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.

 

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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

My Dad Was a Stathead Before They Invented the Term

I don’t have any photos of my father, but I do have stories. Here’s One

A lot of my fondest memories of my Dad are centered around sports and especially baseball. We went to lots of games together, not only was it fun, but it was educational too. It wasn’t just about seeing the Cubs or the White Sox, but about seeing the great Black players of the ’60s and ’70s. I can recall riding on the El train as he explained that I should play careful attention to Willie Mays positioning in centerfield and how much ground he covered. Or that I should watch for Hank Aaron’s batting stance and his patience at the plate or Frank Robinson’s intensity in the batter’s box (it made me feel sorry for the pitcher!). By the time, I was 5, I was sneaking off with the newspaper so that I could follow the standings.

I knew that the World Series was special but I didn’t appreciate how much until 1967. The ’67 season was a desultory one for Chicago White Sox fans. It was the last hurrah for the core of the team that had been very good but never champion since the early 50s. They faded down the stretch in ’67 and baseball faded from the household zeitgiest. Then on Columbus Day, which back then was celebrated on October 12 regardless of what day of the week it was, my brother Phil was assigned to watch me, so he took me to get a haircut. The barber shop had the World Series on, it was Game 7 and Bob Gibson was mowing down the Red Sox to the increasing delight of the customers and a wide range of other people who piled into the shop on 47th St. in Chicago to watch the little black and white set. The excitement was amazing as Gibson struck out 10 in a complete game win, his third of that series. There was electricity in the shop as Gibson got the final three outs.

So when the World Series approached in 1968, I was ready and eager. I knew that the Game 1 pitching matchup figured to be one for the ages. St. Louis, led by Gibson, had made it again and they would face the Detroit Tigers, a team that featured Denny McLain. McLain had won 31 games that season, and I was impressed. My Dad heard my take and chuckled derisively. He told me that McLain’s season couldn’t compare to Gibson’s, and I was perplexed. Gibson had won 22 games and while I was a long way from calculus, I was math savvy enough to know that 22 and 31 weren’t close. However, as my Dad explained, Gibson’s Earned Run Average was a microscopic 1.12 compared to McLain’s excellent but not historically significant 1.96.

I wondered what this Earned Run Average was all about so my Dad taught me the math and the concept that “wins” were a team accomplishment, reminding me of games we’d attended where the one team beat the other 1-0 or 2-1. The pitcher’s job was to keep the other team from scoring and it was almost unfair to tag a starting pitcher with a loss for such well done work. While we ate breakfast, my Dad also taught me how to calculate Batting Average and On Base Percentage. Then he headed off to work and I to school.

These numbers were important to my father. He felt that the great Black players of the ’60s didn’t receive their due. That the media focused more on McLain’s 31 wins instead of Gibson’s remarkable E.R.A was just one instance. He also felt that Frank Robinson’s triple crown numbers were better than Carl Yazstremski’s due to Yaz playing in Fenway Park, a good setting for a left handed hitter. He would happily argue that Mays would already have eclipsed Babe Ruth’s 714 home run mark but playing in the pitcher friendly environs of Candlestick Park and the Polo Grounds which hurt his batting numbers. “Perceptions vary,” he told me several years later, “but the numbers are the facts.”

Indeed, Gibson went on to outpitch McLain twice though the Cardinals lost the series, and it launched my passion for sports via numbers. My Dad liked to cite them in discussions with relatives and coworkers about sports, but when we were together, he also expressed his misgivings about certain statistics too. He hated the way the NFL counted all yards as if they were equal. “Two yards on fourth and one means a lot more than ten on third and fifteen,” he’d quip.

My Dad had studied as part of a combined BA/MBA program at the University of Chicago, and my sense was that this was always how he’d looked at sports. I figured he was unique, but then in 1983, I stumbled onto my first copy of the Bill James Baseball Abstract and felt as I eagerly read it that my Dad had a kindred spirit who went even deeper into his dive into baseball numbers. Upon finishing it, I immediately mailed my copy to my father (it may well have been a Father’s Day gift that year). He loved it and began buying it himself every season and we’d discuss it ahead of Opening Day. My Dad was approaching retirement when James stopped writing the Abstracts. My Dad was crestfallen; I think he had planned to volunteer as an intern.

My life became complicated building and maintaining a career both as a music journalist and a food business professional, but I always stayed abreast of sports and the latest statistical developments, and I often shared my discoveries with my Dad. He was sometimes impressed and sometimes skeptical. For instance, he disliked OPS, the stat derived by adding On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. He felt OBP was more important and should be weighted more. “Everyone has a computer or at least a calculator handy, it’s just a little more work,” he said with his usual derisive chuckle.

Meanwhile during a down moment in music journalism, I began writing about sports. In 2003, I was hired to write analytical articles about the NBA for the NY Sun. He was pleased that I’d shown the versatility to adapt to difficult times, and he read my pieces carefully, sometimes complaining that I didn’t harp on the NBA’s indifference to the three point line. “If you passed first grade, then you know three is more than two,” he’d snip.

Although his mind remained sharp, his body was failing him. In 2005, I eagerly called him after the White Sox won the World Series only to find that he’d gone to bed during the clinching game. In early 2006, I made what would be my final visit to see him. He was in a hospice and not doing well, but on my last afternoon, he perked up. He read the articles I’d brought him and eagerly asked for an explanation of Player Efficiency Rating. Before I could delve into it, the attendants came and gave him some medicine that knocked him out. I waited for a few minutes as I’d hoped to tell him how much I loved him and how much I’ll miss him. After about 30 minutes, he was still out cold, and I decided yeah, if our final conversation was about sports, that was entirely appropriate. He knew that I loved him; he didn’t like being told what he knew. He always wanted to learn the new stuff.

Sure enough, a week later, I got the call to fly in for a funeral. He’d gone to meet his maker without ever getting a good explanation of why .44 of free throws attempted is such a key multiplier. I got the call at 4 a.m. I had to write a sports column that day. It was one of about 15 I wrote in mid ’00s discounting the possibility of LeBron James ever playing for the Knicks. It was a subject my Dad and I had discussed from time to time. People thought I showed grace under pressure for writing it. I told them it was the easiest piece I’d ever written. I was just recounting my conversations with Dad.

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At WSJ on Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening II

 

 

‘Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds’ by Nicole Mitchell Review

The flutist and composer explores Afrofuturist themes with her longstanding group, the Black Earth Ensemble.

 

Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell’s career has gone in fits and starts, but she is currently making exciting, broad-based music that spans the borders of jazz and rhythm and blues.

Nicole Mitchell?s new album is 'Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds'

Nicole Mitchell?s new album is ‘Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds’ PHOTO: FPE RECORDS

Ms. Mitchell, who is 50, has written many works for chamber ensembles, orchestras, jazz big bands and other settings. She also participates in the collective trio Artifacts with drummer Mike Reed and cellist Tomeka Reid, which will perform in New York at the Vision Festival on June 1, and some of her most ambitious work has been with her longstanding group, the Black Earth Ensemble. Their new recording, “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” (FPE Records, May 5), explores Afrofuturist themes.

The term Afrofuturism was coined in the early ’90s, and it typically refers to afro diasporic cultural creations that draw on science fiction, historical fiction, and magical realism. It is associated with the fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, but it has been a part of music for decades. The great jazz bandleader Sun Ra claimed Saturn as his home base and used “space is the place” (a reference to both outer and inner) as a mantra in his music. George Clinton’s groups Parliament and Funkadelic used outer-space iconography frequently and their signature prop, a space ship, now sits in the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Recent examples of Afrofuturism can be found in the music of Janelle Monáe and Kamasi Washington.

Ms. Mitchell has been a fan of Ms. Butler’s fictions for decades—she recorded the 2008 release “Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler” (Firehouse 12)—and created her own novella set in 2099 about a couple in transit from World Union, a disintegrating planet, to Mandorla, an egalitarian world where technology and nature coexist peacefully. The music on the new album is performed by an expanded version of the Black Earth Ensemble, which Ms. Mitchell founded in 1998, and features Ms. Reid, bassist Tatsu Aoki, percussionist Jovia Armstrong, violinist Renèe Baker, shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, guitarist Alex Wing, and vocalist Avery R. Young.

The music ranges from delicate sections featuring virtuosic flute, shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), violin and cello to gospel-drenched rhythm and blues featuring Mr. Young’s impassioned vocals. The storyline isn’t always clear, but following it isn’t necessary to enjoy the impressive panoply of unusual harmonies, dynamic solos and stellar ensemble play on this recording.

Ms. Mitchell was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and grew up there and in Anaheim, Calif. She settled in Chicago in 1990 and found a musical community of kindred spirits in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the influential group that nurtured the career of dozens of leading African-American composers and performers, and she became the organization’s president in 2009. She is now a professor at the University of California at Irvine.

When she emerged on the scene in the ’90s, Ms. Mitchell was one of the few flutists in jazz, but the instrument is having something of a moment. It is heard in Mr. Washington’s music and increasingly in jazzy samples and live performances by hip-hop performers L’il Yachty, Future and Kodak Black. It suggests that Ms. Mitchell’s music may soon be part of another trend.

 

 

 

 

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Somi’s Brilliant Petite Afrique

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I’ve known of Somi, the magnificent singer and songwriter for about ten years, and for much of that time I thought that her music was a great sound in search of a comparable style or at least repertoire. It’s a dilemma faced by lots of vocalists: think Tierney Sutton before she hit on the Joni Mitchell catalog or Cassandra Wilson before she fused Delta Blues into her sound and classic rock into her book.

Somi’s dilemma—or rather my dilemma with Somi’s music–was complicated by the fact that she deftly merged elements or R&B into her hybrid of African music and jazz. In this regard she was a little ahead of her time as Kelly Lee Evans, Jose James and Gregory Porter have integrated rhythm and blues into mainstream jazz with the same elegance if not quite the same monumental sales figures that occurred when Norah Jones brought singer/songwriterdom in to the genre 15 ago.  In Somi’s case, it seemed to me that she suffered the vagaries of people not quite knowing what to make of her talent.

In 2014, Somi resolved all my quandaries with her release, “Lagos Music Salon” (Okeh), it was a dynamic song cycle focused on the dynamic, diverse culture of Nigeria’s capital city. Not only was it a fascinating musical portrait of Africa in a way that it is rarely viewed in Western society, that is as contemporary, urbane and wise.  Yet the release slipped by me as I was in the midst of leaving one job, discovering that despite my many successes in that field, there were no comparable positions available, and I had only begun to write regularly again after a two-year hiatus.   When I caught up to it, I was floored.

Her new recording, Petite Afrique (Okeh) didn’t sneak up on me but it caught me at another moment when writing about it for publication wasn’t in the question.  Yet, it’s a stunning recording, the sort of music that starts me thinking about end of the year lists.   I could readily imagine certain PR people pitching me that this recording is like an imaginary collaboration between Sade, Ali Farka Toure and Tinariwen but in Harlem with Noname and the Internet as guests.  And even that doesn’t quite catch the broad range of stellar music here.  Nor does it scratch the surface of the substance.  Somi’s recording is a song cycle about a swath of Harlem along west 116th Street, issues of identity (African American in the international sense versus African-American in the domestic sense), gentrification, roots and authenticity.  The music is savvy, diverse and sumptuous.  In an era that values volume, Somi’s music has found a way to speak impactfully in a gentle croon.

Somi

After a collage of ambient sounds that locate Petite Afrique in Harlem near the C train stop, “Alien,” the second track addresses the breadth of themes in the recording.  A gentle piano chord asserts itself then retreats then as if suspended in a diffuse space, Somi’s voice enters, “I don’t drink coffee/I take tea, my dear/Some extra rice please on the side/And you can hear it in my accent when I talk/I’m an African in New York.”

The lyrics are a revision of Shinehead’s 1992 underground classic, “Jamaican in New York,” but the tone, subdued and complex is totally different.     It’s as if a pair of Rick Owen sneakers had been exchanged for an intricately patterned Jean Paul Gaultier dress.    The song delves into the complexity of African identity in a proudly diverse city, and ends—as does the original—with the firmly delivered advice of “be yourself, no matter what they say.” Somi is making such revisions part of her arsenal.  On “Lagos Music Salon,” she turned the Cole Porter nugget “Love for Sale” into “Brown Round Things,” a wistful rumination on the objectification of black womanhood.

“Alien” is the opening salvo for an album with songs that circle back to parsing the different meanings of African American, a subject on which Somi is an expert as the American born daughter of parents from Uganda and Rwanda, and her “Lagos Music Salon” came about after a fellowship in Nigeria.  It also deals with the similarities, the silence in “Black Enough” after invoking the chant “Hands Up /Don’t Shoot” is a vital reminder that long before the name Michael Brown was charged with meaning, Amadou Diallo was executed in a hail of 41 police bullets probably for reaching for his ID.

 

Harlem is of course has undergone massive change.  Nine years ago, I was on the startup crew for a wine bar on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, and during my months of going up to the neighborhood, it couldn’t escape my attention that while the commercial enterprises still felt Black, a frequent majority of people getting off the train with me at 125th St. were not.    Thus in songs like  “The Gentry” the class differentials take centerstage, and the recording invites comparisons to others that have chronicled  postmillennial change in New York like “Brooklyn Babylon” by Darcy James Argue and Secret Society.

Somi’s road to prominence has been unconventional.  Her credits include being a TED Senior Fellow, and stints as Artist-in-Residence at Park Avenue Armory, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Baryshnikov Arts Center.  It’s emblematic of Somi’s unique music but also of how musicians must improvise their careers as much as their music these days.

In an era when albums have given way to tracks and playlists, both “Petite Afrique” and “Lagos Music Salon” offer forceful arguments for the value of longform statement.  It’s easy to imagine Somi’s music as the soundtrack for the machinations of Ifemelu and Obinze should Lupita Nyong’o’s film verson of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah get made.  It’s also fairly easy to imagine a young Somi listening to concept albums in her youth and thinking deeply about music.

 

 

 

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Bullish: And in the End…

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

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Bulls 2

Ultimately, the Bulls playoff series with Boston was a microcosm of their season. Enthusiastic, smart overachievement at the start followed by, a long, desultory reality check. That the Boston Celtics struggled against a Bulls team with all of its starters healthy tells you more about the Eastern Conference this season and about this Bulls team than it does any particular weakness in the Celtics. Yes, the Celtics are a subpar rebounding team, but a casual glance at http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2017.html would reveal that.

Yes, a better constructed team would be able to weather the loss of a player like Rajon Rondo, and maybe a better constructed team would be able to handle Jimmy Butler’s injury, but these Bulls were a miserably constructed outfit. There was no three point shooting for much of the season. The inability to establish rotations hurt the defense and by Game 4 and 5 of this series, coach Fred Hoiberg was forced to grasp at straws grabbing guys from the far end of the bench and hoping for the best.

During the fourth quarter of Game 6, chants of “Fire Fred Hoiberg” rained down from the fans who stayed despite a deficit that swelled to 29 points by the end of the third quarter. Hoiberg is part of the problem. He has failed to control the locker room, establish good rotations and develop young players. He was known as an offensive wizard at Iowa State, but in his two seasons with the Bulls, the team has finished 20th and 23rd in Offensive Rating. But the failure goes deeper. The Bulls front office duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson show few signs of savvy in building another championship contender. The fact that they haven’t squelched the Jimmy Butler trade rumors is probably all you need to know.

I started writing this blog in October because I thought it would be interesting to follow this team, and it was. But I also hated this team more than almost any other Bulls team I’ve followed in the 48 years I’ve been a fan. The team had talent—albeit often mismatched—and potential, but the players often seemed to not care. How else do you explain losing to the Nets when a win would have clinched the seventh seed on the final Saturday of the season. The hiring of Hoiberg was supposed to cleanse the team of the malaise that set in during the final season under Tom Thibodeau. It didn’t. With the exception of Butler and Robin Lopez, the players looked like they were just punching a clock far too often.

I didn’t see much of Game 6. It was a busy night at the store for craft beer sales. By the time I left the deficit was 25. A coworker asked why I was racing home to see it. I’m sure he expected that I might have some agenda for seeing Bobby Portis, Joffrey Lauvergne, Jerian Grant, Michael Carter Williams and Denzel Valentine play garbage time. I didn’t. I told him that there wasn’t going to be anymore Bulls basketball till October. That was reason enough and I rushed off into the New York night.

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Bullish 04.24.17: Adjustments Wanted

Bullish: Thoughts on Game 4

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

Confession: I didn’t see Game 3. I typically work until 9ish on Fridays and my intention was to punch out and rush to the closest television. When I saw that the Celtics had a formidable lead with only four minutes to go. I shrugged and changed to Plan B.

Anyway, going into this series, I wasn’t daunted by the most of the matchups, but one frightened me big time the coaches: Brad Stevens vs. Fred Hoiberg. Stevens is a master of X’s and O’s and Hoiberg simply isn’t. Stevens uses personnel with a concept. Hoiberg uses them with a guess.

The Bulls dominated Games 1 and 2 with their size, amassing formidable rebound advantages and owning the paint. Stevens first response in Game 2 was to contest this advantage with effort, but that left Bulls shooters open along the perimeter, and Chicago punished them with excellent three point shooting. So Stevens tried a different approach, Boston went small to start Game 3, inserting wing Gerald Green into the starting lineup. This forced Bulls bigs to chase along the perimeter, and Stevens changed the pick and roll set ups for his star guard Isaiah Thomas, forcing Bulls center Robin Lopez away from the rim. It worked like a charm in Game 3 and set up what I didn’t want: the Bulls fates depended on Hoiberg matching wits with Stevens.

The Bulls finished the third quarter of Game 4 with a lineup of Joffrey Lauvergne, Bobby Portis, Isaiah Canaan, Michael Carter-Williams and Jimmy Butler. Yep a quintet that has logged very few minutes together. Hoiberg has fiddled with his rotations all year and his inability to establish continuity any showed in that key moment of the season. The game was tied; then it wasn’t. The Celtics went on a 12-0 run to re-establish a comfortable lead, which they never reliinquished.

Much has been made of the absence of Rajon Rondo from the Bulls lineup, and yeah, he was a major factor in the team’s early wins in this series, but he wasn’t the only factor. The team’s inability to make adjustments now put them at a severe disadvantage for the rest of the series, and it further calls into question why Hoiberg has a job.

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