Hey, a writer for the Penn Gazette interviewed me a few weeks ago about The Soapbox, the community print shop and zine library where I'm a board member, and she just posted a nice little piece about it. Have a look!
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
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.)
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.
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.
This Thursday the 12th, I'll be giving a free workshop at the Kelly Writers House at Penn on HOW TO MAKE A ZINE. I plan to give a quick history of zines, punk, and DIY, then let everybody loose on the clip art, rubber stamps, and Letraset. Each student will contribute one page, and I'll paste them up and make copies of our collaborative zine. Reception with snacks to follow.
I've collected and written about such a lot of stuff over the years, it's hard to choose just one object to talk about on Thursday. That's when I'll be participating in this Show & Tale event in Brooklyn, which should be interesting. We'll each take a few minutes to show and describe an object that has affected our creative practice, and I plan to bring something that I wrote about in my book White Elephants, which is basically entirely about the weird old things I find and fall in love with at yard sales and then buy and bring home and hoard. I'll have some copies of the book for sale as well. If you'll be in the area, come on out!
How has it taken me this long to write a zine about Philadelphia? My ancestral homeland, the grimy, spirited, no-bullshit, beautiful place where my heart lives (along with the rest of my body): In this zine I tell you why I couldn't live anywhere but Philly. Have a look.
This weekend was the occasion for a major clean-out around here; Joe and I hosted a reading and party in our home / zine library, and we expected (and very happily got) a larger crowd than we've had for these events before. In order to get the downstairs ready for a bunch of people to comfortably sit and stand and eat and gab and listen to zines being read from, we had to sort through and put away piles of books and other junk before breaking out the big guns: a duster! A vacuum cleaner! A rag to wash the stupid molding! Maybe you're supposed to do this stuff more often than every, uh, six weeks, but that's alright. The place looks pristine now, very calm. And since I took the opportunity to do some real organizing, I decided to make a project out of dealing with some of the many books that I own. I actively try to keep from acquiring books. I use the library for most of my reading needs, I no longer allow myself to hoard magazines, and even though I review books for work and therefore receive a fair number of them in the mail, I give almost all of those away after I'm through with them, too. But still. I have a ton of fucking books. The large bookcase in my front room holds all the books that are dearest to me, the ones I have a hard time imagining not owning because I loved them and, in many cases, still refer to them often enough, in my own writing or in conversation with someone who is politely humoring me. In the other downstairs sitting room is a pretty and tall but narrow bookcase I bought years ago that is called a "ladder bookcase" because it's made to look like a step ladder propped against the wall. Most of Joe's books live on that one. His and mine started out huddled into two separate collections on those shelves and have now sort of blended together, I notice, seemingly on their own at night while we were asleep. There's also an end table in that room where I stack up library books I've checked out, magazines we haven't finished, and zines we've gotten at events that we haven't yet read and filed away in our zine library. There's another small bookcase in the bedroom, and that's the one I want to tackle because it's the place where I keep books that are still ... live. They're ones I haven't started yet or that I did start but haven't finished for one reason or other. I looked all these over with a very critical eye and found a couple for the donation pile right off the bat. I have also made a small stack of books that I am interested in reading, at least in part, but don't want to keep like trophies afterward, and in fact am already tired of looking at. It's time to read them and be done with it.
The first book I want to finish I probably will keep, though; I bought it at a very nice used bookstore in Kutztown, PA called Firefly when I was there for a visit and a stroll around town on Saturday. It's a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called The Discomfort Zone. (I got the reference in the title just now! To get it yourself you'll have to read his essay "Two Ponies," a wonderful piece about Charles Schulz and growing up in the '60s and '70s and Franzen's own family.) Since I got a lot out of his other essay collection, How to Be Alone, but haven't kept up with his career enough to realize he'd put out a second one, I was happy to find it. I've also been picking through Kate Zambreno's novel, Green Girl, for several months in very small portions at a time. I don't know why I have been reading this book in this way. I like it, relate to the poor main character shamefully strongly, and think Zambreno is an enviably good young (as in under-40) writer. Her essay "One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time" stunned me with its breadth and depth of feeling and experience (and again, for me, relatability, that much-maligned concept among literary folks, but an idea that certainly feels significant to me, for at least some of the reading I do). Now I'm wishing I had hoarded the issue of Frequencies it appeared in, but here's an excerpt for us both to enjoy. I guess I'll continue picking through her novel at my strange slow pace; no need to rush it, if that's how I need to take it in.
After that I've got a few lesser books to work through. There's a book of interviews with female rock musicians that was published in the '90s called Women, Sex and Rock'n'Roll: In Their Own Words by a music journalist named Liz Evans. I found it at a thrift store and it smells very strongly of cold cream, which makes me think incongruently of my grandmother every time I pick it up. As the title indicates, the interview portions of each chapter have a conversational feeling because they've been left in the voices of the speakers, which makes for pretty good reading, but I'm not terribly interested in all the artists featured in it. I've read the Tori Amos essay already (good old Tori, she's so WEIRD) and the somewhat baffling Kristin Hersh one too, and will probably want to read Björk's entry and Dolores O'Riordan's one and maybe Tanya Donnelly's too. Then it's back to the thrift store with the '90s ladies of rock.
I also have this pretty little book on entertaining that I bought at a library book sale for a quarter. I acted like this was a joke purchase but it did actually occur to me that maybe I should bone up on my entertaining skills if I'm going to keep hosting people in large-ish numbers at my house. I won't name the book because I want to tell you honestly that it is pretty terrible, advice-wise, and I don't wish to be nasty toward the lady who wrote and published it through her own press like 18 years ago. One of the tips for cleaning up before a party is to get a bunch of bins or boxes and fill them with your clutter—including dirty dishes!!!!—and then hide the containers in the basement. I feel that my hostessing skills, boisterous and haphazard as they are, have already moved lightyears beyond disturbed-sounding advice like this, and yet I can't stop reading through the tips in the book. I guess there's a small part of me that still, even after years of conscious un-schooling in the values of our dominant crap-ass culture, feels a pang of longing at the idea of "self-improvement." As a teenager I loved reading the kinds of women's magazines that make me feel disgusted and bored when I see them now; back then I used them as a kind of rule book on how to be, and I still get a certain pleasure out of the idea that I could use "tips" to better myself, backwards as that idea is. These days, I find the best rules for living in slightly loftier places. Take this eye-opener from that Franzen essay I mentioned, "Two Ponies." After talking about Charles Schulz and his work and early life, he has this to say about the man:
"Schulz wasn't an artist because he suffered. He suffered because he was an artist. To keep choosing art over the comforts of a normal life—to grind out a strip every day for fifty years; to pay the very steep psychic price for this—is the opposite of damaged. It's the sort of choice that only a tower of strength and sanity can make. The reason that Schulz's early sorrows look like "sources" of his later brilliance is that he had the talent and resilience to find humor in them."
Emphasis mine. Because: THANK YOU FOR SAYING THAT, and ain't it the truth?
The final book in this little stack—I'm making myself deal with the whole stack before I get back to my library books, which I'll tell you about in another couple days; I made some GOOD finds there last week—is an Anchor Book of New American Short Stories anthology from 2004, edited by Ben Marcus. Don't know where this book came from, if it was initially Joe's or mine, or even if I've read any of it yet. I know I've read "Tiny, Smiling Daddy" by Mary Gaitskill, but I read that one in her own spooky collection, Because They Wanted To, years ago. (All her stuff is spooky, and so uncannily true.) I need to read the A.M. Homes story, "Do Not Disturb," because I can't remember whether or not I ever have, and she's one of my all-time favorite novelists. Looks like Lydia Davis has one of her signature, very short pieces in here as well, which I'll also read. The rest I can do without. Gotta clear the shelves for more books.
Till next time, K
I just finished reading one of those rare books that is so wonderful and unique, it opens your eyes, and everything looks new again. I found a book like this in my twenties, Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. The language and images and ideas were so fresh and raw and new that it startled me out of my old life and into a new one, and I remember thinking at the time that, without articulating this to myself, I'd assumed I could never feel that way again, since childhood and adolescence were over, and I'd lost a little (okay, a lot) of that feeling I used to carry around with me all the time, that life was one ongoing surprise, like a gift I was always unwrapping. But here was this wonderful, frightening book, with a character who described his crippling headaches in words I'd never heard before except for in my own migraine-rattled brain. He was me, I was him; I was transformed.
And now, some ten years later, it's happened again: I just met Jessica Vye, the hero of Jane Gardam's novel, A Long Way from Verona, and I felt I was meeting a more perfect version of myself who is living a different but parallel (and of course fictional, but what does that ever really mean) life. Heaven.
Jessica is nine years old when the story begins, and she tells it to us from her now-13-year-old perspective, which is full of hilarious and precocious insights about life and love and art. Because—as a visiting author tells her after she shares something she wrote with him—she is a WRITER, BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT! The novel takes place in England during the second world war, where gas masks and air raids and fairly shocking deprivation are all part of normal daily life. The story is sad and worrying and hopeful, and absolutely lovely for its sweetness. If you have not read the book—especially if you are a person who writes things, and maybe even more especially if you are a person who was ever a young girl—you should read it soon. You'll thank me, I promise.
Evidently A Long Way From Verona—which, incidentally, I had never heard of before, and found by browsing the shelves at my fine local library in Philadelphia—was meant as a children's book when it was published in the 1970s, and has since been read and loved by many adults, some of whom are, ya know, critics. I am reminded of other young teenage narrators that I first read as an adult and fell in love with, like 13-year-old Jason Taylor from David Mitchell's magnificent novel, Black Swan Green. That one's said to be semi-autobiographical, which I think comes through, and has been called a YA book too, but I don't know. Between me and you I have found that a lot of young adult novels make for thin, simplistic reading (for adults), and neither of these did. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is another book I read for the first time as an adult, and absolutely loved. Hilarious, spirited, truth-telling young girls are my favorite kind of human.
Blurbing books is kind of a weird practice. I mean, it's actually a very good idea, and I for one always notice who's been quoted on the back (and sometimes front) of a book I'm considering reading. But I can tell you, as someone who's written two books and was asked by her publisher to do so, seeking these blurbs out is a bit scary and awkward (though probably most people are very kind about it, as the writers I asked were). Famous and sought-after writers probably get asked to write blurbs often, which must be something of a nuisance. Lucky for me I'm more infamous than famous, and am sought after by only a highly select few!
Elly Blue, the author of several excellent books on biking, asked me to read and consider writing a blurb for her new one, an anthology she edited called Cycletherapy: Grief and Healing on Two Wheels, put out this month by Microcosm Publishing. Elly is also the co-owner of Microcosm, which published my two books, White Elephants and Slip of the Tongue. Microcosm has been knocking it out of the park lately, if I may say so. My hubby Joe and I tabled for them at the Small Press Expo last weekend, and their books were a huge hit there. (Joe is also a Microcosm author.) SPX is comics-oriented, and Microcosm does indeed have some comics titles on its roster (the Henry & Glenn series being the best known and, frankly, awesomest), but other types of books were flying off our temporary shelves, too: The DIY ones by Raleigh Briggs; the more overtly political and wonderfully-titled The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting; the silly-yet-totally-serious Manspressions, which makes fun of machismo using made-up words and charming illustrations; and yeah, my own pocket-sized memoir, White Elephants.
Cycletherapy was too new to make it to the expo, but it's out now, and I've got my copy here. It's a beautiful book. Highlights include Elly's own essay, in which she writes about carting her partner around on a bamboo bike trailer on days when he's too sick to bike himself; a short piece by Sara Tretter that touches on the awkwardness of burgeoning teenage sexuality; Julie Brooks' chronicle of working through the grief she experienced after being struck by a car while riding her bike (she's okay now); and Gretchen Lair's fine illustration of her beloved bike Ariel, who was stolen days after their last trip to the beach together. She quotes The Tempest: "My quaint Ariel ... Our revels are now ended."
I'm not a biker, not since childhood, really. I've always felt a little too chicken to get around the city on a bike, like so many of my friends do. (They've all been doored by parked cars or clipped by moving ones. Plus, I love to plug in and listen to music while I'm out and about, which isn't such a hot idea when you're riding a bike in traffic.) But I am a big walker. I walk everywhere because I don't drive a car, and never have: My mode of transportation is my own two legs, plus whatever SEPTA conveyance I feel like catching. But I walk for pleasure and exercise and for my mental health, too. A lot of what the folks in this anthology (all but one of them women) wrote about biking resonated with me because I use long walks the same way, to keep my mind and body healthy and strong. Some days I push through physical discomfort or miserable heat and humidity to get to that feeling that my physical self isn't creaky and cranky and tired, but like a well-oiled machine, taking me where I need to go. Going out in the evening is different, like gliding through dark water, thoughtful and quiet. I prefer to walk through city neighborhoods because I like to look at buildings and people, and peer down little alleyways and see grass growing up between the cracks in the concrete. But I live just up the street from the Schuylkill River, which has a paved path for walkers and bikers that runs alongside it all the way into downtown Philly from a little town 25 miles from here called Oaks. Sometimes I'll walk down to the trail and stay on it till I reach the part of the river where the rowers practice, past their charming boathouses and the sleek boats themselves, sluicing through the water. I move my body to get my head feeling right and it always helps, at least a little, which is more or less what the stories in this book are about. It's good to be reminded how useful that can be.
Years ago, when I was trying my hand at internet dating, I made friends with a guy from one of those sites, and we'd sometimes talk over the chat function. I asked him whether he'd ever gone out with a girl from another website, and he told me no, because "There are too many sluts on there." "WOW, I can't believe you just said that to me," I answered. "I don't like that word. Don't say that about anyone." In response, he sent me a girl's profile photo from the site, in which she was leaning over toward the camera with the word "slut" written across her chest.
Showing me that photo didn't excuse his calling her (or anyone else) a gendered slur, especially when he was talking to another woman, in my opinion. But it was thought provoking. What does it mean when a woman calls herself a slut, as opposed to when a guy calls her that? How about when other girls are the ones saying it, and everyone involved is 11 years old? Or when it's the 90s and it's Kathleen Hanna, and she's performing on stage and she's mad as hell?
And what about now? Where do we stand with the word slut? I think it depends on who you ask.
In 2011 the Slutwalk was born. If you're unfamiliar with that event you can read about it all over the internet, but in a nutshell, a group of women at a college in Toronto were enraged when a cop who had come to their campus to share self-defense techniques with them suggested that women could avoid physical attacks from men by not dressing in a "slutty" way. It wouldn't have been the first time they'd had that idea run past them, I can tell you that. But I guess they were wishing it would be the last. They organized a rally that they called the Slutwalk, and the idea--and, I daresay, the name--caught on all around the world. We did a Slutwalk here in Philadelphia that year, and I was proud to participate in it. I met up with everybody in a small park downtown, and we marched with our signs and chants through the streets to City Hall, where speakers addressed the crowd.
But I had such complicated feelings about that name. I liked the idea of angrily taking it back--a la those riot grrrl punks who I so admired as a teenager trapped in a Catholic school lockdown--but, I don't know, I didn't really want to say it. I surely didn't want to write it--not on my sign, which bore the slogan "DON'T PARTICIPATE IN GIRL HATE"--and not on my body.
I had to take the subway to the rally because I have to take the subway (or the bus, or the train) everywhere, because I don't drive. Staying safe in public is something I spend a portion of every day thinking about, and that day was no different. Riding public transportation alone with the word SLUT anywhere on my person seemed like a bad idea.
I'm not mad that the event was called the Slutwalk; I get it, and more than anything I appreciate being asked to think about these ideas in more, and more nuanced, ways. But I was far from the only one who had issues with it. That day at City Hall, one of the speakers was the filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who said that she initially planned to skip the protest altogether because of the name, but decided to agree to speak about that very idea. She explained that many Black women in particular felt alienated or attacked by that word because they don't have the same privilege white women do to "reclaim" it. What I heard was that the use of the word SLUT is one more way in which non-white women are made to feel ostracized from Feminism with a Capital F, which is so often, and so destructively and annoyingly, a white, middle-class, ivory tower sort of thing. Simmons' talk (and other voices as well) made a big impact on me, and on the rally's organizers too. The event has been renamed (somewhat clunkily) The March to End Rape Culture, and it's still going strong. We'll be marching again on October 3rd, which is why I've been thinking about this damn word again.
I've been reading SLUT, a play developed by Katie Cappiello, Meg McInerney, and the members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company. It's a fictional story about a rape that was inspired by true events (which ought to go without saying) and is told in the realistic voices of girls in high school. In the print edition I'm reading, the play is preceded by several teenage girls telling their own stories of victimization around this word and its ideas. It's one story after another of bullying, school-administration bullshit, humiliation, confusion, coercion, and sometimes physical attacks. These stories are disturbing because they are so very ordinary. They're coming-of-age stories, in a way. I'd go so far as to say that no girl gets to grow up without being initiated into the SLUT mindset, and for many of us it's a violent introduction. It makes me so angry, thinking of older women having gone through this stuff before me, and young women dealing with those same things now, but some days it just makes me feel blue.
But you know, the heart is a muscle the size of your fist: keep loving, keep fighting. The organizers of the March to End Rape Culture have been selling original art to raise funds for the event, so I spent a couple weeks embroidering the words NO, NOPE, and NO SIR! onto pretty floral tea towels. I'm going to make another sign and march again. (I think this year's one will read TRUST GIRLS on one side and BELIEVE WOMEN on the other.) I've got my TRANS-INCLUSIVE FEMINISM ALWAYS badge to wear, and I'll sew my self-defense patch onto the back of my sweater: It's a picture of a woman kicking a dude in the crotch. I like it because when I first saw it, it made me smile. Once in a while, though, it makes me cry.
Several years ago, when Trixie the cat and I were living in our cozy bachelorette pad, I got an ad in the mail from the London Review of Books. They offered me a year's subscription to the weekly paper for some very low price, like 30 bucks, so I decided to give it a try. I thought the writing might be over my head - and sometimes it was - but I really enjoyed picking through the essays in there every week. (The classified section was a revelation, too. A quick look shows me that this week's personals aren't especially charming, but some very funny people submit ads to that paper, and following them week to week was a hoot. One of them, posted by a woman, ran for months with only her first name and one word: "Elegant." Then one week that one ran as usual, but out of the blue a new one had appeared: "Natasha: Inelegant.") But there was one writer alone who made my pennies-on-the-dollar subscription worth every cent: Terry Castle. What a fuckin genius. Castle is a literary critic and a scholar, and most of her publications are academic books that never crossed my path. But she writes about books for a more general audience too, and in a bombastic and hilariously autobiographical way. I loved these essays and looked forward to getting updates on her life with Blakey, the woman to whom she is now married, and used to refer to by a funny nickname - I forget what now. She'd talk about a new book she was reading - with insights like an arrow to the heart - in the same paragraph that she described rummaging through cardboard boxes to get ready for a move, or sitting up in bed poking at her laptop and eating chocolates over the Christmas holiday. And somehow all these things were about the same thing. Her life and the the life of her mind were totally intertwined, in the most interesting way - she seems to make such good use of the things she reads, thinks about, and experiences, as if her whole life is a fact-finding mission on how to get through it. It's really nerdy and pained and passionate. I relate to it.
Furthermore, she is funny as hell. After enjoying her work in the LRB I ordered her book of essays, The Professor, which I took off the shelf just now. I'm looking at the piece she wrote about a book on the jazz alto saxophonist Art Pepper, which she called "My Heroin Christmas," but hastened to explain, "Not that I used any ... I've always been afraid of serious drugs, knowing my grip on 'things being okay' was pretty tenuous already." I relate to this too. Just now I found this (ALSO RELATABLE, though I won't elaborate), in a LRB essay about getting gay-married:
"Despite being friendly and garrulous to a fault, my mother has always been somewhat averse to self-examination. Nor is psychological transparency her strong suit. Indeed, she might once have served as poster-lady for that delicate mental process Freud called the Censorship. Given all that seems to go on unacknowledged in her emotional world, these undated, untethered notes can often read – shockingly – like eerie and unprecedented eruptions from the maternal unconscious.
Witness a pencilled memorandum from one of the real-estate pads: ‘WE’VE BEEN THRU A LOT TOGETHER & MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT.’"
If you're not laughing right now I don't understand you at all.
The reason I've got Terry Castle on the brain is because she's coming to Philadelphia in November, to give a lecture. Hooray! And it's a free lecture, open to the public, at Penn, that's part of a themed series they do every year that is always excellent. This year's theme is sex. See?
But it looks like the symposium is also, maybe mostly, about gender, which of course is not the same thing at all. Gender is something I spend about 30% of every day thinking about, and Terry Castle writes about it a lot as well. This talk she's giving is called "No, I'm Not a Woman--I'm a Not-A-Woman: A Not-A-Woman Dossier." Hee. This is Castle's own term, according to the brochure, for "a person who looks and functions as a woman only in a nominal sense, having lost, refused, or neglected to cultivate standard markers of the "feminine." Her examples include Gertrude Stein - okay, sure, no surprise there - as well as Hillary Clinton and Greta Garbo.
All of this makes me feel so happy and intrigued. I mean, Greta Garbo, could you die? This conversation also puts me to mind of Nuala O'Faolain, who I wrote about below, and who once, after being introduced as the Only Woman to Such-and-Such at a lecture she gave here in Philadelphia, said plainly, "I'm not a woman. I'm an honorary man."
Woof. There's a lot to think about here. Learning about Castle's lecture came at an interesting time for me, because just yesterday I finally started reading that stone cold classic, Stone Butch Blues, which I saw was being given away for free as a PDF. As a not-very-obvious gender weirdo, I found the childhood stuff in the beginning relatable and tough to read; the book already feels so important to me. Maybe this will be the year I sort out some of my feelings about my gender, for once and for all. Maybe I never will, but instead I'll keep on reading and writing and thinking about it forever. I guess I could be alright with that too.
A couple weeks ago I received a friendly email from a writer who was reporting an article about the Philadelphia Zine Fest. She was most interested in its history and wanted to talk to me, she said, because she's been attending the event for years and always sees me and talks to me there. I had to smile at that. "Yep," I wrote back to her, "I'm an old-timer for sure!"
I've been tabling at the zine fest for almost as long as it's been in existence. Its first year was in 2003, and the only reason I didn't go to that one was because I only heard about it after it was over. The following year, I was ready.
Sort of. But actually, I was scared. I'd been writing about books and art for a local newspaper for a couple of years by then, and I was proud of this job and enjoyed doing it, but was surprised to find that, on its own, it wasn't enough to satisfy my need to express myself. (I'm not sure why that came as a surprise.) I was in my mid-20s then, and when I wasn't writing for work, I was almost compulsively making these found poems. I can still remember how exhilarating it was to, well, find them. Once I started looking at text in this new way, I saw symbolic meanings and irony everywhere, almost like secret messages or fortunes--in an old Boy Scout Handbook, the owner's manual for an oven, the titles of Lifetime movies. All I had to do was rearrange the text a little, or remove a small part of it, to display its double meaning for other readers to see.
I was more proud of these weird poem-stories than almost anything else I'd written to that point, and I wanted to share them, so I began compiling them into my first zine. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom and pulling apart a zine I already owned to try to understand the mechanics of laying it out. It was painstaking, but I eventually got it. There are lots of good books out there now that give instructions and tips on how to make a zine--I've even contributed to one of them!--but I didn't know about any books then, and my hands-on method worked just fine.
When registration for the Zine Fest opened that next year I signed up for a table, and paid something like 5 bucks to rent the space for the afternoon. I had no idea what to expect, and was actually so nervous about sharing my book with these strangers that I took my mom with me, and she sat at the table for a few hours, keeping me company. I now recall that afternoon as one of the happiest events of my life. I knew that zine fairs existed as a means for people to sell their work, but I didn't know that they would be so social, that people had formed an artistic and ideological community around zine making and liked going to the events to see their friends. That was the day I found that out, and joined them. I had conversation after conversation with some of the most interesting people I'd ever met, folks who were keen to listen to me talk about my poems and just as excited to tell me about their projects: zines, bands, paintings, shows. None of them batted an eye at my mother being there. Everyone was gentle and kind, eclectic and dynamic, and had interesting hair. No one thought I was weird or, if they did, they didn't mind.
For several years after that, zines were the biggest and most important part of my writing life, as well as my social life. I've made dozens of the things at this point, and although my output has slowed up a bit, I'm still into it. Participating in zines has led me to join The Soapbox, the independent publishing center started by a couple of friends of mine. Through that organization I've been able to participate in readings, art shows, and workshops, and their kind support has helped me to feel like a real part of the Philadelphia art scene. In the last several years my zines have been in a number of gallery and museum shows around the U.S. and in other countries, too. They're archived in public, university, and grassroots libraries. I've taught workshops on how to make zines to little kids at the free library, to older students on college campuses, and to adults at arts festivals of different kinds. A few years ago I participated in an artist talk at MoMA's PS1 on the topic of zines, and I was so nervous about doing it that I nearly cried. One year a reporter from TIME freaking magazine called to interview me about zines, which is just ridiculous, but it was so exciting. I've published two books now, and both of them started out as serial zines I'd been writing for some time, one about yard sales and the other about linguistics. After the first one came out my publisher introduced me to Michelle Tea, who is one of my all-time favorite writers and a person I deeply admire. She invited me to read in an installment of her monthly series in San Francisco, which you bet I did, and I'm pretty sure I cried about that, too. I lived in a converted shed for two weeks in Nova Scotia, where I was the zine writer in residence at a community art center. I was supposed to spend that time writing an issue of my zine, White Elephants, but I frittered most of it away reading comics, going for walks, and swimming in the ocean. Zines are the reason I know a lot of the people I now call good friends, including about 25 pen-pals and my husband Joe.
And throughout all of this, there was the Philly Zine Fest. I never missed a year except for once when I had the flu. Walking into the smelly, sweaty Rotunda--the building in West Philly where the event is always held--has come to feel something like coming home. Still, there were a few years where I wondered if I still belonged there, or if I cared enough. Sometimes the event was sparsely attended, and other times it was packed with people who were attracted by a spike in the trendiness of zines, and it didn't feel like my crowd. I've watched the scene change more than once, and I haven't always liked the direction it seemed to be going in. Some of the new transplants to a city I consider "mine" have really rubbed me the wrong way. I felt my age catch up to me at a certain point too, and worried I wasn't making books that were relevant or interesting to people (especially the younger ones) anymore.
But something really beautiful happened this year. The room was packed all day long, and you could feel people's excitement in the air. A dj from WKDU played good music, but it wasn't too loud to talk. I spent hours hugging and gabbing with people I've known for years, as well as ones I met just that day. I sold almost everything I'd brought with me, and got some reading material from other tablers that I'm looking forward to studying more closely. I talked to two librarians about the zine library that Joe and I have set up in our living room, which we've been working on turning into a quasi-public performance space. A woman found me to tell me that she's included some of my zines in a two-year traveling art exhibit called the Artmobile, which will travel to grade schools and high schools around Bucks County, Pennsylvania beginning on September 19th. She said she thought I'd like to know that my work will be a part of it, and I do. I do like to know it. Someone else told me she wants to commission me to make her an embroidered wall hanging, which is My New Thing.
Most of all, I felt like I'd been a part of things long enough to have really earned my place in the community. I've weathered the changes and I'm still here. An unusual thing happened too: An old friend I haven't seen or talked to since we were in college together--in the freakin' 90s, guys--stopped by my table and we had a great conversation, as if 20 years hadn't passed. But of course they have, and I'm happy to report that I feel good about the way I've spent at least a little of that time. I mean, I'm at least 50 percent asshole, just like the rest of you, but it is so incredibly sweet to be able to look back on a portion of your life and feel both proud of what you've done and thankful for what you've been given. So thanks, Philly Zine Fest. I'll see you next year.
They show old movies at the Roxy sometimes, and last night they showed Pretty in Pink. It's one of my all-time favorites, so Joe and I went and I dressed in an outfit I'd put together to reference the one Andie wears to the club one night. Most of the people there—most of whom were women—seemed about as devoted to the movie as I am, and even though it was muggy last night and I felt kinda hot in my black blazer and black ankle boots and lace, I had a blast. It makes me want to share a piece of writing I did a few years ago for the Utne Reader on these very topics: my favorite movie, and the art of getting dressed.
Whenever I feel fretful I watch Pretty in Pink. I feel fretful fairly often, and I’m not sure I could tell you why. It’s just a thing that happens, especially when I have to get ready to go out and be in front of other people. When I have to get dressed. I’m always able to get over it, eventually, but sometimes I need a little help. Andie Walsh helps me, with her elegance (half on purpose, half accidental), her inventive thrift-store style and orange hair. I’ll put on the movie—for what, the 200th, 300th time?—and watch its opening scene, which shows Molly Ringwald as Andie getting dressed piece by piece. My reaction to the shot of her zipping up the back of her silky, ivory-colored skirt is a nearly physical throb of recognition and longing: That could be me. I could wear that skirt, slinky and sweet. If only I could climb inside the movie and inhabit it, I could possess its main character’s sense of self. I could be that girl.
I’m not really a “fan,” generally speaking. I’m pretty devoted to my favorite bands, and there are a handful of books I love more than most people. But fandom is its own thing, with costumes and conventions, new stories and imagined pairings, and it’s not a culture I’ve ever participated in. I think fan culture is incredible, creative and surprising and useful, but when I’ve tried to negotiate it I feel like I’m visiting a foreign city, never totally sure what people are talking about even though I know a few key phrases.
But then there’s this Pretty in Pink ... thing ... that I have. I was a little kid when the movie came out, so when I saw it a couple years later — when it started playing on TV — I watched it like I was doing research. Okay, this is what being a teenager will be like. I’ll know about music and drive a Karmann Ghia and hang out, incredibly, in a smoky rock club. When the time came, what I actually did was spend four years in uniform at an all-girls’ Catholic lockdown, with mean nuns for teachers and not a single rock club, though my best friend Laura and I did teach ourselves to smoke. It was the 90s by then and I had new, tougher heroes, but the idea of Andie still haunted me, like the promise of something I was about to become. In that opening scene she reveals her sources: All the stuff she’s wearing she either made herself or bought in a thrift store. Thunderstruck, I was. Her good looks weren’t movie magic, but something I could do myself. I didn’t have to wear the same old boring clothes everyone else did! I could look weird. For fun!
Since then I have met people, now and again, who I identify as being like the other characters in my favorite movie. There’s a lovely consignment shop in my neighborhood that’s run by a woman with impeccable taste, who goes by a name she made up and spells with an umlaut. She’s tall and elegant like a teenage Molly Ringwald, but since she’s both older than me and a shop owner (and kind of a kook), I view her as a Iona type. (Iona owned Trax, the record store where Andie worked.) The woman I know doesn’t look half as outrageous as Iona, who was all rubber dress bondage punk one day, beehived nostalgist the next, but she’s got a similarly appealing Betty Boop thing going on. I look up to the Pretty in Pink people I meet in real life. It’s still an aspirational thing for me.
I don’t necessarily need to watch the whole movie, which I own on a special edition DVD called “Everything’s Duckie” that includes interviews with the cast, writer John Hughes, director Howard Deutch, and costume designer Marilyn Vance. I can get some of the same comfort from looking at stills, which by the way blow up tumblr on a daily basis. The images are all so perfect: Andie wearing her rock-star sunglasses, soulful, chin in hand. Duckie pointing down at his busted shoes, with their dirty white leather and pointy toes. In times of stress the movie is never far from my mind, and since I can’t bring it around with me and watch it all the time it’s lucky I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the silly thing in my head. Remember in The Shawshank Redemption, when Tim Robbins comes out of his months in the hole all dazzled and weird, but he’s okay? And he talks about having Mozart or whatever memorized so that he can listen to it whenever he wants? As long as I have the movie up here, I’ll be cool.
A lot has been written about John Hughes and what his early movies meant to 80s teenagers, who allegedly hadn’t see many realistic representations of themselves in the mainstream media till then. People valued the way he gave kids an identity that wasn’t smiley and fake, but spoke to all the passion and pain and utter seriousness folks feel at that age. And I can understand all that, but I was too young to get that from it, and I don’t think that’s quite what I was responding to. As a kid I identified with Andie, but I also used the idea of her to piece together the person I wanted to turn into. And honestly? An awful lot of it was about the clothes.
Andie has influenced my style directly, for sure. There are a few pairs of black ankle boots on my closet floor—when I saw the flat ones with the pointy-ish toe at the secondhand store my heart did this alarming fluttery thing it sometimes does when leather products are really inexpensive. I’ve got a long skirt I never would have looked at twice if it weren’t for the character, and a pair of white mesh gloves that just seemed like something she would wear.
But the role of clothing in Pretty in Pink is, honestly, bigger and less silly than that. One of the movie’s important lessons is that looking like yourself is an integral part of being yourself, so even if you get taunted for it, you absolutely must leave the house every day dressed like the character that is you, and keep your head held high. Andie didn’t look like any of the other kids at school: In old-lady lace and clusters of dangling earrings, she looked like herself. “Where’d you get your clothes, the five and dime store?” says class mean girl Benny to Andie during American history. In that scene Andie has on these fugly round John Lennon specs and a sort of lumpy boiled wool-looking jacket thing, and she couldn’t possibly look better. Can you remember what the bully was wearing? I can’t. (FYI: I watched that scene again just now, and actually Benny looks gorgeous, in a pale yellow blouse to match her pale yellow hair. But who cares? Her meanness makes a caricature of her, all broad brush strokes to Andie’s fine details. She’s forgettable, and the movie doesn’t even bother giving her a comeuppance at the end. She just kind of dries up and blows away.)
And Andie’s clothes aren’t just about who she is, but who she wants to be. She’s embarrassed that her dad is unemployed, and tired of being humiliated by the spoiled kids at school. When dreamy “richie” Blane wants to take her home at the end of their date she refuses, eventually confessing desperately that she doesn’t want him to see where she lives. But even though she’s in pain, she knows that demographics isn’t destiny. In that opening scene, after she finishes getting dressed in her protective armor of jangling jewelry, she shows her dad her outfit, identifying the origin and price of each element of this “latest creation.” The price is significant because Andie’s character doesn’t have much money, unlike the richies with their “American Express Platinum cards.” But for me, a solidly middle class kid who didn’t have the worry of being perceived as poor (but also definitely did not have access to anybody’s credit card), Pretty in Pink spoke to the concept of self-invention in a larger sense. I didn’t fit in—not within the confines of my Catholic upbringing and, because of it, not outside it either—and it might be an adolescent cliche but believe me, it hurts. Sometimes, the movie seemed to be telling us, the place and time and body we’re born into can be a kind of cosmic mistake. You might be unliked or come from an unstylish part of town, but you know that’s not you. If you can make yourself look like the thing you’re meant to be, you might be able to transcend the thing that you—oops! accidentally—are.
Fans of the movie know that it was originally written and shot with a different ending than the one that got released. In that version, instead of ending up with Blane after he’d broken her heart and repented, Andie rejected him at the prom and danced with Duckie instead. The idea wasn’t that she chose her devoted best friend as a boyfriend, I don’t think; it was more like a punky morality tale about taking pride in who you are and not letting anybody trash you around. In the sequence that precedes the dance, Andie sits at her sewing machine and concocts a (you can say it) fugly pink prom dress out of the pieces of a couple of only slightly less atrocious ones, while “Thieves Like Us” by New Order plays. It’s so stirring, watching her work—she’s getting her mojo back. When she explains to her dad why she’s going to the prom even though Blane dumped her and she has no date, she says, “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.” In case you missed it, the whole point of making the dress was to tell people that they could kiss her ass. Have you ever heard of anything better than that?
According to the interviews on my DVD, that first movie was screen-tested to focus groups of teenage girls who hated the Duckie ending. They wanted the heroine to end up with the stupid dreamboat, so the final scenes were rewritten and shot again (this time with Andrew McCarthy wearing a horrible wig because he had already started shooting another movie for which he’d had to cut his hair). In the new version, Blane finds her at the prom and blurts out an awkward “I love you” (haha what!), and with Duckie’s encouragement Andie forgives him. In the darkened parking lot, lit from behind and through a mist of soft rain, the two have what has got to be one of the all-time great movie kisses. It’s still a major let-down of an ending, though. With respect to you Blane apologists out there (and I know, he was really lovely), that isn’t the Andie I know. She liked herself better than that, would have done something surprising and cheeky and sweet. When it comes down to it, the cheesified Hollywood ending just doesn’t make good on the promise of Andie’s incredible clothes.
As I’ve gotten older, watching the movie sets off pangs of wistfulness in me that never used to be there. Molly Ringwald’s skin is so perfect, and neither she nor I (or any of the rest of you jerks) will ever be that young again. But within the universe of the movie nothing has changed, and I can see now what I couldn’t see then: That the movie isn’t just about teenagers, but seems to live in the mind of a teenager as well. It’s the deadly serious idealism, the unblinking belief in true love, yeah, but it’s the outfits too. Those kids knew that looking cool was important—worth much more, in fact, than most old people would have you believe, and I say this as a getting-old person myself. If you ever feel misunderstood—and really, who doesn’t—get yourself to the thrift store and channel Andie. Let them know they can’t break you. I’ve been doing it for going on 20 years now, and it’s never become one tiny bit less fun.
p.s. A little Pretty in Pink novel came out in 1986, the same year the movie was released, and it was based on the screenplay with the original ending, so if you’re having trouble imagining Andie choosing Duckie over Blane you can buy yourself a used copy and read it. It’s really nice.