Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Six Eyes Are Better Than Two

In high school I spent a few weeks making out with a kid who thought he was Hunter S. Thomson. He carried his little reporters' notebook everywhere and wrote longwinded accounts of his mushroom trips at Stinson Beach. He also wrote a thing or two about me, as I learned when I caught a glimpse of his notebook one day:
It had everything to do with Linz, her beauty, wit, intelligence, artistry…I wanted to see what was behind this front that Niko and Matt tell me about.

There was something immensely satisfying in knowing that the gonzo-wannabe was thinking about me during his sessions of brow-furrowed scribbling; in a way, reading his notebook was even more satisfying than making out with him had been. He didn't know how to do anything worthwhile to my body, and even if he had, I wouldn't have known how to let him. So why did I bother?

As a means for delivering physical pleasure, our sex (or whatever it was) was unreliable. What it could deliver with remarkable success was the pleasure of feeling another's gaze on me. The making out had been mostly a game of imagining how the gonzo saw me: when I smile like this does he think I'm really enjoying myself? When I look off into the distance like that does he think I'm mysterious? With his notebook in hand, I was taking a shortcut straight into his head, seeing him seeing me without all the messy business of making out. And to top it off, these Niko and Matt characters had apparently thrown in their two cents too. It was like a gang-bang fantasy come true!

* * *

If there’s a motif in my writing on this blog so far, I think it’s this: that sex can make a girl feel split in two. It’s a phenomenon that affects me just as much now as it did at age 14, with the first boy who tried to do more than just kiss me—a yeshiva student in Israel, go figure. In that King David hotel room, and many times after, I slunk out of my body and watched from the sidelines, mocking his fruitless probing as a way to distract from my own feelings of awkwardness and inexperience.

And while I might not feel so awkward and inexperienced anymore, there is still sometimes a vast chasm between what my body is doing and what I’m actually feeling. It’s an acidic, persistent soliloquy that won’t shut up, that mocks and yawns and ultimately inscribes a circle of myself around whomever I’m with, so that our interaction is limited to the points where our bodies physically touch.

They say that for women, sex and attraction are all about being the object of a gaze. As Berger wrote: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." If this is true, it means I look out from at least three sets of eyes during sex: not just my own, but also from my partners' eyes, looking back at me (like with gonzo), and from those mocking eyes that watch from the sidelines (like on that hotel bed in Israel). I may go into sex as a unified self, but somewhere in the middle my perspectives and experiences fracture.

There's another activity besides sex that splits me into multiple selves: writing. Writing is a trick that I can't really play on myself unless I pretend I'm at least two different people. I'll write a few paragraphs from the perspective of that sex-spectator, cool and detached and utterly unsentimental, talking down to silly little me putting on a show for a boy. Then I'll read it again, this time imagining I'm the boy reading what I've written about him; then I'm someone else I've slept with, or someone I want to, or someone who intimidates me or whom I admire.

In this sense, isn't there something inherently feminine about writing? As a woman interacting with men, I’m very aware of myself as being seen—I see myself not only through my own eyes, but also through an imagined pair of male eyes. And isn’t writing a similar exercise? Don’t writers write for readers?

Even the gonzo, in his writing, was caught up with being seen—when we were making out, I could feel his gaze on me, but there was something narcissistic in the way he wrote about seeing me. He’d make a point of carrying around his notebook everywhere, and leaving it open on coffee tables to pages he must have been particularly proud of. When I caught a glimpse of my name, he actually gave me permission to read what he’d written, and then watched intently as I read his words.

The act of writing for me is a performance for fabricated readers, and it’s rare that I get to behold the beholding, so to speak. I’m always imagining how readers will see me, but I know that some readers won’t see me at all; I showed my writing to someone who read it right in front of me and was clearly skimming, scanning the paragraphs for something familiar sounding, or references to himself, perhaps. Kind of like the way he was with me in bed.

But what happens when someone really reads my writing is beside the point—it's the control I have over the various imagined perspectives that makes me go rushing to my journal after unsettling sexual encounters. I may not have control over whether the men I’m involved with see me or not, and when I feel like they don’t, sex carries a twinge of loneliness. But if sex splits me in two, writing joins me back together again—and isn’t joining what sex is supposed to do anyway? Often it doesn’t, and when I’m left feeling the weight of everything my partner doesn’t know about me, writing is an opportunity to set the record straight—a kind of reconciliation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's Not You, it's You.

The first and best rejection I ever got was from Alan Haimowitz in fifth grade. I made him a little cherry out of Femo clay and placed it in the palm of his hand after school one day.

Yes, I made him a cherry, I am dead serious.

The heavy symbolism of this particular fruit was over my head at the time, but I must have intuited enough to know that offering him my cherry was offering him myself. The next day he passed me the following note:
Dear Lindsay, thank you for your cherry. I don’t know if Sarah told you or not, but I want us to be just friends.

The letter didn’t give a reason. It didn’t apologize. There was no mistaking the message it contained: I don’t want you.

* * *

With many things, when we grow up we lose the innocent, effortless perfection of childhood; such is the case with rejection. As a teenager I learned the “I like you, but…” method: I like you but I’m already seeing someone. I like you but I’m not looking for a relationship. I like you but I’m moving to Siberia next week.

No matter how well intentioned or earnestly spoken, this strategy has always struck me as patronizing—as if the guy is scared I’m too fragile to handle the news that I’m not the love of his life, or even his sex life.

I much prefer Alan’s tell-it-to-you-straight method: you’re not to my taste. I don’t need any more reason or justification than that; taste is limited and fickle, and it’s rare to find someone who suits yours. This kind of rejection makes me feel not offended but relieved: I don’t have to prove myself or fight for your affections anymore. After that initial flash of disappointment, it’s quite a freeing feeling.

That’s why, when the need to reject someone recently presented itself, I thought it would be a great opportunity to brush up on my honesty and go with the straightforward approach:
Friday was great and fun, but after some thought, I've decided that I want to keep things platonic between us.

He asked why. I elaborated:
No particular reason, but I just don't think I feel that way about you. I guess these things are out of our control.

I wasn't prepared for his response, which was filled with spiteful-sounding sarcasm. I suppose I could have just been reading it wrong—such are the perils of electronic communication. Nonetheless, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Had I been too brusque? I sought advice from a friend, who showed me a copy of her own recent rejection letter for comparison:
I've really been enjoying hanging out with you the past few weeks, but I'm afraid after last night that our relationship may be heading in a direction I'm not really ready for. I love talking with/gchatting, climbing and biking with you, and I hope we can continue to do all of that. I just also wanted to take a step back and reassess because I'm not really looking for something romantic right now...

Sorry if this unnecessary. I just want to be as upfront with you as possible because I think you're awesome and I hope we keep hanging out. I just don't want to mislead.

Anyway, hope you're having a good day today, enjoying the rain. It's beautiful out, isn't it?

It’s a paragon of sensitivity, right? I can’t imagine someone responding sarcastically to such a beautifully-wrought rejection. But despite its kindness, it’s still total bullshit. She just didn’t find him attractive—same as me.

* * *

Before things ended the way they did with the boy I rejected, we watched the movie Man on Wire. Philippe Petit, when asked why he would string a wire between the two World Trade Towers and dance across it for 45 minutes, responded simply, “There is no why.”

His statement feels particularly applicable here. We’re always looking for reasons why we’ve been rejected, but are there ever any real reasons? Any reasons I try to come up with all sound painfully, ridiculously banal: too tall, not enough money, not smart enough, not funny enough. No, if I like you, I’ll forgive you almost anything. We might not end up together, but it’s not for lack of feeling.

Trying to quantify dislike is just as silly an exercise as trying to explain why you do like someone. When I started dating my last boyfriend, my mom asked me what I liked about him. “What do you like about Dad?” I shot back.

She thought this a hilarious response, but the humor was lost on me. What could I have possibly said? He’s nice, he’s funny, he’s a good guy—as if I could fall for anyone, or everyone, who possessed these common qualities?

No, attraction doesn’t work that way. The ones I’ve rejected didn’t stand a chance—being a little funnier or a little smarter wouldn’t have helped them one whit. Any number of people might fit your little picture concerns, but when you zoom out, the overall impression might not be that impressive. When it comes to attraction, the whole can be much more than the sum of the parts—or much less.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deconstructing the Low-Maintenance Ethic

I have a bone to pick with Sasha Frere-Jones from the New Yorker. This week he reviews Beyonce’s new album, in which she takes on the persona of Sasha Fierce, a “wilder alter ego.” Frere-Jones likes the music, but he quibbles with the message, which he sees as tame and banal:
Why is she out on the town? Because her man didn’t “put a ring on it.” But this is Sasha Fierce we’re talking about here. And what does Sasha want? Matrimony! When does she want it? Before “three good years” are up. “Single Ladies” is an infectious, crackling song and would be without fault if it weren’t the bearer of such dull advice. The wild R. & B. vampire Sasha is advocating marriage? What’s next, a sultry, R-rated defense of low-sodium soy sauce?

Now, this might sound a little feminist of me, which I regret, because feminism really annoys me sometimes (read: its reclamation of the word “cunt,” a former favorite of mine). But is Frere-Jones saying that if a woman knows what she wants and asks for it—and if what she wants happens to be commitment—then she’s being dumb and girly and cliché? High maintenance? Because that would be sort of fucked up.

Let me explain.

I used to think that being called low-maintenance was a badge of honor. Maybe this has something to do with where I grew up—I come from Marin County, which is wealthy but in a completely distinct way from the sort of wealth you might find in, say, New Jersey, where I have this image of girls clutching their Kate Spade totes close to their Burberry coats and batting their long eyelashes and twirling their pearl necklaces. Where I’m from, the only pearl necklaces we wore washed off.

I come from a hardier stock, where we peed in the woods and wore Birkenstocks and daisies behind our ears. The ultimate insult was to be called a JAP. When my high school boyfriend called me low-maintenance, I beamed. Yes, I thought, this validates the flowy skirt wearing, skinny-dipping, rock-hopping me.

But this paper-bag princess fairytale didn't hold up as well in college. I’d lie in bed next to the boy I was sleeping with—or were we dating?—trying to summon the courage to talk about what we were doing. But when I rehearsed the words in my head, I couldn’t get over how annoyingly girly it all sounded, so I kept my mouth shut. Every time I left his house, I felt the heavy loneliness of what I’d left unsaid.

“You’re not like all those other dumb girls,” he’d tell me.

“Yes,” I may well have answered, “they expect you to return their phone calls and make solid plans—but I’m always here for you when you feel like fucking.”

It wasn’t hard to figure out that those other dumb girls were the ones who wanted relationships, and that what I had going for me was being cute and fuck-able and not asking much of him. I wasn't sure how to feel about his compliment—I relished his approval, but I had won it by making him think that I didn't want the one thing I wanted most. It was a pretty classic case of putting some one else's needs before your own; this is what Sasha Fierce is rallying against and Frere-Jones is ridiculing her for.

Maybe I shouldn't blame him for not understanding. I get the feeling that it’s a uniquely female phenomenon to lose your rational faculties around a guy and start flirting on auto-pilot. This drive is so powerful that I can feel it at work even around men I'm not attracted to. In one such case, I had lost interest in my lover, but instead of telling him so, I tried harder than ever to make myself appear interested. And it worked; one night, with a spark of awe in his voice, he told me that he'd never slept with anyone who smiled as much as I did.

You don't have a clue, I thought, all smug and sardonic. But how lonely it is to deceive someone in this way, to isolate yourself with smiles. Just as lonely as lying in bed unable to speak my mind. In both cases, the person I was with was so utterly estranged from me and my wants. It's a shifty exchange we were engaged in, and neither of us knew the true score.

It's amazing how little good sex depends on trust.

And as much as I plead guilty to acting one way but feeling another, it's still hard to get over the fact that the amorous movements of other peoples' bodies do not reveal their feelings. Body language conceals and confuses, and I've had to learn to disregard it, or at least take it with a hefty grain of salt. If I can't trust your body, and you can't trust mine, what light do we have to go by? No wonder sex is so infused with confusion and suspicion.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's difficult to speak my mind, especially in sexual situations, and the last thing I need is a nationally-syndicated high-culture columnist making it even harder by furthering the idea that cool girls don’t talk about commitment.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ode to Twenty-Three

Oh to be 23!

…And to be aware of what a light and free and generous time of life this is. My career? My love life? My biological clock? None of this concerns me much. Perhaps it should. I don't care. I am unencumbered. I love my life and its fullness—a flighty fullness like an escaped balloon rather than an after-dinner belly.

We all have to eat. We have to rest. We need money, we need social interaction, we need alone time, we want to fuck, we have to breathe, we want to sit around and get high and listen to music all day long. Balancing all this used to be something I struggled with and stressed over: Run or rest? Read or write? Write or draw? Work or play?

Every decision carried the weight of a declaration: If I chose to write and not draw then I was a writer and not an artist. If I chose to stay in and not go out then I was antisocial. If I chose to sneak out to see ONE and not sleep over at Sasha’s then I was that kind of girl.

But at 23 these choices hardly seem relevant. It’s “yes, and” to everything, and lo: there’s been a pleasant effortlessness to my achievements lately, as if the choosing itself were holding me back. 23 is a bottomless pit—nothing I consume weighs me down. I have so much more room in me than I used to.

* * *

At 17 I was a brooding, moody teenager. I felt a heavy, spiteful unencumbered—a don't-owe-nothin'-to-know-no one, fuck-it, nauseous kind of lightness.

At 22 and working hard on a farm, I longed for the good life I had in college: "a lot of freedom and not much responsibility," as my dad so aptly put it. But back in college, I wasn't walking around in awe of my freedom—I didn't feel that lightness in my bones like I do now.

Girlfriends nearing the end of this fine decade tell me that their clocks are ticking. Someone who would know told me that at a certain age, women feel an almost sexual desire to procreate. Sexual! What a strange application. The only sexual desire I’m feeling right now is for sex. These women are looking for not just a lover but a father, and when they meet a man, they can see the long shadows his shortcomings cast on their future.

So remote that it feels almost unfathomable is a life with my own crop of those coveted little beings. Friends who’ve crossed that divide say simply that “everything changes,” and then they get silent and contemplative and I can feel the great distance between us.

Over on this side of the divide, I wonder: is it my age or my outlook? I’m not quite sure, but I can say this: between the heavy past and the looming future, I’m finding the present pretty palatable. Let everything change when it changes, but for now: 23! And to know how good I have it!