Monthly Archives: March 2008

Deep Thought

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I ztk05cawa8hfrca46uzf9cav3h1u1caqiep1tcayn4zkqcayz56ydca3xqx5wcawbmsukca0kt8xdcagmvys8ca81stxhcab6r3lbcavgu7k1cao0cd2pcaa1p8e5cahhyutican8xi45cajm5gvgcavlfsmw.jpgztk05cawa8hfrca46uzf9cav3h1u1caqiep1tcayn4zkqcayz56ydca3xqx5wcawbmsukca0kt8xdcagmvys8ca81stxhcab6r3lbcavgu7k1cao0cd2pcaa1p8e5cahhyutican8xi45cajm5gvgcavlfsmw.jpghave just jumped out of the shower where I was contemplating oral sex.  Well, sex and art or something like that.  Let me explain before you start thinking I have just made the world’s most inauspicious start to a blog entry!  I was thinking about a film I saw once, which was called “Inside Deep Throat,” a documentary of that somewhat famous porn movie (which, as it happens – but nothing to do with virtue – I have never seen).  It was funny, interesting, and sad and provoking e.g. Gore Vidal saying, “People always lie about sex because they are taught since they are children to lie about everything.”  Anyway, I wasn’t thinking about the film per se but about the strange dynamic that occurred amongst the audience when, all of a sudden – and only for about ten seconds – the big screen was filled with Linda Lovelace performing her most famous act.  And suddenly I was embarrassed and awkward and wishing I was anywhere else!  And I sensed that other people were also.  And I thought this was very strange because we were watching a sex act in the dark and we were all grown up and know that’s how grown ups act and that it is not shameful or dishonest or bad; that we would not feel the slightest embarrassment to see our fellow humans shooting each other – for longer and in slow motion and even with great cruelty.

Now, where exactly am I heading with this?  You see, the protagonists in the film could mainly be drawn into two main camps – those that see even bad performance as a form of art and those that see pornography as non-art and offensive and demeaning.  As usual, I kept thinking that neither was quite the whole story – even if you accept Oscar Wilde’s dictum that there is no such thing as a bad book or a good book; only a badly written or well written book.  Anyway that is another story because I wasn’t even thinking about the pros and cons of pornography as art (if it isn’t, then what else is not art  – war like Guernica by Picasso, martyrdom like all those religious pictures of St Sebastian with arrows in him, Jesus on the cross?)  Or does art stopping being art when it is based on exploitation?  Is that why pornography makes us feel a little morally bereft?  And if a film about oral sex is not art then what is a documentary about a film of oral sex? Buggered if I know – it’s not what I was thinking about!

I was trying to get my head around how when we look at something we change its nature.  This is not making much sense, I know, but I find it puzzling and interesting.

A few years ago in New York, I went to the Guggenheim Museum.  There was this photo, very large, a colour print of a naked woman with a very newborn baby in her arms.  She is standing, facing the photographer in front of a white (hospital?) wall on which only a light switch is evident.  A thin trickle of blood runs from between her legs and down to her ankle.  Her expression is difficult to judge, ambiguous – though not unhappy.  The nakedness and starkness, the blood and the tiny baby create such a sense of vulnerability yet, at the same time, of a greater, simpler truth about us all that it strikes deeply, an effective amalgam of the profound and the everyday.  Mostly though, it is the framing and viewing of the scene that changes it, transforms it into art.  After all, it portrays an event, a moment of the ordinary and common.  Most of the adults in the museum have experienced variations of this event, have known women and babies and hospital walls – why do we pause now and so troubled? 

Another picture, smaller and black and white, was also confronting but for different, though related, reasons.   A naked couple are about to kiss, she slightly on top of his prostrate body.  She is also holding him erect in her hand.  They both look at each other’s eyes.  This picture is avoided by most people, even their conversations pause then move on – not out of offended dignity but out of social discretion (like me in the movies!).  Out of good manners!

Do you see what I mean about the act of viewing, the public presentation of this private moment that leads to the transcendence of the act itself?  This last picture could have as easily been a single shot from an X rated movie, there is little abut the photograph that is “artistic.”  But its enlargement, its framing, its placement on a museum wall for viewing has created the effect of art.  Now this moment is held up for public view, placed in a context where social conventions are different and somehow inadequate.  We are challenged by a variety of emotions – embarrassment, voyeurism, titillation, confusion.  And all in public!  It’s as if the act of stripping away the walls from these intimate scenes has somehow stripped the walls from us.  The formal expression of intimate acts somehow confounds us and changes the meaning of the acts themselves.

And yet, if the man and woman in the photograph or the woman with the baby were actually in front of us, this would not be art, would it?

Or would it…?

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Filed under art, Film, life, sex, sex pictures

Last laugh

grandmother.gifThere was a time when my grandmother was a vivacious and romantic young schoolteacher who loved the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and quoted the poetry of Tennyson. She was funny and mischievous well into old age.  One day, says my father, he was courting my mother on the front veranda of my grandmother’s house.  His fiancée’s younger sister, Janet, hovered around them and did her purposeful best to ensure that the young couple were not left alone.  Finally, in a fit of frustrated amour, my father reached out and smacked the teenager’s leg.  She raced tearfully and angrily into the house.  A pause ensured and my grandmother’s voice came from inside, “Bobby, did you just hit Janet?”

My father, still annoyed but also a little embarrassed answered curtly, “Yes, I did!”

There was another pause and then my grandmother’s voice, calmly and emphatically, returned with, “Good.”

When my mother was a teenager, my grandmother would take great delight in foraging through rubbish bins while they waited for the bus, much to the mortification of her daughter.  Then she would giggle about it all the way home.

Once, when I was just a small boy, she found me laughing at something on the television, something suspiciously like sexual innuendo.  “And what are you laughing about, young man?” asked my Grandmother.  I explained in my confused, uncertain way.  She looked at me sternly and then said with mock disdain, “I believe, sir, that you have a polluted mind!” But I heard her loudly guffaw seconds later.

By the time she was sixty, however, she had become completely and painfully crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Letters to my mother were written over many days as it became increasingly difficult to hold her pen and her mind began to wander.  One day she wrote, “Now that the years have past, there is something that I need to tell you, something I should have told you many years ago. Now that you are a woman you will understand and there is no need for this secret to exist between us anymore.”  My mother turned the page with a sense of dread and expectation.  What she found was a new date and a new set of agonisingly etched lines that began, “I can’t remember what I was writing about before.  The weather here has been delightful lately although not good for the garden…” 

Despite my mother’s elaborate and extended entreaties, no further information was ever forthcoming and the secret, whatever it was, has long ago gone with my grandmother to the grave.  I don’t know about the afterlife, what it looks like or where it is, but I suspect that there is someone there reciting poetry and chuckling.

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Filed under humour, memory, poetry, youth

Once under the Southern Cross

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I sure did all the dumb things for Colette. From this distance it seems such a beautiful name for first love but I didn’t love her then for posterity. Thirteen was I and sitting on a summers evening verandah seeing her image ranged across the Southern Cross and recalling every soft word, the faint English lilt of it, the pale fingers around a pencil. Colette.  Whose fingers were never to touch mine or voice to say my name.  Me; too desperate in my dumbness and struggling to find the secret of the older boys, their easy leering smiles and knowing winks.  Me; too young for this secret but old enough to know that I did not know.  Sometimes when Colette looked at me I felt she was willing me to grow up, to grow me into this knowledge that I could not learn. But how did she know it, I wondered, she who was no older than me.  How many nights looking at that bruised sky and searching for the secret that would not come? Too many. So I learned to make people laugh instead and I grew it into a little web and a little shell too. And sometimes I would see her smile, from a distance, but definitely smiling at the jokes that grew for her at night from my helpless heart.  Colette smiled. Did I grow slightly older at those moments or did she grow slightly younger? It doesn’t matter; you can’t make people laugh forever.  She found an older boy and then her family left town. The last time I saw her she was 17.  She gave me this quizzical look as if to say, “So you’ve finally grown up.” But I hadn’t grown up; I’d just grown taller.  In my confusion I dug into my pocket for a joke and I poured it from my mouth into her open ears, so gently like a gift. I like to think she is out there somewhere in the big world and that she keeps it still.

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Filed under australia, Love, memory, youth

Final Act

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Picture this scene:  There is a small town theatre and a group of local school students are gathered for the rehearsal of a musical version of Tom Sawyer. The boy who will someday become me is to play a not insignificant part as Huckleberry Finn, a role for which his teacher has dyed his hair red and placed upon it a large straw hat. The boy (who is fourteen) finds this only a little less embarrassing than the moment when the drama teacher tears the bottom from his jeans – while he is still wearing them – to add, she says, a touch of authenticity.

The group is seated in the theatre’s tiered seats; there is an air of expectation as the teacher arranges props on stage. The noise is subdued, however, and it is only a matter of time before Huck becomes aware of a whispered message making its way towards him from the seats at the back. There is an accompaniment of tittering.  It is Joe Harper who finally relays the missive; “Joanne Lenton wants to know if you will go out with her.” He has never kissed a girl; he only knows the 13-year-old bank manager’s daughter by sight. In a fit of embarrassment and confusion he says quickly, “No.” and hears the single response passed quickly away from him like an echo.

And so, the years pass and the characters disperse.  Then last week I am inspecting one of the many work sites I oversee.  The manager says to me, “One of the staff says she knows you from when you were in the bush.”  He tells me which town and I say I was never there but there is someone in the industry with the same name; she probably mixed us up.  “What’s her name?” I ask.  He tells me it is Joanne Lenton.  It takes a while before the name makes sense to me and I recall Huckleberry Finn and the Chinese Whisper.  All I say is, “I think I might have gone to school with her.”

Now I have kissed a girl and I am no longer confused; I am interested to see her again.  Did I break her heart back then, I wonder. There is a faint knot in my stomach that takes me by surprise. But when we meet she only says with a laugh to the manager, “Oh, he’s not the one.” She searches my face briefly but there is no recognition there. “You went to school in Grantham,” I say and it’s like I want to teach her a lesson; to make her pay for forgetting me, “ Your father was a bank manager there and your best friend was Carol Beswick.”  She laughs nervously and there is a slight uneasiness in her eyes. “Now you’re really wondering who I am,” I say and I smile trying to wipe away something like embarrassment that has crept into the scene.  “I have to go now,” I say to the manager.

As we walk towards my car, he says to me, “You must have some memory.  Did you know her well?”

I slip into the car. “No,” I say finally.

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Filed under boys, youth

Two teachers

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In those days classrooms were mostly quiet.  In the still, hot days of February we would sit with sweaty hands pushing our slippery pens across paper that stuck to our arms. Outside the cicadas kept up a ringing chorus, above us the ceiling fans swished impotently at the hot air.  You could hear someone walk along the verandah occasionally; sometimes a squeaky desk would open and close, or someone whisper.

 

Then the bell went.  We waited and Mr Bee lifted his head and said without expression, “Put your things away neatly and then you can go.”  Then he went back to his marking but not before saying to me, “You can stay for a few minutes.  Bring your work out to my table.”

 

I stood by his desk while the others left.  Outside I could see Mr Mac’ dismissing a class from physical fitness.  He was throwing a cricket ball from hand to hand while he talked.  We all liked Mr Mac’ even though he was tough.  His warm up was simple. “Everyone run around the goal post and last one back gets the bat.”  When he trained the boys for hockey he taught us how to protect our privates.  “You have to take care of the family jewels, boys,” he said.  And he let us laugh that a teacher would even allude to our balls.  It made us feel grown up even though we were only twelve.

 

But Mr Bee was different. He arrived in our town over Christmas when it swam in the heated air. The dusty buildings, the bush and ocean floated drunkenly, distorting abstractly under empty Australian skies. He was only young but he seemed dull like our fathers.  His hair was stuck back with some kind of oil; his old-fashioned glasses black-rimmed and large.  When he was on playground duty Mr Bee found a tree and stood under it sipping a mug of tea.  We avoided him like kids do when they know that an adult is slightly afraid of them.

 

I watched Mr Bee’s hands move and noticed his watch.  10.35.  If he let me out now I would still get fifteen minutes of recess. Up close, you could see the sweat on Mr Bee’s forehead glow.  He kept touching his glasses against his nose even though they hadn’t moved.  I could tell he hated our town, that he would be gone by next Christmas like so many teachers before him.

 

Finally he said, “You can go.”  I walked to the sliding door and opened it.  The noise of children wafted into the room with the smell of fruit and sandwiches. Mr Bee looked at me from his desk.  “Do your fly up,” he said.  Then he added, “And make sure you don’t tell anyone, alright?” 

 

I made my way down the verandah past the staff room.  Mr Mac’ came around the corner and bumped me against the wall. “Whoa!” he said. “You OK, feller?” Then he brushed past me and opened the staffroom door.  For a moment I heard grown-ups talking and the clink of plates and cups.  Mr Mac’ slammed the door quickly but I heard him say “Bloody kids!” and some ladies laugh.

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Filed under australia, boys, education, memory, school, sex, youth