Hazlitt Magazine

Paper Faces on Parade

Sanctioning the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher.

Perverts Like Us

There was a creative storytelling aspect to sex, and a form of intimacy we didn’t share with boys.

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‘There Are Plenty of Readers For Whom Plot is Not the Be-All and End-All’: An Interview with Eimear McBride

Talking to the author of Strange Hotel about the tolerance and patience of readers, writing “difficult” books, and the urgency that comes with age.

Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and its follow up, The Lesser Bohemians, were dazzling reminders to the mainstream anglophone literary scene that fiction could still be a language event. Innovative and uncompromising Bildungsromane tracing the formative, furtive, often brutal experiences of their young female protagonists, both books were distinguished above all by the shattering linguistic inventiveness of their first-person voices. McBride’s prose was protean, agitated, and exquisitely receptive, intent on barrelling past mere communication toward a state of total visceral embodiment. Here were sentences and sentence-fragments that seemed wired into the very nerve-ends of their protagonists, capable of registering their every minute physical and emotional perturbation. Strange Hotel (McClelland & Stewart), by contrast, is written in the third person rather than the first, in sentences that, while still rich with McBridean obliquity and a forensic attentiveness to the subtle, incessant fluctuations of the senses and the mind, nonetheless more closely approach conventional syntactic units. But even a more traditionally shaped McBride sentence is rife with inimitable turns of phrase and is still intent on interrogating to the limit what can be registered and expressed in language. If the self is sui generis, requiring, as in McBride’s first two novels, the total breaking apart of language in order to remake language in the self’s own singular image, what does that mean for a self that remains within the boundaries of what might be called conventional expression? Is that self seeking expression, an image of itself, at all? Does it want to be seen? And if not, why not? That self, the protagonist of Strange Hotel, is a woman with a name we do not know and about whom, in many respects, we get to know very little. What we do know is that she is approaching middle age, and that whatever her occupation is—several passages in the book emphasize it has something to do with language—it requires her to travel extensively. A list of cities transitions the reader from one scene to the next. Each scene takes place in another hotel room in another city. The present tense action consists of little more than the woman ordering wine from room service, idly considering if the drop from the balcony would be sufficient to kill her, or watching the sleeping back of a one night stand; what preoccupies her is her past, and the distance, geographically as well as temporally, she might achieve from it in the purposeful anonymity of these hotel rooms. There is something she wants to forget, or more precisely, not remember: "… allowing memory, or any of its variables, admittance is invariably a mistake. Nonetheless, and even knowing that much, time makes a ladder of her anyway." This interview was conducted via phone call in early June. * Colin Barrett: In the opening scene of Strange Hotel, a woman walks into a hotel room in Avignon and suddenly realizes she has been here before. This mundane cosmic coincidence opens a rich seam of memory in her. As she tries to recall the particulars of her previous stay, we come to realize that she is trying to keep other memories at bay, and that she is trying to achieve that by being hyper-focused on the present. As the book proceeds, we see her traverse an endless chain of hotel rooms. Did this premise come first, or did it emerge out of your sense of this particular character, who is capable of elaborating at length on certain things, but being scrupulously reticent about others? Can you even make a distinction between the premise and the characters on one hand, and the writing style on the other? Eimear McBride: I find it quite hard to separate them out. Writing is a complete process of discovery beginning to end. I don’t arrive with the plot ready, or the characters, or the style in which I want to write. It all emerges in a sort of rush and mess together, and it’s my job to pick my way through it and make sense of it. Strange Hotel originally started as a short story, which is unusual for me because I’m really not a short story writer, and clearly, I’m still not a short story writer [laughs]. At the beginning I felt there was a gain in going against what I’d written in the past, and so rather than use fractured perspective, narrative, and syntax to bring the character closer to the reader, I wanted to use language in a really different way. I wanted to write about someone using language as a means of creating distance, not only with the reader but within themselves. It was fun being contrary about that because there had been some criticism of how opaque my other books were, how difficult they were. So it was fun to use really formal, correct, linear sentences, where everything was correctly punctuated, in order to show how even straightforward language doesn’t actually aid communication. I’d written two books about much younger women and I felt the language they were written in really conveyed urgency, that experience of life when you’re young, the almost overwhelming nature of it. In this book the protagonist is someone who is not very inclined to be overwhelmed, who wants to keep her distance, who doesn’t want to be very close to her memories or her pain or to the people around her. Somebody who is going to be much older. And so I realised early on I would be writing about a middle aged woman instead of a young woman. Even though the book is written in the third person, and the reader sees the woman from “outside” herself, there is still, by conventional standards, a paucity of expositional detail about who she is and what her backstory is, to use an industry term. We don’t know her name, why she is in any of the places she is in, etc. Holding back that information while writing in the third person presents its own challenges. What was it that compelled you to make the decision to write this way? I thought, “I’ll have a go.” Of course it’s not proper third person at all, it’s close third. The reader is allowed into her thought process as it’s going along, which is why there is no explanation, why she is thinking the things she’s thinking, and you just have to pick up what the details are, what the backstory is, in the way that you do when you think about your life, when you think about something that happened. You don’t think about the things that led up to it, that’s not how the thought process works. In a way we take lots for granted, our understanding of ourselves. So part of the challenge was to make sure there was enough there to suggest to the reader the bigger picture, but at the same time not succumb to that convention of the character looking in the mirror, describing how they look, etc. That makes sense. I mean, when we are experiencing our memories, thinking about our past, we don’t do so in an ordered, detailed sequence, the way it tends to be delivered in stories. Another trait of the character, and the writing itself, is the heightened attention, the granular focus, she gives to even the completely mundane and generic fixtures in and around the various hotels she’s staying in, the way the light falls on a hallway wall through the slats on the windows, the difference in textures between the filters of British versus European cigarettes stubbed out in the sand on the beach… She does not prioritize deep thoughts. She is not interested in cultivating great moments of revelation, or thinking about works of art or anything profound. What I was interested in is the diplomatic thing the eye does when it falls on anything, it gives the thing the attention it wants to give it, rather than the attention that thing might or might not deserve. Character is the thing I’m most interested in, and how language serves that. In this case, there is a character who is not interested in feeling. At the moment I’m feeling exhausted by how much feeling everyone is having all the time, and how much shouting there is going on, on the internet, etc. Everyone is expressing everything all the time. It was a relief to write about a character who wasn’t interested in making sure everyone knew how she felt. She is someone who is really, really quite preoccupied with not being at the mercy of her emotions. So it was really about writing a book that was about thinking about feeling, rather than feeling itself. The book does definitely have a plot, and she definitely does have a backstory, but her history is revealed in brief, allusive glimpses rather than in chunks of direct exposition. You said you think of character first; in relation to the reader did you agonize over that stuff, about how explicit you should be in fleshing out the character? Did you always know what the key points of her past were, or did it surprise you as you were writing it? It did surprise me. It’s something I always thinks about in the second draft more than the first draft. You can’t just write what you’re writing, you have to be a writer. You are aware of wanting to be read, and while you don’t cater to what you think the reader’s expectations will be, at the same time you have to acknowledge that you are not really writing it to put it in the drawer. You have to give enough to the reader to allow them to make the picture for themselves. But it is very hard to assess that, the writer’s instinct has to try and gauge that, and you can’t know whether you’ve gauged it correctly or not until it’s published and people read it. They understand or they don’t understand. But I think it’s an impossible thing to plan for. I do think that readers are far more tolerant and patient than they are given credit for, and all the faff to get Girl published and all the publishers who thought no one would ever read a book like that, it was proved that that was not the case. There are plenty of readers willing to have a go. It’s not that they necessarily love it or want to read lots of books like that, but they enjoy being obliged to engage with writing in a different sort of way, not just the usual, “Here’s the story, here’s the characters, here’s what happened, the end.” I think there are readers for whom process is enough. It’s not about the big finish. Readers are interested in character. It’s the endless fight isn’t it, the pushing, pushing, pushing, the prioritisation of plot above all else, but there are plenty of readers for whom that is not the be-all and end-all of the reading experience. It’s okay for some books not to have to engage readers in that way, although you’d think from the reaction of the critical press it was the most terrible thing you can do to a reader, expect them to pay attention to a book. That interests me. And I hope there’s enough weirdos out there like me, who are also interested in that! I wanted to ask about the treatment of time. It’s a short book, it traverses huge expanses of time and space, taking place all over the world and over a number of years. Yet each scene takes place in a kind of cool, dead, parenthetical interval, where on the surface nothing much is happening. Things have happened to the character, but each time we see her she is stuck in the present, in nowhere, a kind of nowhere time. When you’re younger, you don’t think about time, and when you’re older things become more urgent. Things feel like they have already slipped by, things have been missed, and I suppose in the midst of the travelling and the hotel rooms there is the idea that wherever you go and however freeing the anonymity is, there is, ultimately, no escape from the self—your self—that is continuing to move through time whether you want it to or not. She really would prefer time not be moving on, not because she doesn’t want to be older, not because she wants to be a young woman again, but because, as becomes clear, she feels that everything that is going to happen has happened. She is seeking a kind of stasis. What she can control is her interactions with other people and so she is seeking to stop the possibility of all that, of future intimacy and closeness. She wants to stop time within herself in a bid to hold herself close to the time that was once meaningful. She’s stuck. She does not want to move on, but also is trying to barricade herself psychically against the encroachment of her own past. She seems to be pursuing the idea that she can will herself into anonymity, disintegrate her personality, allow it to take on new shapes, or no shape at all. But the more she tries to do exactly that, the more she seems to loop back to her foundational concerns, to the matrix of her personality… I think she wishes she could do that. She is able to dissolve herself to a degree, but continuously returns to this very firm sense of herself. That sense of self doesn’t necessarily follow, or isn’t expressed, in all the usual markers of identity, like family, job, financial status, but it’s still there, this fundamental knowledge that she cannot escape, even though she wishes to. I don’t think of the self as being amorphous. While there are all these markers of identity that we display as emblems of self, beyond all that there is a harder, darker, colder bit, right at our centre. A bit that maybe we find harder to live with, but it is the bit that counts, that never changes, that never becomes anything else and which is quite hard to deal with. Lastly, the book got me thinking about hotels. In the book they function as as these sort temporal waystations, outside of time almost, where the protagonists can think about time, her own experiences in time. And above being either luxuries or expediencies, that’s what hotels are, these interstitial spaces that operate by their own logic of time, outside of ordinary time. Wherever you go a hotel operates on hotel time, and you really begin to feel it if you stay in one for more than a handful of nights. You can go get a drink, or have a swim or whatever if there’s a pool, but it’s all preset, on a loop… it gets weird after a time. A hotel is a place you go to wait. You are waiting for a thing to happen, or you are waiting to leave. Eventually, you realize that it’s just you in a space, and there’s nothing else. You don’t have to go cook the dinner, or help with homework, or walk the dog, there’s nothing to distract you. You are a body floating in space, in this anonymous space, just being yourself, and either engaging with that self or trying not to engage with yourself. You don’t have to do anything, that’s the rationale behind a hotel, you don’t have to do anything. I don’t know how comfortable most people are with that... Maybe you should have to make your own bed when you arrive! It would be something to do. Well, that would invest you in some way, into the experience of the room. You realize there’s a whole machinery working around you; of people that are invested in their jobs, in their relations with their co-workers, the welfare of the guests, but you—the guest—are not part of that. You are outside of all that. You are the reason everyone is there. But you yourself, you have no reason.
Paper Faces on Parade

Sanctioning the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher.

It has been three months since the murder. At the insistence of a shadowy tutor, the neglected ingénue Christine Daaé has been catapulted to stardom. Toggling between her and their (exhausted and exhausting) resident diva La Carlotta, the Opera Populaire has seen a period of quiet, comfortable success: a bustling box office and contented patrons, tepidly applauding familiar, easy repertory French farces such as Il Muto—works that feature but do not challenge their new star or the city’s bourgeois sensibilities. Three months of relief and of delight—no more ghosts, and no more notes.And then the Phantom returns.Crashing their New Year’s Eve masquerade in exquisitely bad taste, the Phantom delivers the manuscript for his new project: a feverish, frenzied adaptation of the story of a damned lothario, Don Juan Triumphant. The score, the hostage company discovers, is a cacophony of discordant, unpleasant wails and jangles; the enclosed sketches for its set design are a lugubrious nightmare; its projected “hero” is a sex pest who is finally swallowed by the Hell he has certainly earned in an end that no audience will ever mourn. Amid the Phantom’s tyrannical and absurdly sedulous demands (beefing with the orchestra’s struggling third trombone, body-shaming the chubby male lead), the cast reacts in horror. Ugly, unsingable, barely music or theatre at all, the tasteless Don Juan will certainly be laughed off the stage. In a sequence added to the 2006 film adaptation by director Joel Schumacher, Miranda Richardson’s Madame Giry—the dance instructor who once saved the young Phantom and is, bizarrely, the only character in a film set in Paris who speaks with a French accent—breaks down in a hallway as our stalwart romantic lead Raoul (played by a staggeringly handsome Patrick Wilson) comforts her. She weeps for the young boy she saved: “He is a genius! An architect, a designer, a composer, a magician! A genius!” “Yes, Madame Giry,” dim, sweet Raoul says soothingly, “but clearly genius has turned to madness.” * I turned thirteen in the summer of 1997—deeply closeted and, headed in the fall to an all-boys Catholic private school far from the suburbs, about to become more closeted still. The key to surviving in the closet is plausible deniability. You frequently do not really need to pass; you just need to provide adequate cover, and signal a sufficient threshold of shame. The Nineties superhero comics that littered my bedroom—rife with rippling male physiques, full of gooey alien symbiotes menacing a half-naked Peter Parker, Superman’s clothes-shredding pietas, and the queer idylls of Charles Xavier’s welcoming school for the different—always had the optics of simple, normal, four-colour escapism, and so they survived a household that insisted by dizzying turns on suffocating religious devotion and paralyzing macho gruffness. It was under these conditions that on my birthday—a teenager at last—my best friend and I went to the Cinema 8 in Pickering, Ontario, to see Batman & Robin. From the opening shots, it was very clear something had gone horribly wrong; as the montage smash-cut from close-ups of male crotch to buttocks and back again, I felt, with a horrible sinking feeling, as plausible deniability seeped away like so much alien goo. I returned home that night with a feeling I’d never felt in a movie theatre and whose meaning I struggled to coordinate: I felt ashamed. I slunk into the basement, using the dial-up modem on our ancient Hewlett-Packard (which I mostly used to play endless hours of multiplayer DOOM 2) to log onto AintitCoolNews. My cheeks still hot with confusion, I found the review I’d been scrupulously avoiding because of spoilers. I read Harry Knowles say this: “First, let me say that Joel Schumacher should be shot and killed. I will pay a handsome bounty to the man (or woman) who delivers me the head of this Anti Christ.”Over the next months, the film and its director rapidly became a punchline. In an episode of Batman the Animated Series, a lisping, mincing teen wrapped in a feather boa under a sign that says “Shoemaker” squeals with delight when he hears some other kids talking about Batman: “I love Batman! All those muscles, the tight rubber armor, and that flashy car—I heard it can drive up walls!” The other teens roll their eyes: “Yeah, sure, Joel.” Knowles meanwhile spearheaded a blitzkrieg of frothing bad press for the film, himself penning 52 separate negative reviews riddled with his characteristic homophobia and misogyny (the paparazzi dubbed star Alicia Silverstone, whom they felt had been insufficiently sexualized in the role, “Fatgirl”), and it bombed egregiously with critics and fans alike, tanking not just the franchise but badly damaging the studio as a whole. I may have felt ashamed, but the film hadn’t. And I learned a little more about what being unashamed can cost. * A fluffy, tufted gorilla suit makes its way clumsily through a crowd of oafish glitterati. It seems to be just part of the party’s awful, kitschy tiki-pastiche décor, but once the lumbering ape reaches the dais, with a sinuous, sensuous slink on the soundtrack, the beast begins to gyrate, and the crowd turns to stare. One glove slips off, then another, exposing elegant, manicured hands, and at last the fursuit falls away to reveal not just a woman, but the woman, blowing a kiss that leaves the striptease’s audience—onscreen and off—under her spell.It is the showstopping cabaret number in Blonde Venus, the 1932 Cary Grant vehicle that introduced German émigré and bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich to American audiences. But it is also, shot for shot, the introduction of Batman & Robin’s villainous Poison Ivy—played by Uma Thurman, who oscillates wildly between a broad, aloof Mae West drawl and a mousy, twitchy academic, without ever clarifying which is the real and which the drag (Ivy twice disguises herself by pulling on a “wig” of Thurman’s own hair, while in the front seat her enormous goon Bane discreetly dons a chauffeur hat over his bio-mechanical luchador mask). In her Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag credits one of the term’s earliest definitions to Isherwood’s The World in the Evening: “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”; in its Blonde Venus burlesque, then, and in the animated series’ cruel mockery of its director, Batman & Robin takes camp almost to its absolute taxonomic source. But Isherwood also there warns that camp cannot exist without a profound appreciation and close reading of its target: “You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. […] You're expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love.” Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (like Batman Forever, the film that preceded it) is a film in delirious love with its subject, and that subject is the goofy, gay beauty of the modern myth of the superhero. Overt in its desires and its delights, the film stares with incredible, lingering longing at Chris O’Donnell’s bedewed lips, submerges the cold, aloof Bruce Wayne beneath the warm, kind smirk of George Clooney (a Batman who smiles!), and—most unforgiveable of all—it put nipples on the bat-suit. I will tell you the secret of why Batman’s nipples so enrage its critics: because the charade is over. The swells and dips of the lovingly sculpted male torso can be explained, and therefore explained away: these muscles are the site of masculine power; they speak, surely, of strength, of solidity and unremitting training. It is no accident that every femme fatale in Batman’s cinematic rogues gallery fans her hands across these rubberized zones, seeking the chink in the armor. But the male nipple has no such function, no exculpatory capacity for war; the nipple is the site of weakness, of sensitivity—and of pleasure. Plausible deniability is gone. Put a nipple on the batsuit, and you admit to having fun.Unproductive fun, perverse fun, queer fun—the Schumacher Batman films are, in Jonathan Goldberg’s analysis of a parallel vein in queer texts by Shakespeare and Marlowe, sodomitical, wholly uninterested in the patina of virtuous grimaces or generative reconstitutions of order (grim and grimy and gritty—the superhero equivalent of making love missionary-style through a bedsheet) and instead reveling in the spectacular and preposterous (a term that literally means “putting the ass first,” which is indeed both a Renaissance euphemism for gay sex and also literally how the films’ glorious butt-shots kick off their action). It is not just this celebration of the beauty of the male form that marks Schumacher’s auteurism, but a wild, debauched excess of style and narratives that foreground the displaced, lost other. From Jim Carrey’s Riddler’s obsessive, yearning lust for Bruce Wayne to Chris O’Donnell’s martial arts laundry skills to a neon-noir Gotham City peopled by Day-Glo supermodel pompadour gangs, the films are wall-to-wall pageantry and faggotry, and they do not apologize for it. Instead, they create a sensitively observed and minutely detailed love-letter to the wry surrealist goofiness of the 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward series that had saved the property from obscurity and catapulted Batman so immovably into pop celebrity, and itself made by a rogues gallery of Sixties counter-cultural icons. Indeed, Carrey’s zany hyperkinetics—clad in gorgeous crystal-studded leotards and with dazzlingly acrobatic cane-work—pay meticulous homage to Frank Gorshin’s own Riddler, whose giggling fiendishness nearly earned him an Emmy. “Remember,” Schumacher was fond of saying to the actors on set, “you’re in a cartoon!”This style is not without its critics. Even on-set, Carrey struggled to connect with cackling co-villain Tommy Lee Jones; pleading to be liked, Carrey says he cornered Jones, who told him openly he detested the man—then, needled for more to go on, looked Carrey dead in the eye and rasped: “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”* Schumacher’s broader oeuvre, even in films with budgets in the hundreds of millions, is consistently obsessed with the outsider, the misfit, the buffoon. His early endeavours include cult classic musical Sparkle (the prototype for Dreamgirls), followed by Car Wash—a film now infamous for queer icon Lindy, who responds to being called a “sorry-looking faggot” with an imperious “who’re you calling ‘sorry-looking’?” and rejoinders “I am more man than you’ll ever be, and more woman than you’ll ever get.” In 1978, Schumacher penned the screenplay that took the quintessential American myth—The Wizard of Oz—and transformed into a critique of the American effacement of Black culture and labour: The Wiz. There, even the thoughtlessness of L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow becomes a fable of systemic oppression, as the crows make the painfully sensitive dummy sing a song of their own devising about his own misfit uselessness that keeps him helpless upon his perch; when he doffs his hat to Dorothy, his head is not empty, but to her horror has been filled up by those who would keep him docile with “garbage.” The critics that revile Schumacher ignore that he was perfectly capable of making tight, hardboiled films—the impossibly taut Phonebooth, the dismaying hopelessness of Falling Down—and instead just as often would, like Bartleby, prefer not to. The Lost Boys may be a shrewd glance at the AIDS crisis and at the rootlessness and poverty of so many young queer lives, but the film is also a roaringly energetic comedy that delights in chaos and cute moody boys and loud, rowdy found family. “Take off that earring; it doesn’t suit you at all,” the mean-spirited young brother hisses at the breathtakingly beautiful male lead Jason Patric (whose vampiric style now trends to the androgynous and whose resemblance to Jim Morrison is emphasized by a matching dissolve), then adds with a sneer: “Have you been watching too much Dynasty?” By film’s end, however, the two have made peace and forged an acceptance of Michael’s outré new alternative lifestyle: “You’re my brother, even if you are a vampire.” The malevolent father figure (played by Edward Hermann with the same avuncular dweebishness he brought to Gilmore Girls), however, who tries to reinstantiate the stability of heteronormative family, is quite thoroughly and satisfyingly exploded. As an artist, Schumacher recognized there is something important, transformative, and transcendent about joy as resistance; he had as instinct what every poor NYC club kid knows: the revolution, when it comes, must be opulent. He extended this interest in underdogs to fostering underseen talent, launched the careers of many of Hollywood’s best-known faces, shepherding the Brat Pack, Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Colin Farrell, Gerard Butler, Matthew McConaughey, and many others into the public eye, frequently sacrificing established bankability to mint a new star. Pop singer Seal credits Schumacher with turning “Kiss from a Rose” from relative obscurity to karaoke staple, while Jim Carrey, whose buffoonery Schumacher had sanctioned not just in Forever but in Number 23, said that Schumacher “saw deeper things in me than most and he lived a wonderfully creative and heroic life. I am grateful to have had him as a friend.” Remembering working with him on Phantom of the Opera (in which she plays the past-her-prime diva), Minnie Driver meanwhile recalled this week that “once, on set, an actress was complaining about me within earshot [about] how I was dreadfully over the top (I was).” Driver said that Schumacher “barely looked up from his New York Times” and replied: “Oh honey, no one ever paid to see under the top.” * The climaxes of Don Juan Triumphant and Phantom of the Opera itself dovetail in a final number—“The Point of No Return,” in which the Phantom replaces the murdered lead actor Piangi as Don Juan (himself disguised, in the tissue of the play, as his own servant, Passerino, to effect a last cruel “seduction” before his damnation). The company knew if his opera was staged, he was certain to attend, and have laid traps for him—everywhere except onstage. Now they watch, helpless from the wings, as he stalks opposite the ingénue who consumes him, intent to abduct her at last. The moment is badly, almost fatally, under-imagined in stage productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, with the Phantom in a black shroud, completely illegible, and the stage half-heartedly dressed with a dinner table to facilitate a cheap disappearance trick at the end: a pretty melody, wasted.In the film, however, Schumacher transforms it into a shocking, bizarre set-piece: the stage, ablaze with a hideously avant-garde depiction of the hell-mouth that has come to swallow Don Juan to his damnation. Surrounded by expressionist cut-outs of flame and jarring tilted-angle smash-cuts to sweaty flamenco dancers moving with jerky arrhythmia, the Phantom (here restyled as a beautiful baroque toreador) and Christine now climb up parallel winding staircases to Hell, as the score palpates and whirls with bleats and trumpeting and the theatre’s patrons recoil in visible confusion and disgust.The coup de grace is the Phantom, whose disguise is no disguise at all: Gerard Butler’s own face, in a mere domino mask, only revealed in close-up at the last second of his unmasking to be part of an elaborate hair-and-makeup prosthesis to conceal his othering disfigurement. His disguise ripped away—Passerino is not Don Juan is not Piangi is not the Phantom is not even the handsome “real” of Gerard Butler—he slices through a cord, plunging down the onstage shaft of Hell with his prize as, from above the crowd, the chandelier falls to crush the paper-fire set and consume the Opera Populaire and its screaming, tacky arriviste audience in gouts of burning wreckage. This week we lost Joel Schumacher. He was a denizen of the NYC queer underground, a department store window-dresser, a fashion designer, a screenwriter, and finally one of cinema’s most iconic and reviled directors. He was eighty years old.He left the audience disgusted, and the theatre aflame.
‘You Can Sing an Alternate Reality’: An Interview with Sasha Geffen

Talking to the author of Glitter Up the Dark about Savage Garden as entry-point to fandom, missing shitty clubs in the midst of a pandemic, and Britney Spears’s communist reblogs.

“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability,” the New York Times critic Jack Gould fumed in 1956. “His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway.” In their new book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, the slyer critic Sasha Geffen notes that he could’ve just called Elvis a male bimbo. Geffen scours a century of music for these glinting crystals, from 1920s blues singers to early synth experiments, Beatlemania to grunge, with Prince as a genre unto himself. Even the most harmonic among them carried notes of dissonance, rupturing the carefully gendered voice. Geffen invokes canonical artists with wan mischief—“Titless, he struts like he’s got his tits out for all to see,” they write of Iggy Pop—and keeps finding curious historical details, like how Klaus Nomi settled on his abstracted outfit because a full costume would’ve been too expensive. They also hit on the ways capitalism tries to recuperate each moment of subversion: “If it can’t get rid of them, patriarchy tends to devour its threats.” But that process never moves in only one direction, and Glitter Up the Dark lovingly describes the affinities drawn together by the act of listening. “Inside a song,” Geffen writes, “every singer is exactly who she says she is in the moment her voice passes through her throat.” Chris Randle: After the prologue where you talk about early modern American music, like, the blues, Harlem Renaissance people, why did you decide to start the book with the Beatles, and specifically their first pop covers? Were you looking to invert the canon? Sasha Geffen: I don't know if it's an inversion, necessarily, but I wanted to point to a moment that I saw as the beginning of pop culture and fandom as I think it still is now. This gathering of attention around a band on a mass scale, with heavy consumerism involved too. And I thought the Beatles were a pretty reliable starting point when it comes to pop as a mass cultural phenomenon, because even though pop is 50, 60, 70 years old, depending on when you want to mark it, that's the first time that someone makes dolls out of a band that I could find. Action figures, wigs, merch. And it also seemed to be a sea change in the way that fans oriented themselves around bands, taking bands as these objects that generated identity. So it wasn't that I see the Beatles as the beginning of pop music, because they're not, but they did seem to mark a shift that made a good starting point for this discussion. Yeah, my sense is that, at least before World War Two, stardom didn't work in quite the same way. Like, more often the songs would become famous and the stars would be Artie Shaw, or whoever. Right, it feels like the song was more the defining unit of liking pop music. And the Beatles came along in a decade where the teenager had just been established as a post-war phenomenon, where there was all this money concentrated in the hands of young white people, and a lot of capitalists were eager to draw it away from them by any means possible [laughs]. And Elvis kind of started with that too, but I think the Beatles really raised the stakes to another level, the level of urgency around Beatles fandom was unparalleled at the time. Even just, like, the hair. I actually love how much attention you lavish on that [laughs]. It's more interesting than the music, I think. Just the way they looked is so fascinating, it's so specific. There's an old Hannah Black tweet that went, "Gender is 50% hair." It's true. It's the first thing that people notice when they see you. Do you remember a moment earlier in your own life when you saw a music video, or heard a song on the radio, and sensed everything turning liquid in that way? Yeah, I can tell you my Savage Garden origin story! That was my first experience with fandom, and it's really dorky. When I was maybe nine or ten years old, I was really into being online, and went to all these different goofy fandom things, games, virtual pets. That whole '90s culture of having your own colorful home page: "Here's this GIF of a cartoon cat that I adopted from someone else's website." And one of the sites I went to had this auto-playing MIDI rendition of the Savage Garden song "Truly Madly Deeply." I would hear it every single day, and I didn't know what it was, and it was just a melody without lyrics so you couldn't look it up. Then I was on a plane, listening to the looping airplane radio, and that song came on, and I was like, holy shit, it's the song from the cat website that I visit all the time. There was a pre-recorded announcer who identified the band as Savage Garden, so I went home—I think one of their newer songs was playing on the radio too, from the second album. So I convinced my parents to buy me both albums, and I had this ritual of putting in the first self-titled record, the little orange CD, into my mom's computer right before I would go online, and go into my chat rooms pretending to be this gender-morphing fantasy creature. I think that voice triggered something in me for sure, because Darren Hayes's voice is so effeminate and so androgynous, so interestingly coarse. It's very high, and he uses his falsetto, but it also feels kind of crimped and faltering at points. There's a lot of failure hard-coded into it. In retrospect I could see that speaking to my own bodily situation, of being about to go through puberty not really knowing what I was in for, and excited to become a sexual being but also obviously not doing it the right way, according to the feedback I got from my peers [laughs]. Being told that my relationship to myself was weird or wrong or gross, all that fun baby gay shit where you don't know what's happening yet, but everyone's like, "You're disgusting." And you're like, "I'm just here trying to be a person, I don't know what's happening." So that band was like a sanctuary for me at 11 or 12, I was obsessed to the point where it was my schtick. When you're in middle school and no one knows what to do with you, they just assign you a schtick. I had a VHS and a DVD of their music videos, and I just watched them obsessively. The "I Want You" music video, I think I write about it in the book, because that was a big one for me. He's got that gross chin-length stringy hair, looks really young and androgynous, he's in this cool cyberpunk environment. I actually got my hair cut like that, or tried to, it didn't really work because I've got Jewish hair. I had printed out this black-and-white photo of Darren Hayes at his most androgynous, and I brought it to the person who cut my hair at the time like, turn me into this please. That's kind of the root of my whole desire to see the gender in music, I guess, because they were both so intricately bound up for me from a young age. Was there anything that turned up from research that really surprised you? I love the detail about Wendy Carlos, that she had to do her first publicity appearances in male drag. Yeah! That was a fun one. I guess I didn't know a lot about Alice Cooper, especially his early work and early appearances, how he was spouting lines that sound very much like Tumblr-queer jargon now. "Everybody has a little male and female in them, it's a biological fact." Which sounds like an infographic you'd see among social justice communities, but he was saying it to be provocative, because in the early '70s you couldn't just do media interviews and say that shit without making some people upset. And of course his whole getup was designed to be freakish, it wasn't like Alice Cooper was wearing makeup to be pretty, it was to look garish. What also surprised me, kind of from that same era, is how you see the young proto-punks like the Stooges being really into the Beatles, because they're so frightening to their surroundings. Like being into Nazi imagery and being into Beatles imagery were equally provocative. It's mind-boggling to me, because the Beatles seem so tame and anodyne now, it's like dad culture. But people would get catcalled, you'd get called "Beatle" on the street if you had long hair with the venom of a slur. That shifted my preconceptions around these eras I was studying. I feel like you don't always know the norms of a particular musical era, even if you know the music pretty well, so reading a bunch of contemporary interviews was really interesting, because you could see the shock happening in real time [laughs]. Seeing very square, very straight music journalists getting up in arms over what Lou Reed or Alice Cooper were doing was funny and revealing. You spend a lot of this book writing about the ambiguity of voices. Why do you think they're so malleable in that way? I think just the fact that they're the one musical sound that comes directly from the body, and that the body by necessity has to be malleable and flexible. Humans are very adaptable, and at least in hearing communities we communicate primarily through voice—communication isn't just done through actual words, it's intonation, accents, all kinds of subtle variations in the way voice is used. I think that extends to music, maybe it's even intensified in music, because music is this heightened dream-space. When you're singing it's not the same as speaking, it's this gauzy detachment from linear reality, where the song is looping in perpetuity, if that makes sense. Especially since recording began, individual vocal takes are frozen in time forever, kind of in their own reality. So I see voice as an opportunity to try out ways of being, ways of expression, that don't necessarily have to be rooted in the material conditions of your life. You can sing an alternate reality, an alternate mode of relations, and it doesn't mean you have to be that person that you're playing. It's almost embodied and disembodied at the same time. Like, an impression of the singer with no visual. Totally. Yeah. And in many cases an impression of a singer who's no longer alive, who no longer has a body to which that voice corresponds, but this ghostly after-impression of their voice still lives on. I think that makes it ripe for a lot of tension and conflict, and that's where I see a lot of these themes of gender-weirdness coming out. Early on you mention those wax-cylinder recordings of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, and it made me think of—do you know this book called Making Sex, by Thomas Laqueur? I think you've mentioned it to me before, it's on my list of things I should be reading but haven't yet, because I'm a very bad procrastinator and a slow reader. I've gotten better, but I get disillusioned. Sadie Dupuis [guitarist/vocalist of Speedy Ortiz] just posted her April books pile, and it was like eight books, and I'm like, shut the fuck up [laughs]. I've been inching my way through Faulkner and Alice Walker right now, these classics that were on my bookshelf, but I've been doing it every day, which is progress. It's funny, because Making Sex is a book from the early '90s by this middle-aged cis professor that doesn't explicitly mention trans people at all ever, but it's about the endlessly changing and contradictory "scientific" definitions of sex. Starting with the Aristotelian one, where he was like, "Women are cold and wet, which corresponds with the elements of..." Right, women are like 3D printers for the male form. Laqueur writes that all of these definitions of sex contain claims about gender. There's a part on the Renaissance where he discusses various cases of intersex people, what became of them, the formal decision on their identity from the local duke or whomever. He says that, generally, "as long as sign matched status, all was well." And in so much popular music sign does not match status. It reminded me of that great essay you did about robotic voices—I actually have this giant quote from it pasted into my phone: "When grafted onto robots, alpha masculinity becomes distended and uncanny; Robocop and the Terminator supplant organic masculinity with a hilariously overwrought form of butch. Others present a beta masculinity ripe with pathos: the tragically named Alpha from Power Rangers, whose neuroses constantly short-circuit him, or Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data..." I guess I'm wondering, how do you feel those cinematic robots relate to synth-pop and vocoders? I think you see a lot of overlap in Laurie Anderson, who I write about in the book, who created a caricature of masculinity using vocoders and pitch-shifters, which was deployed to a subtle comedic effect. It's a character that she uses a lot throughout the early '80s to poke fun at the idea of competent masculinity, masculinity as the harbinger of the future and as the natural subject of America. The comic effect of roboticizing masculinity definitely appears there, like, how powerful can masculinity be if it's so easily mimicked by something that's not a man? And that's true for failing robots like Data, it's true for someone like Laurie Anderson, and I think more recently you see Dorian Electra working in a similar vein, where they're doing office drag and singing through vocoder about being a "career boy." Performing all these stereotypical male roles ... The idea that masculinity is kind of inherently comic, because it's so stilted and brittle, comes into play there. And robots are a good excuse to magnify that, because they're so easy to break, and ill-fitting in the role of human in a similar way that men are. It's interesting that Daft Punk, the other artists who had a Billboard hit while dressed as robots, have always been smoothly asexual in their persona. But not the camp C-3PO thing, or even that Data type, more like the Terminator if it were just making house jams ... In the Prince chapter, you talk about him in these Sapphic terms, echoing Wendy & Lisa's own description of him as a "fancy lesbian." I was thinking about the inverse, divas with a homoerotic affect, like Madonna. I couldn't find a way to slot Madonna in. There were moments, but I couldn't make them cohere into an argument, whereas Prince, the chapter could've been longer ... He was so specific with such widespread appeal. I don't know any other pop star who managed to be that consistently strange and opaque and elusive and still so massively popular. So insistent on his own displacement from his surroundings, in terms of gender, the way he produced his music, and his relationships with the rest of the band. He's my favourite musician, and I find "If I Was Your Girlfriend" so moving in the way that it takes this fantasy of perfect mastery—Prince writing and performing and producing every element of every song, shifting between genders effortlessly—and crushes it down into the narrow intimacies of heterosexuality. Yeah, and I feel like there's this longing for a feminized mastery within the lyrics, right? This caretaking that he doesn't necessarily have access to in his male form, as a man who loves women. There's this whole realm of mastery that he's sealed off from, and the best he can do is use his mastery of music to simulate it, or try to find a way in to pantomime it. In the chapters on dance music, you write a lot about these distended experiences of time: The improvised circuit of DJ and dancers, the stopped clock at the Loft. It feels very appropriate now that we're living in this endless suspended present. What do you think distinguishes the two? Why is one of them euphoric and the other nightmarish? There's a point to the former, right? Being in a place where there's a lot of sensory input, you're hearing music that's really loud, you're surrounded by other people, maybe your end goal is just to dance, or maybe it's to get high and peak at some point during the night, or to have sex or whatever. Even though the moment is extended, there's direction within it, there's narrative. And that narrative doesn't necessarily conform to clock time, it's on its own timeline, but it does have peaks and valleys, it does begin and eventually end. Whereas what we're doing now, there's no end to it, it seems so yawning and empty. And obviously we can't be around other people, so all the sensory overload and the sensuality of the dance floor is drained out of the picture. It's interesting how it's even drained out of musical experiences that are happening. I totally get that musicians have to do something to survive when they can't tour, because for so many musicians that's their only source of income, so playing Zoom shows makes sense, but I feel like it's such a different experience from an actual concert. Where you feel the vibrations from the speakers in your body, and you're near other people reacting at the same time. The lack of any sensory shift makes the moment impoverished, I think. It's so weird, I had that thought of, wow, this really shows how time is conditional. The fact that March took 400 years and April didn't really ... happen? It doesn't seem like April happened, there was no demarcation there. There's no narrative to it because everything is just bad all the time and slowly getting worse ... I thought that I would be fine through this, I kind of dug in my heels like, whatever, I'm in my house anyways so it doesn't really matter that I have to stay inside my house. But the psychological effect of everyone I know being stuck and suffering for it... The idea that something bad is happening and there's nothing you can do about it except stay home is hard to swallow. All of that makes this hellish. But it's a good example, or at least an effective example [laughs], of how time is conditional. I wish I could be on a dance floor. Ever since I moved to Denver I haven't been to as many shows or dance nights as I once went to in Chicago, because I knew the environment, knew the layout of the city a little bit better. Here there's a lot of—I don't want to bad-talk Denver, but there's a lot of EDM and jam bands, just not as much of an abundance of stuff I like. But I didn't really miss it before all this, I was like, alright, that's fine, I'll get my few shows out, that scratches the itch as I'm getting older. And now I need to be in a shitty club with sticky floors and concrete walls, where I can't hear anything but feedback, with a bunch of drunk people [laughs]. That's something I miss that I didn't think I would miss. Your book made me return to that Octo Octa album from last year [Resonant Body], where she gestures towards '90s rave anthems without just pastiching them or lapsing into melancholy. It feels like this intense solidarity. Totally. She goes through those gestures with such a light touch, it feels like there's room for forward motion. Right, it feels purposeful. And I feel like that's the challenge in a larger sense too, how to care for and remember all the people who are sick and dying. It's strange to try to be present without being present right now. It's also troubling how conveniently dependent we are on internet technologies to communicate now and care for each other in whatever ways we can, like, with the refusal to bail out the postal service. Any non-corporate communication we have is being starved. One of your recurring themes is how the gender expression of marginalized people gets eyed up and repackaged by capitalism. Have you read that Elijah Wald book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll? No, I haven't. The title is very inflammatory [laughs], there's only, like, one chapter about the Beatles. It's more a secret history of American pop music, touching on some fantastically unfashionable artists like Pat Boone or Paul Whiteman, because people were listening to them. And one of his recurring themes is the way that music-making gets shaped by recording technology. He argues that a big influence behind the rise of the album in the '60s was—I'm not really an audiophile, I forget exactly what changed to allow for longer LPs, but something did. Before music was a recorded commodity, people would take songs and adapt them and put their own twist on them—it's a very human impulse, I think, to do that. But when the music industry comes along that becomes part of capitalism's repertoire. How do you feel that's all been accelerated and complicated by digital technology? I'm thinking of Arca sequencing her album to confound streaming services. That whole phenomenon just has accelerated, right? As soon as something's published online it can be devoured. A somewhat recent example is Rihanna's Saturday Night Live performance [in 2012], where she or her creative design team borrowed elements from seapunk, which was this small semi-comedic vaporwave offshoot out of Chicago led by a trans girl and a cis girl, just making lots of '90s-nostalgic synth music. Lots of Ecco the Dolphin visuals. Lots of digital replications of paradises, beaches and oceans and palm trees, that made it into this Rihanna performance. Very quickly things from the fringes were scooped up and repackaged around a mainstream pop star. I think maybe what you're seeing is a new generation of artists kind of accepting that as inevitable? Making work so quickly that the swagger-jackers can't keep up. You see a lot of trans artists in particular putting out a ton of stuff, like Black Dresses and Ada Rook and that whole network, releasing three or four albums a year sometimes. Pouring out music at the rate that they're making it, and not necessarily working through a label or thinking so much about marketing. It's interesting because that's almost the speed at which the Beatles were releasing albums, back when an album didn't have to have these high levels of production, you could have four cover songs and it wasn't a big deal. You only have to write four to six songs, and then you record it all over two days. Before the album became this art object, when it was just a convenient package for songs by popular artists, you saw things happening a lot faster. Now that the internet is what it is, and has messed with many people's ability to make a living making music, you see that same rate for different reasons. I think most of the albums that I'm talking about are considered as full-length narratives, it's more about not needing a label to mediate between you and your listeners. I love how you keep returning to that search for unlikely affinities. It's the "Crush With Eyeliner" thing, two people swerving towards each other while conspicuously failing at gender. Where are you finding those affinities these days? In music? Anywhere! It's the last question, it could be anything. That photo of Daniel Radcliffe walking all the dogs [laughs]. Oh boy. Honestly, the insane, powerful singing that my body used to do when I saw pictures of abject males has quieted a little bit since I got top surgery, so I don't explode in longing when I see a picture of Daniel Radcliffe looking at his phone while tied to 17 dogs quite the way I used to. I used to go to Twenty One Pilots a lot for that, because there's a lot of homoerotic play between the two of them. My fandom for them is like the adult version of my Savage Garden fandom ... any kind of beta-male affinity. You mentioned R.E.M., and I'm actually researching for a potential book about Michael Stipe, a false hagiography or critical biography, because I feel like he's going to write his own at some point, I can't do that for him. That seems illegal. But I want to write something about his place in culture from the position of a fan. I feel like I'm also getting it in Britney Spears's communist reblogs. The idea that this person who was the one symbol of Y2K consumerism, everything wrong with the way capitalism has infiltrated music, is now like, "I was never a willing participant in my own exploitation." Her working against her own interpretation has been really productive, not in the erotic sense that you were asking about, but in the sense that she was held up as this image of perfection and now she's actively embracing her own failure ... I get a lot of vibrations just from seeing other trans people on the internet, seeing what we're all doing with ourselves in this weird time. The fact that people are looser with what they post, maybe, not necessarily in a lewd sense, just more casual. I wish I had a better answer to your question than Twenty One Pilots [laughs]. No, I love that answer! It's one point where I feel like I have no agreement from the rest of music-critic Twitter, that this is a good band. But I also just festooned them with my transmasculine hopes and dreams, and now I can't get rid of them. They're a comfort band for sure. I used to watch a lot of their music videos compulsively, in the same way that I would with Savage Garden. "What if I had that body? Wouldn't that be cool?" What if I could look and move like that in this weird, failed rock stardom? Because that is a band that's all about pushing against the bombast of their alt-rock predecessors ... Imagine Dragons, Kings of Leon, those post-Arcade-Fire what if we ran away from this world together male survivalist fantasies of the post-apocalypse. And then Twenty One Pilots were like, what if we were dweebs in the post-apocalypse instead? What if we were just nervous, insecure, vaguely homoerotic bros in this world those alpha males are ruling? I had never actually looked up a photo of Twenty One Pilots before. All their publicity shots look like they just got signed to an esports team. Yeah, Tyler just stoops! He's got the muscles and the big black tattoos but he just looks like a sad little boy. It's such a contrast, and so relevant to my own interior experience of being a person. So, if Elvis was a male bimbo, does that mean Savage Garden are catboys? Yeah, they can be catboys! I like that. I was active on Savage Garden message boards and fanfic communities when I was, like, 12, and I feel like that was probably something that got written at some point. Darren Hayes got turned into a cat and fucking loves it.
Perverts Like Us

There was a creative storytelling aspect to sex, and a form of intimacy we didn’t share with boys.

There was a time when I had orgasms that had nothing whatsoever to do with fantasies. I had them by accident. I remember having them in gym class all the time. We had to prepare for some Canadian Fitness Exam. We had to take it very seriously. As a child, you are supposed to accept what adults put in front of you and denote as important. There is an element of nonsense in the life of any child. That was why Nonsense Literature is so appealing to children. In any case, we were told this was important and that we would be receiving an iron-on badge when our scores were submitted. I really wanted a gold badge to iron onto my grey hoodie. I was hanging from the chin up bars against the wall. My body hit the wall as I rocked and it brought me to a climax. I would hang there, oblivious to the time passing. My arms would have held me up even if I were 500 pounds. All of my body became focused on a singular feeling. I climbed up a rope and similarly achieved an orgasm. I had no idea what it was.  * I befriended a girl named J. Her mother had three children with different fathers. They were each devastatingly beautiful. This meant her mother had beautiful genes. It was a lot of work to produce three beautiful children. After it she went to bed for the rest of her life. She sometimes left the bed to put on lipstick and go sit at the Jupiter Café. Her beautiful children roamed the neighborhood. Going mad, the way that unsupervised beautiful people do.  We were delighted to find out we had both discovered our bodies had this wonderful feature. J loved to share with me the different ways she had discovered to masturbate. She told me about how she masturbated in the bathtub, scrunched up under the faucet. She had made love to every electrical appliance in the house, from the hair dryer to a vacuum cleaner. She made love to appliances in public too. She really had no shame. She didn’t have a washing machine in her house. She went to the laundromat. She wrapped her arms around a washing machine and held it as tightly as she could. We went to the swimming pool. She stood in front of the tube that new water poured through, her head tilted back in ecstasy. She had big eyes. And lips. When she closed her eyes, she looked as though she were in a permanent state of bliss.   * I met a girl with long stringy, dirty, blonde hair. I liked kids who didn’t wash their hair regularly. It meant (to me anyways) that they were wild and had parents who were more permissive. She lived in a building right next to the swimming pool. She wore her bathing suit everywhere that summer. Another friend said we shouldn’t speak to her, as she was possibly amphibian.  I put my bathing suit on to go and see her. I knocked on her door and, sure enough, she answered in her bathing suit. She tied a blindfold around my eyes and decided to tell me the definition of certain words that had to do with sex that I was unaware of. * A girl in my class came up and invited me over to her house. She had a peculiar style. She had bangs and two ponytails she wore oddly high on her head. I didn’t want to go because she always wore plaid and I had an aversion to it at the time. I don’t know how to say no to any girl’s invitation. But she told me her grandfather had moved into the duplex apartment underneath her. And rummaging through his unpacked things she had come across an entire box of dirty magazines. We sat in the narrow back staircase of her house. It was covered in yellow carpeting and we felt so snug sitting on the stairs. Our bums were crushed together and our running shoe clad feet were piled on top of one another. We turned the pages, looking at all the naked women and men in extreme postures. It was a rare find this box. It would most likely be seized at any moment. There was no time to be erotically stimulated. All we could do was consume the information the photographs contained before they were confiscated. Her grandfather had a right to look at all these naked female bodies, but we, as girls, did not.  What I liked most about that day was that we were together, looking at the magazines together. We had triumphed over the adults. We were doing things they could never imagine us doing. It was our collective secret that we were obsessed with sex. Our sexuality was kept secret from us, while it was exhibited, examined and exploited by men. *  The secrecy of it all made me feel guilty and troubled, of course. I thought I might be headed to a life of perdition. Until I befriended the most intelligent girl in my grade, named P. She had a thick black pony tail and baby hairs on her forehead. She had a collared shirt that she buttoned at the wrist and up to her neck. Her ability to concentrate was phenomenal. She was hardworking and conscientious. She was never late with her assignments. She was always taking notes as though the teacher had just given her winning lottery numbers. She was from Uruguay. She had an overweight sister who couldn’t get anything right. She was always daydreaming and fainting in gym class. They made a wonderful pair. She invited me over one day. She suggested we become best friends. She had examined the prospects in the class. She decided we had the most in common. Which meant we had the closest grade point average. We both were reading above our level. We both read in very different ways. There are as many different ways to read as there are people. P. brought me down to her basement. She had a tape recorder. She said she used her tape recorder to tell short stories. These seemed elaborate. But it was really to be expected of her organized personality. She asked if I would like to hear a story she had recorded. I said certainly. She played it. It was a very filthy story about her and a boy in her class. When it was done she looked at me and asked, “How did you like it? Did you think it was well written?” There is a creative storytelling aspect to sex. When the fantasies came, they were in the form of stories. When I was writing my novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I wanted to capture a childlike attitude to sexuality, perversity and pornography that I once had.  *  This was a form of intimacy we did not share with boys. They were already intimidated by the sexuality and bizarre amorous assertion of girls in the class. Girls would pursue them around the schoolyard trying desperately to kiss them. They would receive anonymous love letters and marriage propositions. I was more interested in the sexuality of girls and their physical presence back them myself. The girl who sat behind me one day reached forward and took my hair in her hands and began to braid it. It felt so good, as though each strand of my hair was coming out of my scalp and falling out around me. * I had a boyfriend when I was a teenager who had a job cleaning up a public library after hours. Whenever he would find a book in the remaindered section that he thought I might like, he would bring it home to me. He didn’t really know anything about books so his choices were always based on the covers. He brought me a book called The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. I had heard of her before and was delighted. I loved the photograph on the front. It was of a girl in a cloche hat on a chair holding up her dress and revealing her skirt and slip so that one of her stockinged legs was exposed to the viewer. I saw clearly on the cover beneath the title that the word Erotica was written. He had either missed it or did not know the meaning of the word. He saw I had the book in my shoulder bag a few days later. “How is that book?” he asked. “It’s absolutely wonderful! It’s so dirty. People are having sex on every second page. You can’t sit down in this book without someone crawling on their knees to give you a blow job.”  He insisted I hand the book back to him. He was furious that I had been reading porn. He demanded to know if I had masturbated while reading this book. I was taken aback. I mean, obviously. Was there something wrong with that?  Why in the world did he feel threatened by a book? Especially since these were characters who had nothing to do with us. They were so pathetic. They lived in small attic apartments in Paris. They didn’t have refrigerators. They were always cold and couldn’t pay the rent. They dipped a stale baguette into a glass of wine and they were still hungry afterwards. They pushed the mice away from their plate with a fork. These people were no longer alive. What did it matter if they were turning me on from beyond the grave? It was surely a victimless crime. It seemed a pity because in giving back the book, I was giving him back any trust I had with him. * I gave up the boy but not reading porn. It seemed too fundamental a difference anyhow. * I hoped to grow up and meet someone as perverted as me. I wondered what this wonderful pervert would look like. Would he wear nothing but mismatched socks as he read paperback novels on the windowsill? He would be like nobody I knew. In part because nobody I knew loved me. That was what his perverted heart would be capable of doing. He would be capable of loving me. He would stand on coffee tables and say intelligent things. He would be broke because he would be much too cool to have a job. Ah! The life of artists. That would be a way I would get to be a pervert and be proud of it. I went to the library to find another copy of The Delta of Venus. I was young and filthy and it didn’t occur to me there might be something a little dingy about checking a dirty book out of the library. *  I loved novelists who wrote about sex. Who included the perversity and filthiness of the whole thing. And the lovely awkwardness of it. The early twentieth century, any writer who lived in Paris was engaging in a miraculous sex life. It was so philosophical and political. They were trying to be free through having sex with as many people as possible. And why not? It was a noble pursuit.  If you are a fallen woman, then you wouldn’t be able to be married. You would be outside conventional society. The women in Victorian novels decided they would kill themselves. But in the 1930s they went to Paris to join other groups of the fallen. And write and live to excess and discuss philosophy. And to write down their pensées which would change the way people thought about women and war. They would murder God. At which point it meant nothing to be fallen. I liked the 1930s as a time period, aesthetically. And I had been planning to write about it since I was very young. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, one of the main characters, Rose, becomes involved in 1930s black and white pornography. I began researching it. One fascinating collection of pornographic photographs of prostitutes was taken by a man who called himself Monsieur X. They are beautiful and somehow speak, to a modern viewer, as portraits of innocence rather than wantonness. Unlike in modern pornographic photographs, the subjects seem like ordinary women who you can imagine having inner lives and interests that do not revolve around sex. Two girls sit reading a newspaper. Their legs are spread. They have no underwear on, but they are wearing stockings and pretty high heels. They look like they are two girls reading comics after a slumber party. They prefer not to look at the camera, as they are shy. Another pair of girls squat in an unnatural position to reveal their privates. They have the awkwardness of non-athletic girls in gym class. One has a run in her stockings. There is, of course, the messiness of pubic hair. One girl, alone in her photo, leaning on a chair partially undressed and smoking a cigarette, looks at the camera. She has a tinge of Henry Miller’s wife, June’s, pride about her. She doesn’t care that she is in a pornographic photo, she is still better and more accomplished than you.  In a 1928 film called Le pompier des Folies-bergère, a fireman goes to see the naked dancing girls of Folies-bèrgere. When he comes out, the revue has made him lose his mind. He imagines every woman he sees naked, including a subway worker played by Josephine Baker. Every man he sees turns into a naked woman, including his fellow firemen, a priest, and a bus driver. He tiptoes around the city blowing kisses to everyone. These films seem like Charlie Chaplin movies until everyone takes their clothes off.  There were films that were shown in Mutoscope peepshow machines. These were also called “What-the-Butler-Saw” machines, because they gave the viewer the perspective of looking at a scene through the peephole. You put a coin in and put your eyes against the goggles and saw a film created by a circular rotation of cards. It’s the same effect as when I was in high school and we all used to draw flip books on the sides of our dictionaries. Then we would pass them around. Little stick men would shoot each other in the head or a stick figure with a penis would have sex with a stick figure with breasts.  In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, the character Pierrot sees Rose star in a movie in one of these machines and thinks it is the most beautiful, lovely film he has ever seen. Neither of them is ashamed of it and they love each other more because of their sexual pasts and experimentations and exploitations. Rose and Pierrot have a gender fluid relationship and they are best friends. They have been searching for one another since they were separated as children. There is something that remains childlike about their love and attraction for one another, causing them to be innocents. They share their sexual awakenings and desire with the same curiosity and wonder that I did with other girls. Even though society says girls are not as horny and perverted as boys, they truly, truly are. And when two people share the secrets of their perversions with one another, they become free of the false mores that society puts in place to clip our imaginative wings, not only in sex, but in all walks of life.
‘There Are Pernicious Trends and Ideologies That I See Enduring’: An Interview with Rachel Vorona Cote

The author of Too Much on who gets to be excessive, whether Victorian protagonists would get along, and the privilege of seeing yourself in literature. 

Has there ever been a better time to read Victorian novels? Their volume, their sheer scope, and their often-serialized origins all make for stories meant to be engrossing and enjoyed over a long period. Take your time; you have nowhere else to be. Rachel Vorona Cote knows her Victorians. With multiple degrees in literature, she applies her scholarly expertise to her modern obsessions in Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today (Grand Central Publishing). She traces a path from the Catherine Earnshaws and Dorothea Brookes of centuries past to contemporary characters, authors, and public figures, with a healthy dose of memoir tied in. The lessons that these books can teach us, Cote argues, are evergreen. The women who were maligned in the works of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot for being too emotional, too unstable, too sexual, can serve as a conduit for how we understand how women are maligned still today. Cote and I spoke on the phone in early March, the day her book had been launched, as she was embarking on a multi-city tour that would, one week later, be postponed indefinitely.   Anna Fitzpatrick: Too Much is obviously rooted in the Victorian era, but you bring your subjects into the present, and cover a lot of literature over the twentieth century. Why did you decide to start with the Victorians? Rachel Vorona Cote: There's a logistical reason, and then there's a conceptual one. The logistical side of it is that my academic training is in Victorian studies. The nineteenth century was a period in which there was that sort of really intense institutional scrutiny and stigmatizing of women and women's emotional expression that veered towards the extremes. Sigmund Freud, he was a later Victorian. He came in at the tail end. You had a lot of white male doctors who were "treating" women who had maybe been sexually abused, or maybe had anxiety, really all sorts of afflictions, signs of distress. Rather than listening to them, rather than actually putting any importance on their testimony, their sense of what it meant to live in their own bodies, rather than listening to that, the catchall was hysteria. These women were hysterical because their wombs were running all over their bodies, whatever sort of nonsense medicine they were leaning into at the time. That was something that was quite prevalent. It kind of makes sense, because the Victorian period was really a bananas time in terms of the way people were navigating issues of gender, issues of sexuality. The Victorians were really quite obsessed with sex even when they tried to pretend they were really moralistic about it. Women were then, as now, they were kind of seen as illegible in a lot of ways. And frightening. Especially as you got to the turn of the century and women started saying, "We want to work outside the home, we want to earn money, maybe we don't want to get married.” It dredged up a lot of anxiety. What drew you specifically to the literature? It's an interesting question because I've been reading it for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom started reading a lot of nineteenth century literature. She hadn't been a big reader when she was growing up, and then she started, I think she just wanted to fill in a bunch of gaps. She started reading Jane Austen, and she read the Brontes. I started reading these works alongside her. We'd watch film adaptations, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice, that was constant viewing in our household. In some ways it grew out of my relationship with my mom. I've always really appreciated the intensity. That sounds cliché, to say that considering the book I've written, but I think there was something very resonant for me in books that— [cuts out] Are you there? [a minute passes] Are you there? You cut out for a second. I think I accidentally started making a call. I do that all the time. When your cheek dials? Ha. So, the Victorians. They're extremely dramatic. Right. And I can see how that would be really, really aggravating for people. When people tell me they really don't like Victorian literature, or they're put off by it, I completely understand that. It's very specific, even though different writers are doing their own thing. There is a sort of emotional urgency that runs throughout. I appreciate that. I especially appreciate that in the women who emerge in the text, especially in the books written by women, women like George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. Women who were, to be clear, very problematic in a lot of ways but who were very frustrated with their milieu and who were responding to it in certain ways, ways that we would understand. In the book, it seems that the things you love about this era and the things that really frustrate you are often very close together. I'm thinking of the chapter you have on Lucy Maud Montgomery, where you talk about how you didn't like Anne of Green Gables at first but you were very into Emily of New Moon. You wonder if Emily would have even liked Anne. I wonder how you felt about how so many of these women who are too much in their own ways, how they would interact with each other? There are a couple of shows right now where I think a bunch of characters from different nineteenth century novels are sort of thrown together. There's Penny Dreadful, which I haven't watched because I can be kind of a weenie about violence and I heard it's gory, and then there's one I heard about that's based in Dickens, but I love the idea of putting all these different women together. A lot of them would probably hate each other. If you put Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights in a room with Jane Eyre, she'd probably punch Jane in the face. If she even gave her that much time. They would probably spar for a while, and then Catherine would get a little violent. I think that it's really important to think about what sorts of characteristics or dispositions we regard as excessive, it's important to think about the sort of language that we use, and what causes us to regard certain people, certain practices, certain behaviours in this way, and to think about excessiveness as negative. The fact is, being excessive isn't necessarily positive. It can be true that a character like Catherine Earnshaw might be struggling under very patriarchal strictures. It can also be true that she's an asshole. She's not an especially kind or compassionate person, and she doesn't really think about other people. That's the most mild critique of her. She's a very compelling character, but I don't think anyone would make the mistake of calling her nice. I think when you've got all of these strong personalities, it's not the case that they would mesh. It might be, because of who these people are and what they're willing to give of themselves, or it could be because it is very, very easy to internalize misogyny. If you're feeling anxious or you feel some solicitousness about aspects of yourself that you think maybe are off-putting, I know that this is something that I've fallen into where I might be inclined to critique that in somebody else and probably I'm doing that because it's something that I'm anxious about. You talk about these Victorian constraints with fictional characters and real women in tandem with each other. How do these constraints apply themselves differently in reality? Whenever we're talking about real people, stakes are inevitably going to be different. I can appreciate characters in Victorian novels who might be kind of jerks. Maybe take the good with the bad. But I'm not going to give myself that sort of pass, just because I always want to do better. I think when we're actually having a talk about real women and real women thinking about the way that we navigate our excesses or what we are told are excesses and how we navigate that conversation, we can absolutely talk about this with literature too, but I think it's just more urgent that we have to think about the ethics of it, too. I want for us to be able to extend more empathy towards each other, and I think that's definitely a guiding motivation for me in writing the book. I also think it's facile to say that being excessive is good, or “do whatever you want, you can't say anything to me because you're just stigmatizing me.” It's much more nuanced than that. I think we have to think about, okay, what do we need to unlearn, what has made it difficult for us to live in the world, what sort of stigmas and ideologies have really shored up our subjugation, and the subjugation of people much more marginalized. Then there's also the question of, where's the boundary between that, and also thinking about how we have to navigate the world with other people. How do we honour ourselves and try to untangle ourselves from a whole lot of really nasty patriarchal and capitalist bullshit, for lack of a better term. How do we do that while holding ourselves accountable? Remembering that everybody is going to be living in the world in their own way. It's important to bear that in mind and remember that too, always. We can't think about ourselves as if we're inside of a vacuum. We're part of a web. I can't quote it directly, although maybe that makes me less of a nerd, but I really love the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. There's a really wonderful line or two, it comes in the section that's narrated by Briony, but the basic premise is everyone in the world is as real as you are. The thrust of that being that everybody's inner life, we're all walking around with all of these loud voices and all these competing emotions, and it can be very easy to forget that everybody is doing that too. Of course, there's the fact that it can be comforting and humbling, in its way, to remember that and to remember that other people are definitely not thinking about you, but also that most people are just grappling with themselves and trying to get through the day as best they can. I've always loved the way that that novel demands a sort of recognition of the fact that everyone has a really, really vivid interiority. If I were to try to suss out a moral code, that would be part of mine. You identify as a woman who is Too Much, and you relate to a lot of Victorian heroines that way. Do you think it's possible for a woman to not be considered too much based on how you lay it out in the book? First of all, it's very easy for me to find heroines to identify with, especially Victorian heroines. They're all white and cisgender, and so am I. I had a lot of access growing up. There is privilege in the amount of resonance I found in literature. I think that the notion of one being excessive, I think it is lobbed at a lot of people who aren't performing normativity in a way that social norms insist that we do. That said, I think that some people are capable of performing normativity according to hegemonic ideals. Some are more capable of doing that than others. Sometimes maybe it comes down to disposition. I think oftentimes it does come down to privilege. That's where I have to check myself, because yes, I absolutely felt very often in my life as if I'm spilling all over the place. I'm very emotional, and I have to navigate some mental illness and that can feel unwieldy, and there's this and that, but I nonetheless have a lot of privilege. There's a lot about me that in fact would not be considered too much. That would not be considered fundamentally excessive. I'm able bodied, I'm white, again I'm cisgender, I'm queer but I'm married to a man, so I have privilege there. I think this is such a good question because it really emphasizes the extent to which, and I don't know if this is maybe the way you intended it, but it does emphasize the extent to which— [silence]  Are you there? Are you still there? I don't know why my chin keeps doing that. I keep accidentally hitting mute. My chin is going all over the place. You cut out about a minute ago. Let me try to back track. What I was saying is, I think what is making me contend with and remember that however difficult it may be for me—or how difficult it may feel for me—to live in the world, to contend with the different sorts of expectations that still seem to prevail in terms of femininity, it is very much the case that it is going to be so much more difficult for so many other people. In America, people are just wholesale treated almost as excessive or extraneous if say, they need government support. If they're women of colour who need food stamps. That, according to the monsters running our government, well, that's too much. It's a continuum. That continuum is absolutely inextricable from white privilege and privileges of gender and orientation. That's been a really critical thing for me to keep in mind. I don't ever want to get drunk on the sense of my own subjugation. There are really pernicious trends and ideologies that I see as enduring, and it's distressing that there are so many continuities from the nineteenth century, but my book would be written a very different way by someone who was living a very different life from me.
Leaving the House

Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. 

We were supposed to leave the house at 3 p.m. to walk to the mall but Catherine was slouched on a desk chair, totally absorbed with her phone. Not even a trip to the mall could get her attention. Her father, my friend, Moon, put on his tough-father voice, but she could tell that he was just putting on his tough-father voice so he was soundly ignored. I was watching the whole scene play out. I felt like I was behind a two-way mirror, observing a live demo of parenting. Daughter vs. Father: An Epic Battle to Leave the House. Moon got behind her and rolled the chair toward the door. She resisted by making herself heavy. Then he went away for a while. Moon and Catherine were vacationing with me for a week. Catherine’s mother couldn’t synch up her vacation time so she was back in Korea, working. When Moon returned to the room he was pinching Catherine’s shoes between his fingers. I thought he was going to issue another order. Instead he crouched down in front of Catherine. He held her foot between his knees, opened the flap of the shoe, put her feet in, adjusted the tongue, tightened the laces. Then he did the same with the other foot. I’ve seen my brother kneel and pull on his daughter’s sneakers as she held on to his shoulder for balance. She was a toddler at the time. Catherine is almost a teenager, the age of the ideal TaylorSwiftDuaLipaBTS fan. Yet here was my friend—a forty-five-year-old man, a man with whom I’ve been friends since our twenties, pre-marriage, pre-children—genuflecting before a girl on her phone. Whither went the person I knew who played videogames and drank until his neck went red? From whence did this other self emerge? Wherefore was this new man so tender? * When Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, #girldad trended on Twitter. An effusion of tweets, images, and video poured out of fathers and daughters. It was an atypically bright moment on Twitter. Fathers cradled newborns, fistpumped during birth-announcement parties (which is a thing, apparently). Some posted images of ultrasounds. I didn’t mention that Catherine is my goddaughter. In fact, Moon let me name her Catherine. I have a niece and a nephew and other godchildren but no children of my own so hashtags like girldad make me weirdly moody. I feel like I’m living in the unit below a happy family. Sometimes when I hear the happy-family footsteps above me, I turn up the volume of my TV to drown them out. And other times I stop whatever I’m doing and let the little echo of their life reach me.  A daughter wobbles her bike down the street while her father holds the camera. #girldad A father takes a selfie while teaching his nervous daughter to drive. #girldad A father and a daughter tan side by side in the backyard. #girldad A daughter paints her father’s nails. #girldad A father with a goatee and eyeshadow poses fiercely next to his daughter. #girldad A daughter and a father hold the arms of her trophy. #girldad * Catherine might have giggled at the initial sensation of her father putting on her shoes but almost immediately she was oblivious again, lost in her phone. I’m not sure how much thought Catherine has given to her father’s life, whether she asks about the semiconductors at work or the quality of his hotel in Tel Aviv. Does she want to know what he was listening to in summer 2007? That was the summer his company sent him to Boston. I’d crash at his hotel during the week and he’d spend the weekends at my condo. During the long evenings, we drove around New England with our windows down, listening to the radio and looking for promising lakes to go fishing. Two songs were in heavy rotation: Gnarls Barkley’s pulsing hit “Crazy” and John Mayer’s pouty hit “Daughters.” Catherine was under six months old at the time. Yet her father and I were in my Honda, already singing about the moment when he would kneel before her and put on her glass sneaker: Fathers be good to your daughters. * When strangers ask about my book, I sometimes joke: It’s called Reproduction; I literally wrote the book on reproduction. No one has quipped back, Bit premature, no? Given your childlessness. Truth is, whether we have them or not, men of child-siring age think a lot about children. The desire for children is not solely the domain of women. A daughter benchpresses while her father spots her. #girldad A daughter on a boat holds up her catch by the mouth. #girldad A father embraces his daughter in her retro prom dress. #girldad A daughter feeds her father from her bottle. #girldad * Another time we were trying to leave the house while Catherine was deep into a graphic novel on the couch. Let’s go, Moon said. She made a sound without opening her mouth. She stretched out in the body-forgetful way of almost teenagers, totally passed out into the plot. Catherine! She sat up, turned a page, and flopped over in the other direction. She was in reading bliss, so near the end of her book. This time I intervened. Just let her finish, I said. I sat next to her and started reading my own book. She always does this, Moon said. But he was secretly pleased to see such a strong resemblance between his daughter and her godfather. I’m not sure how long we were like this, Catherine and me, reading on the couch together. Moon must have taken out the trash. I lost track of him until I heard the front door open and his coat rustling in the foyer. Still? he said. Two more minutes, I said. Catherine finished reading her book just as I finished reading an essay. We happened to sigh at the same time. Her father looked up from his phone when he heard us. How was it? I asked her. She nodded big loopy nods. So good, she said. Then Moon held open her coat and she sprung up and pushed her arms into the sleeves as if stepping into herself and we went wherever we were going. * A father and his two daughters bounce into the living room to perform a cheer routine. #girldad A husky father practises an upbeat dance routine alongside his limber daughter. #girldad The same father attempts to plié at a portable barre beside his daughter. #girldad I have a photo—but I did not post it—of a father putting on his daughter’s shoes. #girldad. * A few weeks later, when they were back in Korea, spending a lot of enforced social-distancing family time together, Moon sent me a photo of Catherine, unsmiling, with her hair braided into a dozen long plaits, holding up a gang sign, and looking very goth and gangsta. She had now officially stepped into her teen years and overnight had reinvented herself from a saccharine K-pop star to Billie Eilish. Who braided her hair? Probably Catherine herself or Catherine’s mom. Maybe a friend. But I’d like to imagine Moon doing it. It’s possible. I’ve seen my brother braid his daughter’s hair. She sat between his knees with a toy while he worked through her hair with a comb and some detangler. Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. There’s usually a little dimple of evidence that marks them whatever the context. Such men listen carefully to younger female colleagues; they wiggle during a pop song; they touch the leaves of a plant; they wear their birthday gift even if it doesn’t match their style; they back away from chit chat with obnoxious men; they might not be able to tie elaborate knots but they can recognize a French braid. These men were not Neanderthals before fatherhood, but I reckon they weren’t always so mindful. So while I can’t credit fatherhood for socializing or civilizing them, it does seem to have refined them. Now that Catherine is officially thirteen, Moon’s worry seems to be, Is she going to leave the house like that? And, in a few years, inevitably, it will be: Is she going to leave the house? At some point, daughters drive down the street, car loaded up, while their fathers stand in the driveway waving, becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror when they look back, if they look back at all. * At the security checkpoint in an airport, as her parents were returning to India, my friend tucked her sari between her legs, bent, and touched the feet of her parents. She didn’t explain to me what she was doing. Wikipedia says the gesture is called charanasparsha. I myself, as a grown man, have knelt before my mother to buckle the tiny ankle strap of her suede heels. I remember the prong had to go into the fourth punch hole for both tightness and comfort. Wikipedia calls the gesture I’m-zipped-into-this-dress-and-I-don’t-want-to-put-my-glasses-on. In a few decades, when Moon is absorbed in reading Semiconductors Digest and Catherine calls him from the front door to go to his doctor’s appointment, will she walk to his recliner with his shoes in her hand?
Mommy Queerest

Mom wasn’t interested in being the type of mother—or wife—who put her own life on the back burner

"Don’t bother me, I’m meditating!” Growing up, I knew that if Mom was lying upside down, I was not to disturb her. She would strap her feet under a belt at the top of a black vinyl reclining board and lie back at a forty-five-degree slant. This was her version of meditating. Mom first dipped her toes into spiritual waters in the early '80s, after I was born. While working on her master’s of education, she signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. She would leave the house with fruit and flowers (offerings for some deity) and come home with a secret mantra. Mom said she became interested in meditation because her fight-or-flight signals were constantly spiking. “I was always on the defensive. I needed to slow down,” she told me. But she was soon turned off by TM’s hierarchical structure, so she moved on to Zen meditation—and then found it too restrictive. “They made me sit cross-legged on the floor!” she complained. Mom eventually settled on Vipassanā, which is all about seeing things as they really are: “I took to it like an anxious duck to clear water.” She was also into Iyengar yoga when I was little. Mom was always folding herself into various poses around the house—doing a more comfortable version of downward dog, for example, where she’d bend forward and rest her outstretched hands on the kitchen table. Or she’d drop down on the living room carpet and kick her legs up into a shoulder stand. There are baby pictures of me climbing up on her, mid-pose, as if she were a human jungle gym. Mom’s proclivity for meditation and yoga was considered odd back then. We lived in the mostly Jewish, upper-middle-class Cedarvale neighbourhood, where head-to-toe Lululemon and an over-the-shoulder yoga mat were still decades away from becoming de rigueur. Mom was a teacher. We lived in a nice house with a pool. We certainly passed as normal. But I always had a feeling that Mom wasn’t like other moms. Case in point: I remember in senior kindergarten coming home and announcing that I needed a Halloween costume for school the next day. After a few minutes of scrounging, Mom’s face lit up with an idea. “You’ll be garbage!” she proclaimed. She got a black garbage bag from under the kitchen sink, threw it over my five-year-old body, and used her hands to tear holes for my arms and head. It was her next move that was really inspired, though. She started fishing through the actual garbage bin for dry pieces of authentic trash that we then threaded together with string before festooning me from top to bottom. As a Jewish kid, it was as close as I ever got to trimming a Christmas tree. The next day, I couldn’t have been more embarrassed, surrounded by My Little Ponies, He-Men, witches, and ghosts. How on earth did Mom think this was a good idea? There I was, with an empty box of our dog’s Milk-Bones dangling around my neck. My teacher, Mrs. Winemaker, looked me up and down before making a concerted decision to declare—a little too enthusiastically—that next year she wanted to be garbage for Halloween. Goddess bless. Mom was very caring and loving in her own inimitable way, but she wasn’t much of a capital M Mommy. As a joke, she would sometimes refer to herself as “Mommy” when she’d catch herself performing something quintessentially motherly. But it was always said in self-reflexive jest. She didn’t bake cookies. She didn’t brush my hair. She didn’t put sweet notes in my lunch box. In fact, Mom never even packed my lunches. I distinctly remember when she said to me, “You’re in senior kindergarten now. It’s time you made your own lunch.” We were standing in front of the fridge. I looked up at the towering shelves of food with utter confusion. “What should I bring?” I asked. “Your cousin Sarah brings a yogurt,” Mom replied. For much of elementary school I’d pack a cappuccino yogurt and a box of Smarties; when lunchtime came I’d pour the latter into the former and stir until the dye bled into a colourful swirl. Sometimes I’d bring mini pitas stuffed with Nutella. I usually rounded things off with a Mini Babybel, a Coke, and a Caramilk bar (for dessert). I was very popular in the lunchroom. But even more than I enjoyed my signature concoction, I loved going to my friend Alimah’s for lunch. Her mom, Barbara, was a stay-at-home mother, so Alimah could go home every day for chicken noodle soup, tuna sandwiches, and sliced-up carrot and celery sticks. Seeing Barbara in action was fascinating. She was more like the moms on TV: aware of Alimah’s school assignments, making sure she did her homework, limiting how much TV she could watch. Their home was an oasis of routine and predictability. Barbara even assigned meals to days of the week. Wednesday was spaghetti night. Friday was pizza.  There wasn’t much cooking going on at our house. Much later Mom would insist she’d been “chained to a stove for eighteen years,” but the rest of us remember differently. For dinner we’d usually go out to restaurants, order in, or Mom would pick something up on her way home from work. Every so often Mom would courageously attempt to concoct something interesting, like Greek fish or chocolate pasta. But it would be more of a performance than a bona fide meal. “Mommy made supper!” she’d sing.[[{"fid":"6706766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]][[{"fid":"6706771","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]][[{"fid":"6706786","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] [[{"fid":"6706796","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] She certainly wasn’t interested in being the type of mother—or wife—who put her own life on the back burner, but she’d also made a conscious decision to not be “too overinvolved.” She’d felt smothered by her mother growing up and was afraid of even coming close with me. Literally. Sometimes she’d look over at me lovingly and pet the top of my head. “Pat, pat,” she’d say, careful to never intrude on my physical space. Mom had had a list of things she’d do differently when she had a daughter one day. She would never tell me what to do with my hair. She would never make me feel guilty for choosing to do my own thing. Above all, she would never lean on me. “I never want you to feel like you have to take care of me,” she’d say. Mom believed it was important to teach me things. She explained how her mother always wanted to do everything for her when she was little, which she interpreted as a power play to make her extra dependent. With me, the pendulum swung. Mom wanted me to be independent. Ultra independent. I was often left at home alone, and was the only seven-year-old allowed to walk up to Eglinton—one of Toronto’s major arteries—on my own. I routinely made that six-block trip to do my errands. I’d go to my favourite candy store, The Wiz, and fill up a large bowl with Pop Rocks, Fun Dip, and Bonkers, and then head across the street to Videoflicks to rent a comedy like Heathers or Ruthless People. On the way home I’d stop off at China House for a bowl of wonton soup. At first the waiters were a little weirded out by a child dining solo, but they soon came to recognize me as a regular—who paid in quarters and dimes from her piggy bank. When I inquired about Mom’s free-range approach to parenting years later, she happily defended herself. “I taught you how to look both ways and cross the street, and you were very good at it. So I let you go off on your own!” I was allowed to eat as much Häagen-Dazs, watch as much TV, and stay up as late as I liked (I even had a TV in my room). Mom treated me like a mini adult. When I wasn’t in school, I could do whatever I wanted with my time. I relished my freedom—I wouldn’t have had it any other way—but there were times when I’d fantasize about having some authority at home. Time to take your medicine, I’d say to myself as I popped my daily Flintstone vitamin, imagining an adult was forcing me. To fit in with the other kids at school, when I’d get grass stains or rips in my pants I’d pretend to be afraid of Mom’s wrath. “Man, my mom’s going to kill me!” I’d say, mimicking what I’d heard on the field. I knew Mom couldn’t care less. (If anything she was proud of me getting rough and dirty.) I loved Mom so much, but I’d sometimes wish she was more like Barbara. Once when I was sick and she didn’t offer to bring me anything, I admonished her: “When other kids are sick, their moms bring them orange juice!” (“You don’t want one of those other moms,” she’d snap back. “I’m more fun!”)  Mom may not have been like other moms, but the truth was I wasn’t like other daughters. As I grew up, people mistook me for a boy. I was a tomboy—or what Larry David would later call “pre-gay.” I had short moppy hair, wore only jeans and T-shirts, and felt a profound sense of disappointment with the girls’ shoe section. I was pretty happy in general—I had friends and did well at school—but I always had a feeling of being on the outside. I didn’t feel like one of the girls, and I knew I wasn’t really one of the boys. The only other kid who reflected my gender was Casey from Mr. Dressup. And Casey was a puppet. Once, when I was six, Mom attempted to put me in a dress for shul. I resisted. We struggled. She even tried to sit on me. “Please, Rachel! It’s the High Holidays!” she begged. “I don’t want to!” I yelled back, squirming my way out from beneath her. Back then Mom still cared a little about what people thought and didn’t get that it was actually humiliating for me to wear feminine clothes. Thankfully, she quickly gave up, and I emerged triumphant in ripped jeans and high-tops as we left the house. Staying true to the list of things she would do differently from her mother, it was the last time Mom ever tried to dictate my sartorial choices (or any of my choices for that matter). When I was seven, I told my parents that I wanted to join the local Forest Hill hockey league. Back then there were only boys in the league, so the organizers were apprehensive. But no one said no. Even when I got two penalties in one game, Mom was so proud of me for being the only girl in the league. Her little girl being called a “goon”? She couldn’t have been more pleased. She loved it when the other mothers would tell her that their sons were intimidated by me. “Way to knock ’em dead, sweetie!” she’d cheer. Mom was an out and proud feminist, and she wanted me to be one too. She’d order children’s books from the Toronto Women’s Bookstore featuring strong female characters. (There were only a handful at the time; my favourite was Molly Whuppie, about a clever girl who fearlessly outwits a giant.) I was fully on board with being a baby feminist. I remember Mom teaching me the word “assertive,” although I didn’t need lessons in how to embody it. Mom recalled how, when I was three years old, she tried to scare me into submission. “I’m counting to three!” she warned. “One . . . two . . . three . . .” Apparently I just stood there, unimpressed. “What are you going to do?” I asked. Mom laughed and gave up after that. “I learned I had to go at things slant with you,” she explained yearsl ater. “I couldn’t go head to head. You’d win.” When I was eight, I decided to switch schools. I was bored at my neighbourhood elementary school. I was already able to multiply in parts and do long division, so grade two math just wasn’t doing it for me. “I’m sick of counting animals!” I complained. One day I went to checkout an alternative school called Cherrywood with Barbara and Alimah, who was considering transferring there. What I saw amazed me. There were no walls, teachers were called by their first names, and students could work at their own grade level. Their system made perfect sense to me. That day I came home having made my decision: “I’ve found a better school and I’m going there,” I declared. Mom was totally supportive. She didn’t want me to feel held back, and besides, she was an alternative school teacher herself. On PD days Mom would bring me along to City School, where she taught English and drama. There were posters on the walls with slogans like stop racism and being gay is not a crime, bashing is. I’d stare wide-eyed at the older students with their rainbow mohawks, lip piercings, and knee-high Doc Martens. Teenagers didn’t look like that in Cedarvale. They fascinated me. And they all loved my mom, their rebellious role model. Elaine was an unconventional teacher, even by alternative school standards. She taught a course called “Nature Writing as a Spiritual Path” and got her students to meditate and hug trees. She’d take her writer’s craft class out to cafés to work and encourage them to write freely about whatever was going on in their lives, pushing them to go further than they thought they could go as writers. Mom thought it was important for students to own their education, to be involved, and to have a lot demanded of them. She was incredibly supportive of her students and treated them with more respect than adults usually did. “I wish your mom was my mom,” they’d say to me. I’d roll my eyes, even though deep down I knew how lucky I was. To Mom’s credit, whenever I seriously asked her to change her behaviour, she listened. Unlike her mother, she wanted to be able to hear us. She stopped reading books during my hockey games after I told her I wanted her to watch; she refrained from gossiping about me to her friends when I asked her not to; and she even started bringing me juice when I got sick. “Mommy brought you orange juice!” she’d sing.  But the learning curve sometimes seemed like a gentle slope. I didn’t always feel heard. When I was really upset with Mom, I had to find creative ways of getting her attention. On one occasion when I was about seven, angry about who knows what, I took a pad of paper and wrote “Fuck” on every single sheet. Then, while Mom was out, I went around the house taping up my expletive art—on the walls and furniture, inside drawers and cupboards. There must have been a hundred sheets. I didn’t want to be cruel—I considerately used masking tape so as not to peel paint off the walls—but I did want to get my message across. She’ll see how mad I am, I thought. She’d open the front door and be greeted with “Fuck.” She’d walk into the hallway and see “Fuck.” She’d open the fridge, “Fuck” again. I didn’t get the response I was imagining. I sat at the top of the stairs and watched as she stopped in her tracks, gazed around with wide eyes, and burst out laughing. “Get the camera!” Mom shouted. I came downstairs and joined in the laughter, cheekily posing next to my “Fucks.” I was satisfied to at least get her attention. Like goys finding Easter eggs well into May, mom continued to discover my four-letter treasures for weeks. “I found a ‘Fuck’!” Mom yelled out as she opened the china cabinet to get the Shabbat candles.   My parents weren’t religious, but we still lit candles on Friday night and kept kosher in the house. I resented not being allowed to have Lucky Charms—the marshmallows were considered treif. When Mom actually did make rules, they seemed so arbitrary. I can eat all the sugary cereals I want except the one that’s magically delicious?  By the same lazy logic, I was sent to Hebrew school every Sunday: apparently it was “what Jewish kids do.” I hated it. The idea of God was preposterous to me, the stories were way too far-fetched, and I definitely wasn’t into all the male pronouns. Mom would bribe us with a bacon-fuelled pit stop at McDonald’s on the way (she wasn’t one to care for Commandments of any kind). Mom went along with the kosher thing at home. But when we were out of the house, it was a different story. She’d sometimes buy delicate slices of prosciutto before picking me up from one of my extracurriculars, and on the way home we’d park the car and dangle the mouth-watering strips of meat into our mouths, laughing like criminals. [[{"fid":"6706801","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] In an effort to get my parents to allow me to quit Hebrew School, I emerged from my bedroom one Sunday morning having taped crucifixes all over my clothes (I was crafty with the masking tape). I walked up to Mom and said, “If you don’t let me quit, I’ll marry a Christian!” “So what?” she said, unfazed. “Okay, well then I’ll marry a Nazi!” I shouted. Mom burst out laughing. I’d won her over! They eventually acquiesced, but not without warning me that I wouldn’t be allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah. That was more than fine by me. I wasn’t interested in selling out for some gold bling with my initials on it. And I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming a woman. Although Mom exposed me to sophisticated culture—art galleries, museums, libraries, and culinary adventures—my interests veered more toward puzzles, riddles, and logic games. My teachers thought I might even become a mathematician. But if there was one game that defined me, it was chess. (One of the best parts about going to Cherrywood was that playing chess counted as math.) I started competing in tournaments when I was ten, and would regularly spend my weekends in hotel conference rooms playing with nerdy boys. I was consistently ranked fourth in Ontario in my age group. What I liked most about chess was that chance had nothing to do with it. No need for lucky cards or dice or troll dolls. It was up to me to use everything in my arsenal—logic, calculation, memory, even psychology. Mom would remark on how I never got flustered when I was down. “You don’t give up. You become even more focused,” she’d say with great admiration. I learned to rely on my strategic-thinking skills on and off the board, believing I could think my way out of any problem. In our family, if I argued my case well enough, I could get whatever I wanted. I remember saying to my parents, “If you guys can have coffee in the morning for your caffeine, I can have a Coke.” For some reason, that one worked. “You’re going to make a fine lawyer one day” was a familiar refrain. Mom spent most of her time at home reading. I can still picture her sitting in the living room by the fireplace, a book in one hand and a pink Nat Sherman Fantasia in the other. She wouldn’t even inhale—the thin, pastel-coloured cigarettes with gold filters were just props in her one-woman performance of “I am a Parisian.” She’d put on one ofher French records—Serge Gainsbourg or Edith Piaf—and escape into her French fantasy world. I can still hear Georges Moustaki singing “Ma Liberté.” She played that one a lot.  *** When I was thirteen, my parents divorced, and Mom moved into a bachelor pad she’d inherited from a fellow divorcé. It had one tiny spare room, which became my room. When I stayed with Mom, it was just us. She was now living on only her teacher’s salary, but we’d still go out to restaurants in the neighbourhood. At home we did ear-candling treatments for each other and played a card game that featured feminist writers like Louisa May Alcott, Phillis Wheatley, and Emily Dickinson (Gertrude Stein was the wild card). While I’d be focused on collecting sets of four, Mom would tell me about her literary heroines: “Little Women is really the story of Louisa and her family. Louisa was Jo . . .” Often we’d just talk. More than anything else, talking was our thing. To this day there’s no one in the world I’ve ever had an easier time talking to. What I liked most about Mom’s new place was that we didn’t have to keep kosher. For breakfast I’d often heat up a can of Chunky clam chowder, although most mornings Mom would go out to the corner and bring me back McDonald’s Hotcakes. She’d plop the golden Styrofoam container down on the kitchen table and sing “Mommy made breakfast!” To most people’s surprise, the divorce wasn’t initially that distressing for me. It only really started to hit me once my parents began dating. Just as I was entering adolescence, the two of them began behaving like full-blown teenagers. Mom fell madly in love with a man who was about to move to Albany to be the director of the New York State Museum. She took a sabbatical to study holistic ways of teaching and began a long-distance relationship with him, regularly leaving town for weeks at a time. I missed Mom like crazy when she was gone. It was hard being without her. I would often call her crying, pleading with her to come home. She’d listen to me and lovingly calm me down, but she wasn’t about to get in the car and drive back. She explained to me how important it was for her to have a full life of her own. “I’m not just a mother,” she would tell me. “I need passionate love too.” As gross as it was to hear her say that, I understood that Mom had her own needs. I tried my best to respect her wishes, but there were times when I needed her to be there for me and she wasn’t.  *** It was during those three and a half years while Mom lived part-time in Albany that her journey of self-discovery really took off. The northeastern United States is a hotbed of spiritual retreat centres. Mom began frequenting New Age havens like Kripalu, Omega Center, Zen Mountain Monastery, Insight Meditation Society, and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish renewal retreat in the Catskills. (There, she told me, they’d sit in a circle, with their index fingers touching their thumbs, and chant “Shal-Ommm, Shal-Ommm.”) She often slept in dorm rooms and chopped vegetables alongside college students in exchange for what would otherwise be a thousand-dollar yoga vacation. Mom didn’t need a large income in order to have a large life. Her retreats gave her time and space to work out her issues. She still had a lot of childhood resentment, even though by then she was getting along well enough with her own mother. She was proud that she’d taught her mother to treat her more respectfully. “It’s important to set boundaries,” Mom told me. Before her father died, he’d apologized to her in his Polish-Jewish accent for having not acknowledged her feelings enough. I know that meant a lot to her. But still, Mom was desperate to free herself from her family patterns. She would write unsent letters to her parents as well as responses from the perspective of her ideal mother or father. I was happy that Mom was working out her shit, but sometimes I felt like I had to compete with her inner child. My heart would break every time she drove off in her cappuccino-coloured Honda with its one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day bumper sticker. I spent a lot of time crying on my own, until one day I decided I wouldn’t cry anymore. I’m not sure if it was due to my natural temperament, my gender identity, or my parents not being fully attuned to my emotional world, but I resolved to toughen up and be a little man. Throughout junior high, I kept a busy schedule with sports and chess. I was on all my school’s sports teams, including the boys’ hockey team, and played competitive hockey, soccer, and softball on the side. I was the city’s school chess champion two years running. [[{"fid":"6706806","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] It was also in junior high that I experimented with being a girl, albeit only part-time. I was invited to friends’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs almost every weekend and could no longer get away with wearing pants to shul. When Saturday rolled around, I’d trade in my jeans and T-shirts for pantyhose and a dress. My friend Jane helped me pick out girl party attire at the mall and taught me about shaving my legs. My friend Sarah gave me a nudge when she’d catch me manspreading in a skirt in synagogue. Being a girl didn’t come naturally to me, but I passed well enough. Boys liked me, and I even had crushes on them. Though, looking back, I think my attraction was probably more about me wanting to be one of them (or because at that age they looked like cute little baby dykes, with their short hair and smooth cheeks, like little Justin Biebers). Mom brought me along with her to Albany a couple of times. On our last trip there she took me hiking in the Adirondacks. We climbed a steep, rocky trail up Crane Mountain, scrambling our way to the summit. We both felt a great sense of accomplishment as we looked out over the forest-covered mountains below. Mom was proud that she’d taken me, at thirteen, hiking up a three-thousand-plus-foot mountain. “When I was thirteen my mother took me discount shopping for our bonding time,” she told me. On the way down we came to a large pristine pond where we decided to take a break, sitting next to each other on a giant boulder in the shade. Mom pulled out a watercolour set along with some paper. Together, both painting quietly, we stared out at the glistening water and tall beech trees in the distance. It was a serene moment we would often look back on fondly.  A couple of days later Mom broke up with her boyfriend. She’d felt increasingly torn between being with him and being with me in Toronto. I vividly remember seeing her break down in tears as we got in the car to drive home. She was always so conscious never to lean on me that she rarely showed any vulnerability around me at all. Years later, Mom would admit that although she’d wanted a great love, she was scared. “I had a strong feeling that if I married him, I would be happy for a year and miserable for the rest of my life.” When I was fourteen, I decided to live with Mom full-time. By then Mom had moved into the Hemingway. She made a concerted effort to make me feel welcome. This time, she gave me the bigger room. It was during this period, in the mid-'90s, that Mom’s alternative lifestyle began to rub off on me. I went to yoga classes with her and wore a crystal aromatherapy necklace she’d given me as a gift. She took me on road trips to Buddhist monasteries and silent meditation retreats. In the car, we’d take turns listening to her folk music (Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt) and my Ani DiFranco, Tracy Chapman, and Indigo Girls tapes. We visited the Kushi Institute for Macrobiotics in Massachusetts, where we sipped twig tea and learned how to cut a carrot properly (from tip to stem) so as not to kill its life force. My teenage curiosity and idealism latched onto these alternative doctrines. I was drawn to the rules and guidance they provided. But for Mom, soul searching was more than just a teenage phase. She was always trying out something new. Trance dancing, magnets, meridian tapping, past-life regression therapy, colour therapy, cranial sacral therapy, chakras, crystals, rolfing, reiki—she would embrace each fad with the same enthusiastic yet noncommittal curiosity every time. Her perspective was, Why not try everything? It doesn’t hurt, and it might lead to unexpected wisdom. And hey, if they kept her looking younger, all the better! She regularly did these Tibetan exercises called “The Fountain of Youth,” where she’d spin around with her arms outstretched. (Mom said that when she first saw “spinning” classes pop up in New York City, she mistakenly thought her exercises were taking off.) I saw the marvel in her New Age dalliances, but I definitely took them with a big grain of Himalayan salt. For Mom, spirituality was like a buffet where she was free to pick and choose what she wanted—she could create her own narrative blend that suited her personality and her needs. It was all about knowing herself better, being able to laugh more about her frailties, and becoming as real as possible. As a feminist, she wanted to own her spirituality without giving herself over to dogmatic ideas or practices. Mom was a badass Buddhist. Of course, she believed that rules were optional, even the ones the yogis wrote. Her Four Noble Truths were coffee, wine, reading, and talking, or what Buddha might call “contraband.” When she was supposed to be staying silent on her meditation retreats, she’d leave me hushed, long-winded voicemail messages: “Hi darling, I’m not supposedto be talking, but I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. Um, it’s so weird to be speaking. . .” She would smuggle in novels and escape to nearby villages to get The New York Times and a cappuccino. When she did a work exchange at Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in the south of France, she led a group of fellow volunteers through the surrounding vineyards on a wine-tasting tour. “I was like the pied piper,” she told me. “They all followed!”   *** On my seventeenth birthday I set out on my own journey of self-discovery. My best friend Syd had lent me her copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. Essentially a recipe for teenage anarchy, the book became our bible. The Good News? Rather than being confined to classroom walls, teens could reclaim their natural ability to teach themselves by following their own curiosity and having real-world experiences. I had seen the light! After reading a few more books on “unschooling,” I knew what I had to do. That January, I finished my last exam of the semester and flew to San Francisco. There, Syd and I hung out with an older anarchist couple we’d met who took us around to protests with their giant papier-mâché puppets. Like Mom, I learned to live large on not much. We couch-surfed at intentional communities in Santa Cruz and Palo Alto and travelled up the west coast of the U.S. on a backpacker bus called the Green Tortoise. We hitchhiked across B.C., working on organic farms in return for accommodation and three wholesome meals a day. As a city kid, it blew my mind to see what broccoli looked like in its natural habitat. To say that I was self-righteous about my decision would be the understatement of the decade. If anyone ever said I was “dropping out of school,” I’d diligently correct them. “I’m not dropping out,” I’d say. “I’m rising out.” I’d always gotten good grades, but I didn’t want to learn that way. I wanted to see the world and have adventures. Mom was a little anxious, but she understood where I was coming from. She was ultimately very supportive, even seeing me off at the airport. “You have guts,” she told me. For the next two and a half years I travelled around the world to hippie hotspots with Syd and some of our other “unschooled” friends. I took silver jewellery–making lessons in Mexico, learned Spanish and taught English in Guatemala, trekked the twenty-day Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and attended talks by the Dalai Lama at his temple in Dharamsala, India. I was living the teenage dream. I would come home in between my long excursions and stay with Mom just long enough to make the money to go back out again. I worked at a bohemian gift store in Kensington Market that specialized in Ecuadorian sweaters and Circle of Friends pottery. Sure, I’d quit school. But it wasn’t like I was doing drugs—I was mainlining brown rice and Spirulina Sunrise bars. My form of teenage rebellion was being a hippie fundamentalist. I was a strict vegetarian. I used only “natural” body products. I refused to take any pharmaceuticals (not even Tylenol). I hung out at the health-food store as if it were the mall. My uniform consisted of second-hand jeans with colourful patches, striped Guatemalan shirts, and hiking boots—even in the city. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the surest sign of my hippie cult status? Dreadlocks. It hurts to admit it, but I had ’em. In my meagre defence, it was the late ‘90s, when they were “in style” (and before I learned about cultural appropriation). I also theorize that my Manic Panic–dyed dreads were an expression of my dormant queerness—a gateway to the short dyke-y haircut I subconsciously knew I was moving toward.  ***  One of the biggest perks to ditching high school was that I didn’t have to deal with normal teenage things, like dating. I could totally avoid it. And I did, even if I couldn’t avoid the subject altogether. The first spring after I quit school, Syd and I found ourselves pitching in at a women-only community near Nelson, B.C. This lesbian idyll was on a mountainside, up an old logging road, entirely off the grid. Even their bathtub was wood-fired. One evening a bunch of short-haired wimmin arrived in their trucks, giddy with excitement. One of them had a VHS tape in her hands that she was cradling like some sort of Holy Grail. Our host let us in on the commotion: they were congregating to watch the “Coming Out” episode of Ellen. It was essentially the lesbian moon landing of 1997. They all rushed into action. One of them peeled back a macramé tapestry to reveal a hidden TV in the corner of the livingroom. Another got the generator going. Everyone gathered around for the momentous—if pre-recorded—occasion. For one night only, we would plug back into civilization for the sake of Ellen DeGeneres. I watched as Ellen finally got up the courage to say to Laura Dern’s character “I’m gay,” only to accidentally blurt the words into the airport P.A. system. I laughed out loud, but on the inside I was freaking out. It was the first time I remember seriously thinking, I think that’s what I am. I was a vegetarian who played competitive hockey and softball, who in that moment “happened” to find herself in a room full of lesbian separatists. How many more hints did I need?   *** After many months on the road, bouncing from place to place, the idea of staying put and going to university started to seem appealing—an exciting new adventure in itself. I had some older hippie friends who went to Trent, a lefty liberal arts university just over an hour’s drive from Toronto, and would sometimes visit them there. Their courses in feminist philosophy and alternative media sounded way more interesting than high school. Emboldened by my “bible,” I booked a meeting with the dean and presented my case for why my self-education was just as valuable, if not more, than a high school diploma. He listened to my arguments and asked, “What if we said that if you go back to high school and get your senior year English credit, we will then consider your application?” I shook my head. “I’m not going back,” I said. “It would be compromising my beliefs.”  I was cocky, stubborn, and defiant. I told him that if he wanted to know whether I could read and write I’d be happy to provide some samples of my work. He agreed, and a couple of months later, in the spring after my nineteenth birthday, I received a letter of acceptance. Mom was impressed with how I’d subverted the system, but she was even more in awe of my steadfast—if not insufferable—confidence in myself. “You have a strong centre,” she told me.   *** In stereotypical Sapphic fashion, I met my first girlfriend in my freshman women’s studies class. Anya had short red hair and a wallet chain, and she rode a skateboard. I liked that she was five years older and didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought of her. We flirted for several weeks before we finally kissed. I was building up the nerve to tell Mom about Anya when I was home one weekend in December. I knew she’d be accepting, but I was still terrified to come out to her. I was only just starting to come to terms with my sexuality. Besides Ellen and k.d. lang, there weren’t many celesbian role models back then. This was pre–L Word; it wasn’t yet cool to be gay. Same-sex marriage hadn’t been legalized. Matthew Shepard had just been beaten to death. As good as I had it, I was still scared. Mom and I talked about a lot of things, but we’d never spoken about my dating life, or lack thereof. Afraid of prying, she never asked me overtly personal questions, and I never offered up what was actually going on inside my head. At one point that weekend, we were sitting in her sunroom when I finally blurted out, “I’m dating someone.” Before I could even mention Anya’s name, or her pronoun, Mom replied, “Wonderful! Invite her to Solstice!” She didn’t even flinch. Sometimes Mom was too cool.    *** Mom had been planning an intergenerational women’s winter solstice party, which that year happened to fall on a full moon. It would be the first time I’d be introducing my new girlfriend—essentially announcing “Yep, I’m gay!”—to twenty of our closest friends. I didn’t think it would come as a big surprise to anyone, but I still felt nervous and self-conscious. In any case, it soon became clear that I needn’t have worried about being the odd one. When our guests arrived, Mom led everyone through a series of activities. First she got us each to light a candle and share our intentions for the next year. Then she got us all to hold hands, walk around in a circle, and chant, over and over, “Freedom comes from not hanging on, you gotta let go, let go-oh-oh!” (She explained that a witch named Sophia had taught her the chant.) Next she got us all to stand in a circle and make a human web by tossing balls of yarn to one another. We ended up tangled in a big stringy mess. Anya couldn’t stop giggling. Mom thought she was high. I imagine Anya thought the same about Mom. For the pièce de résistance, Mom ushered us all outside into the back parking lot. “It’s time to howl at the full moon,” she announced. We huddled around in our parkas and stared up at the night sky. “Aaah- woooooh, aah-woooooh!” Mom led the group in a series of loud howls. A neighbour soon yelled down: “Shut the fuck up!” “It’s just me! Elaine!” Mom reassured him cheerfully. Anya and I stood on the sidelines howling with laughter. I could see, from Anya’s point of view, how this party, and my mom, might seem a little bizarre. I’d always written Mom off as quirky or eccentric—until I came to realize that she was just as queer as me, if not more. Considering the word’s traditional meaning—“strange, peculiar, off-centre”—I’d say Mom managed to outqueer me at what was ostensibly my own coming-out party.  When I look back on everything now, as someone who’s more comfortable in their genderqueer skin, I remember feeling confident and self-assured about so many things and yet totally strange and unknown to myself. I didn’t quite fit in with either gender or in a world where people just followed the script handed down to them. But Mom’s out-there-ness made it okay for me to be myself and to live life on my own terms, just as she did. I’m immensely grateful to her for that. But in the end, the pendulum may have swung too far—in her approach to me, and more consequentially, to herself.     Excerpted from Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow, available now from Viking. 
Entering the House

Prepared for every situation, even pandemic, mothers should be the ones on TV when our nation is under attack by terrorists or viruses.

Angel of the Pearly Gates My mother has strict ideas about what needs to happen when one enters the house. One should remove one’s shoes and place them on one of two shoe racks, the short-term shoe rack for shoes in daily circulation or the long-term shoe rack for shoes in lower rotation. But do not leave shoes in front of the door. After removing one’s shoes, one should put on slippers to cross the tiled floor of the entryway because concrete emits toxins that your feet absorb over time. Then one should hang up one’s coat in the coat closet, place scarves on the hook behind the door, if applicable, place gloves in the appropriate basket above the coats, if applicable. Toques can stay in pockets, unless wet. These elaborate rules have gone from restrictions to choreography. I can do the dance, even with four full grocery bags in my hands. There are balletic variations as well, for entering certain rooms. Slippers should be worn on tile but not carpet. Certain doors should remain open and certain doors should be half open and certain doors should rest lightly on the jamb and other doors should be shut tightly. Got it? And 5, 6, ready, dance. Angel of Caution When my mother calls me, she enters the conversation by saying, Yes, Ian, then launches into whatever’s on her mind. Whether I answer or she leaves a message, she always begins the same way, Yes, Ian, which is odd, because she says no to so many other things. I don’t think that the automatic conjuring of all negative possibilities is a reflex unique to my mother. She is the angel of caution, trepidation, warning, hesitation, be carefuls, why are you going to Greece? Did you floss your teeth tonight? Don’t talk to people without a mask, remember to wash the lids of canned goods—rat pee. She predicted that COVID-19 would become a pandemic when it was still in Wuhan. With prophetic acumen, she advised me to cancel all my travel. But before that she said, Why are you going to Italy? The angel of caution also means that mothers’ handbags, glove compartments, and pantries are reliable sources of Band-Aids and juice boxes, emergency granola bars, lip balm, hand lotion. Prepared for every situation, even pandemic, they should be the ones on TV when our nation is under attack by terrorists or viruses. My mother would advise the nation to eat more garlic. Guardian Angel There were steep concrete stairs at the side of my grandparents’ house. When my brother and I were little, my mother must have had sweaty dreams about us tumbling down those stairs. The fact that she still mentions them from time to time means that they’ve inflicted a deep psychic wound. As boys, danger was a concept that my brother and I acquired late. I remember the heat of my mother’s hands hovering around our waists or inches from our backs. My mother does not advocate for learning the hard way or for natural consequences. If she’s doling out a consequence, fine, but if the consequence of, say, irresponsible spending by an older brother during college means that he’ll eat only cereal for a while, then no, her boy need not suffer that consequence. She’ll send him more money. When we were learning to walk, she insisted that children didn’t need to fall. Those stairs are really the only part of the house that I remember and I remember them as a kind of monster with a mouth and a long ridged tail like the spine of a dragon. Angel of Security The opposite of fear, in my mother’s case, is not courage but security. Like many Boomer parents, she falls into the job-car-house-retirement-with-a-pension pipeline of dreams. When I bought my tiny, overpriced place in Vancouver, she said both, Congratulations and Ow, you poor thing, recognizing the necessity and injustice of home ownership in that city. Again, like many people, she spent her working years qualifying for a mortgage then responsibly paying for it. Our houses became larger and more detached in stages, from townhouse to semi-detached to fully detached. Soon it will hover above the earth in truly detached radiance. She had a list of requirements for that final house, a literal list: at least three bedrooms, double garage, walking distance to a bus route, though everyone drove everywhere in the suburbs. Importantly, the list included a proper entrance. A good entrance comprises a procession up a path, a few steps up toward the front door, no more than five, a porch, a step into the house, then a step from the foyer into the front hallway. Houses were disqualified for having too many or too few steps. Another thing on my mother’s list of requirements was multiple exits. Front door, rear patio door, large upstairs windows, and ideally a side entrance/exit from the basement. In the event of fire, one should have options, like on an airplane, I guess. But I sense something more: that a woman should be able to leave places easily, even her own home, that a black woman in North America, meaning a descendent of formerly enslaved people, should be able to leave her situation, her marriage, her mind, if she wants, at will. It all sounds extraordinarily fussy, doesn’t it? The concrete rules, the step up from the foyer. I could offer plausible explanations but the older I get the more I feel that my mother resists any coherent interpretation. My mother retains an inexplicability, an unpredictability of temper and reaction, even in her very predictable actions. I know her well, probably better than anybody on the planet, but she cannot be fixed by my knowing. It’s not so much that she’s expanding in new directions but that she’s digging a hole in the basement and spending more time down there. I’m upstairs near the door. I hear CNN on loop down there. The light is a bare bulb. I’m not sure why she’s digging down there. What’s the hole for? Who? Angel of Death My mother’s oldest friend lost two of her adult sons. One was a police officer who was shot in his driveway, the other one drowned with his wife a few months after their wedding. She has one son left. A woman at church, same thing, lost two children in adulthood. Another of my mom’s friends lost her adult child to stomach cancer. Another woman at church lost her son, her baby, she calls him, to violence. All these mothers go forward with their rounds of grocery shopping and oil changes, and it’s impossible to know exactly if they break down at home when they crush garlic and remember how their child used to smell the skin before tossing it into the garbage. To keep another human being alive for decades is no small thing. The childless can opt for a cactus or a fern, depending on their time and instincts for caregiving. One could party in Ibiza for months and come back and the cactus will still be fine. By contrast, knowing that a child is not a cactus, how does a mother ever lift her attention from her child? Just today my mother texted me to remind me to drink water. Angel of War Here’s Zadie Smith in the childhood section of Swing Time: What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on—it’s what I’ve always demanded myself—but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. What do we want from our mothers when we’re adults? I’ll take the occasional juice box, sure. But I think the real question is not from but for. What do we want for our mothers when we’re adults? A golden harp, a golden rule: That she would do unto herself as she did unto me.
‘The Rebelliousness of the Body’: An Interview with Rufi Thorpe

The author of The Knockout Queen on craftsmanship, sexuality, and strength. 

“You can know a lot about someone if you know who they were in high school,” Rufi Thorpe says. That’s one of the reasons her books tend to circle adolescence, she continues: because it’s the time when you are most authentically and unbearably your own self. Thorpe’s first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, follows a pair of childhood best friends into adulthoods that neither of them could have predicted; it was long-listed for both the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second, Dear Fang, With Love, tracks a mostly-estranged father and his teenage daughter on a trip to Lithuania, his family’s homeland. Now Thorpe has written The Knockout Queen (Knopf), about an intense, life-altering friendship between two outcasts stuck in the southern California suburbs. Michael and Bunny have been next-door neighbors for years, but they don’t start talking until one afternoon in the tenth grade, when she discovers him smoking cigarettes in her side-yard. “One thing Bunny and I had in common,” Michael explains, “was an unusual lack of adult supervision.” Their relationship becomes something both can depend on in the absence of parental involvement and care. Bunny’s father is a successful real-estate agent and a serious alcoholic; Michael is living with his aunt and hiding the fact that he’s gay from his family as best he can. The Knockout Queen is about sex and violence and shame, and how utterly, impossibly commonplace they are. The book outlines how the secrets we keep begin to keep us, or, as Michael puts it, describing his relationships with men he meets on Craigslist, the “lives strange to me that turned my life strange.” Thorpe and I spoke by phone several weeks into our respective Coronavirus isolations, on a beautiful southern California day when neither of us could go outside. Her children interrupted occasionally to ask for dispute mediation, or help with the iPad. Their contributions to the conversation aren’t included below, but it feels right to note that, as Thorpe is a working mother, of course they were part of her day.  Zan Romanoff: Four years ago, you wrote an essay called "Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid" for Vela that got a lot of traction. You've said since then that you sometimes think about writing a follow-up about being the parent of slightly older kids, and how that’s a different experience from when they’re very young and everything feels acutely terrible. Is that something you’re still interested in, or working on?  Rufi Thorpe: I sort of was trying to write it this go-round of publicity, but I wasn't able to produce anything satisfactory. Part of the roadblock to trying to write a similar thing about parenting older kids is the recognition that, when you're still in the baby part of it, nothing can help you. What happens is not that you figure out how to do it; it's that the experience hardens you and matures you, and then all of a sudden in this new honed form you can just slice through it, and it's like butter. It's not hard anymore. But you can't do that to yourself voluntarily. There's no mental position you can find that will allow you to skip that part. It just sucks. I will say, as someone without kids, I do wish there was a little more writing about the easier or more manageable parts of it— because it feels sometimes like most of the pieces I read are from people who are in the worst of it, and then it’s hard not to conclude that the consensus from women writers is: if you have kids it will completely ruin your life. But I can also imagine that, like, if that’s your reality all day, of course you want your work to take you somewhere else. To be writing about other things. I know some writers decide to write a book because they think such a book will sell, and is a compelling market opportunity. I have never been able to do that, because to me the compulsion to spend thousands and thousands of hours thinking and then writing about imaginary people… money, especially uncertain, speculative money, is not enough. I have to be really, really interested in whatever it's about. And you're not able to control what you're interested in very well.  You wrote a book between your second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, and The Knockout Queen that you didn’t end up selling. Tell me about that experience, and how it kind of led you to The Knockout Queen. Oh yeah, my big failure! I was in a really dark period. The Girls from Corona del Mar had gotten published, and it all felt really magical. I got pregnant with my second baby and I had this really positive birth experience that was really different than my first birth. And then we decided to move back to California, and I was so happy to be close to friends and family. And then my husband got a job where he had to work really long hours, and he was driving 100 miles a day in LA traffic. Then my youngest baby got sick with RSV and was in the hospital for five days. I don't think he was in danger of dying; however, it was still terrifying. So, I had a period where I felt like I was being consumed by the children, and I was never gonna write again. Then we hired my husband's cousin to come live with us. She would watch the baby for two hours a day, and in these hours, I wrote this book. I think there was just too much pressure on it. I was writing it more hoping it was good than trying to say something. I just was exhausted. It wasn't good. I don't think the book is unsalvageable, but once I finished it and understood what was wrong with it, I had no idea how to fix it. And no interest in fixing it! So I was like, maybe I'll come back to it, but now I want to write something that's just like... the way I phrased it to myself was, “fun.” I wanted it to be for me. I wanted to write something that was what I wanted to write, instead of what I thought anyone else wanted me to write. There was a weird defiance to the energy with which I started the book. I was feeling very, fuck everybody! I had written a book titled Bunny Lampert like ten years ago. It didn't have this plot, but it was about Bunny Lampert. I've been thinking about this character for years and years and years, so returning to her felt kind of like getting in touch with that original high school part of myself, that part of yourself that you learn to be embarrassed of, and then later when you're much older, you learn you never should have been embarrassed of. I think in some sense that's what allowed the book to be as direct and honest as it is. It's a very me book. It's not posing as anything. It's very frank and genuine. It definitely has a fuck you energy—but in a delightful way, not an angry way. It feels sometimes like authors now are very careful around our books in this too-cautious way, like, can anyone, anywhere, for any reason, get mad at me about this? And I loved that there was stuff in there where it's palpable that you're not thinking about what anyone else is going to think, and just getting weird. Along those lines, I am curious about your thought process around deciding to narrate the book from the perspective of a gay man. I thought deeply about it. We've all been watching through various think-pieces of better and worse quality about cultural appropriation and how that affects fiction, and I have all sorts of conflicted feelings. Growing up as a woman reading literature and watching men write female consciousness, the idea that I wouldn't be allowed to do that to someone else, when all of literature was doing it to me seemed like, well then, what are we doing? I thought there was this understanding that Anna Karenina is not a woman; she's a fantasy of Tolstoy's. And Michael is not a young gay man; he’s a fantasy of mine. You will learn a lot more about me than you will learn about young gay men by reading it.  When I got the idea for Michael it was very much like, he just appeared, and had a super strong voice and a specific backstory right from the beginning. It was one of those times when you feel like the character's writing itself. Now, in my experience, that's because the character is a deeply repressed aspect of yourself. So soon enough, he started to narrate things from my own life, things I was really uncomfortable with. Throughout my 20s, I would meet women from the internet to have sex with them, because I couldn't deal with the fact that I was bi. I had this whole weird doublethink world where I just liked to do that because it was fun, and really, I was straight. The very same thing that made me write Michael is also what gives me no right to write about him. I've been a horrible member of the gay community—I never officially came out! I have not contributed to that community. I'm just a fucked up person, writing about how I'm fucked up. How do you say whether that kind of material is authentic?   The book is about the rebelliousness of the body—the way the body can want something almost against your will. The whole book is about that, so it makes sense that I found a way to hook it to these experiences that I had. It makes sense that I brought them up. But why not, once I realized that, make the character female, so that it was a true direct autobiographical thing? And the answer's really simple. It's that I love writing as a man, because then I don't have to deal with all the bullshit. I didn't want to deal with Michael and "is his behavior slutty?" If I had a female character doing that, there would be all of this cultural baggage I'd have to deal with.  Those kinds of workmanlike craftsmanship concerns, they feel so petty to bring up when you're trying to talk about the real big true sins of cultural appropriation, the ways that it can be damaging to people, the ways that it can be hurtful— and yet, every fiction writer is making very workmanlike, craftsman decisions, where they're thinking about characters' gender not based on, can I authentically do this, but like, what works better for my plot?  Is a craftsmanly excuse good enough? I don't know.  There's a lot of physical violence in this novel. It feels like you're working to situate violence in the ordinary—not in a David Lynch, “ahh this is so surreal” way, but just like, horrible things are happening all around us, often in the most mundane ways possible. I was a gigantic child. I've been this height since I was 10 years old, so I had this belief that I was going to be a giantess. In part because I didn't know my dad, it felt like maybe it was possible. And then I just never grew again, but I've always been densely muscled and really strong. So I wasn't tall—so what? I still felt really physically powerful. And then I was in a relationship that was physically abusive. It wasn't just getting decked a bunch; it was a lot more physically grappling, or being thrown, or struggling to get away. The realization of how much stronger he was, and how truly helpless I was, was like, a thing that I couldn't get over. So the dream of a woman that is physically powerful—the dream of a woman that could pick up a man and throw him—is very compelling. It's a wish-fulfillment. I think Bunny comes from those set of fantasies, inspired both by cultural narratives and my own autobiographical reasons. There's a line in there where Michael says, "The people I have the most sympathy for were almost never the ones anyone else felt sympathy for." And that feels like exactly the project of the book—to take characters who, when you describe them as types, sound unsympathetic, and be like, these are the people you're going to spend time with, and come to care about. My instinct to do that is one of my core—like, you can't help it if Ray Lampert's your dad! You gotta deal with it one way or the other. He is shitty, and there's good things about him. In some ways he's a great dad; in other ways he's a terrible dad. People are really flawed. And you have to deal with them anyway.  Yeah. I also love the way you write about class and aesthetics. A lot of the houses in Knockout Queen are kind of suburban and unremarkable—not like, luxe and thrilling, but also not poverty porn. Just the house you buy because you need a house, and this is the amount of money you have, so that’s that. I feel like you’re really good at writing places that feel like places, instead of like, Backdrops for a Novel. I am of a family that's maybe what would be called the fallen aristocracy. We still have the carpets; we don't have anything else. I have lived in-between classes in a lot of ways. My background is still one of unfathomable privilege; I'm just saying, we've never owned a nice car or something.  I think there is a tendency to present attractive, opulent settings without any nuance or suspicion of them, and they're almost just the standard backdrop settings of the people who can afford to have the kinds of problems that you want to write about. There’s not that many novels written about trying to figure out how to pay your rent. I also love houses—maybe that's part of it. I'm addicted to looking at house listings, and I'm very crafty. I wonder if that's a Californian thing? I don’t care that much about real estate in my real life, but in my writing I'm obsessed with houses, and what's going on in all of them. So much of the history of the novel is about the development of these metropolitan centers, and this Balzacian sense that the city is an entire world, and every kind of person is living there—that you could somehow peek into each of their lives. I think that is very much the part of the novel that I'm drawn to and fell in love with. I'm a nosy, nosy bitch.  I think that's every novelist. You have to be!  You’re eavesdropping, asking people invasive questions about their moms. How does that make you feel? You're like a therapist with no morals, and no obligation to help. That is damning, and true. You said earlier that this book is about the ways that your body betrays you. One of the notes that I took while reading just says SHAME, in all capitals. So I'd love it if you could talk more about how that force functions in the book. I think that shame comes with the territory of all the other things, ‘cause I think that there's a lot of doublethink, especially around violence. Is it a natural primate-y kind of thing that we do sometimes, or is it evil? We do a lot of similar doublethink around sex. There's every fucked up part of the thinking life of modernity in those questions. It's all gotten just jammed together into a bunch of conflicted feelings about our most basic activities. And so, anytime you're gonna talk about sex or violence, you're going to talk about shame, because none of us can figure out how we're supposed to feel about sex or violence.   I also think that shame is just interesting. Because sometimes I'm not ashamed of the things that I should be ashamed of, but I'm ashamed of some things so intensely that I know they're occupying—it's like a storage unit you can't get rid of. You know you don't need all that stuff, but you can't let go of it. I know there are vast interior spaces that are occupied by holding onto shame for things that I can't go back and undo.  People say "forgive yourself," and you're like, all right. How? Tell me, physically, what should I do?   I have always been puzzled by the phrases "love yourself" and "forgive yourself," because I'm like, all right. Literally, I have had to—the love yourself one, I've broken down into steps. But forgiving yourself I think is a lot harder, because sometimes you just… don't. It's really hard to forgive yourself if you don't. As I was reading through the book, I was thinking about how the characters do all kinds of things, some of them good, some of them bad. But it fees like the true warping force, the thing that really actually fucks them up, is shame—is that no one feels like they're allowed to be the person that they are. I think what I'm circling around here is that the book is, in so many ways, about how we are just at the mercy of each other. We want to be loved and accepted and cared for so badly, and no matter how much we want it for ourselves, we so often do not give it to other people! It's heartbreaking!  There's also the problem of how to contain the psychos. What do you do with Ray Lampert? That's the problem with prison, is that it's such a clumsy and stupid solution to what is a much bigger problem, which is: what do you do when individuals in the group begin harming the group?  Prison is this weird form of shunning where it's like, you have to go live alone in this box with the other bad boys. It doesn't work very well; it is completely metaphysically without meaning, and it actually fucks everybody up more. Prison doesn't help anything get any better.  But people are really at a loss as to how we could do anything else. We don't have another framework, even for imagining what else we could do. Or even just on a personal level, in your life. What do you do with family members who are toxically fucked up? What do you do when your kid is a drug addict or an alcoholic and you don't want to keep enabling them? Where do you draw those lines? How do you deal with people who are starting to hurt other people? Yeah, and that feels related to one of the big questions that sort of haunts your work, which is: who gets out? Who survives these messed-up childhoods and gets to go on and thrive? It’s a big question between Mia and Lorrie Ann in Girls from Corona del Mar, and it recurs again in Knockout Queen.   For Mia and Lorrie Ann, Lorrie Ann is being inexplicably punished. She is actively good, and Mia can't figure out why life is punishing her. In the case of Bunny and Michael, she is being punished for something she did. And he cannot decide if she deserves the punishment or not. If she's not being punished enough, then he starts to think that she should be punished more. Then when she's being punished, he thinks she shouldn't be and it's unfair and there's been a miscarriage of justice. He's not really sure. And then she is made strange to him through her punishment. You can tell what interests me! They're very similar books in lots of ways. They're both about friendship, and they're both about trying to reconcile who you were in high school with who you are as an adult.   There's nothing more embarrassing than writing more than one book, because it becomes apparent that you only have like, a limited set of obsessions.  There's a very wonderful book—The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner. It's a book about writing from an editor and agent's perspective, the lion tamer's tale if you will—a lion tamer's book about lions. She's like, “Listen, I'll tell you exactly what kind of creatures you are.”  It's very comforting. She's like, “You don't get to choose what your material is. You get the things that obsess you. There's going to be three or four if you're lucky; probably just one or two. And then you're gonna write the same book over and over again, exploring those themes. Some of the books will be good, and some of them won't be. That's what you're gonna do for the rest of your life. Giddyup.” I was like, Oh my god, that's such a relief! There's this moment at the end of the book where Michael says, of Bunny, "I wanted her tragedy to belong to me." And that felt sort of like what authors are always doing—putting our characters through horrible things for our own selfish reasons, or like, telling other people’s stories as a way of telling our own. I'm a reckless and irresponsible god to my characters. I don't really worry about their anguish. I take care to love them. I feel like that's my job, is to see them and record all that is beautiful and awful about them. I feel like it's my job to put them into the most extreme positions possible, so that they can fully reveal themselves. Yeah, totally. I guess this felt, to me, related to the question of, what right do we have to tell the stories of people from groups we aren’t a part of? In this case it's just, what right do we have to write at all? The answer is: we don't! But we do it anyway.  There's a great quote by Zadie Smith. She's talking about how women have felt really connected to these fake, man-made women in literature, and that it's perverse but it's the kind of thing that's possible in fiction. It's morally irresponsible, but that fiction is, at root, irresponsible. It's not able to be morally accountable in that way; it's not interested in it. That's not what it's about.  But there's also ways in which fiction is enriching. If I hadn't found ways of feeling seen and understood by books, I think I probably would have committed suicide. That was how I figured out that there were other people that I could commune with. I wasn't good at understanding how to do it with other people when I was a baby monster. So I do still have this devotion to it as this transcendent medium that allows minds to be in communion with one another throughout space and time.
What Were Sports?

A perfect engine of meaningless data creation; an otherworldly space-place where people could depressurize and sometimes succumb to madness; good even when they were bad.

Once, there were sports. Spencer Hall and Jason Kirk try to remember what that was like. Spencer Hall: I remember there were … expensive commercials. I definitely remember expensive commercials being a part of live sports. I only noticed this when sports on replay happened. Before, in an NBA game happening in real time, there would be LeBron selling me a Kia or James Harden selling me insurance. For the record, I don’t think James Harden and risk management should ever appear in the same sentence, much less be the foundation for an insurance ad campaign. The ads for replay games are cheap and very sad: Home generators, car warranties, bootleg tactical gear for things that shouldn’t be tactical like car visors and hearing aids. I like high-dollar advertising during sports because it lies to me, and doesn’t come right out and try and sell me on blatant fraud. Make my frauds expensive and pretty, please. Jason Kirk: Before, when there were sports, we did have some Diesel-Powered Combat Mode Frying Pan (Sovereign Citizen Edition) commercials, but mostly for college basketball games that tipped off around midnight ET. Mainly there was a commercial about a breakaway theocracy named after Dr Pepper, a place we all wanted to live. But now it’s just the frying pans. Fansville is now our paradise lost. I also seem to recall the University of Nebraska playing men’s basketball, but no one ever figured out why. Do you remember how long sports took, back when there were sports? I remember one football game as being three-plus hours of commitment, and that’s if we were just sitting at home and waiting for the next game after it. Going to a game could mean budgeting between eight hours and three days. Of course, this was back when there were not just sports, but also days. SH: I recall this: Different sports digested time differently. Football hours worked like an interval runner. Sometimes an hour took an hour, and then sometimes an hour took fifteen minutes, depending on who was playing. We watch college football. That means watching service academies running the triple option, and sometimes that means fifteen minutes on the clock taking something actually close to an actual fifteen minutes. Soccer was basically a sitcom and took 22 minutes. Every NBA game felt like exactly 90 minutes, even the important ones. Hockey felt normal in the regular season, but in the playoffs? It was like being in a car crash or an animal attack, in that I know the important parts happened in ten seconds or so, but in my brain each second felt like hours. When I watched golf, I forgot whether I had ever done or lived anything outside of watching seemingly endless golf. JK: So the post-sports world we live in is GOLF WORLD. The thing I remember most about sports: all the spreadsheets, piling longer and longer forever. Spreadsheets of injuries and transactions, each line sliding across the bottom of a TV screen’s spreadsheet. This happened during a game in which the period-by-period scoreboard looked like a spreadsheet. The results went into a different spreadsheet for the season as a whole. That season went into a historical archive spreadsheet. Nerds pored over all of them to create their own spreadsheets, which they sold to people who looked at Las Vegas’s spreadsheets. Sports were a perfect engine of meaningless data creation. I like all the old spreadsheets, but I would’ve preferred for the new ones to continue. I do not like that most of them halted and some will be forever incomplete. So I thank the NFL for continuing to fill its transaction spreadsheets as if all is normal, whether it gets around to filling out its actual game spreadsheets ever again or not. Do you remember how, back when there were sports, each person had a list of teams they strongly preferred to win? Like, if the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies squared off, you and I would be a little bit happier about life if the Grizzlies were the team that won. What was all that about? SH: Remembering that would involve remembering different places. I have only ever been in Atlanta. Its teams are all I have ever known. Its championships are the only triumphs I have ever felt. I now realize I have experienced very few triumphs in life, Jason. This feeling is horrible. It kind of makes me want to die, Jason, or at least avoid saying “I watched Trae Young play basketball before he started winning things with another team somewhere else.” I would like to remember other places with other teams. Please help me do that. JK: Our sweet lad Trae Young has already expressed interest in rooting for Tampa because that’s where Tom Brady lives now, due to spreadsheets. Trae is lost to us. We already miss him. One cool thing I remember about sports is watching people run fast in one direction. It was fun to watch someone do this when unimpeded, such as when Usain Bolt walked into a mall in church shoes or whatever and ran as fast as the fastest NFL player ever had, but it was ten times as fun when someone was able to run really far while other people were trying to stop that person from running far. Remember watching De’Anthony Thomas, who has been posting GOOD TWEETS since the year 2012, run free at the Rose Bowl? That was good. Remember the Rose Bowl? That was good. Even more fun than watching someone run in one direction: watching someone run in a series of different directions, perhaps while also doing something else, like bouncing a ball with their hands, feet, or head. Some sports didn’t have this, but I think most of them did. Back when sports existed, you were also very good at pointing out which big people were good at stopping little people from running. That was also fun to watch. SH: Thank you for the kind words. I remember another thing I was very good at: Pointing out perfectly normal, wonderful people living their best lives in the stands. I miss that as much as any game, I think, because it is not often that normal people end up on television without committing a crime or being the victim of one. I miss seeing normal people getting to be abnormal for fun in the context of a sporting game. I remember otherwise respectable people punching each other in the face ineffectively during college football games. I remember otherwise responsible members of society obviously on their seventh beer caught sleeping in the stands of an afternoon game. I remember seeing Philly fans doing literally anything but being normal for anyone but a Philly fan. Some of them even had jobs and families, and still did things like accosting Russell Westbrook from the stands like that was something a person would do! I remember sports being a cool, otherworldly space-place where people could completely depressurize for several hours, and sometimes even succumb to space madness along the way. Do you remember that part? The part that was like Apollo 13, but for your team’s secondary after their starting safety went out with an injury and they had to figure out how to play with ten defenders and one guy who should have been going to law school instead of covering the other team’s best receiver? The part that was a problem, but a fun one to solve? JK: And/or problems that very much belonged to someone else, despite us getting to invest feelings in whether they solved these problems or not. Caring about whether a mediocre general manager could finally figure out how to do sports budgets: this was kinda like politics, but in a fake world in which we didn’t have to acknowledge politics can kill us. That was nice! Watching a four-hour game and walking away with one GIF-worthy moment, a drunk fan or a trick play or a coach falling over, felt like a version of sifting for gold, but a version in which the dirt itself was also valuable. The best parts of sports, as I think you agree, were these times when something went wrong. Nothing is more interesting than something breaking, especially when corporate champions have invested billions of dollars in them going right. Like the time this happened: [tweet_embed]https://twitter.com/ConnorNewcomb_/status/1160651681148915712[/tweet_embed] Sports were little chemistry labs designed to run for hours, months, and centuries, along the way producing countless things nobody could’ve predicted from the outset. SH: That makes sports sound a lot like the Miller-Urey experiment. That’s the one where scientists took the basic elements present on early Earth—water, methane, hydrogen, and ammonia—bottled them up in a closed system that allowed for evaporation and condensation, and ran some sparking electricity through the part holding the evaporated gases to simulate lightning. Miller and Urey wanted to see if, over time, they could cook up a little bit of the primordial soup of simple amino acids forming the building blocks of what would become life. It worked. Eventually, out of nothing, they created the start of what could be a world. That exact thing happens in sports all the time. There are inert things like stadium, arenas, courts—nothing too special by themselves. There are people, perfectly normal people, in the stands, and games with simple rules to play. Put them together, add in lightning in the form of brilliant athletes competing, and let it cycle for a while. I watched Atlanta become a soccer town in a year, and a championship soccer town in two. There was nothing before that. Then someone decided to run a little electricity through the whole system. Then there was a team, and full stadiums, and supporters clubs, and banners and drums and all the rest of the accoutrements every other real-deal soccer team has. Atlanta United doesn’t just feel like they’ve worked. They somehow feel like they’ve always been here. At the end, that kind of experiment can feel like its own little planet, if everything’s going right. It can feel like its own little planet even if it’s going wrong, actually. Like, not a good planet, right? One of the foreclosed ones with a huge tax lien on it. There should be more shows about this kind of future, where people get evicted from Ganymede to make way for luxury space colonies funded by world barons gentrifying the planet. There are no sports and I am obviously going mad, but maybe selling a script is a pretty good idea right now, no? JK: A stage is set, conditions are negotiated, and then things just happen. That’s very cool, especially within the context of the greater world, where no conditions are negotiated to any real degree. I might never forget the last two sports things I got to attend before sports went away. One was Army-Navy in Philadelphia, America’s true spiritual capital, where the difference between the two essentially identical programs was that one (Navy) had future Miami Dolphins spreadsheet member Malcolm Perry, and one (Army) did not. Also a president was there beneath a gray sky, which I assume he hated as much as he hates everything. The other sports thing was Oklahoma getting torched by LSU in the Peach Bowl, the most ruthless obliteration I’ve ever seen in person. In the third quarter, after Joe Burrow had already scored eight touchdowns, I got to stand next to LSU’s band while drunk Tigers fans begged for the chance to shout obscenities along with the song “Neck.” They all agreed so many people had vacated OU’s sections, very few enemies would even hear these obscenities, but it was the spirit of the thing. For me, the thing that mattered most about sports is how they, by design, did not matter. We built industrial complexes around them, but at heart, they were about discovering which side had earned the right to shout the cooler obscenities on any given day. And then the following day, we would rediscover. Do you have any thoughts about some of the last sports you got to witness, back when there were sports? SH: The last thing I saw live before this happened was the national title game between LSU and Clemson in New Orleans. I killed time getting over to the Superdome by going to an oyster bar and ordering a dozen oysters. When they were gone I ordered another dozen, and then ordered another twelve. Me and thirty-six oysters and three beers in my stomach walked over to the game and didn’t fight or disagree once. It was the perfect kind of clammy, cool January night in New Orleans where the river breathes just enough of a breeze through the streets to keep things hospitable. I don’t remember anyone fighting. I don’t remember anyone yelling too much. I got a high-five from three LSU fans who had no clue who I was but were just happy about being alive at the same time as prime Joe Burrow. They were so, so drunk. Joe Burrow blazed. Clyde Edwards-Helaire played with one good hamstring and still looked like one man playing the part of three brilliant, different football players, and did it brilliantly. Trump came out. He didn’t matter and never does. Alvin Kamara got up on a table to take a free drink from Saints fans in the box next to ours. LSU hit the afterburners and Clemson lost them somewhere over Metairie. Odell Beckham was hammered when the game started and got so rowdy a cop tried to arrest him in the locker room when Odell slapped him on the ass. The Tigers won. That’s like three feast days in one: Watching LSU win, doing it in New Orleans, and capping it by stuffing myself to the point of foundering on either side. I spent $120 on lunch by myself the next day at Peche. A friend I hadn’t seen in eight years walked over from his house and sat down and we just bullshitted and talked about football sitting about three feet apart from each other. Do you hear all the beats of an impossible world playing there? I do. I feel every little ping of a world I’ve only missed for forty-five days at this point like cactus needles just pressing into the skin of a hovering hand. In 24 hours I got to do everything that now seems like a litany of impossible irresponsibilities. I didn’t regret spending that money on lunch at the time. I definitely don’t regret it now. JK: As for the original question, I think the answer to what sports were is that sports were good. Especially when they were bad. But what about when they were neither? What is the most average, boring, mediocre demonstration of sports you would be delighted to sit through the entirety of right now, having been immersed in a post-sports world? I think I would watch an entire San Diego Padres game, dealer’s choice as to which season. SH: I just want you and me and everyone on the planet to know that when and if things get back to something like normal: The Indiana Pacers will be playing basketball. No one will remember anything about it, not even when they lose. I can’t wait to not remember watching them play again. No one misses the mid, until the dealer’s sold out of mid. And the mid will be so wonderfully forgettable when it gets back in stock.
Get Fat, Don’t Die

Beowulf Thorne’s cooking column for people with AIDS claimed the right to pleasure, but in each recipe was embedded an urgent appeal.

In his inaugural food column, Beowulf Thorne included recipes for gingerbread pudding, Thai chicken curry, and vanilla poached pears, plus a photo of a naked blond man spread-eagled in a pan of paella. Eat your cereal with whipping cream, he advised readers, and ladle extra gravy onto your dinner plate. “Not only does being undernourished reduce your chances of getting lucky at that next orgy, it can make you much more susceptible to illness, and we'll have none of that,” Wulf wrote.  “Get Fat, Don’t Die,” the first cooking column for people with AIDS, ran in every issue of Diseased Pariah News, the AIDS humor zine that Wulf started and edited from 1990 to 1999. Under the byline “Biffy Mae,” he passed along reader recipes, mocked nutritional supplements marketed to people with AIDS, and leaned into Bisquick, his tastes alternately cosmopolitan and straight-from-the-box comforting. Telling readers with T-cell counts in the double digits to lard their food with Paula Deen-ian levels of cream sounds like nutritional heresy. Yet Wulf’s advice echoed the recommendations that doctors and nutritionists were giving patients with AIDS wasting syndrome. “The famous expression ‘You can’t be too thin or too rich’ was obviously coined before the AIDS epidemic,” Wulf wrote. As the paella nude signaled, his column claimed the right to pleasure, but in each recipe was embedded an urgent appeal that recipe writing of the 1990s had dispensed with: Eat so you can survive. I came across “Get Fat, Don’t Die” in a queer library in Minnesota in 1991, the summer after my sophomore year in college, and its raw, punk camp electrified me. The memory erupted out of some dark pool several years ago, and I eventually traced the column to the archives of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, which had accepted Wulf’s papers as he was dying. The organization had digitized all eleven issues of Diseased Pariah News, they told me, and emailed the link. It electrified me all over again.  ***  According to his friends, Jack Foster’s arrival in the Bay Area in 1983 was as much an escape as a pilgrimage to the West Coast’s gay sanctuary. Escape from the denunciations of his father, a military contractor in Southern California. But also escape from the older gay men who’d taken him in several years before as their underage sex pet. He moved to Palo Alto and began attending the Stanford Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which was open to nonstudents. He was eighteen, and already infected. Jack soon moved into a household whose inhabitants and visitors—Stanford grad students, activists, budding software engineers—called it “Listing Shambles.” Birth names at Listing Shambles were shucked as readily as the sheets at their toga sex parties. Jack Foster re-christened himself Beowulf Johan Heinrich Thorne, or when the camp flared particularly hot, Biffy Mae. Tall and lean, striking or anonymous depending on the angle, Wulf had a slim face whose stern, L-shaped nose fought against the sensuousness of his bottom lip. He wore round wire-rim glasses with lenses thick enough to form a white ring and moussed his blond bangs into a studied flop. He considered himself a perennial twink. Or, really, a nerd, his friend Kira Od said, whose big feet always seemed to be in his way. And yet, she added, he was naughty. [[{"fid":"6706506","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Paper merit badges for DPN buttons, Thorne (Beowulf) Papers, Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. “He had a deep and abiding sense of black humor,” agreed Arion Stone, his roommate at Listing Shambles. Friends remembered that Wulf gardened masterfully, but only toxic plants, and burrowed into esoterica like tillandsias or Russian noun declensions. He cooked and cartooned and wrote and gardened with what Arion called a “sublime self-assurance about his abilities.” After a year or two in Palo Alto, Wulf earned a scholarship to study bioscience at UC Santa Cruz, working on safe-sex education causes with the Stanford crew in his spare time. But as his senior year approached, the virus began making sorties in his system, and Wulf realized he wasn’t going to live long enough to earn an advanced degree. He dropped out of school and took up graphic design, just as desktop publishing software supplanted pasteup boards and typesetters. A job at Addison Wesley designing scientific textbooks allowed him to move to San Francisco in the late 1980s. There, his roommate was Tom Shearer, a technical writer with an acerbic wit and a lower T-cell count. Inspired by ACT UP but too introverted to join its protests, the two came up with their own way to fight the stigmatization and mawkishness of the epidemic: humor.  ***  Twenty-four years after protease inhibitors and combination antiretroviral therapy (the “cocktail”) brought the immune systems of millions of HIV-positive people back into healthy ranges, it’s hard not to read Diseased Pariah News without straining for a happy ending. Hang in there for a few more years! the brain shouts at each page. The same thinking that collapses World War II into a moral victory and the Civil Rights Movement into a triumph has recast the plague years as a self-contained tragedy.  Yet to laugh at Wulf and Tom’s jokes—to take in the full spectrum of the rage and grief coded into each shocked laugh he drags up from your chest—requires you to strip away the safety of history. In 1990, the cocktail was an untested theory; on the market was nothing but death and toxic drugs. Despite the rising numbers of infected women and children, and the devastation the plague wreaked on the trans community (with little mention in the press), AIDS in North America was twisted up with gay identities. When U.S. scientists first observed a cluster of strange illnesses and deaths they dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency in 1981, the LGBT movement had only asserted itself publicly for a decade or so. It was still so fragile, so niche, that most people outside major cities had never encountered LGBT people before they saw photos of young queer men with sunken faces, covered in purple lesions, in the news. It confirmed to some that God was punishing this aberration the moment it denied its sinfulness. For many older gay men and trans folks, AIDS snatched away everything they’d made of their lives and poisoned the raucous liberation of the 1970s. To children like me, only ten when GRID appeared, coming out into the plague meant love and rejection and sex and hideous death would knot themselves up so tightly we could never tease the strands apart.  By the time DPN published its first issue in 1990, four people were dying of AIDS every hour, and the U.S. death count was rocketing up to 100,000. According to David France’s How to Survive a Plague, by then at least 20 U.S. states had considered quarantining people with HIV in camps, arresting them for having sex, or even tattooing their status on their bodies. Hate crimes spiked across the country, to the indifference of many police departments. For all the services—hospital wards, pet care, volunteer housecleaning, support groups, hotlines, meals—that community groups constructed in the absence of government support, the first generation of helpers were burning out and the death rate wasn’t slowing down. That year, many say, marked the darkest period of the epidemic. For Wulf and Tom, turning the plague into a sick joke was a radical act of self-love.   ***  “A few years before I had seen a bitter little cartoon,” Tom wrote in the introduction to the first issue. “An airline had refused passage to a person with AIDS, and there was a big stink about it. The cartoon showed a man at an airline counter, and the clerk was saying ‘And would you like the smoking, non-smoking, or diseased pariah section?’ Mr. Tom was much impressed by this terminology and began to refer to himself as a diseased pariah, to much dismayed fluttering from his friends. At the time, remember, the only acceptable role for an infected person was Languishing Saint and Hug Object.” Tom wrote half of the text, Wulf the other half, under such pseudonyms as “Serene Editor” (Tom) and “Cranky Editor” (Wulf). Wulf repurposed the “Captain Condom” comic he had invented in the course of his safe-sex education work and laid out the issue on legal paper, folded in half and stapled. They filled Diseased Pariah News with stunts, porn reviews, comics, naked centerfolds, erotic anecdotes from a well-known sex worker titled “How I Got AIDS,” and personals. [[{"fid":"6706511","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] # 11, Thorne (Beowulf) Papers, Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. The recipes in the second issue, printed alongside recommendations for eating when you had diarrhea, ranged from the ambitious to gluttonous convenience: Biffy Mae’s Totally Amazing Gumbo. Marcus Mae’s Roast Chicken of the Ages. Danny Mae’s Fat Boy Shake, which combined Ovaltine and instant breakfast powder and could be powered up with two scoops of ice cream. Wulf tested every recipe, nudging them into shape. He took the column’s blunt title in earnest. The jokey names and camp flourishes kept his earnestness at a safe distance; too close, and the fear and physical discomfort and bitterness could smother. *** As Biffy Mae wrote in that second issue, “One of the most exciting aspects of the HIV Early Retirement Plan is what it may do to your innards.” Wasting syndrome, which one third of all people with AIDS experienced then, wasn’t just one of the most common effects of HIV. It was the look of AIDS: Arms devoid of muscle and fat, the humerus, radius, and ulna so exposed that you could read the knobby topography of the joints that connected them. Hips that were no longer hips, legs no more fleshy than a water bird’s. Faces whose skin draped lightly over bones and hollows, faces made unrecognizable by the obliteration of fat and muscle. You could go back to work after a case of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and pretend it was a regular illness, or cover Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) lesions with clothing if they were in the right places. There was no disguise for wasting. And yet the most prominent memoirists and fiction writers who chronicled the plague years—Harold Brodkey, Larry Kramer, Paul Monette, Hervé Guibert, David Wojnarowicz, Adam Mars-Jones, Allen Barnett—barely invoked its horrors. So many of the narratives of the time circled around two themes: memorializing the terror and adulterated sweetness of being alive as everyone they knew was dying, and shearing through the cordon of dehumanizing indifference that the public had erected around plague-struck communities. The experience of daily diarrhea or constant nausea may have been too visceral, too private, or simply too grinding to fit into the arc of a plot. And so, for all the poignancy that lingers in the public's understanding of the plague era, the lived experience of wasting has faded out, vivid only in the memories of survivors and medical researchers who had tried to halt its progress. Wasting only appeared when the body’s CD4, or T-cell, count dropped from over 600 per cubic microliter of blood to under 200, Mark Jacobson, a physician and researcher who worked at San Francisco General Hospital in the 1980s and 1990s, told me. People weren’t only dying of opportunistic infections. They were dying of sheer malnutrition. “Loss of lean body mass was one of the most powerful predictors of when people were going to die,” he said. As the body’s immunological systems shut down, bizarre symptoms seemed to pile up. Diarrhea could last months, the intestines gleaning whatever nutrients they could catch as the food luged through them. The diarrhea could be caused by mycobacterium avium-intracellulare or by parasitic infections like cryptosporidium and microsporidia that wouldn’t respond to drugs. HIV alone could cause the entire gut to become inflamed. But diarrhea was only one of the factors that caused wasting, said Kathleen Mulligan, a retired faculty member in the UC San Francisco endocrinology department who studied wasting in the 1990s. “It turns out the main factor contributing to wasting was the inability to eat enough food to cover their energy needs,” she said. Even people never given a formal diagnosis of wasting syndrome struggled to eat. “It’s striking how rapidly eating becomes a chore when it ceases to be pleasurable,” she explained. “The drugs made the food taste bad or different. People had painful ulcers or sores in their mouths, so it was difficult to tolerate food. Couple that with stress and depression, nausea from both the disease and the drugs to treat the disease—it was easy to tell people to eat more, but not that easy to find a way to motivate people to get the food they needed.” Any relief was worth trying. Anabolic steroids. Human growth hormone. Testosterone. Megace, a drug that exchanged weight gain for sexual desire. Heaps of vitamins. Wheatgrass juice. Kombucha. Pau d’Arco. Synthetic THC. Homeopathic drugs. Macrobiotics.  If the scientific consensus was that high-calorie food was the best treatment, sometimes improbable measures brought relief. Vince Cristostomo, who now leads the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s network of long-term survivors, was diagnosed with wasting in 1989, when his weight plummeted from 145 to 119 pounds. He felt as if his body was eating itself alive. He wore baggy clothes to cover his too-thin limbs, but his skin turned gray.  With an immune system so dysfunctional, everything made him sick. “I learned that if I ate certain processed foods I’d get chemical burns in my mouth,” he said. “I drank white rice and it turned to alcohol in my stomach.” Hosts of food allergies appeared. A friend helped him attend an “instinctive eating” program in Europe that put him on a raw-foods diet, and that infusion of nutrients, he said, made a massive difference. For months at a time all he could eat was macrobiotic broccoli and brown rice. He had grown up in Guam, where the food was highly flavorful, and he thought to himself, well, if this is how I have to eat for the rest of my life, I will do it. The weight returned, and stayed with him long enough for the cocktail to come along. *** Between the publication of issue two and three of Diseased Pariah News, two significant events occurred. Surprising its editors, the zine got famous. In 1991 SF Weekly, New Republic, Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek all wrote about the shocking notion that people could make fun of the disease killing them. In the contact sheet from DPN’s first publicity shoot, which provided photos for some of these articles, a healthy Wulf and a cavernous Tom posed on Tom’s hospital bed. They played it straight for a few frames, then Tom lolled on his bed like a 1930s pinup girl, two wrist-thick thighs emerging from his gown. Wulf joined for another frame to strangle Tom with his oxygen tube.  Tom, whose dementia had made a begrudging caregiver of his roommate, died a few weeks afterward. Before, though, he used his credit cards to charge thousands of dollars of equipment for Wulf to use on the magazine. With Tom’s creditors harassing him daily and more symptoms appearing, Wulf left San Francisco to return to Listing Shambles in Palo Alto. “Darn! One of our editors is dead!” Wulf titled Tom’s obituary, and promoted him to “Deaditor.” Daniel Bao, one of Wulf’s best friends who took charge of the magazine’s operations, said their circle of friends sprinkled some of Tom’s ashes into plastic resin to make nightlights. A newcomer named Tom Ace, a computer engineer who had first encountered Wulf through his personal ads, stepped in as the publication’s Humpy Editor. What drew him to DPN, Ace says, was a stance no other publication dared take on. “No denial,” Ace said. “No pretending it isn’t the way it is.” No spiritual balms, no stigma, no shame, no sentimental bravery. They were people dealing with an illness, not the victim-perpetrators the media made them out to be. They were still having sex, and watching porn, and posing for nude centerfolds that ran with their T-cell counts and list of meds.  "We think that if you're going to croak sooner than you'd like, at least you can live while you're alive,” Wulf told the LA Times. ***  Ned: Why are you eating this shit? Twinkies, potato chips ... You know how important it is to watch your nutrition. You’re supposed to eat right. Felix: I have a life expectancy of ten more minutes. I’m going to eat what I want to eat. — Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart *** Paul Monette wrote in Borrowed Time, a memoir about his partner’s 1985 death, “It turns out a home-cooked meal offers a double dose of magic. At the same time you’re making somebody strong again—eat, eat—you are providing an anchor and a forum for the everyday.” Sometimes cooking, like black humor, could save the life of the cook, too. Fernando Castillo, whose recipes formed the culinary backbone of Project Open Hand in San Francisco, said that cooking for the organization in the 1990s was the only thing that assuaged the pain of a decade of horror.  After his lover died of AIDS in the very first wave, Fernando had moved into a large Victorian flat in the Mission, San Francisco’s Latino neighborhood, with his closest friends. But death chased him. One by one, his “babies”—his brothers, his sisters, his chosen family—got sick. So did the landlord upstairs. The Polk Street Mexican restaurant where he was chef closed in 1986, and he was too busy caring for his babies to look for another job. He became the building’s main caregiver, bringing in more friends after others died. He would go from one bedroom, where one of his babies was vomiting, to the next, where another’s fever was spiking. He would take them in taxi cabs to the hospital so frequently the nurses knew his name. And, from morning to night, he cooked. “I learned that I had to give them something not too heavy, but at the same time nutritious,” Fernando said. That meant chicken soup loaded with vegetables, stews made with the best meat he could afford, rich stocks with bones or fish heads. A lot of rice, and a lot of beans. Some of his babies had such bad cases of thrush—an overgrowth of yeast that coated throats and tongues in irritated white fur—that he had to puree the stews. Others, who were taking AZT by the fistful, developed weird allergies or lost the ability to digest dairy or beans. There were few social services for people with AIDS in those days, but people in the Mission found out about what he was doing. They would pass along some money. Markets would slip in extra meat, or charge him less. He took care of his seven friends until they died. In 1991, the last of his babies gone, he was considering whether to accept his sister’s offer of a plane ticket back to their hometown in Mexico. Then Ruth Brinker, the founder of a San Francisco meal service called Project Open Hand, asked him to come in to the kitchen help her out. “Instead of being in mourning in an empty apartment, I joined Project Open Hand,” he said. He adapted all the dishes he had written down in a tiny booklet so they fed thousands of people a day. *** In the middle years of Diseased Pariah News’s run, Wulf and Tom Ace were joined by a Sleazy Editor, Michael Botkin, a journalist famous in the Bay Area LGBT community for his “AIDS Dispatches” column and equally dark sense of humor (“dead meat specials,” he once called people with AIDS). The zine’s circulation rose to three thousand, sold at LGBT bookstores and Tower Records around the country. Tom now recalls that people would stumble across an issue, write to the editors, and order the entire back run. The editors always intended to publish four issues a year, but only managed two or three. They’d call in their friends for assembly parties, Wulf fretting over the placement of each “Not Sanitized for Your Protection” paper band they wrapped around the zine, scaring off casual browsers. Any idea that would double the editors over with laughter made it into the magazine. They recorded parody songs on a flexible vinyl single and stapled it into the zine. Wulf devoted a number of spreads to AIDS Barbie and KS Ken, wasting away so attractively, their lesions courtesy of a blowtorch. “Kiss me, I’m a diseased pariah!” T-shirts and buttons sold by the hundreds, helping to cover the production costs. They also marketed “AIDS Merit Badges,” each depicting an opportunistic infection or alarming T-cell count (achievement unlocked!), for people to wear on a sash to their medical appointments. Readers sent in poetry and essays they hoped DPN would run, not to mention dozens of recipes, each of which Wulf would retest: Calorie-Packer Hash. Mysterious Cheese and Nut Loaf. Hard-Hearted Hannah’s Pecan Buttercrunch. It was food for when you weren't sure you wanted to eat, food that might just keep you alive. But Wulf wanted it to offer pleasure, too—and whether the appeal was trashy or refined didn't matter. Larding a zine about AIDS with recipes didn't just add a note of domestic camp that Biffy Mae, toxic-plant aficionado, clearly delighted in, the recipes interrupted the zine's dark humor, visually as well as psychically. You may be dying. Fuck. Buy yourself a box of Bisquick and make this berry dessert. Alongside the recipes, “Get Fat, Don’t Die!” covered avoiding possible parasites in sushi, eating when you had nausea, shopping on food stamps, and compensating for the taste perversions caused by drugs like AZT. (“Some liken it to a metallic taste, sort of like having a bloody nose all the time,” Wulf wrote.) DPN may have been the first AIDS-related publication to instruct readers on making pot butter to bake into brownies to combat nausea and lack of appetite. The medical marijuana movement took off in San Francisco in the early 1990s, when Brownie Mary delivered edibles to AIDS wards and activists set up smoking lounges for the chronically ill.   In my favorite column, Michael and Wulf, who had “AZT butt” themselves, tasted every chocolate dietary-supplement shake doctors were pushing people with wasting to drink. Every one of them was chalky and tasteless, they concluded, and ran a recipe for mole poblano alongside.  These were the issues I must have encountered in Minnesota, and I remember flipping through them with a mix of awe and shame. Was it worry that someone might see me reading an AIDS zine and think I was HIV-positive? The sense that I had stepped into a room that wasn’t built for me? The constant guilt I felt, as a healthy 20-year-old, as if I was skipping across my elders’ graveyard? All of those, most likely.  Now that I am decades older than Wulf was then, the gall of the magazine—to mock death, and shame, and governmental neglect, and all the squeamish attempts at empathy AIDS occasioned —strikes me as a form of redemption. And to snicker at Wulf’s jokes, each laugh tinged with the grief and horror I thought long buried, feels like the best way to honor him. ***  As neuropathy—probably from the fistfuls of AZT—made walking harder and cytomegalovirus retinitis ate away his field of vision, Wulf secured disability leave from his day job in the mid-1990s and retreated to a house he shared with Arion. DPN remained one of his main pursuits, along with gardening and fighting with his insurance company, but it took longer and longer to put out a new issue. Six months. A year. Two. Michael Botkin, the Sleazy Editor, died in 1996. Tom Ace, Humpy Editor, left the Bay Area for the California desert. Protease inhibitors appeared, but Wulf’s body was too worn out by then to benefit from them. When Wulf died in 1999, at the age of thirty-four, he had readied the eleventh and last issue of Diseased Pariah News, complete with a years-old obituary for Michael (“He had looked like death warmed over for so long, we never thought he’d really die!”) and a parody ad for AZT Lite. Tom Ace and Wulf’s friends added a tribute to Wulf and sent it out, secretly sprinkling Michael’s ashes into a few copies.  They played around with the idea of turning Wulf into a snow globe, but they couldn’t figure out how to make cremains float in a viscous mix of Astroglide lube and water, and they didn’t want to offend his mother, who had come up from Southern California to tend him in his last few weeks. At the “celebration of his extinction,” she surprised them by wrapping the box of her son in shiny gold paper. “I think he might appreciate it,” she said.
Where Are You From?

Race-based data has been collected in North America as far back as 1790. But what happens if you don’t fit the categories society is trying to nudge you into?

When I was a kid, I took a lot of Scantron exams, the ones with the empty ovals that you fill in with a pencil. They were a common feature of my public-school education, as they are for millions of students all over the world. I grew to dread them, but not for the usual reasons, like the long rows of desks lined up in the gym, the ticking clocks or even the performance anxiety. The exam booklets always had a section devoted to the harvest of personal and statistical information where I’d find this question: What is your racial background? Always the same one, or versions of it, followed by a list of acceptably compartmentalized ethnic groups: white, black, Asian, etc. I couldn’t reply accurately because only one response was allowed, and I didn’t have just one answer. I looked around at my mostly white classmates and felt confused, but there was no box for that. So, I usually just checked “Other,” which at the time felt about right. I’ve continued to furnish similar answers on adult applications and forms of every kind, including the Canadian census, which I last completed in 2016, as I’m required to do by law. My answers were dispersed into a galaxy of population statistics, which are gathered in accordance with the Employment Equity Act “to support programs that promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada.” The census asked, “Is this person:” followed by a selection of appropriate replies: White South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.) Chinese Black Filipino Latin American Arab Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, etc.) West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan, etc.) Korean Japanese Other — specify The question seems to want to skirt trouble. It avoids explicit mention of “race” or “visible minority.” Ethnicity is hard to measure and even define, a fuzziness that Statistics Canada acknowledged with a query about the “ethnic or cultural origins” of one’s ancestors, followed by a lengthy list of suggestions: “Canadian, English, Chinese, French, East Indian, Italian, German, Scottish, Cree, Mi'kmaq, Salish, Métis, Inuit, Filipino, Irish, Dutch, Ukrainian, Polish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Korean, Jamaican, Greek, Iranian, Lebanese, Mexican, Somali, Colombian, etc.” The word immigrant appears, but separately and higher up on the form. Indigenous peoples must answer a different fraught question: “Is this person a Status Indian (Registered or Treaty Indian as defined by the Indian Act of Canada)?” Indigeneity is addressed in four different ways. The most recent U.S. census posed similar questions in illuminatingly different ways. In America, the race question is explicit, although the responses vary: -White -Black, African Am., or Negro -American Indian or Alaska Native -Asian Indian -Chinese -Filipino -Other Asian -Japanese -Korean -Vietnamese -Native Hawaiian -Guamanian or Chamorro -Samoan -Other Pacific Islander The use of the word “Negro” was controversial, but the Census Bureau argued that older African Americans still used the term. (It was announced in 2013 that it will be removed on future forms.) On both the Canadian and American forms it’s now possible to claim more than one identity, though this open-endedness brings new kinds of confusion. In the 2010 U.S. census, about three per cent of respondents said they belonged to two or more racial categories. As many as 6.2 per cent said they belonged to “some other race,” but those numbers skew depending on how race is defined. Hispanic or Latin American identities are not enumerated here. That’s a separate ask, even though, according to a Pew Research Centre survey, two-thirds of Hispanics say their ethnicity is, in part, their race. There is no entry at all for individuals of Middle Eastern or North African descent—according to the Census Bureau, they are white even if they don’t identify that way. The next Canadian census rolls out in 2021. StatsCan has revised the race question many times, and it’s now “compatible” with a United Nations report recommending subjective expressions of ethnocultural identity encompassing language and religion (as well as multiple entries). But demographics aside, what does it mean to declare one’s race and ethnicity? Why are we asked this most personal of questions? What is the ancestral material from which I’ve been biologically fabricated? And who wants to know? Even the project itself implies a conceptual order in which ethnicities are most usefully perceived as unblended, consolidated or pure. *** My father is brown. His eyes are so dark you can’t tell the pupils from the irises. His hair was also black, but now it’s white—at least it is when he forgets to colour it. He was born in the Punjab, and his family is Sikh, although he isn’t what I’d call religious. And neither am I, which pleases him immensely, especially since my mother has become more churchgoing with time. In this way, if not elsewhere, I’m a fulfilment of his design. Even back in the ’70s when I was born, he knew that the rigidly faithful, and the unassimilated, pay an extra toll for taking up space in the western world. That’s why my first name, which he chose expressly, isn’t Harpreet or Jatinder but that of a dead British queen. My father no longer wears a turban or a ceremonial dagger. My cousins call him, with a certain affectionate irony, “Silk Singh.” I live in a small Canadian town where a common men’s uniform is Carhartts, a logger’s sweater, and a ball cap with sunglasses perched on the brim. The last time my father came to visit me, he got off the plane wearing a pink shirt and a cream-coloured suit with a magenta pocket square, looking like Tom Wolfe at his most sartorially florid. My father is a New World man. He lives in Texas and is proud to be an American citizen. Not a landed immigrant, not a legal alien—an American. My mother is white. She’s English, or at least that’s where she was born and raised. Like my father, she’ll never go back to where she came from, even if she’s never received this as a directive. She’s North American now. She’s also Catholic. She has grey eyes, grey hair and is one of the most fair-skinned people I know. She’s also one of the most colour blind. Raising me, she never really mentioned skin colour—hers, ours or my dad’s—nor concerned herself with my appearance beyond presentability and basic cleanliness, which I consider a gift even today, despite the existence of dozens of childhood photos featuring me in plaid pants with floral shirts, or many other visually painful ensembles that I chose for myself. She comes from a tall family. On her side, I’m one of the shortest at 5’10”. I also inherited her long, thin face. One thing I didn’t inherit is her skin. She’s very fair, with a fine-pored complexion. I have never once seen her with a pimple or a blemish, whereas my skin is shiny, irritable, in frequent need of depilation. When women say they regret over-tweezing their brows, I have no idea what they mean. My hair is Indian—for each one I pull or thread or wax, another two fight their way back to the surface. In the middle of winter, my face is beige with an olive undertone, and in summer it deepens to tawny brown, even beneath SPF 50. Nothing can stop it from tanning, as if it’s been yearning all winter beneath sweaters and scarves for the sun. I have freckles and moles that neither of my parents have. But when I was a child, I didn’t realize I wasn’t the same colour as my mother until I started playing with her makeup. In her bathroom, she kept bottles and pans labeled ivory, porcelain, and buff, but when I applied her liquids and powders, they gave me the look of an ashen corpse. Even now, when we go places together people occasionally ask if I am her “friend,” which tells me what they’re thinking even if they don’t say it aloud: we couldn’t possibly be related. My parents met in London when they were both in medical school. I often wonder about the kismet that brought them together, why a bearded, turban-wearing foreigner with a thick Indo-Kenyan accent found the daughter of an English bank clerk so appealing, and vice versa. Maybe attraction is an involuntary impulse, our genes exerting themselves upon us, seeking hybridity, even if it’s the opposite of what our parents say we should want, which often enough is to stick to our own kind. Or maybe it was the ’60s—in many ways, a rebellious time. By my parents’ reports, London was a groovy place back then. But a stubborn conservatism lurked beneath all the progress. The culture was barely prepared for its first waves of reverse colonization let alone to claim chicken tikka masala as a national dish. It was definitely not ready to accept a white woman married to a very brown man from a country whose independence had been granted just a dozen years before. But my mother never worried about what people thought. She became an anaesthesiologist when it was conceptually freaky, even transgressive, for a woman to do so. She married my father when interracial relationships were uncommon.  But I think she got a crash course in intolerance in those early days. When she walked with my dad in the streets, she’d get elbowed in the chest and shoved off the sidewalk. She learned there’s a special variety of prejudice reserved for an Indian cocky enough to marry an Englishwoman. And for a white woman who steps out of line. When my mother announced she was marrying a Sikh man, the shock of it just about made her parents’ hair fall out. But my grandfather had spent years in the Merchant Navy, much of it with Indian crew, albeit as their superior. If he disapproved of the union, it didn’t last forever. He wasn’t about to sacrifice his relationship with this daughter by clinging to the idea of the proper English bloke she should have married. But I’ll bet my grandmother had a hell of a time with it. I remember her as an unaffectionate woman with a helmet of butterscotch curls and the comportment of a duchess gone down to the gutter. Not a whiff of grandmotherly love exists in my memory of her. Out in the world, my mother received plenty of unsolicited advice. Think of the children, people said. Mixed-race offspring, they told my mother, would suffer nothing but disadvantage due to the reckless nuptial choices of their parents. Of course, when my twin brother and I were born, there was nothing wrong with us. We were healthy, rotund infants with dark hair and brown eyes. We looked nothing like our mother. She’d get stopped on the street by strangers as she pushed us around in a stroller. “How good of you,” they’d say, “to adopt those little brown babies.” *** The word melanin is derived from the Greek melas, meaning dark or black. Melanin is an ancient polymer, a group of practical molecules that appears in mammalian hair and fur, bird feathers, insects, fungi, and squid ink, to name just a few of its applications. In humans, melanin presents in three forms. Pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive hue. Neuromelanin is found in the brain. Eumelanin, the most common type, is found in skin, hair and the iris of the eye. This is the visible kind that gives humanity its broad palette of flesh tones, but also a ton of inequity. Melanin is a super-efficient sunscreen. In the body it absorbs damaging ultraviolet rays, dissipating their energy by ninety-nine per cent. People with moderately pigmented skin have a natural SPF of 2.5, and those with dark skin have an SPF of 10-15. Melanin doesn’t just block UVR—a chemical transformation occurs as melanin absorbs photons. It scavenges the free radicals created when UV radiation interacts with lipids in the skin—the biochemical reactions that cause DNA damage and ultimately skin cancer. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. Everyone has them no matter their shade, including individuals with albinism, a genetic condition that causes reduced pigment production or none at all. Melanocytes are distributed all over the skin with generally greater concentrations on the face and limbs, fewer on the torso, and most in the groin area. Children have fewer active melanocytes but they develop more after the onset of puberty. This makes sense, since melanin protects folate, a nutrient critical to reproduction in both males and females. When you go out in the sun, your melanocytes are activated, and if you possess a reasonable number of specialized organelles—melanosomes—you tan. This self-adjusting photoprotection, your “facultative” hue, might change with the seasons, but we’re all born with a genetically “constitutive” skin tone—it’s the shade on the inside of your bicep. Both categories make up the huge spectrum of skin tones in the world, and together they tell an old story—perhaps the oldest one there is—about our travels as a species on Earth. Many competing beliefs exist about how we began on the planet, but scientifically accepted hypotheses agree that the birthplace of humanity was Africa. First migrations off the continent into Eurasia occurred as early as 210,000 years ago. No one knows exactly the pattern and timing of later dispersals. Humans reached Australia by 65,000 years ago and established in Europe less than 55,000 years ago. As Homo sapiens migrated north, they acclimatized to life at higher latitudes—new food sources, colder winters, a weaker sun. Evidence suggests that early humans had sweat glands for efficient cooling, long limbs for distance walking and running, and darkly pigmented skin adapted to high levels of UVR. But as much as cells need protection from solar radiation, they also needed Vitamin D, which, like melanin, is synthesized in the skin during sun exposure. Vitamin D is a hormone, essential for calcium and phosphorus metabolism as well as bone formation. It’s vital to our cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems, and it plays a critical role during pregnancy and lactation. Rickets, a once-widespread disease, caused soft, malformed bones in people with poor diets or little sun exposure until the Vitamin D link was discovered in the early 1900s. Today, higher levels of Vitamin D are thought to prevent conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease and diabetes. One of the genes responsible for human skin pigment can be traced back to an ancient ancestor that swam in the seas over 400 million years ago. Before the diaspora out of Africa, Homo sapiens possessed a “G” allele of this gene, expressed as dark skin, which provided protection from the harsh equatorial rays of the sun. As people began migrating out of Africa, the tiniest mutation occurred. The “A” allele, as the mutation is known, produced lighter skin with less melanin, an advantage in low-UV environments, allowing the body to produce more Vitamin D with less light. Through natural selection, the “A” allele proliferated. Colour in northern populations gradually faded through a process called “depigmentation.” This understanding of human skin tone is complicated by the recent discovery of the "golden gene" in some contemporary African populations as well, an influence of millennia of migratory flows and counterflows. It’s not known precisely how long it takes for constitutive skin tone to equalize with the environment. Emerging genomic evidence suggests depigmentation is a fairly recent adaptation that occurred less than 10,000 years ago. This mutation produces light, European skin today, and its discovery reinforces a notion that for several centuries was considered blasphemous, insurrectionary or scientifically impossible. It’s an idea that’s still unthinkable, even today, for believers in white supremacy: human skin was originally brown, and whiteness is just a variation on that theme. *** My paternal grandfather left his village in the Punjab for Kenya when he was just a teenager. He returned to the homeland as a young man, married my grandmother, and when my father was born in the 1930s, they went back to Africa. Ever since then my family has been on the move. My father was born in India but grew up in Nairobi, and when he came of age, my grandfather sent him to medical school in London with the idea that he would return to Kenya, credentialed and possibly ready to make good on the customary Sikh marriage arrangement. Instead, my dad met my mother. He went back to Kenya a couple of times, but he knew his future lay elsewhere. He never returned to the Punjab, either. In fact, I have spent more time in India than he has, despite the fact that he was born there, and for a long time carried an Indian passport. If India had never been a British colony, I doubt my grandfather would have left his natal village. If Kenya wasn’t also a colony in need of subordinate staffing, my grandfather might not have sailed there in a dhow. And if England wasn’t considered the educational apex of the empire, I doubt my father would have gone there at all. But to be honest, I don’t know why my grandfather decided to pack up and ship out in the first place. I never got the chance to ask. My father chose a white bride, which is key to the shape of his life, my mother’s, and our entire branch of the family tree. He was the first-born son. Traditionally, a prodigal Indian man returns to his father’s house on the understanding he will marry and continue to live with his parents, plowing whatever investment has been made in his education back into the household. To escape, to buck convention, to follow one’s individualized dreams is perfectly reasonable in the West, even recommended. But in Indian culture it’s a bit like embezzling your parents’ retirement savings to buy a red Mercedes convertible, which by the way is the car my father still drives, pretty unstoppably, at the age of 83. My father and my grandfather didn’t speak for decades, not until my grandfather was very frail and, as it turned out, on his deathbed. In the intervening years, I never met either of my paternal grandparents. That’s the point where the family cracked, broke off from the past and began its drift across the ocean. *** A “colour” question first appeared on the Canadian census in 1901, and respondents had these choices: W (White, Caucasian), R (Red, Native), B (Black, African), Y (Yellow, Asian). The U.S. Census Bureau has collected similar data as far back as 1790. But the race classification project is even older than that. History is full of cross-cultural encounters, some peaceable, some violent, stories of travellers stumbling upon foreign strangers who look dark, different or other. The most notorious of these involved Christopher Columbus who, upon arrival in the Americas, was convinced he’d struck upon “the Indies”—then, the European conflation of China, Japan and India—an event with devastating after-effects, including the colonial reduction of Indigenous populations by as much as ninety per cent due to genocide and European disease, followed by centuries of oppression. More subtly, this collision of the Old World and New dented a pre-existing and arguably benign hypothesis about skin pigment. Ancient Egyptians had no language to classify themselves by colour that we know of. The Greeks and Romans were well acquainted with human diversity, given their empire-building skills, yet they tended to measure difference according to sociocultural factors, such as citizenship, politics and geographic provenance. They explained the vast range of human phenotypes, from northern freckles to deep Moorish skin, by pointing to climate and weather. Ptolemy, for instance, associated the dark skin and tightly curled hair of sub-Saharan Africans to the intense sun and heat of the “torrid zone,” as it was called by Aristotle and other scholars of his time. By the time Columbus made his third voyage, first to Trinidad then on to South America, the prior wisdom was beginning to fall apart. In the Caribbean, Columbus encountered people with comparatively light skin relative to the residents of Sierra Leone, who lived at almost exactly the same latitude across the ocean. Brown people, it seemed, showed up all over the place with little adherence to the old heuristic. Early race theories continued to wobble with the rise of colonialism, and the European obsession with complexion intensified. Scientists and doctors poked and prodded the bodies of people of colour, performing dissections in the cases of the deceased, in search of definitive physiological differences between white and dark skin. They were motivated, to great degree, by a desire to reconcile science with the Bible. They wished to reinforce the Great Chain of Being as decreed by God, a hierarchy that granted man—especially white man—dominion over all of Creation. The Book of Genesis received special highlight, as did the story of Noah. In Genesis, Noah cursed one of his sons, damning the rest of his progeny to eternal servitude. The son was named Ham, and from him, it was argued, the black race had descended. Both ideas served as justification for the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement of African peoples. Racial science, or scientific racism as it is now called, was underwritten by a pernicious concept known as polygenism, the belief that humans are descended from separate biological lineages. Proponents included Voltaire, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson. Many believed whiteness was the primary condition of humanity as descended from Adam, and that Black or dark races descended independently from primates—a prescient irony considering later developments in evolutionary theory. The inquiry into race variation gathered steam during the Enlightenment, with its endless predilection for measurement and hierarchical rankings. During this period, Carolus Linnaeus, father of binomial nomenclature (the system we still use to name the planet’s fauna and flora) reduced Homo sapiens to four colour-coded categories: Americanus, Europeanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus—red, white, yellow and black, respectively. Less than forty years later, Immanuel Kant also divided humanity into four classes: white, “Negro,” “Hun,” and “Hindu.” In 1775, physician and naturalist Johann Blumenbach wrote his own treatise on the matter, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, whose several editions made him what American historian Nell Irvin Painter called a “star” of the German Enlightenment. Blumenbach’s human classification system allowed five colour groupings: “Yellow” for East Asia, “Copper” for Indigenous Americans, “Tawny” for “Malay,” a category that included South Pacific islanders and Aboriginal Australians, and “Black,” for those of sub-Saharan African descent. White appeared, as it often did, at the top: “The white colour holds the first place,” Blumenbach wrote, “such as is that of most European peoples.” As the Enlightenment gave way to the Romantic period, the race discussion took on a more subjective tone. Blumenbach and his peers wrote about “beautiful” and “ugly” races, with light-skinned people ascending the aesthetic ladder, and their duskier cousins drifting towards the bottom. Blumenbach defined his ideal: “I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men...” The modern meaning of the term Caucasian—literally natives of the Caucasus mountains, now generally understood to mean white people—was born. For all his study of the world’s people, Blumenbach travelled little. He relied on a “cloud of eye witnesses” to bolster his research, including the testimony of seventeenth century French explorer Jean Chardin, who praised Georgians, especially Georgian women, for their attractiveness. Blumenbach also admired the symmetry of Caucasian facial architecture, an impression he’d gathered firsthand. He collected roughly 250 human skulls over his lifetime, much of which was spent measuring foreheads, eye sockets, and nasal cavities in the hopes of cataloguing the design discrepancies between races. In retrospect, Blumenbach wrote with a blithe, xenophobic confidence, as did many of his predecessors and contemporaries, some of whom probably never met any of the people they so casually consigned to the bottom rungs of existence. To his credit, Blumenbach thought Homo sapiens was one species—against the prevailing intellectual winds—whose physical differences faded into one another without any distinguishable dividing lines. But he was also a man of his time. To Blumenbach, humanity in its “primeval” condition was white; all other skin tones had darkened and deepened away from this primary instantiation over time. To him, the Caucasian race was first. This idea meshed with a common belief that Noah’s ark had made landfall, after the receding of the Biblical floodwaters, in the Caucasus mountains. In this case, Caucasians were related to Noah, chosen by God to perpetuate the human race. Blumenbach couldn’t have known the historic reverberations of his discipline, racial anthropology, whose method presumed ethnic identity could be observed, classified and objectively appointed without any input at all from the subjects—an approach whose attendant horrors would push deep into the 20th century. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection wouldn’t be published for close to a century after Blumenbach’s work first appeared. Darwin claimed no special immunity to the biases of his day. But as he observed, the racial classification project fell apart entirely in the margins, or rather the in-between. And according to Darwin, racial delineations (like skin tone) furnished no real survival advantage and therefore were not subject to natural selection. In other words, if there was a universal biological perk to being white, then the world would be full of white people, which by any rough estimate it is not. Like Blumenbach, Darwin was a proponent of monogenism. In The Descent of Man and Selection and Relation to Sex, Darwin argued that all Homo sapiens derive from a common primate ancestor, the idea from which modern evolutionary theory sprung. This idea that Homo sapiens is a unified species, grown from a single root of the tree of life, is still science’s best answer to the question: where are we from? But even today, if you don’t believe in evolution, it’s all just fake news. *** My father is an anglophile. He loves marmalade and English tea and table manners and the Queen’s grammar and generally most kinds of fusty British pomp except the royal family, whom he quietly dislikes. He sprinkles his sentences with “bloody well” and “bloody hell” when he’s grumpy. From time to time, he still defends Great Britain as the height of civilized achievement, which I sometimes think is a form of internalized prejudice. But he also hated the UK, especially what he considered the British talent for obsequious smackdowns. “Those bloody bastards,” he says even now. When he worked in England, his hospital colleagues would kill him with kindness and then laugh behind his back, or maybe stab him there if he got too ambitious. Or they’d flip the joke right out in the open, as I have experienced myself with embarrassing recency, when I was called “a colonial” to my face by a stranger at a family wedding—the English side—and no one in earshot, except my brother, even blinked. Soon after their marriage, my parents decided to leave the United Kingdom, which for them was only ever united in theory. When I was born my father was still wearing a turban, although he untied it and cut his hair not long after our immigration to Canada, when I was still a baby. Traditionally, Sikhs don’t cut their hair as a sign of respect for the way God made them. Back then, that was the price of entry to the promised land—your lifetime, measured out in inches of hair. For a long time, my mother kept my father’s shorn locks, though now they are divorced. Back then, Canada wasn’t exactly a brown man’s Valhalla, an observation made by the late author Bharati Mukherjee, who wrote a famously blistering essay titled “An Invisible Woman” in which she described the barrage of racial slurs and harassment she received upon moving to Toronto, including false accusations of shoplifting and demands she go “back to Africa.” By the time the essay was published in 1981, Mukherjee had already decamped to San Francisco. Fortyish years ago, my father was a newly arrived immigrant with a young family, and Toronto was no rainbow utopia for him either. My parents chose an all-white neighbourhood, not knowing any better, because it was close to work. Nobody invited them over for barbecues, and nobody wanted their kids to play with my brother and me. Canada was too cold for my dad, in more ways than one. And so, in the late ’70s we moved again to New York state, where the same options were available to immigrants—embrace your turmeric-stained, heavily accented brown side, or slide yourself into a softball jersey and a pair of Nikes and hope to get away with faking it. For my dad, who needed a job, and for his kids set loose in the land of milk and honey, there was really only one choice. Whiten up or die trying. *** But what are you? Where did your family come from before? I’m not offended by these questions, not really, since mostly they come from a place of curiosity. But the answer is personal, and so race, to me, has always been an uneasy topic. Sometimes the question comes out of nowhere, without any conversational warm-up. Sometimes people supply guesses without waiting for my reply: Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or sometimes they just compliment my tan. Is this not like asking someone how much money they make or how they vote? It’s not a secret, but could I get a handshake first? What does it mean to be brown? And where does this racial compartment cleave to whiteness? Sometimes I am told: “But I don’t think of you as a brown person,” which leads to fruit metaphors for the mismatch of skin tone and cultural fidelity: coconuts, bananas, etc. I don’t speak Punjabi. I have a lot of cousins, and some of them don’t speak Punjabi either. They don’t have sing-song accents or delightful head wobbles or any other mango-adjacent idiosyncrasies often attributed to Indians. But still I wonder in return: Why must it be up to you what I am? Who gets to decide if not the person wearing the skin?   When you are of mixed race, identity is often contextually decided, either contested or confirmed by others, as demonstrated in the case of Barack Obama, the world’s most famous biracial man. In 2010 Obama identified as African-American on his census form, though he had the choice to indicate more than one response. Just a year before, according to a Pew Research Center survey, the perception of Obama’s racial identity varied widely among Americans depending on their own ethnic affiliations. Most white respondents claimed the president was multiracial, whereas most African-American respondents said he was Black. Among Hispanics, sixty-one per cent said Obama was mixed. Halfsie, mixie, mongrel, mutt. If I’m among light-skinned people, I’m closer to white than brown. If I’m in India, I’m same-same but different—brown but westernized. With my family, I’m just my father’s daughter. It’s less about skin than blood. Still, it’s illuminating to be almost brown, or somewhat white, or just ambiguous enough that people let it all hang out; they feel completely free to be themselves. Whenever I hear someone begin a sentence with, “I’m not racist but…” I wish I could say I’m surprised. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone drop the words “towelhead” or “Paki,” or gripe about the curry smells, or bitch about the bhangra in the taxi, or express the open wish that immigrants just go back to their shithole countries, I’d be rich, which currently I am not. One of my racial affiliations is “South Asian,” a category that’s almost meaningless given it fits a billion-plus people of varying ethnicities who speak dozens of languages and practice many religions. Nevertheless, my diasporic group is often economically advantaged, with the benefits of family support and high post-secondary education rates, illustrated by the Class of 2023 at Harvard College, which is twenty-five per cent Asian American, the largest racialized group on campus. I might be half-brown but I’m also middle-class, straight, cis, a settler, an assimilated one at that. I’ve never been incarcerated. Never been put on a no-fly list. Never been the victim of a hate crime. Never been told to go back to where I came from—not to my face, not yet anyway. I’ve never been hungry, never been shot at or trafficked or stripped from my family or any of the innumerable onslaughts suffered by the people of the global south every day. So, when writers and activists of colour suggest white-passing people voluntarily step back from their spaces of discourse, I hear it. Yet I can’t help wondering what “colour” means, if anything at all, in a language of ethnicity we didn’t invent, that shrink-wraps billions of people together in their shared non-whiteness, whose crude simplicity can’t ever reflect their huge Venn diagram of overlapping underdog circumstances. It fails to address tensions within race groups including blood quantum and colourism, despite existing at the root of those conflicts. After centuries, it’s the painful, dusty language we’re somehow still stuck with—the legacy of some dead white men’s unscientific guesses about human diversity, whose mind-blowing biological complexity is still revealing itself, even now. “Colour” seems like brutish code for a much more nuanced conversation we might be having, that we might still have, about who we are and where we belong. *** Ethnicity is brilliantly messy. So is genomic diversity, which we all share regardless of skin tone, thanks to two million years of natural selection. Melanin is just the top coat, the long-lingering trace of a history that exceeds living memory, that survives long after the bonds of language, culture, kinship and religion have been stretched or maintained, broken or cast away. A more layered, ancient story lies beneath the skin. The simplified version is available to practically anyone willing slap down a credit card, spit into a test tube, and wait a few weeks for the secrets of their DNA to be revealed. My own ancestral stew is nineteen per cent British, twenty-two per cent French and German, plus a slice of “broadly European” DNA, as reported by 23andMe, one of several companies offering consumer genetic testing. The latter influences were a surprise to me, given my mother’s family has lived in the UK for as long as anyone can remember. According to my report, this might be due to various sacking and plundering forays by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes into Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries. My dad’s DNA shows up monolithically as forty-eight per cent “Northern Indian & Pakistani,” even though his genes are possibly more heterogeneous than my mother’s considering the Punjab was invaded countless times throughout history by Aryans, Persians, Alexander the Great, Turks, Mughals, and Afghans. “Northern Indian & Pakistani” is actually an improvement on a test my brother took a few years ago that pegged him as forty-seven per cent “South Asian,” an even bigger ethnic repository that, according to my test provider, accounts for about a quarter of the world’s population yet is grossly underrepresented in genetic studies. Racial categorization has always been a dodgy business, especially when the search for genetic ethnicity beats a short path back to Blumenbach and his essentialist craniometry. According to some models, populations do shake out into “genetic clusters,” i.e. groups of people who share similarities in their DNA. Over time, clustering is believed to occur due to geographic isolation (because of obstacles like mountain ranges) and also cultural factors such as language or religion. In the last twenty years, researchers have crunched global datasets in order to isolate population types, but these results vary greatly depending on whose DNA is sampled, how many people and from where, not to mention the constraints placed upon algorithms by the researchers themselves. And as Darwin noticed, attempts to partition one human pod from the next are thwarted by the fact that we fade into one another, a phenomenon known to population geneticists as “clinal variation.” Homo sapiens have 99.9 per cent of their DNA in common, as affirmed by the American Anthropological Association’s position on race: “Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94 per cent, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6 per cent of their genes.” In other words, there’s more variation within race groups than there is difference between them. Even the concept of a “gene” is slippery. Genes express variation—diversity, to be simple about it. If we were all the same, theoretically speaking, genes wouldn’t even exist. I’m reminded of that optical illusion, the Troxler effect, the one with the blurry pink dots on a grey background. The harder I stare, the more inscrutable it all becomes. My two paternal grandparents produced eight offspring who, in turn, produced dozens of grandchildren—the family tree. And yet the genetic process that made me is also subject to an opposite and backward branching through time. I’m not simply slices of ancestral DNA. Each chromosomal pairing is a permutation, a roll of the dice. Genes are one thing but ethnicity is something else, an identity that’s partly about blood, but also home and place, a helix of cultural and personal forces that can’t really be clipped apart. It’s a story that belongs to me, but only partially. It belongs to others, too. 23andMe may not have revealed all the complexities of my provenance, but it’s nailed one thing with perfect, koan-like accuracy. According to their blog: “At the end of the day, identity is determined by many things…”