Yes, snacks

It'll be fun
It’ll be rad

This Thursday the 12th, I’ll be giving a free workshop at the Kelly Writers House at Penn on HOW TO MAKE A ZINE. I plan to give a quick history of zines, punk, and DIY, then let everybody loose on the clip art, rubber stamps, and Letraset. Each student will contribute one page, and I’ll paste them up and make copies of our collaborative zine. Reception with snacks to follow.

Cycletherapy, that’s what they wanna give me!

Blurbing books is kind of a weird practice. I mean, it’s actually a very good idea, and I for one always notice who’s been quoted on the back (and sometimes front) of a book I’m considering reading. But I can tell you, as someone who’s written two books and was asked by her publisher to do so, seeking these blurbs out is a bit scary and awkward (though probably most people are very kind about it, as the writers I asked were). Famous and sought-after writers probably get asked to write blurbs often, which must be something of a nuisance.

Lucky for me I’m more infamous than famous, and am sought after by only a highly select few!

Elly Blue, the author of several excellent books on biking, asked me to read and consider writing a blurb for her new one, an anthology she edited called Cycletherapy: Grief and Healing on Two Wheels, put out this month by Microcosm Publishing. Elly is also the co-owner of Microcosm, which published my two books, White Elephants and Slip of the Tongue. Microcosm has been knocking it out of the park lately, if I may say so. My hubby Joe and I tabled for them at the Small Press Expo last weekend, and their books were a huge hit there. (Joe is also a Microcosm author.) SPX is comics-oriented, and Microcosm does indeed have some comics titles on its roster (the Henry & Glenn series being the best known and, frankly, awesomest), but other types of books were flying off our temporary shelves, too: The DIY ones by Raleigh Briggs; the more overtly political and wonderfully-titled The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting; the silly-yet-totally-serious Manspressions, which makes fun of machismo using made-up words and charming illustrations; and yeah, my own pocket-sized memoir, White Elephants.

Cycletherapy was too new to make it to the expo, but it’s out now, and I’ve got my copy here. It’s a beautiful book. Highlights include Elly’s own essay, in which she writes about carting her partner around on a bamboo bike trailer on days when he’s too sick to bike himself; a short piece by Sara Tretter that touches on the awkwardness of burgeoning teenage sexuality; Julie Brooks’ chronicle of working through the grief she experienced after being struck by a car while riding her bike (she’s okay now); and Gretchen Lair’s fine illustration of her beloved bike Ariel, who was stolen days after their last trip to the beach together. She quotes The Tempest: “My quaint Ariel … Our revels are now ended.”

Lookit all their bike books!
Lookit all their bike books! (This is a photo of Elly and Joe Biel, from the Microcosm website.)

I’m not a biker, not since childhood, really. I’ve always felt a little too chicken to get around the city on a bike, like so many of my friends do. (They’ve all been doored by parked cars or clipped by moving ones. Plus, I love to plug in and listen to music while I’m out and about, which isn’t such a hot idea when you’re riding a bike in traffic.) But I am a big walker. I walk everywhere because I don’t drive a car, and never have: My mode of transportation is my own two legs, plus whatever SEPTA conveyance I feel like catching. But I walk for pleasure and exercise and for my mental health, too. A lot of what the folks in this anthology (all but one of them women) wrote about biking resonated with me because I use long walks the same way, to keep my mind and body healthy and strong. Some days I push through physical discomfort or miserable heat and humidity to get to that feeling that my physical self isn’t creaky and cranky and tired, but like a well-oiled machine, taking me where I need to go. Going out in the evening is different, like gliding through dark water, thoughtful and quiet. I prefer to walk through city neighborhoods because I like to look at buildings and people, and peer down little alleyways and see grass growing up between the cracks in the concrete. But I live just up the street from the Schuylkill River, which has a paved path for walkers and bikers that runs alongside it all the way into downtown Philly from a little town 25 miles from here called Oaks. Sometimes I’ll walk down to the trail and stay on it till I reach the part of the river where the rowers practice, past their charming boathouses and the sleek boats themselves, sluicing through the water. I move my body to get my head feeling right and it always helps, at least a little, which is more or less what the stories in this book are about. It’s good to be reminded how useful that can be.

ROTTEN

lydon2Since none of the, like, five books I have out from the library have been interesting me much, I dug out my copy of John Lydon’s autobiography, Rotten, as I do every few years, to try to extract some of the good stuff from that book (an up-close history of a musical moment I find fascinating, gross-out humor, vivid portraits of the Irish in London), while skimming over the bad (wordiness, seemingly no editorial guidance whatever, cringe-inducing self-aggrandizement). I say this last with great affection for John Lydon, who I really do admire. It’s just that these men brag about themselves so much. Have you tried reading Richard Hell’s memoir, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp? Such a great title, but yeesh. Unreadable.

So yeah, it’s not a perfect book, but I’m enjoying picking through it a little again. Last night as I read by my mushroom-shaped nightlight so as not to disturb my husband sleeping next to me, I found a line I’d underlined years ago. I mean, I must have underlined it myself because I bought the book new, but I don’t remember doing this and now I can’t think why I would have.

“At the time, what we had wasn’t a gang as much as a collection of extremely bored people.”

Ha! Did I think this was funny? Did it put me to mind of myself when I was in school? Was I trying to remind myself to do something useful—like start a band or, you know, a cultural revolution—whenever I felt bored? I’ll have to give it some thought.

Gary, Indiana

It doesn’t come out for another few months, but the artist and critic Gary Indiana has written a memoir, and it is glorious. I think he’s not as well known as he should be, at least in my circles. I keep trying to talk about the book with people I know, and they all frown and say, “The name sounds familiar,” not getting the joke of it or, therefore, why it sounds familiar to them. I probably shouldn’t quote from the book publicly yet, but I’m just going to leave this here for now, in case anyone needs it:

“The audience was as much the show as the music, raw sound that drilled into the brain and was less important than what the players wore, what they did with their bodies on stage. Everyone competed for the most fucked-up reputations, the most suicidal carelessness with drugs, the most gratuitously hostile behavior. Yet punk musicians and followers I got to know personally were touchingly sweet, highly intelligent, and un-materialistic to a utopian degree. Damaged in one way or another, but who isn’t?”

He’s writing here, of course, about punk, which he experienced when it came to Los Angeles in the late 70s. Before that, he lived in a crumbling hippie mansion in Haight Ashbury. He’s also lived in Cuba on and off for many years. So far, he’s had a kind of extraordinary life, and he is so fucking smart and funny—his writing voice is wonderful company.

(The book’s back matter describes him as caustic, but I don’t see that. He probably wrote the back matter himself because the book’s author usually does, I think, so maybe he’s the one who thinks of himself that way. He comes across as far too thoughtful in his analysis of things to be caustic. He is breath-takingly direct though, I’ll give him that. He doesn’t seem to flinch at all when he has to say something difficult, or unflattering; his descriptions of his family are priceless. But there’s a tiny, chest-ripping tenderness that telegraphs across every mention of the stray cats he sees on the street in Havana or in L.A., even though he usually doesn’t do much more than notice them and describe their looks. But you can’t fool me, Gary Indiana. If you love lost, scrappy little animals, then you love everything that’s good.)

Hooray for you

There’s a wonderful speech at the end of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s stirring documentary film about the drag ball culture created by gay and transgender black and brown folks in NYC during the 80s. Dorian Corey delivers it, while she looks into the mirror and pats on layer upon layer of makeup, which is the way she conducted much of her interview. Several people were interviewed at length for the film, but she’s probably the oldest (and eldest, if you will), and her interview is the backbone of the movie in a way, which leads to her serving as a kind of narrator. To sum up her life as a drag performer, she says:

“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it.”

I’ve watched this movie a couple dozen times and plan to keep on watching it whenever the mood strikes; it’s made a huge impression on me, with its lessons about what it means to survive and thrive and give a name to whatever it is that you are. This speech in particular is touching because it’s really, ya know, positive, despite the fact that it was delivered by a person who seems, in addition to being funny and intelligent and unceasingly dignified, pretty sad and embittered. (I’ve left out the more famous final line, which—breathtaking as it is—casts the rest of the quotation in a different, darker light. Look it up if you want.)

To a very young person, Corey’s speech probably sounds like resignation (especially that bit about aiming a little lower), and this view is completely supported by the culture we live in, which idealizes youth and considers mature a bad, embarrassing word. (In talking about all this with my husband he reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon we saw recently, in which one child says to another, “What do you want to be when you give up?”) But realizing that you don’t have to bend the world, but that you probably ought to work to make it better in your own small way, could be considered the essence of adulthood, the true definition of maturity, at least according to the philosopher Susan Neiman, whose new book, Why Grow Up? I’ve just started reading (and will try to read double-time, since it’s been out for two weeks and I’d like to review it). It’s interesting to me to note that I tend to consider this the essence not of maturity but of punk, at least the iteration of punk that my friends and I have adopted for ourselves, which talks about never giving up on your ideals while also refusing to blindly believe in dogma, which kind of inevitably leads you to conclude that the best thing you can do is use your life to make the world a little bit better and more beautiful for the people in it. And yeah, enjoy it, too.

Neiman is a philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage “the public” with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand and serves as an introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both. I look forward to digging into this book further because it’s already making me feel fired up—in a somewhat punky sort of way, actually. In her introduction she paraphrases Paul Goodman in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd: “When consuming goods rather than satisfying work becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents.” Which is as relevant now as it was 55 years ago.