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121_box_348x490_originalAlternative Viet #1: This Viet knows what he wants and gets it, always. In high school, this Viet isn’t the shy and sheltered teenager who is constantly surprised to discover that his classmates are, indeed, having sex. Instead, this Viet is sexually active and sophisticated, having both male and female lovers. This Viet doesn’t stare at people longingly, wondering what it would be like to love and feel love, but is already jaded about the whole deal, with the insouciance of a European playboy. This Viet doesn’t stay home on the weekends, listening to Saint Etienne’s So Tough album on endless repeat, translating British ennui into a more pedestrian, suburban heartbreak. No. This Viet is not at all like the other one.

Alternative Viet #2: This Viet has adopted Viet #1 as his own. It’s college, after all: who here knows who the ‘real’ Viet is, except for the daughter of the Asian supermarket owner? And how often will their paths cross? Very rarely, this Viet realizes. The time has come for a reinvention, for a radical makeover, and this Viet can be whoever he wants. This Viet creates his own myths and disseminates them as far as they will travel, because if enough people believe a story, doesn’t it, in fact, become true, like a dream made flesh? If he insists on the primacy of this Viet, the other Viets will fade away, become distant, apocryphal memories, almost as if they never existed, and no one would be the wiser.

Alternative Viet #3: This Viet is in trouble. He has been called to the carpet to reconcile the differences between the various Viets.  B___ waits for him to explain. B___ is this Viet’s first boyfriend, and this Viet wants to get this right. But the history he has given B___ does not comport with the histories of Viets #1 and #2, which Viet’s friends have shared. How can there be so many Viets running around? Who is the ‘real’ Viet? B___ says that he understands the urge to become someone new. Who doesn’t want to be cooler than he really is? B___ says, even though B___, himself, has gone the opposite direction, converting to Catholicism from Protestantism because Protestants aren’t ‘by the Book’ enough. This Viet wonders: what difference would it make if the history he’s told B___ is the ‘real’ history—the virginal history, the history of sexually inexperience and ineptitude? What if all the Viets have begun to bleed together, the confidence of the other Viets giving this one more of a sense of self-worth? Why would anyone ever want to be a normal Viet, confused and stumbling about, when there are other Viets out there in the world, Viets who know what they’re doing, Viets who make no apologies, Viets who might be able to tell him the right thing to say to B___ so that the surgical excision of the other Viets from this one won’t hurt as much.

120_howtogetahead_originalMy mother is in the hospital for an infected wisdom tooth. She thought at first that the soreness was her sensitive teeth, and, to compensate, she chewed on the side of her mouth that didn’t hurt. As the pain progressed, she self-medicated with Tylenol, with its effects diminishing after an hour or two. Before long, her jaw had swollen, and she could only open her mouth a crack—not enough to eat or drink. A friend urged her go to the emergency room.  If that infection gets into your blood, my mother’s friend said, it could be fatal. And so, my father took her to the hospital. He called to deliver the news, deadpan:  Happy New Year. Oh, I’m fine, but your mother is in urgent care.

*

In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag enumerates the ways in which people conceive as cancer as the Other: a mutant, an invader, a colonizer, “a cosmic disease, the emblem of all the destructive, alien powers to which the organism is host.” But sometimes I think the body itself is the Other, unknown and unknowable.  Despite the holistic promise of mind-body unity, who knows what’s really going in there? The medulla oblongata throws up its hands and takes a nap.

*

In the hospital, my mother wasn’t allowed to lie down and had to sleep reclining. She was forbidden to eat or drink and received nourishment through an IV. But despite the fluids, she complained of an aching thirst, a mouth-dryness that could not be quenched via the median cubital vein. My mother is eighty, and this is the first time she’s been hospitalized. She hadn’t fully read the admittance forms, so she didn’t know that she had to request painkillers. She suffered the discomfort until it became overwhelming. The nurse went straight to the hard stuff: morphine. But what if I get addicted to it? my mother asked, as if contemplating the ways in which her body could continue to work against her, as if it were separate from her conscious mind, now frightened, unsettled, disoriented.

*

Our bodies betray us constantly. They sabotage us at inopportune times: a sudden erection at a dinner party; a sphincter unwilling to hold its gas in a crowded elevator; a boil that speaks its mind and refuses to be placated. The corpus gives the middle finger to the consciousness: You think you’re in control? Just you wait. Our bodies, our subversives.

*

My mother is back at home now. She can only eat purees through a straw but seems in good spirits. The offending wisdom tooth will be extracted two days from now. If she wanted to, I imagine, she could confront her tooth: How could you do this to me? Did I not care for you? Did I not brush you with Sensodyne? It doesn’t matter, I suppose: soon enough, her tooth, a hard nugget of pulp and enamel, will be dead, extracted from its host. But maybe its dying wish will be to bite back, one last time.

119_withnail_originalYaldā:  the longest night of the year. On this night the Sun-God Mithra was born, he of the wide pastures, of the thousand ears, and of the myriad eyes. He emerged from the light from deep within the Alborz mountains and was equal to Ahura Mazda and Anahita. Our friend, Hamid, prepare a pot of fesenjan, serving it with crackling, saffroned tahdiq. We snack on green olives to protect against scorpions. A stainless-steel samovar puffs on the kitchen counter, offering water for bitter black tea. Hamid gives me an amber rock of sugar. Hold this in your cheek while you drink, he explains. It will sweeten the tea.  Our friend Jenn marvels at fresh quince. A pomegranate waits to be cracked open, the seeds as red as dawn. The last fruits of winter.

This year, Hamid’s boyfriend, Warren, invites friends with whom he used to live on a pagan commune on the outskirts of Philadelphia. They reminisce about midsummer bonfires and fertility rituals. Warren is now earning his Ph.D. in nursing; Scott and John are now a well-to-do gay power couple, an architect and schoolteacher, respectively. Everyone’s radical days seem far behind them; even the drugged and drunk Marwood, at the end of Withnail & I, cuts his hair and prepares to embark—seriously—on his career.

J___ proclaims himself the fire-tender for the evening. He has the build of a construction worker and keeps his hair pulled back into a ponytail, a spurt of plumage at the back of his head. Fueled by red wine, his voice grows larger as the evening wears on. What we need, J___ says, is a vertical fire. His big-hearted benevolence explodes. He stacks the logs into a pyramid teepee, and they’re soon blazing. The night is unseasonably warm—almost 50 degrees—and with the fire and the steam from the samovar and food, the room is a tub of embrocation.  How did the ancient Persians, gathering in the mountains to watch the miracle of dawn, vent their caves? J___ says, This reminds me of a sweat lodge, but I hope it isn’t the one in Arizona where three people died from heat stroke. The guru, James Arthur Ray, claimed that the dead “were having so much fun” in their out-of-body experiences that they didn’t want to return.

At the end of the evening, we gather in the living room. It’s a family tradition, Hamid explains, to make a wish for the new year and then to turn to a random poem by Hafez. The translations by Gertrude Bell—the woman who helped shape the borders of modern Iraq at the 1921 Cairo Conference—are prolix and convoluted, an remnant of Victorian imperialism; the translations by Daniel Ladinsky are cleaner and more sonorous. I throw pistachio shells onto the fire, where they spark and pop.

The subject tonight is love
And for tomorrow night too
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Die!

116_box_348x490_original

A few years ago, as I was driving south down I-95 late one night, near the Pennsylvania-Delaware border, I saw a house on fire.  The highway was mostly empty, and I slowed to look.  Emergency responders were already on the scene, but they seemed on stand-by—the house looked like a total loss, and they were on-hand to keep the fire from spreading.  It was eerily beautiful, the way the flames ate away the night.  In my car, I could only imagine the intense heat, the smell of the cinders, the smoke of a person’s life in the air.  When I drive by that area now, if I remember, I look to see if I can find where the fire had taken place, but I can never find it.  Another house has already grown over that spot, I imagine, like scar tissue.

In The Hidden Fortress, revelers at a fire festival intone an existential prayer as they slouch their way around a bonfire.

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it in the fire
Ponder and you will see the world is dark
And this floating world is a dream
Burn with abandon

And at that last line, they dance in a frenzy.  And as a fortune in gold is added to the fire, a princess and her bodyguard, who have been trying to evade capture with the gold, abandon their worries and dance.  The two peasants who have been helping them, however, look at the fire with sadness and dismay—the gold they’ve tried to protect is now melting, and as the bonfire blazes, it burns away their hopes, their dreams, their futures.

I tell myself that if I ever suffer a catastrophic house fire, I won’t rebuild.  The things that can be replaced, I won’t replace.  The books, music, and movies that I’ve spent a lifetime collecting and curating, I will no longer need.  If I’m ever reduced to zero, I’ll somehow make peace with zero.  As 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide writes:

Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon.

Tonight, I returned home from a long day at work to find the house lit up with paper lanterns—the Harvest Moon Festival.   I walked in to see, in our dusky living room, warm, glowing colors, floating in space.  Each lantern a constellation, a nebuIa, a galaxy.  I hesitated:  Is this my house?  Yes, it was.  Matthew had used up the last of the tealights, including the red ones that smell faintly of bayberry.  Dinner was warm on the stove.  Afterwards, as we prepared to retire upstairs, Matthew said, Oh, the lanterns! and even though there was no risk of them catching on fire and burning the house down,  we went back to blow them out.  And from the second floor of the house, in the room we call the library, where I keep my autographed books and my Criterion Collection DVDs, we got a better view of the rising moon.

115_box_348x490This is the lesson of Rififirings are nothing but trouble. A carefully planned and executed heist comes to naught because of a diamond ring given to a showgirl by a vainglorious safecracker (played by the director himself). That one symbolic gesture brings about the gang’s downfall.

When civil unions became law in Delaware, the wife of one of Matthew’s colleagues offered her planning services for our ceremony. I’m sure you’ll want to do this soon, she said. Matthew and I glanced at each other, taken aback that she was more excited about our theoretical unionization than we were. 

Matthew’s father once explained that, in marriage, there are three rings:  the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and then the suffer-ring.

When Matthew and I drive to visit his father in upstate New York, along Route 31 in Pennington, New Jersey, we pass a warehouse that sells ‘USA Tolerance Rings.’ Was this the new thing amongst the kids? I wondered. The middle ground between chastity rings for the Christians and the rainbow freedom rings for gays and lesbians? Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that tolerance rings are a manufacturing component used to join mating cylindrical parts.

I once gave Matthew a ring, which he flung away. I had bought it at the Colorado People’s Fair, from a tented vendors with stacked, felt-lined trays of jewelry. I bought him a simple silver band, though given the other stock—rings with dragons and pentagrams, intricate claddaghs, rings that looked like that had been blackened in a fire—I can’t be sure that it was actually silver. Or even metal. The ring turned out to be loose, since I could only estimate his ring size based on my own fingers. While he was pulling a plant out of his car, his hand flew back, and the ring went flying, with only a single tink! to indicate where it may have gone. Or so he claims.

Now that same-sex marriage has become the law in Delaware, Matthew and I play a variant of the gay/not gay game, in which we try to guess whether two people are together or not. An obvious giveaway, of course, is the presence of matching rings. If they, in turn, play the same game with us, I’d like to think that the answer is still obvious, despite the absence of any symbolic jewelry.

But, in the end, no one really cares about the ring in Rififi. The centerpiece of the film is, undoubtedly, the soundtrack- and dialogue-free sequence as the thieves perform their heist. They communicate with gesture and glance, having practiced and prepared. This silent partnership is the raison d’être of the film. It’s what people remember.

What I remember: Matthew and I, stretched out across our respective couches, reading.  I glance over at him and know what he’s saying: Get this damn cat off of me or I need a refill of tea. Why have a ring ruin all that?

For a while, I only trusted gay men with my hair. As a child, my mother cut my hair: every two months or so, I sat on a chair set upon spread-out newspaper on the basement storeroom, and my mother worked my head with a trimmer set that nicked my ears and spewed out hot ozone. In middle-school, she started taking me to haircut franchises: Great Clips, the Hair Cuttery—but after one too many fucked-up cuts, we settled on a Vietnamese woman who had shop in the Far East Shopping Plaza. While I got my hair cut, she shopped for groceries.

Patrick, though, was my first stylist. He worked first out of Cherry Creek, but when he opened his own salon in Englewood, I followed. We hung out for  coffee and occasionally hit the bars together. He introduced me to having my hair slightly askew and tousled, as if I’d just woken up. (How can anyone tell the difference? asks Matthew.)

When I returned to Denver after grad school, Patrick had closed his salon and had moved to San Diego. I tried other gay men, but results were spotty, depending mostly on the mood of the stylist that day. But Matthew introduced me to Meechie, who worked at the Supercuts not far from our apartment, and from that day on, only sassy black women have cut my hair.

I have great respect for hair stylists. When I told Tomacina, my current stylist, that I’d like a Mohawk for the summer, she didn’t bat an eye, but worked the clippers until all the white hairs at my temples were on the floor. “Not too bad,” she said.

In The Rock, the gay barber (“stylist,” he insists) is played for laughs. He’s a hideous stereotype: prancing, mincing, and prone to the vapors. His complaint that he’s not allowed to use scissors is played off as evidence of frivolity. What’s a pair of thinning shears when compared to the fate of San Francisco, a city under threat of being poison gassed? He’s on-hand to give Sean Connery, a wrongfully-imprisoned British intelligence officer, a haircut. They sit, guarded by FBI officers, on a high hotel balcony, with the San Francisco hills roll behind them.

Michael Bay admits that Connery essentially reprise his most famous role: “a rusty James Bond,” he describes the character. A friend recently explained why she doesn’t like James Bond movies. “Whenever I see Bond driving through a crowded marketplace, overturning the stalls and sending everything flying, I don’t care that Bond is trying to save the world,” she said. “All I can think about are all the poor merchants who’ve just had their lives upended.”

“I guess I’m not the right audience,” she concluded.

Connery uses the haircut as a pretext to escape, of course, flinging his captor off the balcony. The stylist flees into the elevator, where he cowers from Mason. But he knows that his work is no less important than Mason’s work to save the world. “All I care about is,” he says, “Are you happy with your haircut?”

Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon has no moral center. The main character, the lone police officer of a small, colonial Senegalese town, is craven, prone to childish pranks, from salting someone’s tea to weakening the floorboards of an outhouse so that the unlucky occupant falls through. He endures humiliations with a wan smile, and when he’s finally had his fill, he metes out capricious punishment, killing the guilty and innocent alike. He draws others into his depravity, making his superior officer a patsy and inducing a schoolteacher to tell her class that his chalk-written confession on the blackboard is Le Marseillaise. Characters twice proclaim—once during an eclipse and again during a sandstorm—the arrival of Judgment Day, but no such judgment comes. Instead, life continues unabated in the town, the painted walls of houses both sun-baked and blinding.  Tavernier’s camerawork itself resists implying a moral center. He avoids, as he describes, “the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center.” Instead, he creates, with his steadicam shots, “an image that [has] no center, that [keeps] shifting… It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.”

This is the creation of colonialism, Tavernier suggests—this lawless land. “The atmosphere of violence, horror, hypocrisy doesn’t leave you anything to hold on to,” he says. “But it’s not exactly a desperate vision of the world. Nor is it the opposite. You simply don’t know.”

*

I was raised Vietnamese Buddhist, which carries syncretic traces of Confucian ancestor worship. My parents themselves were light Buddhists, which meant that I went to temple only on major holidays:  New Year’s, smoky with sulfurous firecrackers and jangled with Dragon Dances; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, with paper lanterns and me trading my salty yolked slice of mooncake to my father for his yolk-free one; and the Veneration of the Ancestors, for which one pinned a red rose to his lapel if his parents were alive and a white one if the parents had passed on. At temple, black-and-white portraits of the deceased were lined up on either side of the altar; each time I attended, I looked for my grandparents there. At the center of the altar was a large gilt Buddha, seated in the heroic position, hands in the ‘calling earth to witness’ mudra. The Buddha had radiant, neon halo. Buddhism doesn’t have strict tenets, such as the Ten Commandments, but instead suggests the Eightfold Path. I would have learned these paths, but the service was conducted in Vietnamese, which I understood only fleetingly, and I mouthed my way through sutras transliterated from Sanskrit into monosyllabic Vietnamese and read to the rhythm of a tapped woodblock. At the gong, I knew to bow, though I never figured out which gongs meant bow once and which meant three times.

Thus, my moral education consisted primarily of ‘Goofus and Gallant’ cartoons in Highlights for Children, read once every six months while waiting in the dentist’s office. I like to think I didn’t turn out too badly.

Carla del Poggio’s eyes widen when the curtains open in Variety Lights.  It’s one of the oldest stories in showbiz, yes?  The dewy ingénue clawing her way to the top.  But who hasn’t harbored the dream of being a star, of making it big, even if it’s that brief moment while watching You Can’t Do That on Television:  I can do that.  I can say ‘I don’t know’ and get a bucket of slime poured onto my head.

*

Every year, for their final project, the high school seniors in the theater mounted a one-act play.  My final year, I was invited to play the Valet in No Exit.  I was never a full-on thespian — rather, I was someone who ate lunch in the theater room because my friends were in theater.  Still, I thought, Why not?  I put on a dark suit, white-powdered my face and drew black tarry streaks under my eyes, and memorized my lines.  There are two theories of acting:  that one can find one’s self in every character, or that one can find every character within one’s self.  For me, it was neither; the character I played was simply myself, speaking the lines the way I would have said them normally:  Silly questions, if you’ll pardon my saying so. Where’s the torture-chamber? That’s the first thing they ask, all of them.

*

At brunch recently in New York, my friend and I ogled our waiter:  he wore dark-rimmed glasses and had his hair in ringlets.  He seemed like a graduate student, studying something liberal artsy.  English, for example.  Or classics.  We had arrived in the bright-morning crush, and he graciously acceded to our useless requests.  More coffee?  A bit of honey, please?  Maybe he sensed us watching, the way a passer-by is dimly aware of being watched by window-side restaurant patrons.  But he left work before we finished our meal, carrying a Strand Books-branded messenger bag.  This cemented our conjectures further.  We asked the other server, a spunky blonde, what she knew of him.  “Oh, he’s an actor,” she said.  We asked our server what she did.  “Well,” she said, “I’m in acting too.”

*

A student told me that, for a summer job, he was auditioning for Sea World.  I didn’t know one had to audition for Sea World.  Yes, he said.  Since I don’t have any animal training, I can’t work with the animals.  But they have other shows and performances.  Does one even notice other humans at Sea World?  Who can compete with a school of dolphins, a killer whale?  I wish I’d known what I wanted to do with my life earlier, he told me.  He was a biochemical engineering major.  I didn’t discover acting until high school.  I wanted to tell him that I had had the exact opposite experience.  If I had asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ and he answered, ‘I don’t know,’ no slime would have fallen from the sky.  Acting is a calling as much as anything else, but know this, my young friend:  there will always be starry-eyed dreamers, and there will always be broken bulbs on Broadway.

 

For Christmas one year, my sister bought my mother a copy of Brigette Bardot’s biography, Initiales B.B. In French, no less.  I sort of knew that my mother was a Bardot fan, the way I sort of know her birthday and sort of know about her life before we moved to the United States.

What I know for sure about my mother:  she keeps all the books we gave her on the headboard of her waterbed; she likes Sidney Sheldon novels; she watches adaptations of Sidney Sheldon novels on the same television where, every evening, we watched the news and, on Wednesday nights, Dynasty, and, once a year, the Miss Universe pageant.

When I was young, I scoured the TV Guide, looking for her favorite movie.  I found it once — the listing so small it was an inky smudge — showing in the wee hours, and I was so excited I wanted to stay up and watch it with her.  But I fell asleep during a commercial, around the point where the heroine falls off a mountain during a ski race, breaks her back, and is paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Years later, of course, I realized the movie my mother liked was The Other Side of Midnight and not The Other Side of the Mountain.  But she watched with me anyway.

I don’t know if my mother saw And God Created Women.  She would have been about 24 when it was released.  She still lived in Vietnam then — or she could have been at Southern Illinois University, I’m not sure which.  What I know of Vietnamese history of that time includes:  1) the French being driven out of Vietnam; 2) the Geneva Accords splitting the country in half; and 3) the mass exodus of Northerners fleeing southward, bringing phở with them.

Had my mother already met my father by then?  I don’t know.  In the dining room back home (Aurora, Colorado, not Vietnam), there’s a black-and-white photograph of my mother.  She wears a white áo dài, like a schoolgirl’s.  Her face is tilted down towards the left, and the soft light picks out a luminous feature.  Her nose.  Her cheekbone.  She’s possibly as young as Bardot herself when she starred in And God Created Women.  Director and then-husband Roger Vadim writes of Bardot:  “She comes from another dimension…. That’s down to her presence, which comes from outer space somewhere.”

My mother calls regularly, and I return them irregularly.  She calls with news, with gossip, or just to talk.  Her voice reverses time:  here we are watching Alexis and Krystal getting into another catfight.  Miss Venezuela wins again?  But the conversation now veers towards different topics:  her weakening knees, the regimen of capsules and multivitamins that she dutifully splits with a plastic pill-cutter.  As she speaks, I imagine her sitting up in bed, phone extension in hand, leaning against all the books I’ve bought her:  intergenerational Asian mother-daughter sagas, Vietnamese novels in translation, poetry — the unread stories in our lives.

 

Part of me will always be an adolescent boy.  The part that stands in stores, reading comic books until the proprietor yells, “Hey, this isn’t a library!”  The part that giggles at dick and fart jokes.  The part that sees the future as a vast, undisturbed plain at the end of Wheeling St. in suburban Aurora, long before the encroachment of warehouses and office parks.  The part that holds desire like a switchblade — awkwardly, blindly, secretly.

This is the part, too, that enjoys Kevin Smith movies.  At the comics convention that opens Chasing Amy, one grizzled vendor wears a ‘Fuck Marvel Comics’ t-shirt.

Marvel Comics once had a contest where readers could send in samples of their own work.  One could compete in the penciling, inking, coloring, lettering or writing categories, and the winners of each would collaborate on an issue of Spider-Man.

I wasn’t familiar enough with the Spider-Man storylines to attempt writing, but lettering I thought I could do.  It requires a steady hand, a ruler, a knack for identifying empty spaces in the frames where language and thought can take shape.  Having only one of the three, I didn’t enter.

Besides, I had already tried making comics.  In middle school, my friend Josh C. and I created a three-panel comic strip called “Froggy.”  But since I was inept at drawing, Froggy was nothing more than a three-toed, ambulatory lingam.  We did a traditional three-panel strip, commonly known as ‘the funnies’:  set-up, build, punchline.  And, being middle-schoolers, we moved quickly from existential crises regarding the inability to catch flies to dick and fart jokes.

Holden and Banky, the comic-creating duo of Chasing Amy, eventually separate, in part, because of Banky’s submerged feelings for Holden.  “Some doors should never be opened,” Banky says.

Josh and I were separated by the military’s propensity to ship away families to new bases.  He used to regaled me with stories of coming across his mother’s boyfriend, post flagrante delicto, walking around with his boner, howling “A-roo-ha-hoo!”

Really?

Yep, he said.

We had swim class together, and there weren’t enough stalls in the locker room to accommodate all the bashfulness.  Once, as we showered, Tim S. zipped in and mooned us, but more often, a line of damp boys formed a queue in front of the only stall in the bathroom.

Josh wielded his unabashed sexuality like a matador’s cape.  As I waited on the bench for the stall to open, trunks clinging and reeking of chlorine, he whipped off his shorts and slipped into his underwear.  Maybe he noticed me looking.  He asked, “Aren’t you changing?  Ashamed of your manhood?”

Well, yes and no.  Our bodies were still sprouting in unforeseen ways (some more than others).  We were no longer boys, but we couldn’t claim the mantle of men — not so long as we kept subsuming and covering our desires with bluster and indifference.

Josh knocked on the stall:  “Ready yet?”  But I wasn’t yet ready to open that door.

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