Aug 202016
 

I first posted to this blog five years ago today.

When it began, I was only just back from a long summer in southern India. I was waiting to hear word about the date for defending my dissertation and had some time on my hands. So I decided I wanted to figure out what was possible to do on the web knowing nothing and figuring things out as I went along. The only technical condition I set for myself was that whatever I did would sit on my own domain and not on some company’s social platform. I got things started by writing up logs from the book notes I’d kept as I travelled and soon after that started my commonplace book.

Back then I knew less than nothing about what I was doing and so those early weeks and months were a bit of rock-n-roll, by which I mean exciting, veering out of control, and generally one wrong move away from burning to the ground.

The most obvious example I can think of involved my treatment of date stamps, something that in blogs should be assigned more or less automatically. But not on my blog. No way, no how. I decided—and this is so typical of my mind that if friends or family had been watching as I worked they would have shaken their heads and said “of course, naturally, we could have guessed, let him be, there’s no stopping him”—no, I decided (because “reasons”) that date and hour stamps would not indicate dates and hours. Instead dates would key to a sorting scheme I invented to organize posts into looping sequences of topics. This system was odd, indecipherable to outsiders and worked exactly as intended, but it was also cumbersome and clearly madness. After a few weeks, I scrapped it and transferred all the date and time info (which I had been entering into the body of post texts) into the date/time field where they belonged and let them determine the sorting of posts as they should have done from the outset.

The biggest questions I’ve wrestled with as I’ve posted have not however been technical. They’ve been about my uncertainty over how personal the material here should be. Initially, the site sat behind an elaborate password system. When that was removed, my name was nowhere to be seen and I shared the url with no one. Eventually, I added my initials and began to share links with close friends. After awhile, I started sharing them on twitter. Now my name sits on the front page and I’ve accepted that what’s here sits in full public view.

These changes were milestones but have left no direct trace unless the early versions of pages are sitting in system logs somewhere on the server. However, I can follow, I think, this slow process of change in the posts that I’ve written. The nervous writer plucking out a tune on only slightly non-academic language-strings in the early posts or miming the various “hey I saw this and this is what I think” posts I saw frequently on other blogs has over time become—haltingly and slowly and without much confidence—the writer who nervously and unexpectedly (most of all to himself) responded in very personal terms to the Orlando shooting.

In their own way, but perhaps less obviously, my Tinderbox posts were also intensely personal and were an important step in the evolution of my blog. They marked the point where I first considered the possibility that my blog, which I treated primarily as a conversation with myself, might also offer something useful to people I didn’t know. I was familiar with writing like this: I read it all the time on other people’s sites and it helped me figure out how to do my own work when I was having problems. But assuming that voice as my own, saying “This is what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, maybe it will help,” was very new to me online and working on those posts forced me to think about how to speak knowledgeably without the defenses involved in academic posturing. In the process, I experimented with making hypertexts and even translated a piece of my dissertation online.

How to be here, how to speak, what to speak about and in what voice. These remain vital questions for me when I sit down in front of my blog. And they make it a worthwhile project (for me at least) even when I’m posting infrequently or writing posts that sit at arms length from my daily life. How to speak myself into the world is a question I still don’t really have any stable answers to, and that means that, even with five years under my belt, I’m still happily looking forward to the next five.

And to anyone who’s reading, thanks for being here.

 August 20, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Aug 062016
 

The five year anniversary of this blog is coming up in a couple weeks.

Seems like a good time to go back, look through what I’ve got here and pull some things together.

Stay tuned.

 August 6, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jul 262016
 

As I travelled these past few weeks and now again as I’m back home and am getting some work done on the house, the fact that I’m from the States has come up a few times with strangers, and each and every time, the conversation has turned quickly to the US elections. Each time I’ve been asked the same questions, each time by someone trying to cover worried eyes with a wavering smile.

People looking on from the outside want to know:

  1. Who’s going to win in November?
  2. How is it that all of this is happening?

On the one hand, these people were asking me this in order to make conversation: the current spectacle is an easy topic. But on the other hand, they were also at some level asking in the hope that I will tell them that even though things look scary ridiculous, there’s nothing to worry about.

I think my answer to the first question sounds reassuring—Hillary Clinton will win—but I don’t actually know if this is the case. And in fact, listening to myself talk, I’ve even begun to suspect that, as I tell these people that everything is going to be fine, I have the same smile and the same eyes that they have when they ask me what’s going on.

I’m at a loss over how to respond to the second question. So I claim ignorance, shake my head, maybe shrug.

I mean what’s to say? One of the two governing parties has spent decades marching toward the abyss and has finally inched close enough to jump in. The abyss has been a project, and those cheering it on seem driven by an urge to break things. The dailies and the nightly news don’t seem to know what to say or how to respond and aren’t much help. Those writing long-form journalism in major magazines have done better at offering explanations, but I still feel as if in the States the unspeakable is happening live and that the rest of us are forced to sit on our hands bewildered as we watch it from next door or from across an ocean.

Ultimately, these questions have reminded me that the US casts a long shadow and the stakes for its elections extend beyond its borders. I hope that people realize that, vote, and vote for something other than running riot.

 July 26, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jul 172016
 

I’m back from Spain as of last night and have stuff I want to write about in the coming days and weeks. To start things off though, I’m going to introduce a change to how things are done here.

When I started this blog, I used it mainly to write brief responses to the books I was reading and to the movies I was watching. These served as lists of what I’d read and seen and provided a reason to pay attention and reflect. They also gave me a steady stream of subjects for posts and got me blogging.

The logs were a success. I enjoyed writing them and over time kept adding to the list of things I logged: first TV shows, then theatre, then exhibitions. But as a result, and perhaps inevitably, the logs have become a chore. I have lists and lists of logs I’m supposed to write, often on things about which I have nothing really to say. So taking a cue from my catch-up posts of the past few years, I’m going to stop trying to log everything. Because, sanity.

Instead, I’m going to keep a few simple lists of what I read and watch. (You’ll find them in the right-hand column.) When I have something more to say about a book or a movie, I’ll post a log and link to it from the list.

This change should keep me from living under a perpetual (and demoralizing) backlog of “posts that must be written!” and will hopefully create some space for me to write about other things.

 July 17, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jun 132016
 

My first gay bar was the Palace Saloon in Fairbanks, Alaska. Like me, the Palace lived something of a double life. By day it was a simple old-timey bar and theatre nestled inside Alaskaland, a sad sad tourist attraction that recreated the state’s gold mining past. But Friday nights, at closing time, the Palace would slough off its dead skin and bristle with new life as the various and sundry drinkers and chatterers from the early evening would take off, leaving behind the rest of us, the queer people, all there for the drag show and a late night of dancing.

Palace SaloonI was young, confused, and very much not out when friends first suggested I go to the Palace. They didn’t tell me much about what I’d see, but I remember the show like it was yesterday. One of the queens was a colleague from school, done up with sparkly lips, tall hair and towel holders stuck to the tips of her bust in a parody of nipple rings. She sang and strutted from one end of the stage to the other, magnificent and glorious, and I thought she was too wonderful for words. The other queen was pure realness. Rising up out of a flower in a sequined dress in nude fabric, she danced like a serpent as Fiona Apple’s “First Taste” slowly burned up the speakers. She was named Michelle Star.

My second gay bar was The Castle and it was set off a busy boulevard in a grimy section of Greenville, South Carolina. Friday and Saturday nights were packed. There was music and dancing and often shows. The man who cut my hair was the Grand Dame of the queens, but we had an understanding and never talked about the one world when we were in the other. The vibe of the place was good, my friends made it better, and I met some great people there.

The CastleStill, it was the South in the 90s and sex between men was a felony. So there were problems. By municipal regulation, the bar was a membership club: anyone could join, but once you did, your name was on file. Two police cars were parked outside the entrance, and officers stood on either side of the doors watching as you came and went. For all the community feeling and excitement inside, the bar sat there like a bunker in the darkness. Yes, it offered a place for men to dance and touch and kiss and whatever, but it also provided a focus for surveillance and a potential target for violence. This was the stage on which, newly and only barely out, I practiced being a gay man, and each night before I stepped outside to walk quickly to my car, I pulled out my keys and got them ready in my hand.

Not everyone was like that though. I remember one beautiful young boy who was there every weekend. He danced in the center of the dance floor, and more nights than not, took someone from the bar out to his car, and after a bit, they’d come back. At first I thought this was about drugs, but then one week as I was leaving I saw him down the row of cars in his backseat with a guy and realized that it was not. After this, each time he walked past the cops with someone to his car, I wondered if this would be the time he was set upon and beaten by passerbys and wondered too why (or how) he didn’t think about this.

This threat of violence was even more pronounced at the other gay bar in town, the 621. Or “The Nine,” as a friend (and my self-styled fairy godmother) called it. The Nine was a small, cramped and wretched place set beside the municipal airstrip and notable only for the line of cars and trucks pulled into parking spaces under the shadows of the trees at the back of the lot. Men would come to walk beneath the street lamps in front of the lined up cars. If someone was interested, they’d flash their lights and the guy would get in. I remember seeing this happening the night I got my friends to bring me there and it terrified me. There were no police, and everything happened in darkness. The scene captured my sense of the dangers gay life in the South entailed and I recoiled and hid.

My third gay bar was Unity in Montreal. It was there that I met the Beav and there that I discovered what big city gay life looked like. Standing in the catwalks looking down on the dancers or watching the city from the rooftop, I understood why generations of men had left home and gone to places like New York. I also understood why it would be easy to forget what life was like elsewhere and easy to take the privileges of city life for granted. I fought with friends about this last bit. Sometimes bitterly. But with these fights, I slowly crafted from my sexuality and my memories of life elsewhere, a political sense (and sensibility) that grounded me and made me a better person.

UnityEventually, I learned too that I had been wrong about the extent of the city’s tolerance: in just my first years in the city, a club was raided by the police and the patrons all brought to jail, books and movies ordered from the States were confiscated at the border, and incredibly, straight people’s bachelor parties still involved dressing the groom up as a woman and parading him before “les tapettes” in the village.

Gay bars in Montreal seem to have struggled these past few years. I suppose Grindr and the internet hook-up are part of the problem. The sense in the city that “everywhere is queer and safe and so why go to a gay bar with all those old guys” probably has an effect as well. And yes, my friends and I don’t help at all: when we go to the bars today (and we go barely at all), we spend too much time complaining about how things used to be better. Seen from the other side of the bar, that conversation surely looks like exactly what it is and it is impossible it isn’t a buzz-kill. We should give it a rest, not least because I think we’re wrong.

Recently, I spoke with a young gay man who was on his way out of the closet and had just discovered the bars in the village. His excitement was palpable and as he talked about all of the places he’d checked out and loved, I remembered my own excitement when I found these same places years before. Recognizing myself in him, my prefabricated and ready-at-hand complaints about how things used to be better all dried up and died. The bars mattered to me then. They mattered to him now. So we swapped a few stories about what we’d seen and done at the various places he was exploring. It was a short conversation but a great one.

Gay bars made me who I am. Not completely (obviously) but in important ways. I think they do the same thing for other gay men. They are wonderfully odd and vibrant places that at their best open us up to ourselves, our possibilities and make us into a community. They are easy to judge and nobody can be more vicious about a scene than an older gay man. But like I said earlier, we should give it a rest.

Straight people judge the bars too. Whatever they say aloud, too many people are put off by (and some are even disgusted by) the sex and the sexiness and the drink and the drugs and the queerness of it all, all of it offered in excess and none of it really about them or for them. Which is to say that gay bars are extremely important for queer people but that they are also precarious. Even though more and more people are getting past these reactions and judgments, too many still don’t even try, expecting and requiring instead that queer people shape up and inhabit the few newly available, socially sanctioned spaces they’ve graciously set aside for them. (Monogamous marriage is an example. Michael Warner discusses it and others.)

Obviously, this is on my mind because of the awfulness of what’s happened in Orlando. I’m upset and when I think about the people who died in that club, it reminds me of my own fear when I was young, living in the South, and, after a joyous night with people like me, having to step across the threshold and back into the dangerous world waiting outside. The shooting makes me angry because this Orlando club was like all gay bars everywhere in the States: it was always already a target.

That’s wrong.

777px-Gay_flag.svg

 June 13, 2016  Reflections Tagged with: ,
Feb 102016
 

A few weeks ago, Stephane Dion, Canada’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, met with his American and Mexican counterparts in Quebec City. The annual Carnivale was underway, and unsurprisingly it was chosen as the backdrop for some of the grip-and-grins played out in front of journalists. And the Quebec journalists ate it up. The images were everywhere.

Here’s the thing: that night, watching Dion encourage Kerry to shake hands with the Bonhomme de neige — the mascot for the Carnivale and easily the creepiest non-clown “face of happiness” I have ever seen — I felt embarrassment — maybe even shame — as my immediate and first reaction. “We’re better than this” I thought and, once I realized that it was true, I said it to the Beav as well. “On est meiux que ça.”

Claudia Ruiz Massieu, John Kerry, Stephane Dion, Bonhomme Carnaval

Later talking with friends, the Beav presented my reaction as a sign that after 15 years in Quebec, with more than half of those as a permanent resident and then citizen, I was finally becoming a Canadian rather than an American in exile.

Anyway, I’m thinking about that this morning as I read the papers and I am trying to convince myself that the American primaries don’t matter for me anymore. But my roiling stomach isn’t buying it.

So far I’ve been fairly detached from the campaign and I know I won’t vote in November: voting is controlled at the state level and I played hopscotch for a bit before moving to Montreal; so actually casting a ballot in a US election involves an inexplicably Byzantine process. I navigated it successfully in 2008 but failed at in 2012. After that I resigned myself to just voting in Canada. Then this past week I decided to watch the last of the Republican and Democratic debates. It was a horror show and now I think I won’t be able to look away.

The Republican primary is a multiple choice test written by a lazy teacher. Most of the options are obviously, ludicrously wrong and can be immediately eliminated. Yet, in response to the question “Who should be the President of the United States of America?” the most popular answers are “more sprinkles” and “all of the above.” I mean did they circle responses at random?

The Democrats are at least dealing with a short answer question. It demands some sophistication and nuance. There’s room for some difference of opinion. But even there, I can’t help thinking that they don’t know much and their judgment is very very bad.

So I’m left with the sense that the States have lost their mind. I mean that literally: where is the public intellect? And despite living and voting elsewhere and despite knowing that this is just New Hampshire, the apparent chaos and derangement of American politics matters to me and is upsetting.

 February 10, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jan 262016
 

Late last year, I was flipping through some passages in some of Edmund White’s books (A Boy’s Own StoryHotel de DreamProust). I was also reading a bit about him, and I realized that I hadn’t read many of the novels he claimed as antecedents. I’d dealt with queer theory and criticism at the margins of my own research but for a variety of reasons had never systematically read through the major works or the corpus that served as its rough working canon. Curious, I sat down and put together an initial bibliography and began reading. Now, a couple months on I’m still reading, I’m revising and building that bibliography and, most importantly, I’m excited.

The past couple years have not been easy ones intellectually. When I settled into a job at a non-research institution with a non-liberal arts focus, I initially felt a sense of freedom: without the burden of teaching my research, I began to read with fewer constraints than I had in years. The very specific pleasures of picking a novel for its cover and reading it blind or picking based on a friend of a friend’s recommendations became more and more my norm. I could and did read anything. Unfortunately, I think this blog shows — without me meaning it to — that this got old quickly and that I’ve read with a fair amount of boredom for awhile now.

In part, I was reading a lot of books that weren’t very good. When I read ones that that were, I often lacked a context (or even a reason) for engaging with them in a meaningful way. So I was reduced to observing, noticing, and, when something was noteworthy, calling it out. But nothing stuck or built up. I was simultaneously struggling with my seemingly ever expanding and increasingly administrative responsibilities at work. Forced to choose between unsatisfying reading (and so nothing to write about) and complicated, “important,” problems at work, I slowly and without noticing devoted more and more of my mental life to helping to run a school.

I didn’t consciously turn to White’s novels for guidance but that’s what they offered by reminding me about the manner in which I’ve always read. For good or for ill, I’ve never been satisfied with random observation. Even as a kid, I always had what I called “my research projects.” I’d be curious about something and would go to the library and check out everything I could about it and would read until I felt I knew what I wanted to know. Then I’d move on to the next project. And there was always a next project because I was always bouncing from one thing to the next as my interests led me.

Sometimes my questions were simple and easily answered; at other times, complicated and involved. Once a very young me figured out what lips were. That was pretty easy. Learning Greek mythology — a childhood passion — took time. Curiosity was my guide not seriousness, and my curiosity always provided its own context and purpose even when I couldn’t put my finger on it at first: I once spent the better part of a year in my early twenties reading crap book after crap book about astrology and the tarot, wondering why on earth I was doing it, but keeping it up until I felt done. When I finally did and looked back, I realized that I’d just explored a highly developed and convoluted instance of archetypal interpretation that was distinct from Biblical exegesis. I found that interesting.

I’ve also always been an encyclopedic reader. I stumble upon a writer, become interested, and then read in a burst, often in chronological order, everything they’ve written up to that point. The first time I remember doing this was with Lloyd Alexander when I was twelve; the next was with Stephen King the summer turned I fourteen. Sometimes this led to great things: I discovered Faulkner and spotted the patterns I wrote a dissertation about by reading in the this way. Sometimes it didn’t: my summer of Stephen King turned me off him irremediably. The thing is though, that however random these bursts were — I often discovered these writers by chance — the bodies of works provided their own context. Operating as an oeuvre, they directed my thinking about my reading in the same way that my curiosity — expressed as a question — pointed my way in the library.

All of this may sound like ridiculous nostalgia but it’s not: I’m not yearning to return to some imaginary, childlike ideal. (Blech!) Rather, I’ve realized in the past few days that flipping through White’s novels last December was the beginning of a new curiosity-based project. My bibliography is me once again working through a corpus that provides individual works with a context and that the books I’ve read are already building upon each other. Seeing this I recognize that there’s something in this arrangement of things that fits with my disposition and supports the better angels of my nature. It’s a happy recognition because, looking back over the past year and a half of this blog, I realize how very boring it is to be bored. So good riddance.

 January 26, 2016  Reflections Tagged with:
Jun 272015
 

Lots of great political news coming out of the US Supreme Court this week, but the decision on health care had me thinking about literary theory. Specifically, this post by Nicholas Baglay and this one by Einer Elhaug, together make a nice point about meaning as a goal in interpretation and the purposeful destructiveness of stubborn textualism. Reading it, I was reminded of the distance I felt unpacking boxes after my recent move and flipping through so much of the critical work I was assigned in the mid-90s in graduate school.

What struck me reading about the dissenting arguments in the health care case was the way Scalia’s approach feels out of time but not in the way he believes: he seems like a product of the the heyday of academic deconstruction. De Man and Scalia (and Thomas to an extent) seem to me of a kind insofar as their textual processes create obstructive rather than enabling insights, and these obstructions bring whole enterprises to a halt, prevent movement, and enforce the status quo. The result too often is a link across fields between deconstruction and the ugliest of conservatisms.

This is all very simplistic and hunch-based but it makes me wonder a bit about academic queer theory, much of which has been, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, opposed to the normalizing political project that led to the Court’s recognition of a right to gay marriage. The value and importance of queer theory is difficult to exaggerate, and yet, I worry when it finds itself on the wrong side of so important an argument and worry too when it’s foundational critical approach seems to align it with the methods of Scalia’s side of the court.

ps–obviously there’s a lot of nuance needed here, but in broad strokes, this is the shape of my first thoughts.

 June 27, 2015  Reflections
Apr 212015
 

So I’ve been reading (more on that later) and I have a dilemma: eBook or paper?

The options are pretty straightforward. I like how paper books make each book seem different from the other. I like reading EBooks in bed with the light off.

How to choose?

I feel like the potential for dealing with quotation and annotation in EBooks is greater but I feel too that, at least personally, that potential is not realized. So it doesn’t count much in the decision.

 April 21, 2015  Reflections Tagged with:
Sep 132014
 

The announcement of the new iPhone has sent me wandering down memory lane and has me thinking about how my not-so-long-ago, pre-iPhone mobile life was transformed by the 3G into a family project.

First Laptop

I made the leap to mobile computing in grad school when I bought my first laptop, a Toshiba PC that won me over because, at 10 or 11 pounds, it seemed light enough to carry back and forth to the library when I needed it. I was fooling myself. I live in a city. I walk, I bike, I take the metro. Bringing the machine to the library meant bringing it with me all day, every day, and it was too heavy for that and never left my desk.

Palm Pilot

When the Toshiba died enough that I felt I could replace it without guilt, I got another desktop PC 1 and a Palm TX. The Palm was a great machine. I bought a small IR keyboard that folded in half and both it and TX together could fit inside my coat pocket. I bought Documents to Go, figured out how to transfer files back and forth to my computer manually. And this changed how I worked.

Weekdays, I’d wake up at five o’clock, take a shower, grab my backpack and walk down to my favourite cafe where I’d sit at my table (I had a table) and write for a few hours before heading off to get started with the rest of my day. I wrote first drafts of my dissertation proposal, my comprehensive exams, and most of the early parts of my dissertation in that cafe on that TX.

Mac Mini

It was my Palm TX that caused me to stretch my budget and buy my first mac. Writing on the Palm I tended to write in short segments rather than in a single file: a single article might be broken into a dozen or more files that I would organize in directories on my PC and later combine into a Word document. This made sense when I was drafting on the TX but was complicated to manage back on my PC.

Then one day I stumbled across a reference to Scrivener, a then Mac-only program that let you write in non-sequential fragments easily and productively. After a week or so of hesitation, I bought a Mac mini and installed the Scrivener free trial, thinking all the time: I have a few weeks to change my mind and return this computer for a refund. But after the first day, I was sold.

Ironically, the Mac made me stop using the Palm. Scrivener was so good and the process of transferring files from the TX so clumsy that I started drafting at my computer again and the Palm found its way into a box.

Meanwhile the first iPhone came out in the States (but not in Canada) and I got a pancake sized Blackberry with a sidewheel. Using it I got a crash course on the differences between POP, IMAP and Exchange email, but otherwise it was a brief, failed experiment.

First iPhone

The first iPhone to come to Canada was the 3G. I’d imagined it would be a way to replace my Palm, that I’d be able to use it to draft on the run, but it turned out that this wasn’t possible. The 3G wasn’t much more than a tool for jotting down notes and observations. (I used the excellent Write Room from Hog Bay Software for this.) 2 Ultimately though, my 3G was less about work than it was about how my family and I kept in touch.

When the 3G came out international calling was expensive. Texting was something no one I knew did. I’d convinced my brother and my sisters to buy Minis by this time, and so to talk, my family would use iChat to access our old AIM accounts. 3 As we one-by-one got computer cameras we also began to do group video chats as well.

The 3G added a twist: here were text messages strung together like our AIM chats but we could talk throughout the day without being chained to our computers. It was amazing and revolutionary.

Family Twitter

Unfortunately for me, texting was expensive: text messages to the states cost .75$ each. So “k” and “?” added up quickly to a steep price tag.

Twitter provided a solution. It was new and I wasn’t sure what it was for, but once I got online, I realized that, regardless of it’s intended purpose, my family could turn it into a means of getting around the international text problem.

Family members who had an iPhone grabbed Twitterific and signed up for private Twitter accounts. Those who had feature phones signed up and registered their numbers to receive tweets as texts. We all approved each other as followers. And suddenly we could “iChat” all day by tweeting and our timelines would track the conversation.

The one snag was notifications: they didn’t exist on the 3G. So while everyone without an iPhone got an alert when a new tweet came in (because it arrived as a text message), everyone else had to remember to open the Twitter app. This was a pain, so I dug around and found Boxcar, a notification app that solved that problem for us and that I still keep download in iTunes as a souvenir even though I don’t use it for anything.

Today

Subsequent iPhones made our various work-arounds obsolete. Now we iMessage and FaceTime. It’s all built in and automatic. Once the iPads came out, my grandmother (codename: TechnoGranny) also joined the party, which by then included aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. It’s great and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to our old system. 4

But still, that old system did have the advantage of being ours. My brother, my sisters, my mother and I had built it up together, slowly over time, based on our own experiences. It was complicated but effective, and it suited our needs. I was proud of it, even bragged about it to other people (like I’m doing now) because we were making this new technology work for us and not the other way around. We weren’t trying to be “social”; we were just trying to stay close from far away. And it turns out that that difference was enough to make a gadget into a tool.

 September 13, 2014  Reflections Tagged with: