On the catwalk

Please enjoy this introduction I wrote to my zine Cat Party #7, which I put out in late December 2020. This issue of the zine, like most of the others in the series, is an anthology of work by a handful of people introduced with an essay by me. If you’d like to read more about the zine and/or order a copy, please visit my online shop over here.

During these last seven months of the pandemic, going for walks in my neighborhood has been a lifeline for me. I’ve always loved to go for long walks in the city (and the suburbs and the woods sometimes, too)—moving my body through space and taking in some new sights always, always makes me feel good, or at least better than I felt before I started. 

This year, however, going for walks has meant way more to me than usual. All these months into the crisis, it is still one of the only things I feel safe doing outside of my house, and I have leaned all the way in. Bored? Go for a walk. Taking a break from work? Go for a walk. Need to talk something out with Joe? Go for a walk—with Joe. Though actually, all of these walks have been with Joe. Everything I’ve done in all this time, I’ve done with him. I’m not tired of his company, I’m very happy to say, and I haven’t gotten bored of our walks, either. 

However, quarantine fatigue is a real phenomenon, and some days the stress of it all feels like it’s pressing down on us more heavily than others. We’ve found it useful to mix things up now and again. A couple months ago, while we were on one of our walks—talking about how much we hoped we’d see Steven, the indoor-outdoor tabby who lives up the block and who we call the Mayor because he’s such a badass, and then feeling victorious when we did see him, sitting there looking all stripey on the sidewalk in front of his house—the thought occurred to us to start keeping track of every cat we see when we go out. 

These little cat finding missions have really invigorated our neighborhood walks, let me tell you. For one thing, they encourage me to pay a kind of attention to the visual details around me that I tend to miss when I’m looking down at my feet or lost in my thoughts or conversation with J. There’s also something comical about this project, which brings a note of joy to the day that we sometimes really need. The cats are funny, and coming upon them in the middle of their activities is funny, too. 

There was the cat that was lying so sound asleep in the grass of a front yard that I swore was a large rock until we crossed the street toward it to get a better look and it stood up, stretched, and yawned. There’s the big orange tabby we sometimes see through his door, sitting happily on a cat tower that his humans have placed there. As we pass by we watch him, and he watches us. 

In this whole neighborhood, there is just one person who walks his cat on a leash, and we love coming upon the two of them, especially since they’re like celebrities to us because we’ve read the heated debates on the neighborhood’s amazingly petty Facebook group about whether or not this dude lets his cat poop on people’s lawns and doesn’t clean up after him. 

And it’s still a treat whenever we bump into Steven, all lean and muscular and beautiful. He rolls and squirms around on the sidewalk so that we’ll want to pat him, and the moment he’s had enough of our attention he hops up and swaggers away, cuz he’s just that cool.

We’ve even made a few new cat friends recently, like the beautiful little female calico who sits or sleeps on her front porch and comes running when we pass by. Her porch is set up high from the sidewalk, and when she see us—sometimes before we see her—she jumps up from her cushion and runs across the porch and straight down a stone wall to the bottom post, where she perches to snuggle and butt us with her head. I love that cat.

When we get home from our walks we tally up our results in a spreadsheet. Date, time of day, number of cats spotted indoors, number of cats spotted outdoors, and useful notes. (“Saw Steven chilling on his back patio”; “Three black cats on this October day!”) We don’t know yet who will find the information we’re compiling most useful (urban planners? cat behavioral scientists?) but we take our responsibility in collecting it seriously.

At this point we’ve got about 7 weeks’ worth of data, and as far as I’m concerned we’ve just gotten started. I mean, just the other day a house across the street got kittens, and the last time we went for a walk we spotted them sitting side by side, framed by two different windows, looking out at us with matching looks of wonderment on their faces. Things in the neighborhood are just gonna keep changing, cat-wise. Our work may never be finished! 

J, my cat-walk partner and partner in most other things as well, has helpfully arranged some of this data into charts and graphs. 

Fun and Fantasy

Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard

Trash-picking: It’s one of life’s great joys. The pickings are pretty good where I live, too. My neighbors throw away perfectly good stuff, if you ask me, and some of them take the trouble to separate things they think someone else might want and set them gently near the curb in a little box that says FREE on it.

Yesterday we walked past a free box on someone’s front step that had some books in it. I can never resist looking at free books, and I usually take one home (though those Little Free Library things tend to have a disappointing selection, don’t they?). This time I helped myself to Fun and Fantasy, an anthology of folk and fairy tales compiled for a children’s series called Through Golden Windows, published by Grolier in the 1950s. I reached instinctively for Fun and Fantasy because it has one of those pastel midcentury hard covers with illustrations printed directly on it. There’s something so appealing about an old book of “wisdom,” like a medical manual or a history book or a collection of children’s stories, which tend to be about the lessons life has to teach us. I’m always imagining a book like this will be rich with irony, and sometimes they are, but I usually come across some things of real value, too.

This book is more than 60 years old, but I see from her introduction that by 1958, modernity was already getting on editor Bernice E. Leary’s nerves. She writes about “today’s curiously complicated world,” where “material things are assuming increasing importance” and “global and continental distances are shrinking from weeks and days to hours and minutes.” The right books, she instructs, can help ease confusion and overwhelm by providing company and a better understanding of oneself, an escape from reality and also “the courage to face reality.” I agree with her on all counts.

I don’t have children, and I also haven’t been especially drawn to the symbolism of fairytales as an adult—at least not until a few years ago, when my family was going through something very painful and I was able, as if for the first time, to find comfort and magic in them. The last fairytale I read and wrote about on this blog was called Bony-Legs, and it was based on Baba Yaga, a scary witch from Russian folklore. It was almost exactly a year ago that I got it, right after the pandemic had started and we were newly housebound and deeply spooked. I ordered it from a small local bookstore and got it via “curbside pickup,” still a new idea then. I was so distressed and unable to concentrate on much that I mined that little thing, all 40 pages of it, for something that might help or comfort me. And you know what? It didn’t let me down. In fact the story and artwork were so reassuring that I pulled out two of the illustrated pages and taped them to the wall behind my desk, where they still hang. In the drawings, the little girl, the story’s heroine, is smiling as she fixes the witch’s gate and feeds her cat—acts of kindness and ingenuity that later in the story help her escape the witch and get home safely. I look at them every day.

A whole year later I’m still here, warily eyeing the news and trying to stay well. I wish I could think of something useful to say on this shitty anniversary, some wisdom or lesson I could share with you, but I don’t know. Some days I feel okay and other days I feel dragged out and half ruined; even in my better moments I’m pretty unwise. I do find it interesting that I’ve happened upon another book of fairytales a year later, almost to the day. There must be something in them that I still need.

This new book contains excerpts and condensed versions of several stories, and many of them are old ones. Hans Christian Andersen and Rudyard Kipling are in here, and so are versions of The Forty Thieves and Icarus and Daedalus, Cyclops, Aladdin, and Alice in Wonderland. Baron Munchausen, harmlessly pompous, narrates his extravagant travels in the first person: “The lively fancy of your young minds will find no difficulty in following me from tropic climes to lands of ice and snow.” Some of the book’s younger stories are pretty wonderful too, colorful and inventive. I find I like being reminded of unicorns and spending time with kings and wizards, even waggish ones by James Thurber.

It’s always sort of astounded me to think of adults writing stories for children; I guess it struck me as odd to consider writing books for a reader who was unlike you in such a fundamental way. That’s because I used to think childhood was like the old country, a place you couldn’t return to. But I was wrong. Childhood goes on and on. Right now, the kid inside me needs some company and understanding, not to mention a little escapism. She and I are alike that way.

Illustration by Enrico Arno

Pockets of air

I believe this is what the kids on the internet call a Whole Mood.

Dear friends, I write to you from deep inside late quarantine, the confusing place below decks where I hurry around looking for ways to rescue myself. Everything’s felt a bit bleak lately. But, ya know—books! Maybe books can be my little dinghy, my life preserver. My desperation fridge, even. I’ll take what I can get.

To this, and other much more cheerful ends, I am enrolled in a wonderful, challenging history class. It is asking me to try to understand what a history is and what it can be. So far we’ve looked at histories of nations and of the more liminal spaces where cultures meet. We’re also talking about social histories, which aim to show how groups like workers or women or racial minorities, who previously were depicted as spectators to history—the acted upon—were in reality doing some of the acting themselves.

I’ve been reading and reading and reading. I need new glasses, I’m reading so much. A reference to Shulamith Firestone and her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution jumped out at me during a day of reading last week, and I made a note to find out more. I’ve come across the name Shulamith Firestone many times in my years of feminist reading, and it’s such a pleasing name to say, plus there’s the way Firestone conjures the image of something hot and glowing, a beautiful weapon.

I haven’t read The Dialectic of Sex. I did read the piece Susan Faludi wrote about Firestone for the New Yorker, published several months after Firestone’s 2012 death. In her essay Faludi traces the arc of Firestone’s life, beginning as an outcast from an observant Orthodox Jewish family—the daughter of a woman who had fled the Holocaust in Germany—to her time as a radical organizer in the early days of feminism’s “second wave” to her lonely death in a NYC apartment, the end of years of suffering with schizophrenia. Faludi writes that by the time Firestone’s outlandishly smart and fearless book was published, infighting in the women’s movement caused her band of fellow organizers to fracture; they took to throwing each other out of the political groups they had organized together and eventually drifted apart. She shows us how this left Firestone stranded, unable to step into the world she had envisioned in her book, which failed to materialize, and bereft of the world she’d lived in with her friends and compatriots, which no longer existed. She situates Firestone’s predicament inside a larger idea about how, as Meredith Tax argued in her 1970 essay “Woman and Her Mind,” “the condition of women constituted a state of ‘female schizophrenia'” in which a woman either belonged to a man or she had nothing, was nothing, even though she was still alive. In essence she asks us to ponder, at least a little, what schizophrenia is. Like, how much of a mental illness is “organic” when we know that social factors like isolation and displacement (as with immigration) play a role in the likelihood that someone will develop it? It’s a question worth asking.

Faludi’s essay also describes a reading that was organized on the occasion of the publication of Firestone’s only other book, Airless Spaces, which came out in 1998, almost 30 years after the first one. Firestone’s old cronies Kate Millett and Phyllis Chesler read from the book for her because she was too afraid to do it herself. At this point she had already been sick for many years. Airless Spaces, Faludi writes, was comprised of “autobiographical vignettes” depicting “a population of what [Firestone] calls, with her usual directness, ‘losers,’ solitary exemplars of the state of ‘social defeat.'”

My kinda book! I ordered a copy. It’s a small Semiotext(e) volume, and the worlds described within it are small too, and bleak. They’re organized by section (“Hospital,” “Post-Hospital,” “Obits,” “Losers”); the final section is called “Suicides I Have Known,” and the last piece is a loving portrait called “Danny,” who we know was Firestone’s beloved but estranged brother who—though he didn’t leave a note—is thought to have shot himself to death. (“Did I say that my brother’s favorite colors were bright blue and orange? Or that he had a concentration of planets in the ninth house of higher education? … He swore he would never marry (so did I).”)

Firestone tells story after story about the odd, dislocated characters one meets in a mental hospital or afterward, maybe at the Y, where they’re killing time while they wait to get into some halfway house or vocational program. But I find that though many of the people she depicts are defeated, the stories aren’t. Some of them, while highly personal, frame an implied critique, and I can see that the scholar Firestone once was, the radical, is still in there somewhere. Others have a detached irony that makes them almost funny. (About a visit with Valerie Solanas, whose book The SCUM Manifesto Firestone found dangerous and unserious, after Solanas was released from the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, she writes: “I did not see this as a meeting with a fellow theorist.” I can’t quite tell if this was meant to make me smile, but it did.) And even though Firestone’s characters are loners they do, collected this way, show themselves to be a “population,” as Faludi called them, a group of people who have been cast out but haven’t quite disappeared.

Some of the vignettes are about Firestone herself, presumably, though they’re told in the third person. “She” is forcibly and roughly showered by orderlies in the mental hospital; “she” buys a pair of old Levis and patches them with the help of a friend; “she” tries to write, but “the old excitement of creation did not return.” She is too exhausted to make small decisions and moves in slow motion. She’s sick, but she writes lucidly about her condition, about the people she meets—about everything in her life. What are the people who run the hospital to make of that?

For an answer you could look to Firestone’s old friend Kate Millett, who famously critiqued psychiatry and believed that mental illness was often a label given to people who don’t comply with the dominant narrative and a convenient way to shut them up. Like Firestone, Millett, also a second wave feminist, was committed involuntarily more than once.

Or you could just ask Eileen Myles, who is always right about everything. In a blurb on Airless Spaces‘ back cover, Myles writes that in “the 20th [century] the explosion was never-ending, the pieces tinier and tinier…all of us …vanishing in a century of institutions that take and take until everyone has gone away and there’s no one left to shut the door.” 

Housework

Once I asked myself, when was I happy?
I was looking at a February sky.
When did the light hold me and I didn’t struggle?
And it came to me, an image
of myself in a doorway, a broom in my hand
sweeping out beach sand, salt, soot,
pollen and pine needles, the last December leaves,
and mud wasps, moths, flies crushed to wafers,
and spring’s first seed husks,
and then the final tufts like down, and red bud petals
like autumn leaves—so many petals—”

from “Broom” by Deborah Digges, as published in Sleeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework
Photo by Keith McDuffee, shared under CC by 2.0

There’s a lot I could say about housework—women’s work—so long looked down upon, but I’m tired and my mind is having a tough time lately keeping up with my usual passions, tirades, and complaints. For now I’ll just say this: Today I cleaned my house, and it made me feel better. I scrubbed the bathrooms, did the laundry, swept the floor. I even made this hand sanitizing spray, which scented the kitchen with cinnamon and rosemary—warm and cheerful Christmas smells that chased away too many thoughts about why I was making it. I bustled around the small, sweet rooms of my house, where I spend almost all my time now and which I’m so grateful for, and took back the tiniest feeling of control over my life. And the light held me, and I did not struggle.

Rainbows of Light

Back in May, in the early days of the pandemic, I signed up for an online qigong class. I’d never heard of qigong before but the class was offered through a local community school that I love, and I was stuck at home without enough to do so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m a person who can feel very uncomfortable doing “body things” in front of other people, so the fact that this class was online made it more appealing to me, not less, even though of course the class would typically be offered in person. 

I told a few friends about the class before it started, taking a guess at how the word was pronounced. My version was quite different from what my instructors call it; it’s pronounced something like chee-gung, and the word qi is in there because the practice is a Chinese system of movements and meditations that are meant to work with the life energy, called qi or chi in Chinese. Qigong is related to tai chi, and its movements are slow and graceful, as if underwater.

My instructors teach a form of qigong devised by the teacher and writer Daisy Lee, who has developed a practice meant specifically for female body systems. This appealed to me too. I’ve always loved women’s spaces—not heteronormy events like bridal and baby showers, which create in me a kind of dread and sweaty distress that might fairly be classified as dysphoria, but dorky, often queer spaces like feminist groups and women’s art organizations. I feel safe in groups like that, accepted and even liked. A blessed relief.

At first, when the class was still new to me, I fretted over what to wear and felt I had to cover my overgrown, messy hair with scarves. Now I can show up to class with no bra on and feel almost as comfortable in my skin as I do when I’m alone. I’ve now taken the class three times and consider it an important part of my life; in a way it’s been essential to my feeling of well being during the pandemic.

I love the movements of qigong. Many of them match my breathing in an easy, natural way, which allows me to reach a meditative state in a way I just can’t in sitting meditation, which has a way of making me fixate on my breathing till I start to get freaked out. One thing I’ve learned in therapy is that grief and other emotions can get stuck in the body, and if that’s true then it stands to reason that the right movements, with the right intention, could help them get unstuck. Most times when I do qigong I start to yawn like crazy, and my teachers both told me that this is a sign that energy is moving through me. Good, I thought. It needs to be on its way.

In one of my favorite qigong exercises, we bring our hands straight up over our heads, then draw them down in a wide circle over either side of our bodies and imagine that rainbows of light are streaming from our finger tips. Rainbows of light! How badass is that? I love the language of qigong just as much as I love the movements. The instructor Robert Peng, whose video “Qigong Ecstasy” I’ve watched on my instructors’ recommendation, says to let your heart soften and open, like a fragrant flower. When we breathe, he says, we’re filling our bodies with this loving energy. A younger version of me would have thought this sounded corny, but this version of me quite likes it, finds it easy to imagine. Maybe my heart can be softer, more loving. Maybe the universe really is an ocean of qi, and I’m just bobbing around in it like an adorable otter. 

All my life, whenever I’ve gotten interested in something, I’ve read about it. I’ve studied it. But after several weeks of practicing qigong I realized that it hadn’t once occurred to me to read about it. Aside from asking the internet why I yawn so much, I’ve let the practice be something I encounter not with my mind, but with my body. And I’ll continue on this way, once a week during this strange, scary year, moving my small body through the space of my room and pulling rainbows of light all around me. 

A Maui double rainbow

Walking Through Clear Water

I’ll read pretty much any book about the early days of punk in NYC, no matter how crappy it is. Recently I found an entertainingly crappy one called Punk Avenue by Phil Marcade, who maybe you haven’t heard of—I hadn’t—but who was there for everything that went down in that scene, like a punk rock Forrest Gump, him and his throwback rockabilly band the Senders.

I call the book crappy not because it isn’t beautifully written (though it isn’t, especially) but because some of the words and attitudes he expresses—about a woman who is “disgusting” because of her addiction and all the many “big” Black and Puerto Rican people he sees in New York (in his book, they’re all big)—occasionally made me barf. The stories he told were so juicy, though, I read every word. When it comes to books like these I don’t care whether the writing is elegant. For instance, I fucking treasure Touching From a Distance, the book Deborah Curtis wrote about her husband Ian, in part because it was written by someone who is not a writer and with such touching honesty, so naked it hurts.

Anyway, I was reading Marcade’s book and came across a description of a party he went to in the Lower East Side in 1981. It was a birthday party for himself, thrown by his friend Bruce at Bruce’s apartment. By this time most of the people Marcade knew were using or already addicted to heroin, including Bruce, who O.D.’d during the party and was revived by Coookie Mueller, the Queen of the Underground, in his bathtub. She injected him with salt water while a line of irritated people waiting for the bathroom pounded on the door, including one mouthy lady in drag.

This sounds familiar, I thought. It sounds just like a story that Cookie wrote herself and published in her wonderful book of essays, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. (That title: I feel it like an arrow to my heart. Sometimes I just repeat it to myself to get that feeling again and again. It’s stunning.) I went and found the book on my big bookcase, the one where all the important books are kept, and found that the names in her story are different and so is the year. She describes reviving a guy named Tom at someone named Sam’s apartment while a “drag queen film star” banged on the door. It took place in the LES, but in 1979. I guess the stories are about two different events, but who can say how much of these recollections is unintentional fiction? If you lived through all that, would you remember every name and date?

Regardless, both stories are pretty lurid, and I guess my interest in them isn’t very wholesome. But I can’t seem to quit my fascination with punk in its original form: Those first punks who were hippies or bohemians first, or maybe just crazy artists or people who partied too hard, all of whom made a culture out of the larger culture’s leavings—literally, by dragging the older generation’s trash back home to their squats and apartments to turn it into art, clothing, a whole new life.

And beyond all that, Cookie Mueller is a person whose writing I have really loved. She tells the craziest stories, and her writing is elegant. I’ve enjoyed nursing an obsession with her over the years, and after being reminded of her by Phil Marcade’s book, I decided it was high time to bring that obsession back to life.

As it happens, it’s more or less impossible to find her other books. They’re not at the library, and since they’re out of print copies are going for several hundred dollars—more than I want to pay. I did, however, get my hands on something just as exciting: A book about Cookie that was published just 5 years ago, written by someone who spent more than a decade getting to know those closest to her. The result is this big amazing brick of a book called Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. The author, Chloé Griffin, presents Cookie’s biography using stitched-together direct quotes from dozens of people who remember her, from her youth in Baltimore to her coming of age in John Waters’ movies to her adulthood in Provincetown and San Francisco and NYC. Direct quotes is the method Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain used for Please Kill Me, the best punk book ever written, and it can look impenetrable on the page, but when it’s done right it feels like listening to a conversation taking place around the kitchen table while passing a bottle of wine around.

In the essay Griffin wrote as an introduction, she tells us how she was drawn to Cookie Mueller after seeing her in Waters’ films, how she felt called to get close to her and write about her in some way, though Cookie had already died by this time and Griffin didn’t have any real idea what sort of tribute she wanted to make. She just followed her instinct and found Cookie’s ex-lover, Sharon Niesp, calling her on the phone at the Provincetown pizza place where Sharon had worked as a cook for many years. Within a day she was on a bus to Provincetown to meet Sharon and Cookie’s only child, Max, who was in his late 20s at that time. It was the beginning of a relationship that twinkles in my mind: The image of Griffin sleeping under piles of blankets in a sunny back room in Niesp’s 19th-century house, or of Chloé and Sharon and Max sitting at the bar and talking or running together on the beach. Somewhat miraculously, it seems, the people closest to Cookie let Chloé, and consequently us, into their lives—and it feels magical there.

I love reading about Cookie’s wackier, artier antics in this book. It’s also neat to hear artists who worked with her talk about just how smart she was. I love her sense of style, which was flamboyant, sexy, and totally her own. Her friends talk about how she’d find beautiful old things at the thrift store and make most of her own clothing—John Waters says she briefly started her own clothing line, but it was too much work because she did everything herself by hand.

“There was not a hint of fashion about her—it was complete style,” the filmmaker Amos Poe says about Cookie. The highest praise. There’s something very inspiring to me about a person who knows exactly how they want to look and finds a way, any way they can manage, to make it happen. It’s sort of a metaphor for her whole life, this self-made artist-person extraordinaire.

The book is highly visual—on almost every page there are family photos, snapshots, film stills, flyers, drawings, and photos of Cookie in drag and in costume as different characters. There’s even a devastating Mapplethorpe portrait of her. As I read it, there were moments that a character from a wonderful novel kept swimming into my mind, Paul Polydoris from Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl—something about the way Cookie’s riotous, broke, queer life was always exploding with color, sex, and love (and of course the fabulous clothes).

The writer Raymond Foye described Cookie as being like a Warhol superstar, cut from the same cloth as Edie Sedgwick and Candy Darling. She wanted to experience lots of things and she wanted to be famous. As the one-and-only Gary Indiana, Cookie’s good friend, puts it: “Cookie wanted to be somebody. But Cookie was somebody. She was like a comet going across the sky once in 100 years.”

But the quieter bits of the story are just as moving. John Waters and other friends recount small sad moments when Cookie tried to connect with her parents, who might not always have been that kind to her. But as her peers explain it, it was kind of a Baby Boomer thing, feeling that kind of disconnect from the older generation. The culture changed so much in the 60s, it was as if they were from two different worlds. This isn’t a sad book—not until the terrible end, when Cookie gets sick and dies. But it’s saturated with that loss, and it made me cry more than once. What is it about the images of her as a maybe-wayward but loving young mother that nudges me right in the solar plexus? I can see the young mom in my mind’s eye, a kind of playmate for her own little kid, taking him by the hand as they wandered off down the road.

Chloé Griffin has done something really special with this book. I might go so far as to call it important. There’s just so much there. Not everybody has a life as interesting as Cookie Mueller did—not even close—but I find myself wishing that everybody could have a book like this made about them, something both loving and exhaustive, brutal in its honesty. I think everyone’s book would be packed with reminiscences, grudges, secrets, snapshots. We all have stories, after all. It’s too bad we don’t all get a chance to tell them.

Book of Spells

On Tuesday I attended (virtually, of course) a really neat talk on “recipe books.” For hundreds of years these were books kept by people, most of them women, to collect not only their cooking recipes but also instructions on making poultices, ointments, and other concoctions to cure and heal illness and injury. The talk was given by Chrissie Perella, the Historical Medical Library Archivist at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which has 40 recipe books in its collection. Some of the recipes Perella talked about were entertainingly odd, including the “Oil of Swallows” included in Gervase Markham’s The English House-vvife (1615), which called for the use of up to 20 live swallows. !!!

I love old books, especially handwritten ones like these. They have more than a little of the witch’s grimoire about them, especially the older ones, which blended magic with science and sometimes included rituals that were meant to be performed as the concoction was being made or used.

It’s easy for me to feel a visceral connection to these women who lived 150 or 400 years ago, a feeling that sparks when I look at the book itself and see the annotations they made to their own recipes over the months and years, just as I do in my own notebooks. Perella explained that one of the ways scholars can know whether a recipe was actually used is that the writers of these books frequently made note of who they got the recipe from. When one woman’s name appears several times in another’s recipe book, we know they were likely friends who lived near each other. The books were sometimes kept and added to by more than one person, over generations. It’s such a human thing, a book like this.

All of this put me to mind of the book I’ve been working on since last year, The Kytchyn Witche Guide to Natural Living. My friend Nadine and I have spent months compiling our favorite household cleaning and body care recipes, including tips and ideas from people in our communities, from herbalists we’ve met to our own mothers. Our book, like those old ones, is witchy in a few ways: We talk about ritual and visualization techniques, and the whole thing is about honoring nature in all areas of life. We even encourage readers to start a grimoire of their own recipes and notations.

But most important, in my eyes, the book connects the reader back through the centuries to all the dedicated keepers of home and hearth.

The Oil of Swallows recipe as seen in “Anne Layfielde, her Booke of Physicke and Surgery, 1640”

Getting Real

I had to admit it: I was never going to read all the issues of the London Review of Books that were sitting in two tall stacks on my office floor. They’d been there for months, and some of the covers had started curling up with age. I went through and clipped only the essays and reviews that interested me the most, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been making my way through that stack—also a large one—quite happily. I thought I’d share a few of the gems with you here.

  • I read “I’m an Intelligence,” a long-form review by Joanna Biggs of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I: 1940-56 and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. II: 1956-63, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil. The essay looks at the last years of Plath’s life (and briefly and poignantly but amusingly imagines what her life might have looked like, had it lasted a lot longer). Because of this, it is largely about Plath’s relationship with her dreadful husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and her own mental health and sense of self. It’s also about the varying ways we portray ourselves (or hide ourselves) in communications with other people. ‘Ted may be a genius,’ Plath wrote to her mother just a few months before her death, ‘but I’m an intelligence.’
  • I read art historian Eleanor Nairne’s short essay about Keith Haring, published last year on the occasion of the first large-scale exhibition of his work in the UK. Haring is an artist I have a lot of affection for and, along with the many other New York street artists of his era, a real fascination with. In Nairne’s piece I learned about an aspect of his graffiti art that I didn’t know: In New York in the early 80s, when a subway ad was taken down it was temporary replaced with black paper, and Haring used these as canvases for his chalk drawings. He made 5,000 of them between 1980 and 1985 and was arrested several times for doing it. 
Tseng Kwong Chi photo of Keith Haring
  • I read an essay by LRB editor Andrew O’Hagan’s—an installment of the paper’s Diary (usually my favorite section)—which I clipped because the first sentence was about the poet Philip Larkin. It ended up being not about Larkin’s poetry but his funeral, as well as the funerals of a few other poets and O’Hagan’s own father. “When I read it now, I see his order of service was a publication chiefly for people who hardly knew him, and when all’s said and done, that’s fine, isn’t it, even appropriate, if what mattered to the person in question was cultivating the admiration of strangers? A lie can confirm a truth.”
  • I’ve read two pieces about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One was a dense, poetic little piece about the changing face of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic during the 60s and 70s by the poet Padraig Rooney. The other was a chilly account of the Birmingham Six, the six Irishmen who were wrongly convicted for two 1974 bombings that killed 21 people and seriously injured 170 or more, by Chris Mulilin, the journalist who wrote a book that helped prove their innocence (though not until many years after they were imprisoned). The people who committed the crimes have never been brought to justice, though Mullins knows who they are. He writes that the purpose of his reporting was to prove the innocence of the Six, and “Journalists do not disclose their sources.” A reporter’s account of his own reporting makes for fascinating reading. As I read his essay I remembered the powerful film In the Name of the Father (and its impeccable soundtrack), then looked up the movie and remembered that it was actually about a different case, the Guildford Four, in which another group of young Irishmen were falsely accused of a different bombing in England. Like the Birmingham Six, those men spent some 15 years in prison before their innocence was proven and they were released. 
  • In Barbara Newman’s review of a Jack Hartnell history book, I read about “medieval bodies.” Newman reports on extremes of feasting and fasting; exaggerated depictions of whiteness and blackness; laws governing what people wore for the purpose of identifying them by their profession or social status (“French prostitutes could not wear embroidery, pearls, gilt buttons, or robes trimmed with squirrel fur”); Pope Joan, the 9th-century lady who cross-dressed and fooled everyone into letting her become pontiff until she got pregnant and either died giving birth or was murdered (modern scholars think that most likely none of this actually happened); women who shaved their eyebrows and wore cone-shaped hats during a period in the 15th century when having a broad forehead was considered very beautiful; and the idea that witches could cast a spell to make a man’s penis disappear. Bodies: They’re weird! 

  • I read an unusual meditation on the idea of “the beach” by Inigo Thomas. He first discusses the meaning of the word “pebble”—its etymology is obscure, but he writes that “Pebbles begin as a fragment of rick that through natural agency has broken away from the rockface” and quotes Clarence Ellis’ book The Pebbles: “The weather, very slowly, but very surely, breaks down even the hardest rock.” Later, he evokes Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, which was made from two thousand square meters of black Doria marble from Genoa and thirty thousand Moorish tiles purchased from an American collector, among other materials. Very grand indeed, but Thomas reminds us, “There’s no argument about rising sea levels, only their causes. … eventually Mar-a-Lago too will be worn down by the actions of the waves. A house on the shore is no less transient that a pebble on the beach.”
  • I read Madeleine Schwartz’s review of two books by Kathleen Collins that were prepared for publication posthumously by her daughter Nina some thirty years after they were written. Collins, a Black writer who worked in the 70s and 80s, wrote stories, plays, and films, though many of them did not see the light of day during her lifetime. Collins wrote stories that showed, in her words, “African Americans as human subjects and not as mere race subjects.” Schwartz writes that, though Collins’ characters tend not to be overtly political themselves, the title story of her book Whatever Happened to Interracial Love looks at “the pressure and lies created by racism.” When her only film, Losing Ground, was made in 1982, it couldn’t get distribution in arthouse movie theaters “because they couldn’t imagine who would want to watch it,” Schwartz writes. She refers to an essay on the film by Phyllis Rauch Klotman, who writes that “audiences complained that the movie had no ghettos, ‘no ‘poor suffering black folk.’ ” But Schwartz reminds us that the Collins stories that were released just a few years ago were received with a similar bemusement; critics seemed unsure of what to make of these “stories of black love and conversation” that don’t fit easily into the walled-off categories of our understanding of art or race.
American writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins

Maybe don’t

(Major content warning on this one, friends: r*pe, murder, misogyny, stalking, serial killers)

Jenny Diski was lots of people’s favorite writer. She published many books of fiction and memoir during her lifetime, though I haven’t read most of them—I only knew her from the essays she wrote for the London Review of Books, where she was a frequent contributor. After she died a few years ago I bought a copy of Don’t, a collection of book reviews and personal essays she wrote for the magazine, and I spent some time today re-reading it. 

One of the first pieces in the book, in a section titled “Looking at Monsters in the Dark,” is a review of a lurid-sounding book called The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, which came out in 1993, a year before Dahmer died in prison. I was a young teenager when Dahmer was caught and his crimes were revealed. I remember being horrified by him, but at the same time somehow comforted by the knowledge he had preyed on boys and men, which was new information to me, a surprise. I filed the information away: Men harm other men, too. It’s not just women and girls who are in danger. It is usually the men doing the harming, though, it seemed. That part was not a surprise. 

When I saw this essay in Diski’s book I had the same reaction to it that I always do to articles or films about serial rapists and murders: I don’t want to read it. I can’t look at it. / I have to look at it. I have to read it, every word. Typically, after I read or watch the thing, I will get sick to my stomach or have at least one very bad night’s sleep, but I continue to do it occasionally anyway. Am I interested in these subjects, or am I punishing myself for something? Am I trying to keep myself safe, or to understand something about human nature? Or about myself? Or is all of those at once?

So I read the Dahmer essay, along with the rest of the book. I deeply enjoyed the essays. This is writing about many areas of life—reportage of a kind—by someone with a truly interesting mind, as well as a wonderful sense of humor. Diski looked at Dahmer the way she looked at the book written about him, and about every subject she approaches: Not only does she not look away, as I was tempted to do, she looks inward as well. She does not shy away from the horrible things that happen in the world or from her own dark thoughts, and by letting all these exist together on the page she makes room for the, shall we say, fullness of the human experience. Even still, by the end of her essay she admits that she might not see much need for books about people like Dahmer, agreeing with something he once said about himself: “This is the grand finale of a life poorly spent … How it can help anyone, I’ve no idea.” 

But old Jeffrey Dahmer has a way of popping up again and again, doesn’t he? All these guys do, these serial killers everyone is so fascinated with, along with all the other kinds of violent crimes that are splayed all over the news. They won’t go away and so occasionally, I guess, we feel compelled to take a look. 

When I was in my 20s and working at a Barnes & Noble, a sweet but possibly creepy guy I worked with there asked me to get the book he’d ordered from behind the register, and when I saw that it was a biography of Jeffrey Dahmer I felt truly skeeved, I can’t lie. As I handed it to him I gave him a look that said Why?, trying to cover my discomfort by teasing him. He just looked embarrassed, and I remained afraid of him until I quit the job a few months later.

But then, I was a young woman, and I was afraid a lot of the time. Even specifically at that job: There were a few men who would pester the young women who worked at the store, asking for us by name even though they were strangers to us. One man in particular came in looking for me after we’d spoken on the phone when he called to ask about a book. He then stood there in front of my register (and a bunch of other people) and told me what a “soothing” voice I’d had over the phone, gazing at me with a truly demented expression in his eyes. I often worked the store’s evening shift, which meant I had to stay until it closed at 11, help do all the closing-up stuff, then leave to walk out into the dark, empty parking lot at midnight and walk home alone. The whole time I worked there I nursed a low-level fear that the soothing voice guy would be there waiting for me, and yet this feeling was indistinguishable from the at-least-low-level fear of all men that I carried around with me all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever even considered that particular anecdote important enough to tell anyone about before now, though I’ve thought of it often over the years.

A few years before I had that bookstore job, I was in college and living in downtown Philadelphia, when the so-called Center City Rapist was at large. He lived, it turned out, in an apartment just a few blocks from the one I shared with my best friend K. Several times over the course of a few years, he slipped out of the bed he shared with his girlfriend in the middle of the night to break into women’s apartments while they slept and rape them. He murdered one of them, a woman named Shannon who lived a few blocks from where I lived at the time. (All of these crimes were committed within a few blocks of where I lived.) She was 23, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania while I was an undergraduate there; I was 21. The Philadelphia Police Department’s habit of underplaying, ignoring, and mishandling of sex crimes has since been reported on widely, though at that time my friends and I did not know this, and didn’t need to know it to realize we were deeply unsafe. We already had the much larger knowledge that most women have always had—that we were on our own with this stuff.

Actually, I once read a book about Jeffrey Dahmer myself. At the library one quiet afternoon, looking for something good to read, I found a graphic memoir by a man who’d gone to school with “Jeff.” He wrote about Dahmer’s crimes as well as his memories of him as a teenager, and how those did, or did not, line up with what later happened. It’s a very sensitive and powerful book—it was later made into a film, which I haven’t seen—but it scared me so badly that I regretted reading it with the same intense energy one usually feels for regretting having done something, not simply having read or looked at something. If only I could take it back! Some things, once you’ve seen or heard them, do not go away.

I want to say here that the current wave of fascination with murder, which as far as I can tell has been spurred on if not created by podcasts and the Netflix’s serial killer documentary machine, leaves me very cold. I don’t find the “fandom” of well-known murders funny, and I don’t think being preoccupied with stuff like this makes a person interesting. I wish it would all go away. The violence, and the glamorization of the violence. Just make it stop. A line from one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under, comes to me now. When his coworker starts describing the M.O. of a serial killer they’ve agreed to embalm after he was executed by the state, the undertaker David nearly shouts: “Don’t tell me. It’s bad enough things like that happen. Do we have to talk about them too?”

But—I think sometimes sometimes we have to talk about them. Last year, during a period when I was feeling extremely disturbed after learning about an act of sexual violence that had happened to someone I love, I watched Conversations With a Killer, a four-part, nearly four-hour documentary Netflix produced about Ted Bundy and the journalists who managed the rare feat of interviewing him while he was on death row. I was hungry for this story, and not in my usual, guiltily self-harming way. It felt important for me to try to understand the reason a person might hurt someone for pleasure. I have to conclude that a hunger for understanding is the reason people write books like the one I read, and the one Diski reviewed, though I can’t say that in the case of this documentary I really gained much wisdom beyond an astonished sort of appreciation for the depths that people can sink to. 

(And yes, like it or not, these are people, not monsters. There’s no such thing as monsters, I’m afraid. In a song on Tori Amos’s album American Doll Posse—one of the funny, spooky little ditties she does so well—she sings: “Devils and gods, now that’s an idea / but if we believe that its they who decide / that’s the ultimate detractor of crimes / cuz devils and gods, they are you and I.”) 

One of the details from the Bundy film that haunts me the most, a year after watching it, is something one of the journalists said, something about regret. He was a tough old-school newspaper reporter and didn’t seem the type to be scared by much, but he talked about how thoroughly disturbed he was by Bundy, how he felt that by spending time with him he’d been infected by his essence. He described bringing home with him a darkness that has gnawed at him more, not less, as time has worn on, and he said he wished he’d never done the interviews at all. 

Touching from a Distance

(Other titles I considered for this post: “Closedown”, “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” and “Shake the Disease”)

Well, it’s official. We’ll never have fun again.

The city of Philadelphia announced last week that gatherings of more than 50 people are cancelled until February 28, 2021. That means no club nights, no dance parties for another six months at least. I think this is honestly the only approach to the pandemic that makes any sense, and I’m proud to live in a place where the leadership has responded to it (mostly) appropriately. And I know it was unlikely that I’d feel safe going to parties even if the city started allowing them before then anyway. But wow, did it feel bad to hear this.

One of the best things Joe and I do together is go out to one of our “goth nights” and dance till our thigh muscles are twitching with exhaustion. Putting together the perfect outfit is, for me, just as much fun, and just as important, as the music we dance to. Goth and its various offshoots, interpretations, and related genres (industrial pop, darkwave, synth pop, post punk) are pretty theatrical subcultures, and participation in them is a kind of performance. You dress up like you belong, then go to the places where the people who matter will see that you look like one of them, that you are one of them. Getting it right is a rush. 

It’s already been four months and I miss this, badly. All of it: The cheesy drinks, since I’m too old to give a shit who’s gonna think my Red Bull cocktails are tacky. The music, of course, that feeling when a song you love comes on at top volume. Why is it so much more exciting when the DJ plays a song than when you put it on yourself at home? It’s the surprise, I guess. But it’s the community of it, too—on Goth Night, everyone gets up and stomps to I’ve! Got to Say! That it hurts! When your favorite songs are everybody else’s favorite songs, that’s when you know you’re home.

That sense of belonging is what I miss the most, I think, the moment when I step through the door and the thudding bass takes up residence in my chest, giddily disoriented while my eyes adjust to the lighting, and the gang’s all here—hair tattoos jackets boots god they’re gorgeous. Joe and I don’t usually feel the need to talk to anyone; just being there and feeling accepted is enough (though we’ll get a little thrill when another regular gives us the smile-nod, or someone checks one of us out in the bathroom). At some point, later in the evening, we’ll need a break from the heat of the club so we’ll go out and sit on the fire escape near the back door and eavesdrop on the smokers’ conversations as we shout to hear each other, ears ringing. Never happier. I am never happier than when I’m doing this.

Given that this is such a participatory culture, I’ve been interested to see that my love for it hasn’t been dampened one bit during the months that I’ve been unable to perform it for an audience. Not even in day-to-day life, like on the bus, when I let everybody take in my outfit as I walk down the aisle, VNV Nation pounding in my ears. No, I’ve been at home all the fucking time, just like the rest of you—but I’ve got my books. And that was actually the point of this post, to tell you about my goth books.

Shall we take a look at them?


Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace, by Andi Harriman and Marloes Bontje

Oh how I love these pictures. I could write a whole essay that’s just about the feeling of fantasizing over old photos, and another one about my fascination with “scenes” that happened before I was old enough to participate in them. There’s something else there too, something about images of youth frozen in time forever, which always turns me on and tortures me in equal measure.

The editors have strung together a really nice history of the early days of goth in collected vintage photos, research, and short essays about the history of goth culture, not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but around the world, including parts of the eastern bloc. This is a gorgeous, hefty book that I do indeed keep on my coffee table, and I’ve gotten halfway decent at making my hair look like the person’s on the cover even if I never was and never will be as beautiful as that human.

I also find myself interested in editor Andi Harriman, in part because she’s young but has such a deep knowledge of the history of goth. I’ve only seen her in photos but there’s a simplicity to her personal style that makes her seem timeless and placeless; I think she lives in New York, but she looks like she could have stepped out of one of the photos in her book of some kids hanging around a cemetery in the Netherlands. Well done.

Goth: Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby

I brought this big honkin’ book to jury duty last year and clutched it all day like a security blanket. It protected me from having to be friendly to anyone there, even if it couldn’t protect me from hearing the details of a fucking stabbing that I might have been, but thank the lord wasn’t, chosen to sit on the jury for.

This anthology was published by Duke University Press and the essays are scholarly ones, which means there’s more jargon and footnoting than anyone needs, but I don’t mind. There are a lot of interesting ideas here—on gender and representation, style and identity—and I still haven’t gotten to all of them. In one fascinating piece, Peri Gothous writes about his time as an exotic dancer at a gay men’s club in the early 90s, comparing his gothy appearance and the elaborate show he created to the mainstream tanned-and-muscled gym-guy dancers who were the norm at the club and the clientele’s stated preference. His act was an act of rebellion, and even though he had a loyal following his presence wasn’t always well received: “Male goth androgyny threatened normalized homosexuality as well as heteronormativity.”

Another essay, written by Anna Powell, looks at religiosity in goth culture. She writes: “In goth contexts, secular practices such as dancing have the potential to mobilize a sense of the numinous for their participants. According to the mythographer Rudolph Otto, numinous connotes the non-rational mystery behind all religions, evoking awe and fascination.” Totally. I’ve always said it: When we’re all together in the club, dancing to the DJ or watching the band, and we feel moved by the same thing at the same time, our spirits lift and mingle. Suddenly there’s something else present, and we’re in a sacred space. We’re at church.

Gothic Charm School: An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them, by Jillian Venters

I’ve been looking at Gillian’s blog for years now—she started writing her monthly advice column in 1998! A long time ago, when I only had my love of dark music and fashion but no community I could feel a part of, I had the internet, and Gillian’s Lady of the Manners essays—particularly her breakdowns of sub-subcultures within the scene—were a real education for me. I follow her on Instagram now and can’t help but feel we’ve both come into our own.

I finally got around to buying her book, and it’s just as likable as the blog always was and is frankly rather useful. A lot of it is quite sincerely about manners, and Gillian’s insistence that goths, however tender and hurt their feelings may be from a lifetime of getting teased and messed with (ahem), do not need to be snotty to each other or to people outside the culture. I like this. I always appreciated Gillian’s inclusive attitude, especially years ago, when I was lonelier in a lot of ways. It went a long way in making me feel like I might belong.

I also never get tired of hearing her weigh in on goth-adjacent fashion and cultural moments like steampunk and dark mori. If you don’t know what mori is I suggest you get on over to Pinterest and drink that deliciousness in.

“Shake the Disease” has been stuck in my head for days now. Great song, but what’s with the lyrics, actually? Is he talking about social anxiety or what?