Quarantine musings

My writing practice has always been there for me, whether I’ve needed to sort something out for myself, or tell the world something that needed telling, or just to keep myself company. It’s always been a place I could go. But in the terrifying early days of the pandemic I couldn’t write. Didn’t even know what I’d write about, since the things I’d been working on before seemed irrelevant and the thing that had made them irrelevant felt too big to look at.

I did, however, receive invitations to contribute to other people’s projects, and this was a kind of rope to hold onto as I pulled myself back up the mountain. One of those calls for submissions came in the form of a questionnaire called Quarantine Musings from some lovely people I briefly a few years ago at a small zine fest in Newark, Delaware. They do a zine called Red Tent, a collection of visual art and writing that the creators make during the time they’re menstruating, the idea being that this can be a time of increased, or maybe temporarily altered, creativity. When they described the zine to me I had a strong emotional response to the idea, so I created a visual poem about menopause looming on the horizon and submitted it to an issue that came out in 2019. This time around, I contributed answers to questions the zine’s editors posed about the pandemic. Anyone could respond to the questionnaire, not just people who menstruate.

The issue came out a few days ago and I thought I’d share it with you since it’s free to read and really beautiful looking. It’s called “Escape From Middle School Bedroom.” The editors have packed a lot into these 76 pages, and you can feel the love and care they put into the project. Below is a bit of what I wrote. If you’d like to read the full interview and enjoy the other contributors’ photography, collage art, mixtape song lists, and clever pop culture references, you can read it here.

  1. new routines you’ve created during this time

My partner Joe and I run a show space in our house where we host readings, art shows, and musicians, and these events have become an important part of our lives. Having to cancel and postpone them has been one of many personal losses we’ve experienced during this time. We decided to try doing shows online instead, and it has really helped. Once a week we do zine readings and every weekend we play noise music, live on our Instagram channels (@thelalatheory and @displacedsnail). Making music and talking to people online has been fun and healing, and it helps us stay connected to people in our small community.

2. old routines that you miss most

I most miss the day-to-day of being around other people: walking on the sidewalk here in my Philly neighborhood, riding the bus, being downtown for work or appointments, and picking out the clothes I’ll wear on a given day. I miss seeing and being seen by people, friends and strangers alike. It has also been painful for me to not be able to go out to shows and dance parties, which is a big part of my life.

4. stay-at-home makeup or fashion looks

Okay, so—I love wigs. I enjoy putting together costumes from thrift store clothes and cheap wigs, and will occasionally wear a wig out at night, but even though I’ve wanted to I’ve never worn one of my wigs on a normal day because I worry it will look too fake or weird. Now that I’m making these live videos a couple times a week I’ve embraced their fake weirdness and wear a different one every time. It’s felt powerful (and fun) to come up with a reason to dress up and, instead of worrying whether I look “good,” focus on looking interesting. 

5. new recipes you’ve attempted and/or conquered

One of my favorite recipes is for Mexican chocolate cookies, which have cayenne powder and cinnamon in them. They’re chocolatey and chewy and the tiny bit of added heat makes them special. Last week I tried a new recipe for a Mexican chocolate quick bread, but I had to improvise a bit because I didn’t have the ancho chile powder it called for and used cayenne instead. It came out WAY too hot for a sweet bread and was actually pretty terrible (though that didn’t stop us from eating it, ha). I made the same recipe a few days later without any hot spices and it came out delicious. (Recipe here)

6. your makeshift home office setups

I already had an office space at home because that’s where I do most of my work. My office is a small, cozy room that I have festooned with strings of lights, plants, my collection of shells from the beach, a radio, and lots of little pictures and post cards, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom. I try to keep the energy in there soft and safe but stimulating enough that I can stay excited about my work and get it finished. 

7. ways to accept/combat boredom

I find boredom to be a hard concept to define since for me it usually has a lot of feelings mixed up in it. The boredom that has come upon me during this isolation time seems to have to do with the psychological stress I’m feeling that makes it hard or even impossible to concentrate on any of the things I can do here at home, including things I usually enjoy. When all this started, I focused on doing what I could. Some days that has meant writing a text instead of a letter, or doing one hour of work when a whole day or even half a day felt impossible. Slowly my capacity to stay present has increased. 

8. book, movie, television show, music, game, or Instagram account recommendations

I love reading Conrad Benner’s Instagram posts (@streetsdept). He’s an artist and curator who runs Streets Department, a website that documents street art in Philly. I admire him because he grew up here and his love for the city and its people is evident in all he does. He consistently speaks truth to power while maintaining a positive attitude. Throughout this pandemic he has used his platform to talk about renters’ rights, opportunities for artists to earn money for their work, places where people can get free food, and so forth. He’s really cool.

I’ve also been super psyched to see that a couple of our favorite DJs here in town are putting their “parties” on Twitch. Last Saturday night Joe and I were feeling down and low-energy, but when we tuned into the livestream we got on our feet and danced!

9. exceptional or unusual interactions with friends/family/roommates/neighbors (positive or negative)

Tonight we ordered take-out from a pub in the neighborhood that we really love. They threw together a website for online ordering during quarantine and are doing curbside pick-up. Getting take-out could never replace sitting in that cozy place and listening to music while we eat or drink, but their food is great and we miss them. Today is Easter, and when we got back home and unpacked our food we saw that they’d put a big handful of foil-wrapped Easter chocolates inside a rubber glove and tossed that in with the stuff we’d ordered. The sweet gesture, together with the scary visual of the surgical gloves everyone’s been wearing, almost made me cry. 

Body horror

Oh fuck, my body’s rejecting me.

—Zipper Mouth, Laurie Weeks
Judy Davis in The Dressmaker (2015)

I seem to love every book the Feminist Press ever publishes, so when they put out Laurie Weeks’ novel Zipper Mouth in 2011 I made a note to read it, then forgot for awhile. I finally got around to it this spring, and wow. There is a lot going on here.

The jerk on Amazon who said Bret Easton Ellis already wrote this book, only better, was wrong on both counts. It’s a different book, and hers is better. Though it was written by a woman and narrated by a female character, Zipper Mouth, in my opinion, would be better classified as the heir to Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. I’ve written about Childish’s wonderful novel on this blog before—in fact, one of the things I wrote about was the genderfuck of my extreme over-identification with its narrator, William Loveday, who is a man. Then along comes Zipper Mouth, offering us the female version of that sorta lovable antihero, who never stops spilling her guts in the same filthy, hilarious way. 

The novel doesn’t have a ton going on in the way of plot. To sum up, an unnamed (young?) protagonist with a huge personality and a growing drug problem makes her way in New York in the ’90s. (I only know it’s supposed to be the ’90s from descriptions of the book I’ve read. It’s not really apparent from the book itself, at least to me, though the characters do wear a fair amount of animal print clothing.) Like Childish, Weeks has a rare poetic gift; the language in this book is insane. It may send you, as it sent me, googling excellent phrases and weird words to find out what they mean, or if Weeks made them up. A “vent figure,” if you didn’t know, is another name for a ventriloquist’s dummy. A “vaginal vault” as also apparently a real thing. Here’s Zipper Mouth, walking down a New York street in the dead of summer: “The dilapidated blocks had undergone a phase shift from zones combustible with violence to the sultry chiaroscuro of a black-and-white film starring Ava Gardner in a tropical setting.”

I find I want to call the narrator of Zipper Mouth Zipper Mouth, since we never learn her name—kind of like the lead in that show Fleabag who, as pretty as she is, seems to be named Fleabag. Zipper Mouth is marvelously messed-up. An adolescent grown-up who can’t stand to be around anyone ever, she betrays her need for connection through her obsessions with movie stars and unrequited real-life loves. She frequently composes letters to her obsessions, who include Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis, and incorporates them into her thoughts: a gushing of consciousness. 

Like William Loveday, Zipper Mouth’s primary obsessions are love and lust, and any other emotions she can stoke up inside herself and wallow in when she’s alone. Throughout the novel, on every page really, she tweaks her mood with drugs or quasi-drugs, like cigarettes and caffeine and those speed-like herbal substances weightlifters (ab)use. In her various heady states, she wobbles on the walk-and-turn sober test between florid beauty and visceral revulsion: 

“God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster. … Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast.”

Most of the descriptions in the novel are like this. They gave me intense sensations, and though the book is short—you could read it through in a couple of hours—I had to take frequent breaks to keep from feeling overwhelmed. I kept getting “worked up,” the way Zipper Mouth reports feeling when she listens to music and daydreams druggily, or reads something challenging and weird. In the final analysis, this novel does not have the substance of Notebooks (though both novels have strangely awkward endings); it needs to be more grounded, more finished. But it is literary body horror at its finest. If Zipper Mouth had a thesis statement, it would be something like this line she writes to Miss Davis in her mind: “The body is a great thing, Judy, a horrifying thing, a great and horrifying thing to be trapped in a body, anything can go haywire at any moment, you’re just hanging on with clenched teeth to a rope that swings your body sickeningly around and around over that bottomless and legendary thing we’ve come to identify as The Abyss.”  

Three months on, I don’t find myself thinking about this novel; I had to rely entirely on my notes to write about it. There was something ephemeral about it even as I read it, the imagery hard to hold onto, the ideas slipping away like smoke. But it was everything to me while I was reading it. Sometimes I have a desperate need for a book like this, something that gives my inner demons a song to scream along to. Come to that, I made a note while I was reading it that I’d found the perfect musical accompaniment—the doomy noise of an industrial act called Terminal Brain Disease. While I lived (briefly, feverishly) inside Zipper Mouth’s mind, this music came pouring out of the cassette player that sat on the floor beside me, filling the room with its perfect attitude: Witness the absolute horror and wonder of simply being alive!

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 misting frankincense in my diffuser 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 a comedy show 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.