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

dragon

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:

cashin_colors

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—

sonia

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:

cashin_etsy

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

 

Orgiastic

Reading Tessa Hadley's new novel, The Past, which I bought THE DAY IT CAME OUT on January 5th but couldn't start until I'd finished the Barbara Pym novel I was deep into. (Excellent Women; more on that later.) I think I'm not as enamored of this novel as I expected to be, but I'm only a third of the way through it so, too soon to make a total judgment, and anyway my mild disappointment might have more to do with the way I acquired the book than anything to do with the writing itself. It was a pre-ordered hardcover purchase—la di da— when truthfully, so much of the pleasure I get from reading is in the discovery of the book (or zine or blog), the accident of finding a wonderful writer while browsing the library shelves (or distro catalog or internet), and realizing they've got 8 more novels (or whatever) to enjoy before I move on: An orgy of reading. (Which, incidentally, is what I've decided 2016 will be for me. An orgy of reading. For whatever reason I've recently been devouring reading material even more lustily than usual, and I've used the word orgy to describe this feeling several times now to my husband, who finds it disgusting. But you get the point.)

The Past is about an annual family retreat to the beautiful (if mold-mottled) country home of the grandparents, who are no longer living. The house itself doesn't have much longer to go, either, and this may be the last time all the children and grandchildren come together here. Siblings Alice, Harriet, Fran, and Roland and their various partners and / or children are there for three weeks one summer, and we are given (at least occasional) knowledge of all of their thoughts. I find myself connecting to parts of Alice's flamboyant personality: She hates the thought of getting older, and dresses in an elegant, quirky style; she applies her aesthetic to every room she spends time in, too. But I also relate to Roland's need for his work (he's an academic as well as a [sorta] popular writer) to give him a sense of identity and pride. At times I've felt like Harriet, who is solitary and stern, and seems to hide some essential part of herself from herself. And though this is something of a throwaway moment about Kasim, the twenty-something son of Alice's ex, I found myself agreeing heartily:

"...his room [that] was too tidy and too empty: austere as a cell, with only a thin rug on bare floorboards, the walls painted a horrible ice pale blue. This decor seemed to stand for a certain kind of middle-class Englishness he loathed, chilly and superior and withholding, despising material comfort."

I'm American and can't really speak to the Englishness of this, but there is most certainly a type of person in this country who keeps a house like this, and I know a few of them, and they make me weary too, with their spartan lifestyles and unassailable life choices—organic, classic, plastic-free. I like traditional, even rustic decor, I do; I favor hardwood floors and good furniture in a simple style, and those are in fact what I have in my own house. But I also like to bring home piles of secondhand sweaters and dresses from the thrift store, and hang funny 80s album covers on the wall, and eat a cheeseburger in front of the TV. I have a tape dispenser on my desk that looks like a high-heeled lady's pump, and a growing collection of temporary tattoos. It's the superior and withholding part of the description that resonates with me. It's so apt. When I'm in a home like that I feel the reproach of the wan color schemes, the art-directed perfectness of the single good overcoat hanging from a wrought-iron hook. I often feel pulled between this kind of serene simplicity and the abundance and diversity I crave, but in the end I think I'll keep my jumble of six thrift-shop coats, so I'll always be able to choose one that matches the mood I'm in.

I've Got a Blister From Touching Everything I See

My pal Ed edited a compilation zine called I F#cking Love This Album, and he invited me to contribute to it. The zine came out a few weeks ago, so I thought now would be a good time to share my little essay with you here. The zine has a number of funny, interesting essays by other writers, including the highly entertaining Billy da Bunny. Buy yourself a copy, why donthca?  Meantime, read mine: Hole, Live Through This

By the time I started college, Kurt Cobain was already dead. My best friend Laura and I hugged each other in the parking lot at school that Monday, the weekend after we found out. Laura and I used music as a way to distinguish ourselves as different from the other girls at school, and to get close to each other. She’d drive us around the suburbs in her little Corolla, tapes blasting, while we laughed like Beavis and Butthead and worked up the nerve to buy cigarettes. Laura loved Hole and Courtney Love as much as we both loved Kurt and Nirvana, and although I thought Courtney was cool and funny, I didn’t care that much about her music. Where Nirvana’s sound was rare and perfect, Hole sounded messy and unformed, always on the verge of flying apart.

After high school Laura and I stayed best friends but went to different colleges, and at first it was really hard. I was lonely and isolated at a hyper-competitive school, and I had a new boyfriend who I had no idea how to deal with because growing up Catholic had left me sick with sex-shame. During those months, I learned that feeling anguished made Hole sound ... different. The music wasn’t just angry, it was urgent, like it was desperately trying to save your life. Courtney Love’s rage and pain were so female, too—the true beginning of my feminist education. “They found pieces of Jennifer’s baaaaah-dee”: I must have sung that awful line ten thousand times.

Live Through This isn’t my favorite album; nowadays, I’ll forget about it completely for years at a time. But MAN was it important to me then. I had it on tape, and played it at top volume on my Walkman over and over in the dark. Lying on the stiff mattress of my lofted bed at night, trying not to cry, getting braver. Whenever I think of the album the first words of the first song unfurl in my mind—“And the sky was made of amethyst,” set to the pulse of a too-quick heartbeat, and I can hear the perfection that was always there.

A few years ago I saw Hole play for the first time. Courtney Love was unbelievably powerful in person, with huge long legs like an Amazon. We got close to the stage, which isn’t hard to do at an old-people rock show, and I looked up at her in amazement as she bucked and heaved and belted out my getting-brave music, right there in front of me. It was 15 years after the album helped me save myself, and I no longer needed it the same way I once did. But I still loved it.

A Good Year for Reading

long2I live and die by my datebook. In fact, since I haven't marked down a date for my death, it's likely it'll never happen. I use my book to make a note of every event I hear about and want to remember, and I draw up daily lists of tasks I need to do, which I happily cross off as I accomplish each one. Every September I buy myself a new book, since I favor the student ones. Don't ask me why. I think it may be that I first developed a need for a daily calendar when I was in college, and all these years later I still think in terms of getting a fresh start in the fall.

This year I chose a brand of datebook I'd never used before called Bloom. It's a really nice book, sprinkled throughout with stirring quotations and "reflections" that are lovely but don't beat you over the head with their positivity. I've just come to a page at the end of the year that prompts you to list new things you tried and places you visited, etc., in 2015, with similar categories to fill in with plans for the coming year. One of the sections is called Best Books I Read in 2015, so I gave that a little thought and came up with these seven. More than half of them were written by men, which surprised me since I don't tend to be very interested in fiction by or about men. But now that I look at it, two of these four men are gay, and the only fiction writer among them—Colm Tóibín—very often writes about the interiority of women. So there you go. I've already said something about most of these books or writers on this blog, so here are just a few brief thoughts on each:

  1. A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam. This may be the best book I've ever read, actually. It's up there with The Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, two other children's books that I first read as an adult, loved deeply, and understood what makes them "classics." (A Long Way From Verona was considered a children's book when it was published in 1971, but like those others the ideas and humor are sophisticated and subtle and make substantive reading for any adult.)
  2. The London Train, by Tessa Hadley. Clever Girl is still my favorite of Tessa Hadley's novels, but The London Train had the same wonderful affect on me, casting a kind of spell that made the real world drop away as I read. Her characters live in my memory as though they're real people I once knew. Her new novel, The Past, comes out in the U.S. on January 5th, which will be an excellent way to begin a new year of reading. I plan to finish it in time to see Hadley speak at the main branch of the Free Library at the end of the month. If I work up the nerve I may even stay afterward to speak with her, which is something I never do because I consider it humiliating to wait in line for the privilege of telling someone I admire them. That attitude might belong in the category of "hangups" though, so it's probably not a bad idea to fight it.
  3. I'd never heard of Helen Garner before I bought a used copy of her novel The Spare Room (which is apparently really a memoir, and quite frankly reads like one too). Fine, vivid writing from a strong and unusual personality brought this sad story to life. I'll plan to look for more of her stuff in the new year.
  4. I freaking love Jon Ronson. I even concocted a reason to interview him once, years ago, just because I loved one of his books so much (Them: Adventures With Extremists) that I developed a silly crush on him after reading it. In 2015 he's still at the top of his game, in control of his powers to amaze and amuse. In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, he asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we all participate in "shaming" people who have had a fall from grace. It makes for crawlingly distressing reading. I even lost a little sleep for a few days there.
  5. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín. I keep reading Tóibín's fiction and trying to understand how he does what he does, short of witchcraft. I still don't get it. It really is magic, the way he transports you. I especially love his women protagonists, like the main lady in Nora Webster, Nancy in the short story "The Name of the Game" from the collection Mothers and Sons, and Helen in Blackwater Lightship. All three of them have a certain canniness to the way they approach their lives; a solitary, dignified stoicism; and a wonderful dry sense of humor. They're some of the realest women I've ever read, and their Irishness is both foreign and intimately familiar to me. Blackwater Lightship is about a young gay man who is dying from AIDS, and the family that gathers around him during his final days. It would be heartbreaking except that Tóibín doesn't seen to want to break your heart. The whole novel is infused with the sadness of the impending loss, but there's a gritty hopefulness at the heart of the book that bolsters you in the end. Wonderful novel.
  6. Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner. Because I used to review them for the Philly Inquirer, I have read dozens of so-called young adult books, probably more than 100 by now. And I don't mind telling you that on the whole, these books do not make very interesting reading for adults. Occasionally, though, I'll come across a YA novel that is more nuanced, surprising, and challenging than the majority. This crime thriller was one of them. It's gorgeously written, in the vernacular of a poor Southern country boy, and it is scary AS HELL. I got the book a week or so after I moved into the house I live in now, and reading it in a place where I wasn't yet totally comfortable was enough to keep me awake at night, staring at the ceiling with huge eyes. I hope this guy gets the attention he deserves for this beautiful book.
  7. Gary Indiana is one of a kind. He's fucking funny and bitter and so smart it's scary. Read his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, if you're interested in descriptions of modern-day Havana or San Francisco's underground art-freak scene of the '60s and'70s, book recommendations from a huge reader, gossipy accounts of the personal lives of well-known American intellectuals, or in Gary Indiana himself. He's reason enough on his own, trust me. (Incidentally, I wrote about this book for the Utne Reader, and they're giving away a copy of it as part of a year-end grab bag contest. I see they've also got cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan's I Was a Child up for grabs, which reminds me that I loved that book too.)

lt3 garner shamed tiobin Ask-the-Dark-cover-e1422388041251 i-can-give-you-anything-but-love

Here are a few more books I read this year and want to tell you about:

  1. How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, by Alison Freer. Charmingly written and incredibly useful. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about their clothing even one iota more than the average person. If it bothers you that store-bought clothes almost always have a slightly imperfect fit, for instance, consult this book for tips on how to alter them yourself—or make better purchasing decisions in the first place. I discovered Alison's writing on xoJane, a guilty-pleasure website I spend way too much time reading and commenting on. She's one of the site's best writers, largely because she hits the right note: she's unfailingly upbeat without seeming smarmy or fake.
  2. Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. I have a real relationship with Kate Zambreno's writing. Every time I see she has an essay somewhere, I read it and take it in—she always packs a lot into her writing that takes time to chew and digest ... sorry for the disgusting eating metaphors—and I feel oddly proud of her too, as though I'm rooting for her career advancement. Reading her name triggers the same sort of complicated blossoming of associations and feelings that happens when you hear the name of someone you know. I guess that's a testament to her talent for so-called personal writing; she lets you in, but not all the way, and half of what she says about herself is actually a swirling, heady list of references to books she's read and films she loves. ANYWAY, I haven't actually finished this book. I keep it in the bedroom, where I've been picking away at it piece by piece. I feel as if the girl in the story is me, when I was in my twenties and confused and pissed off at all the men who stared at me every time I went anywhere. I felt like an empty vessel and I needed their attention as much as I hated it; I mistreated myself and felt afraid all the time, too. I don't think these are uncommon things for young women to feel, and Green Girl captures that mess of contradictions so well it makes me a little queasy—and, weirdly, wistful—to read it.
  3. Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. Stone cold classic.
  4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook. Still working on this one too. I had to return it to the library before I was finished. I'm a little obsessive in my love for Joy Division, so this book is one of many documentaries I've read / watched on the band. I've read a lot of "rock biographies" over the years, now that I think about it, from Richard Hell's pretentious autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (great title though) to Nikki Sixx's trashy, vivid (and illustrated!!!) book about his celebrity and drug addiction, The Heroin Diaries. My favorites tend to be poorly written, "real" seeming ones like this, come to think of it. Touching From a Distance was written by Ian Curtis' widow, who is not a writer and was not in the band with him, either: It's a family story, really, and one that succeeds in telegraphing a certain rawness of emotion and bleakness of personal circumstance precisely because it is so plainly rendered. See also: And I Don't Want to Live this Life, by Nancy Spungen's flipping MOM. Holy shit was that a good read. Super scandalous. (And look at the cover! I must have spent hours staring at Nancy's face in that photo. Mesmerizing.) The mother is so carping and unkind, and her book is so tediously detailed, I find it amazing that it even got published. spungenAnd yet this is the type of junk I most like to read when I'm feeling nostalgic or morbidly curious about one of my music heroes. In contrast, Unknown Pleasures is, well, a true pleasure, mainly because Peter Hook comes across as such a lovely human being. He chose to write his account of the band in a chummy, conversational style (which I can tell you is much harder to do than it looks), and he makes liberal use of funny Northern English slang. He's hilarious, and unlike some famous scenesters who have commented on other musicians they've known and worked with (I'm looking at you, Debbie Harry), he's able to call someone a complete asshole without sounding bitter or even unkind. If he says it, you can trust that the person acted like a complete asshole. And I mean, sometimes it needs to be said.

To Stand and Deliver

I wrote about a nonfiction book called The Battle for Room 314 for the winter issue of Utne, which has just come out. (The book will be published in early February.) I don't know if the magazine will post my review on its website, so I've decided to share it with you here:

When his work raising money for an education nonprofit left him feeling only somewhat fulfilled, Ed Boland quit his job mid-career, got a teaching degree, and went into the trenches as a ninth grade history teacher at a struggling public high school in New York City. After a year, he wrote this book about it. There are so many stories of big-dreaming middle class teachers (who are usually white) toughing it out in poor, underserved, and sometimes violent city schools (whose students are overwhelmingly black and brown) that it has almost become a genre unto itself—and one that could easily be unpalatable if handled poorly.

Happily, Boland is modest, likable, and realistic about, well, reality. He knows that “Being a whitey with a savior complex isn’t going to help [my students].” Problem is, it’s hard to know what will. Boland devotes whole weekends to making creative lesson plans, and he has diverse educational experience to draw from, as both a former Catholic school kid and a Yale admissions officer. But in a chaotic environment where most students are performing way below their grade level, he finds it hard to tell whether he’s making a difference.

A gay man in his forties with clear memories of the way feminine-seeming boys were bullied in his own high school, Boland also harbors dreams of helping his gay students who are being tormented by their classmates. But he soon finds that connecting with them—indeed, with most of the students, most of the time—is a tricky proposition, and his attempts to do so are often met with anger and rejection.

As an author, Boland has a charming way with words that makes the book entertaining to read, even laugh-out-loud funny—as when he shamefacedly admits to understanding only “Sesame Street Spanish.” As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that his snappy approach isn’t just stylistic, but actually goes a long way in making the dire situations he describes easier to read about. The plain facts, when presented in stark language, are shocking: The public schools of New York are more racially segregated than in any other system in the United States, Boland reports. In his “worst” class, the one he focuses on in the book, he teaches a girl who worked on the street as a prostitute in the seventh grade; another girl whose homeless mother had pulled her out of a worse school in order to tutor her on the subway for a year; and a few students who are already members of drug rings and notorious gangs. Getting kids with problems like these to sit still and pay attention to a lesson on the Silk Road is a tall order.

Boland describes his students vividly—so vividly, in fact, that one wonders with a wince if any of them will read the book—and he concludes his story with an update on all of them some years down the line. The results of his experiment in teaching are dispiriting and absolutely beautiful, in turn.

Worn Out, Worn In

I've had my eye on this beautiful book, Worn Stories, since I first saw it in my friend's shop last year. Well, I had my eye on it at the time, I guess, so I added it to my goodreads list, then kind of forgot about it. But yesterday I realized to my horror that CHRISTMAS was upon us, and I knew I'd need some books to comfort and protect me. If I have a good book I can get through anything. I consulted my list, looked up some of the books in the Philly Free Library catalog, and walked to the corner to catch the bus there. I started Worn Stories today and it has not disappointed me. In fact, it's surprised me by being much better than I expected. I spend a lot of time musing about clothing in an intellectual sort of way, and I have no objection to fruity, thinky, noodly pieces of writing on the subject. That's more or less what I thought these pieces—contributed mainly by well-known artists and designers—would be like. But these stories have drama! People are talking about grandmothers emigrating from Sicily, and construction workers fighting off robbers, and Hurricane Sandy. They're writing about silk ties and leather coats, yeah, but also about new babies and race horses and criminal court appearances. There's a lot of life in this book. I'm finding it cheering and more than a little inspiring.

Now, when I was just about to move out of the first apartment I shared with my husband into the house we live in together now, I came across a pair of hair combs I've had for many years. I considered giving them away, but I didn't do that; instead I just considered them. I wrote about them at the time, and I'd like to share that piece of writing with you now, in the spirit of Emily Spivack's engaging, thought-provoking book.

FullSizeRender-7

The Hair Combs

Well, it’s that time again. Time to clear out the clutter, sort through old memories, and decide what should stay and what should go. We’re about to move to a new neighborhood, and all this old stuff can’t come with me. With us. For such a long time it was just me living someplace, just me packing up my stuff to move to some new apartment or new life, but now it’s us. Things have changed and I guess they’ll continue to.

I’ve had a small pair of emerald green hair combs in my bathroom since I was 20 years old—for 18 years now. They’re art deco ones, made of celluloid or lucite in the 1920s in the “Oriental” style that was popular then, with cranes etched into the front. I bought them while I was still in college and exploring the city on my own, which was something I have continued to do in all the years since. Wandering silently, observing the life on the streets around me, then ducking occasionally into some cramped, dim little shop to dig through the old things there and drink in the mysterious energy that always fills those places. Sometimes I’d say hello to the person behind the counter, other times they’d never even see me there as I looked around and they worked, head down as they read or wrote something, their face hidden behind a stack of dusty books or some other fabulous junk.

I hardly ever bought anything for myself back then because I didn’t have much money, and I hadn’t yet grown into the, um, much more developed relationship I now have with the objects I own. I didn’t collect much, didn’t yet hoard things, hadn’t learned the way you can love and relate to an object almost as though it’s a person, with its own life force and set of memories. But one day, in one of those little shops in downtown Philadelphia, I saw these combs and they seemed to glow with the life they’d once seen. Right there in Philly, maybe, tucked into the hair of some beautiful girl who was still young and single and out having fun. The man at the shop was gentle and sweet and he liked that I appreciated what was special about the combs. He told me about their age and what they were made of. I bought them knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to wear them in my fine, slippery hair, and I haven’t. That never bothered me, either. The point of owning the combs wasn’t to wear them, but to begin building a grown-up life for myself, to become that beautiful young girl who was out living it up while her pretty things, her treasures, stayed at home, scattered around the bedroom and on the vanity as though they were half-forgotten, but not actually neglected at all. They were essential, and they played their role seriously and with great dignity, lying around pretending to be unimportant and waiting for me to come back home each night. You can’t be the character without the props. I needed the combs—and the funny wide-legged pants, and the old-fashioned handbags, and all the other stuff I’d eventually acquire that would help to transform me, on the outside, into the person I already knew I was.

The combs have stayed with me all this time, moving back home with me to my mother’s house after my father died, then into an apartment that was just mine—well, mine and Trixie’s, Trixie being the illustrious, glossy black cat who was my closest friend for years—and then here with Joe, where we moved to start a life together. When we were first settling into this place and I was decorating our bathroom, I placed them in the bone china teacup where I keep my earrings, and where I could see them every morning while I did my makeup and hair. It’s never occurred to me before now that I could not have the combs. Like, they don’t even really belong to me, but to the movie set of my life. Could I get rid of them? They’re a symbol of the kind of woman I wanted to become—independent (solitary, even), funny, smart, unflappable—which is an identity I’ve clung to because I’m so afraid to lose it. If I’ve invested all these pretty things with the hopes and dreams I’ve had for myself, would I be giving up on the dreams themselves? Do I need the things and the strength they give me, or could I manage without them?

Right now our hallway is filled with things we’re ready to part with—scarves and gloves and duffel bags, cookbooks and ceramic planters and a wonky little Hibachi grill that tips over every time you pour charcoal into it. Some of them are things Joe and I got together, and some are things we each brought to this new arrangement but don’t need anymore. I took the combs out of their teacup earlier, with the idea to give them away or try to sell them, but now I don’t know what to do. They deserved this little tribute and having written it, I might not need to hold onto them anymore. But here they sit, looking back up at me, almost a part of me now. I can’t decide. I’m a different person now than I was at 20, but that girl still lives inside of me, looks through my eyes, can’t quite believe what she sees in the mirror nowadays. I don’t know if I’m ready to stop being her for good, or to let go of my longing for a future that’s still unfolding.

How and What to Want

The fact is, all stores are hell. They’re designed to put us in touch with the most craven parts of ourselves, to encourage us to cross the line from aspiration into delusion. They advise for flagrant dereliction of duty. I don’t like to feel that I’ve walked into hell only to pay for permission to bring a piece of it out into the world—and then to give that piece to someone I love. Stores are flatteringly lit, they play music and bombard you with emotional cues, they’re arbiters and limiters of desire, teaching us how and what to want. There’s nothing like them in nature. In a retail environment, where every cubic inch has been assessed for its earning potential, anyone who resists the merchandise can only feel like a waste of space.
—Dan Piepenbring, "Points of Sale," The Paris Review, Nov. 30, 2015
[aka, It's Getting Dangerously Close to Christmas, and I'm Dangerously Close to Getting Weird About it Again]

I'll get the CARDS out on TIME, OKAY?

I've been banging away on this (rather expensive) MacBook laptop for almost six years now, and even though, crotchety person that I am, I do not think six years is a very long life for a machine I've taken good care of, it appears to be about to die. A few weeks ago it started making alarming crunching noises as it thought about things I'd asked it to do, and now the screen is going: Pixelated spots of color keep popping up and moving around in interesting patterns as I type or move the mouse. I've had to accept that I'll need to replace the computer, so I've been backing up the only things of value on it--my huge digital music collection and a bunch of lousy photos I've taken of the places Joe and I have visited together. Oh, and of the beloved and exalted Trixie, my departed black cat companion whose (blithe) spirit keeps me company to this day. I'd hate to lose those pictures. Better put 'em on the external hard drive right now. I've also come across a few pieces of writing I'd like to save. Here's one for you to enjoy. I wrote it last year for inclusion in a compilation zine about food. I really just wanted to write about Mommie Dearest, one of my all-time favorite movies (remind me to tell you about the Mommie Dearest book club I did with my mom and sister), so I came up with a food theme from the film and wrote about that. Enjoy! (You can click on the image to make it larger and easier to read.)

Mommie Dearest Haegele

After Josephine Pryde's "lapses in Thinking By the person I Am"

Josephine Pryde: lapses in Thinking By the person i Am. Photograph by Constance Mensh for the Institute of Contemporary Art I often hear myself telling people that I can't drive a car. Don't know how, never learned. It's boring to have to explain this, but sometimes I meet people who think it's odd to the point of being problematic somehow, so I tend to announce it upfront so that I won't have to spring the terrible surprise on them later in our relationship. I grew up in an urban area with good public transportation, I always say. Learning to drive a car seemed like an unnecessary added stress, so I just never bothered. I'm aware that not driving is kind of weird for the same reason I'm aware that a lot of things about me are unusual—not because I think they are, but because other folks seem to. Truly, I don't imagine anyone cares much about the details of my personal choices, but it does get to be a drag trying to justify my lack of a driver's license to people who can't imagine living without one.

What I don't say, because it sounds even weirder, is that I actually love riding the bus. And the subway, and the trolley, and any type of train. I've done so several times a week, if not every single day, for many years now, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet. I love being alone in public, cozy in my bubble with other people close by. Sometimes they're uncomfortably, crushingly close, but I never really mind. I think it's lovely. It's endlessly interesting to look at and listen to other people, but safe because, unlike at a party or something, I don't have to talk to them. (Though I can if I want to, and often I do.)

It's like what Divya, a young woman in my writing workshop, said about art museums: They're one of the few places where it's not socially awkward to be alone. That's just how I feel on the train, which I can't help but think of as a place to see and be seen. People who live much of their lives in public this way make an effort with their hair and clothes, I find, even when they're just going to the store. I take a cue from those folks, trying out new outfits for the runway that is the aisle between two rows of seats. This is Philadelphia, so the bus can be smelly or too hot or, with people arguing with the driver over the fare or a missed stop, tiresome. But it can be unexpectedly glamorous, too.

In Pryde's show at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, we see a series of close-up photographs of people's hands with brightly painted nails, several of them holding smart phones. The nails seem to be the point of the photos, like a beauty spread in Glamour or Allure, or an ad. To view them, visitors can sit on a model of a freight train—perfectly detailed with bubbled tags painted on the side, not by Pryde but by a graffiti artist—and ride past on a track temporarily installed on the floor. It's not unlike the sensation of taking the train to work and peeping on your fellow riders—who expect to have their pretty nails admired as they poke at their phones—as you trundle through the city on some beat-up conveyance that itself has been jazzed up by a graffiti painter who wants you to admire his attempts as beautification, too. The photos call to mind modern junk culture—fashion magazines, graffiti, cell phone chatter—and ask us to see them in the context of, ya know, real art. Here, the only "painting" is a reference to street art, and the advertising language of fashion photography is what hangs on the gallery wall.

After we visited the show with our class, I went home and painted my nails, which suddenly looked plain and boring to me. I told this to everyone when we met again the next day to write about what we'd seen, and another woman said, "The same thing happened to me!" Looking, I'm always looking at other people, at other women, for cues on how to be. I guess I'm not the only one. 

When I ride the 61 bus down Ridge Avenue, I can spy on things and people as they slide past my view. I can also see, through the crowd, details here and there of my fellow riders. Not usually the whole picture-not in person, cuz it's impolite to stare. I'll catch a glimpse of an old man's hand in his lap, his yellowed nails. A thick gold chain necklace looks fantastic on a woman's pure white cable-knit sweater: I'll have to remember that for myself. A trio of teenage girls have each made tiny tweaks to their school uniforms to express an identity: slouchy knee socks, a shortened skirt, bright laces in the brown shoes. A tiny baby lies on its back and stares up at the ceiling, its eyes unfocused but bright. The crinkles on an old lady's face, with soft red cream rubbed into her cheeks and a natty felt hat, so like something my grandmother would have worn. She grew up not far from here, come to think of it, just a mile or so back from the river. It's the feeling of movement that excites me, even more than the seeing, and the way the motion affects the way that I see. It makes the world-or my time to experience it, anyway-seem as fleeting as it is, everything tearing past almost before I get to know it, everything ending even as it's beginning. It just feels correct to me, a reminder that we're always in motion, moving inexorably toward some unknowable end.

I used to play a game with myself every time I rode a train or a bus, or found myself in an especially crowded and warm bar at night, with the soft lights glowing and people around me laughing. Quick look around to assess the ages of the everyone there so I could then thrill myself by saying, "In X years EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN will be DEAD!" Including me, of course, the center of it all. We had longer, as a group, if there was a baby on board; the thought was more sobering when the youngest person there was me. Maybe I've outgrown that game now, but I used to love the sweet melancholy pang I'd get when I thought of it. We're here now, dammit! Life is for the living! Better take a look around while you still can.

Like walking through clear water in a pool painted black

Have I written about Colm Tóibín on this blog before? I don't think I have. Just a year ago I read his most recent book, Nora Webster, and felt a little crushed inside by how beautiful it was. I reviewed it for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I remember writing that, when I read most novels, I flatter myself that I can see, for the most part, how they were made. That's not to say that I could WRITE one, mind you. But I read a hell of a lot and I'm a pretty good reader, and of course I'm a writer myself and I have a feeling for how language is used. I can usually see the underpinnings of even very sophisticated pieces of fiction, understand what makes them successful or unsuccessful; I can picture the writer at work. But I really can't figure out how Colm Tóibín does what he does. I read The Blackwater Lightship this summer, after Nora Webster. Though it deals with a much sadder and more sensitive subject—the painful death of a young man from AIDS—it doesn't try to break your heart any more than Nora Webster does. (Her story, in fact, is quietly, gloriously hopeful, the story of a person coming back to life.) Both books are weighty and serious without being solemn, somehow; both exist within the same kind of silence that Tóibín creates with his language, though I can't see how he creates it. It's a kind of magic. I mean, each word is perfectly used, and there is never a word to spare. But I don't think that's the most important thing. The important, the necessary thing is the way he seems to make the language disappear. It has almost no style, if you will. Tóibín does let a sly, wry wit shine through sometimes (he's Irish; you get the feeling he can't help it) but basically he is not interested in making you laugh, or making you cry, or making you anything. He isn't even an especially visual writer. He just tells us how things are in such an unadorned way that we believe him, trust him, completely. He's god, and he's hanging the moon in the sky and putting down a few mountains over here, and then there's Dublin over there. What he describes becomes real.

There's another writer I can think of who does this: Edward P. Jones, the American fiction writer. They're both so good it's almost scary, though I find I have a very warm feeling for Colm Toibin, while I remember feeling a bit awed and frightened by the skill Jones employs. And as good as, say, Ray Carver was—and he was one of the best—you could imitate his style. It's distinctive. That's true of most of the great writers, come to think of it. Think of Flannery O'Connor, for fuck's sake. She never doesn't sound like Flannery O'Connor. But I'm not sure you could write a paragraph in the "style" of Colm Tóibín's prose. You'd have to remake yourself into the best writer who ever lived first, and then I guess you could give it a try.

I started a book of his short stories today, Mothers and Sons. I'm in his world now and I want the feeling to last. I can feel myself moving a little more slowly than usual, noticing more. That's what it's for, isn't it? Fiction, art of any kind—it's supposed to open your eyes, give you a new way of seeing. When it works it's incredible, the best kind of gift.