Wednesday, May 23, 2007

on machismo: thoughts from the can

Besides having to peek inside my new bathroom for big spiders before going in, it is not a bad place to sit on the can. I live alone in an empty old house tight inside a city block in Taiwan. I feel like an old butler left behind after my masters have moved out. I take the mail out of the mailbox, and throw out the fliers for porn flick shops and real estate agents. I drag the fallen palm fronds and branches to the side of the courtyard and sweep it up after a windy night. Most of all, I keep my mess confined to my little wooden cubicle of 8 by 10 feet, a promise to the doctor who rented me the place. His mother has a special fondness for the old house and would be displeased to see a mess when she returns to say her prayers at the ancestor’s altar upstairs.

It is a peaceful spot in a dense, intense city. I burrow deep inside the block’s concrete womb during the daytime, hearing scarcely a bit of the traffic outside, scarcely feeling the heat. Sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, it took me a while to figure out what was written on the Japanese-style wooden bath clogs. Taiwanese bathrooms are always equipped with clogs or flip flops so one’s bare feet do not touch the floor. The clogs were there for me when I moved in, probably used by the last tenant. They sat there side by side primly on a little step beside the sink, within what used to be the bathtub. I imagine that 40 years ago that bathroom must have been pretty sharp, the green stucco tub speckled white. One side has been cut away, a toilet has been installed, and the old shower head gathers webs and dust just above where I sit.

I have used such clogs before, in Indonesia, and here in Taiwan, a legacy of Japanese conquest, but I still find them odd. For one thing, they seem to be unisex, which runs against the grain of the gender-engineering of shoe marketing campaigns. And because I too live in this world, I feel that these clogs feminize me. This is why they are unusual. Masculine styles and countercultures flow so easily to use by women, perhaps as a borrowing of male symbolic power, like a high school cheerleader wearing her boyfriend’s football letter jacket, to entice those who hold real power with a little transgressive play. But the obverse almost never happens: immigration officers at the masculine border are extraordinarily strict on any leakage of feminine imports into the masculine, whereas exports are let go with a bored wave of the hand. “Of course they want our stuff,” says the border agent, when interviewed. “Who doesn’t? As long as they don’t infringe on copyrights, and give credit where credit is due. But their stuff is contraband, risky, a danger to the identity security of us men.”

Is this strict policy the reason, then, for the incredible brand name printed on my clogs? Or is it a mockery of this rigidity? The clogs read “Nanzi Han,” which means something akin to “Macho Man”! I have to say, there is nothing I feel quite less than a macho man when I clatter about the bathroom, toes squeezed into my high heels. It is a curious feeling, even enjoyable, to tiptoe across this heavily policed border. But such a smuggling operation, while it might make one feel covertly courageous, has no upward effect on one’s machismo quotient. Swedish wooden clogs are more ambiguous to the modern eye. They are not open-toed. So although they too are suspect, worn by old hippies and, with wild plaid pants, by a grade school teacher of my youth – who seems retrospectively gay – they avoid crossing the line so clearly. If Mr. Fitrzgerald had worn my Macho Man clogs, no brand name would have saved him from raised eyebrows among peers, an odd feeling among little girls and boys, and concerned phone calls among parents. If I or any man wore a prom dress down main street, no one would pay much heed if the label read, “Rambo,” or “Marlboro Man.”

Though we all know the Marlboro Man was gay.

My eye strays up from those politically risque clogs to my toiletries on an old wooden shelf. I have wiped away the dust from a portion of the shelf, and there I lay my toothbrush. I have always gotten a good chuckle out of the label on my Adidas deodorant. Like most toiletries, deodorant is puritanically divided by gender. This division is so engraved in my consciousness that I could not help laughing when I used my girlfriend’s deodorant once this past week, sliding its ridiculously tiny surface over my skin. As far as I could tell, it functions about the same as my Adidas does, despite its pink color and its lack of a manly studded surface on the casing.

My deodorant casing is a silvery grey color, like guns or unpainted cars, I suppose, which certainly makes me feel manly. Its label evokes activity, conquest, toughness; nothing of the “sure,” or “secret,” or self-esteem chatter of “female deodorants” – even though they are all the same thing. This label is metallic, evoking the world of technology and the future, which, because I am a man, is my natural environment. I would fit right in on a space station (despite my fear of flying) or an oil rig (though I have no car) due to the miraculously simple fact of my penis! Adidas truly knows my soul. And Adidas has wisely decided that too much “color” would threaten this fragile possession of mine, this masculinity, so gun-metal grey and space station silver it is! A little orange circle on the label clues me in to its scent: “sport fever.”

I wonder, there on the can, why “sport fever” might be considered an effective name. A “fever” is a popular term among advertisers, it seems. Especially in evoking the disco fever of the ‘70’s. There is “jungle fever,” of course. The fever implies an unstoppable, semi-carnal passion, especially a collective one. Is this idea, of the manly man in heat over roller blading or football, supposed to offset or “warm” the stern metallic image of the packaging? In any case, more than 2 seconds of thought on what in hell “sports fever” is, only leaves me mystified. It perturbs my can cogitation. The phrase only conjures up a malarial environment where big men compete, like Ali and Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle.”

On the back of the deodorant is the real fun, however: apparently this deodorant is “smart technology™ developed with athletes”! Naturally, athletes are experts on body odor. They are sweat experts, so we can assume they are social embarrassment experts as well. (“Yeah, it was rough. Right there at the news conference, I was like, ‘phew, I gotta open a window’! What did the Dolphins scout think of me?”) Still, I struggle to comprehend the meaning of “developed with athletes.” It was not developed by them, that is for sure. All I can picture are sweaty men on treadmills with white-coated scientists gathered around. The athletes may well be expert at combining chemicals, but neither group is particularly well known for ability with words – at least, not with words in common use. The specialized vocabulary of scientists is technical jargon; with athletes, cliches.

Are the athletes just used as mute petri dishes? Do they silently jog along the treadmill, while a scientist orders “right arm up!” and sprays a testing substance? After 60 more seconds, a research assistant calls out the same order, and the beefy man raises his arm, the timid assistant sticks his nose into the arm pit, backs out, and writes on a clipboard something like “beefy undertones softened after 60 seconds by application of aluminium zirconate formula 3; significant mountain goatish strains remain, garnished by a fruity, cranberry-like aroma.” In this scenario, the athletes are just silent laborers, raising their arms at intervals, waiting patiently for their free Adidas gear.

What if the research assistants are unionized, however, and point to a contract clause stating that they may not be compelled to bring their noses closer than 18 inches from an athletes armpit? I picture the rubber-gloved scientists swabbing the basketball players one by one, then clumsily blowing a whistle for ten minutes of half court basket ball. An assistant is on hand to record their comments at a mock news conference. The sweaty men shuffle off the court, sniffing their underarms with perplexed expressions. “How do you feel?” asks the assistant.

“You know, we went out there and gave it all we had, but at the end they had more points up on the board than we did. I gotta hand it to Andy, he stuck it to us. We put the pressure on him but he was on fire, hittin’ threes from all over the floor. Now we just need to put it all behind us. Hopefully, in practice, coach can work us hard, get us focused on what really matters, and think about how we gonna win the next game, cuz if we aren’t ready to play, then I don’t know why we even bother comin’ out.”

“Um, OK, what about the deodorant?”

“Yeah, it went the distance, you know, it had a slow start, I smelled a little on the jumpers, but it hung tough and put in a good performance. It wasn’t easy, this was its first game, but I think it had the mental toughness to go in and get the job done. I think that’s an example I can learn from.” These athletes are manly, it is true, but I have to wonder how those exasperated scientists gather their data from them.

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