I know you are but what am I, INFINITY

I have a few things planned for this weekend—start seedlings, see a chiptune show, loaf—but this morning my sister reminded me that the new Pee-wee movie is coming out on Friday, so my priorities have shifted a bit. I’ll still do that other stuff probably, but first I have to watch Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and take notes for a costume. If there’s one thing in this world that I love doing, it’s constructing a character costume using stuff from my own closet plus a few choice items from the thrift store. I’ve got bags in my closet marked LITTLE EDIE, PRETTY IN PINK, BREAKFAST CLUB, and EDWARDIAN LADY, which I know sounds pretty creepy, but I am awfully proud of these concoctions.

My sister is thinking of having a small viewing party for the new movie, so don’t tell her but I think I’ll show up to her house in costume. Who will I be? The fortune teller? (“Alright, you wanna wear a wet jacket, it’s alright with Madam Ruby.”) The greaser bicycle thief? Large Marge? Pee-wee himself? My weekend is looking busier by the minute. And before I get down to work, I’ll share this essay I wrote for the Utne Reader a couple years ago. As you can see I’ve been thinking about the character of Pee-wee Herman for a while, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. It’s like I’m unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting … and knitting … a-a-and knitting …

Pee Wee’s Closet


This old picture of Paul Reubens with Cyndi Lauper rolled past my tumblr dashboard today, prompting me to reflect on him. Reubens lives, in my mind, in the small category of famous people who I really wish I knew. I am not into hero worship, honestly. I just think he and I could be friends.

I once listened to an interview he did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. (You can listen to or read it here.) They talked about his early life, and at one point he recalled moving to Florida from upstate New York when he was around nine years old. When his parents told him they were going to Florida he was all excited, thinking they were moving to the tropics. It was important to him to look the part. His mother took him shopping for school clothes and he picked out things that would suit his new look. (Apparently he had more agency in this arena than I did.) He’d be, like, a beachcomber. That’s what you do in Florida, right? Comb beaches? He showed up for the first day of fourth grade wearing clam-diggers and a nautical-themed shirt, “like a total freak.”

I love this story. Picture it: You’re little Paul Reubens, the future Pee-wee Herman, and you wear costumes instead of clothing because to you, costumes make sense as a part of everyday life.

He goes on, in his conversation with Terry Gross, to explain how—even though he figures most kids would have bowed to the peer pressure to look a little bit less like a total freak—he really felt his classmates were missing something obvious. “I was sort of like, ‘Don’t you get it? You know, I’m a beachcomber.’” And he kept on wearing his get-ups to school.

Well I get it. Don’t you? Thematic outfits. Dressing for the occasion. Or as I have always thought of it, dressing appropriately to such an absurd degree that it becomes (deliciously) inappropriate.

I once got roped into attending some event at “the art museum,” as we folks from Philly call the recently rebranded PMA. It was a cocktail party, and I guess I should admit that I wasn’t roped into attending it at all, but actually talked my mom into accepting the invitation so that I could join her. It took place in the evening, after the museum’s normal hours, which is a really thrilling time of day to find yourself in a museum, first of all, and it was to be held in the gallery where a visiting Degas show would be exhibited. Ballerinas and horses, you can picture it. I wanted to go because of the ballerinas. I had a tiny sparkly black dress that I fancied looked like a ballet costume because it was sleeveless and stretchy and tight in the bodice like a leotard, and had a short skirt that twirled out a little when I moved, like a tutu. I wanted someplace to wear it, and this would be perfect. I even bought real ballet slippers from a dance wear store in town. (“Did you see this in a magazine or somethin hon?” they asked me when I went.) They were soft, peachy-pink shoes, which you cannot wear on the street (as I found out the hard way): They are not made for walking anywhere but on a polished dance floor, so the soles will tear and fall apart if you try it. The shoes were what made the outfit a dancer’s costume, but the thick black leg warmers I bought at a thrift store turned the costume into a joke, which was crucial. I was a dancer at rehearsal, ya know, just like Degas’ ballerinas were—except that the young girls he depicted were not wearing legwarmers. That was some Fame shit, a reference to my actual storehouse of cultural knowledge: not 19th-century French painters, but melodramatic TV shows from the ’80s where everyone looked hot. I knew I looked pretty in the dress, but looking pretty on purpose is so embarrassing. You have to foil it somehow. (See this.)

I was 23 or 24 that year. I stood around with my mom all evening, looking at the fingerprinty sculptures and waiting for someone to get my joke. Toward the end of the evening, over near the dessert table, a mean-looking older lady asked me—perhaps meaning to be kind, actually, now that I think back on it; she couldn’t help what her face looked like—“Are you a real ballerina?” I remember feeling embarrassed but I didn’t show it, I just twirled away. I looked better than all those losers anyway.

. . .

When my sister and I were kids, we watched a recording of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that we’d taped off TV (missing the first five minutes or so, when Pee-wee is still in bed asleep and dreaming of winning the Tour de France) approximately 200 times. The word approximately makes it sound like I’m being facetious but I’m honestly trying to remember. We certainly watched it most days of summer vacation—which is what, 90 days?—for at least two summers running. We used to be able to do the entire thing by heart, back and forth, each of us taking whatever line of dialogue came next.

I’m not entirely sure I understand why the movie was so important to us. I mean it’s funny as hell, and kids do have a tendency to watch the things they like over and over again, but there must have been something about it that satisfied us on a deeper level. Maybe it was because, as a kid-adult, Pee-wee knew how much fun being an adult would be / was. Maybe it was the coded clothing that appealed to us, its costumey obviousness a kind of reassurance that you can grow up and become a thing, which is what all little kids want to do.

There are so many looks in that movie, so many things to be. There’s the hood who steals Pee-wee’s bike— spoiler alert! He’s dressed like a greaser from the ’50s, oily hair, cuffed t-shirt and all. The fortune teller Pee-wee visits looks like a “real” fortune teller, a “gypsy” with coins dangling from the scarf on her head. The hobos wear  hobo hats and have hobo beards. You gotta look like the thing you are, otherwise no one will know.

When Pee-wee goes to Hollywood in search of his bike, he strolls around the lots at Warner Bros. Studios and looks in wonderment at the actors in actual costumes. There’s even a bit of gender bending thrown in for good measure: When Pee-wee talks to a showgirl and an intergalactic-lookin’ dude, a man’s voice comes out of her mouth and a woman’s comes from his.

The Pee-wee outfit, of course, is the point of the whole thing, the look the entire movie is hung from. The outfit itself is the character, and that character is a boy who lives on his own and decorates his house however he wants and is a “grown man” in a suit and bow tie. That’s what grownups wear, right? A bow tie?

This week I’ve been reading the new book by New Yorker critic Hilton Als, his first in 17 years, an extraordinary thing with the arresting and uncomfortable title—spelled out in uncomfortably large white block letters against a black background—of White Girls. (Especially awkward if you are one, and a lot of your neighbors are Black, and you try reading it surreptitiously on the bus.) The book is a collection of essays, some of them a blend of autobiography and cultural criticism, others profiles of complicated public figures like Eminem and Richard Pryor that allow Als to apply his deconstruction of the many-layered cultural meanings of race. For my money, the most compelling piece in the book is the one about André Leon Talley, who is, among other things, a Black celebrity. Talley is the former creative director for Vogue, and has become a recognizably famous (for a magazine editor), so we know what he looks like. In fact what he looks like—six foot seven, larger than life, and never not draped in capes or furs or velvet—is pretty important to who he is. I won’t give away Als’ ending to the piece, but I can tell you, you’ll come away with your heart slightly crushed by the idea of this man who so needs to believe in the “kindness” (Talley’s word) of fashion that he overlooks its cruelty.

There are other fashion-world figures who dress in costume all the time, like John Galliano (the one who always looks like either a sailor or a pirate) and Karl Lagerfeld, who always wears a stiff high collar and huge dark glasses and looks like the pope, or else like an evil overlord who should be stroking an evil cat that sits in his lap. (FYI, two of the categories that come up for Lagerfeld in a Google image search are “glasses” and “cat.”) Galliano looks mean and Lagerfeld looks twisted, but Talley dresses and talks with an extravagance I find utterly touching and sympathetic. Not because I wear couture, or whatever, but because his sense of glamour is, if not ironic, totally self-conscious and performative. It’s this idea of always mugging for an invisible audience—and incredibly, the audience will eventually materialize, because when you dress and act in an outrageous way, people are gonna look.

Pee-wee Herman is a side of Paul Reubens that we know is real. We can imagine him dressing in Pee-wee’s clothes every day—though we know he doesn’t—so when he shows up to mini-golf in a preposterous-yet-fabulous, mismatched-but-perfectly-paired top and pants (and golf shoes! He’s golfing!) we can perceive the outfit as a concession of sorts, a stand-in costume for the Pee-wee one that he can’t wear in real life. And of course he was friends with Cyndi Lauper (who is of course also wearing golf shoes in the picture). Like Talley, both of those people knew that you can create yourself with clothing—or you can at least create a character that is not you but becomes you to all the people looking on, which for some of us is the self that matters most.

Enough! we’re tired, my heart and I.

Early in January, I declared 2016 an Orgy of Reading. For me personally, I mean. I don’t care what the rest of you jokers do. For years I have worked as a freelance book reviewer, which is a kind of writing I find useful and enjoyable to do, but it meant that at any given time I was reading a book for work, which had a way of interfering with my “personal” reading, as I call it. It was a bit like being in school that way. Last year I stepped back from reviewing books quite so regularly, and I felt a resurgence of my old passion for reading that was so pleasurable, it was almost sensual. Hence the word orgy. I was choosing books with titles that felt good to say, or ones that had beautiful covers. And even though I get most of the books I want to read from the library—cuz I’m cheap, and because I love it there—for a little while I treated myself to books that I had to buy because they were harder to find.

For starters, I indulged the morbid curiosity I’ve always had about the artist Tracey Emin by buying a collection of the columns she wrote for The Independent newspaper, and found I dislike it, and her, more than I expected to. I’ve been devoted to the artist/writer/poet/musician Billy Childish for a long time, which is how I learned about Emin, who’s a much more successful and better known artist than he is. After they broke up, she mocked him for staying in the small town he grew up in and revisiting the same subjects over and over in his paintings and writing. Childish wrote a poem that quoted Emin telling him, “Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck. — Stuck! stuck! stuck!” and a movement, called Stuckism, was born. Basically, the Stuckists were about upholding the value of painting and were down on conceptual, modern, and postmodern art, which is a view I don’t entirely share. I find lots of conceptual art interesting and worthwhile. (And I understand that Childish himself dissociated himself from the movement early on, and may never have been too seriously invested in it.)

REGARDLESS, I deeply admire the kind of work Childish does. Reading his novel Notebooks of a Naked Youth broke me open in a way I hadn’t been since I was a teenager and everything was new. His writing, paintings, and woodcuts are stripped-down, honest, and tough, but intellectually muscular at the same time—and he’s done it himself all these years, without much in the way of institutional support. Not to play THIS game, but he strikes me as a real punk. I … I kind of love him. Still, I thought Emin’s columns might interest me, since I also enjoy short-form memoir, especially when it’s written by women. But nah. I couldn’t stomach those essays at all. They’re just braggy chronicles of all the cool famous people she finds herself at parties with. Next!

(Well, next I might have to try her memoir, Strangeland. It seems like she might get pretty real in that one. I’ve enjoyed some of her artwork, and I want to like her. I’ve had a picture of her with Billy Childish on my desk for years. In it, she’s wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and heels, and she’s laughing her gap-toothed laugh. Billy has on baggy trousers and is smoking a cigarette, and he’s smiling too, which—google it—he’s rarely shown doing. It’s the 80s and they’re in someone’s kitchen. I could look at this picture every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of seeing it.)

Anyways. A couple weeks ago I paid a visit to my new favorite Philly library, the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional branch. It’s a bright, bustling, modern library, with a good collection and a dragon. I nosed around in there for a while until I found a few books that interested me, including Morvern Callar. Do you remember that one? I saw the film adaptation when it came out a million (fourteen) years ago and remember liking it, and its quintessentially 90s bleakness. I’ve read a few stories by Alan Warner—he’s a Scottish writer who writes in local vernacular, which is a style choice I really enjoy—but somehow I hadn’t gotten around to this novel, which was very well received when it came out. So I brought it home, and let me tell you, it’s good. It’s so strange. Morvern Callar is the name of the young woman whose story it is, and she’s an unusually compelling character. Every synopsis of the book tells you this much, so it’s not spoiling anything to let you know that when the novel opens, Morvern’s live-in boyfriend has committed suicide (in a really gross way, too). Her response to the tragedy is fucking weird. Though she tells us her every thought as she proceeds to do strange and dark, yet strangely life-affirming things, I’m drawn forward by trying to understand her motivations, because she doesn’t seem to have any. She’s totally self-contained and, in her secretiveness, very powerful, and I refuse to believe she’s empty-headed and nihilistic, which is what seems to be the consensus on what this book is about: The nothing generation that came of age in the 90s.

But I have to be honest, my orgy of reading is on hiatus this week. I have hit a wall of mental exhaustion, and all I can think about doing in my down time is, like, bodily stuff. I want to go for walks, drink coffee, and slather myself with the patchouli hand cream I got for Christmas. I want to help Joe dig up our garden out back and try starting beans and corn from seeds and, like, listen to the radio. I do NOT want to go to your party or meet you for drinks. Don’t take it personally, I’m just so wiped out. I think it’s from writing. For the last two months I’ve spent part of every day writing a new book, and though it hasn’t been an especially difficult or frustrating process this time around, I think it’s drained me. Rummaging around in my memories, dredging stuff up—both sweet and sad stuff—and laying it to rest—that’s hard work. Even though I’m not quite finished writing the manuscript, I need to take a break from it. And as far as reading goes, I think I’ll keep up with Morvern and maybe see what else Alan Warner has written recently. But for today, tomorrow, the next day—I don’t think I’ll feel all that hungry for a good book.

What do you do when you need a mental rest? Or a mental kick-start? I’ve gotten pretty good at taking care of my body when I’m tired or sick or sad, but I’m not as sure how to replenish a tired mind. Your suggestions are welcomed.

Love, Katie