R.I.P. Anne Meara

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Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara

If you look at Anne Meara’s IMDB page, you will see that unlike other elderly actors (especially actresses), there is no “gap” in her career. There are no “off” years. She had steady reliable gigs, a couple a year, many recurring roles in successful television shows, interspersed with movie roles and theatre, starting in the mid-1950s up until last year (her last credit listed was 2014). When she showed up in something, you remembered. Like all great character actresses and comedians, she could do anything. She often played harried busybody mothers, but she could twist that type to be amusing or monstrous, depending on the material. I think the first thing I saw her in was Fame when I was a kid. She made an impression. She played Mary, Samantha’s mother-in-law in Sex and the City. The two characters did not have a cozy relationship, a good relationship, and the final arc for Mary in the final season was a descent into dementia. Two scenes stand out: Mary has come to live with Samantha and her son. It is not going well, but Samantha realizes that this is her family now, Mary is ill, family has to take care of one another. And the scene I remember is Mary, naked in the bathtub, eyes closed, enjoying the sensation of Samantha washing her back. Extremely vulnerable work from Meara. And then there was one scene when Mary gets lost in the streets and Samantha finds her eating a piece of pizza out of a trash can. “It tastes like garbage,” Mary says, confused, almost irritated, she doesn’t understand why a nice piece of pizza tastes like garbage. It was heartbreaking.

Mary was a small character part in a juggernaut of a show, but Meara brought a stature to that arc, a scope, as well as a fearlessness that helped the series as a whole. She always did that. Whatever she was in, she helped elevate. She was always part of an ensemble, she always fit herself in to whatever story was being told, and she did so brilliantly.

Married for 60 years to Jerry Stiller. I love that picture of the two of them above. Mother to Ben Stiller. You can read more about her career in the New York Times obituary.

She always worked. It is my favorite kind of career.

Rest in peace.

Posted in Actors, RIP | 1 Comment

The Books: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing; “Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double: Why there are always two”, by Margaret Atwood

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, a collection of a series of lectures, given by Margaret Atwood, about writers/writing.

Over the past year, I’ve been doing what I call my Shakespeare Chronological Reading project, making my way through all of his works based on the alleged timeline of the plays’ first appearance. I’ve done this once before, about 15/20 years ago, and I am really enjoying it. You can see him develop as a playwright. You can see him make mistakes in one play, realize the mistake, and then correct it in later plays. (My favorite example is Richard III, a breakthrough for him. You can FEEL the breakthrough when you read the plays chronologically. Richard III features a lead character who is in every scene. He never gets a break. Actors have been completely undone by playing that role, one of the most vigorous and challenging in the canon. King Lear, at least, has breathing space in between scenes: he’s not in every scene! Shakespeare seemed to realize his mistake – he was, after all, an actor – and so in later plays, none of the lead characters appear as much as Richard III does. He gives the actor time to catch his breath backstage. It’s a beginner’s mistake.) I’m on King Lear right now, which I thought of when I re-read this Margaret Atwood essay on “the double” – she references King Lear a couple of times, as well as Shaksepeare’s recurring themes of doubling, twins, and disguise. King Lear is full of doubles. (Shakespeare, on the whole, is obsessed with doubles. They’re a very useful storytelling tool. Comedy of Errors has not one set of identical twins, but TWO sets of identical twins, causing much mayhem and confusion.) King Lear has two old men, fallen from grace: Lear and Gloucester. Gloucester has two sons, the legitimate Edgar and the “bastard” Edmund – siblings with polar opposite personalities. Regan and Goneril are interchangeably evil, and it’s worse because there are two of them. They are twice as monstrous together as they would be alone. And then, multiple characters taken on disguises in the play, which is also a doubling. Edgar pretends to be a mad man, the “beggar Tom”. Kent disguises himself as an old madman. When they all meet on the heath, they do not recognize one another. There’s more, including the mirror that Lear holds up to Cordelia’s mouth at the end, to see if breath fogs it. Another kind of doubling. The play is so perfectly and devastatingly constructed. It’s relentless. Shakespeare used “doubling” for comedic results – in Twelfth Night, with the twins, and As You Like It, with girls running around dressed as boys, wreaking havoc (not to mention the actual Duke being mirrored by the Fairy King and Queen in the forest – a court at home, a court in the forest).

Margaret Atwood is obsessed with doubles as well, not only in literature itself, but in the writer’s life, in the pursuit of the craft itself. There is the regular human being, and then there is the writer persona. She explores that explicitly in the wonderful Lady Oracle, where the lead character splits off into a mysterious Other when she writes. Other stuff comes out, the truth, stuff that would be unlivable to the regular human being. I imagine that this becomes even more acute when a writer becomes famous, as Margaret Atwood is famous. She says that if she had known any better when she was young, she would have been like Thomas Pynchon, who never had an author’s photograph on any of his books, never did interviews, never asserted “who he was” as a civilian. He wanted the books to speak for themselves. He still does. Once everyone knows what you look like, it is harder to hide, and writers need to hide, they need the privacy of that hiding in order to do the tough work of writing.

Atwood is a WILD writer with a WILD and brutal imagination. As her non-writer self, she’s a partner, a mother, a regular person. She’s not this wild-woman living a wild life. Her life is pretty stable. She obviously prefers it that way. But there is that divide, and the divide fascinates her. Coincidentally, it is a divide that obsesses Jeanette Winterson as well, who became famous very young, and had to deal with the lack of privacy, and the demand of fans who wanted her to weigh in on every issue, etc. She had become a “public figure” and it did not suit her personality at all. She prefers being a hermit. She prefers making stuff up and creating a persona, being a trickster, she does not wish to be nailed down in the way her readers wish to nail her down (“So you ARE Villanelle in The Passion, right?”) So … it’s a problem. Some writers use pseudonyms, in order to create the privacy they need, a frank acknowledgement that there is the Person, and then there is the Writer.

Literature is so full of famous doubles that obviously Atwood is not alone in her obsession, and this essay/lecture is all about that. There’s the most famous, perhaps, Jekyll and Hyde, but think of all the others. Dostoevsky’s novella The Double is a gorgeous and terrifying story about a man who realizes he has an evil double running around. (If you haven’t seen the movie, starring Jesse Eisenberg, I highly recommend it! Totally under-seen, under-rated.) Joseph Conrad wrote a similar story called The Secret Sharer, about a sea captain who takes a castaway on board, hiding him in his cabin, and he gets the creepy feeling that the castaway is somehow … him. It’s truly eerie. Because we think we are unique, yes? We assume that we are the only one of us. How terrifying then is the doppelgänger. Alice, of course, goes through the looking-glass (Atwood talks a lot about Alice). There, in fairy-tale form, Lewis Carroll puts the writer’s position plain: There is the regular Alice, on the regular side of the mirror, and then there is the other Alice, through the looking-glass, where fantastical things happen, and she is the Star of her own Story, as opposed to shuffled aside. Atwood says that the moment of creation, of writing, is like the moment when Alice steps through that mirror. The selves are blended, the worlds are blended, there is no more divide. (In Lady Oracle – it’s been years since I’ve read it, so I may get some details wrong – the lead character stares into the mirror and does “automatic writing,” and words flow from her pen that she would never ever say in a more conscious or civilized state, where we are meant to “play well with others,” and soft-pedal the truth of who we are in order to get along, etc. It is the mirror that helps make that happen.)

It’s a really thought-provoking essay with many different parts. Atwood starts off by saying that she grew up without television. Of course. She was born in 1939. Her entertainment as a child was comic books. And, naturally, comic books are FILLED with doubles. Superman and Clark Kent. Batman and Bruce Wayne. Captain Marvel and Billy Batson. As a child, reading these stories, Atwood just GOT it, as all children do. Children are small and powerless, and yet inside – their lives are as huge and as important as adults. There’s a divide. Superheroes represent a wish fulfillment for a child. I may seem weak and small and flawed, but at night I fly over the city with a cape. These stories launched Atwood’s imaginative capabilities. She knows she is not alone in that, and she moves forward to make the connections between those comic book heroes and the Jekylls and Hydes that fill our literature from almost the very beginning.

Excerpt from Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing: “Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double: Why there are always two”, by Margaret Atwood

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde owes something to old werewolf stories – the ordinary man who is transformed into a fanged madcap, given the right conditions – but it also owes a great deal to old stories about the Doppelgänger. Robert Louis Stevenson was far from being the first to have taken an interest in this species of duplicity. Identical twins – not quite the same thing as doubles – have always attracted attention. In some African societies they were killed, to ward off bad luck, and we still find something uncanny about them: perhaps such exact replication suggests to us a denial of our own uniqueness.

I remember twins first catching my attention through an advertisement in a magazine, when I was twelve. This advertisement was for a home permanent known as a Toni, and it showed two identical girls, each with waved hair. The slogan was, “Which Twin has the Toni?” – the idea being that one of them had a cheap home perm and the other one had an expensive salon job, and nobody could tell the difference. Why was it that I suspected fraud? Perhaps because of the suggestion that one twin was somehow the original – the authentic, the real thing – of which the other was merely a copy.

Twins and doubles are a very old motif in mythologies. Usually they are male – Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Osiris and Set – and often they struggle for dominance. They can be associated with the founding of a city or a people, though often one twin or double does not fare so well as the other. In his book on human sacrifice, The Highest Altar, Patrick Tierney would have it that the successful twin represents the living society, and the unsuccessful one his dark alter ego – the one who was sacrificed and then buried under the cornerstone in order to deal with the Underworld, propitiate the gods, and protect the city.

Twins or twin-like siblings continued to exert a fascination into the age of “literature” – Shakespeare’s good Edgar and bad Edmund, in King Lear, or, for less drastic effect, the two sets of identical masters and servants in The Comedy of Errors. But the double is more than a twin or sibling. He or she is you, a you who shares your most essential features – your appearance, your voice, even your name – and, in traditional societies, such doubles were usually bad luck. According to Scottish folklore, to meet your own double was a sign of death: the double was a “fetch,” come from the land of the dead to collect you. The ancient Greek story of Narcissus may be connected with a similar superstition about seeing your double: what Narcissus sees is his own reflection – himself, but a self on the other side of the watery mirror – and it lures him to his death.

Those who have taken an interest in the Salem witch trials in seventeenth-century New England will be familiar with the concept of “spectral evidence,” which was accorded the same legal status as more tangible exhibits, such as wax effigies stuck full of pins. Witches were supposed to have the ability to send out their “specter,” or incorporeal likeness, to do their dirty work for them. Thus if someone saw you in the barnyard hexing the cows and you could demonstrate by witnesses that you were home in bed at the time, what was proven was not your innocence, but the fact that you had the ability to project your own double, and were therefore a witch. (It was not until spectral evidence was barred from the courts that the New England witchcraft trials finally ended.)

Among the things that fascinated the early Romantics were folk-stories and folklore, so it is perhaps through this door that so many doubles got into the literature of the Romantic and post-Romantic periods. The atmosphere of these “double” stories and their many descendants is usually delirium and terror – as moviegoers will recognize if they’ve seen, for instance, such “double” films as The Stepford Wives, The Other, or Dead Ringers. One of the earliest English-language literary “double” stories of this type is James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), in which the protagonist – convinced he’s predestined to salvation, and is therefore free to sin as he likes – wakes from what he thinks is a long sleep to find that a man who looks just like him has been doing nasty things, for which he himself will have to take the blame. Poe’s story “William Wilson” (1839) is similar: the protagonist is haunted by a man with the same name who looks exactly like him, and functions as an interfering conscience. Our hero ends by killing the other William Wilson, thereby killing himself: like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the two William Wilsons share their mortality, and one cannot exist without the other. Later in the nineteenth century, Henry James has a more psychological “double” story: in “The Jolly Corner” (1909) an American aesthete returns from Europe, and becomes convinced that his former house is inhabited, not by an exact replica of himself, but by the ghost of what he would have been if he’d stayed in America and become a rich tycoon. He stalks this shadow, finally confronts it, and is horrified: his potential self is powerful, but he’s a brute, a monster.

Then of course there is Dorian Gray, he of the magic picture. Because the artist who painted the picture put too much of something or other into it – himself? His repressed passion for Dorian? – the picture is partly alive. It takes on the effects of age and experience, while Dorian (a golden boy, and related to the ancient, pagan Greeks, as his first name suggests) is freed from the consequences of his own cruel and depraved actions, remains young and beautiful, and is able to sin and collect objets d’art as much as he likes. He isn’t an artist or a writer – nothing so banal. His life is the work of art, and a decadent one at that. But when he finally decides to be good and to destroy the picture, doom falls. He can’t maintain his vow of virtue; realizing that the picture is his conscience, he sticks a knife into the canvas, the picture is restored to youth, and Dorian perishes. He and the uncanny picture have changed places, and Dorian now looks like what he really is – a degenerate old man. Motto: if you’ve got a magic picture, don’t mess around with it. Leave it alone.

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“New York, New York, a helluva town. The Bronx is up but the Battery’s down.”

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On the Town, for real.

This photo above was just the tail-end of a much larger group. 7:30 p.m., last night, headed out onto 42nd Street. Thank you all for your service. It’s always so good to have you all visit.

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Happy Birthday, Margaret Wise Brown

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Born in 1910, Margaret Wise Brown always wanted to be a writer, but her journey towards the phenomenal, almost unprecedented success she eventually achieved, was a bit sideways. She went into education, she was always interested in children’s books, and was disheartened by what she saw out there in the published world for kids. She had other ideas: Maybe there doesn’t need to be an overt Sunday School lesson in children’s books. Maybe what a small child who is learning to read really wants is a quiet book of sweet observations that is somehow connected to what the child looks around and sees in his or her own life. After getting her degree in education, she worked as a teacher, and eventually became connected to Harper & Brothers, as an editor of children’s books. From there, she started to write.

Margaret Wise Brown died very young, and unexpectedly (from an embolism) at the age of 42. She crammed a lot of life into that time. An interesting and bohemian woman, independent and intelligent, clear-thinking and creative. Along with Goodnight Moon, she also wrote The Runaway Bunny, another hugely popular children’s book, although it is Goodnight Moon that is the real show-stopper.

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Very few things are perfect, and Goodnight Moon is perfect.

Goodnight light
And the red balloon
Goodnight bears
Goodnight chairs
Goodnight kittens
And goodnight mittens
Goodnight clocks
And goodnight socks
Goodnight little house
And goodnight mouse

That is a list of objects. That’s it. Very straightforward, almost banal. But a whole world comes into view: not just of the objects itself, but of the love infused in such objects. The love that is present in the known and the familiar. And so the book becomes like a child’s prayer (“And God bless mummy and daddy, and God bless Jasper the dog, and God bless my flowers and my fishbowl …”) It is a compulsive list, a child’s list of all the objects in sight, but so full of love your heart might burst.

And I am not overstating things when I say that the final three lines give me goosebumps every time I read them.

Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere

Happy birthday, Margaret Wise Brown.

Good Night Moon is one of the most successful children’s books of all time.

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Posted in Books, On This Day, writers | 7 Comments

Love at First Fight (2015)

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Don’t let the bad title stop you from seeing it. The French title is much better: Les Combatants. This is a French rom-com. I really really liked it.

My review of Love at First Fight is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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The Books: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing; “Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is ‘a writer,’ and how did I become one?”, by Margaret Atoowd

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, a collection of a series of lectures, given by Margaret Atwood, about writers/writing.

I discovered Margaret Atwood in college. It was The Handmaid’s Tale that got me hooked. I read her poetry collections (Power Politics: Poems terrified me), and her short stories and other novels. Some I responded to more than others. Lady Oracle is hilarious. I am not sure Margaret Atwood gets enough credit for her humor, which really is everywhere in her books, grim as most of them are. I read Surfacing, an earlier novel, as well as her first novel, The Edible Woman. I remember talking with my friend Jackie about Surfacing, saying I wasn’t all that crazy about it, and Jackie agreed, saying, in classic Jackie fashion, “Your father’s dead, honey. Put your clothes on.” Ah, humorous friends. For a while there, any new Margaret Atwood book was greeted with terrific excitement. She was like John Irving for me, a contemporary author whose books were events! As important as The Handmaid’s Tale is, I think Cat’s Eye is her masterpiece. Still. But then at some point, I lost interest. It was around Alias Grace: A Novel, a celebrated novel, which I just could not finish. Maybe I should give it another shot. Sometimes one does out-grow authors. It happens. But still, I love her, and anyone who wrote something as magnificent as Cat’s Eye will always have a place in my heart. That was the book through which I could see my own life, my own childhood friendships, “being a girl,” the whole thing. Boy, does she nail it. I wonder if men stay away from Margaret Atwood. They shouldn’t. In my opinion, she is far harder on women than on men.

Her background is well-known. She was born in 1939, to somewhat unconventional parents. Her father was an entomologist, and her mother a nutritionist. She spent her childhood summers traveling with her family to bare-bones hunting/fishing camps throughout the wilds of Canada, so that her father could conduct his studies. She did not have a “girlie” childhood. Her early formative years were not spent being socialized to girlishness in the suburbs/cities. Her early years were spent playing with worms, sleeping in cabins, fishing, and rolling around in the mud with her brother. It was when they moved to Toronto that she was introduced to the treacherous world of girls. This is the subject of Cat’s Eye. Perhaps it was because of her somewhat outsider status, and the fact that her parents were independent-minded people … maybe that was one of the things that helped create the “writer” in Atwood. She entered a brand-new world at age 9, 10 … and did not know the rules at ALL. Girls were a totally foreign territory to her. She knew how to deal with boys. Girls? Terrifying.

Atwood has written a lot about the total lack of a “literary scene” that had a Canadian identity. What was a “Canadian identity”? It was nothing. You were British. The books were British. The publishers were British. There were no literary magazines focusing on Canadian-ness. It was a completely vacant landscape, creatively. No set-up, no formal world to enter into. Atwood, and other writers like her, in that generation, had to create the Canadian literary scene. And they did. But it was an uphill battle, and Atwood can be quite vicious about the “provincialism” of Canada. The “who do you think you are” of the title of this essay comes from an Alice Munro short story, and that title pretty much sums up their experience of Canada’s attitude towards anyone who is different/special.

In 2000, Atwood was asked to give the Empson Lectures at the University of Cambridge. 6 lectures, for the general public, but also students and scholars. The focus on writing and literature. Those lectures are compiled in this beautiful little volume called Negotiating with the Dead.

It’s a wonderful book, not just in terms of her memoir-writing (I love it when she writes about her own childhood and adolescence) … but also because of her descriptions of the books that she loved as a kid, the books that transported her, the prudish intellectual landscape of Toronto, where sex was so forbidden that literature itself was hobbled. Because even in the classic books there’s a ton of sex. So what is a prude to do?

I love hearing writers talk about their own imaginative process, and I especially love hearing them discuss the writers who inspired them.

The following excerpt is from the first lecture Atwood gave. In it, she lays out her own background, for those who may not be in the know. Her childhood, the bugs and worms and mud, and then the treachery of girls and how it blindsided her. The conventions of Toronto. How one day, when walking across a field, age 10 or so, she wrote a poem in her head and then wrote it down later. And from that point on, she never thought about being anything else. It was that random.

Here, she describes going to university. 1957, 1958. People are starting to divide up in groups. It’s fascinating, how she describes it. And add onto that the “Canadian-ness” of it …

I find her language hilarious. Biting, yes. Cutting and somewhat mean. But still: very funny.

Excerpt from Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing: “Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is ‘a writer,’ and how did I become one?”, by Margaret Atwood

I was seventeen; the year was 1957. Our professors let it be known that we were a dull lot, not nearly as exciting as the war vets who’d come back a decade earlier, filled with hard experience and lusting for knowledge, and not as exciting either as the lefties who’d caused so much ferment in the thirties, when they themselves had been at university. They were right: by and large, we were a dull lot. The boys were headed for the professions, the girls for futures as their wives. The first wore grey flannels and blazers and ties, the second camel-hair coats, cashmere twin-sets, and pearl button earrings.

But there were also the others. The others wore black turtlenecks and – if girls – black ballerina leotards under their skirts, pantyhose not having been invented yet and skirts being mandatory. These others were few in number, often brilliant, considered pretentious, and referred to as “artsy-fartsies.” At first they terrified me, and then, a couple of years later, I in turn terrified others. You didn’t have to do anything in particular to inspire this terror: you just had to understand a certain range of likes and dislikes, and to look a certain way – less manicured, paler in the face, gaunter, and of course more somber in your clothing, like Hamlet – all of which implied you could think thoughts too esoteric for ordinary people to understand. Normal youths sneered at the arrestees, at least at the male ones, and sometimes threw them into snow banks. Girls of an artistic bent were assumed to be more sexually available than the cashmere twin-set ones, but also mouthier, crazier, meaner, and subject to tantrums: getting involved with one was therefore more trouble than the sex might be worth.

What the artsy-fartsies were interest in was not Canadian literature, or not at first; like everyone else, they barely knew it existed. Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation had hit the scene in the late 1950s and were well known through the pages of Life magazine, but they hadn’t made as much of a dint in the arrestees as you might suppose: our interests were more European. You were supposed to be familiar with Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill for the dramatically inclined, and the Steinbeck of Grapes of Wrath, and Whitman and Dickinson to a certain extent, and Henry Miller for those who could get hold of a smuggled copy – his works were banned – and James Baldwin for the civil rights crowd, and Eliot and Pound and Joyce and Woolf and Yeats and so forth as a matter of course, but Kierkegaard, Steppenwolf, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Ionesco, Brecht, Heinrich Boll, and Pirandello were the magic names. Flaubert, Proust, Baudelaire, Gide, Zola, and the great Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – were read by some. Occasionally, to shock, someone would claim to like Ayn Rand: it was thought to be daring that the hero rapes the heroine and the heroine enjoys it, though that was in fact the subtext of a good many Hollywood movies featuring spats, slaps in the face, slammed doors, and clinches at the end.

For a country that was supposed to be such a colony, so firmly – still – in the cultural grip of the crumbling British Empire, contemporary British writers had a fairly small toehold. George Orwell was dead, but read; so was Dylan T Thomas. Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook was admitted to by a few very formidable women, and read in secret by a lot more. Iris Murdoch was just starting out, and was considered weird enough to be of interest; Graham Greene was still alive, and was respected, though not as much as he was later to become. Christopher Isherwood had a certain cachet because he had been in Germany when the Nazis were on the rise. The Irish writer Flann O’Brien had a small but devoted following, as did Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. The real British impact was being felt through a subversive radio program called The Goon Show, which had Peter Sellers in it, and another Monty Python precursor called Beyond the Fringe, known through – as I recall – a recording of it.

The first artistic group I got involved with was the theatre folk. I didn’t want to be an actress, but I knew how to paint sets, and could be dragged in to act, in minor parts, in a pinch. For a while I designed and printed theatre posters as an alternative to working in a drugstore; I wasn’t really very good at it, but then, there wasn’t much competition. The artsy group was small, like the artsy group in Canada itself, and everyone connected with it usually fiddled around in more than one field of activity. I was also pals with the folk-singers – collecting authentic ballads and playing such instruments as the autoharp were in style – and through them I absorbed a surprisingly large repertoire of plangent lovers’ laments and murderous gore-filled plots, and truly filthy ditties.

All of this time I had been writing, compulsively, badly, hopefully. I wrote in almost every form I have since written – poems, fiction, non-fiction prose – and then I laboriously typed these pieces out, using all four of the fingers I have continued to employ until this day. In the college reading room I was able to obsess over the few thin literary magazines – I think there were five – then published in the country in English, and wonder why the poems in them might be judged by some white-bearded Godlike editor to be better than mine.

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Bye, David Letterman

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Before the (relatively) early-morning screening I was attending this morning, I swung by Caroline’s Comedy Club. Just to see. I knew there would be something there, some sign, some acknowledgement, and there was. Caroline’s is only a couple of blocks south from the Ed Sullivan Theatre (on the opposite side of the street). Dave has always been there. I’ve attended his show a couple of times. I’ve watched since I was a kid. I love him. It’s really the end of something. Not just his show, but an era. I feel sad about it. The various tributes have been beautiful.

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My Favorite Week in New York City

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Fleet Week! We are overrun with sailors. I look forward to it every year and there were a couple of years when I worked in a building on the waterfront when I got to see all the ships come up the Hudson, an awe-inspiring sight, especially the ones where all the sailors in white were standing along the decks, in neat rows, at attention. Crowds of people gather every year to watch the ships arrive. It’s a happy week. It’s always good to have them all here.

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Supernatural Season 10, Episode The End, Open Thread

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The Books: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery; ‘The Semiotics of Sex,’ by Jeanette Winterson

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On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, a collection of essays about art by Jeanette Winterson.

Jeanette Winterson’s celebrated first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was a memoir, which goes a long way to describing her ego. Ego is not a bad thing. You need one as an artist, and you need it to be healthy, strong, and resilient. She had a story to tell, about her childhood, being a little girl adopted by a couple in Manchester, who were evangelical proselytizers. She grew up in near-poverty, and was sent out into the streets every day, with religious tracts to hand out to the worn-down populace. These were not educated people. They were her parents. Her mother was somewhat monstrous, and abused Jeanette, locking her out of the house on freezing cold days, and basically emotionally terrorizing her. But the little girl was resilient, and the little girl discovered reading. It helped keep her alive, it helped her fantasy-world take on more reality than the real world. That was a good thing, not a delusional thing. It helped save her life. The little girl was also not … girlie enough … or Winterson sensed early on that she was somehow … “different.” Eventually, she got a scholarship to Oxford, and off she went into the clear blue yonder. The writing of Oranges is what is superior about it. It is immediately apparent that you are in the presence of that very very rare thing in literature: a unique voice. It is Winterson’s voice that matters, that resonates, although people of course focus on “what happens” as well.

In Winterson’s mind, focusing on “what happens” ONLY, to the exclusion of all else, is a dumb thing to do. Dumb because then you cut yourself off from the wellspring of the whole tradition. If you only focus on “what happens” in any given book, and you need that to align with modern-day conceptions of language and political correctness or identity politics or correct views of gender, or whatever … then you are basically saying “I am only comfortable reading books written in the last 25 years.” You are saying that you don’t need to read King Lear. You are saying that T.S. Eliot has nothing to show you. You are saying that Huckleberry Finn is irrelevant. Camille Paglia has been writing about this for 30 years now, and if anything the situation is even more dire now: it’s reaching its Baroque stage, with students declaring they cannot read Ovid because they find it “triggering.” The word “trigger” has been extremely helpful for victims of assault and soldiers who have seen combat, but it is now being used to describe any mildly uncomfortable or even upsetting experience. It is lessening the usefulness of the word, and it’s happened so quickly! You’re SUPPOSED to be “upset” by certain books. Being “upset” is not being “triggered.” But I’ll leave that rant for another day. I can only pray that the phase passes soon, and we will look back on this “trigger” nonsense as one of those weird trends that happen sometimes and thank God that silliness is all over with.

Because of Winterson’s sexual orientation, she gets lumped in with lesbian writers. Orange won a prize devoted to LGBT literature. She did not turn the prize down, of course, but she dislikes the implications, especially from fans who only read books written by Queer writers, who have no concept of the grand sweep of the canon, because that was all written by straight white males, and what can we learn from THEM, and on and on. Winterson refers to herself as a “pervert,” as opposed to gay, or lesbian, and is in favor of a more fluid and imaginative presentation of identity. Orlando is the book that changed her world, that opened up the possibilities for persona and gender and sexuality (not to mention literature), and you can see its influence everywhere in her writing.

In the essay “The Semiotics of Sex” she takes on the narrow-mindedness of those in sub-groups who are only interested in listening to people from the same group. It’s interesting but if you limit yourself like that, then you actually limit your thoughts, your ability to think. It’s like those who only watch Fox News. Propaganda is used because it works. And gay interest groups can be just as rigid and unforgiving as reactionary right-wing groups. Just as exclusive. Winterson fights against that. There is no reason that straight people should not read Virginia Woolf, and there is no reason that gay people should not read Mark Twain.

I’ll tell a little story and I won’t name names. After the reading of my script at the Vineyard, I was approached by a hugely successful producing team. They were at the reading and they pulled me aside in the lobby. They were so enthusiastic. Their enthusiasm was genuine. The following week they took me out to lunch to discuss. They have had a lot of success (like Tony Award success) with gay plays. My play is not a gay play. It’s about a straight couple. And one of the guys said to me, “Is there any possibility you could re-think the play as a gay story? We could sell it no problem.” I have no idea what the expression on my face was, but I am sure it was something in the realm of “What did you just say to me?” because he said, “Just a suggestion.” The same guy said, “I also have to admit that I felt a little left out watching your play. Like, maybe the two could attend a gay wedding or maybe they have gay friends or something – it could just be a line or something – nothing big … I just know I felt a little left out.” I have often wondered if I made that comment up, but I know I didn’t. I was polite, and said that sure, I would think about it, interesting point (while inside I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? Over my dead body.”) There is not at all a dearth of gay plays right now. As a matter of fact, maybe 90% of the plays produced in NYC right now have gay characters, gay themes. The whole thing went down very politely and it was an okay meeting (nothing came of it) but I called my cousin Mike as I left the diner, literally – as I was walking out the door, and said, “Listen, I can’t have any more of these lunches. I need an agent, like, YESTERDAY. What do I do?” I had no business sitting at that table. That is what agents are for. 2 weeks later I had lunch with one of the best agents in the business, who had flipped over my script, really got it … and I moved on. But it was extremely illuminating. It’s a very New York scene thing. I hesitated to write about this initially because, of course, those two men were wonderful and were in love with the script, and their backers and financial people would be more inclined to support a gay play, that’s their reality. They would know how it sell it if it was about two gay men. That was realistic on their part (although surreal from my side of the table). I also hesitated to share it because maybe it makes it sound like I’m like, “Gay plays? Ew!! Who wants THOSE?” Which of course I’m not saying at all. But I wrote what I wrote, and I was thinking of my script as part of the tradition of other male-female two-person plays (Frankie and Johnny, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Two for the Seesaw, Same Time Next Year, and on and on and on), and that’s the genre my script belongs to, so sell it according to THAT, not according to what it’s NOT. (Ultimately, what that meeting revealed was that those guys were not the right fit for my play. No harm no foul.) Those were two casual comments that were part of a much larger conversation that went on for a couple of hours. But it really gave me a lay of the land. Two straight people fucking and fighting made one of those guys feel “left out.” Now I can watch Love Valour Compassion and not feel left out. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to “seeing myself” onstage than gay men are (although, as I mentioned, that is no longer true at all when gay plays dominate the New York theatre scene). I can watch a war movie and enjoy it, even though there are no women in it. I love Moby Dick even though the only women in the story are the broads who ladle out the clam chowder in the beginning chapters. But this guy seemed truly taken aback that there wasn’t one reference to him and his group in the play. If I had been sarcastically inclined, I might have said, “Well, I don’t mention South Koreans either. Or Inuits. Or people with scoliosis.” Not everything is going to be inclusive of every single thing. Elementary, right? Obviously, his reaction is emblematic of larger issues, of the grouping-together of minorities into small sub-cultures (for extremely valid reasons!), and the long history of total ERASURE that such groups have experienced. But the end result can be that sort of weird not-getting-it-if-it’s-not-about-you thing.

Studies have been done showing that women, on the whole, are more “adventurous” readers than men. I imagine that that’s because from a very early age, in school, the majority of classic books you have to read are by men. Listen, I’m not complaining. Those Dead White Males wrote some of the best books ever written. So women are trained to be able to look at the world through male eyes, and not see a problem with it. The opposite, however, is NOT true. I cannot tell you how many people I love and respect who list their “what I read this year” book lists and it’s all male authors. They don’t even realize it. A blogger I love actually realized that he didn’t read any books by women, and devoted an entire year to only female authors. He read everything: popular literature, classic literature, avant-garde stuff. I was so psyched for him and psyched that he had the wherewithal to recognize his own blind-spot. There was a huge brouhaha a couple of years ago when the AV Club put together a list of the 50 best films of the last 50 years or something along those lines. It was a group endeavor, the entire staff was involved in putting together that list. And on that list, there was not ONE film directed by a woman. NOT ONE. This is blindness. It’s not necessarily malevolent, it’s just … blinders. And what’s even worse was that not once along the way of putting together that huge piece did anyone say, “Huh. Where are the women?” Okay, fine, if you want to put together a list of the greatest films from 1910 to 1940 … then fine, you get a pass. There were women directing then, but just not as many. But since 1950 or whatever? You have no excuse. Kudos to the AV Club folks for being truly chagrined once the error was pointed out to them. They seemed truly embarrassed. This is an example of being erased from the culture, and women (and other minorities) are right to call that shit out for the bullshit that it is.

Taken too far, though, and you get into tokenism. “We need a woman just so we can check off that little box and not get bitched at for it.” Gross.

Winterson gets frustrated with the focus on sex and sexuality. As she says in the excerpt below, she reads Oscar Wilde not because he is gay but because of the “depth-charge” he provides. If you boil someone down to who they choose to fuck, you are limiting yourself. Who someone chooses to fuck is often the least interesting thing about them. What matters is the writing itself. Is the writing good? Do you respond to it? Does it address something that you feel is true about life? Winterson refuses to participate in a queer culture that rejects T.S. Eliot because of his Catholicism or his politics or his sexual orientation. She has no interest in cutting herself off from anything that may inspire, challenge, heal.

But I’ll (finally) give her the floor.

Can you tell I love this book?

Excerpt from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery: ‘The Semiotics of Sex’, by Jeanette Winterson

It is through the acceptance of breakdown; breakdown of fellowship, of trust, of community, of communication, of language, of love, that we begin to break down ourselves, a fragmented society afraid of feeling.

Against this fear, art is fresh healing and fresh pain. The rebel writer who brings healing and pain, need not be a Marxist or a Socialist, need not be political in the journalistic sense and may fail the shifting tests of Correctness, while standing as a rebuke to the hollowed out days and as a refuge from our stray hearts. Communist and People’s Man, Stephen Spender, had the right credentials, but Catholic and cultural reactionary T.S. Eliot made the poetry. It is not always so paradoxical but it can be, and the above example should be reason enough not to judge the work by the writer. Judge the writer by the work.

When I read Adrienne Rich or Oscar Wilde, rebels of very different types, the fact of their homosexuality should not be uppermost. I am not reading their work to get at their private lives, I am reading their work because I need the depth-charge it carries.

Their formal significance, the strength of their images, their fidelity to language makes it possible for them to reach me across distance and time. If each were not an exceptional writer, neither would be able to reach beyond the interests of their own sub-group. The trust is that both have an audience who do not share the sexuality or the subversiveness of playwright and poet but who cannot fail to be affected by those elements when they read Rich and Wilde. Art succeeds where polemic fails.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of heterosexual readers who won’t touch books by Queers and plenty of Queer readers who are only out to scan a bent kiss. We all know of men who won’t read books by women and in spite of the backlash that dresses this up in high sounding notions of creativity, it is ordinary terror of difference. Men do not feel comfortable looking at the world through eyes that are not male. It has nothing to do with sentences or syntax, it is sexism by any other name. It would be a pity of lesbians and gay men retreated into the same kind of cultural separatism. We learn early how to live in two worlds; our own and that of the dominant model, why not learn how to live in multiple worlds? The strange prismatic world that art offers? I do not want to read only books by women, only books by Queers, I want all that there is, so long as it is genuine and it seems to me that to choose our reading matter according to the sex and/or sexuality of the writer is a dismal way to read. For lesbians and gay men it has been vital to create our own counter-culture but that does not mean that there is nothing in straight culture that we can use. We are more sophisticated than that and it is worth remembering that the conventional mind is its own prison.

The man who won’t read Virginia Woolf, the lesbian who won’t touch T.S. Eliot, are both putting subjective concerns in between themselves and the work. Literature, whether made by heterosexuals or homosexuals, whether to do with lives gay or straight, packs in it supplies of energy and emotion that all of us need. Obviously if a thing is not art, we will not get any artistic pleasure out of it and we will find it void of the kind of energy and emotion we can draw on indefinitely. It is difficult, when we are surrounded by trivia makers and trivia merchants, all claiming for themselves the power of art, not to fall for the lie that there is no such thing or that it is anything. The smallness of it all is depressing and it is inevitable that we will have to whip out the magnifying glass of our own interests to bring the thing up to size. ‘Is it about me?’ ‘Is it amusing?’ ‘Is it dirty?’ ‘What about the sex?’ are not aesthetic questions but they are the questions asked by most reviewers and by most readers most of the time. Unless we set up criteria of judgement that are relevant to literature, and not to sociology, entertainment, topicality etc., we are going to find it harder and harder to know what it is that separates art from everything else.

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