February 11, 2024

Cigarettes for Breakfast


One of the reasons why I've gotten a cold is because I've recently taken up smoking again. Or rather it's taken me up. You always start by enjoying a fag or two with your Lienie's one night at the bar and soon enough you're falling asleep in the easy chair to reruns of Night Court with your Basic smoldering dangerously between you yellowed fingers, trying desperately to catch hold of the foam stuffing. While I've not gotten to that point yet, dear readers, I have had cigarettes for dinner a couple nights last week, once at the Country Bar and once at Williams (oh, can you believe what smoking drives me to do?). I've woken up the next morning with my tongue tasting like a Camel and thought, oh, this is gross. But it just doesn't help. Nicotine brings on short term memory loss.

It's not really that I find smoking that cool. It's that I think of it as a vice of youth. For a while there, I was hanging out with little brats still in college who were barely out of diapers. They all smoked, and some of them looked damn pretty doing it. I've always thought that smoking was something you could get away with until a certain age--say, 25 years old. I quit smoking when I was living in London and suffering from monthly colds. In London, smoking was universal, and in addition it helped pass the time if I was bored at a bar or walking the streets alone. I quit, and my quality of life improved. I even started noticing that my monkey lines were fading!

But while there are many beautiful 20 year old smokers out there, there are no beautiful 35 year old smokers. Enjoy the smoky treats as a kid, but then move on.

Unfortunately, my mind isn't that rational.

The thing is, smoking for me still carries a taboo of rebellion. My dad smoked a pipe when I was young, which I thought was disgusting. And I really didn't see any older folks smoking. Once, some construction workers building an addition on our house left behind some chewing tobacco. I was twelve, and put some in my lip, and then proceeded to throw up and lay on a rock in the back yard for an hour until the vertigo passed.

At an early age, smoking was inscribed with a touch of erotics. It happened to the be the case that the first boys I desired also smoked. It's the classic rebel motif--the strong, sinewy guys from the Iron Range who played basketball and bragged about beer at 4-H camp snuck away in the middle of the night to smoke a cigarette with their buddies. I so wanted to be a part of that fraternity.

cigarette2_11_05 There was also a touch of class politics to my first fetish, though that's a little bit harder for me to get to the bottom of. While I know that buying a pack of Marlboro Reds for the first time, from a vending machine in Sacramento, California, caused a stirring in my pants, I'm not sure what role class plays in all of this. I guess I tended to prefer boys not like myself--scrappy, ribald, tough, vulgar. The nice boys I went to elementary school with (most of us comfortably middle class) didn't smoke. But many of the kids who joined us at Minnehaha Middle School in 7th grade were townies who listened to Megadeth, got in fights, and smoked. I thought their stringy headbanger's hair, athleticism, metal band t-shirts, and penchant for Marlbs invariably hot.

After I learned to smoke, it became the marker with which I differentiated myself from my family. Leigh and I were talking about this the other night at Williams. As we shared Camel Light after Camel Light, we talked about our high school years, when the big night out in Duluth consisted of going to Perkins on London Road and smoking your way through a pack of cigarettes. It was my way of telling myself I was an adult, and I was ready to leave.


Fastforward to 2024. I'm not alone in fetishizing the cigarette. One only has to type in gay boys smoking to a search engine to find hundreds of thousands of hits. Oh, I know we all want to simply dismiss the cigarette as a phallus (though I do remember walking into a gay bar with a straight male friend in London and hearing him remark, "gawd, gay men smoke cigarettes like they're sucking cock!"). But I think it's got more to do with play-acting as though your actions have no consequence, that you're young and don't know any better. It's a performance. I'm not 20 years old anymore. Gotta think of those damn monkey lines! And covet my meager store of collagen! I should really take up a habit that doesn't have any effect on my physical features, like meth. Your youth will last such a little time, such a little time...

See also: cute boys smoking; burt reynolds' new face; why can't queer white house operatives be hotter?; rex rides a scooter to the coffee machine.

Posted by jason at 08:13 AM | Comments (5)

February 08, 2024

Storytelling (Part II)


In September of last year, sessions with my therapist were devoted to discussing the meaning of The Secret. I'm not sure how we came upon the subject. I had been seeing the therapist bi-weekly for almost two years. Our topic had been the obfuscate role of sex and its various sub-plots. Often we strayed back into the past, to the role of the mother, formative moments in sexual development, pivotal moments in past relationships. When discussing the present, we were often concerned with minutiae, and whole hours could be spent discussing a single gesture, a flaccid penis, an inflection in a particular phrase. He had trained the value out of my fifty-minute speeches--rather than speak about mistakes and missteps, things merely unfolded as they did--it was nobody's fault, or rather fault no longer mattered. This existential approach was a stratagem designed to free me, open up the present into possibility. He laughed at Freud, who I was reading at the time, and when I would turn a tangent into a soliloquy only Freud could love, I would catch him snickering into his hand. It isn't psychoanalysis--that's out of style--but rather a self-centered therapeutic approach, individualistic. I talk myself out of myself, and what I say could only apply to and could only ever hope to help me. Each visit he places a blank form on his clipboard and writes in a barely legible script. He is reluctant to let me see what he writes, and as far as I can tell his notes are filed in a dark place, never to be looked it. He knows that I write, and often gives me essayistic assignments to discuss at our next session. It is his way of deferring my questions to him, which he usually responds to with a writing assignment and more questions that reflect my own need to question him in the first place. He is a practical man, more fitness trainer than psychologist.

I meet my therapist in a glassy office building bordering an interstate. His office is one of many different offices in the building, and I imagine each is windowless like his, each decorated with the generic prints of lilies and roses like his, each populated with the same barely adequate office furniture. Between us is a small table on which a box of Kleenex sits, which I have never had use for. I enjoy seeing who else is in the waiting room with me. Who comes before and after. A transgendered person. A well-dressed couple clutching a book on teenagers called What Are They Thinking?. I read magazines.

I brought up The Secret in order to not talk about something else--that is how these things are usually brought up. Once the legalities of the situation had been settled, I began to speak. During that time, the therapist would yawn occasionally into his fist, sometimes marking something on his piece of paper. Only I thought the story was anything but banal.

Of course, no revelations came. None ever do. You go to your therapist with a monologue already prepared. As I sat there and told his tales over and over again to the therapist, appearing to dig under the layers toward pure meaning, the goal was merely to convince, never discover. No amount of talking could ever go deeper than the depths I had already plumbed.

At first, embarrassed by this, I argued with myself as my therapist silently took notes. I questioned my own assumptions, engaging in a dialectic that I hoped would be the catalyst for some breakthrough, a flood of tears, a gasp of illumination. I only ever ended up convincing myself. The hour would end, my eyes would rest on the clock, then the jacket, the door knob, the goodbye. I left lighter, but not any deeper.

The therapist's role is to read between the lines of his patient's story for a particular problem, and then to devise practical and theoretical strategies for extracting the patient from that problem. In the paradigm of my therapist's office, problems become problems when you decide that they are problems. Someone might decide that having five drinks a week constitutes a problem. To someone else, that limit is reached at fifteen drinks a week.

Is The Secret a problem? The therapist discussed him as an allegory. What needs are being screened when I close my eyes and picture his face? How do I feel when he doesn’t return my calls? What don’t I talk about with him? What topics am I too worried to bring up? What idyll do I pretend this is? What does it lack?

Instead, I resist: creepy is a word that comes to mind. That’s good, that’s a start. An expression of emotion, and a negative one at that, so it must be true, it must feel raw. Creepy. Can you say more? I have to stop myself and ask the question: Are there instances in which an aspect of one’s life can be creepy and beneficial at the same time? But you said creepy—therefore, we should eradicate it, cleanse it from you, unravel the needs that perpetuate it. I must ask myself the question again—can there be negative aspects to one’s life that are nonetheless beneficial, or am I really looking for the perfect balance, a narcotized stasis? Will there ever be an end, if I started? Couldn’t I end up combing the microcosms of my psyche for the tinniest nit or hangnail? When do we accept? Shouldn’t I stop at this point, count my losses, and, without losing sight that I am walking the edge of a psychopathy, let this creepy symbiosis bring forth whatever it is that attracts me?

Sometimes, these divergences can stay. They tempt you from a particular route you are all too willing to escape. You walk up the nondescript corporate landscape of your therapist’s office building, troubled by an apercu. You touch your tongue to it, like the bud of a wisdom tooth emerging from your skull. You take its path, and perhaps avoid an accident that was lying in wait for you. You didn’t really expect an epiphany, did you? Or you are sitting in the dark office at a quarter to eight in the evening, after everyone else has gone home, even the cleaners, as I am doing so now, writing this. You have no where to go and a serious task to complete, but you diverge, dreaming of The Secret. It’s a fertile dream, but utterly pointless, it accomplishes nothing. You imagine him sliding off the wintery road, tumbling down the embankment, his Jeep Grand Cherokee with the leather interior flipping once, twice, his heart exploding in his chest—you have felt it beat. And did it ever occur to you that you are nothing to him as well? Just a distraction? Something to do in order not to do another thing? You picture him at the foot of his mother’s bed, guilty because he doesn’t feel anything. Now he's with you, and in the static between channels that you represent to him, his own stories recede in lurid, malleable colors. You are indebted to each other. He has told you stories. And you owe him for such a beautiful array of distractions.

Posted by jason at 07:59 AM | Comments (0)

February 06, 2024

Storytelling (Part I)


The Secret comes and goes, like a book you pick up before bed occasionally, and perhaps you think about what you've read during the day when you're at your desk or riding the bus home from class late at night, and sometimes you get home and you want nothing more than to open that book again, complicit in the ruse, sinking into the story that's being told. And other times you're riding the bus and staring out at the window, at a bus shelter down the block that has been crushed by a wayward car over the weekend, and beside the shelter an old woman is standing with her green groceries, which are most likely freezing while she waits for a bus to come from the other way, and you feel cheated by the story that's waiting for you on the nightstand--it is so much more than what is there.

The Secret is an organic story; he needs me as much as I have come to need him. I don't doubt that the symbiosis appears to outsiders as pathos, which is why I will circumvent certain details, producing my own version of the story. At times, his tales evolve with such a speed that the term "liar, liar, pants on fire" would be an appropriate one for him, the plot twists and incongruencies piling the story so high that it rises like a stalagmite to a point that inevitably must fall. He is always the hero of his tall tales—life might be inexorably fucked up; he may be beaten or bruised, an unwilling passenger in an alcohol-fueled car crash late one night, but there will always be him to tell the story afterwards, slightly aloof. His life is no big deal. He is still invincible, and this is still a movie.

Sometimes he disappears for weeks. I'll call one or twice, aware of my status. If I give up for long enough, a handwritten note will soon enough appear in my mailbox in his immature script--he's been out of the country, in Switzerland, or in Colorado, or there's been an accident, things are crazy, so...

"So" is his preferred method of closing off particular lines of questioning, a speech-act of consequence that is only implied in the silence that cuts off my interrogations. "I've had a really rough week." How so? "Well, let's just say my week has been hell, so..." I've learned to obey the command. I've given up on finding my way out of his stories by way of some straight-and-narrow path toward the truth.

I take note of the sheer number of different vehicles employed to bring him to my doorstep. At first, a huge white pick-up truck with a wide front seat that rumbled at stop lights. He loved it, I could tell. Then, a small black foreign hatchback, brand-new, a six-speed. He hated this, and said he was going to give it away. Then, a strange woman in a red car stopped in the street, and he emerged. Then, a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A couple times, he told me his family's driver, a man named Mr. Edwards who doubled as his family's caretaker, drove him to my neighborhood, though I never saw the black sedan and The Secret arranged to be picked up down the street, at a grocery store out of sight. We're back to the black sports car now. The pick-up truck was totalled, so was the Jeep. The driver and the black sedan have not been mentioned since. He talks about car accidents nonchalantly; according to him, they're a regular occurrence, like trips to the dentist. I linger on his tone; it keeps me up at night. It could be explained two different ways. Perhaps he's really had so many car accidents that they've become banal. Or perhaps he is lying. But if he was lying, wouldn't he act the part a bit more?

Lately, I've found myself cataloguing his stories, and fact-checking each new one against a bank of memorized clues. When he told me his mother was in the hospital here after a heart attack, I asked, "But I thought she moved to Colorado?" His answer comes smoothly--"she was up here partly for work, partly to visit me, so..." I narrow my eyes, unable to further the interrogation.

Weren't we all rather multiplicitous when young? I'm sure his schizophrenia will eventually absolve itself. Right now I can only guess at the various roles he plays, from fast food restaurant manager to sullen son of brutal parents, to the closet he maintains around his straight male suburban friends. Just as he lies to me, he must lie to them as well, and there's a comfort (itself an indication of a dangerous tendency within me to own something of The Secret) that I am not the only one subject to censor and embellishment. There are aspects of his stories that I believe, but nonetheless raise even more questions, whose possible answers stir me to muster a sense of protectiveness, an extremely dangerous position for me to take. If it is true that he does indeed live in his boss's basement, what does that say about intent, desire, or need? He can tell you which suburban public library branches have the best gay fiction sections. He says he envies me and my friends. During a drinking game last weekend, a straight friend had to give him a hickey on his shoulder. One of his best friends, a girl, recently spilled a vat of hot grease on her legs, requiring a trip to the emergency room.

It wasn’t until the other day that I became aware of the allegorical nature to these stories—factually bereft though they might be, they instead employ a cache of symbols only he has access to. When I held him once, he asked me to squeeze him as tightly as I could, explainining his request by saying, “my therapist thinks I like to be hugged hard because I didn’t get a lot of affection as a kid, so…” Before I would have said, “You have a therapist? Why do you go to a therapist? What do you talk about?” Instead I take in his story silently, because he’s telling me something entirely different which has nothing to do with thereapists. There most likely is no therapist for him. Within this schema, the fact that he knows which public library among the northern suburbs has the best gay fiction section means something entirely different that what it states. Car crashes, Mr. Edwards, a childhood in Switzerland become hieroglyphs I've been unable to decipher.

Certain stories we never tell each other, such as our different versions of the time we spend together--what gestures, such as the arms we place around each other, actually mean.

It makes me just as uncomfortable to write about him, and part of me wonders if I'll delete this entry as soon as I post it. Like a photograph, I've cropped out the good bits. Just as The Secret might be a storyteller in order to throw someone off his scent, laying a ring of barbed wire, employing a decoy, so do I turn the phenomenon of The Secret into something more than he is, thus rendering his fictions into my own.

Posted by jason at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

February 02, 2024

At Least I Should Make Some Fucking Media Out of This

For those of you who 1) aren't obsessed by uber-personal blogs, 2) don't think that raw personal blogs can approach art, or 3) don't maintain an extensive online persona that is probably more interesting than your analog self, you may have missed the spectacular breakdown of Justin Hall, a sort of demi-god to the three types of people mentioned above, who for eleven years has been publishing his life on line [here's a smaller, quicker, creepier version].


In mid-January, Justin's blog was replaced by a simple, ten minute video clip, sans explanation, that showed him in the throes of a mental breakdown. In his rants, he confesses that the online hobby of sharing his life with strangers has become more than a past time, and indeed has left his real life away from the computer rather bereft:

What if a deeply connective personal activity you do that’s like religion that you practice with yourself, that’s a dialogue with the divine turns out to drive people away from you?
There's a girl he likes, whom he can't have, or he doesn't think he can have. "I publish my life on the fucking Internet!" he screams at one point, followed by, "I have nothing to write about!"


On the surface, it's a narrative of imbalance--self worth draining from one mode to another, a constant shifting of a veil over the self to cover the bald spots. I'm not sure what drives Justin to post a version of his life online, but doing so is obviously an incredible investment for him. I could guess that he began to do so out of need to form connections--though, he admits, the connection he has formed has been with himself. If he's a congregant in a religion he practices with himself, the "dialogue with the divine" he's engaging in can only be with himself. And when your life is your life's work, not having anything to write about is a serious crisis.

It's also pitiful--and I don't mean that as a dismissive. Justin holds his head in his hands and bemoans the girl who, upon seeing this video that he will still go ahead and post, will not want to be with him. It's wallowing and deprecating as a means of self-aggrandizing. "Look, I'm a fucking wreck / don't you want to date me?" he says to her, mockingly. It's a test, you see--for us, to be the better person, and look beyond the shattered self.

Unlike many breakdowns, this one requires an audience, because it's performed by someone who can only be assured of his own existence by seeing it reflected in the hits, emails, and comments of those who visit his website. "At least I should make some fucking media out of this," Justin says at one point. In other sections of the film, he turns his head, revealing the microphone that's recording every word of this soliloquy.


But this isn't a personal video diary to be kept private. Justin has filmed himself, edited the video to provide fade ins and fade outs, and even gives us text overlays that set the scene. What can we say about someone whose personal breakdowns require a symbiosis with an audience? Couldn't he have kept this to himself? Did he really just say "at least I should make some fucking media out of this?"

Of course, to some this is so very revolutionary, one might even call it art. Is an edited film of a performed breakdown art? That would mean it's inauthentic, right? It makes certain cultural theorists salivate:

Is not the line between fiction and actuality problematized for the viewer/reader whether it is the self (mirror) or the other (veil) that is addressed? Both fiction and the actual are part of reality. The is a temporal lag between the telling and the told that can give the teller space for recallibrating the telling, the told or even the teller. Indeed it is because acts of narration and narratives do not coincide that questions about the ontological status of the entites accessed through the narrative. The breakdown video is only one remarkable case of the mundane exercise of reading signs as evidence or symptoms. Leading or misleading signs. Mirrors can be broken; veils rent. Signs spin; narratives weave.
Maybe it is revolutionary. Maybe Justin Hall is a hyperself.

Justin Hall is no Jonathan Couette, though both are involved in the same project--constructing an autobiography through a mediated collage of images and text, arranged with an audience in mind. Not that there's anything new to this--does the private diarist who writes with quill pen and ink in books with locks really wish that their words never find an audience other than themselves?

With new forms of media--faster internet connections, cheaper digital cameras and recorders, the emergence of video blogs--I bet we'll find this visual mode of autobiography grow. Instead of daddy filming you opening your presents, you'll turn the camera on yourself--and there will only be space within the frame for you.

Personally, I'm a fan of video blogs (vlogs). But only if no one breaks down on them. Better that they show only random strangers. Or better yet, no one at all. Utterly banal.

So here's my contribution. I woke up the other day at 5:45 am and couldn't fall back to sleep. It was snowing outside, so I filmed this from the window above my bed. I was totally thinking of you when I did it.

Update: okay, so I have no idea why my little vid ain't playing.

Update: okay, so my little vid should play now.

Posted by jason at 12:38 AM | Comments (4)