Kitchen witches

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Image from eBay

Hello, friends! After going through some difficult personal stuff this winter, I am happy to tell you that I’m busy working on a new book. This book will be different from the others I’ve written. In one way or another, most of the writing I do is some sort of memoir. The subject may be garage sales, linguistics, or cats, but really I’m always writing about my life, about myself in the world. This time around, I’m working with my friend Nadine to create an informational book—though we promise it will also be entertaining, and pretty! It’s based on a zine called The Kitchen Witche Guide to Natural Living that we made together a few years ago. 

The Kytchyn Witche zine is a recipe collection and a sort of introductory guide to what we’re calling natural living; by our definition, this means using the simplest possible ingredients to make safe, healthy versions of the wasteful, pointlessly expensive, and often toxic household and personal care products that are available commercially. I’m a bit of a fanatic about cleaning my house and Nadine is passionate about skin and body care, so to make the zine we divided it into those two categories and worked on them separately, but in tandem. To create a book we’ll do something similar but on a much larger scale. 

Nadine and I work well together because we tend to see things the same way while bringing different perspectives to our subjects. She and I are both serious about self-reliance, environmental sustainability, health and wellness, and damning the man. We are very serious about that last one. To this end, most of the ingredients we use are plant-based, and many of those plants are herbs. Though we’re not writing about herbalism in the strictest sense, we will talk about cultivating herb plants for use in your recipes, and we’ll give lots of detail on the benefits of various essential oils (which are oils made by distilling plants down to, well, their essence). 

In thinking about what I would like the Kytchyn Witche book to be, I’ve been taking in a lot of information, gathering piles of books about herbal healing and plant magic around me and then more or less rolling around on the floor with glee. The coolest thing, amongst very many cool things, that I have learned about so far is Culpeper’s Herbal. This is a book that was written and published by a botanist, herbalist, and astrologer named Nicolas Culpeper in 1653, under the title The English Physician. I found an edition of the Herbal at the library that was published by Sterling in 2002 and has a short but excellent foreword by EJ Shellard, a professor of pharmacognosy at University of London. That foreword, along with a few other sources that I’ve listed below, is where I learned the following history.

In 17th century England, people treated their illnesses, aches and pains in one of a few different ways. Wealthy people could see a physician—who charged a lot of money and preferred to see upper class patients—and poor and working people would either use plant medicines they made themselves in the traditional way or visit an apothecary or a pharmacy, this latter becoming increasingly more common due to population growth in cities.

Our guy Culpeper was a political radical who believed that the old knowledge belonged to the people and that they should have unrestricted access to it. Though he came from an aristocratic family and studied to become a physician himself, he experienced a personal tragedy—the accidental death of his girlfriend, who he was set to marry—and drifted from this path, ultimately becoming an apprentice to an apothecary in London. There he learned about plant medicine hands-on, by treating the city’s poor. He saw for the first time how different their lives were from his much more comfortable existence, and when he completed his apprenticeship he opened his own dispensary where he treated people at low or no cost. He did this outside of the authority of the City of London and to the extreme irritation of the Royal College of Physicians, who were looking to heavily regulate and, if they could, shut down the practitioners of traditional plant medicine. At one point he was imprisoned and tried for witchcraft. Good old Culpeper was a rebel who railed against authority in general, writing pamphlets that were critical of the king, priests, and lawyers as well as doctors.

In his practice Culpeper used plants that grew locally instead of imported ones and called them by their common, English names rather than their Latin ones. Even using the language of the common person was a radical act in this context. Believing that “no man deserved to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician,” Culpeper published his most important work, the Herbal, in English. (An herbal is a book that contains descriptions of the medical or culinary uses of herbs.) He also took the London Pharmacopoeia, which was a kind of herbal published by the College of Physicians, and translated it from Latin into English, thereby making their ”secret” treatments accessible by many more people. Culpeper died at 38, and after his death his wife Alice edited his unfinished work and continued to publish all of his books. His Herbal has been published in around 100 editions in its long lifetime and has never been out of print.

The Sterling edition of the Herbal that I’ve been reading reproduces Culpeper’s original text alongside the approved-of contemporary uses of the plants, which is interesting for comparison’s sake since some of the ways people used the plants back then are considered dangerous today, while many other uses remain the same. It happens that Culpeper was an astrological botanist, and as such he understood diseases and parts of the body to be governed by different planets—which is obviously bizarre and totally discredited today but was common and widely accepted during his lifetime. This makes for interesting reading too, though, and as Shellard writes in his foreword, “And why not! To the agrarian communities there was an obvious relationship between the growth of their crops and the behavior of animals with the changing seasons and the position of the heavenly bodies.” Even though, as he says, the ideas are “irrational” and “useless,” I appreciate the writer’s generosity on this point.

The best part of the book is that the editors have retained Culpeper’s “caustic comments about the ignorance and deceits of the physicians of his day.” For instance, before his entry on the herb clary (Salvia sclarea), he writes, “I could wish from my soul that blasphemy, ignorance, and tyranny were ceased among physicians, that they might be happy and I joyful.”

Ha! I find everything about Culpeper’s story to be life-affirming, from his choice to live in service to others to his abiding pissiness. It makes me proud to be working on a book like the one that Nadine and I are making—a small offering, but one that we’re giving our all to, and are steeping with our good intentions as we work.

Sources:

Culpeper’s Color Herbal

“How Nicholas Culpeper brought Medicine to the People” (Smithsonian Magazine)

“Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54)” (Brought to Life, The Science Museum of London)

“The People’s Herbalist: Nicholas Culpeper” (Mother Earth Living)

Wikipedia entry on Culpeper

 

Little Boy turns 100

Today the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 years old, and he’s just put out a new book. Pretty incredible, right? Even more impressive is how intense the book is, and the power and vitality of his intellect even now. Little Boy is a novel—the author has been very clear about that—but it’s also in no small way about the life, or the kind of life, that Ferlinghetti has lived. ferlingI reviewed the book for the Utne Reader‘s spring issue. Here’s what  I had to say about it:

Ladies and gentlemen: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The co-founder of City Lights, the bookstore and small press that opened shop in the 50s in order to publish the only poets that mattered—or the ones who mattered most in their corner of the world, anyway—Ferlinghetti, who has published some 40 books of his own work, will be best remembered for A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of vivid and lyrical poems that remains popular 60 years after its first publication.

If it makes you feel blue to anticipate the way someone will be remembered while he’s still living, apologies. It’s just that Ferlinghetti turns 100 in March, and he has just put out a new book. He’s calling it a novel but it is clearly also a sort of memoir—a praise-song, a thrashing-about, a recounting of his colorful life—and at his age, it’s hard not to read it as a kind of elegy for someone who is decidedly not! Dead! Yet!

The book begins like a third-person biography of “Little Boy,” whose early life was characterized by instability and displacement. With the detachment of a biographer, Ferlinghetti describes a childhood spent bouncing around—from the mother who couldn’t afford to care for him after his father died, to his beloved aunt who brought him to France for a few years and then back to New York City, and eventually to the home of a rich couple in Bronxville—the Bislands, whose family founded Sarah Lawrence College. In the middle of this factual accounting, Ferlinghetti shocks the heart back to life with the phrase, “lonely was the word.” 

From here the narrative goes swooping into one long sentence that accounts for his college years, his service in the navy, and the time he spent faffing around Paris in a cold-water flat after the war. By this point the language has broken loose from its moorings, and for the rest of the novel it rushes forth, much more like poetry than prose. The reader has the sense that Ferlinghetti had to make an effort to contain it. 

At first glance the text on the page looks more unruly than it is: Ferlinghetti uses virtually no punctuation, no chapters, hardly even a paragraph break. But the start of each new thought is usually capitalized, and the rhythm of the language creates a cadence in the mind that serves as a kind of guide. 

Still, it’s intense. The language has a way of sucking you into its whirl and then popping you back up to the surface, over and over again, whether you meant to or not. This isn’t a novel you’re likely to read straight through. Memories, lines from novels, internal rhymes, love and sex and anti-establishment rants, marvelous little throwaways (“Mao say tongue-in-cheek”), caustic observations from the coffee shop—it’s all one steady-churning white water rush. 

Run your eyes down any page to hear a bling-blinging Pinball machine of references: Twin Towers, South of the Border, Onward Christian Soldiers, Mister Proust. Ginzy and Jack are in here too (you’ll permit Ferlinghetti a few trips down memory lane) but this is bigger than Beat Generation windbaggery—and actually, maybe it’s not really a memoir, either. The narrator’s voice is alive with humor and anger and a sense of the eternal now, not the what-happened-then. And each time he starts ranting about the people in the cafe where he’s sitting, all entranced by their “portable universes and handheld computers,” you will absolutely marvel: He’s still pissed! 

In a sense, Little Boy reads like a continuation of the last poem in Coney Island. The whole novel, like that poem, has the word yes threaded throughout it“the small boy knows nothing, he is just a part of it, unconscious in his little existence on the turning earth in some town or city or yes…”—and the earthy positivity is strongly reminiscent of the Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends Ulysses (“And yes I said yes I will yes”), which Ferlinghetti actually referenced by name in his 1955 masterpiece. 

And it must be said: This yes is the voice of the 20th century, a century Mr. Ferlinghetti saw much of, with its exuberance and nihilism, its god-is-a-shout-in-the-street realist grit. Whether the poet ends this particular book on a hopeful note or one of despair, that’s for you to judge. Either way, Ferlinghetti’s old age is a rollicking one, and it burns and raves at close of day.

Two Pints

ireland-531137_1920I’ve written about Roddy Doyle on this blog before, and I’ve written lots about Irish literature in general. In the past I’ve said—though possibly not in writing but only to people I was boring with my opinions in person—that Irish fiction, even the popular, not especially difficult or interesting stuff, tends to be better than its American counterpart. I stand by that statement. They’ve just got a more literary culture, with a tradition that ordinary folks are proud of. We have our own literary history too, of course, and plenty of us care about it, but not the average person, I’d say. Not anymore. Most people don’t give one solitary shit about Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. I’m American so I’m allowed to say this. And I’m not saying it to be insulting, I just know it to be true.

Roddy Doyle has for years written about ordinary Irish people and their problems and perspectives, their voices and turns of phrase. His most famous novels, the Barrytown Trilogy, are about a working class family in Dublin who start a soul group (The Commitments), have a baby (The Snapper). and open a chippy (The Van). Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a heart breaker about a ten-year-old boy and his little family; they too live in Barrytown, a fictional neighborhood on Dublin’s Northside. Paula Spencer, one of my most dearly loved fictional heroines of all time, has gone through some tough things and is an alcoholic—though by the second novel in the Paula Spencer series she’s clean and sober, starting over. All of these books kept me rapt and fully engrossed, laughing and crying—sobbing, even—out loud as I read. Fiction like this is one of the reasons I wanted to visit Ireland, back before I’d done so for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever read more than I did during the year or so that I lived there (and I managed to fit in a lot of living around all that reading, too). The stories and poems of that place, they call to me. A writer like Colm Toibin writes stories that feel timeless, but Roddy Doyle gives us something more of-the-moment, or at least in-the-moment. You feel like you’re really there, in the friendliest of ways, even when the people you’re meeting are half killing you with their sadness.

The attitude in Doyle’s fiction is essentially Irish—essentially Dublin, really—but it chimes with what I know of the people here in Philadelphia as well, which is also a very down-to-earth, no-bullshit sort of place, at its best. Lots of Irish people here, of course, and this time of year always brings that back for me, the shamrocks and pots of gold in people’s front windows and old men in Aran sweaters reminding me of the Catholic school—who am I kidding, the Catholic world—of my childhood. 

I read Two Pints when it was published as a book in 2012. In fact I bought a copy from Amazon UK, an expensive indulgence I don’t normally allow myself, just so I wouldn’t have to wait for it to be released in this country. It’s a fine little book, just a series of conversations, each one with the date at the top. That’s it, no names even, just talking. Conversations between two men, friends, over pints in the pub. The themes are big—marriage, illness, death—but also small: football, HD TV, parking the car. The two men have a love of fun and conversation that felt real to my memory of that place and the people I knew there, who were always trying to one-up each other with their piss-taking and quick wit. In a short interview I watched this morning, Doyle explains that he initially published some of these conversations as Facebook posts but soon envisioned what he was writing as a play, which is what it eventually became. And now I have seen the play, earlier this month when it toured here to Philadelphia, and what a treat that was. A Sunday afternoon with a snowstorm about the start, and us inside a warm, crowded pub with pints of Guinness in front of us. The production was done by the Abbey Theater in Dublin, which is Ireland’s national theater, and it plays on the stage there, but it has also done two tours across Ireland in pubs. Now they’re doing a few dates in the United States this way, putting on the play in bars instead of theaters. Joe and I saw it at the Blarney Stone, a cozy, divey Irish pub in West Philly that I’d never been to but my sister remembered fondly as a Drexel hangout. They had a few drink specials on the chalkboard, and even though I really only wanted to drink Guinness I had to ask the bartender what “The Gritty” was. “It’s … You don’t want it. It’s a rum punch. It’s orange with two googly eyes. It’s a hangover.” He was charming and quick and droll; he could have been in the play himself. 

Joe and I sat at a small table just behind the actors, who were at the bar. They were lit from above, and Irish football jerseys and Dublin pennants were hung around the place’s regular, real decorations. The actors, Liam Carney and Lorcan Cranitch, were miked of course as well, but basically the art direction was invisible because the whole thing felt real. For a couple of hours the two men talked and we eavesdropped, and frequently laughed; they drank and we drank; at the end I cried and I’m sure a lot of other people did too. A few times the actors looked out into the crowd as they talked about some old friend or neighbor who was there somewhere, and once or twice they looked right into my face. I was embarrassed and delighted. The play has only three characters in total, and one of them is the barman, a long-suffering looking guy who says absolutely nothing until the very end, when he mutters fuck’s sake or something like that to himself, closing the play.

I loved hearing the characters’ accents and the turns of phrase I remembered from the time I spent in Dublin. The way Irish people say amn’t just like they say isn’t and aren’t and didn’t. The way they pronounce the word film like fill’em. The way the word fuck (fook?) acts as noun, verb, adjective, and hello-how-are-ya. One of the characters, each time he was about to introduce a new topic, would say the idiomatic phrase Come here, and I remembered with amusement how baffled I was when I met a lovely woman in Derry and had a great long talk with her, and how every time she wanted to ask or tell me something she’d first say Come here to me now, and after a while I had a terrible fear that if I got any closer to her I’d be sitting in her lap.

Come here. He must have said it twenty times during those three acts. Come here, I want to tell you something funny, something sad, something silly, something true. I love the intimacy of that phrase, and I loved being there for that show, with no stage to separate the players from the audience. With everyone’s cell phones tucked away it felt even more special, not mere entertainment or even art but like a real moment from our own lives, something you had to be there to experience. 

After the play ended Joe and I went home, the drama of our own small lives continuing as the heavy wet snow came down on us. We hustled to get out of the weather and into the subway station. Got take-out for dinner—the new fried chicken place is incredible, get the house-made buffalo sauce if you go. At home the cat caught a mouse, right under the coffee table while we ate! We’ve gotta do something about the fucking mice in this house. Maybe when the weather warms up they’ll move on. Come here, that reminds me of something else I’ve been wanting to tell you …

Count Your Cabbage and Smile

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Everyone who knows me knows how devoted I am to secondhand shopping. Even a few people who don’t know me personally might know this about me, since I’ve written about it so darn much. I wrote a book about visiting yard sales with my mother, I wrote a zine that lists and describes all the cat-themed objects in my home and one about my favorite thrift store mugs, and I’ve written many essays on a variety of other old objects I own and the complicated mix of feelings and ideas they stoke in me. 

For Christmas this year Joe gave me the entire back catalog of a zine we discovered a couple years ago, then forgot about: Thrifty Times. What an awesome gift. The editor, Sarah B. MacDonald, puts out an issue every month and has done so for at about 5 years. Each issue has the same recurring features and a letter from the editor, in the style of a magazine (or, more accurately, of a magazine-like zine from a certain era, the 80s and 90s I suppose). MacDonald writes most of the pieces herself, though she also has a regular crew of witty, cheerful contributors: Sarah Spence, who frequently writes the romance novel review (“Isn’t It Romantic”) and Nick Burgess, who does the monthly thrift-themed comics on the back cover and sometimes writes about video games. All of these folks have an excellent sense of irony and a sincere love of kitsch, nostalgia, and inexplicable tschotschkes. MacDonald’s favorite decade is the 70s and the avocado-green throw pillows and mushroom motifs produced in that era; she’s a funny writer and it is a pleasure to join her on her trips to local thrift shops and feel her excitement at finding something good. I think she must be around my age because she often writes about the 90s music CDs she finds (Live, Marcy Playground, Soul Asylum) in the way that you might if you’d been a teenager back then. It’s all such fun to read about. I worked my way through the large stack of zines slowly, enjoying every article and reading a number of them out loud to Joe.

I have thought about, and written about, the pleasure of pawing through other people’s old stuff so many times by now that I ought to understand, on a deep level, what precisely it means to me, but I’m not there yet. It’s just that somehow, when I’m digging, everything is a gem. Everything is something I’m glad to have seen. Even when I don’t buy anything (well, I almost always buy something); even on days when all I’ve got is the grubby Salvation Army, where nobody ever sweeps the floor and grim announcements come over the p.a. about the anger management group about to commence next door. When I’m staring down the length of a boring afternoon, the thrift store—some thrift store, somewhere—promises to fire up my imagination. It’s like visiting a museum, only you’re allowed to buy the stuff and bring it home if you want. And thrift store people are my people, whether I’m in the mood to claim them or not.

One day this winter, while I was still happily working my way through my stack of Thrifty Times, I suggested that we go check out the little shop in Germantown, an old neighborhood in Philadelphia. The shop is charming and small and has bona fide vintage stuff, not just recent castoffs. We decided to walk the few miles there since the weather was mild and it’s interesting looking over there; you can take your time looking at the old brick buildings and tiny churchyards and viney stone walls. 

It ended up being a quintessential thrift store visit. By this I mean that I (a) found something I’d been actively searching for, (b) found something hilarious, and (c) had an interesting interaction with another person. The thing I found that I had been looking for was a small wooden spice rack, which I have since altered by prying off the tin eagle (??) that originally adorned it and painting it with pale green craft paint. Then I hung it on my kitchen wall and put my collection of essential oils in it. While Joe and I were paying for this and a few other things, a lady who’d been having a kind of in-depth conversation with the woman at the register gave Joe a long once-over. 

“Young man, will you look at this computer for me please?” she asked him. I was amused and touched that she assumed he’d be able to figure out whether or not a laptop she’d found could be made to work again because he was both a lot younger than her and also a guy—and of course by looking at it for a few minutes he was able to figure this out. The lady was disappointed by his assessment: that she probably wouldn’t be able to get into the password-protected machine and use it the way she wanted.

As she led poor Joe back into the store toward the electronics section, I occupied myself by looking at the books. There I spotted a shining jewel that I now wish I had bought, if only so that I could tell you more about it. It was a late-80s how-to guide called Garage Sale Mania! that opened with the chapter “Garage Sales: What Are They?” and ended with the wonderfully titled “Count Your Cabbage and Smile.” Count your cabbage and smile! This is the sort of phrase that will stay with me for years and bring me pure joy every time I think of it. It’s the linguistic equivalent of a secondhand knick-knack that I can put on my bookshelf to look at whenever I want, and feel the warmth of connection across decades and styles of expression. 

I see that the author of Garage Sale Mania! has continued writing and publishing books since the 80s—an impressive number of them, most novels in a few different genres. There are just so many books out there, oddball things I never would have known about if it wasn’t for the thrift shop, which in my opinion can be just as good a place to look for a book, if not better, than a used bookstore. I’m not alone in holding this opinion, for whatever that’s worth. Weird books are the best books, and zines are the weirdest books of all.

Lost & Found

Hello, friends! I’m excited to announce a new issue in my Cat Party zine series: “Lost & Found.” This one anthologizes the writing and visual art of 5 contributors, all of whom reflected on cats who have come into their lives by surprise, or disappeared unexpectedly. It includes comics, drawings, and essays by visual artist and performer Julia S. Owens, musician Marina Murayama Nir, comics artist Ashley Punt, writer Alexis Campbell, and writer, baker, and activist Ailbhe Pascal.

Please allow me to share the introduction I wrote for the zine with you here, beneath the photos. If it sparks your interest, why not pick up a copy of the zine for $4, either from me or from Microcosm Publishing?

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the cat party! If you’ve been here before, welcome back.

My name is Katie, and I wrote a book about cats that was published by Microcosm Publishing near the end of 2017. Microcosm and I go way back. They’ve sold zines of mine for many years, and now that they’re a real-deal publisher, they’ve published three books I wrote, too. The first one was called White Elephants, and it was a memoir I wrote about palling around with my mother after my father died. The second one was Slip of the Tongue, a collection of essays about language. Last year, Cats I’ve Known came out. I set out to tell stories about all the cats in my life, and ended up sort of writing about my whole entire life, like I always do. But to at least some degree the book really is about the cats: family pets I had growing up, beloved cats I’ve shared my home with as an adult, strays I keep bumping into on the street, and the friendly bookstore cats I look forward to seeing whenever I stop in to browse. Each story was illustrated by a talented artist named Trista Vercher. When the book came out, I had a cake made by a local bakery that was based on one of their drawings; in both the drawing and the frosting, the cat’s fur was a lovely shade of grey that was actually quite purple. It tasted delicious.

In the months since the book was published, I have had many good conversations with people about the cats that they know and love. Each time I set up shop at a book fair or sign copies of my book at a bookstore, I meet people who want to tell me stories about a special cat they know who loves to pose for photos, or the adorable way their two cats curl up under the covers with them at night—and only occasionally growl at each other. Our cat friends are very dear to us cat people, and none of us can resist sharing our stories. Microcosm and I decided that a zine series would be a good way to keep on telling them, both mine and other people’s.

For this issue, I invited writers and artists to tell stories about cats that were lost or found—a cat who came into their life by accident, perhaps, or one that took off unexpectedly. The theme must have struck a chord, because I received many, many submissions. I couldn’t accept them all, but the ones I’ve chosen will make up two issues, this one and a Lost & Found #2, to come out in the spring of 2019. I am very proud to present this issue of Cat Party, with its collection of beautiful and touching stories. Thanks to the contributors for doing this with me, and thanks to you, readers, for joining the party. 

Until next time, I remain, 

your cat lady friend,

Katie

Buy the zine here or there.

Geeks and More Geeks

I went and hung out with my mom and sister last weekend so that we could watch the new A&E documentary about one of our all-time favorite shows, Freaks and Geeks. I guess I forgot that it’s been almost twenty years now since that show came out. This keeps happening to me; so many things that made a big impression on me when I was an older teenager or very young adult are still so big in my imagination that I kind of fail to notice that they’re not necessarily top of mind for other people anymore. 

The documentary was sadder than I expected it to be, but I shouldn’t have been surprised, since the show itself was often so melancholy and challenging. In the documentary, the writer and executive producer of Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow—who is fucking funny—opens up about the personal baggage he’s lugged around with him through life, and about how devasted he was at the thought that his beloved show was being neglected by the network. When it was cancelled, thereby breaking apart the makeshift family of his cast and coworkers, he felt as bad as he had as a kid, when his family split up during his parents’ nasty divorce. He jokes that every project he’s worked on since then has been done in a spirit of revenge, but you can see he’s only half kidding. Being hurt can be quite motivational when it comes to trying to succeed, or even just getting out of a bad situation.

After we watched the documentary the three of us talked about some of the other wonderful shows and movies Judd Apatow has written, directed, or produced: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Love, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. My sister asked me if I’d read the book of interviews he did with comics and I hadn’t, so she lent it to me, and wow, what an exciting thing this is to read.

In his introduction Apatow tells us that, when he was in tenth grade, he went to work for his high school’s radio station in Syosset, Long Island. A friend of his who also worked for the station was obsessed with music, and this kid took the train into NYC to interview the bands he loved, including REM and Siouxsie Sioux. A lightbulb went off over young Judd Apatow’s head. “Wait, so we could actually interview people we admired? They would talk to you if you asked nicely?” This was all the encouragement he needed to, sort of sneakily, set up interviews with famous and up-and-coming comics whose agents didn’t quite realize, until he showed up with his tape recorder, that the interview was going to be with a kid. This book collects many of those old interviews. Apatow writes that he never even aired most of them (the questions he was asking were mostly for himself anyway), but he saved them all.

Sure enough, as you read through you see that some of the interviews are dated from the early 80s, when Apatow was still in high school. The first one, in 1983, is with Jerry Seinfeld, who had just started to take off, and it makes for surprisingly good reading. You can hear Jerry’s voice, his intonations, because the conversations are reproduced word for word, Q&A style. It’s so much fun to eavesdrop on conversations like this, and it’s especially good when the conversations are about writing. This whole book is about writing, basically, though since it’s about comedy and the interviews are with celebrities you’ve seen in movies and TV, the fact of it being about writing kind of sneaks up on you. 

The book includes a number of newer interviews alongside the old ones, and the conversations often circle back to the subject of sadness. Apatow wants to know what’s wrong with everybody, all these people he admires so much—what happened to them to make them comics. Marc Maron tells him that his favorite scene in Freaks and Geeks is one with Bill Haverchuck, the awkward-looking kid played by Martin Starr whose mother is raising him on her own. At the start of one episode we see Bill come home from school and let himself into the apartment. The Who’s “I’m One” is playing, and you really feel the melancholy of the moment. Anybody who has lived alone will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it can feel really lonely to return home to an empty house at the end of the day. Bill makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich and puts the TV on, and watches Garry Shandling do stand-up on The Dinah Shore Show. We don’t hear anything Shandling is saying because the song plays over the whole thing; we just see Bill start to crack up with laughter. Pure joy, a smile that splits his face open. He’s enjoying his own comany in the nicest way, and this hilarious person has helped him do that. People who are happiest when they’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or playing a game—people who connect with other people this way better than they can in person—we’re the people that scene was made for, and it’s incredibly touching. 

Teenage Judd Apatow’s questions were intelligent and straightforward and showed a good understanding of how writing worked even then, but the more striking thing is how generously people opened up to him. One of the other early interviews is with Garry Shandling, who talked to him over the phone from a hotel room in Lake Tahoe resting up for his show that night. They had a real, adult conversation about writing and stand-up, and it’s wonderful to read. He interviewed Shandling again in 2014 and they revisited some of the same subjects but got more intimate, about feelings of guilt and self-doubt, and following your gut when it comes to pursuing the work that you love because that’s really the only guide you can rely on. I haven’t come across any ego, fakery, or other bullshit in this book yet; at the risk of sounding trite, these interviews are full of lessons on life, not just work.

Are comedians nicer people than the rest of us? That seems to go against what I’ve heard about them as a group. I can tell you that, generally, writers are not nicer than anybody. But artists love to talk about their work, about the mystery of it as well as the slog. Most successful people, I’ve found, when they were first starting out, got a little help and guidance from people who were older and more experienced, and nothing feels better than getting the chance to help somebody else when it’s your turn to be asked. In a sense, I guess, this book is really about love. About doing what you love and doing it with love. At its best, whether it’s angry or funny, challenging or sweet, that’s what art is—a love letter to the world.

Personality Test

A few years ago I applied for a freelance proofreading job. The idea was to find something that would supplement the income I get from my other jobs, and the flexible structure of this one would have fit nicely into my schedule. Plus, I enjoy proofreading, and I’m good at it. I didn’t get the job, though, so I thought now was as good a time as any to criticize and make fun of their interview process, which included a proofreading test (which is standard) as well as a personality test AND an I.Q. test, which I think is pretty ballsy of them, especially considering the fact that they already had my resume, my complete list of writing credits and education, and two professional references. This wasn’t a very demanding position I was applying for. How much more information about my “I.Q.” did they need? I don’t apply for jobs all that often, so I genuinely don’t know: Is this sort of shit typical now?

To his credit, the personable guy who interviewed me over the phone told me that he doesn’t put much stock in personality tests because he finds them “a little weird,” as do I. And it surely wasn’t his decision to give these tests to job applicants, so I don’t blame him for it. I do find fault with whoever it was at this company who thought it made sense to try to gauge my “intelligence” and “personality” using standarized tests, without considering the possibilty that there might be some value in having me COME IN TO MEET WITH THEM. I mean, really. A phone interview and a computerized personality test? How about inviting me to your office? I could get there on the bus in 40 minutes, and then you’d have a chance to shake my hand and look me in the eye. You know, like two human beings. Wouldn’t that kind of exchange tell them more about me than two exams that didn’t test me on anything to do with the job they were considering me for?

If you’re wondering what a personality test is, I can tell you what this one was like. It was comprised of a series of sets of two statements, and I was asked to look at one set at a time and choose the statement I more strongly agreed with. The test was timed, and copying the text from the page was fussy, so I was only able to grab two of the sets to share with you. (I’d actually planned to make poems out of them, so I wish I’d gotten a few more.) Here’s one pair:

I almost always understand and agree with the reason for rules.

I might break a promise to someone if I had no other option.

Among so many other things, I take issue with the way the second statement here is phrased. If I had no other option? If it’s the case that I have no choice but to break the promise, then I must break the promise, right? Am I overthinking this? Or did they underthink it? Either way I found this impossible to answer properly.

Here’s the other pair of statements I copied:

I take my obligations and responsibilities as seriously as most people do.

I enjoy interruptions when I’m completing a boring task.

Now, you know that when you’re given a “test” like this, what you’re trying to do is figure out the answer they want you to give, not the one that’s true to how you feel. I struggled back and forth with my strong inclination to answer honestly and my (sometimes stronger) desire to get a high score on every test I take, and I kept finding myself baffled by this one’s intent, which was baffling by design, I’m sure. But I don’t believe for a second that the people who gave it to me were making an honest effort to assess my personality type in order to find out whether I’d work well with the people they’d already hired, or whatever. The statements tended to be about my feelings toward work and relationships, and just as often about my attitude toward rules and—though they were couched in language about honesty or other moral quandaries—how likely I am to respect the authority of a boss and do as I’m told. If that’s what it means to assess my personality, somebody needs to get a better understanding of what a personality is.

I’m reminded of a beautiful quotation from The Office, a show I quote from about 100 times a day. In this particular episode, the new HR rep calls an ethics meeting, and in it she tells everyone not to steal office supplies and also that wasting time at work counts as stealing from your employer. The office well, actually guy, Oscar, pipes up:

“This isn’t ethics. Ethics is a real discussion of the competing conceptions of the good. This is just the corporate anti-shoplifting rules.”

It’s embarrassing to agree with the show’s annoyingly pendantic character, but this is perfect. These kinds of critiques of corporate culture were one of many reasons the show was so good. 

For a day or two after I applied for the job, I thought about the indignation Barbara Ehrenreich expressed at being given bullshit personality tests like the one I took in her book, Nickel and Dimed. I felt bolstered remembering her conviction that no one who was considering giving her some crummy job (or even a decent job) had a right to try to worm inside her mind in that way. Here is a quote from her wonderful book, in which she says the same thing I have been trying to express, more eloquently and possibly even more angrily:

“What these [personality] tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine since the ‘right’ answer should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of hierarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders . . .

The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is always: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them; we want your innermost self.”

Her book was written 20 years ago (and published a few years later), but this kind of everyday mistreatment of workers continues. It has most likely gotten worse, institutionally. Ehrenreich is still mad about it—follow her on Twitter if you don’t already—and so am I. You should be too.

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