Annabel Chong meets the Olympics

This was originally written to be a mouthorgan story, but Todd & Debbie decided not to run it. They want about 2500 words, which is about double what one of my rants usually comes out to, so this feels a padded and I was going to trim it before I posted it, but since they do reference this piece in the current issue I figured it was more important to have it available than to go back through it again.

If you follow movies or sex at all you know that the hard ticket to come by at this year's Sundance film festival was for the documentary "Sex: The Annabel Chong story". The movie is about Grace Quek, the ex-Singaporean actress who uses the stage name Annabel Chong, and her recent attempt to set a record by having sex with 251 men in 10 hours.

I don't know that there's a record keeping body for such things, and if there is apparently their record keeping and standards are fairly lax because when you dig a little deeper you find out that they recycled from a pool of 80 or 90 to come up with that 251 number.

Now I'm a pretty libertarian sort of guy, while I'm het and vanilla and fairly conventional sexuality-wise I've found very situations in which I wasn't willing to say "my kink is not your kink" and go on with my life, but this disturbed me.

It's taken me a while to figure out why and I'm still not sure I've come to any real conclusions. On the way there I tried to dissect it, go through each part individually and see what triggered my buttons.

The cavalier attitude about STDs? I've long believed that my body is mine to do with as I believe, the only issue here is how health insurance companies are able to divide up their risk pools, and I didn't have this reaction to the "bare-backing" media scares or even the "AIDS transmission between heterosexuals is a a myth" swingers, although I don't agree with them.

The reports of self-mutilation? I've seen a guy hanging from hooks in the skin of his back, a little razor blade scarring hardly registers on my kinkometer.

Multiple partners? Not really, I know poly folk and, although I'm monogamous in practice have a couple of fantasies.

I'm not shocked by public sex. Crowds have a different energy, there are moods and states that can be found only in the company of others. Other people can feed our languor, spending an afternoon lying in the shade is slothful if done alone, but social when spent with others, even if few words are exchanged. Plays have a completely different dynamic than movies because the actors can feed off the audience, taking and giving energy in a much more adaptive way than a film director who has to give to what he expects will please millions of viewers, rather than seeing instantaneously what tens of viewers are experiencing. And even for other spectators it's hard not to pick up the mood of the crowd when we're surrounded.

Nor do I have any problems with exertion for its own sake. I've cycled many miles through cold grey days and occasional showers just to feel the burn at the end, when I barely had the energy to keep the bike upright. I've tried my share of drugs, but never come close to the feeling of topping out after a couple of hundred feet of climbing, bruised and scraped, turning around to look down on the hawks, and letting the endorphin rush take me.

But at some point merging the social energy with finding the edges becomes hazardous. If our egos aren't secure we find ourselves way beyond the boundaries of personal safety for the sake of the publicity, the crowd urges us far beyond the reasonable. The frat boy slams one too many shots and chokes on his own vomit, fed by the energy of the onlookers. The individual loses his own experience in the experience of the crowd and dies for the entertainment of the masses.

In one of my previous lives I was a professional whitewater guide. The professional part wasn't all that extreme, taking people from church groups and company picnics down the Ocoee, a dam controlled river that had water in it all summer. But in the off-season, when the foliage wasn't around to absorb the water out of the ground, all the little backwoods creeks flowed after every rain. During the winter those who hadn't gone west to ski and board spent every spare moment driving around eastern Tennessee, the western Carolinas, northern Georgia and Alabama, looking for paddleable streams.

I've got some cool pictures (the one of me in a kayak on a 25 foot waterfall usually gets attention) and cool stories, but for the most part this wasn't something we could share with the non-paddlers. I haven't found a way to communicate the feeling of looking at roaring turbulence with interspersed rock, visualizing a line, then getting back in the boat and executing that run perfectly; or realizing mid-way down that I missed something in the scouting and having to change my strategy, playing chess in real-time with real consequences as I consider the consequences of each change; or of floating lazily in a deep gorge rarely seen any other way, lying back and looking up at the trees on the slopes and the cliffs towering above me.

But it was also a sport of limited resources and often ambiguous legal status. I've been in a bright yellow raft as a bunch of stoned river guides tried to sneak a bright yellow raft below a wandering search-light at midnight on a flooded river, and I've wondered whether that landowner knew that technically because we were paddling this river it was a navigable waterway and we weren't trespassing as long as we stayed below the normal high water line.

Or, perhaps more importantly, whether that landowner knew that and realized that if we didn't make it through it wasn't a navigable waterway...

And while more paddlers supposedly brought the prices of equipment down (only to a point, then they go up again, but that's a different rant) it wasn't like we weren't always searching for new rivers, new parking spaces, and so on.

There was a little glory hunting within the community, but for the most part we were all out looking for our personal experiences of the river.

I left Tennessee and the Ocoee the year before the Olympics came to Atlanta, but I'd seen the changes.

The competitions started to grow. The "wave sitters" had moved in, boaters who didn't (or couldn't) paddle rivers, but spent the entire day learning how to surf a particular wave for the sake of the rodeo competitions, causing traffic jams as they waited in line in eddies for a couple of seconds on the 50 feet of water that would get the press coverage.

As it became clear that the Ocoee was going to be used for the whitewater portions of the Olympics more qualifying races were held on it. The practicing downriver racers started blasting through, yelling obscenities at anyone enjoying the scenery who might be in their line. The slalom paddlers showed up in their glitter covered boats, spending as much time preening for the cameras and posing as actually being on the water.

From my living room in California I watched portions of the Olympics on TV, paddlers wiping out and getting rescued from the course that had involved moving boulders and pouring tons of concrete in order to make a more consistent run, at a water level way under what it was when I had my introduction to that stretch.

I don't say this to brag, theirs is a very specialized goal and I'd likely never catch all the gates in their slalom, but it takes a very narrow mind to impose that sort of focus and order on a river and ignore everything else about the paddling experience for the purpose of pleasing the judges and the clock. It seems that in the process of chasing that recognition they'd missed a whole lot of scenery, the thrill of an unknown river swollen with winter rains, the beauty of a rarely seen waterfall tucked deep in a canyon, all for the sake of getting a number that told them they were "better" than their competitors.

It seemed a strange sort of irony, then, that the datelines of the articles about the Annabel Chong story from the Sundance festival were so similar to the datelines of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee bribery scandal. Both were stories of people who had completely lost track of why they were involved. Heck, unless something dramatic changes the best snowboarders probably won't go to that Olympics either, but we'll still hear "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat", the glorification of people who have to go chasing external approval for their accomplishments.

Damn the experience for its own sake, if we can't get lots of press and some advertising dollars off of this, why are we doing it?

I haven't had sex continuously for 10 hours. If you're going to be presidential about it and count only intercourse, I doubt I've been much past two hours. But I think I can extrapolate from my experiences. I know that if there's not some synchronicity and careful communication between partners those sensitive mucus membranes start to get rubbed raw and things can get darned uncomfortable. I'd imagine that out there at 10 hours we're talking raw bleeding skin.

Especially when you consider that at 251 partners in that time that's a partner slightly more often than every two and a half minutes, hardly enough time to start communicating, start feeling out what works where.

Going for duration and number of partners for their own sake becomes less sex and more marathon running. Surround this with the publicity of the film and it resembles nothing so much as the spring break partier shotgunning beers for the crowd chanting "Chug! Chug! Chug!"

Fudge the numbers for cheap publicity (Can you imagine being one of the 80 or 90? 2:24 a piece, there's a producer with a clipboard running around saying "Okay Mr. Johnson, you're on again in three hours and 12 minutes, and do try to keep to schedule next time. Peter, you're up next. We're 27 seconds behind, any time you can make up is good! And what does a guy have to do to get a glass of water around here?") and there's no longer any pretense of doing this for the experience, it's a route to publicity, selling the record setter as some sort of freak who's survived the ordeal.

That's not spectacular. That's not "record setting". That's not even someone doing a job because it pays the bills. That's a sad example of an insecure person screaming "approve of me!"

I left this piece to eat dinner, and in the process turned on the TV news. It went straight from a piece about a football player, I think his name was Mike Utney, who was paralyzed 7 years ago and took his first steps since then recently. It then cut to Bob Dole telling me that men similarly motivated to self-destruction, war heroes and the like, shouldn't be afraid of "erectile dysfunction".

I switched off the TV before I succumbed to the propaganda.

Remember when we were kids, and we could play? Not ball games, but mud pies?

I was sitting in one of my favorite hangouts with a friend, drinking beer and talking about computing opportunities. This place has all the trappings of a bar, but it's really a Berkeley neighborhood hangout. The adults were playing darts, and along side a young boy was throwing velcrotm darts, hitting the board occasionally, sometimes even making one fly straight enough that it'd stick. After a couple throws he wandered over to the nearest table, which happened to be us, and asked "what are the rules?"

I've been taught and forgotten so many different rules for dart games that I've never found a pattern. So, lacking any standards I said "whatever you want them to be."

This didn't sit well with him, and we went back and forth a few times 'til he wandered back to his parents and got instruction on "the rules" from them.

On the northern coast of California there's an annual race called "The Great Ferndale to Arcata Kinetic Sculpture Race" or somesuch. There are clocks, and judges, but the race is very much set up to reward fun over seriousness. The best prizes go to the person who ends up in the exact middle. The bizarre is encouraged, giant animated crawfish race through mud and sand, across open water, and along flat road against flying saucers and ladybugs with flapping wings.

Two of the regular participants in this silliness pedaled one of their creations pedaled one of their creations across the country at speeds that were often in the two to three mile an hour range, sometimes hours per mile. On a good day that's slower than a decent walk. In a video documenting culture that's sprung up around the race, one of them commented that to get support from people they met along the way they had to present themselves as going for some sort of record. Pedaling an inefficient sculpture across the country for the sheer pleasure of it, just to see the smiles on the kids as they pass by, is, apparently, disapproved of.

I don't like the trend. I don't like the construction of artificial walls, hurdles to be crossed at risk of life and limb because there's a crowd somewhere that will pay attention.

I want to be a participant, and to surround myself with participants. If I'm going to support a community, I want that community to be comprised of doers, people creating and accomplishing for the joy of the activity, not for the sake of those who won't drag their butts off the couch unless they get to see group sex couched in some sort of socially acceptable "documentary" form.

Thursday, March 04th, 1999