How Green Was My Valley

Several years ago I wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer about something we decided to call digital literature. The idea my editor, Frank Wilson, had was that since a new kind of literature was emerging the paper should cover it, and he gave me the job. I reported on pieces of work that I considered to be nonlinear in a distinctly digital way—such as stories that you could click through into different layers, Wikipedia-like—or things that seemed to sit at the intersection of literature and … something else. 

Sometimes the something else was automation. I learned about the existence of MEXICA, an artificial intelligence-based computer system designed by a Mexican researcher named Rafael Pérez y Pérez that could construct short stories. On its own this was not a brand new idea, but Pérez’s system was unique because it tagged characters for their emotional connections to each other, which in turn drove the plot of the story. This made the stories—as simple as they were—into something more robust than strings of sentences, something a little more human. As he told me, models like his one are interesting, not because they are intended to replace human creators, but because they can teach us about the nature of that creation. It’s kind of like reverse engineering, if you will—in order to teach a machine how to set the creative process in motion, we first have to take it apart into its components. Once we’ve put it back together, we’ll have a better understanding of how it works. 

People were, and are, making some interesting literature using new technologies. As I researched them, I found that some of these stories seemed like games to me. When I wrote about Inanimate Alice, an animated, interactive story in installments that “readers” experience on a computer or tablet by making choices for the main character, watching videos, listening to music—and, yes, reading text—I talked with its creators a good deal about what makes something a novel (they consider Inanimate Alice to be an “interactive novel”) and what makes something a game. There are lots of answers to both of those questions, of course, but some of those answers overlap. For instance, book can be interactive, one simple example being a “choose your own adventure” novel that is both read and played like a game in the sense that the reader controls some of the story’s movements and outcomes. But just as interesting is the fact that most games have a narrative, and the pleasure we get out of playing them can be similar to the experience of reading a good book. I said something to this effect in my article about Alice because I understood that some games featured characters, unfolded like stories, or changed some of their features with the passage of time. But I’d never really played a video game, so for me it was just an idea. 

Now I would like to tell you about a game called Stardew Valley and my obsession with it, and how it has come to broaden my view of the ways in which a story can live inside your mind.

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A few months ago, my husband—a person who always has at least one game on the go—gently nudged me to try playing a video game on the Nintendo Switch. He told me several times that he thought I’d like it, which isn’t something he says about any of his other games, which he plays on the Switch, on the computer, and on his phone. Eventually I agreed to let him show me how the controllers worked and how to play the game itself.

Stardew Valley is a farming simulation game, which couldn’t sound more boring. It’s not, though. Your character, who is “you” (which is almost always the case in video games, but is a fascinating concept in itself), begins the game slaving at a desk in a hive of cubicles, weary of your grey, empty life. You then receive a letter telling you that your grandfather has died and left you his farm, so you leave your corporate hell behind and travel to Stardew Valley, where your little homestead is nestled. You learn to plant crops there, take care of your animals, cook food, and forage in the woods for mushrooms and fruit. It makes sense that the character that is you has never worked on a farm before, because you, the player, have to learn how to do all these things, too. 

There’s a town nearby, and you’re supposed to meet the people who live there and get to know them. It’s a real cast of characters and most of them are kind of rude to you at first, since you’re new and they don’t trust you yet. Because they put you off in the beginning they seem fairly uninteresting—all surface and no depth—but as you get to know them you see how varied they are. They slowly reveal their stories, habits, feelings, and quirks to you, just like the characters in any other kind of story, or people in real life. 

Because the game is based on farming, the change of seasons is significant. Each new season looks different, you can grow different fruits and vegetables, and the music that plays is particular to the time of year. As you get better at all your tasks you gain access to superior tools—a shovel for digging up your crops, an axe for chopping down trees, a pickaxe for breaking rocks in a nearby mine—which makes you even more successful. There are practical incentives to becoming closer with the other characters, too. They might send you a cooking recipe in the mail, or gift you with some lumber that you can use to build a chicken coop or barn. You get to name your animals, and when you touch them a heart appears over their heads, indicating that they feel happy and cared for—unless they’re mad at you for neglecting them in some way. In that case, a scribbly little storm cloud appears in the thought balloon instead. The animals never die and you don’t slaughter them, thank goodness, but you can sell them off, and some of them will occasionally give birth to a baby.

Eventually you can get married in the game, and then your new spouse leaves their little house and comes to live with you in your little house, which by now probably has a wine cellar and some other fancy additions. As I got more into the befriending-other-characters aspect of the game, I found I had my eye on a woman instead of a man, and I decided to go with it because it’s a game and what the hell. Her name was Leah, and she lived alone in a cottage in the woods just south of my farm. I’d go down there to fish in the river beside her house—oh yeah, there’s fishing in the game too—and I admired the wreaths and other seasonal decorations she always had up, thinking maybe she was a witch and feeling drawn to her solitude. I talked to her often, brought her gifts, and eventually earned enough closeness with her that I was allowed to propose, with the gift of an amulet that I bought from a salty old sailor who skulks around the beach on rainy days. Yes, really.

Ridiculously, my heart—my real-life, actual heart—was pounding with nerves and excitement on the day I proposed to Leah. You’ll be happy to know that things went well, and she now lives with me in my farmhouse and makes her sculptures in the yard. (Not to brag but she’s cute and she’s an artist.) I hasten to point out that you don’t have to get married in Stardew Valley. You can also choose whether or not to have kids with your spouse. Just like in real life, this option did not interest me at all. Every time Leah asks if I want to adopt a baby, I select the cop-out answer, complete with chickenshit elipses: “Not now…”

Since playing a game like this was new to me, getting a response to my actions from the other characters felt like a lovely surprise. It was also a little unnerving, as if the game console I held in my hands somehow contained real people who had feelings and could talk to me, though I was perfectly aware they are computer programs and not real people. Somehow, the emotional response is the same. I’m reminded of the early days of the Internet, when my mind didn’t yet have a category for that kind of communication. It was freaky to send “instant messages” and talk to someone in real time, not on a phone but in front of a screen, with text you could read: a conversation that was visual, not audible. It puts me to mind of a scene from Sex in the City, when technophobe Carrie tries chatting online for the first time with a guy. When his answer pops up on her computer screen she feels exposed, and yells “Oh my God, he’s online. Can he see me?” and ducks her head down under her desk to hide. 

As I have learned, some games are considered linear, which means there’s only one way to move through them. Your character is guided along one direction, and you must complete one goal at a time before being allowed to pass through to the next portion. Stardew Valley, by contrast, is an “open-ended” game that is not linear. You can spend your time each day doing whatever you like, and there’s no way to win or lose, though there are lists of goals you can accomplish, which will lead you to a feeling of completion. You don’t have to do them if you don’t want to, though. And you could keep playing long after you’ve crossed them off your list. Unlike a book, you’re the one who decides when it ends. 

I guess it’s possible I’m trying too hard to relate this game to the structure and experience of reading a novel—and believe me, it isn’t the case that I think the novel should be held up as a standard by which all works of fiction should be judged. It’s not the 18th century! Still, I find it interesting to think about how stories can be shared and accessed, and the different ways they inhabit our imaginations. 

I like thinking, for instance, about a game that is a simulation of life as opposed to a novel that is meant to capture real life. Realist fiction is supposed to feel familiar and “real,” but not usually in a moment-to-moment, repetitive sort of way. In Stardew Valley you are living a life, not reading about it, and this means, for example, that you have to complete things in the course of a day before time runs out, and then you have to go to bed. (You’re supposed to go to sleep by midnight, but there’s some leeway with this. You’ll only pass out if you stay up until 2 am, and there are penalties for letting this happen. If you pass out on your own property, employees of Joja, the jokily evil corporation that looms over the town like a vengeful god, will bring you safely inside—but they’ll charge you a fee.)

The most obvious thing to say about all this is that playing the narrative of a game like Stardew Valley is more like being in a novel than it is like reading one. And I’m surprised by how engrossing I find this. I’ve been playing Stardew Valley for a few months now, and I still feel a part of that world. A good novel is over too soon—you’ll blow through it in a day or two or three if you’re really into it—though of course you can read it again. A really good novel gives you a new experience each time you re-engage with it, but even still, the words are always static on the page. In real terms, no two people can have the exact same experience of a game like Stardew Valley. That is to say, it’s dynamic. There is a finite and fixed set of things that can happen—just like in real life? Maybe. Must return to this question another time—but depending on what you prioritize and how you spend your time, you will encounter things at different points than someone else will, which affects how you feel, influences the decisions you make, and gives shape to your experience.

Anyway, I love this game. I love its cozy atmosphere and pretty music. I love the way it looks and sounds on rainy days, and the fact that magic and monsters are mixed in with the mundane features of everyday life. I even love the pacing of the game, which, as with a novel, might be one of the most important things for the creator to get right. There’s never so much going on at once that I get overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, but time moves quickly enough that there’s a sense of urgency that keeps me engaged. (A “day” in Stardew Valley lasts for about 20 minutes, and you can see the time click by in ten minute increments on a clock on the screen.)

I think it’s worth noting that the game’s creator, Eric Barone, made this thing entirely by himself. He thought up the concept, then taught himself how to do everything he needed to make it. He spent years building this world—he even wrote all the music for it—and as a result, it is very robust, despite being intentionally simple and cute in many ways. As I have learned, most games that are as highly developed and successful as this one are created by companies that put lots of money and teams of people behind them. Besides the sheer impressiveness of Barone’s solo feat, I wonder if it also has something to do with how deep and compelling the game’s narrative is. One guy wrote it, just the way one person writes a novel. They have a deeply personal experience of making these things, so when you enter these stories we enter the fully-realized world of someone else’s imagination.

I recently read an interview with Barone in which he said that he began making Stardew Valley because his all-time favorite game, Harvest Moon, had changed in a way he didn’t like, but he still wanted to play it. In essence, then, he made the game he wanted to play, which reminds me of something else bookish, that famous remark by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Memoir as Addiction

I recently read and wrote about Michelle Tea’s fine new collection of essays, Against Memoir, for the literary website The Millions. As I wrote in my review, I am a longtime fan (it might be more accurate, even, to say devotee) of Tea’s work, and she once gave me a professional boost by inviting me to read from my book White Elephants at her wonderful RADAR reading series in San Francisco, an experience I count as a highlight of my writing life. Still, I look at all the books I review thoroughly and write about them truthfully, and I can honestly say this is a collection that is worth your time. Read more of my thoughts about the book here, if you like:

Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures.

There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse.

Continued at The Millions

2017 in Review

 

Hello, all, and happy new year. I love this time of year, even though I’m usually sick with a cold. I had one last year when I wrote my year-in-review, and I’m coming down with one now. Thanks, holiday get-togethers, public transportation, and germy old civilization in general. Thanks a lot.

I dislike Christmas hugely, for a number of reasons, only one of which is potentially worth discussing in public (capitalism; oh yeah also the forced cheer and heteronormativity of “family” get-togethers), but I’ll spare you. I do love the week between Christmas and New Year’s, though. It’s like the heart of winter: the perfect time to draw in, rest, and reflect. It’s dark outside but it’s warm and bright in here, and I’m calming my shattered Christmas nerves by diffusing frankincense and wearing my fat cozy socks, both of which I did, admittedly, get as gifts for fucking Christmas, so whatever. All griping and kidding aside, I am grateful for all of this. Every bit of my life, even the parts I don’t like.

I do an accounting of my year every year, and make plans in the form of resolutions for the year to come. I did my accounting publicly on this blog at the end of 2016 and it was a nice way for me to organize my thoughts and express my gratefulness, so I thought I’d do that again. If you’re still reading after that irritable—and some may say childish, but I say those people are sticking their heads in the sand—outburst, why don’t you come along with me?

A lot happened this year, and though I tried to make my writing life a focus when I selected the photos above, I had to represent a few other things too, including the hurt and outrage and righteous anger caused by the miserable Trump administration, and the fact that J & I bought a house and moved into it. (That’s why all those houseplants are sitting in a cardboard box up there.) That was nine months or so ago, and I still love the feeling of settling in here, decorating and making small changes one at a time. Today I painted one “accent wall” in my “home office” a shade of “millennial pink,” so how’s THAT for having your shit together? I love that room and now I really love that wall.

In October, Cats I’ve Known, the book of illustrated memoir stories I spent last year writing, came out. I asked the famous internet cat Lil BUB to write a blurb for the back cover and she did. Joy! I did a number of readings and other events to promote the book this fall, and I’ll continue to do so in 2018. If I can swing it I’ll do a tour of the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado) in the spring, and I plan to do in-store events in bookshops along the Delaware coast this summer. Look me up if you live in those places, would you?

I find it hard to do, to give readings from something I wrote, or to promote my work in any way, really. I have to push through a lot of self-consciousness, guilt, and anxiety to get to the place where I remember that I am proud of my writing and want to share it with other people. But share it I did. I launched Cats I’ve Known at a day-long show at a basement show space in West Philly called the Waiting Room, where I read a selection of the book’s lighter, funnier stories. (That’s me doing this in the second-to-last photo.) I felt very warmly welcomed, as I have at the other shows and events I’ve participated in there. Thanx, punx! I also forced myself to read the longest, saddest story in the book at a show I organized with J called SadFest. We did SadFest for the first time last year—his idea—and people responded really well to it. I kind of thought it was a weird idea, to be honest, but people loved it, I guess because everyone has sad stories, poems, or songs that they’re too embarrassed to trot out at a group reading for fear of bringing everyone else down or being seen as adolescently emo or whatever. I practiced my sad cat story several times before I performed it to keep from crying in front of everyone, but I did cry a little at the end.

So far the book has been reviewed warmly by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Broken Pencil, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. I sold it at several fairs throughout the year, including the cheerful and well attended Lehigh Valley Zine Fest in Easton, Pennsylvania and the Philly Zine Fest, which has always been my favorite zine event and this year was packed to the gills: very gratifying. I threw myself a party (!) and got a fancy cake from a bakery that was decorated to look like one of the cats Trista Vercher drew for the book. I gave more readings, almost always with J, who can be seen in the second row of photos getting ready to perform at Coffee House Without Limits in Allentown. I signed and sold copies of the book at other events, too, including ones in Portland, Oregon, where my publisher, Microcosm, is located. One of those was, drumroll, a women-only cannabis party with a DJ and vendors, who were selling things like cannabis tinctures and sex lube infused with cannabis and … books. Since Microcosm has a few weed titles, we went and set up a pop-up shop of zines and books there. I accompanied a very capable and impressive young employee of the publisher, who incidentally could smoke any of you under the table, and we spent a pleasant, if unusual, evening slinging books to friendly, intelligent women who were all kind of high. (I’m a lightweight myself, and just tried a few drops of the tincture. It was nice.)

So—go me. Seriously. None of this was easy for me, all of this performing and traveling and meeting new people, but I did it anyway, and lo and behold it was fun and rewarding. Thanks, world, for your kind reception of my cat book. As for the portion of the world that has not read it yet, what the heck?

In other categories of stuff, I made music with my experimental noise band A$$HOLEKNIFE, taught zine workshops to children, college students, and adults, and gave interviews about my work to the podcasts Collecting Culture and Design Conversations and a Japanese art and culture magazine called HEAPS. (The second two are forthcoming.)

The music thing has been interesting for me. I am not a musician, though I studied the flute as a kid and some classical guitar as an adult. I don’t know that I have much of a knack for it. But some friends and I started fiddling around together on a regular basis, using whatever instruments we could put our hands on to make a tremendous amount of noise that somehow becomes musical as we go. This is largely because a couple of the people involved are real musicians, I think, but also because that might be what happens when people communicate in this, or any other, way. Someone makes some sort of sound and someone else answers it, and it goes on like that, becoming a noisy and cathartic conversation. Forget catharsis: It’s an exorcism. It’s so engrossing and relaxing to lose yourself in making music, and it’s a wonderful release to make it that LOUD. I had no idea. We recorded our sessions and J edited them into distinct songs, and we even put out a tape! Does this mean I’m a rock star now? or just a slightly more well-rounded weirdo than I was before?

Let’s see, what else. J and I continued organizing and hosting shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room (the band Rabbits to Riches is shown playing the space in the top right corner) and we collaborated with a beautiful new performance space called Hauska that’s run by our friend Julia. The show at Hauska, which means funny in Finnish, was in answer to SadFest, and both shows were lovely and lively and well attended. I have also undertaken the huge job of properly cataloging the EFZRR’s zine collection so that people can access it more easily. As I have in the past, I am enjoying being a hobbyist librarian. I love playing at things until they become real, or at least as real as I want them to be.

And last, I’m excited to announce that I edited a zine anthology of other people’s cat stories called Cat Party #2, which Microcosm will publish in the first month or two of 2018. It features both essays and comics and includes the artists Dame Darcy and Noelle Geniza, among others. It’s gonna be a beauty and I can’t wait to unveil it.

***

In the last week or so I’ve asked a few friends whether they make new year’s resolutions. One of them said she does an accounting for the year that includes the good AND bad things that happened, and another told me that she doesn’t do resolutions, exactly, but instead creates a mantra that she’ll try to live by in the coming year. I liked both of these variations and have incorporated them into my own practice. I probably shouldn’t share the bad things on my list (which I have named “bullshit and pointless stuff”) since I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but for the most part they have to do with jobs. Quelle surprise. And as for a mantra, I don’t know yet. The words simplify and let it go come to mind, but maybe I’ll go with thank you instead. Just a simple thank you, for every good and lucky thing in my life.

 

Ben Franklin’s Backyard

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Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival

Last week, I had the pleasure of showing some fourth grade students—lots of and lots of fourth grade students, actually—how to use a letterpress machine. As part of a daylong event called Science in the National Parks, several area artists and scientists put on demonstrations for the students who visited with their families and on class trips. Since, in Philadelphia, much of the national park is comprised of urban historical sites, the event took place right downtown, in the courtyard behind the building where Benjamin Franklin had his print shop. (They call it Franklin Court, but I can’t help but think of it as Ben Franklin’s backyard.) This is the place where he published The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and it’s a block away from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. These two things are connected; without the printing presses of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense wouldn’t have found its readers—and without his ideas, we might not have had a revolution. The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library was invited to teach the students something about printmaking, so we carved a linoleum block with a charming design, packed up our tabletop Signmaker press, and spent a sunshiny day in late April helping hundreds of kids pull prints in bright-colored ink.

Growing up in Philadelphia, you hear a lot about Ben Franklin. He was one of our country’s founding fathers, of course, but he also started a lot of important stuff right here in Philly, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to school, and The Library Company of Philadelphia. His name is on everything—like the Ben Franklin Bridge and the beautiful Ben Franklin Parkway—and his image is everywhere, from commissioned statues (including this one, which commemorates his work as a printer) to the sign attached to a disused water tower advertising the Electric Factory, a concert venue where I’ve spent many hours of my life having my hearing damaged by bands I loved. Several years ago, I visited a friend who lives on the West Coast, and we made a road trip down the coast of Oregon. When we stopped in the small, picturesque town of McMinnville for breakfast, I was startled to see a bronze statue of Ben Franklin sitting on a park bench—a lot like the one on Penn’s campus—and I joked that I couldn’t get away from the guy.

Even still, this know-it-all Philadelphian found spending time in the space where he once worked surprisingly stirring. All day long we told the students a very abbreviated  version of the story of what went on inside Franklin’s print shop, and showed them how to use a printing press that operates using the same principles as the one he used. We asked them to consider how difficult and time-consuming it would have been to place every letter of a sentence—and paragraph, page, newspaper, or book—one at a time in order to print it … and not only that, but you had to spell them backward! We helped each kid ink up the block and pull the metal bar across the press bed, applying the pressure that would print the image onto the page. They smiled brightly each time we peeled the paper back to reveal the picture they had made. Mechanical reproduction of this kind produces results that are reliably consistent, of course, and yet no two prints are ever exactly the same. Most of the kids kept a close watch on the prints as they dried on the table because they wanted to be sure they took home the one they themselves had printed. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press took written communication a step away from the intimacy of handwriting, but today, these old-fashioned printing technologies show the artist’s hand in a way that digital communications can’t. (Not yet, at least.)

The Soapbox is proud to participate in a long tradition of printing in the city where Ben Franklin worked, a city with a rich and colorful—and incendiary—publishing history. If you get the chance to use a letterpress printer, take it. There’s a power in printing your work with your own hands—in pulling that heavy metal contraption over the words and images you placed there—that you can really feel.

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Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival

 

A book about books

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Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. Go see this movie right now.

A blurb on the cover of my 1970 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, from the Saturday Review, calls it “a gorgeous little book about books.”

It is a gorgeous little book, the nonfiction account, told through letters, of an American woman’s long-distance friendship with the sellers at an antiquarian bookshop in London, beginning just after World War II. Helene Hanff was a writer from New York who initially wrote to the shop in 1949 after seeing their ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. She sent them a list of the books she most hoped to find (her “most pressing problems,” which included Hazlitt’s Selected Essays and a collection of Leigh Hunt’s) and received a polite reply that they would be sending her two of them and had begun looking for the others. She wrote back, immediately addressing the very polite British bookseller, Frank Doel (pronounced Noel), in a teasing way (“I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here”), sometimes using ALL CAPS on her typewriter. It’s obvious she couldn’t help herself, New Yorker that she was. She wanted to bring out his more human side, and in time he shared it.

Helene keeps writing, looking for more books, and at some point she finds out from the British boyfriend of her young neighbor just how severe the food rations in the UK were at that time: 2 ounces of meat per family  per month, 1 egg per person per month, he told her, and this was after the war had ended! Shocked, she sends them food she chose from the catalog of a British company that imports things from Denmark, which is how the boyfriend has been sending his mother gifts of food. This is the beginning of the real warmth between Helene and Frank et al, though a true friendship had started—and continued, as she kept asking them to try to find “dear goofy John Henry” and some love poems, but “No Keats or Shelley, send me some poets who can make love without slobbering”—over the love of books, particularly old ones.

“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” Helene reveals, which I found to be a very interesting thing to say. Later, she writes:

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

So yes, this is a book about books, and about reading. It’s also about the romance of bookstores, and the sweet, surprising communities that can form around them. 84, Charing Cross Road is interesting to contemporary readers, too, because it contains so many anecdotal reminders of just how different things were before the internet, and before air travel was as inexpensive and commonplace as it is today. When Helene first wrote to Marks & Co., the UK, still reeling from the war, seemed a very different and far away place. Over the 20 years of their correspondence, we see the gap between the UK and the US begin to close. By the 60s, Frank’s letters report on the hordes of tourists who come through London each summer, many of them Americans making a “pilgrimage” to Carnaby Street. “…I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”

Besides all that, though, this is a book about friendship—friendship of a certain, long-distance, partly-imaginary kind. In Helene’s letters to her “friends at 84, Charing Cross Road” she sometimes imagines out loud what the cramped, dusty, Dickensian bookstall must look like. She romanticizes them like crazy, but invites them to do the same to her, making herself into a charming caricature of the brash New Yorker. But Helene also talks about visiting them one day, and seems to mean it. Frank (as well as his wife Nora, in separate letters) and two of the women who work at the bookshop all invite her many times to come visit them, each offering to put her up in their flat or house for as long as she liked.

Year after year, she didn’t go. Money was always a concern. Though she had it pretty good in comparison to the deprivation the English people were still dealing with, she was living the writer’s life (a “freelancer’s” life, we’d say today), and had an unsteady income. Sometimes someone would like her idea for a TV show and offer to pay her a bundle for the script, but other times, she’d work for months on plays that no one wanted to produce. During the period that she was making good money writing murder mysteries for the TV series Ellery Queen, Helene entertained the idea of going to London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. But then she needed to pay for a lot of expensive dental work, and she didn’t make the trip.

She was there in spirit, though. I love thinking of Helene “crawl[ing] out of bed before dawn on Coronation Day to attend the ceremony by radio…thinking of you all” because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. The idea of setting aside solitary time to “be with” someone else in my thoughts appeals to me deeply, loner that I am. Helene Hanff never married, and when I picture the single-lady’s apartment she describes in her letters, with its battered furniture and steady supply of coffee and books (and cigarettes and gin drinks as well, Helene admits; me too), I’m really picturing my own life, the one I had for years before I was married, and all its solitary pleasures.

Such as letter writing. I have a number of pen-pals, maybe around 20 people who I write letters to regularly, some of them for years now. I collect new pen-pals on a regular basis, too, usually through zines. Someone I’ll meet at a zine fair (or who I’ve sold my zines to, or traded mine for theirs) will write me a letter, and then we’re off and running! When I lived alone, sending and receiving these letters constituted a major part of my social life. Most of it, some years, if I’m honest. I have learned that there is a strong similarity between these kinds of friendships and the kinship you can find in books. A human connection is made, in a very real way, but from a distance, and in solitude. It’s a certain kind of person who seeks out this kind of connection—and who sometimes, at least in some ways, prefers it to time spent in another person’s company. I have been this kind of person; I bet a lot of writers have. It has something to do with the life of the imagination, for sure, but it’s a self-protective thing too. You can have a very close bond with a long-distance friend and still feel safe, intact, yourself.

By 1956, Helene announces that she’s been “socking money” away in a savings account, and if “TV keeps feeding [her]” she’ll make a trip to England the next summer. But then her landlord sells the building and she gets evicted from her apartment. She decides to buy one in a new building that hasn’t been constructed yet, and spends all her “England money” on the place and new furniture for it.

The eviction and the dental work were real, unavoidable drains on Helene’s finances, and besides that, I’m aware that in the 1950s, the average middle class person didn’t hop on planes and take trips whenever they felt like it. But it seemed clear to me, reading Helene’s letters, that she was always reticent about traveling to England, that it was something she liked to think and talk about, but maybe never took that seriously as a plan. You get the feeling—and in one letter, to an American friend, she admits to this possibility—she’d rather keep on dreaming about her English friends than meet them in person and have the fantasy spoiled.

SPEAKING OF SPOILED, THE REST OF THIS ESSAY GIVES AWAY THE BOOK’S ENDING. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!

In the end, Helene never makes the trip she talked about so much. In October of 1969 she receives a letter from Frank, writing animatedly about tourists and Jane Austen and plans for Christmas (“we are all very  much alive and kicking,” he begins), and less than three months later she receives one from the secretary at Marks & Co., who has had to write to tell her that Frank died. His appendix ruptured, which gave him the peritonitis that killed him a week later. Anyone who reads the book would find this terribly sad, and I certainly did. Joe caught me crying on the couch after I finished it, as he has many times after I’ve put down a good, touching book.

But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this as an ending to the story. The thing is, I kept wanting Helene and her English friends to meet in person, even though I knew all along that they wouldn’t. (I’ve seen the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, in which they DO meet, and later read about how that never really happened. The movie, incidentally, is also wonderful.) What I don’t understand is why I was wishing for this. Have I lost my capacity for wistfulness? I used to be comprised almost entirely of wist. And anyway, that’s the point of this book. You’re supposed to read it and feel that sense of longing for something that can never be. You’re supposed to enjoy feeling that feeling. It’s like nostalgia—the kind of melancholy that feels good.

I guess what surprises me is that I don’t like that idea as much as I have in the past. I don’t have much capacity these days for enjoying the space between aloneness and closeness, for feeling the pleasure of that friction. I don’t want to want things and not get them. I  want the people I love to be with me, and to never lose them. I want to do the things I want to do soon, and not risk missing out on them. I want life to be vibrant, and I want it not to end.

Maybe it’s because everything feels more immediate these days, with every piece of news sounding so dire. Bad people making bad plans. Everyone I know is upset, and at times it seems clear to me that we’re standing on the edge of something huge and dangerous. Like De La Soul sang back in 1996, “Stakes is high.”

I guess I could find it in myself to feel wistful and nostalgic for the times in my life when the world felt LESS scary, come to think of it, but feelings like that seem like luxuries now, and I ought to ration them out.

 

The year in review

Happy New Year, everyone! This might be my favorite time of the year to be alive, this week right here. True, being cold (and getting colds) is kind of a drag, but I like taking stock and I like making plans, and I feel that the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the right time to do both. I’ve spent the last few days working on my year-end review, and yesterday, by happenstance, I discovered the writer Ksenia Anske and her beautiful website. I was inspired by her year-in-review blog post—and its accompanying photo grid!—to share my own, so here goes: a list of things I did and learned in 2016.

  • I wrote and completed edits on my book Cats I’ve Known, to be published in 2017. Completing this work was my biggest accomplishment of the year—that and surviving the appendicitis that tried to strike me down just a few weeks after I finished the first draft. Nice try, body! I’m still winning, for now.
  • I completed Magical Thinking, the zine my pal Mardou and I made by emailing back and forth with each other on topics including gemstones, herbal healing, and dreams. We then published our dialogue, accompanied by the illustrations Mardou drew. (She is a talented comics artist whose work I really enjoy.) I brought the zine with me to the NYC Feminist Zine Fest at Barnard College, an annual event that I tabled at for the first time. It was a long, hectic day, but I had a few interesting and memorable conversations with visitors to my table, which is the measure I use to judge all zine fests. Frequency and quality of chats.
  • I also tabled with my zines at the Scranton Zine Fest, the Philly Zine Fest, and a Winter Market at the Germantown Kitchen Garden, and all three events were fun and very rewarding.
  • I continued to benefit from keeping this blog. Having a place where I can explore my thoughts about the things I’m reading has been good for me. I like writing about books, but I don’t always like books-writing jobs, if ya feel me. In this space, I can write what I want, at whatever length suits me. So thank you for taking an interest in my blog, gang; it means a lot to me.
  • I finally visited Haegele’s Bakery in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. As far as I know these folks are not my relations, but they have operated a German bakery in the same city that I’m from for nearly 90 years—and I never got around to visiting it until last month. Whatta jerk! Joe and I went there with friends on the damp, chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it made me so happy to see how pretty and old-fashioned the shop is, sitting right there on the corner of a residential street just a few blocks away from the one where my mother lived when she was a teenager. I ate a Stollen AND a Bienenstich, and they were both gorgeous. Planning on getting myself a Grosse Neujahrsbrezel on New Year’s Eve, too.
  • I got two new jobs this year, contract gigs doing editing work, which is just a mundane thing that I needed to do to make more money and wouldn’t ordinarily mention. But my job slog has had an unexpected and happy result (besides the more—but still not enough!—money): I discovered that I love editing other people’s writing. What’s more, I’m not bad at it. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of writing and making it tighter, cleaner, smoother, and better all around, while preserving its original spirit and without imposing my own voice or attitude onto it. It’s like being a tailor, an invisible mender: I leave things looking better than I found them, and if I do my work really well, you won’t be able to tell I  was ever there.
  • I redesigned my website. Go take a look!
  • I raised a black swallowtail butterfly, which was an incredibly beautiful experience that happened half by accident. In September I attended a meeting of the garden club I used to belong to, and a friend there gave me a bunch of cuttings from her herb garden. I put them in a vase on the kitchen table and enjoyed them for a week or two before Joe noticed two minuscule caterpillars on their leaves. We watched them both get bigger fairly rapidly, then put them inside a small aquarium to keep them safe. Over the next week one of the caterpillars kept escaping, so we released it into the wilds of our backyard and wished it well. The other we kept, feeding it carrot greens from our garden because we read that’s what they like to eat. This guy went to TOWN eating them and got bigger and fatter by the day, until he made his chrysalis. Then that gnarly looking thing lived in our kitchen for 2 more weeks before it burst open, behind us on the kitchen counter while we sat at the table one morning, talking and drinking coffee. We were lucky to see the creature’s black wings when they were still all wet and soft and crumpled; the whole event happened so fast, if we’d been in another room for even an hour we would have missed it. We brought the new butterfly outside, and Joe went into work late that day so that we could sit in our yard and watch it spread and flap and dry out its wings in the sun and fresh air, carefully but quickly, before it flew away.
  • My good friend Nadine Schneider and I made a zine together, and I’ve been selling it at the Wooden Shoe. She wrote about making and using herbal body care products, and I wrote about how you can clean your house without nasty neurotoxins. We called it Kytchyn Witche and spelled it that way because that’s the way it’s spelled in an account we read about the good luck “poppet” that English people kept in their homes during the Tudor period. And because it looks cool.
  • I street-protested the Trump presidency and the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, and I plan to keep on doing so because these people are really bad news, and protesting is democracy in action.
  • I saw a fuckton of bands play. I celebrated a significant birthday this year and while I don’t really want to tell you my age, I will tell you that in honor of it, I set a goal to see 40 live shows this year. I achieved the goal and had a lot of fun doing it. Highlights include: discovering the industrial/punk band Uniform when they opened for somebody else, then seeing them again later in the year (are you familiar with the phrase WALL OF SOUND); seeing another act on the Sacred Bones label, Blanck Mass, who turned the tiny space at Johnny Brenda’s into a cathedral with his majestic noise; enjoying the heck out of ourselves at RuPaul’s Drag Race Battle of the Seasons, which had about 100 clever acts packed into one show (plus Sharon Needles and Jinkx Monsoon LIVE AND IN PERSON!); watching Philly band Remote Control (pictured above) channel Peter Murphy; being transfixed by the sight of weirdo genius Jenny Hval bopping around the room; and Shopping. We got right up in front of the stage and danced at them, and they danced back. Such a good-natured, high-energy band, and those post-punk melodies do something really nice to my brain chemistry. If they don’t get big I’ll be a little surprised.
  • Joe and I hosted three shows at the East Falls Zine Reading Room this year, which wasn’t as many as last year. They were good shows though, featuring the chiptune musician Sloopygoop, folk singers Potential Gospel, video artist Cory Kram, postpunk band Rabbits to Riches, loony tunesters Yoga Dad, and memoirist Ashton Yount.
  • Joe and I also toured twice, up north during the summer and down south in the fall. In New England we did readings at the Papercut Zine Library in Boston, a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, and one in Woodstock, New York. On our Southern tour, I was pleased and frankly really proud to perform with our friends Kishibashi, his wife Mocha, and their daughter Sola (all three of them on violin) at a wonderful bookstore called Avid in Athens, Georgia. The artist and adorable human Missy Kulik read from her comics at that show, too. We also performed with the one-man band who is Tall Tall Trees, at a fine bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina called Downtown Books & News. Then we went to Savannah and did a show at Starlandia, a charming creative reuse shop, with the inimitable Dame Darcy, a comics artist whose work I have admired for a long time. (She read from her books and, accompanied by her friend Skippy on guitar, she played sea shanties on the banjo. It was a special night.)
  • I participated in Fun-a-Day last January, and even though I was lazy about it I managed to write a little something almost every day that month, which was an undertaking I took to treating like a diary. At the end of the project I made a handmade book collecting the month’s meditations and exhibited it in the group show. I plan to participate again this year—just one more day till it starts!—and I’ve got my idea ready and my pencils sharpened. They are metaphorical pencils.
  • I hosted a Pop-Up Zine Reading Room at Amalgam Comics in the Kensington neighborhood Philadelphia, which means that I took a bunch of zines and books from the collection at The Soapbox and sat at the bookstore with a sign inviting people to join me and read them. It was sweet. I also ran a zine workshop for the high school students in the after-school program at the Lutheran Settlement House, also in Kenzo, and in November I cohosted a letterpress printing and book-binding workshop for some undergraduate writing students. Those events were sweet, too.
  • I started a zine about Christmas, which I have historically hated, with my friend, the talented artist Nicholas Beckett. His witty, warm, and sweetly grouchy drawings helped me hate Christmas just a little bit less.
  • I started a new writing collaboration with Eliza, a lovely new friend I met at the Philly Zine Fest. I look forward to seeing where this project takes us in the new year.
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Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In 2015, a forester from Germany wrote a book about trees.

Peter Wohlleben’s small, quirky science book was published in his native country, where (to the publisher’s surprise, one can’t help but think) it stayed at or near the top of nonfiction bestseller lists for months. Since that time, The Hidden Life of Trees has been optioned for translation in several languages – including, this fall, in English, from Greystone Books in Canada.

Reading the book now, in a translation by master gardener and writer Jane Billinghurst, it seems that the secret to its popularity lies in its unusual approach. Using simple verbiage, succinct chapters, and a sensitive narrative style, Wohlleben takes a tender view of the trees he understands so well, sweetly anthropomorphizing them and the forests they comprise. He discusses the ways trees communicate with and protect each other by using the language of friendship, family, and community. He describes photosynthesis as a constant source of food for a tree, “like a baker who always has enough bread.” He makes frequent reference to the pain trees experience when they get injured or die a slow death, and compares their roots to our human brains. The chapter on tree reproduction is called, simply, “Love.”

Though his turn of phrase is sometimes fanciful, Wohlleben’s ideas were formed after decades of studying tree growth and behavior and are backed up by both cutting-edge and time-tested studies. The forester-turned-ecologist is an interesting study himself. He worked for the German forestry commission for twenty years, assessing trees for their value in the lumber trade according to accepted industry practice. Gradually, though, he developed a deep appreciation for the trees’ true nature, and came to understand that they behave very differently in undisturbed forests than they do in manipulated environments. For example, while gardeners and commercial foresters take care not to plant trees “too close” together out of fear that one will overshadow and kill the others, Wohlleben tells us that left to their own devices, trees of the same species prefer to huddle together. This way, they can share nutrients and water, balancing out any differences between them at root-level so that they can photosynthesize at the same rate and be equally successful. They prefer to work together.

Wohlleben’s book is filled with these kinds of surprises, bits of science fact that amateur naturalists will thrill to. For instance, we learn that a beech tree, if it lives to be 400 years old, will fruit at least 60 times and produce around 1.8 million beechnuts. Of those nuts only one will become a full-grown tree, which in forest terms is considered a high rate of success, like “winning the lottery.”

There’s something so stirring about the sheer size and longevity of trees, something almost magical. Wohlleben’s love for these magnificent beings and the lessons they can teach us is evident – and he’s as excited by the questions as he is by the answers. As he writes when discussing different ideas about how trees store and transport water to their leaves: “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery. But aren’t both possibilities equally intriguing?”

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone (288 pp.)