Get on Yer Soapbox

Almost a month ago now, my colleague Mary Tasillo and I had a lovely experience at The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library, where we ran a workshop for a class of writing students at a local university. They’ve spent the semester creating collections of their own prose and poetry, and with Mary’s assistance they each arranged them into pages for a book they’ll self-publish. Together, she and I helped them design and print book covers on a letterpress machine, then taught them to bind the books by hand using binder’s thread and a needle. At the binding station I set up, I first showed them how to use a bone folding tool to crease their pages in half, and to my surprise the mere act of folding the pages made their faces light up with pleasure, as the size and shape of the finished product became suddenly apparent. It’s a book! 

Mary Tasillo and Charlene Kwon started The Soapbox in a Philadelphia row house five years ago because they wanted to create a place where people from diverse backgrounds could enjoy their large collection of zines, chapbooks, and artists’ books for free, and have inexpensive access to printing equipment and materials that you ordinarily need to be in art school to use. The founders’ belief in the power of sharing and community is part and parcel of zine publishing. In fact, we like to say that zines are an inherently democratic medium, because they’re so inexpensive and easy to make: Anyone can publish one, whether that person thinks of themselves as a writer or an artist or not. Everyone has a story, after all. Everyone has a right to tell it.

Independent publishing is democratic in another sense, too: It’s a time-honored and ideal method for disseminating information, whether it’s political or personal in nature (or both). It doesn’t matter who you are—how young or inexperienced, how old or ignored, how marginalized or unimportant you’ve been made to feel. Zines are there for you, alongside blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other new digital media. They’re all ways to become your own publisher and create your own audience, which is incredibly gratifying and empowering—really, it’s power-giving—for someone with something to say.

Our workshop took place on election day, in the afternoon. I’d voted that morning, and Mary went to the local polling place to vote after the workshop ended. I don’t know if all the students we worked with that day were old enough to vote, but while we were working together they looked at Facebook and Instagram on their phones and were excited to see pictures of their friends wearing “I voted” badges. There was a buzz in the studio that day, with this huge thing pending and the powerfully positive energy of creation in the air. It happened that all of the students, as well as their professor, and Mary and I too—everyone working together in that room, talking and sharing and wondering how things would turn out—were women. You can make of that fact what you will, but it feels worth mentioning.

In the days since the election results came in, things in this country have felt a lot different than they did that afternoon in our studio. Tensions are high, and many Americans are scared, hurt, and discouraged—though not, seemingly, those who have felt emboldened to act on their bias and hatred with intimidation and abuse. It feels impossible to know what will happen next, and what we’ll be called upon to do about it. But I do know that I’ll be using my first amendment right to express myself and to stand up to hateful words and actions, and I strongly encourage others to do the same. So go ahead and get on your soapbox. The time to speak up is now.

Fake it Till You Make it

My review of Elizabeth Greenwood’s nonfiction book, Playing Dead: Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. My editor shortened it a bit, so for your reading pleasure I offer you the full-length version here:

We’ve all felt it, the desire to run away from the tedium of our own lives. Some days you can’t help but notice that the train you ride to work could just as easily take you someplace else. When I was a kid my dad would, on occasion, get a faraway look and claim he’d always intended to join the merchant marines.

As Playing Dead author Elizabeth Greenwood speculates, we may be even more inclined to dream of disappearing now, in the age of trackable smartphones and constant surveillance. “We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data sets that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder,” she writes, and she has a point.

But what about leaving for real? Faking your own death – the closest thing to suicide without actually dying? It’s a funny thought, but who would try it?

Greenwood, that’s who. In her introduction, the young journalist explains the reason she first got fixated on the subject: She was drowning in some $100,000 worth of student loans. She had no hope of paying off her debt in this lifetime – so why not “die”? The idea came up in a jokey conversation with a similarly stretched-thin friend, who one imagines forgot the conversation moments later. Greenwood, who began researching death fraud that evening at home, did not.

She sets out to learn how she might fake her own death by seeing how others have done it. Or rather, how they’ve tried and failed, since as she points out, it’s impossible to prove a negative – anyone who has successfully faked their death is not available for an interview because, well, we think they’re dead.

She meets the folks who get paid to investigate insurance fraud, which remains one of the most popular reasons for pulling a fakey: simple greed. Steve Rambam is a no-nonsense, classically hard-boiled detective who maintains that simply disappearing is easier to do than faking your death, and vastly preferable. Pretending to die is not strictly illegal, but fraudulently claiming a life insurance policy certainly is, as is using a fake identity, which is the only way you could do anything after you “died.”

By the book’s end, Greenwood makes her way to the Philippines, where corrupt government agencies make faking your death easy and fairly commonplace, on a quest for her very own death certificate. For those familiar with gonzo journalist Jon Ronson, this is a Ronsonesque stunt, and though Greenwood is an entertaining writer she doesn’t quite have his genius for dry understatement. She knows how to tell a good story—and there are lots of them here—but when she writes about herself, her prose can be a bit overcooked. “In the crepuscular light of early winter, I was bemoaning my self-imposed financial plight…” she tells us.( Translation: Girl was broke.)

Still though, the stories. We meet John Darwin, the U.K. man and his wife who lied to everyone, including their grown sons, by pretending he had died in a boating accident when he was actually living in his own rental property next door, in disguise, for nearly six years. His motive was a mortgage insurance policy, and he eventually turned himself in. But the suffering he caused his family was, in Greenwood’s words, the “collateral damage” that he doesn’t ever quite own up to.

She also introduces us to the Believers, the utterly devoted contingent of people within the Michael Jackson fandom who believe that the King of Pop faked his death and is sending them messages from beyond the fake grave via lyrics in his posthumously-released songs. Greenwood doesn’t share their beliefs, but she doesn’t make fun of them either. That would be “…taking a cheap and dreadfully obvious shot. … It takes a lot more courage to believe doggedly in something so outlandish and weird. The believing itself is the point more than the outcome. It’s faith.”

In the end, it’s this largeness of imagination that makes Greenwood’s book a success. Whether these death fraudsters strike you as clever schemers or fascinating in a fringe-weirdo sort of way, Greenwood makes them human, which has a lovely way of showing us how expansive life is—even in death.

Paint this!

A few days ago I looked lovingly at my big round cat where she was sitting sort of hunched over on the floor, and I thought, She looks like one of those striped cartoon cats from the 70s. What were those?

Turns out the cat I was thinking of was drawn by a cartoonist named Bernard Kliban, whose book Cat was such a hit in 1975 that it launched a zillion mugs and t-shirts (which explains my old and murky memories of it from the 80s, when I was still small). A bit of awkward Google research told me this much ("fat striped cartoon cat 70s" ... no, not Garfield ... ), and I poked around a bit longer and found some of his other cartoons too. Most of them are single-panel gags, many of which have titles that function as the punchline. And they are funny as hell.

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

The cat merchandise is still around, but I found precious little information on the man or his work. He died in 1990, before the internet as we know it; the few scans I found online were enough to whet my appetite, but most of his books are out of print. I could have bought one secondhand, of course, but opted instead for the appropriately dark absurdity of trying to do much of anything in Philadelphia, by taking one of the few functioning trains in our currently striking transit system to our beautiful but down-at-heel library downtown, and borrowing them. (I feel disloyal even typing this because I love our library and they really do have wonderful programming, an excellent collection, and truly wild holdings in their rare books archive, but please believe me that the state of things in this city can sometimes be disheartening. Also, after the library, I went to the DMV. Hahahahaha!)

The library's main branch owns four of Kliban's books but only two circulate—Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings and Luminous Animals and Other Drawings—I guess because the others are out of print and hard to replace. When I found the books I'd traveled there for, I flipped Luminous Animals open and immediately found this panel, which made me almost cry with laughter. Right there in the library, standing by myself. Look at the waiter's FACE.

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

There is a lot to enjoy in both of the books I found. I was especially excited by a few cartoons that explicitly address what it's like to be an ottist in a culture that does not give a shit about ott—like the one of a dog watching a handyman screw a lightbulb into a ceiling and thinking "I could do that!", and another one of a cow peddling a newspaper called the Cow News to a bunch of indifferent walruses and penguins. Kliban was a successful working cartoonist in his lifetime, but he isn't much remembered or talked about now. It seems he was original enough to have inspired a number of artists, some of whom went on to become better known than he was. As I read through these books I was strongly reminded of Gary Larson's The Far Side, one of my teenage favorites for its black yet ridiculous humor. I did run across this piece Rob Clough wrote for The Comics Journal, in which he looked at Cat 35 years after its publication. He talks about the influence Kliban had on other cartoonists, including Larson, and points out that even "the landscape, paperback format of the book would be aped by hundreds of cartoon collections for years to come," which naturally put me to mind of the Garfield books I so loved as a kid.

The cats that made Kliban famous have an essential sweetness to them, mainly because they're so apt, catness-wise; I take it the more mordant and bizarre ones didn't get put onto mugs. Because of this, I have had the pleasure of surprise at how much of his other work is rude, dark, and righteously pissed-off. There is a healthy number of boobs and dicks in these books, for one thing. (Kliban made cartoons for Playboy for many years.) At the same time, as Clough wrote in his essay, a lot of his work is both droll and strange enough to have fit in with the sensibility of The New Yorkerthough they only ever published one drawing of his, in 1963an observation I totally agree with as I vaguely thought that's where I remembered having seen the cats when I began this little quest of mine. They are also sometimes political, in my favorite way for things to be political: nihilistic and adolescent and correct; angry and broad, accusatory of everybody but reserving the realest contempt for those who would be in charge of the rest of us. Let me just share one more with you, since it really RESONATES—to use a word everyone seems to love nowadays—in this moment before the 2016 presidential election. It's as true as an arrow through the heart, and of all the Kliban cartoons I've read recently, it's the only one that made me feel sadder than anything else.

Sunday

I am not a very sociable person. I mean, I'm interested in people, I love to have good conversations, and I'll dance in public pretty much anytime - I'm really not what you'd call shy. But somehow, the particular combination of skills you need for keeping up with social plans every night of the week, going to parties where you have to make noncommittal, chitty-chatty small talk with strangers for hours without accidentally saying something that makes one of them feel weird (oops), absorbing the huge amount of emotional information that goes pinging around a room full of people - whatever those skills are, I don't have 'em. The effort exhausts me, and if I've had to "go out" too often in too short a period of time, it drains my life force and makes me pissy and mean, depressed and restless and resentful toward the poor other people involved, who are most likely just doing their best to get along and are probably suffering to varying degrees along with me. I mean, they might be suffering. I guess it's possible some of them are actually enjoying the party. :-/

Anyway, after a couple weeks of too much of this kind of socializing, today was magnificently quiet. I finally got a decent night's sleep last night, and I woke up feeling worn-out and battered in that gorgeous way, when you're so rested your body almost aches from it. I went for a long, long walk through residential city neighborhoods, which is my favorite way to spend time with myself, and then I read some of an old issue of Parabola magazine that I found at a thrift store for 29 cents on my birthday last week (thrift store shopping being my favorite way to celebrate my birthday). Parabola is smart and gentle and nuanced, like a person you'd feel lucky to know. In this issue (Spring 2005), I found a poem by a Greek poet named C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called "As Much As You Can." I think it's okay to post it here because it's also available to read on this official website of the Cavafy Archive. The website has a few different translations of it (Cavafy mostly wrote in his native Greek), but here's the one that was published in the magazine, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

As Much As You Can

Even if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Reading this poem, I felt a rush of comfort come over me. I saw and was seen. It was like getting an extra week of days like today, all the time I needed to heal and rest and become whole again.

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.

The truth has finally been spoken at last—that poetry is an essential industry. The story, as it comes to us—by hearsay evidence which we can not vouch for—runs thus: Mr. Conrad Aiken, being included in the recent military registration somewhere in Boston or near it, showed his undeniable fighting spirit by fighting for his art—he demanded fourth-class registration not on the usual easy terms (for he might have claimed exemption because of having a family to support) but on the ground that he was a poet and that poetry is an essential industry. The claim, being novel, was referred to Washington, and by some ultimate Solomon, there sitting in judgement, was sustained, being affirmed and decreed and locked and bolted under all the sacred seals of law.
— Harriet Monroe, Poetry magazine, 1918

Cataloging

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.

Adaptation

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. 

secrets.jpg

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.