Jan Morris (2 October 1926 – 20 November 2020) & My Sexual Confusion
Saturday, November 21, 2020
In his 1979 book Arabia, Jonathan Raban
describes how he eventually was able to, "Just be sitting at table
among mosquitoes with glasses of Stella beer..." with his fellow travel
writer of note, Jan Morris when both happened to be in Cairo. He tells
it like this:
As James Morris, she had lived in Cairo on a houseboat in the 1950s.
James Morris had been the correspondent in the Middle East for the
London Times, and before that he had worked for a news bureau.
Jan Morris, commissioned by Rolling Stone Magazine, was revisiting Cairo
for the first time since she had changed gender, and she was nervous
about what Jan might see in James's city."
Or as Morris herself told Raban, "I'm so frightened of going back to
places and finding that I liked them better as I was than I do as I am."
Like most men I have been sexually confused many times. I remember the
first time. I was around 7 years old and the day was such a shock to me
that I even remember I was in a colectivo (a Buenos Aires bus) on the
fashionable then (and now) Avenida Esmeralda. A woman got on with a
strange little person. He or she was wearing a dress but he or she had a
shaved head. Until then I thought that boys and men had short hair and
wore pants (short or long but preferably short) and girls and women wore
skirts or dresses and had long hair. I was confused. Was she a boy or
was he a girl?
My second moment of sexual confusion happened when I was around 8. It was a Buenos Aires carnaval
and people dressed up and sprayed each other with pomos
which were large toothpaste type tubes made of metal and full of
perfumed water. I had gone to see a western with my grandmother on movie
theatre row on Avenida Lavalle.
We were in the subte (the Buenos Aires underground) on our way to Retiro
train station to take me home. From my vantage point I could see the
end of the other subway car and there was a woman's bare back facing me.
She had long hair but something was wrong. Her back did not look like a
woman's. What could she possibly be? I was confused.
Not long after an American girl came to my house to play and asked me,
"Do you want to see it?"
I was much too naive to figure out what exactly
I was going to see. When I saw it, "it"
did not resemble at all what my
precocious (so I thought) friend Mario had told me that girls had up
front. I was confused again.
In more recent times I have been repelled by the usual macho reaction to
seeing two women together. These are usually photographs of gorgeous
women with red fingernails and fantastic bodies interacting on divans.
It ocurred to me that there are better and more interesting ways of
showing these most feminine activities. A film, Bitter Moon
directed by Roman Polanski comes to mind every time I think of this. In
this film both Peter Coyote and Hugh Grant (both playing idiots) are
left in the lurch in the end by the two women of their life, Kristin
Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner. When these two abandon their men
and proceed to dance with each other I was wonderfully shocked.
I had something of the sort in mind when I placed Ms. Hernandez and Cordelia in front of my Ikea mirror.
In one of the many books by Jan Morris that I have read I remember a
wonderful sentence that she wrote upon seeing a large portrait of
British Lord Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher. I recall that Morris wrote
something like, "The man that I was, admired the man that is in front of
me and the woman that I am, could possibly have loved the man that he
She was never confused. I am sometimes.
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
My Argentina has at least four definitive novels about
itself written in the 19th and 20th century (not to forget the short fiction and poems by Borges) but there is another,
actually a poem/novel written in 1872, by José
Hernández called El Gaucho Martín Fierro.
It is all about the pushing back (through war much like in the American West) by the military of the
native Argentine population as related about a man, Martín Fierro who is forcibly
conscripted. Women are rarely mentioned except in on situation where Hernández
mentions “la china del fierro”. In
Argentina a china (there were few if
any in the 19th century) is an almost derogative term for “his woman” with perhaps a darker
For me, having been born in Buenos Aires in 1942, places
outside of my country were exotic. I thought that Americans lived in an island
called Columbia and they had broad shoulders (I had seen photographs of
American football players) wearing strange head pieces. Mexico was a place
where men slept under cactus while wearing a large hat and in Germany, grown
men wore pants.
But the most exotic was the Far East even though I knew my
mother and grandmother had been born in the Philippines. But since they were of
Spanish/Basque stock they did not look exotic.
I must have been 8 or 9 when my mother took me to lunch at
the house of her students who were part of the Chinese delegation to Argentina.
I had noticed the girls (they were all girls) before because they seemed to be
geniuses in arithmetic. Eating the strange food was my first experience with
My father a journalist for the Buenos Aires Herald in 1950
moonlighted as a translator for the newly established Indian Embassy. Because
my father was a daring cook he invited his turbaned buddies from the embassy
for a home-cooked curry. That is when my street friends and I saw our first Sikhs.
To any Argentine the furthest place from our county is la Cochinchina. This was the 19th
century naming by the French of Vietnam. When we want to insult someone without
using obscene words we tell them to go “¡vete
a la Cochinchina!” Somehow that country I Spanish sounds like an obscene
So when I had my chance to photograph a lovely woman from
Vietnam, Lisa Ha, I jumped many times in glee as I would finally remove from my
20th century idea of what was exotic, now in the 21st era
of globalization, perhaps a more realistic one.
It could have ended there until a few days ago when I read
in my Sunday NY Times Book Review
Magazine about a novel by the Argentine female writer Gabriela Cabezón
Cámara (who almost won the booker prize for a translated version of her novel
in English called The Adventures of the China Iron). You would have thought
that her novel in Spanish (written from the point of view of Fierro’s girl)
would have been simply called Las
Aventuras de la China Fierro. But no! She had to use the word in English “Iron” to make it all more hilarious.
The translators are Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintire. I
plan to go to Buenos Aires as soon as I am able to travel so I can buy the
novel in Spanish.
Meanwhile I will take comfort with these snaps of the exotic
Donde el eco se funde con el grito
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
del 2017 tuvímos una huésped por dos semanas en nuestra casita en el barrio
Kitsilano de Vancouver. Sandrine Cassini es una bailarina francesa que durante
unos años bailó para Ballet BC. Nos hicimos amigos y por varios años me posó.
En esta ocasión mi foto favorita resultó esta que tomé con mi Mamiya RB-67 con
película instantánea Fuji. La tomé sobre el diván psiquiátrico ubicado en nuestra
pieza con el piano. No tuve que buscar mucho para encontrar esta hermosa poesía
sobre las piernas de una mujer. Los escritores latinoamericanos para mí escriben
con más sensualidad que sus colegas de otros idiomas. El caso del uruguayo
Mario Benedetti es un caso en particular.
piernas de la amada son fraternas
se abren buscando el infinito
al futuro como un rito
hace más dulces y más tiernas.
también las piernas son cavernas
eco se funde con el grito
cumplen con el viejo requisito
el amparo de otras piernas.
separan como bienvenida, las piernas de la amada, hacen historia
sus ofrendas y en seguida enlazan algún cuerpo en su memoria
trazan los signos de la vida
piernas de la amada son la gloria
A 1928 Kotex Ad - Edward Steichen & the Grumman F6F Hellcat
Monday, November 16, 2020
Many of the 20th century photographers I have admired since
I became interested in photography around 1958 have been photographers who were
not one-trick-ponies. They were versatile. One of the most versatile was Edward
Steichen (March 27, 1879 – March 25, 1973) was a Luxembourg/American
photographer, painter, and curator, who is widely renowned as one of the most
prolific and influential figures in the history of photography.
transforming photography into an art form, Steichen's photographs were the
photographs that most frequently appeared in Alfred Stieglitz's groundbreaking
magazine Camera Work during its publication from 1903 to 1917, with Stieglitz
hailing him as "the greatest photographer".
A pioneer of
fashion photography, Steichen laid claim to his photos of gowns for the
magazine Art et Décoration in 1911, being the first modern fashion photographs
ever published. From 1923 to 1938, Steichen served as chief photographer for
the Condé Nast magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, while also working for many
advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson. During these years,
Steichen was regarded as the best known and highest paid photographer in the
After the United
States' entry into World War II, Steichen was invited by the United States Navy
to serve as Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. In 1944, he
directed the war documentary The Fighting Lady, which won the 1945 Academy Award
for Best Documentary.
From 1947 to 1961,
Steichen served as Director of the Department of Photography at New York's
Museum of Modern Art. While there, he curated and assembled exhibits including
The Family of Man, which was seen by nine million people. In 2003, the Family
of Man photographic collection was added to UNESCO's Memory of the World
Register in recognition of its historical value.
In February 2006, a
print of Steichen's early pictorialist photograph, The Pond—Moonlight (1904),
sold for US$2.9 million—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a
photograph at auction.
Not mentioned in the above Wikipedia citation
is the fact that in July 1928 he took the
first ever Kotex ad with a woman in it. Also almost unknown is the fact that
his model was Lee Miller
who was a muse, assistant and a photographer for Man Ray. She
then became a photojournalist in WWII (with that other potographer of note Margaret Bourke-White
) and when Miller arrived in Munich in 1945 she insisted she be photographed in Hitler's tub
At Macleod Books ( not only a Vancouver treasure but a
Canadian treasure) I found Edward Steichen’s beautifully written and
illustrated The Blue Ghost (the Japanese Navy nickname for the US carrier Lexington) which catalogues his stint on the Lexington
from 9 November 1943 to 23 December 1923. In this book are his photographs and
his staff of the torpedoing of the Lexington.
This book amply shows that good photographs and good
writing go hand in hand and jointly are better that one or the other.
The photograph of the cover of The Blue Ghost, a Grumman
F6F Hellcat is justly famous because of its blur that demonstrates the speed of
the plane taking off. Steichen explains how he shot it in the book. Read below.
My Steichen Blogs
Memory and Hospitals
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Every time I drive on 12th Avenue past the Vancouver General
Hospital I notice that their smokestack has been demolished. What is left of it
is wrapped in what looks like surgically
another time when for an article on VGH cuts for the Georgia Straight I must have convinced some nurse
to pose for me and represent the despair of the effects of financial cuts to
our hospital system.
hospitals began as a mysterious wonder. In our home in Buenos Aires in the
early 50 on Melián Street empty but beautiful funeral carriages (with beveled windows)
would trot (the horses had black plumes on their head) in the direction of the
Pirovano Hospital on Monroe and Melián about five blocks away. They would
return and I would be able to see the coffin inside.
hospital to me was painted a menacingly dark green and I never did enter it.
perception of that hospital changed when in 1966 at my desk as a conscript of
the the Argentine Navy who translated documents for a US Naval Advisor I received
a phone call from my almost-uncle Leo Mahdjubian. In his British English (even
though an Armenian he had worn a kilt in the Black Watch in WWI) said, “Your
father kicked the bucket yesterday in front of the Pirovano. A police sergeant took
him in but he was pronounced dead. Because of the intervention of the policeman
you must report to the police station to sign some documents.
police station the policeman at the desk told me that I could not possibly be
the dead man’s son as the son had been there a few hours before to sign. That
is how I soon got to meet my half brother.
who took my father to the Pirovano called me to tell me he had taken the
liberty of emptying my father’s pockets as they would have disappeared in the
hospital. He told me that there was a large sum of money in his pocket that my
father was saving to bribe a General and get me out of my conscription.
At my age
of 78 I wonder if my last days will be spent in a hospital or if I will directly
go where even kings go alone.