It’s Different This Time

Yes, I’m saddened that the Chicago Cubs season ended with a thud on Thursday night, but now that there’s a title in the bag, the ending feels different.

For one, their opponent was the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The question entering the postseason was whether the 91-39 Dodgers of the first 130 games or the 13-19 Bums of the final month would show up.  Ask any Diamondbacks fan to confirm, it’s the former.  .The Dodgers have now won seven of eight playoff games. 
 
For another, the Cubs are still very much a work in progress.
Consider the data.
 
Age 23
Albert Almora Jr. 1.0 WAR
Addison Russell 2.0 WAR
 
Age 24
Javier Baez 2.9 WAR
Kyle Schwarber 0 WAR (but 30 HR)
 
Age 25
Carl Edwards Jr. 1.5 WAR
Willson Contreras 3.9 WAR
Kris Bryant 6.1 WAR
 
And oh yeah, Age 22, Ian Happ 1.8 WAR
 
Other key performers like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Heyward are all younger than 29.
 
All the position players appeared in 115 games or more.  Edwards, the principal set up man appeared in 73 games and Hendricks made 24 starts.
 
For another this is a season where lots of things went wrong.  Russell and Schwarber didn’t hit til August.  Baez struggled in the first half too.  Every pitcher in the rotation both struggled and spent time on the DL.  The team never really settled on a fifth starter until the Quintana trade in July.
 
And yet 92-70.  49-25 after the break.  
 
They just ran into a buzzsaw
Wait til next year isn’t defiant optimism anymore; it’s a logical projection.
Chicago_Cubs2
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At WSJ on Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt

‘Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg’ Review

Drummer and composer Matt Wilson’s new album does more than wed words to music—it points toward a new kind of jazz recording.

 

Drummer and composer Matt Wilson
Drummer and composer Matt Wilson PHOTO: JOHN ABBOTT

Poetry and jazz seem like natural allies. The elegant brevity of the words would appear to be a perfect match for the abstract tones of the instrumentation; after all, the Great American Songbook is full of poetic lyrics that are rendered best by jazz musicians. Yet, in practice, projects that blend poetry and jazz have been a mixed bag. All too often the cadences of the words don’t mesh well with the accompaniment, resulting in a combination that is less than the sum of its parts.

But not “Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg ” (Palmetto), the new recording from drummer and composer Matt Wilson. Not only does it succeed in wedding words to music, but it may point toward a new kind of jazz recording.

Mr. Wilson, who is 52, is unusually well suited for this project. He grew up in Knoxville, Ill., near Sandburg’s native Galesburg, and verses by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and biographer have been part of the drummer’s cultural diet from an early age. After Mr. Wilson moved to New York in the late ’80s, he found in Sandburg’s work both the spirit of home and, in the poet’s free verse, inspiration for exploring all varieties of music. Mr. Wilson’s debut recording as a leader, “As Wave Follows Wave” (Palmetto, 1996), is named for a Sandburg poem, and his ensemble also performs the great poet’s “Wall Shadows” on his 2003 release, “Humidity” (Palmetto).

The drummer began his Sandburg project in 2002 after getting a grant from Chamber Music America, and he’s divided the new recording into three sections—poems with urban settings, those with rural themes, and those that mix the two—plus an epilogue.

In the first section, the music is big and catchy. A rambunctious and soulful beat drives “Soup,” while “Anywhere and Everywhere People” is funky and puckish. Some of the words are sung by guitarist Dawn Thomson, but on “People” Sandburg’s verses are recited by bassist, radio host, festival director and renowned jazz personality Christian McBride, who adds clever inflections to the prose.

The great poet’s words are recited by a host of well-known figures in the jazz community, including Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and John Scofield ; in addition, actor Jack Black recites “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.” A recording of Sandburg himself is featured on “Fog” accompanied only by Mr. Wilson’s drums. The percussion initially surrounds the recitation, but Mr. Wilson’s percussive phrases become tighter and tighter until, in the last verse, the drums accent each word of the poem. It’s emblematic of how well the music fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19

fits the verses overall. Mr. Wilson will present this project at the Jazz Standard on Sept. 19 and 20 and at various venues in California, New England and Seattle this autumn.

Mr. Wilson has built a formidable reputation as one of jazz’s leading drummers. He plays with an effusive swing reminiscent of jazz great Art Blakey. Besides the Carl Sandburg Project, Mr. Wilson leads a quartet under his name, Arts and Crafts and Christmas Tree-O.

Although Mr. Wilson’s music spans a wide range of territory, it never feels as if it’s solely for jazz geeks, and that’s an important strength of the new disc. Jazz musicians are creating an extraordinary amount of great music these days, but most of it is buried inside the genre’s niche. Recordings like “Honey and Salt”—and “Find the Common, Shine a Light” by Ryan Keberle and Catharsis, which dealt with protest songs, and “Hudson” by the all-star quartet of Mr. Scofield, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist John Medeski, which focused on Woodstock-era rock—point toward a broader audience without musical compromise. These recordings are not solely for specialists; their music builds a bridge.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Tyshawn Sorey’s Verisimitude

‘Verisimilitude’ by Tyshawn Sorey Review: Building a Bridge From Jazz to Classical

Drummer, pianist and trombonist Tyshawn Sorey offers a somber, austere album influenced by Claude Debussy, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis.

Tyshawn Sorey’s new album is ‘Verisimilitude’ PHOTO: JOHN ROGERS

After a decade or so where jazz innovation was led by pianists, drummers have now taken charge, offering innovations that open ensembles to a wider range of rhythms and in some cases create new, subtle hybrids of jazz and other styles. The work of Tyshawn Sorey, who is also a virtuoso on piano and trombone as well as a heralded composer, fits right into this trend. His new recording “Verisimilitude” (Pi Recordings) is his third significant release since 2014 and solidifies his role in bridging the gap between jazz and classical music.

Mr. Sorey, who turned 37 in July, celebrated with a drums-and-saxophone duet concert at the Stone in New York featuring kindred spirit John Zorn. In the concert, Mr. Sorey’s

eruptions of percussion contrasted with Mr. Zorn’s pithy squeals and urgent roars. On this new recording, his approach is completely different. The music is austere and often somber. In the “Verisimilitude” press release, Mr. Sorey cites classical composers Claude Debussy, Morton Feldman and Iannis Xenakis as major influences. On podcasts, he has also spoken of Elvin Jones’s work with the John Coltrane Quartet as being an inspiration. “Verisimilitude” most directly links to ’60s jazz classics like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Sound,” Muhal Richard Abrams’s “Levels and Degrees of Light” and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “People in Sorrow.” He first heard this music as a teenager growing up in Newark, N.J., where he was mentored by the poet Amiri Baraka, who occasionally performed with jazz accompaniment.

“Verisimilitude” features pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, which makes it look like a conventional piano trio, and drummers have done great work in that setting in the past decade, most notably Chad Taylor’s 2009 recording “Circle Down” (482 Music), but “Verisimilitude” goes in a different, more abstract direction. “Cascade in Slow Motion,” the first and shortest track on the album, is a slow, brooding piece that smartly builds a gentle flow of piano chords, bowed basslines and percussion into a dramatic climax. “Flowers for Prashant” is a tribute to the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava, with whom Mr. Sorey worked. The music is elegant and spare. The centerpiece of the recording is “Algid November,” a slow, 30-minute piece with episodes of scintillating play. Like Feldman’s best work, it rearranged my sense of time. Mr. Sorey’s ensemble uses space magnificently, thus it’s a recording that is either best heard through headphones or played at high volume so that it doesn’t risk receding into the background.

The release of “Verisimilitude” continues Mr. Sorey’s breakout moment. His previous two releases, “Alloy” (Pi Recordings, 2014) and “The Inner Spectrum of Variables” (Pi Recordings, 2016), won praise in both the jazz and classical communities. He presented his work “ Josephine Baker : A Portrait” at the 2016 Ojai Festival and he has been commissioned to write a piece that will have its premiere at Opera Philadelphia and at Carnegie Hall in 2018. Earlier this year, he received his doctorate in musical arts from Columbia University, and he was named an assistant professor at Wesleyan University.

In addition to Messrs Sorey and Taylor, such drummers as Jeff Ballard, Marcus Gilmore, Eric Harland, Allison Miller, Kendrick Scott, Ches Smith, Nate Smith, Nasheet Waits, Dan Weiss and Matt Wilson are reshaping jazz’s boundaries. On “Verisimilitude” Mr. Sorey’s music may sound as if it’s closer to contemporary classical conventions, but much of it was worked out during a November 2015 gig at the Village Vanguard, jazz’s most famous venue, where during 12 sets in six nights his trio amazed audiences with its unique blend of composed and improvised music.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Charles Bradley R.I.P

Six years ago, I wrote on Bradley who passed away today. He was one of my favorite feature subjects.

A Dream 48 Years in the Making

62-Year-Old Soul Singer Charles Bradley Is Set to Release His First Album

Few musicians have traveled as circuitous a route to a debut recording as Charles Bradley. The 62-year-old soul singer will release his first album, “No Time for Dreaming” (Daptone), on Tuesday, and that night he will celebrate with a concert at Southpaw in Park Slope.

Charles Bradley performs at Dunham Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Charles Bradley performs at Dunham Studios in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“They say God has a plan for everyone,” said Mr. Bradley last week at the Dunham studios in South Williamsburg. Then he added, with a warm chuckle, “His plan for me meant working 48 years to achieve my dream!”

Mr. Bradley was 14 when his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown. The performance inspired his ambition to become a singer, but he had many obstacles to overcome. Mr. Bradley had a turbulent youth; he ran away from home as a teenager. “I slept in the subway—find the longest line and sleep till you reached the end of the line and the cops would chase you off. You just take the next train and ride it. Do that three times, and it’s morning.”

After joining the Job Corps, he received training as a cook and job placement in Bar Harbor, Maine. During this time, he continued to pursue his passion for music, developing a James Brown tribute show called Black Velvet. He formed a band and played Mr. Brown’s repertoire throughout New England before too many of his bandmates were sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Wearying of battles over pay and in need of a change of scenery, Mr. Bradley in the mid-1970s relocated to California. He found work cooking in a retirement home in Menlo Park and pursued his musical interests in the Bay Area.

Mr. Bradley speaks with a gentle rasp, and he has a passion for telling stories. “There were a lot of great musicians out there, especially in Oakland. It was a very good place to play.” He was content to cook during the day and do his James Brown tribute show at night. He returned to New York and settled in Bushwick in the mid-1990s to take care of his mother and be closer to his siblings. He continued to perform in Black Velvet at various nightclubs in Brooklyn.

Soul singer Charles Bradley's first album is titled 'No Time for Dreaming.'
Soul singer Charles Bradley’s first album is titled ‘No Time for Dreaming.’ AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Then in 2000 two pivotal events occurred. His brother was shot to death, and he met Gabe Roth of Daptone Records, the hub of the local soul scene. Mr. Roth, who saw Mr. Bradley perform, introduced him to Tom Brenneck, a guitarist who had two instrumental bands playing music inspired in part by James Brown’s backing band. They got together in a studio and Mr. Bradley began improvising lyrics to the bands’ grooves. Mr. Brenneck encouraged the singer to begin writing.

“Heartaches and Pain” was one of Mr. Bradley’s first collaborations with Mr. Brenneck. The death of Mr. Bradley’s brother had left the singer very depressed. “I didn’t know how to deal with it until the lyrics came to mind,” the singer said.

Mr. Bradley stayed in touch as Mr. Brenneck’s other endeavors kept him busy. One Brenneck group changed its name to the Budos Band, shifted its focus to Afro-Beat and became a national success. Also, Mr. Brenneck began playing with the Dap Kings, the backing band for Sharon Jones, who is one of the biggest stars to emerge from the Brooklyn soul scene.

Messrs. Bradley and Brenneck resumed working together about four years ago. Mr. Bradley continued to write lyrics, some personal and some with social commentary. They began recording the album in Mr. Brenneck’s home studio in Bushwick.

“Since he’s new to the recording process, I think the informal environment was really good for Charles,” Mr. Brenneck said by phone from the Dunham studios last week.

“No Time for Dreaming” is an impressive recording. The soulful grooves of Mr. Brenneck’s Menahan Street Band are self-assured and deep. Mr. Bradley’s vocals have vintage grit—at times he sounds like Otis Redding, at others he recalls his idol. There is urgency and passion to everything he sings.

When asked about current pop music, Mr. Bradley laughed. “I’m not a fan of all that boom bap,” he said. “The lyrics are too sexual; they aren’t about what’s really happening out here.”

“That’s the unique thing about Charles,” Mr. Brenneck said. “You can hear that he believes everything he sings deeply in his heart. That’s real soul.”

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At WSJ on the new Roscoe Mitchell

‘Bells for the South Side’ by Roscoe Mitchell Review: A Life in Jazz

A live recording amounts to a a retrospective of the 76-year-old multi-instrumentalist and composer’s work.

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell PHOTO: ELVIRA FALTERMEIER

For most jazz fans, the multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell is best known for his work in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the influential and dynamic group formed in the late ’60s. The Art Ensemble offered a uniquely broad range of styles—”great black music from the ancient to the future” was their motto—and a rare theatricality; three of the five members dressed in flamboyant robes and painted their faces, and a fourth wore a physician’s lab coat. Mr. Mitchell, on the other hand, appeared in street clothes with a focused, taciturn look that suggested he was about to give a lecture. Yet he played with both precise control and powerful abandon; his compositions and improvising are a cornerstone of the group’s legacy. Apart from the Art Ensemble, he released “Sound” (Delmark, 1966), “Nonaah” (Nessa, 1977) and “ Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes” (Nessa, 1981), each a landmark in the Chicago school of jazz’s avant garde, which favored an austere meditative sound, a stark contrast to the intense and often dissonant approach found in New York and Europe.

 

Mr. Mitchell just released a new recording, “Bells for the South Side” (ECM), a two-disc collection that documents a September 2015 concert held during the 50th anniversary celebrations in Chicago for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that supports and presents nonmainstream musicians. The concert amounts to a retrospective of Mr. Mitchell’s work; it features several associates who have worked with him since the ’80s.

The recording opens with a sparse but demanding piece, “Spatial Aspects of the Sound,” that is heavier on space than notes, but things pick up with “Prelude to a Rose” and “Dancing in the Canyon,” which are fuller and richer and feature stellar improvisations by percussionist Kikanju Baku, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, percussionist, pianist and trombonist Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Craig Taborn. The music grows increasingly diverse and complex and concludes with “Odwalla,” the hard-bop theme Mr. Mitchell composed for the Art Ensemble that usually closed their shows.

The range of sounds found on the new recording underscores that Mr. Mitchell’s music is equally at home in contemporary classical and jazz circles. His solo and composing style is marked by a sober restraint. In the ’90s, Mr. Mitchell formed bands with new-music stalwarts Pauline Oliveros, Gerald Oshita and Thomas Buckner. His work has also found followers in rock; in 2012, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel invited Mr. Mitchell to perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.

Mr. Mitchell, who is 76 years old, was born in Chicago and grew up there. He began playing saxophone when he was 12, and he played in a band that included saxophone great Albert Ayler while stationed in Germany during a stint in the Army in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Upon his return to Chicago he began playing in Muhal Richard Abams’s Experimental Band, a group that led to the formation of the AACM. Mr. Mitchell’s career may be following the paths of fellow Experimental Band members Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Threadgill, both of whom are enjoying career renaissances in their 70s. The celebration of the group’s 50th anniversary may have proved to be as much a look forward as a remembrance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Naked Women Chronicles 01: Grace

There are Naked Women on My Wall 01

They are there for inspiration rather than titillation.

I first began seeing photographs of nude women before I was old enough to grasp the concept that sex sells, so instead of regarding these photos solely as a function of male privilege and as an object to incite lust, I thought of them differently.  When I was young, I thought it was another standard of what might now be called adulting, and I began to think what inside of me needed to be fortified to do what they were doing.  To me—both the prepubescent iteration and my current middle aged one—it seemed like being nude in front of the camera represented an empowering triumph over inhibition and self-doubt. Even though I soon grasped that men didn’t, by and large, do that sort of thing, and more importantly, it wasn’t expected of them, I still felt that celebrating physical self confidence was a worthy endeavor.

Being much more geeky than athletic, I was engulfed in body issues; mine wasn’t capable of things I thought it was supposed to be, and it was certainly nothing to look at with anything other than sympathy and disdain. Yet these women took clear pride in theirs, which I found far more compelling than the potential sexual stimulation (I mean c’mon, it’s a photograph). Also, these women also represented a bold and daring willingness to define themselves without regard to the mainstream thought; conventional wisdom mostly regarded—and unfortunately still regards–a woman in various states of undress as a bimbo, even if most of that kind of stereotyping in other areas is frowned upon.   I didn’t think of these women just as sex symbols (even if in many cases that *is* part of their aim); a woman’s sex appeal is typically a small part of the overall individual. I preferred to think of them as superheroes who had conquered inner villains—especially inadequacy issues–that I was and am still battling.  In that context, this series is designed to parse that concept further.

 

Ten years ago, in the midst of an email exchange about body painting, a friend of mine sent me some photos of a woman we’ll call Grace (not her real or professional name but bear with me, more on that later), and I was equally awestruck and terrified.

I was awestruck because of her beauty, she had an easygoing smile that radiated charm and a fit, svelte physique, and I was floored by her amazing paint jobs. Some were full body extravaganzas: one was similar to a lavender zentai with strips of fabric cut out and messily sewn together like a punk rocker’s outfit; another was like a robot, and a third was an abstract pink design with splotches of blue from which a network of tubing ran. I readily imagined those creations taking hours, and the poise to stand naked while being painted for a long duration impressed me enormously. Some were costumes that probably took only a few minutes but were no less delightful to witness such as a Playboy Bunny, a Victoria Secret lingerie ensemble, a racy wedding outfit, a Batman inspired bikini ensemble, and a trompe l’oeil work that involved chains and a lock at the crotch (perhaps the hippest chastity belt ever created). Each “outfit” was sported with such cheerful panache that it suggested in an ideal universe Grace would awaken daily and rather than dress like the rest of us, simply be painted and march out into the world, conquest on her agenda. Just looking at her photos, I immediately felt bashful and self-conscious for wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

To me Grace was the best example yet of normalizing my conception of nudity. I had developed a spin on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s famous prose, “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” Men and women were indeed born free (and nude) but everywhere they were chained by inhibition and doubt. Yet with lack of clothing being accepted solely as an act of sex appeal, it felt like inhibition had been institutionalized. To my ideology, the photographs of Grace were an eloquent rebuttal. A naked woman, rather than being an object, could be a subject triumphantly leading her life as she saw fit.

For me the photographs were reviving an interest in bodypainting that began when I was young and browsing my Dad’s copies of Playboy and Penthouse. It seemed like an artful act of extremity. I loved the work of Veruschka who in collaboration with Holger Trulzuch had created works where her painted body blended in with decaying backdrops in nature. I also loved the work on Jon Stevens, a painter who worked entirely in silver creating brilliant reflections of light off of the body. To me being nude its self was transformative and primal; it recalculated the balance between the mental and physical. Being nude and painted took that transformation to another level; it built on this boldness to create a new identity. It also solidified that new identity in a way. A nude model can simply throw on a dress or whatever and be a member of the dominant (clothed) society again. A fully painted one cannot within seconds double back into the fold.

Grace was part of the awe, the rest of it was the context. Had these photos shown Grace in a studio, I would have been floored by her physical self-confidence. I feel self-conscious in my own home seen only by my stuffed animals if I don’t dress within minutes of showering. Yet, here she was on the streets of some festival amid what appeared to be hundreds if not thousands people, many of them obviously tipsy, if not outright drunk. That she felt comfortable amid that mayhem upped my already high admiration of her to stratospheric levels.

My correspondent explained that Grace was a regular at Fantasy Fest, an annual autumn Mardi Gras like bacchanalia in Key West. It routinely attracts upwards of 75,000 people for a week or so of street parties, parades, body paint competitions and the like. It seemed like a post-millennial version of the ’60s adage, “let your freak flag fly.”

To me Grace wasn’t just flying a flag but staking a claim and celebrating a liberation. To my way of thinking being nude wasn’t allowing a revelation of weaknesses that might now be considered TMI, but rather an unfurling of strengths that were all too often hidden beneath the social acceptance of clothing. I also admired nudity as a way of sticking your neck out and being willing to stand apart from the mainstream. I am the son of Great Migrators, and they vividly recalled living in times and places where sticking your neck out often led to lynchings. Thus, we admired non conformists like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Angela Davis, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, and anyone else who blazed their own trail. To me Grace fit right into that lineage, asserting that her body wasn’t some obscene commodity but something artful and natural especially when enhanced by paint. And it was hard for anyone not to admire how ballsy it was (yes ballsy, and yes, women are often far more ballsy than men); in most of her pictures, it seemed that Grace was among thousands of clothed people and many blocks away from any shred of clothing, yet she didn’t seem the least bit diminished by that circumstance. She seemed to shrug off both detractors (in many pictures there were side eye glances of chagrin from clothed women) and catcallers with equal aplomb. To me, she was retaking her body from the antiquated tropes of women existing to please men. She was no doubt a pleasing sight to my heterosexual male preferences, but she was also the definer of that sight. In other words, she wasn’t just the star, but the producer and director of her own movie, and the self-confidence she and about a dozen other painted women who were regulars at Fantasy Fest displayed was well beyond anything I’d ever seen.

I studied the photos my pal sent me, and I drilled down into the web, finding her Yahoo! Group and other photographs, but then terror began to set in. How was I, at this point in my life, older and overweight, supposed to find the same inner strength that she had. I try to learn from the photographs of people I see and admire, but with Grace, I began to feel that I’d met my match, and not in a romantic way.

FF06540(Medium)

Fantasy Fest in a nutshell. The photo is of Cheri, one of the regulars back in the day. Bodypaint by Pashur, photo by Tony.

After a few days of sulking, I began to realize that photos of a woman who oozed charm wearing nothing but paint amid thousands of clothed party people was beginning to depress me. This was an untenable response, so I rolled up my sleeves, yes I was still clothed. I’m a big believer that conquering our internal barriers is a necessary first step to demolishing external ones. And in the years immediately before seeing those photos, I’d walled up my insides. After more than a decade of happily showcasing my fit physique in flamboyant clothing, I’d added dozens of pounds and returned to the painfully introverted state of my adolescence where invisibility was preferable to any sort of notoriety. Maybe I’d never walk down Duval Street in Key West, naked but for bodypaint being celebrated for my boldness and the artistry of my painter, but the inner strength to do that felt like a reasonable goal. It would set me toward breaking down those walls. .

I’m also a big believer that I can learn something from everyone I encounter (save for a few knuckleheads of course), so I wrote her a long, adoring email, figuring that hearing her thoughts on how she mustered her enormous self-confidence might put me on the right road, and to my pleasant surprise she responded almost immediately with a long, yes, gracious email answering my questions. She explained that she had often felt ignored as a girl, so in some ways, her boldness was a means of making sure that she wasn’t ignored as an adult. I related to that in a way. I didn’t feel as if I was ignored (except to the degree that it was preferable), but rather than I felt I was valued for my mind as I was an honors student and outstanding chess player, but I was discouraged from seeking comparable success in physical activities. In high school, with most of my graduation and pre-collegiate requirements behind me I signed up for a dance class only to have my guidance counselor tell me “oh no, that’s not for you, your talents lie in Algebra” and he changed my elective from Modern Dance to Pre-Calculus. It was as if you could be brainy or buff, but not both. When I became fit, I felt like it was a celebration of both/and over either/or mentality. I began to admire Grace as an ally in that regard as her writing demonstrated that she was both smart and pretty.

I also read her other writing as her Yahoo! Group contained a blog in which she wrote about etiquette around nude and bodypainted people, clarifying that she was a nudist, not a swinger, and she wrote a long extensive post about her 2004 Fantasy Fest visit. In that post, she dealt in depth with her feelings about being nude in public (it felt natural to her), precautions (after midnight the crowd grows younger and drunker which is a daunting environment for a woman clothed or not), and her feelings about her encounter with a policeman with whom she argued vehemently that nudity should not be criminal.

The focal point of Grace’s Yahoo! Group was the forum, which was about half comprised of posts from men calling her beautiful, but the other half intrigued me. It featured men and women both praising and discussing her life and beauty and parsing changes at Fantasy Fest. I felt right at home.

Grace was beginning to get fitness and bikini modeling gigs, which was unusual for a woman deep into her 30s, but very well deserved. I was happy to cheer her on. Also she dispensed fitness wisdom, which led to several useful dialogues about my new regimen as I was discovering it was not so easy to do what I routinely did in my 30s now that I was well into my 40s. I also noticed that she was beginning to speak of her visits to Fantasy Fest in the past tense, and yes, she didn’t plan on returning. This was disappointing but then came a true shock. She was closing the group. She also asked her members to remove any nudes of her that they had on their blogs or websites (and in a remarkable instance of web courtesy they did. Photographs of her from this phase of her life are very hard to come by on the internet). A week of goodbyes followed then just like that the painted woman vanished from the web. She would later explain in another forum, that her abrupt departure was due to urgent circumstances. She had remarried and she and her new husband were in a contentious custody battle for his kids from a previous marriage. In addition, some of her new prospective modeling employers were not especially tolerant.

I was initially crestfallen, but I began to think about it and I realized that it was the indomitable spirit of Grace, not the prospect of hanging out with her in Key West that inspired me. That spirit would live on in her photos, and I collected a few dozen before her retirement. I studied them closely. I wanted to build the strengths she had. I created an agenda

First off I had to get back in shape. In my late 20s and early 30s, I befriended—and occasionally dated several women who happily strutted the streets of the city wearing only a catsuit or some variation thereof. Their self styled body positivity provided the motivation to get in great shape, which I was eager to do in order to prove that the notion that you could buff or brainy no longer held the slightest sway in my life. And for several years, roughly 1992 to 2002, I did. Catsuits and other lycra garb were staples of my wardrobe, and I loved it. Judging from the responses I continue to get today, some 15 years later, so did my neighbors. Sure, there was the conquest of my inhibitions, but I also wanted to recontextualize the male body. There was nothing predatory or narcissistic on my agenda; instead I was simply submitting my physique and outfit for approval and confidently celebrating success in that regard. I felt that that was what my catsuit pals were doing and what Grace and her FF comrades were doing too.

But getting in shape hit a serious obstacle. Post Great Recession, professional and economic pressures were much tougher. I was no longer so confident of my workload, and I often sat hunched over a keyboard instead of going to the gym and yoga classes. And then just as I was settling the work issue with a full time job in the food biz, injuries struck. The full time job entailed being on my feet 45-55 hours a week or so and without properly supported arches, my lower body descended into a textbook case of cascade injuries: a stiff right knee would lead to a sore left hip, which in turn would lead to an aching right ankle and so on. This lasted three years. I put away my pictures of Grace and those like her. My goals shrank from a peak level of fitness and celebration of physical self confidence to just being able to walk down a flight of steps effortlessly or getting up from a chair without using my arms.

In late 2014, two fortuitous things happened. I left the debilitating job and found a new one with in walking—well, hobbling at first—distance of my apartment and even better it was close to my gym, and two, my writing work skyrocketed suddenly. My income wasn’t stable, but it was stable enough so that I could start rebuilding my physique. Several months of gradual activities built into a yoga routine and occasional bike trips were building into a weekly regimen and spinning classes hovered in the offing. After several months of this regimen, I had lost 20 pounds slipped down two sizes in jeans; the Buddha Belly was down to a mere bump. I was ready for pictures of Grace again. I felt I was on the path toward being self confident rather than self conscious.

I opened my folder of Grace’s photos and perused the contents. I was delighted that I continued to find things to marvel about in the photos. Sometimes it was a detail in the paint job, sometimes it was the charm of Grace’s response to the situation around her, and sometimes it was the situation itself. I was again floored by her poise and cheerfulness; she usually seemed not in the least inhibited by self-consciousness or doubt. I chose two pictures, printed them out and put one of my refrigerator and the other on a pantry cabinet.

The one I put on my fridge was of Grace looking in the mirror after the full body purple paint job. Her left foot is in front of her right and turned out slightly. Her hands are at her side though it looks from her posture as if they’d be on her hips but that would risk smearing the paint. Her eyes are flashing with a rising confidence and a warm smile is just starting to spread across her lips. The moment feels like a magic instance of her boldness solidifying. Yet there is also an underlying streak of toughness, a steeling that any woman heading out among drinking men knows. Grace was keenly aware that she would soon be among thousands of revelers and photographed hundreds if not thousands of times, yet she didn’t seem the least bit daunted. She is also a few hours from being judged in the bodypaint competition where she and the artist who usually painted her, John Neyrot, were the defending champions. She looks ready to defend the title (and in fact, they won again).

Women have a complex relationship with the mirror. It’s their first and most frequent reminder that they are not Beyonce or Jennifer Anniston or whatever, but the flipside is that it’s their reminder that Bey and JA aren’t them. I don’t have any relationship with a mirror; I look at the one in the bathroom when shaving but that’s about it. Like most men, I take solace in the presumed invisibility of being male. It has led to a horrific complacency, and I think it’s a lie. People do see me, they do judge me; the increasingly warm responses I receive as my weight decreases have reinforced this notion. Just because I pretend they don’t doesn’t make it true. I’d far rather be ready for their judgments and pro-actively influencing them. It doesn’t mean I put my full length mirror back on the wall, but it did mean I made it a goal to be distinctive and look at it every day with the same satisfaction that Grace had. I wanted to be as confident in my daily presentation, and I’d like that presentation to rebel against the dull jeans and a shirt conformity. I know that in terms of appearance men play on a much easier side of the bracket, but that doesn’t forgive aesthetic laziness and inattention to detail.

The photograph that I put on the pantry cabinet was of her arguing with that Key West cop. She was painted as a Playboy Bunny and was pulled over one afternoon en route to a party. The cop asked her if she was wearing any clothing and then when she told him it was all paint he threatened to arrest her. She made the point that if he couldn’t tell, then he wasn’t the only one, that a thong wasn’t really going to make much of a difference in her stage of undress, and that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies. Yes, I chose the name Grace for her graciousness, but also because I think this is an example of extreme grace under fire.

Race creates a completely different relationship for me with the police. I was once thrown against a wall by an officer who told me he had me on camera selling drugs an hour ago. I had responded that no, I was in a yoga class; the yoga mat sticking out of my backpack evidently wasn’t persuasive enough. OTOH, individualists always have detractors, I just adore how Grace handled the pressure there, especially since a beam of sunshine is hitting her squarely on the butt, and I don’t know from experience but I’d imagine that feeling sensations in places that you don’t routinely feel them would be a little distracting. In the end, Grace took the thong that her husband was carrying in a bag, donned it until she was out of site of the cop then removed it again.

“Be yourself, no matter what they say,” is one of the hardest adages to live up to on a day to day basis. I thought this was a great example of Grace asserting herself to a level and degree that I needed to learn again. After all, there are figurative police everywhere, and I was assigning them the credence and authority of the ones with guns.

So yes, I have photographs of a naked woman on my walls. I don’t mind if people’s first reaction is that they are there to stoke lust. I’m happy to explain that the photos not there for that purpose (I live in New York City, I see dozens of lust provoking women every time I step outside my apartment; I don’t need pictures to check that box just clean eyeglasses). I like to explain to my visitors that a man can seek to emulate strengths they see in women without being a drag queen. Women like Grace are way more physically self confident than most men, and her example inspires me toward a most worthy goal.

 

Posted in eroticism, fitness, Gender, Media, Naked Women, race, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lust Is an Emotion, not an Entitlement

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Dan shared this article on Facebook, which is probably one of many pointing out that women’s clothing choices are not responsible for men’s boorish behavior. These articles proliferate during the summer when women dress seasonally, wearing fewer clothes and are forced to endure increased verbal harassment from men. I think the article is spot on, men aren’t acting on uncontrollable impulses, but more needs to be said.

That we have to debate the issue of “is lust uncontrollable” is a big loud patriarchal signal as is the fact that some treat lust as entitlement. Lust certainly can be uncontrollable, and it can lead to profound sexual bliss when that uncontrollable lust occurs mutually between two consenting partners; but let’s hazard an unscientific guess: that scenario probably accounts for less than one one hundredth of one percent of all occurrences of lust. So perhaps we should address what to do with all the other 99.99% or thereabouts of lust rather than what not to do.

I have a lot of life experience with this. My family moved from Chicago to Dallas in 1974, when I was 14. We moved in late June too, so summer was blazing away deep in the heart of the Lone Star State. Also we were going from hippy dippy, very integrated, lefty liberal Hyde Park/Kenwood in Chicago to pristine, mostly White, almost suburban Walnut Hills in Dallas. My Dad is from the Mississippi Delta, so as a cautionary tale, I was told of the horrors of Emmett Till often. My head could be on a swivel, but my lips needed to be sealed at all times. My Dad needn’t have worried too much. I was stone cold nerd. I was good at chess; I played cello; I had the quarterback rating of every NFL signal caller memorized. Pretty and sexy women, hell, outgoing people were in such a league of cool kids so far beyond me that I couldn’t imagine talking to them presumptuously, if at all. On the other hand, I did like learning from people who were good at stuff I wasn’t. So I often observed the cool kids keenly thinking of what I might gleam from the way they moved.

When I was 17, I was working at Tom Thumb, a massive grocery store in my neighborhood. It was my first commercial gig (I volunteered for the McGovern campaign ’72 and worked in a recycle center in Chicago; citing this experience often was met with quizzical stares from my fellow Dallasites). Anyway, this Tom Thumb was located near a town house complex with lots of young people and typical of Dallas in those days, a big swimming pool. We had a steady stream of customers who came in for snacks and beverages. The stream of clientele from the apartment complex was young and often scantily clad. I was pleased to look but didn’t dare communicate for the reasons mentioned above.

Then one summer afternoon, Loy, a ninth grade classmate of mine, walked in wearing a floral bikini. Loy was an honors student, and at that moment she looked like she’d stepped out of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. I had not yet rejected the cultural norm that maintained that women had to be either beautiful or smart; in fact, it’s hard to be beautiful if you’re not projecting intelligence and in very many ways beauty is a reflection of broadcasting one’s smarts. Loy and I had gone to different high schools starting in Tenth Grade, so my second impulse was to say hello and find out what the road not taken was like. Evan, a coworker of mine was also staring from our station. When he found out that I knew her, he invited himself to our conversation. We caught up to her in the parking lot probably heading back to the pool. We chatted amiably about our different high schools and our college ambitions. The idea of trading phone numbers wasn’t even remotely on my agenda, so I was about to head back into the store when Evan blurted out “that swimsuit is cool.” Loy cocked an eyebrow, a good go to move for any smart woman who suspects she’s being objectified. “Oh thanks,” she responded and then offered this killer, “it is 104 today,” as she looked witheringly at our store uniforms, heavy full length jeans, a white, long-sleeved collared shirt and a tie.

“She has a point,” I remember telling Evan as we rounded up a couple of shopping carts and headed back into the store. “I ain’t wearing no bikini,” he huffed.

Evan’s final response and Loy’s straight outta Bette Davis withering gaze have stuck with me for decades and they inform what I think when I see a woman in attention getting clothing. While Loy may well have been “naughty,” her outfit was straight up functional, and it pointed out that ours was adamantly not. As I looked at the clientele of the store, there were women in short shorts, halter tops, rompers, and cool sandals. The guys wore suits, Marlboro Men outfits, and every now and then you’d see some cat in jeans a t-shirt (usually coming from the pool),. Most of the men wore boots—cowboy and other varieties—12 months a year. 100 degree days are the norm in Dallas during the summer, yet it was as if men were in some sort of sweaty denial about the world around them.

Evan’s remark seems odd today, but it wasn’t at the time. In fact, we often discussed music because, hey we were teen-aged boys in Dallas; there were three things to talk about, music, cars and the Cowboys, and we often talked about David Bowie. The Midnight Special (damn, am I dating myself of what?) had recently rebroadcast their entire show with Bowie who was wearing a dress for many of the numbers. Evan’s response was that liked the music but wasn’t wearing a dress. And yes, he felt the same way about the New York Dolls. Our life paths diverged before Rick James hit the scene with a hit album that featured him in tights and a high heeled boots on the cover, but you get the idea. The concept of masculinity was MUCH more fluid in those days.

That encounter forty years ago points to the need to lose several tropes, and the first one is that a woman dresses the way she does to get a man’s attention. I’m sure that’s true in a handful of cases, and it may be a secondary agenda in some women’s clothing choices, but to assume its universal all but assumes that women exist to please men. In my experience, most women have a far more complex and independent agenda.

Another trope we need to abandon is that women are dressing provocatively because they need attention. Attention isn’t a uniquely feminine desire; it’s a human desire. So let’s not look down on someone because they are human. Secondly for all the shit that is heaped on women about their bodies, if some woman feels good about hers, then she should celebrate by wearing what ever she damn well pleases and it really isn’t up to anyone else to judge her. She’s aced over that panel already.

Thirdly we need to get over the idea that it’s not tasteful. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. People in public have the right to dress as they please and while it may not be how you or I or someone else (remember Evan’s “I ain’t wearing a bikini” remark) choose to dress. It’s their right, and neither you nor I nor anyone else has the right to dictate other people’s style.

If we lose these tropes, then we also lose the idea that women have a responsibility to maintain the social order via their behavior and appearance. We ALL have that responsibility. Instead, we might appreciate that millions of women are creating their own lives and defining their own style archetypes, bikinis to pantsuits and beyond and everything in between.

Meanwhile men since the days of David Bowie in a dress have narrowed our range of archetypes and institutionalized the same sort of inadequacy issues that most women parse constantly then beat to a pulp with a club every morning. No, most men are not are not Idris Elba, David Beckham, Jared Leto, Pierre Trudeau, Connor McGregor or Drake, but rather than rebut the fact with some stylish statement about how those handsome dudes aren’t them either, the usual tack to is dress toward some sort of slightly hip if intentionally dull conformity that says “chillin’.” Jaden Smith and Earvin Johnson III are style revolutionaries today; when I worked at Tom Thumb, they’d be just another couple of guys.

Women dress to express their bodies; for better and worse, it’s demanded of them. Men are almost the opposite; most of the masculine style statements are above the neck (hairstyles, beards and mustaches) or below the ankle, which is why some Air Jordans cost more than Manolo Blahniks.

I think this situation enables a basis for what to do with the other 99.99% of lust, and an opportunity to facilitate more reasonable communication from men to women. Color, fit, accessorization are all issues that women figure out and men could learn from. Personal presentation is but one of dozens of things that women routinely do better than men (and no, it’s not genetic, Cab Calloway and Humphrey Bogart were indicative of their era), and it’s a good starting point for communication; in other words channel lust into admiration. Even a five year old boy with a doting Mom understands that women don’t exist to please men, so basing societal dialogue on that fallacy is beyond stupid. Changing the conversation and its structure is essential to moving forward.

Fourteen years after my encounter with Loy, I met Lissa Spiller (follow the link about18 graphs down for her appearance in the linked story), a real estate professional, who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I worked at fancy food stores part time to support my freelance journalism habit. We met on another hot summer day and she was wearing only a lycra briefs and bra ensemble. I remarked that she was dressed for the weather (and I again was wearing full length jeans an a long-sleeved shirt, food business uniforms are never seasonal),and we became friends. She alternated workout wear with Alaia dresses, Chanel suits and other razor sharp ensembles. Her arsenal also included fantastic pendants, necklaces, chokers, and cuffs, but her favorite accessory was usually a disheveled copy of the Times. Over more than a decade of dialogue, my favorite takeaway from my conversations with her was that she led with her brain most of the time; her spirit insisted that she led with her body some times. I took that as my credo and got in shape and spent my late 30s and early 40s feeling like I was dancing through New York City rather than slogging around looking for some situation that my chess skills would enable my success.

I never dated Lissa, but I did date a half dozen women I met in this way and friended many more. Observing their example enabled me to get beyond denial of the doubts I had about my own significance, adequacy and how to express myself more articulately in the world. I’m told every writer has worthiness issues but their example helped confine those issues my to when I was sitting in front of my computer rather than letting them consume my life. It seems to me that more men, especially those who might see an attractive woman and think only of sex (talk about setting yourself up for failure!) would do well to follow this intellectual path of channeling lust into admiration.

So yes, from my observations and personal experience (Lissa and Loy are extreme lust inducing examples but this applies to my reaction to all women), I feel that lust is a controllable emotion and even a fantastic energy source. If we change the paradigms in which we view women, and men stop thinking of women solely as prey rather than mostly as peers, we can get beyond one of the most tortuous rituals of the season and change some seriously outdated paradigms.

Grocery Store

Yes, I tend to think of provocatively dressed women more as superheroines who have overcome doubt and inibition than damsels in distress looking for a savoir, and so should you.  Photo of Starfucked by Daniel Kopp, more of her on Facebook and at StarfuckedModel on Instagram

Posted in Arts, eroticism, fitness, Gender, Life in the 50s, Media, Politics, thoughts and musings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment