Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sex and Surprise

Back in the 1980’s, I recall a big white button that university students howled over. This was at a weekend conference. Volunteers from student newspapers all over the Canadian west had converged on the city of Saskatoon. For “west,” think “the great plains,” and think “the bible belt” like in the movie Footloose, and then think “generic high schools” like Archie’s Riverdale or Buffy’s Sunnydale High. Young men and women from a northern campus knew to bring lots of the white buttons to sell.

The bold caption: Officer Bob says 
the cartoon: a huge foolish cop with a silly (for the 80’s) crew cut; 
what he said: “…Sex is wrong.”

At the time, the sexual revolution was waning fast. On the prairies, although nobody surfed, the most timid of the Generation Xers were steadily exchanging their jockey style swimsuits for bathing trunks like their grandfathers wore. They called them surfboard shorts, but let’s face it, they were trunks. How queer to think that right now, on the internet, there may be readers living in lands where girls and boy are finished school at age fifteen and pregnant that same year, lands where sex is not discouraged but normal, common and old news—but not for us. Like I said, we were in Canada’s cold bible belt.

As teenage boys, we had talked about French houses of ill repute. As a young man, while stationed in Europe, I never made it to any Paris bordello—but I did, back in Canada, avec English subtitles, see that popular movie where Catherine Deneuve plays a housewife who gets a job in a Paris brothel. She is surprised to find that, night after night, she is not selling sex but fantasy role-playing.

About this time, the Hollywood TV fad for westerns had been replaced by a surfeit of detective shows. One such episode sure surprised me. It opened with a man at home, appearing at the top of the stairs dressed in football gear, while downstairs his wife was dressed as a cheerleader, cheering him on. At first I thought he was a real athlete. Then, as the director intended, I clued in. At the time, back when nerd science fiction conventions with cosplay (costume play) were unknown, I was “sports-challenged,” a nerd. Although I didn’t care about sports myself I said, “Aww, how sweet, how romantic.” Then the guy collapses from poison, the police investigation begins, and to my surprise—and chagrin—the woman in cheerleader costume wasn’t even his wife! (Sigh) If married couples have any special fun, then Hollywood simply hasn’t found out yet. Are Hollywood guys all from Canada?

In our teenage years, the girls must have been surprised and disappointed when the boys would “kiss and tell.” Looking back, I would advise the girls that to boys sex is real manly, like achieving a military medal or a football touchdown: they just have to tell. A girl’s best bet for secrecy would be a nerd, one with his eyes looking beyond school life and peer acclaim.

Blair and I

As middle-aged men, my smart buddy Blair and I felt no need to boast or lie to each other. We talked of the rewards of being closed mouthed as a teen, and of activities in our adult lives. As I noted in a previous essay, Blair was a good-hearted and decent man. When I knew him, he was settled down for good in the old Strathcona district of Edmonton, having been raised in Saskatchewan. One evening, figuratively enjoying our port and cigars, my friend confessed something he had felt deep guilt about down the years. He related how one day a timid lady friend proposed he play a part in some special sexual costume play together. To his deep regret he burst out laughing. And her precious heart was crushed, just crushed. Bair has felt so bad ever since.

I pondered the end of my cigar, reflected that Blair had an excellent attention span, and said, “I can address that. But first we need to back up and appear to change topic.”

Consider homosexuality. According to the scientists, homos are evenly distributed throughout the population, through all socio-economic groups, the same as left-handedness. According to the public, gays are less common in mafia families and the US marines, while being more common among social workers. It’s as if “real men” are bigger jerks than normal men, or as if gays are nicer than most of us. Not quite. The issue isn’t niceness but safety. In the mafia, a really messed up group where, for example, people from Sicily are bigoted against the rest of Italy, it just isn’t safe to be out-of-the-closet. Nevertheless, left-handed Italians are being born every day.

Consider university. Here is a safe haven for students to be scholarly, open-minded and growing more liberated with every semester. Yet, as you walk the campus corridors, you won’t see any men with limp wrists, nor any women in pink dresses. You won’t even see any discrete little pink lapel pins. Why? Mainly because the public is very mistaken about such gay stereotypes. And partly because idealistic young gay students, raised in straight society, know better than to trust that any future scholars, if still fresh from high school, will be able to think for themselves yet. Hide those pins! Secondary schools, remember, are like the school principal in the movie Dead Poets Society: intent on teaching the social norms of society’s “party line.” (How Blair and I suffered in school, as independent thinkers surrounded by straight-A conformists!) Many undergrads will go on to be leaders of society, but first they need to learn how to think. And develop their attention span.

Consider safety on campus. Of all the faculties, where would young students feel the safest to exist? I remember teasing a friend, a year after she had settled down from bravely coming out to herself. “Are you going to buy a children’s paint set? You know, with six colors, as a starter set for you? ... Because everyone knows gays are so creative!” And then we shared a laugh at society.

I don’t know about any “gay creativity,” but I am confident the safest place would be in the faculty of performing arts, especially in the department of theatre. Obviously some gay students would still be in the closet; nevertheless, here would be the biggest percentage of those openly gay. The reason? As I explained at some length in an essay last month, Creative Movement, the stage is the place of people developing their concentration and energy.

To illustrate: A Hollywood writer once gave me his version of why paramount tried the unusual step of making not one but two pilot episodes for an outer space show, back in the 1960’s. This was a time when a space show would have been financially risky: there had never been a space series for adults. (Anthologies, but not a series) The actors for the second pilot, William Shattner and company, took their work seriously, but did not take themselves seriously, and so they got the green light. The actors for the first pilot lost out, the writer told me, because they took themselves too seriously. I think he meant they felt too self-conscious about wearing silly costumes in a silly space show. In other words, they didn’t maintain the required concentration. Well, at least they weren’t giggling like students in an Introduction to Drama class.

There are no sensitive thespians in the US marines. A culture where people may have to sprint from a landing craft and race bent over through a rainstorm, running across sharp coral in the face of terrible incoming hellfire… is a culture that must be harsh… A culture, in other words, that is less-than-polite.

And the stage? Any culture where people must fully concentrate on what they are doing is a place with no tolerance for the distraction of derisions or unwanted comments. Politeness rules. If students are struggling to master the classic tragedy R.U.R., (Rossum’s Universal Robots) while trying to “find the character,” and “get the beats right,” then there is no place for being laughed at. The culture does not allow it. The stage must explicitly be a place of trust.

I learned something surprising in my college drama class, something that has lasted me all my life. This would have been about a year before I saw R.U.R. performed at the university. I was enrolled in Drama for Adults Dealing With Children, taught by Tanis Lefroy. Using the text The Developing Child by Brian Way we learned how drama is a splendid means for a person’s growth. We did many of the same movement exercises I remembered from Introduction to Drama, but now I was learning the theory of how and why.

Drama is NOT acting. If assigned to teach drama in school, the first thing you must do is go and tell the principal you will NOT be putting on a school play. Stage acting can wait until after some personal growth. The ideal classroom would have no stage, a carpeted floor, no windows for onlookers, and no desks. There would be lots of lights, of varying intensity, providing some darker corners for shyer people to gravitate towards. I was so pleased: Our classroom was just like in the textbook. And it was even close to the exciting theater dressing rooms, which we were free to use. None of us did so. Why?

Because: We were mostly plain prairie women earnestly studying things like early childhood or community disabilities. By keeping the door closed, we had no men to gawk at us. (I was the only male in class) Nevertheless, we only wore our blue jeans or sweat pants. No leotards or bodysuits, because we just weren’t comfortable enough with our sexuality. No surprise there.

I learned a lesson on the day we watched a small group of five or seven barefoot women present a movement study to the rest of us. The group did some interesting beautiful movements, and then they beautifully all came together, facing each other, reaching their hands together, on tip toes, up, up…—suddenly they collapsed down and rolled away. We burst out laughing. As we laughed, violating the safe space, ripping apart the agreement to trust, smashing the sense of safety… our classmates were just crushed.

Later during that class Tanis critiqued the movement projects we had just seen, while our peers still looked sad at being laughed at. Tanis explained to us the concept of “comic surprise.” It turned out we were not “laughing at…” We weren’t laughing from aggression or hostility, nor from superiority or a “put down.” We were simply surprised. It’s like how the next week in class, when someone handed me some little cinnamon valentine hearts, Tanis advised me not to put the hearts in my breast pocket, even though I was wearing my plaid shirt with pearly snaps. (And nylon combat pants) If I was doing movement, and if somehow the hearts fell out, then there would be a sudden surprise, and so people would laugh.

It’s strange to think we could all finish high school, and then go on through our everyday lives without ever learning the concept of comic surprise, but there it is.

On that evening when I told my story to Blair… he told me that since hurting that poor woman’s feelings, down the long guilty years… my story was the most comforting thing he had ever heard.

Sean Crawford
North of Montana,
May 2012

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sean,
    Being surprised seems to cause many to default to some form of uncontrolled behavior or feelings (e.g nervous laughter, violence, defensiveness). There are situations in which I try to prepare myself to be ready for any eventuality so that I don't tip my hand and show my true feelings.