Wednesday, October 19, 2016

M.L. Titsky

When I was in high school, I got somewhat of a reputation among close friends as being game for tagging along on almost any errand that needed to happen.  Gas? A card for your grandma? A pizza you're going to pick up for your family now?  Sure.

If your car was running and the radio was on, I was down. 

I'd like to blame this part of my personality for being willing to read so many things my friend Amelia suggests.  Not unlike that time Tim's eyes lit up when I started reading Freedom, these books add texture to our friendship, and keep us in a shared conversation I absolutely cherish. 

Source: this fascinatingly angry review.
It's possible I would have heard about Shrill by Lindy West if Amelia hadn't urged me to read it, but I'm not sure I would have actually gone to the trouble of doing so, for no other reason than it at first came across to me as somewhat of a "humor" book. The chances of me making it past page four of a humor book are actually lower than me making it through a duck hunt. 

That's a lie.  I've never been on a duck hunt and I'm sure I've finished a humor book, but if so I've repressed it.

Shrill, however, while making me laugh a lot, and being in somewhat of a conversational tone that could be mistaken for glib, easy prose, is full of articulate, somewhat painstaking arguments, and I really did enjoy it. 

Lindy West is perhaps best known for her online writing for Jezebel and The Guardian, but aside from seeing her name in some reviews before this book, I didn't think I had any experience with her.  Then, writing this, I realized she wrote a piece about Jonathan Franzen's response to writing about race, an article I admired and also chafed at when I first read it. 

Lindy West.  Source: announcement of her Stranger Genius Award in Literature

I also realized, while reading her book, that she was probably blipping across my radar screen more than I knew, when she described her involvement in the national discussion around Daniel Tosh's disturbing, dismissive, aggressive rape jokes at one of his shows. 

Without going into all the details of that incident and its rippling reactions that folded backlashes into backlashes, let's just say that, in her book at least, West takes credit for speaking up against this kind of behavior in what has, for a long time, been a boys club of comedy.  Here's a write-up of the initial incident, and here's West's report on people's response to her taking to task comedy's permissiveness regarding certain dangerous remarks in the name of not censoring anyone. 

What I admire most about all of this is how at the center of her narrative West remains.  I happen to really like Twitter, and I get a lot of my news from various online news outlets in addition to our quaint paper that arrives on the porch in an un-quaint manner (thwack!) three times a week, bringing me precious Parade magazine articles about actors I'd long forgotten, pages of comics, and the delicacy that is The Bargain Corner (people hocking complete junk for anywhere from $2-$300 with the greatest descriptions ever: "lawyer diorama," "leather coat: fuschia"). 

These days, with so much information coming at every angle on every screen, scandals like ones involving quasi-famous people can feel a little nebulous, and occasionally trumped-up on slow news days.  But for someone like West who works so directly in the outlets generating these articles, what floats across my screen is how she pays her rent, and her recall of those hazy-to-me stories amounts to what, in my world would look like: "First I sent that email, then I wrote that grocery list, then I got dressed, and now here we are!" Whereas it looks like one big internet dust cloud from my daughter's bed where I am scrolling my feed as I put her down for a nap, it's literally all in a day's work for this woman.

Lindy West shrilling out.  Source: her website
Granted, many of these news items we read now feel offensively non-newsy, click-baity, or just plain gossippy: Jezebel is (was?) a sister site to Gawker, after all.  I'm not here to debate how effective West is or was at moving the cultural needle, although from her point of view, she has been successful at bringing much needed attention to issues like fat-shaming, abortion-shaming, and rape culture in our country. 

What I marvel at is how explicit and unapologetic and direct she is about all of this.  Some of the book read to me as: "This bad thing happened, I attacked it in X, Y, and Z ways, and then this sort-of better thing that's not quite a full resolution but is a foot in the right direction happened."  She's saying this all very publicly, in a book where some of her publicity photos show her holding a bullhorn, and I find that remarkable. I don't even draw those lines through my successes in my journal at night. 

Also, to her credit, she seems extremely aware of her movements.  At one point in her book, when talking about the body image recovery she underwent after discovering "fat-positive" tags online which she started "furtively clicking like a Mormon teen looking at Internet porn" she writes:

"Studies have shown that visual exposure to certain body types actually change people's perception of those bodies - in other words, looking at pictures of fat people makes you like fat people more. (Eternal reminder: Representation matters.)"

Lindy West.  Source: this article that talks about a feud that fascinated me in her book, Shrill

In the first section of the book, she addresses her body image problems as a child which she describes getting over in a humorous list so laden with peculiar turns of phrase I didn't always know what was going on.  But I soon settled into her prose and some of my favorite parts of the book were the personal ones.

I got a pretty big kick out of her mother, especially.  Of her parents, she writes:

"Dad was the entertainer, but I'm funny because of my mom.  She has a nurse's ease with gallows humor, sarcastic and dry....When I was little, a neighbor opened a small temping agency called Multitask and, in an early stab at guerilla marketing, purchased a vanity plate that read, 'MLTITSK.' Around the house, my mom called him 'M.L. Titsky.' Later, just 'Mr. Titsky.'  Empirically, that's a great riff."

I've already covered the anti-gallows-humor kind of mom I am very lucky to have, but I would definitely like to spend time in a house with the mom who comes up with that joke. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"No" Is My Spirit Animal

"Like dancers, none of us gets over that figure we see in the practice mirrors: ourselves.  Choosing your twin gives you that reflection forever - or as long as it lasts.  Perhaps SL will leave me for one reason or another, but he will never go away: I see myself in him and he in me, except that for him our twinship is essentially private and silent.  So how do I justify putting our we-ness out in the world by writing about it?  I can't.  It's something I've always done; SL accepts this in me: half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it.  I wrote about my first kiss more fully than I lived it.  I wouldn't know what I looked like in relation to SL, my twin, if I didn't describe in on the page."

- Hilton Als in "Tristes Tropiques"

One of my friends recently "taught" the Michael Jackson essay in White Girls, a 2013 book with one of the greatest covers I've seen in a long time: serious and dramatic and artistic all at once.  When she told me she was reading the book, it made me want to revisit it.  I had already tried my hand at White Girls once but was, admittedly, put off by my background knowledge of Als as the theater critic for The New Yorker, a magazine my southern identity brushes up against forceably with uncomfortable results. 

Remembering the electric, down-in-the-depths-of-the-library-stacks feeling I had while reading John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead made me want to give White Girls another try. 

Als' prose has its own weight and rhythm.  I like this description of his work, from Literary Hub ("Als is a master of consideration, rarely grasping for conclusions and instead commenting on the state of things with his deep knowledge of cultural theory, always rebounding with a very-Hilton, remarkably reflective mood").  Once I committed to White Girls, my whole being felt taken through a pipeline to some velvety, synapse-rearranging place where I became slightly smarter for the hours I was in his hands.  Then I basically lost that connection once the book was closed and all I could remember was: I had to think hard reading that.  

But I loved that quote: 
"It's something I've always done...half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing about it," and I remembered it for weeks after reading it.  The older I get, the more writing is one of the few things that makes any sense to me.  Reading, writing, making food and eating it, and spending time with my family are some of the only activities I have the bandwidth for right now, in addition to basic exercise and fresh air.  It took a long while to get to acceptance of that fact.  Once I did, though, once I realized that all the activities that used to make me happy, like drawing or going to yoga class or watching movie, were actually somewhat of a burden if I insisted on them too much as a mother, life got really simple.  At the same time, some force of internal life started to expand, breathing in the new space. 

No, No, No, No has become my internal mantra over the past two years, as I've adjusted to raising a child and the presence, and surrender, that requires. 

"No" is my spirit animal, drawing a deep line in the sand around me that I find very comforting right now.  Inside that line, there's a lot of room for whatever I want to put there.  It took becoming a mother to take myself seriously enough to put up those healthy fences, a fact I don't love but it's also okay. 

Hilton Als.
(Source: Interview)

In a wondrous essay about Eminem called "White Noise," discussing the lyrics to "Kim" from The Marshal Mathers LP, Als writes:

"The operative word here is 'look.' Given Mathers' background where all eyes were turned on Mom as she made scenes, could Mathers feel he was real?  That he existed? Moms and bullies sucked all the air out of the room.  In order to be heard, he did what born writers do: he learned to listen - to himself, and to others, to stories."

The lines that connect my life with Eminem's are so far apart there's probably some planetary term to describe them as bodies that will never orbit in the same stratosphere.  I wasn't bullied, I wasn't harassed, and my mom is such a delightful person many of my friends at one time or another have joked she should move in with them and be there every day when they wake up.  However, I love that idea: Born writers learn to listen: to themselves, and to others, and to stories. 

To that I say: Amen. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Whole Art

Over the summer, I read a piece in Garden & Gun by Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron who was the author of Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, and The Confessions of Nat Turner.  About Styron senior’s devotion to a special type of Virginia ham he prepared, the article was called, of all things, “My Father’s Ham.”  It was accompanied by an antique-y looking photo of a curing room that I wasn’t ready to explore because I associate whole sides of ham with Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was June, July, finally August.  

After several rounds with the issue, hiding it intermittently from Samantha who is obsessed with a recurring Caribbean ad inside its first pages, I finally got around to reading the piece and something about its tone haunted me. 

Then, earlier this fall, while reading the new anthology Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers, I came across an exquisite essay by Alexandra Styron, an excerpt from her book Reading My Father. Suddenly, I wanted to read every.single.thing I could by her.  Now.  

I feel embarrassed that I haven’t read
any William Styron and in fact was only dimly aware of some of his highly lauded work. A friend of mine from college once told me Sophie’s Choice was her favorite book ever, but warned me that it would basically destroy me with sadness.  If you can imagine, I didn’t dive right into reading it. 

What I loved about Styron’s essay in
Every Father’s Daughter, though, and wanted more of, was her relationship to the man who labored successfully as a writer but was distant, tempestuous, and sometimes downright scary as a father.  I didn’t want to know about these details for the whiffs of scandal they might provide in the story of a famous family, but rather because in her writing, Styron is such a compelling narrator, especially as a child.  Reading her essay, I felt so much for her. I wanted to be closer and hear what she had to say. 

In her book Reading My Father, she writes:

“Until 1985, my father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one…(If there was a golden rule in our house when I was growing up, it was, unequivocally, “Don’t ask Daddy about his work.”) First and foremost, my father was a novelist. ‘A high priest at the altar of fiction,’ as Carlos Fuentes describes him, he consecrated himself to the Novel….With a kind of sacred devotion, he kept at it, maintaining his belief in the narrative powers of a great story – and he suffered accordingly in the process.”

She also writes:

“Descendants of the so-called Lost Generation, my father and his crowd, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw, embraced their roles as Big Male Writers.  For years they perpetuated, without apology, the clichĂ© of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century-literature a muscular, glamorous aura.”

And while I loved the education about this particular time in American literary history (you better believe I ate up confirmation that Norman Mailer was every bit of the nut I thought he was), what I came away with more than anything was a sensory experience of what it was like to be a little girl in that environment.  The Styrons lived in Connecticut but had an open, interactive communication line to New York City where her parents kept an apartment and where the family spent holidays being led in carols by Leonard Bernstein at his apartment.  I don’t have an excess of glamour in my life but I did grow up in Connecticut in a town that was heavily influenced by New York City, a place we frequented when I was growing up.  No matter what was happening in the narrative, it was comforting for me to imagine the homes, the weather, the horses, the sweaters and button-down shirts of rural, yet urbane Connecticut, and to hear about all of it from someone as trustworthy and present a narrator as Styron ends up being in her memoir.

She writes about her shock that her mother knew about a child of good family friend, Arthur Miller, a child who was institutionalized and never talked about:

“Until 2003, when Martin Gottfried wrote about Daniel in a biography of Arthur, there was no public reference to him anywhere, including Arthur’s six-hundred-plus-page autobiography,
Timebends.  That my parents were complicit in the conspiracy of silence troubled me long after I had begun to make some sense of it.  It affirmed my suspicion that here, among all these people who traded in great truths, keeping secrets was still the coin of the realm.  And that one could spend a lifetime examining the human heart but remain personally, confoundingly, unexamined.  If you were good enough at the former, the world would always forgive you the latter.”

In case it sounds like this book is full of dirt on her father and his friends, I think the better thing to say is, at times it reminded me of Susan Cheever’s meticulous portrait of the Transcendentalist community in Concord, Massachusetts in her wonderful book American Bloomsbury, about Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louise May Alcott, although it is also, of course, a highly personal account of growing up with a famous artist father. 

True to its title,
Reading My Father is mostly about William Styron and his family, but in writing about him, Alexandra paints a portrait of a fascinating, destructive, highly masculinized time in American letters, and does so with expert research, as well as a flawless tone:

“The archives at Duke went a long way toward bringing my father back for me.  He came alive in all that paper, the medium in which he lived most purely.  I was utterly charmed by the soldier writing home to his father.  I communed with the funny and profane young writer abroad.  And I ached with maternal sorrow for the grieving boy who couldn’t shed well-earned tears.  All those words irrigated the arid soil that was my past.  Up sprung life in fresh stalks.  Voice, flesh, smell.”
Throughout the book, Styron takes a long, hard look at her father’s recurring depression, a subject which I feel personally unqualified to discuss at length, because everyone’s emotional terrain is deeply personal, and also because I am not a medical expert.

I do have some experience in the upkeep of mental
wellness, however, which for me includes tenets of nutrition, meditation, yoga, and creative expression, as well as any and every type of therapy you could want: massage, talk, girlfriends, art, baking, decorating, exercise, yada yada.  While reading about Styron senior’s battles with mental illness, I was several times reminded of something I read in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, a book I previously wrote about here.

Speaking about the vulnerability being an artist requires, and the blues that can swoop in on anyone at any point in their life, Mitchell says:

“There comes a point where you just kind of bleed onto the pages….Maybe it’s best to face your inner self in your teens when your body’s strong….In other cultures, that would be called a shamanic conversion.  In this culture, it would be called a nervous breakdown.  Your nerves are on fire.  Since we’re not a shamanic people, we don’t realize that sharper senses are coming in.”

Later in the book Mitchell says:

“In retrospect, I’ve learned that depression is necessary for growth….You couldn’t be a novelist without sensitivity, without a sense of detail.  And you can’t be deep without sensitivity.  And emotionality, God, without emotionality in the arts, it’s merely intellectual.  It’s boring, except to an intellectual.  If you’re trying to make a whole art, you really need all of those things.”

I love that phrase: a whole art.  I put about seven sticky notes next to that graph when I read it and then drove around for days wondering how the title of Wilco’s album
The Whole Love plays into that phrase.

If you listen to this Dear Sugar episode, you’ll hear India Arie talk about her take on this very topic of breakdown and breakthrough.  She says:

“The truth is, it wasn’t that I came to a point of realizing that I wasn’t living my truth, it’s that I came to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  And that’s the point, that you feel something different than what you’re living.  You feel the rub, and I always felt the rub.  I always felt it all along, but then it got to a point where I kept having health issues and ulcers and skin eruptions and I finally just had a breakdown.  And I still went on for a few moments after having a breakdown.  Now in hindsight I look at it as my personality and my soul separating so that my soul could say “No” to these people [managers, her business team, etc.].  But at the time it just felt like a nervous breakdown.”

Finally, there’s a somewhat amazing interview with Paul Simon on World CafĂ© in which he says something only Paul Simon could say about David Bowie: that he might not have been a terrific songwriter but rather he was a great performer.  He also talks about how the drum sound was recorded in the song “The Boxer,” and plays some new songs including “Wristband” which I found to be a pretty powerful song, particularly for this time in our history where so many longstanding systemic oppressions are coming to light in our culture.

That is all, my friends.  Thank you for taking a small trip down Connecticut lane with me. If you are aching for a few more female voices in your life right now, I highly recommend Reading My Father or even Every Father’s Daughter, which I’m only halfway through but which won me over right away with its introduction by Philip Lopate, because I would read a grocery list written by Philip Lopate.  Before having a child, I didn’t quite “get” anthologies.  They felt contrived and random to me.  Now that my days are sometimes scrambled and life is a chaotic (whole) mess, I’m coming around.  Anthologies now feel like cocktail parties introducing me to voices I haven’t heard before, like Melora Wolff, who stole the show for me in Every Father’s Daughter, or parties reuniting me with beloveds like Ann Hood, whom I wish would move into my house and wear cozy slippers and cook soups while reading aloud to me from whatever she wants.

(All drawings by Tim, as requested by Samantha)