feeling manic, decided to apply. Three days later, I was hired. There's a slight problem, in that I'm supposed to be the expert about the classical and new music scene in London. But I really don't know all that much about the classical and new music scenes in London. I've done a few practice posts on annoying Covent Garden posters on the Tube, and a horrible event that is about to happen. We'll see how it shapes up.

Now I know what you're thinking: Didn't Tony S— tell you not to do anything except for musicology, and not fall in to the trap of doing other work? I know, I know. It will indeed be quite a time commitment. They want 3-5 posts a week. But here's my rationale: I have been writing so much on this weird document that seems to have no end and no beginning. And no actual readers, not even my uncommunicative adviser. So I feel like it will actually help my diss if I get a little exercise writing things that start and finish and that people read. I think it'll be good, really...

I finally threw a dinner party. Some of you know how important this is to me. The guest list included the fantastic American, the architectural historian, all three housemates, and a guy who runs a non-profit that I met on the internet but had never actually seen in person. The menu was: chilled carrot soup, spinach salad with spicy walnuts and goat cheese, roast vegetables, rice, and baked cod in lemon-thyme butter. For dessert, berries in cream (this mysterious British thing called "double cream" which is good) and baklava brought by the new acquaintance. Good gay conversation.

Then we all went to Unskinny Bop. (Again! How the months fly by...) As we were walking, we found some illegal drugs on the sidewalk. This has never happened to me. It felt like... manna from G-D... Unskinny Bop was, as usual, wonderful. Although there's this friend of the guy who originally invited me who's American, and every time he sees me, he totally shuns me. It's odd.

I'm leaving for New York tomorrow morning. I'm exited.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Anxieties: Sleeping and Waking [and also Duckie]

In this morning's anxiety dream, I was an hour late to pick up my father at the airport, because I had to drop someone else off first and that had taken a lot longer that I'd planned. Somehow the fact that my father was waiting at the airport was very, very bad. I glanced at my cell phone, and saw that I had three missed calls. When the phone rang again, I expected it to be him, but instead it was an irate woman from Saudi Arabia. She informed that I was supposed to be arriving in Saudi Arabia that day, and why hadn't I left yet, and you know visas and arrangements for American academics were very complicated, and if I wasn't going to show up then I would cause a lot of trouble. I remember thinking how I never wanted to go to Saudi Arabia, but I could take care of everything just as soon as I got to the airport. At that moment I looked over and realized I was in the passenger seat and no one was driving the car, even though it was moving very fast. As the car careened off the road and began to flip over, I woke up.

Ho-hum... Could my anxiety dreams be any more obvious? Oh well. In my waking life, I attempted to get a debit card from my bank today. As I believe I explained in these pages several months ago, in this country a check book and a debit card are considered extra-special privileges—the account I have allows me to get cash out of an ATM and nothing else. How this is more convenient that putting my money under my mattress remains an open question. So anyway, when I opened this ersatz "account" I was told—nay, encouraged—to apply for an upgrade after I'd been at my current address for six months. As of June 5, it had been exactly six months since the move-in, so I duly made an appointment, showed up five minutes early, sat around for twenty-five minutes waiting for them call my name, and then had a meeting lasting approximately two minutes in which the woman (who appeared to be, in Kim's enduring phrase, "from the Isle of Officious") told me that there was no way they could upgrade my account. Guess why! Guess why! Well, I'll tell you: I do not deserve a debit card because there is not enough money coming in to my account. Well, sure! Why else!

If this makes sense to anyone, please explain. I was warned before I came here that it might not be worth my time trying to get a UK bank account, but I didn't believe it. But at this point, I really can't think of any way that having this damn account has done me any good whatsoever. I pay for everything in cash anyway, and any money I might have saved from the foreign ATM charges my US bank would charge me are more than eaten up by the ridiculously exorbitant wire transfer fees that I've incurred in order to move money from the UK to the US to pay my US bills. So my advice to anyone coming to the UK—just don't open a bank account. As a special added bonus, you won't have to deal with the absolute worst customer service I have ever experienced in any private business in any country ever. We're talkin' DMV-level service here.

I had to buy myself a tie at T.K. Max afterwards just to make myself feel better. It's Famous Labels Month at TK Max, kids! Liberty ties for eight quid!

The big news of the weekend was Duckie, a club in South London that is London's near-analogue of Trannyshack. I had been told that I had to go to Duckie even before I'd arrived in London, but had never gone because the journey home from South London on a night bus would be just that little bit more torturous. That alone kept me away for this long. In any case, it was a really great night. I went with R— (who needs a better pseudonym, since there are too many R—'s: this is the prematurely-shacking-up one, not the traveling-to-Brazil one). R— is rapidly becoming one of my most treasured friends here; he's a total sweetheart, and sharp, and fun.

I shall have to go several more times before I can evaluate with any authority how Duckie and Trannyshack actually differ. Some obvious things: The website declares that Duckie receives funding from the Nation Arts Council, and I think this is not a joke. The ol' Shack is, um, not taxpayer-supported (although I would so love to read that grant proposal). Also, Duckie is hosted by a zaftig lesbian from New Jersey in a big Shirley Temple dress and Alberta Straub glasses. Trannyshack is...not. The crowd at Duckie is slightly older than I expected, although just as hip and rowdy. Differences in the audience probably have a lot to do with its being on Saturday night at 10:30, rather than Tuesday at midnight.

The biggest difference was that there were only two acts, and this seemed more or less normal. I believe the shortest T-Shack show I ever saw had at least 5 or 6. The first number was a live song about the death of River Phoenix, sung to the tune of "American Pie." ("Bye, bye, you vegetarian guy / Took a speedball at the Viper, on the pavement you died..." etc.) Witty! The second number was a girl in a chef's outfit who lip-synched while stripping off her clothes and throwing desserts on herself. The climax came when, after exposing her breasts, she dumped a huge bowl of trifle over her head. The resonance with things that go on at Trannyshack is fairly obvious here—I'm specifically reminded of that mud-drenched "Dirt Baby" number from circus sideshow night about a year ago. It also relates to some unseemly goings-on at The Teacher's Pet's former employer.

Oh and the music was fantastic. Old stuff, weird stuff, new stuff, and Kate Bush.

Finally, one more thing for the "Greg hates being a foreigner" file: I was talking to an English acquaintance, and explaining how I'll sometimes go without rather than risk saying the wrong name for something. He asked for an example, and I said, "Well, I take my shirts in to get cleaned (an extravagance, I know, but it feels so good). In the US, they always ask you if you want starch, and if so, how much—but here they never ask. If I could, I'd like some light starch on my shirts, but this is exactly the sort of thing that would have a different name, so I'm too embarrassed to bring it up." My interlocutor was dismissive of my anxiety. He said that it's just called starch, and that I should just ask for it. Emboldened, when I took my shirts in today I said "I'd like starch please!" And then...the blank stare from hell. He looked at me as if even asking him for this non-existent substance was somehow personally inconveniencing or insulting him. "Y'know, it makes the shirts a little bit... stiff?" "You mean, ironing?" he suggested. "No. Forget it."

This was immediately before the debacle at the bank. Moral: never ask anyone for anything ever. Anything besides simply accepting what you've been explicitly offered will only end in heartbreak.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Well, that's enough of that

Okay, so that was diverting, but we now return you to your regularly scheduled amusing anecdotes about my life. Let's never do that again, shall we?

Have I mentioned that I've started running? I have. Three times a week, for 20 minutes. I've now done it two weeks, that's six times total, which doesn't exactly constitute a lifetime commitment yet, but I think it's more than a one-off at this point. I have done no strenuous physical activity whatsoever since arriving in this country, and I, as much as I'm not the sort of person who goes to the gym, doing a little activity really does make things go better—you sleep sounder, more energy, more focus. I believe this.

I wonder, however, if the sudden (if marginal) increase in my activity level is making me more anxious that I would be other wise. Like, perhaps something in my reptile brain has concluded that since I'm running so much I must be in danger. Just got a pile of letters forwarded from my mailbox in the Berkeley department, and in typical fashion, I'm putting off opening everything up.

I'm having bad dreams more frequently. This morning I woke up after having a dream which started as the dismayingly common "on stage without knowing my lines" dream. Common for other people, I mean—it's not a dream I'm used to having. In any case, I had to step in at the last minute as—you guessed it—Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. I had to jump in for his final scene, the hunting party where he's stabbed in the back by Hagen. And, as these dreams usually go, it wasn't until I was on stage that I thought "I can't sing! I don't know the words!" As unlikely as it sounds, the other characters on stage tried their best to cover for me, as the orchestra played on and on. I thought "If I just die realistically, it'll be okay." So I get stabbed, and I really ham it up, and then I snuck off stage.

But as soon as I got off stage, I saw this person I went to college with. Someone I haven't seen in four or five years, and that I didn't really know that well in the first place. I shall refer to her by name on the off chance that she googles herself and finds this: it was Mary Jane Rubinstein. She is a theologian, last I heard. But just as I went over to talk to her, she slipped off of the ladder or fire escape or whatever she was on, and plunged head-first onto the highly-polished marble floor. I could hear her skull cracking. For some reason there was no one around—in the dream, it had something to do with the fact that everyone, including the backstage staff and stuff, had to be somewhere else during the Immolation Scene. So I ran and I ran thought the backstage of the theater trying to find help. I thought I could take a shortcut, but that just led me to some are with tiny, tiny hallways, and I got more and more lost, frantic to find help for Mary Jane, and then I woke up.

Pretty standard stuff, I guess. About an hour later, I got a call from the BF. He thought I sounded out of sorts. It honestly didn't occur to me at the time that this might be why.

Last night, I saw the ENO's staging of the Handel oratorio Jephtha. GF: apologies for not texting you at intermission, but I had my hands full convincing my companion, the architectural historian, not to leave halfway through. It was okay. Good sets, some good directorial decisions, some okay singing. I'm still not 100% percent convinced that staging the oratorios is really a good idea.

Tonight: R— is back from Brazil, hopefully with stories.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

I have written a poem


Non ille, quamquam Socraticis madet
sermonibus, te negleget horridus....

What should I call you, you who called out to me from the clearance rack at the Gap so many years ago?
You second skin,
You battle flag,
You means,
You end,
You whose scars would cost a premium if hanging on a rack, but who was plain and blue when I first saw you,
You whose back right pocket turned into a shredded mess, then into a duct-tape patch, then was professionally removed altogether,
You who rides low on my hips without sagging around the ass or entirely veiling the crotch, as if to say "boys, I want it, but not too much,"
You who appears to me, a vision, in my mirror below the eight tee shirts I just put on, one after another, each one not quite right,
Or whom I struggle into as I stumble out of bed to talk to whomever it is who's ringing the doorbell at this ungodly early hour,
Oh, MY FAVORITE JEANS, come down from your hangerly abode
Or (more likely) rise up from that indistinct, liquid mass on my floor,
Or his floor,
Or that other guy's floor,
For convention demands that I cover my legs, and the other means at my disposal have come to seem like a pale imitation of you.

Can we imagine a time before jeans?
The fashionable know, they tell us, that when we are in doubt, we are to wear jeans.
They tell us never to wash them, or, if we must, that the best way in the shower, while wearing them.
The poet tells us that we should dress to be noticed, or to be invisible, but never both.
The sociologist tells us that men's clothes became invisible, at a certain moment, for certain reasons.
Men's clothes began to trumpet the fact that they weren't trumpeting anything.
Jeans hover uniquely, precariously between theses antipodes.

And now? Are these pillars labeled "ostentatious" and "unnoticed" in the process of melting into air themselves?
Can we imagine a time after jeans?
Could we go back to britches and a waistcoat?
Could we wear skirts everyday? (which men, rationally, should have been wearing all along, right? I mean, honestly, think about it for a minute.)
How many more times can I pay to have the crotch of these old things patched?
The pockets are disintegrating again; I just felt a few pennies slide down my leg and hit the sidewalk.
There is a strange rip on the thigh that I can't explain.
The cuffs at the ankle are slowly wearing away.

But it's only Saturday.
Tonight, let's get out of here, you and I.
With a little luck, and just the right tee shirt, we will stumble into a cab together, headed for some distant, unknown suburb, just as the sun comes up.

The Identity vs. Community Celebrity Death-Match; Or, Your Subculture Needs You!

So this is just a first draft, and a fragmentary one at that. It's also rather belabored, and vague, and needs some specific examples... but bear with me, okay? When I said I wanted to spout off a little bit about my feeling against gay "identity," Van Twee responded with a frankly appalling anecdote which really does put his finger on the distinction I had been planning to make. In his words, the villain in his story "uses gay identity to trump gay culture," turning a poem that makes a grandiose philosophical claim into a very small bit of confessional auto-analysis. This cheapens the poem in question, obviously, but I want to stress the way that also cheapens homosexuality. What if the poem Whitman actually wrote was, in fact, conditioned by his experience and a lover of men? If we're going to say anything about that, then we need a radically different perspective than Prof. One-Million-Dollar-Endowment... a perspective that places homosexuality the beginning of the interpretation, rather than the end.

I don't actually mean this to be only about literary criticism. The flaws of Daniel Harris's 1995 screed The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture are many and obvious: it is dated, occasionally embarrassing, it tilts at windmills, it is blind to many new cultural developments that were well underway even in 1995. But for me the most powerful critical move he makes happens very quietly, almost understatedly: he chooses to treat gay culture just like any other subculture. That is, gay culture is not measurable as a genetically-defined statistical minority of the population, like the left-handed. Rather it is a social fact, defined by social interactions, special spaces, rituals, shared experience, language—I like to group all these things under the term "folklore."

We have a lot of models and analogues for thinking about such a social fact. (I use the word "folklore" because of a good Alan Dundes article here, which defines the term in this way, although he's certainly not thinking of the fags in the article.) The most obvious analogue for me, though, is the way we teach the concept of "Black music" in Music 26 (Music in American Cultures) at Berkeley. We give the students a long list of features that appear in various African-American genres (regarding musical structure, social organization, material culture, etc.) but then we stress over and over again that this is NOT a checklist to determine how "Black" a particular example is. Rather it functions as a set of family resemblances—a collection of traits that any given example may participate in, or not, for any number of reasons. (Then, after we've explained this many times, we write it again in big letters with a red pen, because the kids never listen to a word we say. But I digress.)

This understanding of the nature of gay culture perhaps doesn't seem that radical, or controversial, but it is deeply at odds with other ways of thinking about what constitutes the gay population: homosexuals are born that way; they are defined through sexual acts ("preferences," "orientations"). I have a term for this, which I picked up from an ex-boyfriend (the "bad" ex, for those of you familiar with him): "the MSM ideology," or occasionally "the MSM nonsense," with MSM standing for "Men who have Sex with Men"—the epidemiologists' alternative, inclusive term that doesn't "force an identity" onto anyone.

Larry Kramer, incidentally, has a name for this too: "being defined by our dicks." The phrase occurs in the rather insufferable play, The Normal Heart. (And I should add that Mr. Smearcase has recently said "when Larry Kramer starts sounding reasonable, we know we're in trouble." Indeed!) But Kramer follows his denunciation of being defined by our dicks with his alternative, a "culture" (his word) which includes the pantheon of Great Homos throughout History. (I can't be bothered to actually look at the play again, so I couldn't exactly tell who's on the list. But you can probably guess: Proust, Chaikovsky, Michaelangelo, etc.) The problem with the speech is both that it ends up being a smidgen too booster-ish about the whole thing, and (at least as far as I recall; it's been a while) doesn't actually enumerate what might be on the inventory of family resemblances that might bind gay cultural production together (and given the scope of this, he might be implicitly rejecting the idea that such a inventory is possible).

Daniel Harris is less reticent. In fact, he's fairly unflinching. His gay culture consists of not only the obvious: special slang, a unique aesthetic, humor, wit; but also things like drag, effeminacy, a particular way of thinking about sex, and particular sexual practices themselves. He even puts on the list elements like self-loathing and sexual degradation.

What do we gain by thinking of gay culture in this way? It is the same point that my ninth-grade algebra teacher made by way of justifying why one should understand algebra: not only because it is useful, and not only because it is beautiful, but because it is a human accomplishment. It is something that a group of men, living under very real oppression, created for themselves. Harris himself uses more concretely political terms, arguing that "diversity" is, in itself, a societal good—that gay culture is American culture, and when gay culture is dead and gone, transformed into a demographic that is marketed to, or a box to check on a epidemiology survey, then American culture has been diminished.

(Of course, this does not for an instant mean that any cultural product or trait is above moral or aesthetic evaluation. The passage to bear in mind is that place in the introduction to Taruskin's Defining Russia Musically where he asks us whose side we're on: the students in Tienanmen Square who ape the language and imagery of the West, or the Red Army tanks defending the special uniqueness of the Chinese experience? We can and must condemn things like historical gay culture's misogyny and self-loathing, while acknowledging their importance in the homosexuality of the past, and without allowing them to taint everything that constitutes the subculture.)

So, the point is that, for Harris, gay culture was already dead in 1995. For him, visibility and assimilation are fundamentally incompatible with a subculture's continuing vitality. He was wrong, but it's not hard to understand his pessimism, since he points to instance after instance where very public, very high-profile gays express open contempt for the actual social facts of gay subculture—in effect willing it out of existence. This includes men trumpeting how well they can ape patriarchal masculinity, couples trumpeting how well they can ape bourgeois marriage, and all the "we're just like you" propaganda of visibility. He quotes people who openly dream of a time when being gay is "just like being left handed." For anyone who actually treasures he elements and products of gay culture, this statement is frankly chilling.

The thing is, we have models and analogues for thinking about this dynamic as well. Lots and lots of subcultures have managed to will themselves out of existence by deciding that their own languages, practices, and folklore were inferior to those of some other culture. Maybe in some cases this worked out okay. In a few rather, er, high profile cases this was shown to be the most catastrophic trade-off imaginable. But, although Harris doesn't allow himself to, we can all imagine how an individual can participate in, and actively create, embody, a particular subculture without forgoing other cultural identities and practices. In fact, every human being on the planet (or at least those who live in non-totalitarian societies) has done this at one time or another. Furthermore, we can all imagine particular American minority groups who have argued for their constitutionally guaranteed equal protection under the law without having to pay for these rights in exchange for their cultural specificity. (We demand equal rights, including marriage right, because we are citizens, not because we are "just like everyone else.") I leave it as an exercise to the reader to come up with specific examples for each of these cases.

If anything proves that Harris was wrong to announce the death of gay culture, it is the fact that in my recent travels it become obvious I have something in common with gay men from vastly different countries, something not essential, but rather fundamentally social. (And no, I'm not talking about the "international language" here, you filthy people. Well, not much...) I'm not saying I have everything in common with every homo everywhere, but I am saying I have something in common with almost all of them, and I have a lot in common with many of them. The other thing that proves Harris wrong is the fact of new developments within gay culture that are actually about creating something new by and for the gays, rather than "representing" ourselves to the broader public (or uncritically taking on the culture that was invented, so to speak, "for export only").

If I ever get inspired again to kill time by rambling on like this (dissertation? what dissertation?), I let you know what (and where) I think they are. But, um, does any of this make sense?

Monday, June 06, 2005

28 Names

So, this morning I woke up and got to work early, so I decided to write out a list of people I need to write emails to, both work-related and friends. Pretty much just off the top of my head, I ended up with a list 28 names. Twenty-eight! The list ranges from certain people whom I still call "really good friends" when they come up in conversation, but with whom I have not communicated with whatsoever since arriving in this country, to, um, the president of the AMS (although her reply is only a week late, rather than seven months). Having made a list, I then sat down and wrote... two emails. Only twenty-six to go!

(The twenty-eight names do not even include the invitation I need to write for a dinner party I'm tentatively planning for the 18th, which would add six names or so to the total.)

So anyway: maddening musicology colloquium on Jimi Hendrix at Oxford last Tuesday. Brilliant, brilliant musicology colloquium by the famous R—M— last Wednesday. (He's doing well.) Binge drinking in Camden on Thursday. Popstarz with new friends R— (the American) and O— (the eccentric) on Friday. Mysterious Skin on Saturday. Bernstein's Mass performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on Sunday.

This last one deserves a little comment. Everyone always thinks that Mass is a big disaster, right? Hippie shit appropriated by the establishment's establishment, or something like that? Godspell rewritten by the Radical Chic? Well, it is, sure... but I'll be damned if it doesn't really, really work on stage. And there is some stunning music. And some of the embarrassing lyrics are actually rather effective. That one recording sounds so very, very earnest... but that earnestness can be (and perhaps even in 1968, was?) undercut by the cynical sneering and (self-)parody in the staging. This production (in the Barbican Theatre) decided to make absolutely no reference to the 1960s at all—and in fact a lot of the stage business was cut. (Significantly, they decided to not actually show the moment when the celebrant throws the eucharistic bread and wine on the floor, the (actually still rather shocking) climax of the entire piece.) I was worried that British singers wouldn't be able to pull of the very vernacular American English—but it turns out they used mostly American soloists. The result was remarkably fresh. I might even say "relevant." (Now more than ever...?) And the audience response was rapturous, which completely surprised me—the biggest ovation I've ever seen in Britain. Mass! Hear it again, for the first time!

R— still has my PNP New Yorker thingy...

Did I mention I'm coming to New York in, uh, two weeks? Everyone I know in New York: y'all are toward the top of the twenty-eight...