no one thinks it’s him/her – but it could be you

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Anger and frustration are the only two feelings I can put into words regarding the maelstrom surrounding … well, everything – the exhausting everything – around #metoo, sexual harassment/assault, consent, sexism and the whole bubbling stew of every related thing that can be stirred in. It’s too complex and all-encompassing, touching on so many issues, to be able to parse effectively. Even if I could separate all the component parts, I am too indescribably angry and frustrated to do so.

But the thought that keeps coming back to me again and again is this line that people draw (I use the word “people” here because sometimes women are the ‘predators’ and sometimes men are the ‘victims’ – and even these labels are not going to be detailed and inclusive enough – but that isn’t my point): the line where one person stands, on the side of which (s)he (“he” from here on out because it’s usually a “he”) really, truly believes he has never done anything wrong. The “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line. It could be you standing on one side of this line, firm in the belief that you have never assaulted someone, never harassed someone, never pushed someone beyond their comfort zone, never took advantage of a power dynamic that essentially left the other person feeling they had no choice. But you could be on the other side of that line as much as any of these things could have happened to you.

I was more fired up about this particular point many months ago, but never had the time to articulate this. This is always the danger: when you don’t act immediately, the passion behind your motivation dissipates, or fear, or antipathy – any number of things – creep in. You just want to forget. You just want to move on. How many of us have just wanted to move on? We can see how speaking out may get your voice a megaphone (see #metoo), but the results can end up being terrifying (see the Kavanaugh confirmations and Christine Blasey Ford; oh yes, we’ve come so far since the divisive Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill case. No… history repeats and just a lot of noise around something that… goes on being exactly the same).

There are no consequences for those, particularly powerful white men with powerful white male friends, who abuse. Make as much noise as you want – it has not changed the real way in which such cases and complaints are handled, nor how victims are seen and treated. Certainly not in the court of public opinion.

And, as several articles highlighted as the Kavanaugh story got underway: both of them could well be telling the truth. Because in a man like Kavanaugh’s mind he never did anything wrong. This is how the “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line is drawn. All these people (again, primarily men, but I do know women who are wildly inappropriate to near-criminal levels) truly believe they never did anything wrong. Anything that happened was the norm, was expected, was agreed to.

One of the first times I really thought about this was when I stumbled across a video discussion among a group of relatively well-known actors and some lesser-known but still influential entertainment-industry type men called “Man Enough:. Essentially they sit and discuss together in frank terms their own transgressions, acknowledging that they never really saw the extent of the problem but eventually realized that it is also all of their responsibility, i.e., lamenting all the times they never said anything to stop others from behaving badly (which could mean a vast range of things) toward women. They acknowledge that their silence is complicity. But at the same time, while they may have alluded to their own actions (not necessarily treating women with as much respect as they should have), they still perceived themselves as being on “the right side” of this “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line.

But, if I take their discussion to its logical conclusion, it’s every man. No man thinks it’s him, but it is every man. In one way or another. No man in the video acknowledged that he has no way of knowing whether some action he took in the past might have been perceived as taking it too far. Almost no man (particularly those loud, prominent pro-women types) walks away from what he thinks of as a consensual encounter believing he did something wrong (assault, rape) and “got away with it”. It’s the fundamental thinking about these things that’s wrong. It is fundamentally a problem of not just thinking and acting on that sense of entitlement and “societal norm” on which he relies, but firmly and completely believing that whatever he has done has been consensual.

In cases where power dynamics are at work, or women have been cornered and go along with something they don’t want, it is not because they really consented. It is because they took the lesser of what they feared – giving an aggressive, out of control, overpowering man what he wants right now might save her life. Never mind that it will haunt her for life – at least she will still be alive.

But accountability – no. A man who goes through the world in which, if they are not overtly, openly “grabbing women by the pussy” – but are “just grabbing them and kissing them”, is a predator but will never, ever see himself that way.

This also came to light recently in Seattle, where a well-known businessman, David Meinert, was accused repeatedly of a persistent pattern of sexual assault and intimidation – all of which he tried to deny. Early on in the media, he tried to deflect the accusations by asserting his place on the right side of the “No Man Thinks It’s Him” line; he went into damage-control mode, and issued halfhearted apologies that amount to trying to demean and diminish what his victims endured, claiming that he had believed the people in question had wanted everything that they had done (consensually). And he may well have believed this. But the pattern of intimidation, coercion, threats, the power differential, and the sheer shock some victims felt as these events occurred (i.e. “is this really happening?”) is well-established.

The power dynamics and fear dynamics at play are things most men are not going to understand. They will swear up and down that they would never disrespect, much less force or hurt a woman, but do not understand that their insistence and manipulation is already disrespect, force and/or hurt. When forced into a situation where you’re afraid to say no, you are not fully consenting. Your ability to freely consent has already been taken from you.

No one is immune

There are, though, some very blurred lines.

Take for example the very blurry territory of consensual sex that turns into crossing boundaries that turns into assault. I read an article during the height of the #metoo publicity about the challenge of delineating when assault has occurred in a consensual relationship that contains mutually agreed-upon rough sex. The rough sex story hit a nerve because it’s right on that boundary – you have readily consented to have a sexual relationship in which you each agree to a certain kind of sex, which then can be twisted and manipulated and turned into an easy excuse to abuse you and then used against you when you realize you have been abused. I didn’t realize until recently that the discomfort, and unsettled feeling, I had about a former relationship, was largely down to this. And I am 100% certain that the man in question would never, ever imagine that he had abused his power, the very clear power differential (I was very young, he wasn’t) or me. I had consented and agreed – in his mind, I had liked it. Even when it reached the stage that I did not like it, did not agree and did not consent. He held all the cards, and I spent a long time convincing myself that I was agreeing to “exploration” – anything not to confront the reality of what had actually happened.

This line I refer to, the “I’m not that kind of guy”/”No Man Thinks It’s Him” line, isn’t just a line that men cross, as I mentioned earlier. Less blurry, but certainly an area for discussion, of course, is when women assault or abuse men, which can be and often is, coercive and manipulative. (This does not begin to cover the violence, abuse and assault in every demographic, e.g. gay and transgender populations, which is disproportionately high and very important, but not within the scope of this rant.) As a man in my life stated about his own experiences with a woman perpetrator: “If a man were perpetrating these acts on a woman, it would be assault. It would be harassment. It would be rape.” Society isn’t prepared to see woman-on-man acts as something unwelcome or that a man would not be willing to have happen. And yet it happens all the time. With the #metoo movement came a few media stories about similar tales, such as the Asia Argento ‘backlash’ and a story about an NYU female professor accused of sexual harassment by one of her male students. If we want to get to a place (however unlikely that seems at the moment) where women can come forward with what has happened to them, and today we defend women who are not listened to or believed, we have to do the same for men in similar situations.

As I told someone around the time these revelations came out, we have all done things we are not proud of. We should all be reflecting on how our actions will affect other people. It does not need to rise to the level of assault or rape to be questionable and worth self-reflection and/or remorse. A big part of the problem is that so many of the (mostly) men, those on the “right side” of this line I’ve cited, who have been accused still don’t really believe that they perpetrated assault/rape. They genuinely think they used their power to gain consent, and even that coerced consent still equals consent. They will never reflect on their actions and the meaning of those actions to realize, “Wow, I did something wrong. I hurt someone.” If they pretend to reflect at all and apologize it’s never “I am sorry for what I did and that I hurt you” but rather “I am sorry if you think I hurt you”, placing the blame/perception of harm back on the victim.

clean up

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“The problem with sex is the same as with any addiction. You’re always recovering. You’re always backsliding. Acting out. Until you find something to fight for, you settle for something to fight against.” –Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Go back and see all the things you’ve missed. Try to exit regret gracefully, as the mess you made lacked all grace. Nothing you have said or done can fix your recalcitrance. You can only be – and try to be something more thoughtful than you were before.

Said and read – July 2018

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It seems I only managed to read 23 books in July, even though it felt like more. But there were many skipped days; many days when reading seemed out of my grasp and more of a grim prospect. Why? I don’t know. Was it the unrelenting heat that didn’t let up for more than two months? Was it other concerns? Was it the length or other demands of the material I did read? I can’t answer these questions. I can say that though I enjoyed most of the things I read in July, I wasn’t as immersed in my reading – perhaps because there really were more things taking my time and focus.

Many things I read brought my late grandmother to mind. Seeing as how she is the one who instilled a near-obsessive love for reading, it seems appropriate.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in June, May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for July:

Highly recommended

*Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern RelationshipsChristopher RyanCacilda Jethá

The last book I read in July, Sex at Dawn was certainly the most engrossing. While I didn’t find its organization to be entirely logical, it was full of such fascinating information that … well, organization be damned. It was hard not to devour this book in one sitting. One might argue that it’s just because this book is about sex, which automatically makes it more titillating than anything else. But no, it’s more that this book uses scientific inquiry/discovery, evolutionary biology, anthropology and a broad range of studies in multiple fields to question the western (and highly American) approach to sex, which is to tether it to moralizing and, moreover, monogamy.

Some observations are particularly relevant at this point in history, i.e. things we’ve been indoctrinated to perceive as ‘instinctive’ or ‘natural’ are conditioning:

“Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.”

And who doesn’t want to see almost primitive drawings of the great apes that illustrate their penis and testicle sizes?

*Homeland and Other StoriesBarbara Kingsolver

I am not usually a short story kind of person, but Kingsolver’s collection had a few deeply poignant stories. And even the most surface-level among them had resonance. Kingsolver breathes life into her characters, even in a brief story; she makes their dialogue (both verbal and internal) so true to reality, even when they express things that are difficult to capture (and she makes it seem so effortless).

“It’s frightening, she thinks, how when the going gets rough you fall back on whatever awful thing you grew up with.”

“You know what I think? Immortality is the wrong reason,” she said, and suddenly there were two streams of tears on her shiny cheeks. “Having a child wouldn’t make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal. It’s just one more life you could possibly lose, besides your own. Two more eyes to be put out, and ten more toes to get caught under the mower.”

“A friend of mine, new to extramarital sex, said she loved how condoms kept everything neatly packaged up, but I didn’t. I knew I would wake up in the morning missing the stickiness, proof that someone had needed me in the night.”

*The Collected Poems of Audre LordeAudre Lorde

It’s Audre Lorde. It’s poetry. Do I really need to say more?

“A woman measures her life’s damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy
whistling
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father’s hands upon them
and soundlessly
a woman begins to weep.”

-from “Afterimages

*Collected Poems, 1974-2004Rita Dove

from “Parlor”

“We passed through on the way to anywhere else. No one lived there but silence, a pale china gleam, and the tired eyes of saints aglow on velvet. Mom says things are made to be used. But Grandma insisted peace was in what wasn’t there, strength in what was unsaid. It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind.”

Poetry, of course.

I loved this thought: “It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind”. I loved that the grandma in the poem said it because it made me think… my grandma would have said something similar (probably likening reading to a room you enter only in your mind, opening an invisible door to imagination). Also, it made me immediately think of a book I read some time ago – The Room by Jonas Karlsson. Was the main character mad/insane because he believed he was entering a room that no one else could see?

Good – really good

*Boy, Snow, BirdHelen Oyeyemi

Not having enjoyed the only other book of Oyeyemi’s I read not too long ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Boy, Snow, Bird… but I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know until after I read it that it was inspired by the Snow White fairy tale and taken as a departure point from there. Looking back on the book now, it’s quite clear – the obsessive relationship each character has with mirrors (‘mirror, mirror…’) and her (in)ability to see herself clearly (or at all) in the reflection is a clue.

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.”

I can’t describe what I found as engaging as I did with this book – I felt that the characters were rich and intriguing, and this is probably what guided me through. There are bits that feel underdeveloped (e.g., the somewhat abrupt and almost inexplicable shift to ice-queen evil stepmother – this is not really explained fully by the birth of the stepmother character’s own child; also the end-of-story reveal about the stepmother’s father’s identity – it’s not shocking but seems to be delivered in a bundle, quickly, all of a sudden, and that doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of the storytelling and its pace).

I think the treatment of identity, shifting identity and “passing” (whether it’s passing within another race, another gender, as another person when you move to a community as a complete stranger, and particularly taking on the title and identity of being a mother) are important and fascinating aspects of how this book is written.

*The End of the Affair & The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene

For many years, I’ve intended to read Graham Greene. In my reading frenzy of the last two years, I tried a few times but couldn’t find e-books until now. I started with the two best-known (to me) because both were made into relatively well-received films some years ago. Neither film could delve as deeply into some of the more philosophical aspects covered by the books, but both films were decent representations of the stories and their characters.

“To me comfort is like the wrong memory at the wrong place or time: if one is lonely one prefers discomfort.” –The End of the Affair

While both books held my attention, I think The Quiet American struck me as more powerful at the time of reading – perhaps because the questions of faith in The End of the Affair were tedious to me; perhaps because the objectification of the Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American took on a fascinating edge as I compared it against real-life developments in the lives of people around me. Who knows?

“‘But she loves you, doesn’t she?’ ‘Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliché to call them children—but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them—they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like—just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure—she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.’” –The Quiet American

While TQA does not exactly rob the female character of all agency (she does make choices), her voice is not heard as an active part of the story. Two men claim to be in love with her and fight for her in their own ways – but neither can possibly know her. The older, more cynical of the two (the book’s narrator and anti-hero) knows he cannot know her and acknowledges and accepts the transactional quality of their relationship. The “quiet American” (Pyle) meets the woman one night and claims, after having shared a virtually wordless dance (they don’t speak any of the same languages) that he is completely in love with her and wants to marry her. (I’ve seen variations of this ‘insta-love’ played out among people I know, particularly in cases with these non-communicative dynamics at play – when lust is essentially the only factor the lovesick individual can be relying on.)

On an entirely different note, The Quiet American is set against a backdrop of post-colonial Vietnam – the French are leaving and the Americans are rolling in. The titular quiet American is the… all-American/pro-American, naive, anti-Communist, black-and-white type who sees none of the nuance of the culture or the conflict, i.e. insisting that the Vietnamese “don’t want Communism”, not seeming to grasp that many Vietnamese – like people in any country – aren’t for or against ideologies. They just want to live.

“‘They don’t want Communism.’

‘They want enough rice,’ I said. ‘They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.’

‘If Indo-China goes …’

‘I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does “go” mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember—from a buffalo’s point of view you are a European too.’

‘They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.’

‘Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?’

‘You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?’

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘we’ve brought them up in our ideas. We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut. We deserve to have them cut. I wish your friend York was here too. I wonder how he’d relish it.’

‘York Harding’s a very courageous man. Why, in Korea …’

‘He wasn’t an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation.’

…They didn’t answer: just lowered back at us behind the stumps of their cigarettes. ‘They think we are French,’ I said.

‘That’s just it,’ Pyle said. ‘You shouldn’t be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism.’

‘Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife. I’ve seen a priest, so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup—a wooden platter. I don’t believe in God and yet I’m for that priest. Why don’t you call that colonialism?’

‘It is colonialism. York says it’s often the good administrators who make it hard to change a bad system.’

‘Anyway the French are dying every day—that’s not a mental concept. They aren’t leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians—and ours. I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven’t a liberal party any more—liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists…” – The Quiet American

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Cancer Ward/Раковый Корпус Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I reread Cancer Ward after about 20 (or more) years, and this time read it in English and Russian. When I read it in English so many years ago, I found it engrossing but, as with all translations, wondered what nuances I was missing. Just like with Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, which I reread a few months ago, I found that the sentence structure in translation is very different. There is usually such clean simplicity in the Russian – that’s not to say it is simple language or prose. Rather, it just isn’t the verbose and over-egged English translation that marks most translation of Solzhenitsyn that I’ve read. Not that I want to go about attempting to translate anything myself – more power to those who take on such labors professionally. It’s just a blessing to be able to read the originals myself and compare the two.

“It was simply that we grow dull with the passing years. We grow tired. We lose all true talent for grief or for faithfulness. We surrender to time. Yet every day we swallow food and lick our fingers—in this respect we are unyielding. If we’re not fed for two days we go out of our minds, we start climbing up the wall. Fine progress we’ve made, we human beings.”

Coincidences

*CompulsionMeyer Levin

Once upon a time, my family moved into a house that had some hideous wallpaper adorning the walls of the extra bathroom. Apart from its obvious yellowing from age and being in a household of heavy smokers, it featured depictions of classic cars from the teens and 1920s, one of which was a Stutz-Bearcat. I don’t recall any longer what some of the other motors were, but the Stutz is fresh in my memory because every time my grandmother came to visit and went into that bathroom, she would emerge to tell the story of how infamous murderers Leopold and Loeb were, in part, caught because of their Stutz-Bearcat.

I am not sure how many times in my life I heard the story of the 1924 crime in which two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, conceived of committing the “perfect crime” and then kidnapped and killed a young boy with whom they were vaguely acquainted. At some point I saw a film called Compulsion, which told the story of the crime, the ensuing investigation and the eventual trial that spared both Leopold and Loeb from received death sentences (thanks to their attorney, the famed Clarence Darrow). I didn’t know at the time (I must have been in high school) that the film was based on a fictionalized account of the crime and trial, also called Compulsion, written by Meyer Levin. I also had no idea that Levin’s book served as a kind of template/model for later true-crime writing that came later, e.g. Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood. I eventually also saw a low-budget indie, Swoon, which dramatized the Leopold and Loeb story, and focused on the fact that the two men were involved in a homosexual relationship, which is something that the film version of Compulsion ignored and the book dealt with to some extent but, given the time of its publication, homosexuality was still widely referred to as some sort of sickness, mental illness or perversion.

It’s only recently that I decided to read the book – and found it to be a fascinating and more detailed look at the case and how it unfolded. I am sure my grandmother would be thrilled.

*Dangling ManSaul Bellow

Something about how the main character in this novella reacts and has increasingly violent, disruptive and unpredictable outbursts (“I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely.”) feels too familiar – reflections of all the people I have known (there have been too many) who throw fits about seemingly nothing and overreact to everything. It’s always frightened me, but it has come to anger me as well.

“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candor, a closemouthed straightforwardness.”

While I can feel compassion for those who are clearly struggling with something – probably some form of mental illness – it always feels oppressive to live in the shadow of these kinds of people. In that sense, if it’s not mental illness that drives them to behave this way, it’s a way of being that robs others of their sense of security, safety and comfort and plants within them such fear that they never trust or can never, by extension, truly experience intimacy in their lives.

Reading this I was not as interested in the main character/narrator as I was in his wife and her inner life, about which, of course, we learn next to nothing. (Not unlike how I always want to dig deeper into Sonia in Crime and Punishment.) How does the narrator’s wife choose to stay with him, support him and live on edge all the time, never knowing when one of his outbursts is going to create a scene, turmoil in their lives (e.g. getting them kicked out of their house) or ultimately add to her already heavy burden?

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*White TearsHari Kunzru

Recommended to me, I was hoping for something… else. I don’t know what that something else is/was, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s not that White Tears was bad – there are some compelling thoughts in it about cultural appropriation, about authenticity, exploitation and privilege. But I felt at times that it was just too taxing to read about these unlikable characters whose only identities (as was the point, I suppose) were intertwined with this endless search for this (artificial/non-existent) pinnacle of the real, the authentic… to the point of complete madness. However, poking fun at hipsters is always welcome.

“When you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened. For you, it happened, but somehow they remember it differently, or don’t remember it at all. You can tell them, but it slips their minds. When you are powerless, everything you do seems to be in vain.”

Said and Read – March 2018

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February and early March were months of grave loss and anxiety. I was only peripheral to the losses, but central to the ‘support offensive’ in all cases. Thus when my reading steered me toward thinking on grief and consolation, it hit nerves (this applies to at least half the things I read).

The last part of March felt a bit like a lonely waiting game, stale waiting rooms in familiar outposts, always with the Kindle in hand because… who knows how long one has to wait anywhere she goes? People often ask me how I manage to read so much, and this is how. I never go anywhere without my fully loaded Kindle. I never know when I’m going to be forced to wait… for some office to open, for a delayed plane, taking a long train journey… even five or ten minutes when my companions excuse themselves to discipline or put their children to bed or take a phone call. Every single minute is one in which I can immerse, for however short a time, myself in some other world, some facts I didn’t know before. I am obsessive in this way, and when I am not feeling like a slug, I tend to the extreme: ultra-productivity and speed.

It is in this way that, as March comes to an end, I’ve read 115 books so far this year. Sure, I am a bit behind on my stated original goal of only reading non-English-language books (or at least reading 26 such books alongside all the others), but I am still making progress on that front as well. Some languages read more slowly than others (for example, I read a very short German-language play, and it took time because, well, German is not actually a language I know. With a background in linguistics and Scandinavian languages and English as well as a rudimentary course called “German for reading knowledge” that was a requirement during my university years, in which I did not learn German for reading – or any other kind of – knowledge, I can piece together the language in written form, spurred on by my late-in-life enthusiasm for contemporary German television (Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83) and German/Berlin-themed tv (Berlin Station, Counterpart) and my own on/off Berlin-based life).

And that brings me to my reading recommendations for March:

*Betriebsunfall im Olymp” – Roxane Schwandt
Yes, the aforementioned German-language drama mentioned above. If you don’t know/read German, this probably isn’t for you, but it’s a timely, satirical take on the geopolitics of our time and the underlying valuelessness of humanity while at the same time assigning a price tag to the commoditization and automation of life (devoid of humanity). I didn’t know what to expect but was impressed by its incisive grasp on and illustration of the absurdity we live in today.

“Die Freiheit, sich mit der Waffe seiner Wahl umzubringen.”

*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Один день Ивана ДенисовичаAleksandr Solzhenitsyn/Александр Солженицын
Ivan Denisovich might not be the most original choice, but it’s one that I took up in its original Russian (having read it once in English about 20 years ago and skimmed it again just before reading it in Russian this time). It’s fascinating to compare originals to their translations (something I ramble about at length frequently); in this case, many of the sentences in the English translation feel much more convoluted than the somewhat stripped-down and direct quality of the Russian ones. I think this takes away from what is much more powerful in the original – embellishing the simplicity of the language does not add to what is essentially a gritty and brutal story of life in a Soviet gulag. Had I read the original Russian in college when I should have, I’d have seen the unfamiliar word contextualized appropriately and would have learned that no, in fact, “посудомойка” is not a dishwashing machine, as my hapless fellow students and I learned when our Russian instructor laughed at us for thinking such an abjectly foolish and improbable thing.

Translation is a funny thing, and not unlike a form of lying, or at the very least a (wildly) subjective interpretation of something. I’ve long considered its implications, and attempt, when possible, to avoid translations (which isn’t always realistic). This partly explains my drive to read more original-language works this year. Thinking back to the university years, I am reminded of how professors referenced specific “authoritative” translations of specific works; reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – which I recommended without reservation last month – this same theme recurs. Its prickly protagonist is a translator and complains about the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of some translations and the particular contexts in which certain translators come to render their versions of the translated reality. What stuck with me was that this narrator uses the well-known Constance Garnett as the primary representation of these failings, and Garnett was always the go-to translation of specific Russian-language works back in college. I often wondered back then about how and why a translation eventually becomes the ‘anointed’ one. Alameddine expresses perfectly how it ends up playing out:

“The memory seems both real and unreal, reliable and tenuous, solid and insubstantial. I wasn’t even two when he died. I must have configured these images much later. Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (from –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine)

*The Master of Insomnia: Selected PoemsBoris A. Novak
Along with Tomaž Šalamun, Novak is one of two poets from Slovenia that I have never been able to get enough of.

“My only home is my throat.”

*Bright, Dusky, BrightEeva-Liisa Manner
I’m a poetry hoarder. What can I say? The lean, spare imagery of Finnish poetry always gets me.

*Giovanni’s RoomJames Baldwin
How beautiful this book is. At once simple and complex, it’s somehow a perfect marriage of so many themes alongside elegant but not overwrought language.

*Fugitive PiecesAnne Michaels
Often my favorite poets, whose work I can revisit repeatedly and always find something new, write prose that I can’t stand. This is true of Marge Piercy, whose poetry is so vital that I can’t imagine a life without having read it, but whose prose books are tremendous labors to get through (with, I must say, no payoff). But Anne Michaels? She extends her command of the language from poetry to poetic prose and weaves such a beautiful and sad story.

Good – really good – but not great

*They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill UsHanif Abdurraqib

“America, so frequently, is excited about the stories of black people but not the black people themselves. Everything is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, or a march where no one was beaten or killed.”

*Gjennom nattenStig Sæterbakken
It’s in Norwegian and the final book Sæterbakken wrote before he took his own life. Contemplation on grief and loss. It’s available in English translation.

*Kaddish for an Unborn Child Imre Kertész
Difficult but beautiful reading. For so many reasons.

“common knowledge that we don’t know, and can never know, what causes the cause of our presence, we are not acquainted with the purpose of our presence, nor do we know why we must disappear from here once we have appeared, I wrote. I don’t know why, I wrote, instead of living a life that may, perhaps, exist somewhere, I am obliged to live merely that fragment which happens to have been given to me: this gender, this body, this consciousness, this geographical arena, this fate, language, history and subtenancy”

*Sadness is a White Bird Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Beautifully written story of a young Israeli man, recounting in ongoing-letter format his close friendship with two Palestinian siblings, and his own conflicting feelings about his service in the Israeli military.

“’Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?’ Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”

*VisitationJenny Erpenbeck
Conceptually interesting but didn’t grab me the way Erpenbeck’s other works have.

*SepharadAntonio Muñoz Molina

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly DepartedLaurie Kilmartin

“REMEMBER: If you are a Late Orphan, check your Old Parent privilege. Yes, you have suffered a loss, but if you had your parent for more than three decades, you still won.”

*IndependenceAlasdair Gray

“A lower standard of living combined with a higher standard of education explains why so many Scottish emigrants have settled successfully abroad.”

Not everyone is going to be into this one; as Gray himself writes, it’s a kind of ‘pamphlet’ by a Scot written for other Scots on the subject of Scottish independence and related matters.

*Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexMary Roach

“It didn’t matter. Testicle madness was in full bloom.”

A somewhat humorous Sunday drive through many different topics as subjects of scientific studies on sex, sexual behavior, response and sexuality. It is surprising how many conversations one can innocently stumble into on the subjects covered in this book – everything from length of ejaculatory trajectory to penile implants.

Coincidences

*The AttackYasmina Khadra
I mention this one because I got about 20% into it, thinking, “This is so familiar. Did I read this before?” And then I remembered that I’d seen a film adaptation, L’attentat. That explains it. I preferred the film for some reason – might just be because I saw it first. But ultimately, I read the book the same day I stumbled on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast that deals with the subject “We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded“. And this is at the heart of The Attack‘s protagonist and how he didn’t know his wife at all.

*We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler
This is another one that I was speeding my way through without thinking much of it, but I hit a certain point when there’s a surprise/reveal, and I realized I was reading a book some guy told me about sometime in 2016. He had never told me the title or much about the story, but he had expressed with considerable anger about how “betrayed” or “misled” (things he seems to have been obsessed with in every facet of his life) he felt by the story’s twist. Now having accidentally stumbled into the book, which I could have taken or left, I think less about the book itself and more about his ‘bewildering’ (to use one of his choice height-of-condescension words) reaction to it. At the time it seemed awfully reactionary, but in hindsight, so much about him seems that way.

Biggest disappointment

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisJ.D. Vance
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t find this particularly compelling, maybe because this is in many ways so close to what I can observe in some of my own distant family. Beyond which, I am never impressed or taken in by anything that rests on the conclusion that a hard-won triumph against all odds is only possible in America, “the greatest country in the world”. No, not true. When stories or memoirs go down the lazy patriotism path, I stop paying attention.

Happily, I didn’t hate anything I read this month.

Sexuality

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In my experience, anyone who avidly, eagerly gives voice to his own ‘sexual generosity’, talking it up, is fooling himself. Why would you need to brag if your prowess speaks for itself? Also in my experience, straight men are the only people who, generally speaking, do this. (Always exceptions, of course.) They are, quite often, as with many other aspects of life, a lot of talk and very little action – and this mismatch between saying and doing leads to a whole hell of a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to me or anyone else to learn that a recent survey concludes that lesbians give women far more orgasms than men.

“You could say that straight women are least likely to achieve orgasm during sex, but it’s just as true to say that if you have sex with a straight man, you’ve chosen the demographic least likely to make you come.”

I’m ignoring the “you’ve chosen” statement above, as most people don’t choose their sexual orientation or the ‘demographic’ from whom they seek sexual pleasure (although I grant that anyone could at any time choose to have an experience with just about anyone if they want to). But clearly the idea that it’s a choice is still something pervasive for a lot of people. When I shared the original article via social media, there was the inevitable comment: “So are you converting?” Could there be a more idiotic question? It’s no wonder things are the way they are in the world. Even if there were a choice, this assumption that someone would choose the option where she gets more sexual completion ignores all the other parts of interaction and relationships?! As if the orgasm is the only thing that matters to anyone in the long run. I guess we know where the person who would ask this question places importance.

The survey attempts obvious explanations, e.g. women intimately know the anatomy of other women, so of course they will give each other more orgasms. I tend to agree with the article in that it criticizes this glib conclusion. Every woman (and man) is different and responds to stimuli differently. Even ignoring interpersonal, individual chemistry, it does not come down to mechanics and technique alone, although those factors help. The article points out – not that this will come as any surprise either – that heterosexual sex is, implicitly, focused on the man’s pleasure and outcome first and foremost, so when it’s done for the man, the whole experience is done.

And, as poet Howard Nemerov will remind us anyway – and this is probably true for all of us, no matter our orientation, gender or age – “We think about sex obsessively except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.”

Reading Pornography in Old Age
-Howard Nemerov

Unbridled licentiousness with no holds barred,
Immediate and mutual lust, satisfiable
In the heat, upon demand, aroused again
And satisfied again, lechery unlimited.

Till space runs out at the bottom of the page
And another pair of lovers, forever young,
Prepotent, endlessly receptive, renews
The daylong, nightlong, interminable grind.

How decent it is, and how unlike our lives
Where “Fuck you” is a term of vengeful scorn
And the murmur of “sorry, partner” as often heard
As ever in mixed doubles or at bridge.

Though I suspect the stuff is written by
Elderly homosexuals manacled to their
Machines, it’s mildly touching all the same,
A reminiscence of the life that was in Eden

Before the Fall, when we were beautiful
And shameless, and untouched by memory:
Before we were driven out to the laboring world
Of the money and the garbage and the kids

In which we read this nonsense and are moved
At all that was always lost for good, in which
We think about sex obsessively except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.

Mundane tasks as it gets late

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I didn’t think my post from yesterday about the podcast on mismatched libidos over the course of a marriage would be particularly pointed or any more relevant than normal, but then had a whole conversation with a friend who claims to be avoiding sex as much as possible. To a nearly pathological degree. Sleep is so much more important now. She may just be extending our long-running jokes on the sex lives of married people (she’s a married person; I’m not), but it’s hard to say.

She claimed, “We are old!” to explain her lack of interest, and I said, no, it’s being tired and having small children that created this situation. I am ever-so-slightly older than she is, but I don’t have kids. I am not struggling with the urge to hide from sex. It’s like with everything else – if you have obligations and schedules and are in any way confined to a certain pattern, the ability to slip easily into some … mutually aroused space is hampered, if not impossible. These things shift and change with time and the phases of a relationship. But what do I know? I am only guessing.

On an entirely different note, I finally – after literally three months of half-hearted looking around – located the correct outdoor lightbulbs for my outdoor lights. Yeah, seriously – lightbulbs. That’s what it’s all come down to. For a while I could get away with not replacing the one that was burned out, but this week the second one gave up the ghost, so it was time to ramp up the hunt (eventually had to order the pesky things online, as I do with everything). Mundane.

As I read more, I also look for more complementary music for reading. Tonight, back to reading about Congo while memories and dreams of Prague sail through my head alongside the sounds of Smetana.

Observations

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Is there anything more dismal than frequent emails from frequent flyer clubs where you will never have any kind of status?

Probably.

Hardened
…Like letting memory wander aimlessly back to revive details such as the wiry, coarse, invisible hair that thickly covered K’s sinewy, hard arms, attached to an explosive, compact, bony, muscular body. Somehow this improbable package provided unfathomable pleasure when hidden away in a dark room somewhere, even if K’s hip bones protruded to penetrate almost painfully deep into the soft flesh of the thick, pillow-like thighs of the other, which made her resolve never to become hard like this herself.

Retail therapy
…Like reflecting on the fact that the most successful department store, at least in the Seattle area, has boomed using boozed-up retail – killing it by bolstering your consumer confidence with some bubbly while brainwashing you to buy more Burberry. (Apparently there is a bar in the Burberry section.)

Reading aloud
…Like spending untold hours reading books I’d never read myself but following through because I promised I would, even if the promise is almost a decade old.

It’s been one of the things I sometimes do – reading books aloud and recording them (these days making MP3 files) – for a big part of my life. Either for my grandmother, who lost her sight late in life and therefore also lost her life’s greatest passion, reading, or for dyslexic friends, who could understand their reading better by hearing it. It’s time consuming, sure, a labor of great love actually, but also a labor of learning for me.

Today I told someone I was reading what amounts to an (amateur!) audiobook, and he exclaimed, “It’s a job! Like a real job. But one that Jeremy Irons does!”

Photo (c) 2013 Vassilis.

Stud service & choosing adventure

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In fluff-journalism/women’s magazines and similar trash, headlines promise us wisdom and insight into topics like “sex after 40”, as if there is a visible and tangible threshold over which people (women in particular) cross after 40. If we are to believe the spate of coverage, it would seem that once the line is crossed, you’ll become invisible, sex will be harder to find or have and might have physical complications for one reason or another. And men too will face their own complications. I may exaggerate here – it’s not always directed at someone who is 40, but maybe to the 50+ set, 50 being the age that the AARP has declared as “senior citizen territory”. And all of this designed to stir up self-doubt and make us wonder if we’re normal (as if we haven’t been wondering that our entire lives) and whether we need this pill or that cream to normalize ourselves and our sex lives.

Is sex, or finding sex or sex partners or people to date, marry, fall in love with, or having sex, really any different at a more “advanced” age?

I am not 70 yet, and maybe all of this will change in the coming decades. But for now, no. There are other people in the 40-something age bracket who also want to have sex and are in the same situation. There are people in lower and higher age brackets who also want to have sex, even with people in their 40s. Just like all the other ages and times in one’s life. It’s almost exactly the same now to meet people as it was when young. The venues have changed, the way our lives are arranged have changed, and we tend to have a lot more baggage, more peccadilloes and preferences, and possibly less patience or tolerance for nonsense. But we’re the same horny people (most likely) as we were when we were 20. (Yeah and somehow this came as a surprise to me when I was much younger meeting people in their 40s, 50s and so on.)

I refer you here to the German film (leave it to the Germans) Cloud 9 (Wolke 9) if you’re left with doubts. It’s a lot of elderly people (people 65 and much older) having sex and having affairs. You will see what I mean.

Different concerns perhaps arise – or don’t arise, as the case may be. Haha. (But there’s nothing big pharma won’t try to cure for you if you’re a middle-aged man.)

For example, a woman spends so much of her younger life thinking about birth control, but it becomes less of a concern later, until it is no longer a concern. Maybe this late-life/still-fertile time is a little complicated because pregnancy is unlikely but still possible, and would not be welcome (less welcome than at 25, 30 or even 35). One friend recently treated me to a semi-lecture on fertility the other day, also reminding me that if we wanted to have a child together (or truer to say, if I were to request stud service), the window is closing, but is not closed. For me, though, it is closed. I have closed it. Another friend, the Schwarzenegger-soundalike (god help me, I can’t listen!), when I mentioned something about people having kids in their 40s, dismissively said, “Yeah but that time is over, no?” Yes. The answer is no.

My body is saying no, no, no.

Not only is my body saying no, so is my mind, my lifestyle, my freedom, my flexibility and everything I have worked to cultivate. I have my life almost exactly the way I want it – why would I want to ruin that now? Every part of me now screams out with the realization that that time is over, if it ever existed. But I had to learn the hard way.

What purpose does this serve now, though, going over the sexuality of middle-aged people and the merits of childlessness? I woke up with these thoughts in my head, turned over to read more of Congo: The Epic History of a People, but still felt like I had to mull this stuff over.

What purpose? None really. Only that it ties in (if only by a thread) to one of the things I try to remind myself of daily: Life is short (how did I arrive in my 40s already when, as a child of six, I would stare at the clock and think what an eternity ten minutes seemed to be?) and, if you are able, you should prioritize the adventure. Whatever adventure it is you choose to go on. For some, that adventure is becoming a parent in middle age. For others, it’s running off last-minute to faraway places spontaneously and continuing to see the world. For many, it’s to “dare” to be a sexual creature after 40. The adventure is different for everyone.

And that comes down to one of the biggest, but possibly most rewarding, challenges of life: Really knowing yourself and what you do and do not want.

Photo (c) 2007 Byte Rider used under Creative Commons license.

Lunchtable TV Talk: People meet… what comes next?

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With the ever-expanding variety of TV-style content available at the ready, old themes are taking on new polish. It’s no secret that storytelling is becoming more nuanced and diverse, and storytellers are becoming freer to tell their stories without the constraints of things like network TV schedules and limitations, demands for typical romantic sitcom tropes or pandering to certain audience demographics. Within this landscape, different kinds of romantic comedies are finding their “hour upon the loom of days” (cannot resist, however inappropriate the tone, an Ezra Pound reference…).

In the middle of these emotional days, I watched the widely praised little comedy, Catastrophe, which chronicles the accidental relationship borne of an accidental pregnancy resulting from a casual one-week fling. The couple decide to make a go of it, with the American half of the couple moving to London to pursue a relationship with the Irish woman he’s knocked up. I won’t heap rosy praise on it (other viewers have done this enough), but I will concede that it can be quite funny and “real” in ways that most sitcoms laboring under this premise could not be.

Given my state of mind, though, it mostly made me sad and reflective. Thinking about how people meet and what propels their relationships forward. How is it that they decide, “This is what I want. This is the person I want to be with”? It would be easy to say that the characters here chose to be together only because the woman was pregnant, neither party to the couple is particularly young and perhaps neither felt they had much to lose. The show did a good job at making the relationship feel more deliberate than that by highlighting the doubts and fears the characters felt – particularly the woman. The man seems quite sure (and reassuring) and never strays from this underlying conviction, even when friends, family and circumstance try to convince him otherwise.

Perhaps it was his commitment and willingness to work at it and to “put up or shut up”, in a sense, that struck me.

Overall, Catastrophe, despite having a few semi-crass jokes and whatnot, is sweet and gives the viewer a palette on which it creates two whole, three-dimensional adults who find themselves in a surprising situation. How people deal with the unplanned is telling.

The unplanned and unpleasant drives another surprisingly sweet (and short) sitcom, Scrotal Recall, which, despite its raunchy name, is both worth watching and not at all what you think it is. It follows (without bothering about chronology) the story of a guy who discovers he has an STI and needs to inform all his previous sex partners. The show finds its comedy not just in the awkwardness of trying to break the news (“Hey, sorry you’ve not heard from me in a year, but congrats! You may have chlamydia!”) but in the retelling of the stories that led the character to get into all these sexual situations in the first place. Bubbling along in parallel with these flashbacks is the ongoing, years-long tension between the main character and his friend/roommate (the old story about close friends of the opposite sex – one has a crush on the other but is scared to say or one of them has a relationship already so the timing is off… and the timing always seems to be off. It’s another version of Ross and Rachel but … cuter and less important to the storytelling). In fact, Vox compares the show to How I Met Your Mother without the irritating pomposity of Ted and without the sociopathic tendencies of Barney. I agree but add that it is much more relatable and less formulaic, and actually, in its own slightly bumbling way, quite sweet.

While this pair of sitcoms (both with roots in the UK) resides at the “sweet/nice” end of the spectrum, it stands to reason that there would be similarly angled sitcoms at the other end. That is, sitcoms that go against the grain, challenge one’s perception of a “relationship” or “dating” comedy. (This does not take into account recent takes on the ennui of marriage, such as Togetherness or Married, neither of which is perfect but both of which finally do away with some of the stupid/schlub husband + hot wife making fun of him trope that has long populated the mainstream TV landscape.)

Perhaps most routinely misanthropic and sometimes annoying but nevertheless funny and human is You’re the Worst, in which two young… let’s call a spade a spade here… assholes hook up after getting drunk at a wedding. They are both firmly convinced that they are not relationship material, commitment phobic and perfectly happy with a casual, no-strings setup. But most of the first season is spent making us – and them – realize that they’ve been wrong. It’s a little bit cliche when you write down the premise, but the execution makes it what it is. I honestly did not think I would like it. The advertising I saw surrounding the show struck me a lot like the Comedy Central advertising for Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. The ads made these shows look offensively bad (not in a good way), while in fact, both are genius. You’re the Worst won’t make any “genius” lists, but despite it being ages ago that I consumed the first season, I remember a few gems that pulled me in – from the Phil “Groovy” Collins v Peter Gabriel argument between the show’s leads to the “Sunday Funday” (although if I recall these were in the same episode, and I think the guy who plays Pied Piper CEO Richard in the brilliant Silicon Valley plays one of the poseur-follower idiots copying the Sunday Funday). At its heart, the show does display two people who are actually the worst (you would hate these people if you knew them in real life) but find each other, defend each other, fall in love with each other… and I suppose that things boil down to that kind of cliche. We go through life hoping to find that person we can relate to, be completely our ugly selves with and land, as someone once said to me in better times, “land in the tall grass”.

On an entirely different plane, particularly as it borrows liberally from fantasy and the grotesque rather than grounding itself in reality, Man Seeking Woman explores the dating life of a single guy after a breakup. On one of his first post-breakup outings he meets a woman who is portrayed – literally – as a troll. In another episode, he is invited to his ex-girlfriend’s party to find that she is dating Hitler. Yes, that Hitler. He is not dead and has just been hanging out/hiding out, is ancient and rolling around in a wheelchair. Each episode ups the ante with this surreal take on the world, with one equating marriage with a prison sentence – you become a useful penis in the suburbs with a drill sergeant wife – life sentence without possibility of parole. Some insights shine through the absurd concepts and visuals, even if some things go too over the top for me. The absurdity, though, almost always serves to channel some more basic truths: the concept of remaining friends with members of the opposite sex once you have moved on and how partners may have different rules for that depending on the relationship, the nature of marriage, the cocoon-like pod people that new couples become and much more along the same lines.

The Call of the Millennial – The Rebel Yell?

Apart from the aforementioned Catastrophe, which features basically middle-aged people, the other shows and television in general have been flooded with shows featuring millennials on the hunt – for fun, for sex, for love, for drugs, for something. Sometimes they don’t even know what they are looking for but find something anyway. Perhaps this aimless search is how and why these shows work. Familiar themes explored through a new lens – but with a slightly rebellious twist?

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.