The Hidden Life of Trees

In 2015, a forester from Germany wrote a book about trees.

Peter Wohlleben’s small, quirky science book was published in his native country, where (to the publisher’s surprise, one can’t help but think) it stayed at or near the top of nonfiction bestseller lists for months. Since that time, The Hidden Life of Trees has been optioned for translation in several languages – including, this fall, in English, from Greystone Books in Canada.

Reading the book now, in a translation by master gardener and writer Jane Billinghurst, it seems that the secret to its popularity lies in its unusual approach. Using simple verbiage, succinct chapters, and a sensitive narrative style, Wohlleben takes a tender view of the trees he understands so well, sweetly anthropomorphizing them and the forests they comprise. He discusses the ways trees communicate with and protect each other by using the language of friendship, family, and community. He describes photosynthesis as a constant source of food for a tree, “like a baker who always has enough bread.” He makes frequent reference to the pain trees experience when they get injured or die a slow death, and compares their roots to our human brains. The chapter on tree reproduction is called, simply, “Love.”

Though his turn of phrase is sometimes fanciful, Wohlleben’s ideas were formed after decades of studying tree growth and behavior and are backed up by both cutting-edge and time-tested studies. The forester-turned-ecologist is an interesting study himself. He worked for the German forestry commission for twenty years, assessing trees for their value in the lumber trade according to accepted industry practice. Gradually, though, he developed a deep appreciation for the trees’ true nature, and came to understand that they behave very differently in undisturbed forests than they do in manipulated environments. For example, while gardeners and commercial foresters take care not to plant trees “too close” together out of fear that one will overshadow and kill the others, Wohlleben tells us that left to their own devices, trees of the same species prefer to huddle together. This way, they can share nutrients and water, balancing out any differences between them at root-level so that they can photosynthesize at the same rate and be equally successful. They prefer to work together.

Wohlleben’s book is filled with these kinds of surprises, bits of science fact that amateur naturalists will thrill to. For instance, we learn that a beech tree, if it lives to be 400 years old, will fruit at least 60 times and produce around 1.8 million beechnuts. Of those nuts only one will become a full-grown tree, which in forest terms is considered a high rate of success, like “winning the lottery.”

There’s something so stirring about the sheer size and longevity of trees, something almost magical. Wohlleben’s love for these magnificent beings and the lessons they can teach us is evident – and he’s as excited by the questions as he is by the answers. As he writes when discussing different ideas about how trees store and transport water to their leaves: “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery. But aren’t both possibilities equally intriguing?”

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone (288 pp.)

Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

City of the dead

"I switched off the radio. In Belfast the news was an accompaniment like music but I didn’t want to hear this stuff. Coffee-jar bomb. Yeah, that was another big craze. I got the idea that people were impressed by this new thing, this wheeze, this caper. Me, I wasn’t impressed. It was easy to do that ugly stuff.

Suddenly I longed to leave Belfast. Because of an inadvertently heard news story, the city felt like a necropolis."

—from the novel Eureka Street, by Robert McLiam Wilson

This book is about Belfast, clearly, but that necropolis joke hits home. I am so awfully weary of turning on the news just to hear the latest tragedy from one of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Sometimes I can’t listen at all.

On public speaking

There’s reading, and then there’s readings. I do both, but I find the former much easier to do than the latter.

That being said, I’m proud to say that I do actually find it POSSIBLE to give readings these days. For a lot of my life—beginning, for some reason, in college, and lasting until around five years ago—I found the anxiety of anticipating speaking in public almost too excruciating to bear. I would always accept invitations to read—I’m too much of a huckster to feel good about saying no to an opportunity like that, and I’m always so touched to be included—but I knew that in saying yes, I was resigning myself to weeks or months of miserable worry. I just accepted this fact about them (and about myself), said Yes, thanks, I’d love to read, and coped privately with the unhappiness of it.

“It gets easier the more you do it,” everyone said, and I always smiled and nodded and thought, “But not for me!” I really believed I was the one exception to this very human rule. But as it happens, I’m not. I made myself do more and more readings even though I found it hard, because I felt it was worth it. I wanted to be a writer who gave readings, not a person who didn’t do things because they scared her. I’d get up to read and my voice shook, my legs shook, my hands shook. I’d speak quickly and apologetically, then blaze through an awkward reading from a marked-up copy of one of my zines (though I tended to sort of go blind with anxiety, so couldn’t really see my notes). I once threw up in the bathroom of an art gallery, then splashed a little water on my face and came out and read, hoping no one could smell my breath. I don’t think the readings I gave back then were very entertaining to sit through. They may not even have been audible. But I did them, dammit, and the relief I felt after sharing my work in this way I found difficult was so good, it was physical. I almost miss that feeling. ALMOST.

I’ve had a few break-throughs here and there, and the more successful events gave me a confidence I could carry with me to the next time I got up to read. At Ladyfest Philly in 2013, I was miked and professionally lit, which was a new experience for me, since I’ve most often read in bookshops, classrooms, record stores, and little show spaces in people’s houses. There was a chair and I sat in it, made myself comfortable. As I started to speak I looked out to the audience—a much bigger one than I usually read to—and found that with the bright lights in my eyes, I couldn’t really see anyone. The joy! I read so easily and comfortably on that occasion that I actually enjoyed myself, and I could feel the power in what I read. I KNEW there was a reason I kept doing this!

Over the years I have read the piece I shared that day—the essay that served as the introduction to my first book, White Elephants—as well as some others, again and again. I’ve found that with practice I can nail the rhythm and flow of a piece, make it sound as good as I know it is.

The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Now I give readings often. My partner Joe and I both write and publish zines, and over the past few years we’ve enjoyed organizing and hosting readings as well as going on tours to other cities and towns. We’re on one now, sorta, having returned from a road trip to New England last week and with one reading remaining: The Philly Zine Fest Preview Gala, tonight. First we read with friends and strangers alike at the East Falls Zine Reading Room, the small DIY space we started last year. We called the event Sad Fest and everyone read sad-sack writing and played sad-sack songs. It was great. Then we hit the road and shared some of our poems with an engaged and interested group of poets at the Golden Note Book in Woodstock, New York. The next day we drove to Boston and read our zines to a lively bunch of zinester pals at the Papercut Zine Library. And before coming back home to Philly, we did a reading at a lovely, cool bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island called Ada Books.

Once we've read at the Zine Fest Preview tonight and tabled with our zines and books at the main event tomorrow, our tour will be over, and so will the summer. That's how I'm thinking of it, anyway. I'm ready for the fall to come so that I can indulge in some of my quieter, more private pleasures for a while: needlework, long walks, and lots of reading—rather than lots of READINGS, ya dig? But I have loved doing this tour, loved pushing myself and growing, seeing new places and meeting new people (and a few cats). It's been a long summer but a good one, exhausting but worthwhile.

See you in the fall, folks.


Happy Sunday, gang! I thought I’d check in with a quick roll call of the best media I’ve been consuming recently.

First of all, there’s a motherfucking Ab Fab movie, and it is glorious. It’s all about Joanna Lumley’s dirty laugh and filthy sneer. I was SCREAMING in the movie theater. Must see.

Now for some books. I’ve been reading an unusual book about the social behavior of trees called The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben. (Read a lovely NY Times profile of him here.) It was a bestseller in Germany for several months and has been optioned for translation into several languages; Greystone is bringing it out in English this fall. There are a lot of touchy-feely and yet scientifically-sound ideas in this book that I’ve been enjoying thinking about. I have a feeling I’ll be telling you more about it as I go.

ark Haddon is a writer whose previous books I truly loved. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: If you haven’t read this, you really ought to. As a friend (who is a good poet himself) said about it, “It would be hard to find a single word in that book that wasn’t just right.” I also deeply enjoyed A Spot of Bother and The Red House, his other novels for adults, so I was excited when I found out he had collection of short stories coming out. I found this book to be a mixed bag and a bit of a disappointment, though on the whole I think it’s impressive. I reviewed The Pier Falls for the Philadelphia Inquirer last week; have a look.

Also! Guys. Last week I was poking around a small indie bookstore I like in Doylestown, Pennsylvania when I discovered that Europa Editions has rereleased Bilgewater. Score! I fell so in love with the heroine in A Long Way From Verona last summer, and I’ve been meaning to read Bilgewater next, which also has a teenage girl protagonist. I keep meaning to buy it secondhand since it’s long out of print, or get it from the library downtown, but it’s been so miserably hot I haven’t felt like taking the bus there. You know how it is; I just haven’t gotten around to it. But then one day out of the blue, in the clean cool serene bookstore, there was a beautiful new edition of the book, just begging me to buy it. It looks like this:

Pretty, huh? So far it’s good, too.

Other stuff I like right now: Simpsonwave makes good getting-ready-to-go-out music. Sushi Cat is an excellent game to play when you need to decompress. The U.S. version of the show “Shameless” is just as rousing and cheesily entertaining as the British version was. That’s all I’ve got for now.

Put Your Hands in the Air

When I found out Moby had put out a memoir, I had to read it. I’ve read a number of “rock biographies” over the years and I always enjoy them, even when they’re badly or oddly written, like Touching From a Distance or Nikki Sixx’s garishly illustrated The Heroin Diaries. (Quite frankly I loved Nikki Sixx’s book; it felt raw and direct, like reading someone’s diary, because apparently that’s just what he did, he published his actual diary entries from his Mötley Crüe days.) (DON’T FORGET THE UMLAUTS!) Touching From a Distance is the incredible story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis as told by his widow Deborah, and despite the fact that she is not really a writer—or perhaps because of it—that book is very stirring, too, and memorable. As you read, it becomes clear that she’s not going for poetry in her writing (that title though!) so you get the feeling that you really have access to her true, untempered feelings and memories. It’s extraordinary.

But Moby, he’s a writer. His new book, Porcelain, is well structured and properly paced, and his turn of phrase is nice. He’s smart and his insights are useful. He’s lived an unusual and very colorful life that he seems to have learned a lot from, and he’s self-aware, appropriately self-deprecating, and funny. It’s a good book. (I reviewed it more thoughtfully than this for the Philadelphia Inquirer this week, if you’d like to have a look.)

Moby—looking a bit goth, eh?

Moby—looking a bit goth, eh?

Still, as I say, even if it wasn’t a good book I would have been pretty happy to read it. I loved Moby’s music in the 90s, and since my way of loving things is to REALLY LOVE THEM (and then to study them like a school nerd), I also became engrossed in my idea of the ruined-New York milieu that helped to produce it. A lot of what he writes about in the book is exactly that—not just himself as an individual, or his own music, but the way he and his friends came together and related to the culture, the city, and the scene they were a part of in the late 80s and early 90s.

This stuff gets me so excited. Music and the subcultures that form around it, I mean. Since I was about 11 and old enough to have my own little radio (it was a pink boombox and it was extremely cool), I have had a deep and involved relationship with popular music. First there was metal and “hard rock,” which led me to discover the midnight-airing “Headbangers Ball” on MTV and Metal Edge and Circus, the ridiculous magazines I waited for all month. When my parents weren’t home or I thought they wouldn’t mind, I played their old records on their turntable, which is how I discovered the humor of the Beatles and Joe Cocker and the chillness of jazz. (“Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Village Gate, it’s Herbie Mann!”) I loved Yo! MTV Raps and the Top 40 hip-hop and R&B on Philly’s radio stations; I used to listen to The System’s “Don’t Disturb this Groove” and write in my diary and cryyyyyy! and 25 years later I put that song on the playlist for my wedding. The first CD I ever owned was Ramones Mania, a best-of album that I begged my mom to buy me because I had somehow absorbed through osmosis the understanding that the Ramones were cool. I had to play the CD on my parents’ stereo and listen with headphones because I didn’t have my own CD player. A few years after the pink boombox era, grunge happened, which brought me the bands I was most obsessed with in high school: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Hole. Somewhere in there came industrial (NIN forever), more punk, and the chilly post-punk dance grooves that I still can’t quit. The reason I can read all those rock biographies with equal enthusiasm is because I loved Mötley Crüe when I was 12 with as much devotion as I loved Moby at 22, and still love Joy Division to this day. My name is Katie, and I am a fan.

Fandom gets a bad rap, but in my experience it’s very often uplifting and participatory rather than obsessive and passive. My fandom is about the music and the way it makes me feel, of course. But discovering new music means more than that, as any fan knows: It’s like a door opening to a new way of seeing things—and if you’re lucky, it’s also a club you can join.

I was reminded of this in the loveliest way earlier this month, when I talked Joe into joining me for a dance party at a club that I’ve been interested in for a while but have felt too shy to check out. This year he and I have gone out to a huge number of live shows, so even though he doesn’t care about goth and industrial music the way I do, he was game. It’s been part of a personal quest of sorts. In the face of all the fear and grief and anger that’s everywhere these days, that has started to settle into my bones, we’ve been doing the things that make us feel most alive, and on this particular occasion I hoped that the cure for my case of the sads would be, well, the Cure. And Siouxsie, and Dead Can Dance, and maybe a little Pink Turns Blue. I made sure every item of clothing I had on was black, and we caught the bus to this grody little club to see what it was like.

What was it like? It was like finding my folks. Everyone was cool but they were dorky too. They smiled at strangers and hugged old friends. Their clothes and hair and piercings looked great. I ordered a very un-chic mixed drink and I did not give a shit, and then I danced. For those few hours my nerves weren’t shot; I wasn’t jumpy or tearful or exhausted. That awful brittle tension that’s taken up residence in my shoulders and jaw melted away. When the cute DJ played a song I knew and loved I felt as blissed out as I did when I was 13 years old and the video for “Nothing Compares 2U” came on and I could sing every word. I’ve been part of a few “scenes” in my time, and this wasn’t the first night I’ve felt this way. But MAN did I need it right then. And to my deep satisfaction, the feeling of belonging has stayed with me, like a secret knowledge.

In his book, Moby writes eloquently about belonging and community and the way music brings people together, so you should read it. If you’re feeling confused or down or lonely you should go out dancing, too. And that’s about all the advice I’ve got, I’m afraid. It’s been a tough week.

Love's Old Sweet Song

Well hey, June 16th was a good day for reading. It started first thing, for me, with a perfect little essay about junk shops by Luc Sante for the Paris Review, and it ended in the evening with Bloomsday, which is one the best things that happens in Philly, thanks, in my eyes, to Drucie McDaniel's Molly Bloom.

For those who don't know, Bloomsday is a yearly celebration of James Joyce's novel Ulysses, so called because the whole big brick of a book takes place over the course of one day in Dublin—June 16, 1904— with the character of Leopold Bloom at the center of it all. Bloomsday started in Dublin, naturally, where people can walk through the city and visit the sites mentioned by name in the book, but these celebrations take place all around the world now, usually in the form of readings. That's what we do in Philly, every June 16th; for the last 20-some years, the Rosenbach Library and Museum has hosted readings from the book, right out on their beautiful street of brownstones and window boxes, Delancey Street, downtown. Folks from all walks of life—many but not all of them Irish by nationality or descent—are invited to read a portion of the novel, and there's lots of singing and other music, too. As Rosenbach Director Derick Dreher reminded us this year, the novel and the day are about the sung word as much as the written and spoken word. This is a novel that's meant to be heard, and hearing it outside, in the city, feels right. That is God, Stephen Dedalus says in the novel. A shout in the street.

I went to Bloomsday toward the end of the day, as I usually do, in order to catch Molly Bloom's soliloquy. Drucie McDaniel is, as this point, a star. We're all there for her. No one else could be Molly Bloom. They announce her with pride and pleasure and a bit of fanfare, and then she emerges, dressed in what looks like a period costume but might actually just be a really cool dress, white and formless in that flapperish way, and gorgeous white ankle boots. She takes her time reaching the podium and once she gets there, she interprets a portion of that final steam-of-consciousess speech in what sounds to my American ears like a perfect Dublin accent. (She's American too.) It is a wonderful thing to be a part of, and I put it that way because being there feels like being a part of something, not just passive entertainment but a community, a street filled with people and shared good feeling and different types of liveliness and stillness.

As she read I thought about the time I tried to meet someone there, a new friend who I felt a special closeness to and who I'd run into earlier in the day. She didn't know about Bloomsday but was excited by my excitement about it and said she'd try to come down and meet me there if she could. I went and stood in the back where I could see the readers and also the rest of the crowd, standing around and sitting on chairs arranged in rows in front, and waited for her, weirdly excited to see her arrive. She got there and moved through the crowd, looking for me, and I thought she looked right at me a few times but she didn't see me. I  wanted to shout her name to get her attention but I didn't, I couldn't, didn't even move, just watched her take a chair and listen to the rest of the day's readings while I stayed standing and listened along with her.

I thought about that. I thought about the collective tension of a crowd of people all trying to be quiet and still.

I thought about a man I used to see at Bloomsday but haven't for a few years now, how he used to wear a three-piece tweed suit that you could tell were his real, everyday clothes. I thought about the way he sat on the edge of his chair and rested his Bloomsday program, rolled up, on his knee, the way men do.

I thought about what I'd wear to the show at the record store the next day. All black, probably, here's hoping it's not too hot.

When they got to the Sinbad the Sailor part, I thought about taking Joe to Bloomsday last year, when they held it in the church because it was so hot outside. I thought about how we've taken to saying those silly words to each other at bedtime, like in the book, when we're getting sleepy: Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailor and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer...

I looked at the lady whose cardigan had half fallen off the back of her chair. I looked at people's hairlines and blotchy skin and interesting shoes. I shifted back and forth to try to get a better view and hoped that my back wouldn't hurt too much, later at home. I watched people walking past pushing babies in strollers, looking either embarrassed or proud to find themselves with an audience. I looked at a black dog's black, wet nose and she looked into my eyes, like a person. Her owner kept turning and smiling at everyone around her.

I worried that this would be the year I'd find out I'd lost it, that I wouldn't be moved to cry during Molly's speech the way I always have. I was thinking and shifting and I couldn't really see. But it got me, it always gets me, it's embarrassing but by now I'd miss the tears if they didn't come. It's that line—"and I thought well as well him as another"—that undoes me. Why does it affect me the way it does? I think it's the thought of Joyce understanding the mind of a woman well enough to write a line like that that I find so beautiful; it's such a wonderful surprise. It's like when someone who really loves you notices something small and special about you that you never noticed yourself, something only someone who understands you could show you, that feeling of being seen.

Drucie McDaniel finished being Molly Bloom for the year, and I cried. They gave her flowers, like they do every year, and then there was a song, "Love's Old Sweet Song," sung by a woman named Abla Hamza. She invited us to sing along for the final verse but only the old people knew the words. And then we all left.

I'm a poet, you fools

What is it about poets and cops?

I’m reading Eileen Myles’ memoir-novel, Chelsea Girls, and early on she tells a story of a drunk night out with some friends, including this woman Chris, who she maybe still loved. Chris was drunk and starting fights and she punched a cop (!) who then tried to manhandle her out of the car she was in, so Eileen, without giving what she was about to do any thought, jumped on his back. Then they all got arrested. She writes,

“And, in my heart I know the moment of my flight towards the blue shoulders of the law, I was flying for Chris, did love her, and was saving her from the professional mediocrity of white Datsuns, I was releasing her from bourgeoise captivity, maybe bringing her home to the scrubby plains of my drunk art and love. Oh, Chris! … Also, my real moment in the police station in Bath, Maine was when I lifted my sword and revealed to them that I was a poet. I’m a poet, you fools, you asshole cops! Poet has always meant to me saint or hero, the dancing character on the stained-glass window of my soul, the hand lifting slowly through time, the whirr that records my material against strong light, gosh, why I live.”

Reading this reminded me of a wonderful line from the Morrissey song, “Late Night, Maudlin Street”, which might be the most beautiful song he’s written so far (and that’s saying something):

“There were bad times on Maudlin Street.
They took you away in a police car.
Inspector, don’t you know – don’t you care –
don’t you know about Love?”

It’s hilarious, it’s sad, it’s about being misunderstood. I guess that’s what cops represent to artists, to everyone—the authority that patrols the streets making sure none of us look or act too weird, since as we all know that’s a crime in itself.

Myles starts out telling the story of something that really happened, and ends up imagining herself reciting her poems in the police station, as a way of defending herself. I once wrote something like this myself, in the same sort of way—as a fantasy. In my book White Elephants, I tell the story of how one night, I took an office chair from a trash pile behind the Catholic grade school where I spent several unhappy years of my childhood. I still lived in the neighborhood and I walked past the school often, practically every day. On this occasion it was late on a summer evening and I was a little tipsy on wine. I’d gone strolling over to the post office, past the back of the school and the church, which were next to each other, to check my mailbox but really just for something to do. I saw the chair there next to a pile of black plastic trash bags and I wanted it; in my mind, it had certainly belonged to one of the nuns who’d taught me, possibly even the principal, since it was clearly a bigwig’s chair. (It had arms!) There was something subversive and funny and repulsive and triumphant about the thought of owning something that had been inside that awful school. I had to have it. So I pulled the chair away from the trash, and on that quiet street its wheels sounded so loud, grinding against the pavement. I stopped, feeling mortified, but I wasn’t about to give up. I’d just have to get the chair home quickly, and in my drunkenness I decided to ride it.

I sat down and kick-rolled my way back to my apartment building, a thirtysomething lady chuckling to herself like an old hobo riding a skateboard with a seat. I felt scared and embarrassed and free. As I rolled down the empty street I fantasized about what I’d say if I were apprehended, which I was halfway certain would happen. This sexy guy I’d gone to school with was on the local police force—I knew because I’d seen him around town in his uniform. I pictured him stopping me and wanting to know what I was doing. Whose chair was I riding, and why? I would try to explain myself but it would be too hard. Why did he want to know in the first place? Taking something off the curb, someone else’s trash, wasn’t a crime.

“I’m a cop,” he’d say, as if that explained everything.

“Well I’m an artist!” I’d answer, which definitely would.

Irish literature, Irish rebellion, and the lost art of letter writing

On Thursday of last week, I had the great pleasure of listening to a conversation about Irish society between two of the most important living Irish writers, the poet Eavan Boland and the fiction writer Colm Toíbín, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. The talk was moderated by a filmmaker and journalist named Sadhbh Walshe, and its purpose was to discuss the legacy of the Easter Rising of 1916 on the 100th anniversary of Ireland's fight for independence.

I've been to about a million talks and readings at the Free Library, which puts on an excellent authors series every year, and quite honestly I'm often one of about 30 or 40 people there. I didn't bother buying a ticket for this talk in advance because I really didn't expect a program on this rather narrow topic to come close to selling out, but I had a surprise in store. When I got to the library the auditorium was nearly full, and I was lucky to be able to buy a ticket at the door. Even luckier to find an open seat, which happened to be next to an old friend of mine from college. All around us, and in the ladies' room too, I could hear conversations taking place in Irish accents, from both the south and the north. It really drove home the points that Toíbín and Boland made about the Irish in America. One of the first remarks that Toíbín made was to quote Irish ambassador Barbara Jones, who said that there wouldn't be peace in Ireland if it weren't for the U.S. And the connection between the two countries wouldn't exist, of course, if it weren't for the many millions of Irish immigrants who have arrived on these shores over the last few hundred years.

Boland and Toíbín both had many wonderful, insightful things to say during the hour or so that they were interviewed. One of my favorite ideas is one they came back to several times, and which both of them have addressed in their writing over the years: What Boland described as the gap between history and "the past." History, she said, is populated by famous names and important leaders, nearly all of them men. The past is filled with people, many of them women, whose names we never knew, but without whom no "history" would have been made.

They talked about the Irish rebellion, and how it had its roots in the Great Famine, and the silence and "erasure" of that tragedy. Toíbín said that he believes the earliest feeling that the English must leave Ireland came from this time. He reminded us that 1 million people died in the Famine, but 2 million emigrated away from it, most of them to America: To Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Haunted by their memories of the Famine, this "angry diaspora" began making "revolutionary noise" to fill that silence.

The two writers also talked about James Joyce, and Toíbín—always so finely attuned to the female experience—made the excellent observation that Joyce was "engaged in the politics of Ireland by letting a woman speak uninterrupted" at the end of Ulysses. Hearing this made me glow with pleasure. (And reminded me to be exited about going to hear Drucie McDaniel do the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the Rosenbach's Bloomsday readings, as she does every year.)

And to my delight, they talked about handwriting. Toíbín, who grew up in Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland, told a story about the 400-year-old castle there. In the 1950s, his father raised the money to buy the castle, which was no longer inhabited and which he planned to restore and operate it as a museum. The people of the town were invited to donate any antiques they had in their homes to fill the castle and put on display, and Toíbín recalled that everyone wanted to bring something, not because they would benefit financially from doing so, but because there was a woman named Marion Stokes with beautiful copperplate handwriting who wrote the name of every contribution on a placard. At home later I read about Marion Stokes, and how some 30 years before this, she had participated in the Easter Rising, helping to hoist the tricolor flag as they declared Ireland a Republic. It was clear that Toíbín was still moved by the idea of this handwriting and what it meant to people, to see their things made into pieces of history in this beautiful way by a woman who had been a part of history herself. (He tells a longer version this story in a recent article in the Irish Times.)

Moderator Walshe led this story, quite gracefully, into a conversation about letter writing. Boland talked about how important writing letters home was to the Irish immigrants who knew they may never again see their hometowns again, who sat down to write them on "the long evenings of their leave-takings." She read her poem "The Lost Art of Letter Writing" and it was one of a few tearjerkers that evening.

"...And if we say
An art is lost when it no longer knows
How to teach a sorrow to speak, come, see
The way we lost it: stacking letters in the attic,
Going downstairs so as not to listen to
The fields stirring at night as they became
Memory and in the morning as they became
Ink; what we did so as not to hear them
Whispering the only question they knew
By heart, the only one they learned from all
Those epistles of air and unreachable distance,
How to ask: is it still there?"


The talk has brought up a lot of feelings and ideas for me, though I can't see the full shape of them yet. I grew up in a very Irish-Catholic world, attending Catholic church and school in an overwhelmingly Irish-American parish, and my own ethnic background is largely Irish as well, though my name is German, which was enough to mark me as a kind of outsider in my little community. (That and the fact that my German-named father, who was at least half Irish anyway, was not Catholic: unthinkable!) My mother, who was the one who handed down Catholicism to us and who had grown up with the Irish name and background, always showed disdain for the ethnic pride the large Irish families in our parish seemed to have, and I see now that her distaste came from a kind of shame. It was another facet to my feeling like an outsider to the community I grew up in, which ironically (or inevitably, I guess) has at times made me feel desperate to understand it and get closer to it. I don't know if I'll ever figure out how Irish I really am.

I've read an awful lot of Irish writing on this journey, though, let me tell you. In Toíbín's remarkable characters (so many of them women), I hear my grandmother's outrageous, flippant turn of phrase; I see my mother's thin-lipped rebellion. I understand the nature of the silence and stoicism he describes—and the unruliness beneath it. The lyricism and homegrown feminism of Boland's poetry resonates with me too, on a deep, personal level. Her country's troubled history won't let go of her, but in her writing she grapples with it, and appears to have gotten the upper hand.

As I sat listening to the writers talk about Ireland, I got those incredible lines from Yeats caught in my head, the ones about the fanatic heart that I sometimes like to say to myself over and over again. "Out of Ireland have we come. / Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start. / I carry from my mother's womb / A fanatic heart." It always gets my own heart racing, which has a weird way of soothing me, like a mantra for the restless.


It's Memorial Day, and since the weather report called for rain Joe and I did our outdoor stuff yesterday. Grilling, gardening, sweating, the whole bit. It was really chill. Now I'm installed on the couch, doin' nothin', which is a little TOO chill. Since I feel like a lazy slug I gave myself an assignment: I looked up movies on Netflix that are adaptations from books, watched one, and reviewed it for you. You're welcome!

(Incidentally, if you want to search Netflix for this category of movies, you can look for them by using the code number 4961, "dramas based on books." All the Netflix category codes are compiled on this website here. You're welcome!)

Not Waving But Drowning

Since there's a Stevie Smith poem by this name, I figured that's what landed this movie in the adaptations from books category. But actually, the film is considered a companion piece to a shorter one by the same screenwriter and director, Devyn Waitt, called The Most Girl Part of You, which was adapted from a short story by Amy Hempel. That short film is included as a "prologue" to the main one, and it's the one that should have been called Not Waving But Drowning, if you ask me. It's about a teenage girl, Kate, and her best friend, a boy named Big Guy whose mother has just died by suicide. Big Guy copes with his pain by doing weird, self-destructive, kind of sexy things, such as chipping his front tooth on purpose and sewing Kate's name into his hand, like a kind of tattoo.

The Most Girl Part of You is narrated by the main character, like many movies that are adapted from books. I tend to consider this a lazy choice, but it works well for this little film, in part because it's only 15 minutes long so it feels more like a story than a movie, and in part because Hempel's got some good first-person narrative lines that deserve to be preserved: "Big Guy's hand catches on my dress. I don't have to look to know that it's the dry jagged skin from where he pulled my name out of the place where he had sewn it."

In the feature-length film, the best friendship is between two teenage girls, Sara and Adele. They're about to have their "revolutionary summer," when they'll leave their small town and move to New York City together. Between Adele's Violent Femmes t-shirt and her parents' "modern" kitchen with tall white cabinets and big fake plants, it seems to be set in the late 80s, but if that's the case then there are a few anachronistic turns of phrase here and there, so it's hard to say.

Sara has some trouble at home and decides to stay with her parents for a while, which leaves Adele, who's a little wilder anyway, to try New York on her own. Sara starts her new job as an art teacher at an old folks' home, which has a little more intrigue than you'd expect, thanks to the glamorous Sylvia, one of the only "half classy babes" in that joint. Sylvia wears silk robes and smokes cigarettes and used to be a painter, and is played by Lynn Cohen, who's very good. (You might remember her as Miranda's Ukrainian nanny from "Sex and the City.") Meanwhile, Adele is in filthy New York, where dudes stalk her on subway platforms and her weird roommate won't give her a key, so she has to sleep on the front step one night when he doesn't come home. She makes a fun new friend too, but her friend, a beautiful young woman who lives in the building next door, hangs out with sketchy guys; not so good. Then she meets Adam Driver, and they have a lovely, if painfully awkward and totally realistic friend / love relationship that buoys the movie after it has started to drift.

The real love story though, of course, is between Adele and Sara, and by the movie's end we're left to wonder whether their friendship can survive the big changes in their lives. Throughout the movie, the plot-moving parts are intercut with beautiful sequences that have indie and electropop music swelling behind them—a bit like music videos—which makes the whole thing feel a little overcooked. But I'm a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when what's being mined is the emotional lives of young women. The thing is, kids their age who have just grown up and are setting out on their own tend to romanticize their own lives as it is; a film that exaggerates this feeling doesn't necessarily distort it, in my opinion, but highlights and enhances a lovely sort of melodrama that is already there.

The real strength of a small indie movie like this one, when all's said and done, is that it has the same eye for detail that a good novel or short story does—like the way the girls' eyes gleam, liquid, when they lie flat on the bed in the darkness and talk. In that sense, then, the film feels like a literary adaptation in the best way.

Here's that Stevie Smith poem, for reference:


Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


God himself could not sink this ship

So as I've been bloviating about, I had a surgery three weeks ago. I'm almost totally recovered from it now, but since it's taken most of this time to get over the discomfort and fatigue I have spent a LOT of time around the house, watching movies and TV. The show that saw me through the bulk of my recuperation was RuPaul's Drag Race. I've been an ardent fan of RuPaul's for many years, but I haven't always kept up with that silly show, so I made a small effort to get my husband hooked on it, and then the two of us enjoyed three whole seasons of it, back to back. We're finally caught up to the current episode of the current season, which is now down to just three queens: Kim Chi (incredible costumery), Naomi Smalls (modelesque) and Bob the Drag Queen. I love Bob the Drag Queen.

Bob is a comedian before she is anything else, I think, though she makes a compelling queen. She was criticized early on in the show for relying too heavily on her sense of humor and not being up to snuff in the glamour department (they love their gowns on that show), but like all the best Drag Race contestants, she implemented the judges' suggestions and stepped up her beauty game (though that contouring was a liiiiiiiittle chunky last week, girl). Several weeks into the season, she is now more well rounded as a performer than she was at the start, but truthfully, she was already close to the top of her game. Bob has been doing solo shows in clubs for a while now, and they are glorious. Funny, unusual, and thought-provoking, they are comprised of the usual drag show routine of lip syncing a pop song, but Bob does remixes of her own design, cutting and pasting together a pastiche of pop culture references that, strung together, create a new narrative.

In "Crazy," Bob lip syncs the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy" but has remixed it with audio from TV shows and movies, which she also lip syncs. The first is a miniature screaming fit by Tyra Banks from HER ridiculous reality show, America's Next Top Model (I didn't recognize this and had to look it up), and the moment Tyra's tirade ends the song picks back up on, "Does that make me craaaazay?" The crowd goes wild. Later, the song is interrupted by another spooky speech from a woman who has clearly gone off the deep end. ("Did you know the germs can come through the wires?" she says dementedly. I didn't know what this was either; turns out it's from a 1973 Brian DePalma film called Sisters. Perfect.)  There's also a monologue by Orange is the New Black's Crazy Eyes (that one I knew), and a little Patsy Cline thrown in for good measure. (If you don't know that reference, I don't think I can help you.) Clearly, a lot of work went into creating this show, but the effect is one of effortlessness, even helplessness, like that stream-of-conscious flow of associations we make when we remember one funny thing and it reminds us of something else.

And the joke of the piece is, of course, that the speakers are all "crazy," and they are also all women, because this is a drag show. Crazy women: They are bona fide A Thing. I find it really interesting and not a little heartening to see a man who strongly relates to women addressing this subject with humor and nuance and zero malice (at least of the woman-hating variety). Bob addresses race in a really thrilling way, too, in other mash-ups she's concocted, like the one that combines the song "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Mis with Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Chills!

I have to say, I love thinking of someone practicing these at home—not the songs so much, since we all commit those to memory without even trying to, but the speeches. It's like an old-fashioned education, the way they used to make schoolkids memorize poems and the Gettysburg Address. Memorization is an underrated method of teaching, in my opinion; when you read or listen to something over and over again, or when you perform it yourself, you learn it in a new way.

But yadda yadda yadda, what I'm most interested in right now is this idea of pop culture references and imitations, and how these can serve as the building blocks of a new culture—a kind of shared language, forged out of anger and fear, friendship and community. (Groups of people with shared ideals and a shared way of communicating about them are known as DISCOURSE COMMUNITIES, Katie said pompously; but for real, they are.) When you watch RuPaul's show, you see this being done constantly and so seamlessly, you may not realize that someone is being quoted if you're not familiar with the references yourself. When RuPaul announces the next challenge, she might stitch in quotations from Grey Gardens ("the most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America") or Paris is Burning ("you own EVERYTHING!") and everybody laughs. Everybody who gets it, that is. Inside jokes are powerful—it's how you know you belong.

Thanks to all this Drag Race and Youtube, I've really been pondering what it means to create a subculture out of pieces of the detritus of the dominant culture, particularly because I relate to this impulse so strongly myself. I think a lot of us do. Growing up, my sister and I could quote every piece of dialogue from Pee-wee's Big Adventure, back and forth, and we also enjoyed screaming lines from Mommie Dearest at each other. Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, a PSA Perry Farrell did on protecting the world's oceans from pollution in which he talks about taking a dump in a bathtub, shit Oprah said that came out weird and was unintentionally humorous—anything we found deeply funny or was useful to us, we snipped out and kept. I think our parents couldn't understand what we were saying half the time, which of course was the point. A woman's heart ... is a deep ocean of secrets. 


Like all the best drag performers and many stand-up comics, Bob is a talented mimic. He can do a hilarious impression of Carol Channing, but also seemingly of any ordinary woman he's ever observed, and it's this everyday kind of lady who peeks out at us when Bob picks his teeth or smiles around a cigarette or sneers in comic distaste. This sort of observation is the key to understanding all this, I think: You have to be paying pretty close attention to how other people behave to be able to reproduce it like that, and the more outside of the norm you are, the closer attention you're likely to pay. It's a survival thing, I think, like studying for a test, the test of your daily fucking life. How am I supposed to walk, talk, look, live? How Should a Person Be? I'm not a sexual minority, but I've always been something of a public weirdo in a way I couldn't help; as a kid, it showed in the funny way my skinny body was put together, my uncomfortably high energy level, my age-inappropriate behavior, my inability to seem "like a girl." Unlike some folks, I didn't have to learn to blend in to avoid being completely ostracized or even killed—that was just my dumb luck. But I sure did have to make some adjustments if I wanted to be considered halfway acceptable by the people who populated my childhood, namely my idiotic church community, and even a member or two of my family. (And actually, I should amend this. I didn't have much luck in altering my behavior, nor did I try very hard to do so. Instead I was fascinated by other people's behavior because I was always studying it, trying to measure the distance between myself and them.) I needed models for how to be—I mean, we all do—as well as fictional characters who could act out the feelings I had within me but wasn't yet mature enough to identify and understand. Thank goodness, then, for books and movies and TV. I would have been a hell of a lot lonelier without them.

Since Joe and I are all caught up on Drag Race we had to find something else to watch last night, so I ordered a documentary I'd read about on Godammit, I'm Mad!, a blog I love, called The Wolfpack. Woo boy was that something. It's about a family of six boys, all close in age, who were raised by two religious nuts in a Lower East Side high rise. Now all teenagers and young adults, the boys were homeschooled and locked into their apartment for nearly their whole lives and were only brought out, as a family, a handful of times a year. Some years, they didn't go out at all. They never had access to the internet, either, so the only people they ever interacted with were their parents and each other. Their father had some religious reasoning for not wanting them to get haircuts, so all the boys are striking in waist-length black hair. They look like a metal band or, yeah, a wolfpack, little pups tumbling over each other.

Obviously this is all very strange, but perhaps the strangest thing about the situation is the boys' obsession with movies. They were seemingly not restricted by religious practice in what they were allowed to watch, so they've seen over 5,000 of them (!), and are so deeply involved with their favorites that they make elaborate costumes out of household materials and act them out. Their prop guns, made of cardboard and aluminum foil, were so realistic looking that someone, who must have seen them through a window, called the cops, who raided the apartment and handcuffed everyone, including their mother. Now that's what I call Reservoir Dogs realness!

In their interviews, the brothers are eloquent and self-aware about how movies were a lifeline, a way to connect with the rest of the world. In general, they are intelligent, sensitive, and emotionally sophisticated. Listening to them talk, it struck me that they have an understanding of the world that they by rights shouldn't have. At one point one of them talks about a very adult kind of loneliness, saying that some people live alone and like it, while others want to find a partner but never do; that's just the way it is. Could he have come to an understanding like this just by watching movies? Can you fashion an entire civilization out of the bits and pieces of other people's fictional ideas? Dammit, I think maybe you can.

I didn't mean for this books blog to turn into a drag appreciation blog, I really didn't. But I'm not sorry about the temporary, er, costume change. More than anything I'm interested in ideas, which sometimes come from books and sometimes come from movies or schlocky TV shows; I'm interested in NARRATIVES, she said pompously. You can find them in the most surprising places. And barring that, you can write your own.



Tell Me Everything

Hey again everybody. As I told you, I had surgery a week or so ago. Since then I've been too distracted by pain and the weird pain medication I'm on to concentrate on my own thoughts, so I've been reading like a demon to keep myself company, and I find it interesting to note that for some reason, the type of writing I have the biggest appetite for right now is short-form memoir. Short-form memoir by women, that is. Women who are writing about grief and love, illness and death, their bodies and their families and their drug of choice. The blood and guts of their lives. And god almighty, is there a lot of that kind of writing out there. I've been reading poorly edited junk on xoJane, the guilty pleasure web magazine I feel the need to "check" at least once a day when I'm bored. (Current headlines include: "I Hooked Up with Someone's Boyfriend, and I Don't Feel Guilty." At least someone doesn't feel guilty!) I've been reading better essays on similar (and similarly gendered) subjects in Lenny, Lena Dunham's frankly excellent feminist email newsletter. In today's issue the actress Amanda Peet has a smart, touching piece about her fear of aging, and the admiration she feels for her less-vain sister, who's a physician. Plinking around the internet with no real destination, I discovered an Australian journalist named Julia Baird who writes for the New York  Times' OpEd section, and I read a bunch of her stuff, including a recent piece about the cancerous tumors she had growing in her abdomen. I'm not usually much for medical details but I read all the ones she laid out in that essay, and it was pretty good. The writing, I mean, not the subject matter. That was pretty bad.

From there I found my way to a writer and Moth storyteller named Tara Clancy, who I hadn't heard of before. She's good too! I got a huge kick out of the essay she wrote about the neighborhood bar her dad took her to when she was a kid, and the oddball, loving community they found there. And just this minute I remembered about Samantha Irby, who is one of my new Internet favorites but who I have so far failed to write about on this blog. Not long ago I discovered hers, and found her to be one of the most refreshingly frank and funny writers I have ever read. I plowed through her book of essays, Meaty—it is hilarious and totally original—and am waiting (sort of) patiently for her to finish her second one, which according to Facebook she is writing this very moment. Keep at it, lady!

Let me be clear: I have always been more interested in women's stories than in men's, and I also favor autobiographical work to novels, though I do read a ton of fiction. Memoir is the kind of writing I do myself, in my essays, zines, and books. These stories give me life, as both a writer and a reader. In the week or so since I got sick I haven't had the energy to read much long-form writing, but I have started one book: Eileen Myles' Chelsea Girls, which she calls a novel but is understood to be based on her own life. It's as wonderful as I expected it to be, and even more unusual.

But I'm surprised to find how much I've needed it now, this female company. Why do I find it so comforting, and so useful, to hear women talking truthfully about their own lives? Maybe I don't have enough female closeness in my life (though honestly, I talk to my mother so much, and so exclusively, that a pair of walkie talkies would be as useful to me as my overpriced cell phone). Maybe it has to do with, ya know, SOCIETY, and the fact that women's behavior is so circumscribed that we don't often say how we feel in a day-to-day kind of way. Whatever causes it, I have the the most intense longing to hear people tell the truth, and it never goes away.

Memoir is tinged with a certain sense of inferiority, at least in the eyes of the kinds of writers who think they need an MFA in order to be writers—though there are plenty of folks who break through the stigma of it in order to be respected as serious artists, as Myles has. (But then, she's a poet first.) Writing fiction "from life" is looked down on, too. I think this attitude is stupid, and I have developed a pet theory about it as well: I think it's sexist. So-called domestic fiction, "personal" essays—hell, anything where the writer cops to having, like, FEELINGS—these are so often the areas of expertise of women writers, and that is the only reason they are considered less worthwhile, less intellectual, less important. Don't tell me it's because there are so many bad memoirs. There is so much bad EVERYTHING, and you don't rule out whole categories of experience because you didn't like that one thing you had that one time. I'm not gonna stop eating pizza entirely because they make it too greasy at the place around the corner. STRETCH YOURSELF, PEOPLE.

Lucky for me, I don't give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut—I got that from the comments section on xoJane!—about literary careerism and elitist nonsense. That's why I know that good writing is all around us, waiting to be discovered—because I'll read literally anything, just to see what I think. Some of the best things I've read have been in zines and on blogs that few others have read, and were written by people who will most likely never find a large audience for their work.

Anyway, when all's said and done, reading other people's personal discoveries—whether they arrive at them within a perfect poem, or in the shimmering moments of a beautiful, lyrical novel, or at the end of a painful essay, like a birth—this gives me more joy and wisdom, entertainment and company, than almost anything else. It feels fucking good to write the truth, too. It's like Myles says in Chelsea Girls: "I always think it's such a secret story, this one, I just need to tell this story for me or else I will burst." (Me too.) "It's lonely to be alive and never know the whole story. Everyone must walk with that thought. I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours."

And it does, it feels like a secret, it is a secret until you tell it.


What a Book Is

Hey gang! I've been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven't been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I've spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I'll take a moment to tell you about it. A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists' books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión's The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project's namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist's book, Katie? My short answer is, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist's book is a book, but not in the usual way. It's a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist's book won't look much like a book at all.


The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión's definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the "old art" and the new.

"In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author's intentions. ... The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. ... The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name 'book.'"

About those "old" books, Carrión goes on to say,

"A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. ... A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such." Haha! No tea no shade!


Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.


In Carrión's manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don't write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it's even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be "published" not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that's a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.


Last week I finished the book manuscript I've spent the last few months writing. To celebrate, I spent a day doing one of my very favorite things: shopping in thrift stores with my husband. (I will never use the word "thrift" as a verb. This is my pledge to you.) For this particular trip, we left our large city with its arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty and drove out to the small towns of Pennsylvania's Lehigh County, where we enjoyed different but equally arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty. We also visited three of our favorite thrift stores out that way, and at one of them—no, I will not tell you what it's called; it's mine!—I found a real treasure. For $4 I bought a bright red wool coat with large patch pockets, an extravagant lapel, and a wonderful cocoon shape. I saw it and thought: Bonnie Cashin! The coat is no designer label, of course, but it strongly suggests the colors and shapes Cashin favored, so I bought it to wear to the book's launch event next week in New York, where clothing and other objects from the designer's archive will be on display. My jacket is from the 60s, I think, and in very good shape, but I would like to freshen it up a bit and am unsure how to do this because it's made of wool. So I consulted my expert on everything, Youtube. I've now spent the last hour watching videos of people washing their clothing—it makes for weirdly fascinating viewing—and it was worth it because (a) I now have a good idea how to launder my coat (in a machine, on a delicate cycle, using any old type of laundry soap and cold water) and (b) I have learned a wonderful new word. Some of the videos I watched were made by these two handsome young tailors from London, Morts and More. They have one on brushing wool suits using a special suit brush, which I watched just cuz I felt like it. They also made a video about folding pocket squares. In that one, they give a few tips on how to style the handkerchief, but they say the key is to practice sprezzatura—a "studied carelessness"—when arranging your look.

!!! Sprezzatura! How have I never heard this word before? I took to the rest of the internet and found this wonderful short piece on sprezzatura by Roger Angell, who writes that his friend, the writer John McPhee, was bewildered when a student used the word during his writing class at Princeton. He'd never heard it before, and neither had any of his other students, one of whom was from Italy. Apparently the word originates from Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, which was published in 1528. Wikipedia quotes from the text:

I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.[1]

Well I'll be. It is singularly satisfying to find a word for something you already know and care about a great deal, but didn't exactly know how to talk about. Angell called it—simply—cool, which is what I call it too. And it is an attitude I have been cultivating for years.

The article on Wikipedia explains that hiding one's ambition was especially useful for courtiers of Renaissance Italy, which of course was a role totally defined by ambition and self-interest. Again, I totally relate to this. I have always, at least in contexts outside of the classroom and in job interviews, found it necessary to pretend to feel less ambitious than I do. Is that a woman thing? Or an anyone-who-isn't-supposed-to-be-ambitious-but-is-anyway thing? Maybe concealing your desire to get ahead is universally useful in getting ahead, though, I dunno.

At any rate, I've always relied upon the ol' sprezzatura, especially where my appearance is concerned. You have to baffle the eye somehow. Look pretty, for GOD'S SAKE look pretty if you can possibly manage it, but not too pretty. I mean, ew, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS. When I get dressed, I'll get the whole outfit looking just right, and then I undo one thing. Untuck the blouse, put on sneakers instead of shoes with a heel. Lose the attention-getting jewelry and work on getting my hair perfect instead. I'm not saying my system is flawless—sometimes I look too disheveled, or I make an odd choice—but it works pretty well. I don't ever want to be the person clomping around in too-tall shoes, however cute the shoes may be.

Tonight I'm going out to hear some live music, denizen of the night that I am. (LOL.) It's a darkwave show in a little basement club and I have an all-black outfit that's sort of my go-to for things like this. All-black is always cool, in my opinion: It's the embodiment of sprezzatura, since it makes you look chic and sleek but allows you to be sort of self-effacing at the same time; you practically disappear.

But next week, when I go to Rizzoli's to meet Stephanie Lake, the lovely woman who wrote the Bonnie Cashin book, I will violate my usual rules of cool and show her my jacket, and tell her how I bought it with Cashin in mind. Something about the designer, her California-born freshness and the vibrant colors of her designs, makes that sort of posturing seem unnecessary, embarrassing even. In the whole of Lake's book, there is hardly a single picture of Cashin that doesn't show her smiling hugely or laughing with friends. Her clothing is impeccable of course, but her sprezzatura comes from the fact that she looks unusual, like no one but herself. Her look isn't careless—studied or otherwise—but you might call it carefree. Which is a WHOLE NOTHER way of being cool.

In their videos, Mort and More—despite being upscale clothiers in London—have bright spirits and a youthful energy, and they often get the giggles. Still, that coolness. It's there. One of the two men shows the folded and rumpled handkerchief in his suit pocket and says, "All right, now, you're gonna ask me how did I do it. The answer to that is, I don't know."

I know you are but what am I, INFINITY

I have a few things planned for this weekend—start seedlings, see a chiptune show, loaf—but this morning my sister reminded me that the new Pee-wee movie is coming out on Friday, so my priorities have shifted a bit. I'll still do that other stuff probably, but first I have to watch Pee-wee's Big Adventure and take notes for a costume. If there's one thing in this world that I love doing, it's constructing a character costume using stuff from my own closet plus a few choice items from the thrift store. I've got bags in my closet marked LITTLE EDIE, PRETTY IN PINK, BREAKFAST CLUB, and EDWARDIAN LADY, which I know sounds pretty creepy, but I am awfully proud of these concoctions. My sister is thinking of having a small viewing party for the new movie, so don't tell her but I think I'll show up to her house in costume. Who will I be? The fortune teller? ("Alright, you wanna wear a wet jacket, it's alright with Madam Ruby.") The greaser bicycle thief? Large Marge? Pee-wee himself? My weekend is looking busier by the minute. And before I get down to work, I'll share this essay I wrote for the Utne Reader a couple years ago. As you can see I've been thinking about the character of Pee-wee Herman for a while, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet. It's like I'm unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting ... and knitting ... a-a-and knitting ...

Pee Wee's Closet


This old picture of Paul Reubens with Cyndi Lauper rolled past my tumblr dashboard today, prompting me to reflect on him. Reubens lives, in my mind, in the small category of famous people who I really wish I knew. I am not into hero worship, honestly. I just think he and I could be friends.

I once listened to an interview he did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. (You can listen to or read it here.) They talked about his early life, and at one point he recalled moving to Florida from upstate New York when he was around nine years old. When his parents told him they were going to Florida he was all excited, thinking they were moving to the tropics. It was important to him to look the part. His mother took him shopping for school clothes and he picked out things that would suit his new look. (Apparently he had more agency in this arena than I did.) He’d be, like, a beachcomber. That’s what you do in Florida, right? Comb beaches? He showed up for the first day of fourth grade wearing clam-diggers and a nautical-themed shirt, “like a total freak.”

I love this story. Picture it: You’re little Paul Reubens, the future Pee-wee Herman, and you wear costumes instead of clothing because to you, costumes make sense as a part of everyday life.

He goes on, in his conversation with Terry Gross, to explain how—even though he figures most kids would have bowed to the peer pressure to look a little bit less like a total freak—he really felt his classmates were missing something obvious. “I was sort of like, ‘Don’t you get it? You know, I’m a beachcomber.’” And he kept on wearing his get-ups to school.

Well I get it. Don’t you? Thematic outfits. Dressing for the occasion. Or as I have always thought of it, dressing appropriately to such an absurd degree that it becomes (deliciously) inappropriate.

I once got roped into attending some event at "the art museum," as we folks from Philly call the recently rebranded PMA. It was a cocktail party, and I guess I should admit that I wasn’t roped into attending it at all, but actually talked my mom into accepting the invitation so that I could join her. It took place in the evening, after the museum’s normal hours, which is a really thrilling time of day to find yourself in a museum, first of all, and it was to be held in the gallery where a visiting Degas show would be exhibited. Ballerinas and horses, you can picture it. I wanted to go because of the ballerinas. I had a tiny sparkly black dress that I fancied looked like a ballet costume because it was sleeveless and stretchy and tight in the bodice like a leotard, and had a short skirt that twirled out a little when I moved, like a tutu. I wanted someplace to wear it, and this would be perfect. I even bought real ballet slippers from a dance wear store in town. (“Did you see this in a magazine or somethin hon?” they asked me when I went.) They were soft, peachy-pink shoes, which you cannot wear on the street (as I found out the hard way): They are not made for walking anywhere but on a polished dance floor, so the soles will tear and fall apart if you try it. The shoes were what made the outfit a dancer’s costume, but the thick black leg warmers I bought at a thrift store turned the costume into a joke, which was crucial. I was a dancer at rehearsal, ya know, just like Degas’ ballerinas were—except that the young girls he depicted were not wearing legwarmers. That was some Fame shit, a reference to my actual storehouse of cultural knowledge: not 19th-century French painters, but melodramatic TV shows from the '80s where everyone looked hot. I knew I looked pretty in the dress, but looking pretty on purpose is so embarrassing. You have to foil it somehow. (See this.)

I was 23 or 24 that year. I stood around with my mom all evening, looking at the fingerprinty sculptures and waiting for someone to get my joke. Toward the end of the evening, over near the dessert table, a mean-looking older lady asked me—perhaps meaning to be kind, actually, now that I think back on it; she couldn’t help what her face looked like—“Are you a real ballerina?” I remember feeling embarrassed but I didn’t show it, I just twirled away. I looked better than all those losers anyway.

. . .

When my sister and I were kids, we watched a recording of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that we’d taped off TV (missing the first five minutes or so, when Pee-wee is still in bed asleep and dreaming of winning the Tour de France) approximately 200 times. The word approximately makes it sound like I’m being facetious but I’m honestly trying to remember. We certainly watched it most days of summer vacation—which is what, 90 days?—for at least two summers running. We used to be able to do the entire thing by heart, back and forth, each of us taking whatever line of dialogue came next.

I’m not entirely sure I understand why the movie was so important to us. I mean it’s funny as hell, and kids do have a tendency to watch the things they like over and over again, but there must have been something about it that satisfied us on a deeper level. Maybe it was because, as a kid-adult, Pee-wee knew how much fun being an adult would be / was. Maybe it was the coded clothing that appealed to us, its costumey obviousness a kind of reassurance that you can grow up and become a thing, which is what all little kids want to do.

There are so many looks in that movie, so many things to be. There’s the hood who steals Pee-wee’s bike— spoiler alert! He's dressed like a greaser from the '50s, oily hair, cuffed t-shirt and all. The fortune teller Pee-wee visits looks like a “real” fortune teller, a “gypsy” with coins dangling from the scarf on her head. The hobos wear  hobo hats and have hobo beards. You gotta look like the thing you are, otherwise no one will know.

When Pee-wee goes to Hollywood in search of his bike, he strolls around the lots at Warner Bros. Studios and looks in wonderment at the actors in actual costumes. There's even a bit of gender bending thrown in for good measure: When Pee-wee talks to a showgirl and an intergalactic-lookin’ dude, a man’s voice comes out of her mouth and a woman’s comes from his.

The Pee-wee outfit, of course, is the point of the whole thing, the look the entire movie is hung from. The outfit itself is the character, and that character is a boy who lives on his own and decorates his house however he wants and is a “grown man” in a suit and bow tie. That’s what grownups wear, right? A bow tie?

This week I’ve been reading the new book by New Yorker critic Hilton Als, his first in 17 years, an extraordinary thing with the arresting and uncomfortable title—spelled out in uncomfortably large white block letters against a black background—of White Girls. (Especially awkward if you are one, and a lot of your neighbors are Black, and you try reading it surreptitiously on the bus.) The book is a collection of essays, some of them a blend of autobiography and cultural criticism, others profiles of complicated public figures like Eminem and Richard Pryor that allow Als to apply his deconstruction of the many-layered cultural meanings of race. For my money, the most compelling piece in the book is the one about André Leon Talley, who is, among other things, a Black celebrity. Talley is the former creative director for Vogue, and has become a recognizably famous (for a magazine editor), so we know what he looks like. In fact what he looks like—six foot seven, larger than life, and never not draped in capes or furs or velvet—is pretty important to who he is. I won’t give away Als’ ending to the piece, but I can tell you, you’ll come away with your heart slightly crushed by the idea of this man who so needs to believe in the “kindness” (Talley’s word) of fashion that he overlooks its cruelty.

There are other fashion-world figures who dress in costume all the time, like John Galliano (the one who always looks like either a sailor or a pirate) and Karl Lagerfeld, who always wears a stiff high collar and huge dark glasses and looks like the pope, or else like an evil overlord who should be stroking an evil cat that sits in his lap. (FYI, two of the categories that come up for Lagerfeld in a Google image search are “glasses” and “cat.”) Galliano looks mean and Lagerfeld looks twisted, but Talley dresses and talks with an extravagance I find utterly touching and sympathetic. Not because I wear couture, or whatever, but because his sense of glamour is, if not ironic, totally self-conscious and performative. It’s this idea of always mugging for an invisible audience—and incredibly, the audience will eventually materialize, because when you dress and act in an outrageous way, people are gonna look.

Pee-wee Herman is a side of Paul Reubens that we know is real. We can imagine him dressing in Pee-wee’s clothes every day—though we know he doesn’t—so when he shows up to mini-golf in a preposterous-yet-fabulous, mismatched-but-perfectly-paired top and pants (and golf shoes! He’s golfing!) we can perceive the outfit as a concession of sorts, a stand-in costume for the Pee-wee one that he can’t wear in real life. And of course he was friends with Cyndi Lauper (who is of course also wearing golf shoes in the picture). Like Talley, both of those people knew that you can create yourself with clothing—or you can at least create a character that is not you but becomes you to all the people looking on, which for some of us is the self that matters most.

Enough! we're tired, my heart and I.

Early in January, I declared 2016 an Orgy of Reading. For me personally, I mean. I don't care what the rest of you jokers do. For years I have worked as a freelance book reviewer, which is a kind of writing I find useful and enjoyable to do, but it meant that at any given time I was reading a book for work, which had a way of interfering with my "personal" reading, as I call it. It was a bit like being in school that way. Last year I stepped back from reviewing books quite so regularly, and I felt a resurgence of my old passion for reading that was so pleasurable, it was almost sensual. Hence the word orgy. I was choosing books with titles that felt good to say, or ones that had beautiful covers. And even though I get most of the books I want to read from the library—cuz I'm cheap, and because I love it there—for a little while I treated myself to books that I had to buy because they were harder to find. For starters, I indulged the morbid curiosity I've always had about the artist Tracey Emin by buying a collection of the columns she wrote for The Independent newspaper, and found I dislike it, and her, more than I expected to. I've been devoted to the artist/writer/poet/musician Billy Childish for a long time, which is how I learned about Emin, who's a much more successful and better known artist than he is. After they broke up, she mocked him for staying in the small town he grew up in and revisiting the same subjects over and over in his paintings and writing. Childish wrote a poem that quoted Emin telling him, "Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck. — Stuck! stuck! stuck!" and a movement, called Stuckism, was born. Basically, the Stuckists were about upholding the value of painting and were down on conceptual, modern, and postmodern art, which is a view I don't entirely share. I find lots of conceptual art interesting and worthwhile. (And I understand that Childish himself dissociated himself from the movement early on, and may never have been too seriously invested in it.)

REGARDLESS, I deeply admire the kind of work Childish does. Reading his novel Notebooks of a Naked Youth broke me open in a way I hadn't been since I was a teenager and everything was new. His writing, paintings, and woodcuts are stripped-down, honest, and tough, but intellectually muscular at the same time—and he's done it himself all these years, without much in the way of institutional support. Not to play THIS game, but he strikes me as a real punk. I ... I kind of love him. Still, I thought Emin's columns might interest me, since I also enjoy short-form memoir, especially when it's written by women. But nah. I couldn't stomach those essays at all. They're just braggy chronicles of all the cool famous people she finds herself at parties with. Next!

(Well, next I might have to try her memoir, Strangeland. It seems like she might get pretty real in that one. I've enjoyed some of her artwork, and I want to like her. I've had a picture of her with Billy Childish on my desk for years. In it, she's wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and heels, and she's laughing her gap-toothed laugh. Billy has on baggy trousers and is smoking a cigarette, and he's smiling too, which—google it—he's rarely shown doing. It's the 80s and they're in someone's kitchen. I could look at this picture every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of seeing it.)

Anyways. A couple weeks ago I paid a visit to my new favorite Philly library, the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional branch. It's a bright, bustling, modern library, with a good collection and a dragon. I nosed around in there for a while until I found a few books that interested me, including Morvern Callar. Do you remember that one? I saw the film adaptation when it came out a million (fourteen) years ago and remember liking it, and its quintessentially 90s bleakness. I've read a few stories by Alan Warner—he's a Scottish writer who writes in local vernacular, which is a style choice I really enjoy—but somehow I hadn't gotten around to this novel, which was very well received when it came out. So I brought it home, and let me tell you, it's good. It's so strange. Morvern Callar is the name of the young woman whose story it is, and she's an unusually compelling character. Every synopsis of the book tells you this much, so it's not spoiling anything to let you know that when the novel opens, Morvern's live-in boyfriend has committed suicide (in a really gross way, too). Her response to the tragedy is fucking weird. Though she tells us her every thought as she proceeds to do strange and dark, yet strangely life-affirming things, I'm drawn forward by trying to understand her motivations, because she doesn't seem to have any. She's totally self-contained and, in her secretiveness, very powerful, and I refuse to believe she's empty-headed and nihilistic, which is what seems to be the consensus on what this book is about: The nothing generation that came of age in the 90s.

But I have to be honest, my orgy of reading is on hiatus this week. I have hit a wall of mental exhaustion, and all I can think about doing in my down time is, like, bodily stuff. I want to go for walks, drink coffee, and slather myself with the patchouli hand cream I got for Christmas. I want to help Joe dig up our garden out back and try starting beans and corn from seeds and, like, listen to the radio. I do NOT want to go to your party or meet you for drinks. Don't take it personally, I'm just so wiped out. I think it's from writing. For the last two months I've spent part of every day writing a new book, and though it hasn't been an especially difficult or frustrating process this time around, I think it's drained me. Rummaging around in my memories, dredging stuff up—both sweet and sad stuff—and laying it to rest—that's hard work. Even though I'm not quite finished writing the manuscript, I need to take a break from it. And as far as reading goes, I think I'll keep up with Morvern and maybe see what else Alan Warner has written recently. But for today, tomorrow, the next day—I don't think I'll feel all that hungry for a good book.

What do you do when you need a mental rest? Or a mental kick-start? I've gotten pretty good at taking care of my body when I'm tired or sick or sad, but I'm not as sure how to replenish a tired mind. Your suggestions are welcomed.

Love, Katie


All Power to the Imagination!

zines I've been zonked out for a few days now, sick with what I'm calling a cold because I refuse to believe I got the flu after getting a flu shot in December. Also because I had the flu last year, and I remember how much worse that was. Still, I feel like hell. I haven't gotten out of this armchair for two days, and I haven't worked on the book I've been writing so diligently since the beginning of the year, either. My head hurt so much yesterday that I gave up on reading The Remains of the Day and watched the Merchant Ivory film adaptation instead. It was wonderful. I could look at Anthony Hopkins' face for hours and not run out of feelings.

I've got good company in the form of these comics and zines, too, which is making me feel a little less miserable. I always have tons of zines around my house, but these are ones I haven't read yet, on loan from The Soapbox, the indie print shop and zine library where I'm a member. On Thursday I'll bring them to Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Kensington to do a sort of pop-up zine library there, which will consist of a few of us members sitting at a table, drinking coffee and inviting anyone with the interest to join us in some reading. Nice, eh?

And have you heard about Amalgam, by the way, the new place everyone's so excited about? Like, everyone: Owner Ariell R. Johnson has been blowingUpThe internet. I haven't been to her shop yet and I'm looking forward to checking it out. Ariell is the first black woman to own a comics shop on the east coast, and one of the few in the whole country. It's a big deal, and by all accounts she's doing well and attracting business with her idea to combine comics with good coffee. It's such a good idea. Why aren't there more places like this??

So—that's where we'll be on Thursday, but for now I'm still stuck in my chair at home, trying to resist the urge to read every single one of these zines before our event. Amazing how these tiny, oddball books stuff my head to overflowing with images and ideas. Some of them have no titles, and on others no author is listed. Plenty of them offer a little information, though, which has led me down a few pleasant rabbit holes of interneting, from websites to blogs to instagrams and new online friends. It's so interesting to me to see this web of connection—the ways in which it's the same as it was before the internet as we know it existed, as well as how it's changed. More than anything, I think, it's just faster. I remember how it worked in the'90s, when I was a teenager looking for connection. If I was interested in a band or a writer, I'd have to wait for the next issue of Spin or Sassy or one of the dorkier metal music magazines I was into, which always had ads in the back with information on joining fan clubs, getting pen-pals, and ordering t-shirts and tapes. Within zines themselves, writers usually included some kind of contact information so you could write them a letter (which they might print in a subsequent issue of the zine) or send them a copy of one you'd written. The information was out there, and there were networks of people who'd found each other in order to share it. It just took longer. You were dependent on the monthly publishing schedules of magazines and the time it took to send a letter through the mail and get a response. The methods we use to communicate with each other have changed (or at least increased) since then, but our reasons for doing so haven't.

And actually, old-fashioned print zines still offer something that online publications usually don't, though I find it hard to articulate exactly what that is. I think it has to do with the idea of an intended audience. When you make a zine—even if you're writing on an extremely sensitive topic—you can feel a certain freedom to express yourself openly because the circulation is so small and limited. There's something liberating about both sharing something you've written with "the public" and knowing that this public will probably only be a small number of like-minded folks. I suppose the same ends up being true for any number of specialty publications, including literary journals both in print and online—these simply attract fewer readers than big, general interest magazines do. But there's something different about a form of publishing that exists within a subculture. If the intended audience for a poem or a novel is the world (the universe?), the zine writer's audience is often understood to be other zine writers—or other anarcha-feminists, or other punks, etc. You get the idea. The readership is so small that zines become one half of a conversation, with an implied call to action in every one: If she did this herself, I could do it too.

A few of the zines in this batch are ones I've read before, and looking at them now—and becoming totally engrossed by them again—is reminding me of how much this feeling of membership and participation has meant to me over the years. Zines were my way into a community of artists as well as into punk; I used to read descriptions of house shows and grassroots organizing and think, Oh man, that sounds so exciting, I want that to be my life. All these years later I know how limited and fraught with ego and political bullshit this kind of activism can be—ugh, and I hate the word activism, to be honest, it's so self-congratulatory; I wish people would stop giving themselves the title activist and just tell me what it is that they do—but the dream of all that is still alive for me. Making things on your own, rather than for school or work. Making things with your friends. Start a band, start a revolution. I know that sounds trite but I mean it, I believe in it. And when I start to feel burnt out or weary or jaded, reading zines gets my blood up again.

One of the zines here is an anthology edited by Cindy Crabb, who I have to remind myself is not actually famous because she's so well known to zine folks. Her zine Doris has been around since 1991, and has probably encouraged hundreds of girls to give writing and self-publishing a try. This anthology, Support—which is a collection of pieces on sexual abuse and its aftermath—is very powerful, and includes letters people have written to Cindy, which she has reproduced by typing them up on a typewriter. At the end of the zine she lists resources for abuse survivors and the people who care about them, and tells readers they can write to her for a longer list. All of this could have been done online much more quickly and easily, and it's even cheaper than a photocopy if you use a free blog platform. And I love the internet—for lots of reasons besides its convenience and cost effectiveness to publishers. But there's something about reading stories or information in a print zine that gives you the sense of having discovered something, and I think that's uniquely powerful. Disappearing into the zine, feeling the rest of the world go silent and fall away, I could be 8 years old again, or 12, one of those ages when no one wants me to know about the stuff I need to know about, so I find it out for myself at the library, alone in a quiet room with my heart hammering. The fact that this can still happen to me is something I find really stirring and moving and excellent.

The tiny print run of most zines makes them rare; as objects, they're things you can hold in your hand. When you're finished reading a zine you can put it in your backpack or away on a shelf, and it doesn't go back to belonging to the whole world the way things you've found on the internet do. It's yours.

Storming the Castle

Well THAT was a fucking letdown. JEEZ. When was the last time someone you greatly admired gave a talk that made you feel so confounded and pissed off and disappointed that you literally ran out into the night but still missed your train, and then in your pain and confusion got on the wrong train and ended up in a suburb you've never even heard of even though you grew up taking these stupid trains because the one you got on by accident was an EXPRESS, and then you had to call home for a ride cuz it was cold and you were wretched? What, that hasn't happened to you? Well I guess you were smart enough not to place your emotional and psychological well-being in the hands of the Penn Humanities Forum last night.

I've been looking forward to hearing Terry Castle give her talk at Penn for months now. It was initially scheduled for November and then got pushed back to February. No problem, my calendar flips by at an alarming rate these days anyway, so I decided I could handle the wait. But this is thing—I really, really looked forward to this. I love(d) Terry Castle. I have thought of her as a genius. She is so funny, and has such a fine, nuanced, unusual mind that she's one of my favorite critics to read on contemporary culture and queer and gender issues, and one of my favorite writers, period, when it comes to the even more personal stuff that she writes about, i.e., her own life. She teaches at Stanford in California, so getting to see her at a university right here at home (the one I graduated from, go Quakers!), was a rare treat. She was appearing as part of a yearly, academic-year-long conference called the Humanities Forum that is open to the public and pretty reliably excellent. Every year I look through the schedule and choose a few lectures that I am excited to attend, and this year I hit the ceiling when I saw one of them would be given by one of my personal writing heroes. I could go hear Terry Castle say surprising, funny stuff in person, for free! Lucky me.

Maybe I should tell you that I gave some thought to what I'd wear to this lecture, because I think, rather a lot, about what I'll wear every time I go anywhere, and about what those clothes—and other aspects of my physical appearance—might communicate to the people who will see me. In the end, I chose my trusty skin-tight black jeans because I think they're becoming AND cool. I wore a little makeup, too, like I usually do. None of this was a very big deal and it didn't take me away from my more SERIOUS, INTELLECTUAL interests for any longer than, say, I don't know, putting on aftershave or organizing my fucking fishing lures would have done. Just so you know.

The talk was held in Penn's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. We knew the subject of the lecture: "I'm not a woman, I'm a not-a-woman," which was Castle's own coinage (obvi) to describe that unusual sort of woman who manages to live outside of the constraints of expectations of behavior and attitude that are typically placed on women. People who "fail" to "be women," either willfully or because they can't help it. It's an interesting idea, and one I've given a lot of thought to myself.

Castle's list of Western women through history who met these criteria—most of them artists or dramatic performers, since that's her own personal bent—was a kind of queer history, but it was more complex than that. Claud Cahun, Eleanor Roosevelt, Madonna, Susan Sontag, Susan Boyle, H.D., Gertrude Stein. What do they all have in common? They are "not-a-woman" women. Some of them are gay, some aren't. Some are cross-dressers, and some are skilled at and interested in cultivating the kind of female beauty that appeals to straight men. Some do not possess those skills but seem basically unaware of this fact, so uninterested in it are they. In one way or another, all of them have managed to circumvent, ignore, flout, or knowingly use to their own purposes the traditional gender role of a [heterosexual] woman.

It's an interesting and provocative topic, though I'm sorry to say I didn't find what she had to say about it especially deep or enlightening. I kept waiting for her to surprise me with these points, and she didn't, much. This didn't make me want to throw rotten eggs at her, though. That impulse came later, when Castle got to the part she prefaced by saying "You may want to get out your rotten eggs to throw at the stage now." That's when she read a passage from Karl Abraham on the female castration complex that frankly stunned me. I wish I could share the damn excerpt but I haven't been able to find it because I don't know what she was reading from. Abraham was Freud's collaborator and best student, and Castle herself admitted to being a mostly unreconstructed Freudian, so brace yourself: She read two paragraphs in which Abraham explained that women wish they were men, whether they realize it or not. It's like a penis envy thing, ya dig?

Does this seem true to Terry Castle? It does, yes. Does she think that an attraction to masculinity or a masculine presentation indicates a desire to be a man? Yep, she thinks that too. Hideously, Castle's (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that all women would like to be men is that, when she has asked some women whether they would have chosen to be born male, if they had been given that option before birth and all other things being equal, they either said yes, perhaps they would, or they threw up such "walls" of anger or denial that they must simply be kidding themselves, and on some down-deep, sublimated, fucking Freudian subconscious level do actually wish they were men. So here we have Castle gas-lighting the people who disagree with her, which I must say is very ... manly of her. She gave the weirdest little half-apologetic, half-angry, "what do you want me to say" sort of smile after she said these things. Like, Don't get mad at me! It's nature! Or perhaps, This is awful and I feel bad, but I'm saying it anyway. Also, fuck you!

Castle's penis envy idea struck me as boring and dumb and wrong, since I—a real person, who was sitting right there—am a woman who likes being a woman. Theory debunked, dog! And you know, what exactly does Castle mean by "being a man"? She never really said. I assumed she meant having access to experiences, or to a way of being in the world, that women have historically not had (though some of us do now, sort of). But maybe she meant having a penis, plain and simple. Do you wish you had a penis, those of you who do not currently have one? Yes? No? If you answered yes, would that prove Castle's point? Does the penis make the man? Aren't these questions kind of retro? I grow tired.

But not too tired to go on complaining about this, because I had another problem with Castle's talk, and that was the way she discussed gender vis a vis transgenderism. As I understood her, she seemed to be saying that she considers a person who is making a male-to-female gender transition to be a sort of polar opposite of her because of their desire to be a woman, or perhaps an exaggerated example of a cisgendered woman who really enjoys "being a woman," in the sense that she likes those social markers of, maybe, wearing long hair and / or makeup and / or pretty "women's" shoes. Like, no. Not all transwomen like those things and want them for themselves, first of all. And as I understand it, that's not the fuck at all what being transgender is about. I mean, being a transwoman might include desiring to "look like" a woman and / or enjoy girly things like experimenting with different types of makeup, and maybe in a larger sense also gaining membership to the sisterhood of understanding and sharing those things with other women. MAYBE. SOMETIMES. Just as many cis-women do not wear makeup and / or subjugate themselves to men in order to attract them (you're not the only one, Terry Castle!), many transwomen do not do those things either. Anyway, as I understand it, a transwoman is a person who was assigned the gender identity of male at birth but who knows that they are actually female, and any outer expression of this (via manner of dress, a name change, or a change in bodily presentation that may or may not be surgical) is an expression of the gender that was already there. I winced down to my toes listening to her talk about these "men" who "want to be" "women." Did I misunderstand her? I might have, that's totally possible. Please tell me I did.

She brought up Caitlyn Jenner a couple times, once to say that some comment Caitlyn made in an interview that she just wants to share makeup tips with her girlfriends (or something to that effect) was incomprehensible to her. Which, okay, fine, it's a big world, there's room for Caitlyn Jenner's AND Terry Castle's differing attitudes toward makeup in it. But she also said that she considers this kind of activity to be so pointless and degrading that she can't understand why anyone would choose it. Huh? This is gender studies? Sounds more like some Cool Girl shit to me.

One of the ideas Castle brought up that I rather liked was her suggestion that some Not-a-Woman women are Femme Fatales: She named Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, Madonna and Lady Gaga. (Interestingly, these Femme Fatales are all also "gay icons," a fact I don't remember Castle bringing up.) She considers them to be outsider women, but ones who are interested enough in worldly gain that they knowingly, self-consciously amp up those feminine markers in order to get what they want. (Unlike lowlier, regular, yes-a-woman women, I guess, who just brainlessly, helplessly participate in some master-slave set-up every time they look in the mirror and put on their lipgloss.)

Is this feminism? Hahaha, nope, but then Castle didn't say it was. It's not scholarly either, a fact she also acknowledged. So what is it then? A personal, idiosyncratic, mostly eloquent disquisition on the subject of gender. There's a place for that, for sure. Furthermore, I greatly appreciate a little controversy in these kinds of conversations. After all, her talk got me writing this blog post, trying to articulate my own ideas, and I'm thankful for that. Nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned conversation starter. I just—I'm shocked at how poorly thought-out her ideas seemed to be, and how insulting her perspective on the topic was. Sitting there, I felt humiliated, as though she'd tripped me just for the pleasure of watching me fall down.

There are two more things to say about last night's lecture. First, Castle told us that she's only presented the ideas in this talk once before (she didn't say where), and there were some prominent feminists in the crowd, Vivian Gornick among them. Apparently she was ENRAGED. Second, Heather K. Love, the Penn professor who was the Topic Director for the Humanities Forum this year, introduced Castle by saying that she agrees with the people who have called Castle our greatest living critic. Hearing this made me smile, since I've been so admiring of Castle too. Then, after Castle had gone off the rails and wrecked her train right there in the auditorium—and during the Q&A—Love chimed in with something useful. She said that she has long been interested in the same women Castle mentioned, for the same sorts of reasons, and that she personally sympathizes with Castle's lack of interest in makeup (or whatever; I'm having the damnedest time encapsulating the "regular woman" category), but she likes to keep her personal taste separate from her politics and would like to see enough change in the world that no one should have to conflate wanting equality with wanting to be a man.

So thank goodness for Heather K. Love. But I still have so many thoughts.

I am reminded of a talk I heard last year, given by the extraordinary war photographer Lynsey Addario. She has made beautiful pictures of, among other subjects, Afghan women living with extreme restrictions on their daily lives. Addario is interested in, and actively seeks, justice for women around the world. And yet someone in the audience asked some question or other about these women, and Addario reminded us that many of the women she met in Afghanistan are happy and that, though they were all too well-mannered to say such a thing, she knew many of them felt sorry for her, putting herself at risk to do her work, alone; what some of us see as personal liberty is viewed by some others as the unfortunate circumstance of a person who has no one to care for them. Make no mistake, yours is not the only way of looking at the world.

I'm also thinking about the Barbara Pym novel I read a few weeks ago. It's one of her first, Excellent Women, a hilarious and touching comedy of manners that deals with midcentury, just-after-the-war-and-still-all-bombed-out-and-deprived England. More specifically, the England of bachelor vicars and their quirky households, "nice" families with comically impeccable manners, socially awkward lonelyhearts, blazing eccentrics, and spinsters. OMG, spinsters. There are few topics dearer to my heart than that one. Spinsters, bluestockings, Pippi Longstockings, Ramona Clearys, Jessica Vyes. Tomboys! I'm straight—and now I'm married, to a man—and I have aligned myself with all of these identities for at least some part, but more or less all, of my life.

In Excellent Women—in the Jane Austen tradition—we have a main character who is an unmarried woman over the age of 30 and who ponders that situation pretty often. Mildred Lathbury lives alone in a flat with a shared bathroom in a boarding house, and because she is churchy and not married, she finds herself lumped in with a category of women who can always be counted on to help her married friends with their more sophisticated problems. She is one of the condescendingly-referred-to "excellent women" who are always on hand serve the tea. In a piece on Pym for The Guardian, the novelist Alexander McCall Smith writes, "Men, young and otherwise, were to form a major focal point of [Pym's] writing; men, wryly and sometimes wistfully observed by a single female character, bring both excitement and disappointment - and mostly the latter - to the heroines of all her books. Excellent Women is as much about men as it is about women; the excellent women who populate this novel are excellent because they have been described as such by men."

The wonderful joke of the book is that Mildred doesn't view her life as dire at all; if anything she seems to feel a bit above the silliness of romance. She has almost-romances, though, and goes on dates, and her observations of these are hilarious. She sometimes feels lonely or left out, but she also seems curiously undriven to get to the social place where her married friends dwell. The wistful thing that Smith mentions is also certainly there; she has a touch of the kind of admiration of men that Castle talked about, though Pym's treatment of it was vastly less ham-fisted than hers. Mildred is a type of woman that has always interested me, probably because, in my commitment to singleness and the vocation of my writing, I was so much this way myself for such a long time. Why do these ladies not want to do what most women want, or feel obliged, to do? In what way are they different? Why do some women remain different in these ways even after marrying? (Frida Kahlo, with her bisexuality and separate house away from her husband, comes to mind; she was incidentally one of Castle's not-a-woman women too.) The answers are as varied as there are types of individuals, and failing to acknowledge this on a deep level seems like simple misogyny to me, which feels like the worst kind of treachery coming from a woman who loves women.

I don't know, dude. It was bad enough to make me get on the wrong flippin train. Maybe I should stay in tonight.

"She abandoned anything that she found to be a compromise or 'a bore.'"

I'm sitting here drinking in these Bonnie Cashin colors. Do you know her name? I didn't, but as I browsed the spring 2016 publishing catalogs for something to review, I found myself drawn to a new Rizzoli book about her, Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It. It's making for such rousing reading; her life as an artist and a clothing designer was uniquely self-directed and totally fabulous. And just look at these clothes (from the Met's Online Collection):


Tangerines and limes, orange and raspberry sorbet. The colors are all so delicious. I'm dying to show you the photos of her apartment at the United Nations Plaza—Cashin made her living spaces look as lively as the clothes she designed—but I'd better not, since the book isn't out until April. Here, why don't I do what the kids do nowadays and make one of those palettes you see on Pinterest. The colors she keeps coming back to are these:


Couldn't you just eat them? It's all lumps of snow and winter gray skies where I live, and I feel greedy for this kind of visual vitality.

Cashin died in 2000, at the age of 93 (or thereabouts; she was a bit vague on the subject of her true age), and this book is the result of a collaboration between the designer and author Stephanie Lake that took place over the last three years of Cashin's life. Rizzoli's books are always sensitively made, but this one is unique because it appears to have grown naturally out of a real closeness between the two. Lake, a jewelry designer, writes that she discovered Cashin while doing research for Sotheby's, and she was simultaneously impressed by the degree of the older designer's influence and puzzled to see how little has been written about her. She set out to make a proper record of Cashin's legacy, and her initial attempts at conducting formal interviews quickly became informal conversations and then a sincere friendship. Lake is now the caretaker of Cashin's enormous archive; the book contains dozens of photos, sketches, and other ephemera from the designer's long life.

On top of being sassy and funny, Cashin was a serious artist and a big reader. Lake quotes her making reference to all kinds of influences, and I'm drinking these in too. Like the paintings of Sonia Delaunay—


and the Vogue covers Cashin painted for her own amusement when she was first becoming interested in fashion design, after the style of Eduardo Garcia Benito—

(I love reading about artists from back in the day, incidentally. They all got started so young. Cashin oversaw a team of dressmakers while she was still in high school, and she didn't bother with college but went right to work. The illustrator Eduardo Garcia Benito, I just read on Wikipedia, began working as an artist at the age of 12. Who knows if that's even true, and who cares? According to Lake's book Cashin started lying about her age when she was only 25, possibly to make her precocious talent seem even more impressive. It's a reminder to me to continually create and recreate myself—and to people younger than myself, it should be a reminder that you don't need school or any other authority to bestow fabulosity on you. Jobs, maybe, yeah, but not fabulosity. That's all you.)

Cashin may have been an unusual woman, but she had a typical woman-artist's story in one way, at least: Her tremendous influence has been largely overlooked and not properly documented. Though she was a hugely successful, both commercially and critically, on her own steam and worked with dozens of prominent houses as well—she was Coach's founding handbag designer!—Bonnie Cashin is not exactly a household name. According to Lake, Cashin virtually invented layering, both as a dressing concept and a fashion term. Same with the word hardware, as it refers to closures on garments and bags. If you're interested in clothing in the slightest, you can't tell me you haven't used those words recently and often. Oh, and lest you think people aren't still wearing her designs, here's a colorful screenshot of a "Bonnie Cashin" term search I did on etsy just now:


So snazzy! I'm off to the library for a reading tonight, and I was planning to wear my trusty black jeans and a new dipped-hem camel colored sweater that I've been favoring lately, but I think I've got to take a cue from Bonnie and add a magenta scarf at least.

xx Katie