Eat a hot dog really fast

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of divination. Actually, I’ve always given this idea a fair amount of thought, since I tend to see symbols everywhere, not just in books but in real life, and then I try to plumb them for some meaning I can use. Recently, though, I’ve started ASKING for symbols. I’ve been learning about the colorful characters of the tarot—The High Priestess! The Hermit! The Sun!—and I’ve taken to doing a simple one-card reading for myself every morning. It’s a nice practice, a piece of quiet, thoughtful time that twinkles with a bit of magic, somewhere between the wisdom of a therapy session and the sudden secret bolt of truth that hits you in the moment you make a wish on your birthday candles.

On Friday I read that the comics artist Lynda Barry, whose work I sincerely love, has started an advice column for The Paris Review. The second question, and answer, are frankly bizarre (though the answer is also generous and funny, as all of Barry’s writing is) but the first one is Lynda Barry at her latter-day best, if you ask me. Though the letter writer is seeking advice in dealing with boredom, Barry’s answer is really about writing; writing via tricking yourself into writing, by doing oddball experiments and fun stunts that aren’t writing first.

Barry, if you don’t know, has put out three big beautiful books about writing over the last 10 years—What It IsPicture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor— that are almost mystical in the ways that they advise the reader on how to begin this often difficult task. Every page is covered completely by a painting or a collage, and in this swirling, heady atmosphere, Barry tells us how she finds her way into creating, even when she’s stuck. In response to that question about boredom, Barry recommended elaborate project that involves chucking your cell phone out of sight, belting down a couple of stiff drinks, and going for a long and epic walk, during which you will undertake to answer some question in your mind by making symbols of three things: (i) something you see above eye level, (ii) something you find discarded or forgotten on the ground, and (iii) a person.

My husband and I went away this weekend, for a wedding in the countryside of northeast Pennsylvania near the New York state border, and we had nothing to do but loaf the day after the event. I figured this expanse of quiet Sunday would be a good time for me to try Barry’s experiment. The only changes I made were to do it throughout the course of the day, rather than during one focused walk, and I didn’t get drunk first. The question I asked the universe-slash-myself was: How should I focus my time and attention this fall? Let’s see what the universe, aka me, came up with.

i. On Sunday morning Joe and I drove up the road from where we were staying to the nearest small town, which is where my friend who got married lives. I’ve tried to imagine this town many times because my friend is also my pen-pal, and I think about the place where she lives every time I write her address on an envelope. I’ve always pictured an autumnal sort of place because of how much my friend loves Halloween, and I wasn’t totally wrong. The town turned out to be a very pretty and sturdily functional place in the manner of many towns, small and large, in this part of the state, with painted brick Victorian-era storefronts and lots of old shade trees. We walked all the way up and back its long main street, and my eyes were drawn to the spires of several churches. The one I liked the most was nestled on the top of a hill a few streets back, a big stone and stained-glass Catholic jawn that was built during the first few years of the 19th century. We followed a narrow walkway and bridge to get closer to it and just look. I haven’t considered myself Catholic, or indeed Christian, since I was released from my parents’ house 20-ish years ago, but I must say, I’ve become more interested spirituality in recent years. Or—if not spirituality exactly, then connectedness. That’s why I’m always looking for symbols; they remind me that nothing is disconnected from anything else, even if I don’t understand why. I’m okay with not knowing why.

ii. Lynda Barry’s guidelines were pretty obviously written for a city dweller like me, but I wasn’t in Philly yesterday; I was in this small town, where very few people throw crap on the ground, or else someone is quick to clean it up if they do. I didn’t find anything meaningful to me discarded on the sidewalk during our walk, but later in the day, Joe and I got permission from the owner of the hotel where we were staying to borrow one of the rowboats to take out on the small lake. As we picked our way along the lake’s sandy shoreline near the dock, I felt dreamy with the heat and my experiment, and I saw a face in the arrangement of a few stones and a piece of wood under the water. I see faces in things pretty often, usually when I’m very tired or about to get a migraine. Seeing a pattern in something random is called pareidolia; it is commonplace and not abnormal (and apparently it’s most common for people to see faces in particular), but I experience it as slightly disturbing and maybe meaningful when it happens to me. This time, I saw the face not because I was getting a headache (thank god) but because my mind was relaxed and open and searching. I read this lake-face to mean that I should try to be in this state more often.

iii. In the evening we went back into town in search of some dinner. Only a few restaurants were open past 4:00 or 5:00 on a Sunday, and one of them was a little bar that we chose because it looked comfortable. When we walked in, I thought of the Lobo from Roseanne because of the place’s laid-back, rural vibe and prominent pool table. We took a tall table next to the bar, and sitting at the bar by himself was an old man I couldn’t take my eyes off of. He was skinny and wiry, and was wearing a black button-down shirt tucked into dark, belted dungarees, both of which were oversized on him. The jeans could properly be described as hitched up. He had a huge hawk nose and stooped shoulders, was probably in his 60s but seemed somehow ancient, and had a full head of dark hair, neatly parted. He sat at one end of the bar, facing forward, not morose or hunched over but content and bright eyed over his mug of beer. I hope someone paints his portrait in oils before he dies.

At first I felt awkward in the bar since we were from out of town and looked it, but the music playing in there was good, and after we ordered beers and I had a few sips I relaxed into being there. It only takes one drink for me to be convinced of the romance of the barroom all over again. I’m a huge cheeseball that way. “Sara” by Fleetwood Mac came on the jukebox and I crooned it to Joe. Then “Ashes to Ashes” came on and we both tapped our feet and sang along. At one point the old guy walked past us to his spot at the bar and settled back down, and Joe gestured toward him with his head and said, “He’s the one starting the music back up every time it gets quiet in here,” and I died. My favorite person at the bar liked Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie, too! Obviously he was the person I’d been looking for all day. But what should he symbolize to me? I guess the reason I lit up with delight when I saw him was because he was so completely himself, right? That’s the message I’ll let him give me, then, to be myself completely, and to remember how much fun it is to be yourself in a world that, for some reason, would like you to be something else instead. It’s the only way to live, really. At the very least, it’s a reliably good way to pass a pleasant Sunday evening at the bar.

p.s. If you’re looking for recommendations, I’ve been reading an excellent book about tarot by one of my all-time favorite writers, Michelle Tea, who just put this one out a few months ago. The book is called Modern Tarot and it’s thick, thorough, and easy to engage with.

p.p.s. The title of this post is another piece of advice I got from Lynda Barry, sort of. I saw her speak at the Free Library a few years ago, where she told a very funny story about getting her makeup done at a department store makeup counter, and how before she did this, she did what she always does when she’s nervous, which is “eat a hot dog really fast.” I laughed hard at this, and so did a man sitting near me, and his voice is what I remember when I think of that story. A stranger sounding happy.

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I saw these pretty painted symbols on my walk through town, too.
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The Scream

I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve been hearing it everywhere: It’s really hard to concentrate these days.

“It has been hard to concentrate on reading books and seeing movies since the election,” author A.S. Hamrah writes simply in this excellent essay about Trump and B movies for n+1. Yes, yes it has. In her sweet, intimate email newsletter last month, journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote, “I haven’t had it in me to write lately, dears, and I apologize for it. Democratic inaction on the ACA repeal, the multiply broken heart, and extreme frustration over the fact that MY CORN IS NOT COMING IN has all conspired against our delightful communications.”

I’ve been troubled by this sort of stuff myself for several months now — since, oh, about November. I haven’t written much that I’ve enjoyed writing for a while, I’ve been intermittently depressed—I haven’t been able to find the kind of psychological stillness that you need to GO THERE, to get to that place. That in itself isn’t so unusual; writing is hard, and there are lots of things that, as Moore puts it, conspire against it. The strangest thing, to me, is how hard I’ve found it to read.

Reading is easier than writing—usually, anyway. Someone else has done the work; you just need to show up, and if the story or the language is good enough, unusual enough, and if you stick with it for long enough, you’ll get carried away on that current. It’s a powerful form of escapism, to be inside your mind but not really, to get a break from your own thoughts not merely by being distracted, but by actually inhabiting another person’s mind. It’s magic, when you think of it that way. Some people have compared it to time travel, but I think it’s more like leaving your body and moving along the astral plane, the closest you’ll ever get to being someone else.

For months, as I’ve been unable somehow to access this magic, I’ve felt the loss of it acutely. Sure, I actually “read” plenty: I read online news articles and everything the wonderful Masha Gessen has written for the New York Review of Books about the Trump presidency, and even the occasional personal essay, like this beautiful piece by Laura Maw that was published a few days ago in Catapult, about the film The Shining and the ways it talks about violence in the home, within families. I read the newsletter and essay that I quoted from above, too, obviously. But that experience of picking up a book and disappearing into it for a while? Looking up from the page now and then to think about one of its ideas, and an hour or two later, emerging wholly, refreshed and a little bit changed by the experience? I couldn’t do it. For a while after the election I had no interest, and for a longer while after that I missed the experience but still couldn’t do it. It’s become a problem, the way a bad or nonexistent sex life becomes a problem. You think about it all the time, but as simple as the supposed fix would be, should be, you just can’t make it work.

I remember that for months after my father died, almost 20 years ago now, my mother was plagued with the reading problem. She’s a huge reader who always has at least a couple of books going, but when she was in the depths of her grieving, she couldn’t do it. It was a kind of forgetting—not how to read, but how to want to. The desire just wasn’t there. It came back to her in bits and pieces, enough to haunt her for a while before she was able to fix it, and as I recall it was the sweet, clever Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith that finally broke through and brought her back to the Land of the Reading. Grief is weird that way: It resets everything. You’re still alive but, for a time, you lose your life. If you’re lucky you eventually find your way back, though not everyone does.

My life is still in progress, I’m happy to report, and I’m writing this now because I’ve started to find my way back to it. (I’m also writing this now because writing has always been the thing that saved me, like throwing an ice axe out in front of me, one of those tough-ass climbing tools, and using it to drag myself forward along that slippery mountain’s edge. You gotta hang on, but you gotta keep moving, too.) The book that’s finally helped me remember how to live/read again (they’re the same thing) is called Scream, and it’s Tama Janowitz’s first book-length memoir, published last year by HarperCollins. I got it at the library a few days ago and have nearly finished it, and am totally confident that this time, after reading the first 10 or 20 pages of a lot of other books, I actually will. This small/ huge victory (they’re the same thing) is the result of some combination of wanting my life back and finally finding the right book, though I’m not sure I know what makes this book the right one, beyond the fact that I already knew I loved Tama Janowitz’s essays and memoir-style writing. In fact, she once wrote one of the best and most life-affirming things I’ve ever read about writing, in her 2002 collection of essays, Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights:

“But there is one thing I have, no matter if I can’t ever get published, or sell a book, or get an award or money or praise—I CANNOT BE STOPPED FROM WRITING.” Emphasis hers, baby. The emphasis is always hers. (She then goes on to say, “As for advice, I offer only this: Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to be writers.” Which I take as the feminism-edged joke that it is, and choose to ignore as actual advice.)

This new book is as deadpan-weird and hilarious as all her best writing, like a conversation with—if not a friend, a person you’d LIKE to befriend. With her stories about her friendship with Andy Warhol and the time she heard the Sex Pistols play their second-ever show at some guy’s house party in London, knowing her seems aspirational, even though she makes it clear that all of this stuff feels accidental to her. At one point she writes something to the effect that everything that’s ever happened to her seems equally weird, surprising, absurd, even the nothing-things. (She writes about those too, complaining lustily about the stupid organization of her local supermarket. She’s always pissed off, always on the verge of giving up, but never doing so.) I loved reading this because it’s a way I’ve felt many times in my life. And if everything’s equally weird, everything’s equally likely, too. Looking at the world like this has a way of making it open up to you.

I’d have to call Janowitz’s writing voice utterly unique because she is seemingly being herself COMPLETELY, all the time, in a way that most people can’t or won’t try to be. It puts me to mind of something I once read in an essay by Dorothy Allison, “Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories,” which was published in an anthology called An Angle of Vision: Women Writers and Their Working Class Roots. In it, she talks about treasuring the early “review” that her partner and the mother of her son gave her after reading one of her first books: ‘“It’s not bad,” she said. “You are the real thing.”’

The real thing. I think about this often. There can be no higher compliment, no worthier goal. That’s what Tama Janowitz is, and it’s what I am too, when I don’t forget it. I guess that’s why this book is the one that pulled me back onto land, exhausted and coughing up seawater. It has that fighting spirit. If you read between the lines, all that’s there is a will to live.

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“…the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream…” From Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

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

 

I post this every Easter

The poem “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens, that is. Here are the first two stanzas, courtesy of Poetry magazine, which published the poem in 1915. The entirety of it can be read on the magazine’s website.

     I
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
       II
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

Kedi

The other day at a reading, I bumped into and talked to a sweet pen-pal friend of mine (who is also sometimes a face-to-face friend), a person who lives here in Philadelphia now but used to live in Istanbul. This friend told me about a new movie called Kedi, which is the Turkish word for cat. Kedi is a beautiful documentary about a few of the apparently thousands of cats who live in Istanbul—”free, without a master,” as director Ceyda Torun puts it. In the film’s description, Torun writes that cats have lived this way, in this place, for thousands of years. My friend told me about the movie because I wrote a book about cats, and then I told my mother about it because she once lived in Istanbul too, many years ago now. I asked her if she remembered seeing lots of street cats when she was there, and she said, “I don’t, particularly, but there was a lot going on in those streets.”

And that sure does seem to be the case. My mom and my husband and I went to see the film together, and all three of us found its images of Istanbul to be truly vibrant, in the mellowest and warmest of ways. Busy, ancient, twisting streets, all alive with people and trees, fruit stands and conversation, tea and food and CATS. Cats with their kittens in old cardboard boxes, cats sitting up high on the window ledges of apartment buildings, cats slipping under broken doorways to visit with one of their many human friends. If Kedi is a good measure of the city, it looks like any cat’s dream, with a hundred hiding places on every block and plenty of chances to beg for fish from the port and table scraps from sidewalk cafes.

In the film, the camera often gives us a cat’s-eye view, so we can follow the trotting cats along the streets to see where they go and what they do. But just as often we’re looking Torun’s human subjects in the eye, as they describe the way they met a cat who they now consider a friend. We hear people talk about the cats’ personalities, and how they’ve benefitted from meeting them. We see them feed kittens from bottles, throw scraps of cooked chicken on the sidewalk for them to eat, or smoke cigarettes as they talk softly to their chosen cat friend—even as they’re addressing the filmmaker and her camera. Their stories are reminders that, even when domesticated cats are “strays,” they do depend on human beings for survival—just as we depend on them to make our homes and cities more sanitary (as in, free from mice) and for the unique and almost psychic sort of friendship they can provide.

At the reading where I bumped into my pen-pal, I also met a woman who’s in a band that often writes songs about cats. !! It’s really got me thinking, all this talk (and art) about cats. Just as the rise of the internet has been a sort of validation for the introverts among us, it’s also the reason that cat-love is now at the forefront of the popular culture, I think. Everywhere you look, there are famous catswildly popular cartoon cats, and adorable, catchy songs about cats. (And this isn’t even the same band I just told you about!) The idea of the crazy cat lady, as an insult, doesn’t have much sting anymore. Cats are cool. They’re independently-minded, funny, elegant, and wise—and if I dare say it, this film offers proof that the people who love cats are in touch with something a little more sacred, and a lot bigger, than themselves.

I couldn’t help but notice, as I watched this pretty movie, that the production company behind it is called Termite Films. I don’t know the story behind the name, but I choose to interpret it as a reference to the idea of “termite art,” which was coined by the critic Manny Farber in the 1960s. According to Farber, there’s White Elephant Art, which likes to call flashy attention to itself, “filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity,” and then there’s Termite Art, which is small and easily overlooked but powerful because it works in secret, eroding boundaries. Termite Art is where it’s at, if you ask me. Just watch Kedi and see. The universality of the love between people and animals is a powerful message, even when it’s delivered on small, silent feet.

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The pathos of the pinned Tweet

I’m sorry to say it, but Twitter gives me the blues. Lots of behavior on social media in general makes me feel sort of sad, particularly the way we use these venues to show “the world” what we’re “all about.” There’s nothing like following someone you know in real life on Tumblr or Instagram to find out that you don’t like that person as much as you thought you did.

Lest you think that I think I’m immune to any of this, I don’t, and I’m not. I do, however, have a hearty fear of making an ass of myself, and since I’m not much for socializing to begin with I have avoided becoming deeply involved with most social networking websites. I am not now and never was on Facebook, for instance. For years that shit creeped me out, and now it just looks boring. I was also very late to the party on Twitter, tried it for half a year, then quickly became irritated and embarrassed by the puffed-up egos on that website—including my own—and deleted the account.

But there are a lot of useful resources on Twitter, at least for someone like me. I recently signed up for and started taking what looks to be an excellent certificate course on editing offered jointly by the American Copy Editors Society and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to journalists. The first class has directed me to a number of useful resources, including reliable ways to keep abreast of updates to style guides, such as following them on Twitter. The Associated Press style guide is on there; so is the Chicago Manual. @APStylebook even hosts live Q&A sessions via hashtag chats. Merriam-Webster has a lively presence there too. The dictionary tweets a word of the day, and regularly interacts with people by answering their questions and appreciating their nerdy puns.

Earlier this week I decided that since I’d like to make use of these resources, I should start a new Twitter account and use it only to access information like this. I’ll maintain a purely professional persona on the website, and not show off how clever or cool I am or get pulled into posting strident, smug commentary on political and social issues. I figured it would be easy for me to carve out an isolated space on there, since I’d only be following dictionaries, style guides, and other copy editors who tweet primarily about industry news and proofreading tips.

But I was wrong. At about 6:00 pm EST on Super Bowl Sunday, Merriam-Webster retweeted a post from one of its staff members, lexicographer Peter Sokolowski:

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Then just two days ago, the dictionary tweeted that lookups of the word “impugn” were spiking, then posted this article about Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell accusing Senator Elizabeth Warren of “impugn[ing] the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” Jeff Sessions, in the talk she gave to express her opposition to Sessions’ nomination to Attorney General. People understandably wanted to be sure they understood the meaning of impugn, which is, according to its entry in Merriam-Webster, “to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity <impugned the defendant’s character>.” But the Senate rule that McConnell invoked to stop Warren from continuing to read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Sessions does not use that word; it uses the etymologically unrelated word “impute,” which means “to lay the responsibility or blame for, often falsely or unjustly.” I found this information useful, pertinent, and timely (and I couldn’t help but feel pleased that the person I view as being on the wrong side of this conversation, McConnell, had used the wrong word, like a fool). Later in the week, more light-heartedly and with an attitude of celebration, the dictionary tweeted about the new words it added this year, which include side-eye, face-palm, and the slang usage of the word shade—all fun, trendy things that got people talking and joking and sharing Paris is Burning memes.

I read all this, enjoyed it, and got caught up in thinking about which, if any of these, I would retweet (to find out you can have a look at my Twitter account, and please feel free to “follow” me on there). And then I had to scold myself. Of course I couldn’t use language, or even grammar and usage, as some sort of hideout from the real world. Language isn’t divorced from reality; it’s a reflection of it, a description of the world and everything in it—politics and ego included.

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