Thursday, June 28, 2012

Empire State of Mind

I went to a bachelorette party last weekend in New York City. This was my third trip to the Big Apple in eighteen months, after having never been in my entire life. Every time I go all I want is to live there, soak it up, experience everything it has to offer. I imagine I'm in a chick flick, a rom-com, a crappy sitcom where I complain about my life while everything goes right and exactly as I planned. This last time, I felt almost at home while I walked around. Not that I had any idea whatsoever where I was geographically at any time, but I knew I could find my way. And if not, there were plenty of cabbies willing to take me on the (very) scenic route to my destination.

Anyway, that whole opening was actually just a lead-up to what I really wanted to talk about: male strip clubs. I mean, it was a bachelorette. It's what one does, right? I honestly don't know. I've only been to one bachelorette party in my life, for my very best friend, and we went to dinner and went dancing and there was penis shaped candy and a huge inflatable penis but other than that, a pretty normal night out.

See? I'm wearing a Care Bear shirt for christ's sake.

This party though, it was well thought out. Beautiful hotel, plans for a show (finally saw Rent! Hollerrrrrr!), classy dinner, we went sightseeing. And then, Mantasia happened.

So with Magic Mike coming out, I feel it's only right to let ladies know what they're actually in for at these joints. Obviously, the movie's not yet out so I haven't seen it, but I've seen previews (and movies) so I can guess how this goes. There are elaborate shows with actual dancing! Human connection! Brutally hot guys! Well, with my highly scientific sample of one male strip club, I can tell you that all you're going to find is #3. True, in abundance, but if you want to touch one of them in their underwear, that's extra.

I went because everyone else was going, which sounds really pre-teen and peer-pressure-y, but it wasn't. Your bosom pal only gets married once (don't you piss on my parade here, THEY ARE MEANT TO BE), and if she wants to go to a strip club, you go. I had a wonderful time watching everyone and buying unsuspecting friends lap dances, but I myself did not touch a single washboard ab. Though I did have a nice conversation with a fellow who was dry humping the girl behind me (the place was seriously like the basement at an eighth grade party... or-- how I think one of those parties would have been, if I'd ever been invited). There were tons of married ladies and bachelorettes there and I figured out why, just yesterday. Single girls can get insincerely flattered at any club, any night. For someone in a committed relationship, a male strip club is paradise. You get to flirt and touch and be coy without any feelings of guilt whatsoever (until you realize you've put the grocery money down that dude's pants). Single girls though, we get that shit all the time.

For example, I am NOT in any way a "hot girl." I go days with no guys but homeless ones talking to me. No one stops me on the train to ask me spontaneously for coffee or even for my name. I'm lucky if I get an "excuse me" as they trod across my feet. Yet, put me in a club on the weekend, say, a Friday night in NYC, and guys can't stop telling me how beautiful I am, how good of a dancer I am, and ask me to come home. Sometimes, I even get a drink out of the deal. If I want to be insincerely flattered, I don't need to pay twenty bucks for a lap dance, I can just go to any place that has dancing within a couple of hours of last call!

Now for sure, many of the women there (my friends included) just wanted to ogle the models and laugh about it later, but so many women there were clearly just dying for someone to tell them they were beautiful. Honestly, why else would these guys lead with that?

I was talking to my friend Holli yesterday and was so taken by the disparity between male and female fantasy. In strip clubs for men, no touching is allowed, there's no emotional connection, it's just raw nakedness. In this strip club for women, it was all about emotional connection. "You're so cool," "You're so pretty," over and over. Not only touching, but simulated sex acts on stage. These guys are working hard for their money (not that lady strippers don't!). It's just interesting, isn't it? For men, just flash some bewbs and grind on their lap without expectation. For women, make us believe you like us. While we know deep down that this is a job, the expectation is that we'll still feel targeted.

I wish I could come up with some brilliant sociological or anthropologic explanation for it, all I can really say is that it shows how much deeper women are than men. We appreciate a beautiful form, but man. We still want to believe we're special. Even if we're one of two hundred screaming in a room, adding to the belt of dollar bills in your drawers.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: Jack

In Jack,, A.M. Homes has accomplished the difficult task of writing a novel from the point of view of a child, and making the ensuing story interesting for adults. The difficulty here is in voice and content. Replicating the cadence and language of children challenges writers wanting to appeal to adults who quickly tire of the repetition indicative of teenage speech. As for content, while teenagers find their own lives endlessly fascinating, (most) adults have little patience for tepid romance or gossip. What separates a literary work written in a child's perspective from a young adult novel is the author's ability to create a child character who is appealing, interesting, and maybe a bit precocious. A.M. Homes has done that here.

Jack is a typical high school boy, looking forward to his sixteenth birthday and getting his driver's license. He's not popular, but he's not unpopular; the other kids in his class seem to largely ignore him. Scintillating, right? Add to all of that Jack's parents' contentious divorce and his father's subsequent coming out and admission that he and his friend Bob are lovers. While Jack struggles with this new information, his best friend Max (so incredibly obnoxious it's hard to imagine he and Jack staying friends past high school) has a family that's exploding as well. Jack has his first girlfriend, a huge failure, and rebounds with another girl who understands him. He develops a crush on a much older woman. And he needs to wear a cast following a basketball injury. Jack has a lot going on.

What elevates this book from YA to literary fiction is the way Jack sorts through his emotions and makes decisions. Homes shows his struggle at times to do the right thing, and other times when he easily knows the right path and chooses it not because he wants to, but because he's a good kid. He's also acutely observant. When he and Max wind up out on the town with a popular girl from their class, along with his dad and her dad (also gay), he senses trouble on the horizon and tries to head it off. This being an adult novel though, devoid of lessons for budding teens to learn, things go exactly the way one would expect them to in real life. When Jack's secret is revealed, the interest lies not in the way other people react to it, but the way Jack reacts to a world where he no longer has the secret.

Homes gives Jack a mature mindset in many areas, belied by the occasional childish lapse. For instance, his kindness to Max's little brother and innate understanding of what the boy needs contrasted with his stubborn insistence that he doesn't need a doctor after sustaining an injury during a game. The moments of immaturity make Jack a believable kid, while the moments of clarity make him interesting. Jack's moment of epiphany at the end is a simple one, but weighs heavily, reminding the reader of their own moment of understanding. The events that occur around Jack are interesting, in typical Homes style the reader should expect the unexpected, but it's Jack himself who carries the book. Other authors have successfully written books from a child's perspective (Sapphire's Precious in Push and C.D. Payne's Nick Twisp in Youth in Revolt come to mind), but most of those children face extraordinary circumstances. Jack's life is unusual, but it's not ground-breaking. It's what happens in Jack's mind that's most interesting.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pro Tips: Riding the T

'Tis the season when Red Sox fans flock to our fair city like moths to a flame, adding congestion to the already groaning green line. While many of the tips below could also apply to Bostonians, asshat behavior is sort of expected around these parts year 'round. Bostonians are sort of jerks, it's part of their charm. You haven't lived until you've had an octogenarian tell you to go fuck yourself after you swiped the last strawberry Chobani off the shelf.

Simple common sense should be enough for all of these tips, but for some reason common sense seems to get left behind somewhere around Zakim Bridge. Perhaps making a run for it at the opening strains of "Sweet Caroline." Whatever the reason, recent events have made it clear that someone needs to speak out. I feel I am more than qualified as a daily rider of the green line.

1. Let people out of the train. I know, I know! You people who drive everywhere are thinking to yourself, "Uh, duh. People have to get off to make room for people getting on." But for some reason people simply can't grasp this concept. They seem to see a full train as a challenge, a call to action. "WE MUST ALL FIT ON THIS TRAIN OR THE DOORS WILL CLOSE AND WE'LL BE TRAPPED HERE ON THIS PLATFORM FOREVER!" You can see the fear in their eyes. Meanwhile, people who live here attempt to hold back and let people off before recognizing the futility. Either jump in front of the stream of people blocking the door or wind up crushed against the door, resigned to getting off and on at every stop. (And heaven help us all if someone from out of town ends up in that position. They will instead cling to the doorway, thereby making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave the train.) Related: If you are part of the mob responsible for blocking the egress of a little old lady trying to make her way out of the train you are, in fact, irredeemably an asshole.

2. Be mindful of people around you. This covers a wide variety of topics. Have you put on deodorant today? Does the music from your headphones make the entire car feel like "da club?" Do you understand the concept of "personal space?" Ah, let's do that one. The seats on the train, while more spacious than an airplane seat, leave little room from your neighbor. Sometimes a little touching can't be helped, but please do avoid sitting with your legs spread wide apart, arms akimbo. The person next to you isn't interested in touching you either, and all you've done is create less personal space for both of you. If you feel the need to nap and/or pass out, try to lean toward the window. Your seatmate will appreciate your consideration. Perhaps even enough to wake you at the final stop. Standing? Those trains can get pretty crowded, with people standing closer to you than your date to the junior high dance. Invading space is unavoidable so try to make it as pleasant as possible. Don't try to jockey for space on the pole. If someone beat you to the spot you want, suck it up. Do not start a contest to see how many times you can touch them until they move their hand. Additionally, try not to stand face to face with someone. Even turning just a fraction rescues you from an uncomfortable situation. Related: Men, if a lady is on the steps in front of you, it's only polite to turn so your package isn't nestled on her face.

3. Negotiating travel with a large group. Chances are, if you finally scored tickets to a Sox game you want to bring some friends. That's awesome. Please don't get bent out of shape if you are out of arm's length from one another for the length of four stops. I promise you, your friend Gina will be just fine over there. No, those guys aren't looking at her, they're trying to find a couple inches of space. Yes, she will have plenty of time to get off the train with you at Kenmore. She will be clued in to the fact that it's your stop when she notices every person the train getting off at once. It is NOT necessary to crowd around the door, refusing to move while people get on and off. Also, this is not a high school dance or (despite the house music blaring from that dude's headphones) the club; no need to stand in a circle. That's valuable space in the middle of you, ladies. Give it up! Related: If you are separated for the duration of the train ride, please refrain from shouting across the train at one another. It is not whimsical, cute, or sweet. There will be plenty of time for shouting at the game.

4. Puking in transit. Okay, we can't talk about Red Sox games without talking about drunks. Pre-game train rides are pretty sucky, what with the pain of standing on the platform, four bags of groceries hanging from your arms as train after packed train goes by, but post-game rides are the worst. There's the guy sitting by the door, eyes at half mast, his friends laughing and saying, "Oh man, he's so going to puke!" They're joking, but it happens. And it's disgusting. Adults who drink need to 1. know their limits, and 2. know that if they ignore their limits they will regret it. One of the worst places to be while hammered is the train, especially the green line. It sways, it stops hard, it's slow. Do yourself a favor: when you know you've had too much and you've got that swirly tummy feeling, take a walk. Eat something. Hail a cab. You do not want to hurl on the train, and your fellow passengers wish you wouldn't either. Worst case scenario: you realize once you're on the train that you're going to toss your cookies. Get off at the next stop, use one of the handy trash barrels (sorry, cleaning crew) on the platform, and board the next train. No one wants to deal with your biohazard.

5. People live here. Again with the common sense, but the green line does not exist solely to get people between North Station and Kenmore Square. Look out the windows. See all of those people wearing business casual and flip-flops, carrying huge totes and backpacks, weary and worn out? They've just been at work all day. Remember how you feel after a day at work? Now imagine leaving work and having an already long commute become longer. You'd really be doing someone a solid by letting them get on instead of trying to muscle past them. I'm not saying they have more of a right to ride the train than you do (everyone pays to ride, after all), but just show a little common courtesy. And speaking of courtesy, when a little old lady or old man, or disabled person gets on the train, you get up and offer them your seat. I don't know how they do things out in East Bumfuck, New Hampshire, but here a person with white hair and/or a cane gets a seat. And don't you dare wait for one of the people in business casual to do it. Related: No one is fooled by your sudden interest in the ad next to your seat. We all see you avoiding eye contact so you don't have to give up your seat to the blind guy. Congratulations on your Asshole of the Year award.

Following these simple steps will make you blend right into the Boston crowd, despite your Red Sox jersey and hat. Maybe even because of. Little known fact: every new resident of Boston is issued a hat and jersey upon arrival. Not free tickets though, those bastards. And I don't want to sound superstitious, but I'm pretty sure that if you follow these steps to the letter, the Red Sox will win. Go Sox!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: You Are Free

Danzy Senna's short story collection, You Are Free, is all about taking chances. Not only for the characters, but also for the author. Each story finds Senna taking a chance, breaking a rule. The collection is invigorating for the creative writing student and a welcome change of pace for the reader.

One of the stories, The Land of Beulah, features a wholly unlikeable character. She takes in a stray dog and takes refuge in beating the animal as her life falls apart around her. Yet, despite feeling twinges of anger and disappointment each time a beating occurs, the reader understands what drives Jackie. Even as the reader feels superior, certain she would never make the same choice, Jackie is someone who seems familiar. A woman told she could have everything who suddenly has it all ripped away from her.

As in Senna's novel Caucasia, race plays a starring role in these stories. The protagonists are all women of mixed heritage, figuring out what that means for them, mostly in relation to men and relationships. Jackie, from Beaulah, is spurned by her lover for being "too white," while the protagonist in What's the Matter with Helga and Dave? is accepted only after being perceived as white by a neighbor. (Incidentally, another risk, having an unnamed narrator). The women in these stories all struggle with race.

Perhaps the story where Senna explores this most is Triptych, where the same situation occurs three times. A young girl is at a dinner the day before the funeral of her mother, contemplates her mother, and the last conversation she had with her mother. Each mother craves a different food, all sadly out of season, and each father is flawed. Each family is so similar, despite the fact that each one is mixed differently. One is a white family, one a black family with one member more fair than the other, and one a family with a black father and white mother. The point Senna draws here is they are all the same. Regardless of the racial makeup of a family, there is the same pain, confusion, death. Senna seeks to humanize race, using the specific instance of black and white interracial unions and children to do so. And she succeeds.

In the first story, Admission, Senna shows a black couple who has applied their child to a prestigious pre-school (and please, pause for a moment over the phrase "prestigious pre-school." Senna would like it that way), and the fallout that occurs when the child is given a second interview and then accepted. How desperately the wife wants it, at first, and how the husband does not even entertain the notion. The whiteness of it all is implied.

And this is perhaps the greatest problem with Senna's stories. That affluence and privilege, while being something afforded to her characters, is considered "white." While struggle and resilience are considered "black." It's wonderful that Senna explores racial relations in her writing, but it seems that "white" is often characterized as greedy, self-involved, affluent. Not to suggest that "white" should be characterized as saintly, but perhaps a bit more even-handedly. These characters seem to relate less to the white half of themselves than the black halves. Race is always a tricky issue, but it seems that a child borne of two races would feel kinship with both.

Senna's prose is deceptively simple. She's just telling a story, it seems. But dig just a bit deeper and you find a daring writer. One willing to take chances, push boundaries, and see what mere words can create.