In a comment appended to my previous post, Desiree takes me to task for arguing that New York is somehow more "real" than other places. This is not precisely what I was trying to say, but her commentary raises other interesting questions.

In my post, I was trying to express that New York has taught me some hard lessons about "reality," has made me more of a "realist." Some might argue that being a realist is just another term for being a cynic or an individualist, but I don't see it quite that way. I like to think that my new perspective on life is the same idealism I used to have, tempered with a healthy does of experience. I've been dis-illusioned in the best possible sense.

But does that mean that New York is a "realer" place than any where I've lived before? Certainly not (cf. a post of mine from earlier this summer in which I argue exactly the opposite). Desiree offers us a memorable maxim, though, acquired from television viewing: reality is just another genre. Certainly our experience backs this up. Does any style of art seem more dated than historical attempts to depict life unfiltered, "as it really is"? The handheld camera work of French New Wave cinema or the pathological asceticism of Scandanavian Dogme seem as stylized to us as the overstuffed "naturalistic" stage settings used in 19th Century productions of Ibsen. Representations of reality are invariably selective; even the ubiquitous (and hopefully fading) fad of reality television, though unscripted, is edited to create tight, readable narratives and familiar character roles.

The "real" is just another modality, a way of limiting the totality of experience, which is too overwhelming (or, at times, underwhelming) for us to process without filters of some kind. What feels "real" to us is not substantively different from experiences that we describe as "surreal"; the two types of experiences just come at us in different ways, one in a way that we can easily process and the other in more unexpected ways.

What Desiree really seems to be saying is that living in New York seems to predispose people to a certain collective fantasy: that the hardscrabble way New Yorkers have chosen to live and arrange their interactions with others is somehow the only "real" way to live. That the dog-eat-dog world of competition this city fosters somehow allows us to access a truth about existence that the poor rubes in the sticks will never receive.

I came back last week from a trip outside of New York City, my first extended departure in many months. The journey made me realize that all of us create our own modalities of existence, based to a certain degree on the circumstances in which we find ourselves but also (perhaps primarily) on the choices we make or do not make to alter those circumstances.

"Reality" in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Ozark mountains, where I spent my vacation, is vastly different from the Manhattan sense of "real." In Manhattan living in the "real world" means paying half of your paycheck in rent so that you can meet all of your expenses and still live in a decent neighborhood -- defined not only by its safety, but perhaps moreso by its proximity to desirable subway lines (not the JMZ, please!) and its proportion of hip bars, stores and eateries. For Manhattan artists, social activits, and other counter-cultural types, living in the real world often means making commercial compromises to subsidize that kind of life.

New Yorkers in Little Rock may marvel that this state capital seems so suburban in places, that the downtown area can feel so empty on a weekday afternoon, that young bohemian twenty-somethings can live in a sizeable house on a tree-lined street and that you can wander around to local watering holes and bump into all kinds of people that you know and grew up with. It seems like a fantasyland, equal parts Andy Griffith and Harper Lee. But I'm sure that New York, with its unrealistically infalted prices, overscheduled appointment books and constant cell phone communication, must seem to outsidere like a theme-park spin off of Sex and the City. People who doubt that New York thrives on unreality only need to note the hordes of television crews that crowd the streets, filming the latest installments of Law and Order. Half the population here seems to be employed peddling fantasies of one kind or another; too few of us realize that we're also living in one.

The peculiar fantasy that New Yorkers subscribe to is that so many of the things they live their lives for are actual, undeniable "needs," rather than imagined ones. Leisure time, to a New Yorker, means being able to go to the Hamptons, or (for those who can't afford that) going out to the trendiest bar, which necessitates all kinds of further expenditure: cigarettes and clothes and hair care products and unlimited Metrocards. Being here for any extended period of time warps the mind so that we come to feel that this very peculiar way of living -- aggressive, with everyone piled on top of one another -- is the only possible option, when the case could well be made that it's actually incredibly unnatural and inhumane.

It's hard for anyone, in New York or in Little Rock, to distinguish between habit and need. As a lapsed Catholic Worker, I'm peculiarly sensitive to the burden that imagined needs can make on the human soul. The spiritual practice of truly divesting oneself of all the material possessions that one does not actually need is a hard but enlightening path to take (one I tried for a time to go down, only to settle for a compromise). Time in Manhattan, though, has made me sympathetic to some of the imagined needs shared by my fellow urbanites. I remember in college marveling that anyone -- anyone! -- would ever really need more than three pairs of shoes: sneakers, dress shoes and boots. Done. Of course, as I find myself packing up my belongings to move into a new aparment I find that my shoes have multiplied like rabbits in the two years I've lived in New York and are now a motley crew of various lether, faux-leather and canvas constructions ranked by minute differentiations of casualness and chic.

To a certain extent, the need for different shoes is a "real" one based on the type of functions that I'm accustomed to attending these days and the expectations of my footwear. More than that, though, our imagined needs are real in the sense that they are expressions of our desire for comfort, perhaps the most human of all weaknesses. One can be a complete ascetic and still be motivated by the same drive: the monk who enters a life of strict celibacy and scheduled prayer is similarly seeking a kind of comfort, an existence whose parameters and clearly understood and will remain unchallenged.

Most people live their lives as if someone, some oppressive power, designed the world to make them frustrated. I know so many New Yorkers who complain constantly about high rents or the stress level that they experience and yet who never admit that they themselves have chosen to live here when they could be in Santa Fe or living on Walden Pond. In fact, our frustrations just go to show how comfortable we are with the system as it exists; despite all our complaints, there must be something (even if it's just fear of the unknown) that keeps us here.

Imagine a world where more people were able to admit how much of their lives are based on their own choices, their own need for comfort. We would be a bit healthier as a nation if we realized that the Red State/Blue State divide is a manifestation not of two "fundamentally different Americas" but rather of two modalities of being American, that might have more in common than we think. The differences between your average Bible-belt Republican and your average limousine liberal are superficial at best: the one attends church regularly while the other goes religiously to a pilates class; the one believes he needs a firearm to protect himself while the other believes he needs macrobiotic food.

Perhaps in order to really experience reality what we all ought to do is own up to the fantasies we've constructed around ourselves. The consciousness that allows us to do just that is the lasting (and underappreciated) legacy of postmodernism. Human beings are fantasists; we construct imagined castles around ourselves -- whether out of material goods or ideologies -- to ward off the evils of the outside world. If we all recognized one another as members in this quixotic club, we might be able to have healthier debates and, indeed, to imagine new ways of being, new interactions that we could subscribe to collectively to lessen the conflicts between us.

Certainly some people in the world do not have much capacity to "choose their own reality"; a baby born infected with AIDS in Africa cannot just pack up and move on to a better life of her own free will. But for most of us in the West, the key to enlightenment is not going to be one thing that will work for everyone. For some people it will be going back to the land, while for others it's devoting yourself to your career or starting a family or living in voluntary poverty or some other mode of existence that offers them satisfaction. The key lies in recognizing that none of us has been forced by some ontological imperative to live life the way we do. Each of us has chosen and continues to choose. The real world circumstances to which we so often ascribe our motivations in decision-making are, in fact, changeable. Once we have seen that much, we may do nothing to make budge from our comfortable, imagined castle, but at least we've let a little light in. New horizons of reality become visible.


if you can make it there

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn'd love,
But now I think there is no unreturn'd love, the pay is certain one way or antoher
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return'd,
Yet out of that I have written these songs.)
-Walt Whitman

For the past few weeks I've mostly been dividing my time between two missions: finding an apartment and finding a boyfriend. They're not that dissimilar, when you think about it; I was using the Internet a lot in both cases, for example. The boyfriend thing turned out to be less pressing, though, and so most of my attention turned to housing. Thanks to my concerted efforts I've now secured a new residence starting in the month of September.

Dating. Real estate. Employment. Why is everything in New York such a struggle? People move to other cities (like San Francisco or Philadelphia) because they want to live there; people move to New York to make it. The moment you set foot here, it's a competition. And the way you hear people talk about this city, you get the sense that it's not just all the other New Yorkers that you're competing with but rather the city itself. It's a personified oppositional force, one that's making it harder for you to afford your rent or to find your life partner. New York is bigger than all of us, we imply, it has a mind of its own. And our relationship with the City is, and always will be, the Big One. [Note that the TV series was called "Sex and the City" not "Sex in the City"; New York is not a mere location.]

When I talk about the City, of course, I mean Manhattan. Or those parts of New York life that emanate out of Manhattan, exist in relation to Manhattan. When you consider the real New York City, all five boroughs in all of their diversity, you actually can start to feel a little bit warm about it; there's an all-embracing feminine quality, an organicity to it. But when you're talking about The City there's no femininity in the equation. If The City were a woman (and it very well could be) it would be an iron lady, a power broker, a Martha Stewart or a Maggie Thatcher. The City gets what it wants. The City doesn't give a fuck.

I've been in the "very heart of it" for two years now--that's 24 times longer than I've been with any boyfriend. And I'm moving on. Not a definitive break, of course, but an increasing distance. We'll still see one another casually, as friends, at work, maybe sometimes it will get more intense than that. But I don't forsee that happening soon. I've got another borough on the horizon that's going to require some attention. But the City, oh, the City. He's always going to be a part of my life. He's my Mr. Big. (Sorry for all the Carrie Bradshaw references, I'm usually more of a Henry James-Proust-style gay, but what can I say?)

Maybe it's time to settle some accounts. My relationship with the City has not only been one of the longest affairs of my life but also, perversely, one of the healthiest. I'll admit, it's not the sort of thing I would wish on everyone. The City is not a sensitive or considerate partner. He makes a lot more money than you and he's always more busy than you are. He doesn't really get your idealism, your commitment to putting other people first. Sure, he thinks it's noble, but nobility and $2.50 will buy you a hot dog at Nathan's.

The City doesn't support you. He's not "there for you," the way the women's magazines tell you a boyfriend should be. "All right," he says, "Go out and try to do good in the world. I'm not gonna stop you. But don't come crying home to me if it turns out to be tougher than you thouhgt." The City is not going to change its routines to accomodate you; like the female recruits at the Citadel, you will get no special treatment. And if you succeed despite all that, you will have earned the City's respect.

That's where we've come to, he and I. He's not abusive. Some people leave the City crying, talking about how unfair it's been to them, how fucked up it is. But, hey, they entered into it with their eyes open. The City never cared about me and, you know what, I don't think I wanted it to. I learned more that way. I learned more about reality. And if I've had some of my ideals hardened and scuffed up a bit while I've been here, in the thick of it, all the better for me. What good's an ideal that you have to keep locked in the china cabinet?

We've had some good times, the City and I. Fun nights out, excesses. We've had bad nights, too. Nights when I came home by myself, cursing, pissed off. Every block that I walk down these past few weeks seems to call up some new memory or other, from Avenue A to Chelsea Piers, from Times Square to City Hall. I won't be sad to walk some new streets soon, ones that aren't so saturated yet with experience. My new boyfriend, Brooklyn (it's a Dutch name), still seems dewy-eyed and sensitive to me, cuddly. We're still at that stage. I don't think the City would think much of him. They could never be friends.

But I don't need them to be. I don't need to seek the City's approval. I'm not running away from him; I've just come to see that I need something else. I've got other needs that I have to be fulfilled. And I don't expect him to miss me. Well, at least I don't expect him to show it.

The City didn't give me me much. No handouts. No gifts. (Those came from the Mennonites. What were they doing there?) But I think it's because of that rock-hard consistency that I've really loved this relationship. I never expected anything from him and I got what I expected. The thing I'm going to take away from all of this is what I have become: idealistic but wiser, driven but practical, sensitive but self-reliant. And I think he respects me for that.


cock block

When I first started writing this blog, a rather prurient friend of mine said that he found it boring because there wasn't enough sex. Well, Chris Bradley, this one's for you.

I can't get laid. And it's not for lack of trying. In the past month and a half I have been to the seediest of East Village gay bars, sometimes twice in one weekend, staying out 'til closing time (4 am) in hopes of finding someone to bed. With no luck. It's become a Friday night/Saturday morning ritual to totter drunkenly up Second Avenue, slapping my hands in frustration against lampposts and cursing under my breath, then climbing up four flights of stairs (and one loft bed ladder) so that I can slump into my too-long empty bed.

This has happened before, of course. I don't keep track of my success rate, but I would say that I tended to return home solo from these late-night trawlings at least 50% of the time, probably more. What makes this feel different is the doggedness with which I've been pursuing my goal of late and the complete lack of results.

It's a truth commonly acknowledged that the more sex someone is having, the sexier one appears to others. You're confident, you move with an unconscious sensuality, you don't have anything to prove. Well, from January to June I was doing pretty well in the sex department. My pick-up technique was improving. I didn't need to go out to The Cock, where little in the way of finesse is required to find willing partners; I was, in fact, employing my voice and mind and body in social situations to identify, flirt with, and "seal the deal" with a string of desired partners. I'd become consistently proficient at a skill I once thought I would never master. After one successful night last spring (the night of my first date with Helmut) Kyle expressed his unqualified awe at my goal-oriented dating strategy. I identified what I wanted and damned if I didn't get it most of the time.

This past month or so, I seem to have regressed. I'm wildly more sexually experienced than I was a mere year ago (when I first started going out full-force), I have a much better haircut, and I don't mean to brag but in the past couple of weeks an absurd number of people (male and female, straight and gay) have been commenting on how hot I look. So what gives? Since the Helmutgate debacle, I have turned to my old East Village haunts for solace and have found nothing -- on some nights, not even a good grope or any snogging.

I'm tempted to chalk it up to the vagaries of Feng Shui. As all horny young homos know, The Cock has moved into the Hole (that is, New York City's sleaziest gay bar lost it's lease on Ave. A and had to move two avenues over). The old Cock is a space that will probably remain forever etched on my mind in the way that one's childhood playroom typically is. It was sleazy, smoky, and sweaty to be sure, but in one year's time of exploring its nooks and crannies (and believe me, it had more of them than a Thomas' English Muffin), I'd found my own favorite spots, my own strategies for soliciting attention. There was the long "runway" leading from the door to the lav, the hip area near the DJ booth, the murky shadows in the corner, the stage where go-go boys and exhibitionists could display themselves, and the cramped dance floor near the "back room"-turned-coat-check-area.

The new Cock, however, is essentially a bland rectangular space, lit more darkly than its predecessor in hopes, perhaps, that we won't notice what a shoe box it is. People are packed in even tighter and instead of sinuously bumping and gliding between bodies like a sexually promiscuous pinball, one finds oneself more often than not grimacing in frustration as you get shoved around by people trying to make their way throught the fray. There are no longer any curves and eddies, just a mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. I've in fact vowed two or three times that I will never go to the new Cock again and broken that vow at least as many times. But the thing is that even as I break that vow, I don't do it with a feeling of guilty pleasure because, frankly, I no longer enjoy going there. I enter with a sinking feeling in my stomach. There are no incidental pleasures there, just pursuit of the goal.

And that situation is something I've felt elsewhere in the past couple of months, leading me to believe that it's more than the re-configured Cock that has cursed my sex life. When I'm out most nights I am just not seeing that many exciting partners. Probably only two or three over the course of eight of nine recent trips. It was not always thus. Have my standards raised? Is everyone out at Fire Island to escape the heat? Whatever the reason, the result is doubly frustrating: I go out looking for something that doesn't seem to even been out there to get. I wear out the heels of my shoes wandering up and down the bar, eyeing men left and right but finding no one remarkable, or even especially desirable. The paucity of hotness ought to make me stay home but perversely it tends to prompt me to stay out even later, thinking "Somebody's gotta come in, right?"

It may be that my heart's not in it anymore. I can't very well expect to succeed at something I no longer have any faith in. My Cock-going days ended when I started getting into semi-serious dating situations, the type where you actually talk to people and see them multiple times, and go to their apartments during normal daylight hours. I thought I could return to bars like the Cock as if they were Blockbuster outlets, but I seem to have discovered that my membership has expired. Or something. I need to move on to a different stage in the development of my sex life. I've been thinking recently that the type of boy I need to find will probably not be met at a cruisy bar. If only there were a pick-up scene at Barnes & Nobles or the Film Anthology Archive! (Perhaps there is? Anybody, anybody?) I've outgrown the playroom.

As much as I am starting to accept that fact of evolution, I still don't see why I shouldn't be able to get in a couple of pokes or two just to make myself feel better. I really need to bring somebody else to my bed before I leave Menno House, just to wrap things up. I will probably be much better off in Brooklyn, where the gay bars are fewer and farther between, where I can't be lured at a moment's notice to dens of vice within walking distance of my hacienda. But before I enter that period of burgher-like maturity, I'd like to prove to myself that I've still got it. In order to succeed at that, I need to stop trying so hard and find the fun in it all over again.

So there you go. Sex, sex, sex. Remember when I used to write about things like welfare reform?


chew on this (ouch!)

I remember getting a C one time in my freshman year high school math class. It was like this stain; it made me feel like I was somebody else, somebody who got C's.

I felt that way this morning, except the C stood for cavity. That's right, for the first time ever yous trult left the dentist and they told me that I had to schedule another appointment... to get a FILLING. Because I have a CAVITY. In fact, to be perfectly frank, I have two.

I'm not quite sure why it feels like a moral lapse. I ran into my boss on the way into work and she asked me, "How was the dentist?" I told her about my first cavity and she said that she had a few, they weren't so bad. (She's a total overachiever, straight-A student type, so I was frankly quite surprised that she, too, had this blot on her permanent record.) I guess a lot of people (most people?) have had cavities, but not me. Until now.

I remember being in elementary school and seeing those posters on the wall showing a walrus with his mouth open wide, tusks shining. The caption: "Look, Ma, no cavities!" I remember going to the dentist and him telling me that I had "big, healthy, Italian" teeth and that they would never fall out ever (he really said this) as long as I kept brushing and flossing. I thought I had been genetically blessed. I guess I let my guard down.

I had not been to the dentist in at least two years before this morning. I feel a little guilty about that. When I was in school (even when I was in grad school in England), my aunt would always hector me to get to the dentist every six months. I would dutifully go to see him when I was home for Christmas vaction, just to pacify her. Because I always received such glowing reviews, I suppose I thought I that the visits were just a formality. But every Achilles has his heel. I never thought, for instance, that it might have been because I went for teeth cleanings with such regularity that I had such good dental hygiene.

I've changed in a lot of different ways over the past year. I counted recently and I had 18 sexual partners between June 2004-June 2005. In the year previous I'd had two (and one didn't really count). I've become more jaded, hard-boiled, fashionable etc. But this is the one change that doesn't even have a tincture of cool attached to it. What's cool about a cavity? No one wants to admit that they're letting their mouth go to pot.

I should have known this was coming. Back when I was dating Helmut, I got very insecure about my teeth because they seemed to have yellowed. Rather than shilling out any money for a sophisticated bleach job on my molars (which, along with laser hair removal has always seemed to me the height of needlessly expensive vanity) I got some drug store tooth-bleaching gel. Not whitening toothpaste but an actual gel that you apply to your teeth and leave on. I'm not convinced it did anything. It's indicative of the changes I'm going through that I tried to effect some kind of superficial appearance-saving whitening, when the actual core of my teeth was rotting away underneath...

I sat in the dentist's waiting room this morning (before I knew that I had holes in my teeth) and I thought about the fragility of the human body. I had to fill out a medical questionnaire and, thankfully, I was able to check "no" next to every single ailment listed on the form ("Angina"; "Diabetes"; "Heart palpitations"). It felt obvious that I wouldn't suffer from any of these, but I looked around at the middle-agers in the waiting room with me and realized that none of us is invincible. Our systems are delicately balanced and my muscles and organs have been pumping for 26 years straight. They're not going to last forever. The health care crisis in this country is so appalling (how many millions are uninsured) precisely because health problems are so universal. Every single one of us is a machine and we will start sputtering sooner or later. I thought about health insurance companies, presenting themselves altruistically when they're business model necessitates their trying to withold payment from suffering people. I thought about the old days, before fluoride in the water, when everyone's teeth fell out early.

And I felt myself getting old.