Saturday, February 6, 2016

Saturday Serial: The Count of Monte Cristo part 6


21. The Island of Tiboulen
22. The Smugglers
23. The Island of Monte Cristo
24. The Secret Cave


21. L'île de Tiboulen
22. Les contresbandiers
23. L'île de Monte Cristo
24. Eblouissement

Courtesy /

Friday, February 5, 2016

One of my greatest difficulties in life is figuring out what other people think of me.

You would think that with the amount of gear-grinding I do working out the thought processes of other humans, I would be better at that, but no. I like to think I have at least average acuity at realizing when someone wants me to go away, and nowadays I can usually work out when I'm being hit on. When someone's interacting with me directly, I'm good at figuring out if I'm communicating my mood correctly, mainly because that's the one thing I ever bother lying about. (When people care that I'm having a shitty day, they want to express it by giving me attention, which unbeknownst to them is just about the last thing I need. Easier to not get into the explanation.) Other than that, it's mostly a big, hollow question mark.

It is not necessarily an absence of feedback. I tend to ignore gripes unless they're constructive criticism about something I can change, but I've made a conscious choice to remember compliments for a good long time. I do get them. For the most part, I don't know how the frequency compares to other people's experiences, other than the ones having to do with appearance. I gather it is not normal for strangers to stop you on the street and get you to take out your earbuds so they can tell you how lovely you are. I intentionally got used to that one when I started modeling, because when you work in an industry that literally runs on how wonderful other people think you look, you get that sort of thing a lot from people who really mean to praise you for your ability to do the job, or just express happiness that their project seems to be progressing well with you in it. It's bad form to get discombobulated by what is essentially professional feedback, good or bad.

Others take me by surprise every time. When I do stage work, I am generally satisfied with my work when my director is happy with my performance. You get a lot of both compliments and complaints from directors, after all; they are trying to translate a thing that exists only in their head into physical reality using a ragtag collection of other humans, none of whom have any useful psychic powers. I figure myself to be professional and competent at it. Things from audience members beyond the traditional 'it was a lovely performance, I enjoyed it very much,' required by etiquette always knock me for a loop. One of the Post-Meridian Radio Players happened to catch me at Arisia and gave me a capsule summary that boiled down to HOLY SHIT I DID NOT KNOW YOU COULD DO THAT. I think I was about twelve the first time I recall being stopped by a total stranger who was in the house so they could tell me how wondrous I was on stage. Over twenty years now and the best I've ever been able to do is train myself to not look poleaxed when that happens, and that's mostly because that just makes it awkward.

So I do get told of specific things I have done well. I have no complaints there. My outlook is probably skewed by my stubborn belief that most people are pretty okay, or at least too lazy to be mean most of the time. I went through the phase where I thought humans were horrible as a teenager and it wasn't much fun, so I don't figure on going back.

What I don't know is how other people weight these things, rank their relative value in life, and put them together with whatever goes on in their heads about what they think is going on in my head, to come up with a general opinion of me. Do they think I'm some kind of amazing wunderkind? Is it intimidating? Or are they flashes of talent notable mainly because they're from someone who otherwise isn't much noticed? Am I 'fabulous! you must meet her!' or am I 'poor dear, she tries her best'? I assume nobody thinks of me much when I'm not in front of them; it seems less narcissistic than the reverse. So if they do say things to each other, I've no idea. Do they think I have an exciting life, or are they glad they're not me?

Things I can never know.

You'd think I could figure it out from observing how they interact with me in person, but I can't. My internal procedure for decoding social signals is somehow strange. Most people, I think, learn social skills as they're growing up, first by learning to deal with surface/explicit signalling, and then later learning what a lot of those things "really" mean, in different contexts. For various and sundry reasons, I didn't; at the age where most people work things out organically, by trial and error, I was deeply isolated, and what little chance I had to practice was disrupted by the authorities in my life "explaining" things from what I will politely term a somewhat skewed point of view. I did not have a chance to start on the shallow end of the pool and paddle out little by little. I got hucked into the deep end and had to sink or swim.

As a result, though I can breaststroke like a motherfucker, I actually missed most of the introductory lessons on doggie-paddling my way through polite surface interactions, and have never really figured it out. A lot of "polite fiction" sorts of camouflage completely pass me by. Since the "polite fiction" level is what most people who aren't intimate friends with each other react to, this means I can't even do the thing where I try to put myself in someone else's shoes and observe my own behavior as an outsider. I can't assess any of it for the same reason the radiology tech can't look at your X-ray film and give an opinion on the color of your shirt. Useful in some respects, profoundly annoying in others. I've gotten myself into trouble on a number of occasions by commenting on something I thought was common knowledge, only to find out that not only is it not obvious to anyone else, but that the person I was commenting on was trying very hard to conceal it, and I hadn't even noticed.

For the same reason, I have a hell of a time figuring out what other people look like to third parties. I know what I think of Alice, and I know what I think of Bob, but I have absolutely no idea what Alice and Bob think of each other until I see them interact and can read their reactions directly. This also causes issues sometimes, which I cope with in large part by just letting everyone harbor suspicions that I might be a space alien. Few of the people I like would consider this a problem, and it's as good a paradigm to operate under as any.

I do make some effort to convey that I'm a well-intentioned space alien. I manipulate my own presentation at least as much as anyone else. We all try to put our best foot forward, whatever foot we think that is at the time. I try to behave like the person I want to be, within reason. It's a fairly straightforward process. I like being "the one with all the crazy-awesome dresses," so I wear crazy-awesome dresses. I also like being "the one who pops up unexpectedly in all kinds of random places," so I try not to turn down things that sound like harmless adventures. Deep down, I've always wanted to be the Doctor -- not the impossible fictional part, where I save the universe all the time and always win because I am literally a deus ex machina, but the mostly-attainable part, where I'm curious about everything and difficult to rattle and speak up when I think a thing that is happening is Absolutely Not Okay.

I have absolutely no idea if it works. It might do; I've had a few people tell me that I have some kind of mysterious 'star quality', but whether that is the general consensus or they are just kindly madmen, I do not know. I hesitate to assume. I think twice -- sometimes three or four times -- whenever I'm doing one of the celebrity profiles and I'm about to note I grok something a famous person does because I do the same thing. I have the nagging feeling I'm going to be brutally slapped down by someone who takes my observation as an entitled demand for the same kind of social capital that said famous person has, even though I haven't earned it. I actually assume I have the thing in question in common with some unknown number of other humans on Earth; I just point at famous people because I can find footage of them on YouTube, and can therefore give links so everyone else can see what's going on. It's as much an effort to explain myself in terms of public examples as the other way around.

Some things do make me wonder, though. I'm aware that I have charisma -- or at least that I can turn on a social mode that other people characterize as charisma -- mainly because there is a class of charismatic behavior that comes down to having intense curiosity and some skill at indulging it without making other people feel like they're being interrogated. It's not the only kind of charisma out there, but it's one I point at a lot when I do profiles. I have to have it, because I ask a hell of a lot of weird questions, all the time, and I've never once been punched in the face.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sick. Drugged. Fuck germs. Thought it might be time to watch The Man Who Fell To Earth, since I am obviously not going to be moving or thinking very many concrete things for a while.

I have already viewed this film on a number of occasions. I remember none of them well, mainly because it was in college, and I was stoned every single time. I may figure out what the thing is about this time around, but given that it's a 1976 adaptation of a nihilistic 1963 science-fiction novel, starring David Bowie as essentially himself if you substitute "literally extraterrestrial" for "insufflating such vast quantities of cocaine he might as well be from outer space," I doubt it.

I must have absorbed some of it subliminally; I did pretty much this to my bangs not long afterward, and kept it that way until I got tired of giving money to the hairdresser. It looked perhaps slightly less natural on me, which is hilarious, because my real hair color is about as close as you can get to that orange without involving the kind of industrial chemicals that created the Joker. I'm thinking of doing it again. That's a lie, I just checked the bathroom cabinet to see if we had any hydrogen peroxide. Clearly I have decided to go through with it. Watch this space to find out if I can successfully bleach my own hair. I don't think I can fuck it up too badly with 3% H2O2 solution, especially since I want it brassy.

[You can watch the movie if you want. It's long, and it's more interesting as an example of artistic trends in film than it is entertaining. I do warn you that there is an unexpectedly high number of naked people -- porno chic was a thing back then. It would easily hit NC-17 today solely from the full-frontal nudity, let alone the sexual content. The leads are not exempt from this. It is less thrilling than you'd think. Bowie is painfully thin, and not all the bouts of thousand-yard-stare are acting. The women are probably easy enough on the eyes, if you're a fan of the body type that was popular at the time.]

If I'd realized where I got the idea the first time, I probably would have stopped myself. My mother spent my entire childhood telling me that only mindless, contemptible sheep did things to be "like" someone else. Things installed by your parents that early on in your life are difficult to chip out again.

I would love to say I realized in a blinding flash of epiphanic light that desperately trying to separate yourself from everyone else all the time is a terrible way to live your life, but really, I just got tired. If a proper adult was one who went out of their way to disdain all trends that ever were, then I resigned myself to being a terrible one. It was exhausting to continually have to search for something I liked which no one else had ever done before, and give things up if I ever discovered that someone else had thought of it first. Willpower is draining. There were other things I had to use it on.

I never did figure out where my mother got that notion in the first place. I assume she thought she was helping something by passing it along to me. She did not understand, I think, the difference between trying to make yourself into someone else because you liked who they were better than you liked yourself, and picking things up from other people to use as tools.

Bowie considered himself a collector of people and ideas. Didn't realize that until recently -- the last time I nosed around his history was at least a decade ago, before I'd properly refined the art of trying to stare into someone's soul via clips I find on YouTube. He was forever talking about nicking things he liked from other artists, so he could play around with them. It was particularly pronounced when he borrowed voices and accents. Fair's fair, I suppose; I do much the same. His voice is actually my mental model for Brixton, hence why that one involves so many teeth and ten-dollar words.

I find myself getting irritated these days at those who bleat 'appropriation!' at anyone who dares find inspiration in a culture outside their own. They wish to put a stop to the very process that allowed humans to develop civilization in the first place. Some single person somewhere came up with the idea of planting food instead of foraging for the wild stuff. Where would we be if the second guy shied away from doing the same, because the idea didn't "belong" to him? It makes me sad and angry in the same way it made me sad and angry to realize that being an iconoclast involved continual, intentional rejection of all of the commonalities that underlie human connection, and that this was the ideal my mother wanted me to grow into.

I don't have the money to give to a salon this time around, so I'm going to try putting the streak back into my hair on my own. And this time, I am doing it specifically because I like it on someone else.

Monday, February 1, 2016

You can dig up a lot of video of David Bowie. He was in the public eye for most of his life. In this clip he's twenty-seven. In this one, thirty-six. In that one, fifty. A human being who is now gone will always be twenty-seven, thirty-six, fifty years old, in these strings of flashing pictures. The oldest pieces have nicks and scratches burnt into the picture, testifying to their origins on cheap film. Drawn in front of a lens by Clotho, wound by Lachesis onto a spool like a spindle, cut off by Atropos at the end of the reel. They are discontinuous snippets of a life that will last forever. The Video Fates don't so much weave a tapestry as they knit in intarsia.

Bowie was charming. (Is charming. My brain thinks that running media is in the present tense, and I am tired of fixing verbs.) He is intelligent, and obstinate enough to keep getting up on stage despite starting out brutally shy. In 1974 -- in the video where it is always 1974 -- he is shockingly thin and milk-white. He is also quite possibly the most perspicacious junkie I have ever seen. He is completely coherent in live interviews from that time, even when sniffling unstoppably and talking lunatic piffle about black noise and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He has sufficient insight to note that sliding the words from his proto-poetry kit around on the table is useful mainly as a tool for digging things out of his own imagination, and then casually mentions that he feels like it can also tell him the future. One wonders how, when he clearly has some kind of grip on what's going wrong, he ended up falling so far down that rabbit hole.

I can tell you how that happens.

I do not have a direct line into the inside of his head ca. Diamond Dogs. But. One of the reasons his music can reliably make me sob is that, when the lyrics spiral down into a terrible place, they become a collection of incredibly vivid but mundane flashes of detail, disconnected from both each other and the singer. This is exactly the kind of shattered stained-glass window my brain feeds me when I'm in dire straits. Having now seen him sit down and explain, patiently and with a wry sense of humor, exactly what went wrong with Ziggy Stardust to get him there, I have a new understanding of why I creep out medical personnel. I don't have the budget for a drug habit like his, but that changes surprisingly little; the only wrinkle chemicals introduce is that one of the things that's eating you is the same as one of the things you're trying to use to distract yourself from the fact that you're being eaten. The pattern is otherwise the same.

It starts with a problem.

It's not necessarily a crisis sort of problem. Quite often, it's boredom. When you have a brain that won't stop spinning, and you think for fun, you always have to have something to feed it. There has to be some kind of load on the motor, or all the wheels just whirl faster and faster on their way to nowhere, driving nothing. Overspeed long enough, and one of the turbines will shatter. The more raw power you have, the more you have to do something with it, or you start to go insane. The freshman advisor I had in college kept trying to sell me on the idea of taking 'intro to uni' seminars, no thinking required, for an easy A. I thought that sounded exactly like my idea of Hell.

Ninety-nine percent of what you do with a brain like that never escapes your head. It's like dreaming, all the mental shuffling you do while staring out the window. One of the theories of why we hallucinate like that when we're asleep is that it sorts and re-sorts and strengthens connections between all the things already in our heads, so that we have some sort of index handy to make sense of it all. The resultant fantasies are just entertaining heat sinks. No one else ever hears about it, because the logic goes nowhere, and nothing ever comes of it.

I have absolutely no idea what other people think about on trains. I've asked a few times, but most randoms can't explain themselves very well, and my friends all work like me. So.

One of the best ways to get a brain like that to solve a problem for you is to set up the machinery for it, and then leave it alone to work. Occupy the front of your brain with something else while the mill in the back grinds away. Video games are good for that. Picky art projects. Repetitive rhythmic counting activities like jumping rope or martial arts kata or knitting.

This per se is not enough to trigger a slide into disaster. It works much of the time, or we wouldn't keep doing it.

The complicating factor is pain. Boredom is painful. I know what it's like to be so exhausted I start to fall asleep in lecture. I have no idea what it's like to fall asleep out of boredom, because boredom hurts. It interferes with sleep, the same way a headache does. Boredom is painful like anxiety is painful, like being stretched taut is painful, and at a certain point they become one and the same. This is why I have a stash of sedatives: Because, just like with chronic pain patients, there comes a time when I physically need sleep, and I hurt too much get it any other way. I have worn the doctor down to the point where she agrees with me.

Pain is distracting, and it takes willpower to think through it. So you have the problem of having a problem, which needs to be solved by shoving it to the back of your brain and doing something else with the front, only you can't table a thing while you're hurting because then the pain breaks your concentration, and the problem itself is being bereft of anything to do with the front of your brain in the first place.

The other way you solve problems with a brain like this is brute fucking force.

The kettle of problem needs to stay in the back so it'll stew properly, and the hurting needs to stay off to the side so you can get on with your life. The only thing to do is build a wall to keep everything contained where it should be. The wall isn't perfect, and problems can be unfortunately persistent and clever about shooting tentacles through any holes they find, so you have to keep an eye out for cracks. You can't stop doing things like going to work and cooking dinner and showering, so as a stopgap measure, you re-allocate the daydream unit to tentacle-watching duty. No one sees most of the games in your head anyway, so no one will be inconvenienced if playtime is temporarily suspended.

You can fill the space with other people's daydreams for a while. You cram a lot of books and TV and music in there to try and keep the echoes down. This is also not a bad tactic when it's temporary. I cope with being sick in bed by feeding entire technical manuals into my head. When the amount of time you need to endure has a definite end -- I will be stuck in this class for three months, I will be sick in bed for about a week, I will be trapped in this train car for an hour and a half -- it works well. If literally all you need is for the weekend to go by faster so that you can pick your project back up on Monday, beer and Netflix is a perfectly reasonable solution.

And there is the next level of meta-problem: The amount of time you have to kill like that is 'until the original problem is solved', and you have no idea when that will be. It may be that the problem as stated is NP-complete, and will never resolve until a stray cosmic ray strikes at random and makes the computer jump unexpectedly to an instruction it would never otherwise reach. You don't know. You can't know, because whether a program will ever terminate is a problem that is itself NP-complete. Blame Turing, and maybe Gödel.

The daydream unit falls into fatigue. They are not really trained for this. There is no time for rest, or for returning to their regular fantasies; the problem is still there, and still has tentacles, so the wall has to be vigilantly watched and repaired. Boredom still hurts. No one else notices.

Wall-patching has to be continuous and automatic if it is to work, so you start assigning all of the continuous and automatic services in you brain to the effort. Hyperlinks are almost autonomic for me. Everything is so interconnected in my head that calling for delivery of any piece of information will also get me a complementary list of See Related references. There is enough of a temporal element that most time-dependent pieces of information -- appointments, deadlines, schedules -- will courteously surface by themselves, in sequence, when needed.

Emergency wall-patching efforts eventually cause enough personnel allocation issues that the concierge service shuts down. Automatic functions get offloaded (temporarily! I swear it'll just be temporarily! I just have to get through this -- how long can it last?) into conscious processing. Everything I need is still in there, I just have to hike down to the archives and pull it myself. I can do that, because I have enough spare capacity to handle it, but it's not really how the system is supposed to work, and it's tiring. As far as I can tell, most people don't have concierge service in the first place. They have no basis for comparison, and see no difference.

Young Bowie, even in pain, has incredible charisma. So do I, albeit I don't know that I have it to that degree. More importantly, I got it the same way he did: I was shy and awkward and very outside, so I sat down and hammered on the problem with my giant brain until I learned. It is very much a skill. You learn to charm just like you once learned to walk. It is wonderful when you finally figure that out, because suddenly you can communicate most of what's in your head to other people in a way they will understand and mostly not hate you for. It is also the next meta-problem, because once you have that ability, it is under conscious control, and you can invoke it at will.

People think that genius comes at the expense of social acumen. House is just a TV show, mainly written by people who are, frankly, not all that smart. A lot of us have decided that we don't care if other people think we're strange, but we are generally aware that people think that. We can be quite clever, in our own self-destructive ways.

You cannot explain to most people what your problem is. They do not understand how boredom can burn like acid, like fire, and not pull on you like sleep.

Charisma is also magic. It is verbal sleight-of-hand and kinesic misdirection. It is very difficult to get to the root of a charismatic person, if they don't want you to. One hand pulls rabbits out of a borrowed hat while the other one pulls reassurances out of thin air, and the mouth only stops running to give you a mysterious half-smile, just often enough to make you wonder about something that is almost, but not quite, completely unrelated to what is actually going on. Charisma is the illusion on the front of the stage that prevents you from ever thinking about all of the whirling dervishes in the wings.

If you have ever worked in the theater, you know that the way to keep the audience believing that the performance is effortless fantasy is to continually keep track of every tiny detail, while simultaneously pretending that you're not. There is no man behind the curtain. It is perfectly natural that you carry that prop off stage left, and has nothing to do with getting it in position for the next actor who needs it. The audience never notices that half of your clothes are held on with velcro and the other half are piled on over other outfits, because you only have forty-five seconds to go from covered in cinders to Cinderella. They do not see, because you do not let them. When you are very good, it never occurs to them that there's anything to see.

So. There you are. You have a problem, which needs to be solved, so that it will stop hurting you. In order to solve it, you need to clear some space so it can solve itself. To get the thinking space, you have to shove the pain and the concerned outsiders to the side, but the effort of keeping everything out of the way sucks up so many of your resources that whatever energy you have left has to be devoted to daily survival and social misdirection. Otherwise everything else will start to fall apart, and you will have even more problems to deal with. You are so, so tired, but you can't sleep. If drugs are your bag, they do work, sort of. You can knock yourself out with a chemical hammer, or prop yourself up with a chemical crutch, or wallop yourself out of bounds so you don't have to deal with anything for a few hours, but in any case, the best you can do is keep such a tight grip on the original problem that it remains in stasis. Nothing changes. You just can't get ahead.

Your brain is still -- wonderfully, unfortunately -- your brain. All of the space, all of the scaffolding, all of the colossal power that allows you to continually reorganize and reallocate so that you can keep slogging onward despite the Terrible Looming Boredom Problem That Won't Go Away, still exists. The vast capacity for hoarding detail and forging connections that makes you the person that you are never turns off. Ever. Each incremental change was an adaptive one at the time, but you are still more than astute enough to realize that all your potential paths converge on a frog march into oblivion. It is a pattern; it is obvious. Patterns are what you do. You will pick up the clues and put things together whether you like it or not.

Bowie is high as a kite through that entire documentary. He has snorted Wall Street. He has probably been up for several days running, and eaten nothing. He is still perfectly able to explain how he ended up where he is, to lament the information he didn't have when he needed it, to lay the pattern out explicitly for the stranger with a camera. He is aware that it is entirely his fault -- the fault of his own nature, his own ability to use the environment ruthlessly to solve short-term problems while grappling with bigger ones that the outside world cannot touch. Raw capacity has kept him going as an artist and performer, the one thing he can still do right. But that brain, it still works, and he cannot make himself numb enough to stop noticing how rapidly, and how badly, everything is going downhill.

And you keep going like this, despite knowing how it's likely to end, because you are still a stone-cold, stubborn, brilliant, terrifying, magnetic genius. It is your main problem, and your only potential salvation. If you start out average, the sudden jump in cognitive load all of this entails makes your life difficult very quickly; if you start out incomprehensibly smart, then it takes a good goddamn long time before anyone who's not out at the end of the bell curve with you would even notice the change. Nobody outside your head can do a damn thing about it. They can't get a foothold. Desperation can make you very clever. No matter what happens, somehow you devise ways to keep functioning just well enough that they. can't. stop. you.

I have absolutely no idea how Bowie solved it. I know he fucked off to Berlin, but that doesn't tell me what he did there to claw himself out of the hole. I don't know how I ever get myself out of it, either. So far, I always have, but I expect that one of these days -- ideally a very long way in the future -- it'll happen when I'm too old and tired and riddled with chronic health problems to care.

Friday, January 29, 2016

One of the things I always liked about David Bowie was that he was the first major pop star to come out in print, and he still managed to stonewall and tap-dance his way out of identity politics for forty-five fucking years.

For those who were not around at the time -- I wasn't -- and are less obsessive than I am about tracking down old industry rags, the article that started the whole uproar ran in January 1972, in a magazine called Melody Maker. Originally a wholesome look at the socially-acceptable pop music of the day, in the late '60s it took a turn for the grown-up. Relatively speaking, anyway. It was fanwank, but slightly older fanwank than you'd expect from Tiger Beat. (Or whatever they publish that in now. Last time I knew was back in high school; my sister subscribed to a couple of them.) It didn't aspire to serious reporting like Rolling Stone, or to being culture critics like NME today; it was just aimed away from teenyboppers and more at readers in their late-teens and early twenties, who would get your drug references and didn't mind if you let people swear occasionally in their interviews.

The piece itself does not reflect what an impact the statement made. Showcasing their complete and utter lack of journalistic instincts, Melody Maker appeared to give slightly less of a shit about Bowie's declaration than they did about his interview suit -- sans shirt, as per the photo -- and wacky new alien-clown hair. The reporter's sly wink at the things one must do to be appropriately outré in rock these days gives the impression that either he doesn't believe it and thinks Bowie's just running his mouth for the shock value, or that he doesn't really care. The lion's share of the column inches in that thing are devoted to actual music (God, if only media dedicated to music would actually talk about fucking music, they never do that anymore), with second place going to a loving description of basically everything the author has ever seen him wear.

What it did was stir up a tempest in a teapot. For quite a long time, you couldn't print the words 'David Bowie' without getting 'bisexual' in the sentence somewhere. Articles would come out about the release of his new album -- which had nothing to do with sexuality at all, except in the generic sense that all pop music is about sex -- and it would get a mention in the headline.

This annoyed the ever-living shit out of Bowie. People just would not quit prodding him about it, as if they thought it had to be the single greatest influence on anything he ever did. What was it like, they asked, to be the mysterious alien creature known as 'a bisexual'? Do you breathe oxygen, too? What do you think of all of us normal human beings, swimming around outside your magical bubble?

Bowie said, right up front, in that same MM interview, in that same goddamn paragraph, that he was totally uninterested in tribal affiliation and taking sides and speaking for people and being some kind of figurehead. He had no intention of being an activist or fighting any kind of good fight. It was not the center of his world. That interview specifically was done as promotion for The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, a concept album that tells the story of a spaceman rock-'n'-roller who is adored to the point where the public considers him a messiah, and when he starts to believe it himself, it gets him killed. The whole point is that it is a bad idea to let yourself rise to head a mob and start thinking you can speak for the contents thereof.

Yes, yes, said the press. But as a clear representative of and role model for bisexuals everywhere, what would you like to say about it?

After determining that no, nobody out there seemed to be familiar with the concept of dramatic irony, Bowie just flat refused to comment. For several years, anything that involved the word 'bisexual' was met with an irritable 'asked and answered, next question'. He'd interrupt reporters mid-sentence if he had to. In 1983, he gave an interview to Rolling Stone where he said that telling the MM reporter that he was bi was the biggest mistake he ever made. I have no idea if this was marketing in an attempt to make people leave him the hell alone, or if Bowie had genuinely decided he was straight at that point -- you are allowed to change your mind on stuff like this -- and hoped saying so would make the topic boring again.

In either case, it didn't work. He spent about twenty years swatting down every attempt to talk to him about it. Staying the fuck out of things was an interesting tactic for him to take; true to his word, Bowie was never an activist, but this is the same guy who flipped another 1983 interview with MTV around by asking Mark Goodman 'you lot never play anything by black artists, why is that?' and then giving him the beady side-eye the entire time Goodman tried desperately to explain it without admitting they were afraid that if they played anything by Prince, the racists wouldn't give them money anymore.

His absolute refusal to comment on That One Thing forced people who were genuinely curious to separate out their questions about gender identity and gender expression from needling him about his sexuality. For all the snark he got, nobody really seriously suggested that Bowie was anything but a man who liked decorating himself outlandishly. He even takes the time to point out in the MM article that the dress he's wearing on the UK cover to The Man Who Sold The World is his dress, and therefore a man's dress, which was at odds with the idea, widespread at the time, that gay men secretly wanted to be women. (It's a gorgeous dress and I want one, but that's beside the point.) He also pointed out repeatedly over the course of his career that, while a lot of his early looks were inspired by the pageantry of drag shows, he was never actually in drag on stage -- he was dressed as one of his characters or as himself, none of whom were meant to be either women or female impersonators.

(I confess that part of the reason I'm fascinated with this is that the one quirk in my boring straightness is that I like men who enjoy decorating themselves as much as I do. It's widely perceived as effeminate, but that's cultural; there's nothing inherently female about painting your face and wearing baubles. If you asked a peacock, he'd wonder why so many human women drag up as colorful shiny men. I'm just trained in sociology and have an academic and perhaps borderline-unhealthy drive to pick apart my own inner workings. And an understandable inclination to look at people I think are pretty.)

Bowie did eventually mellow on it a bit, mainly after the world had calmed down about it enough that people would talk to him about the overall context of his life and early work rather than slobbering all over him like Louella Parsons with a looming deadline. The 30th anniversary of the Melody Maker article was commemorated on with a scan of the splash page in 2002, when Bowie was still very much in charge of his own website. (Not the nuts and bolts of it, obviously, but he did keep a sort of mini-blog there, and was notorious for popping up in the chatrooms to talk to whatever randoms were around when he was home and bored. He had one screen name that everyone knew about, a couple that the regulars suspected, and claimed to have a few more that nobody ever made.) He did an interview with Blender the same year in which someone managed to ask him a reasonable question about the Rolling Stone piece; he opted to give an answer that time, and did so occasionally thereafter.

The phrasing of many of his later comments on the topic leave me with the impression that he didn't think the 'bisexual' label was inaccurate so much as completely irrelevant and not even a millionth as interesting as everyone else thought it was. You could call him whatever you wanted as long as you didn't pester him about it. Notably, he never denied having slept around with men as well as women, nor expressed regret over any of his personal investigation -- just kicked himself for having blabbed about it, since it made his life inordinately difficult for a while. He apparently thought he was sharing an interesting fact about himself and his own weird inner workings, and hadn't realized that everyone else would treat it as a flying banner of identity, as if it was the only interesting thing about his personality.

I have nothing but respect and admiration for this stance, because I loathe identity politics. It is the single most effective way ever invented to Balkanize the human race. Someday, it will get us all killed. Every fucking thing that's ever been said, done, or thought in the history of homo sapiens sapiens is analyzed endlessly in the context of whether it's for or against some giant, formless, faceless group of people -- and on top of that, you're expected to meta-evaluate whether anything you do, for any reason, is likely to hit an unpleasant button in the brain of someone else you've probably never met, whom you must treat at all times as a cardinal representative of a group you've never been in and possibly have never even heard of, and who will themselves evaluate all of your actions as if you personally represent any groups they think you might be a part of. It is an endlessly neurotic hall of mirrors, and we're letting it run our goddamn government, all of academia, and whatever bits of tumblr aren't dedicated to gifs of cats falling off of things. It's good to consider the feelings of the people around you, but there is a limit to what one can reasonably be expected to do.

I was incredibly insulted when I started seeing people insist on "person-first" language. It implied that I was incapable of realizing that you had to be a human being first before you could have a cultural affiliation or a sexual orientation or a mental illness or whatever. Who the fuck starts out an interaction just assuming that the other guy has no capacity for empathy? How arrogant do you have to be, and how low an opinion must you have of the rest of the human race, to take it upon yourself to didactically remind everyone you meet that the rest of the world is not composed of paper cutouts placed there for their amusement? How paranoid must you be, to feel you have to scrupulously and continuously signal in conversation your own awareness that other people actually exist for really reals, just in case the other person's assumptions about you are as scurrilous as your assumptions about them? 

Then I realized that other people apparently do have issues remembering this, and now I'm just sad.

I keep wanting to grab people by the shoulders and shake them and shout YOU ARE NOT AN ADJECTIVE! Or even the sum of a bunch of them! But existing as a Venn diagram of empty circles representing membership cards and tribal associations seems to make other people happy, so I suppose it's not my fight. And it wasn't Bowie's fight, either.

Way back in the early '70s, someone on TV tried to get him to sum up his entire outrageous existence in one word. He floundered for a second and finally just pronounced himself 'David Bowie'. Not only do I think this is an eminently sensible stance to take, but that it is possibly the only one you can take without driving yourself completely goddamn insane. You live and die by the opinions of one other person, we call it co-dependent, and send you to therapy. Live and die by the opinions of a hoard of faceless and possibly imaginary people whose only bond is that they all happen to share an adjective, and we claim this is the just and correct way to run human society. I'm not saying that you should tear through the world not giving a fuck if you hurt anyone else. Just that the monkeysphere is only so big, and you can only manage the expectations of so many other people at a time without sending your look-ahead systems into deadlock.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

WARNING: 100% RAMBLE. Now with gratuitous links!

Moggie and I were indulging in a fit of college nostalgia the other night when the question came up of what, exactly, it was that made Bowie come off as so androgynous? I mean, physical characteristics aside, most of what makes people seem 'girlish' or 'boyish' is socially constructed gender performance, and varies from culture to culture. It's an interesting exercise to try to pin down exactly what it is that triggers the impression, particularly since my calibration can be rather badly off at times. I've spent the past twenty years watching anime. It's all in what you're used to.

Answering this, of course, required me to knuckle down and watch many hours of things with David Bowie in them. The terrible sacrifices I make for research.

(Yes, I'm linking everything. You're welcome.)

You could point to a million things as explanation when Bowie was dressed up as a Martian drag queen, obviously, but it seems to have been largely behavioral, since it worked even when he was wearing ordinary human clothes. Footage from Live Aid shows him in something that wouldn't have been out of place on Rick Astley -- so, not especially effete, by the standards of 1985 -- he did all his promo for "Hours" in a sequence of hoodies with sleeves slightly too long for him, and the tour for "Reality" was in chucks and jeans with fraying hems. He still looks exactly like David Bowie in all of it.

Androgyny was one of the few things Bowie hung onto throughout his career. Throughout his life, actually. There exist pictures of Bowie as a teenager, occasionally in a recognizable style like 'Mod', and he looks exactly as fey as he always did on stage, if somewhat less like a space alien. Various documentarians have scared up some of his childhood friends, and their commentary boils down to, 'eh, David was always like that'. It annoyed Bowie to no end to be pigeonholed by anybody, in any way, but androgynous was a descriptor he consistently used for himself.

I do wonder if half the reason he got so tied up in Ziggy Stardust was that here he was, on stage, doing all the pretty theatrical swooping about that he'd always done only turned up to 11, and people were cheering instead of trying to punch him in the nose.

[And he did get tied up in it, dangerously so. There's a documentary called Cracked Actor, made during his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour in the US, where about 36 minutes in the interviewer gets him talking about Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and all the other characters he played. He's 27 at that point, reed-thin, and chemically lost in outer space most of the time. He looks and sounds about seventeen. And when he's asked about getting lost in all his various personas, he suddenly gets alarmingly cogent and insightful, and quite upset. He talks about the various artistic and emotional influences that went into it all, but there's this continual desperate undertone: Look, I know this is going to end badly. I know it's my fault and I understand I have no right to ask for help. But I want you to please believe me when I say I did not do this on purpose. He really thinks he's not going to make it to thirty, and by rights, he really shouldn't have.]

Surprisingly enough, as much time as Bowie spends vamping on stage, the effect is actually more prominent when he talks, especially in early days. He could be remarkably shy for someone who intentionally left the house every morning dressed like some kind of colorblind space pimp. Boys aren't shy, or at least our culture says they're not supposed to be, and if they are they're certainly not supposed to let it show. It took him like ten years to consistently make eye contact with people who were trying to interview him. He was on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974, drugged out of his mind, with a prominent case of coke sniffles. Cocaine generally turns people into unstoppable free-associating chatterboxes; Bowie, while remarkably coherent, still spends most of his time preoccupied with the floor and the texture of his lacquer cane.

[The twitchiness is not entirely the drugs; he fidgeted continually through every interview I could find, his entire life. This one has him fooling with his lighter for twenty solid minutes of footage. He also had the attention span of a goldfish when you finally got him going, a thing to which he cheerfully copped, usually after the interviewer had let him ramble through about five topics and three solid minutes of airtime, and he had interrupted the start of the next question twice.]

That the whole thing was not just a put on for performance is evident from watching Bowie's 50th birthday bash in Madison Square Garden. He has clearly had a number of birthday drinkies before coming on stage, specifically whatever number of them makes him think it's fun to wave his hands around and stop caring so much where his feet are. Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol does not give you new mad ideas; it makes you think all your pre-existing mad ideas are good ones. What it inspires Bowie to do is dance around even more extravagantly than normal, and knock his mic stand over on his way down to the apron to say hello to the front row. (They gave him at least one extra mic out front, presumably in order to keep him from dragging the one stand around to hell and back. It didn't work.) That man must have been the bane of venue security from day one. He could not keep away from the audience, and the audience was full of ecstatic teenage girls, one of the more dangerous hive organisms around. (In Bowie's defense, he did get very good very quickly at getting his hand back from the screaming throngs when he was done. It was an art.)

In the end, Mog and I concluded that a great deal of it is just that Bowie seemed to truly, deeply enjoy swinging himself around in space. Our culture considers it a very dainty and feminine thing to derive pleasure from simply being graceful -- we've got the iconic, Disney-princess image of the sweet, beautiful young lady dancing about the garden, innocent of how appealing it makes her look. Men can feel triumph when being coordinated; they're encouraged to in sports, for instance. But they're not supposed to dance just for the love of it, and if they do love it, they're supposed to be far too cool to let on. Men who make it plain that they enjoy being graceful and theatrical get called 'swishy', at the polite end of things, and the motion registers as feminine.