I looked up at the boxes of Charles Jourdan shoes marked down from $125 to $49 and suddenly felt the world closing in. I couldn’t breathe, everything was starting to look cheap and whorish. I felt panicked, like I couldn’t bridge the gap between my self-imposed feminine exile and the deep desire to sip a glass of wine with some internationally alluring man, to be charmed and indulged without a second thought.
–From Love, Love, and Love, by Sandra Bernhard
Love, Love, and Love is a very funny, absurd, and at times poignant book by the comedian Sandra Bernhard, a woman whom, like Chelsea Handler, I adore from a long distance, knowing that we inhabit different planets psychologically and socially. Despite being entertained by the book, there isn’t a whole lot in Love, Love, and Love that I can identify with, but the passage above describes an anxiety that I have often experienced.
I live alone and work primarily from home, and there isn’t much need for lipstick inside the house. My favorite garments throughout at least 6 months a year are made of polarfleece. My hiking shoes are warm, supportive, and hug me perfectly, just like a good man. And anything remotely tight on my lower half makes me self conscious, like in a dream where you find yourself at school but you’ve forgotten to wear underwear and it’s almost time to change for gym class. It’s easy to get used to dressing functionally when your functions are so narrowly circumscribed. I’m not really complaining, understand, just like Sandra Bernhard is not complaining about her feminine exile, being that it’s self-imposed. I know that I could put on a dress in the morning just as easily as a pair of cargo pants and a T-shirt. But my point is why would I? All roads seem to lead me back to that polarfleece.
All this has the effect of making it very hard—even when the desire is genuine—to go out and shop for things only a female would wear. I have tasted the panic that Sandra describes when, for example, I think I want to buy a dress for an occasion. I go from rack to rack categorically eliminating things that are too bright, too tight, too loud, too daring, because I fear that I’ll look like I’m trying too hard. Daisy Duck trying to be Daisy Duke again. Unable to think of myself as being able to inhabit such an excess of femininity, everything starts to look like something only a drag queen would wear.
It would be easy just to call sour grapes, exult in soft, snuggly, shapeless clothes in the name of feminist self-determination. Who needs bloody feet, anyway? But it’s not that simple. Often, the choice between comfort and self-consciousness is really a choice between apathy and acknowledgment, invisibility and visibility. I’ve always been very good at being invisible—so good I should have pursued a career with the CIA. And as any 40-something woman will tell you, it gets easier and easier to fall off the radar screen the older you get. Sometimes we’re willing to walk to a bistro in three-inch heels if we can sip that glass of wine across a table from an attractive man. We never learn.
Thursday morning I got a pleasant and apologetic voice mail from one of the managers of my townhouse complex letting me know that I would not be able to access my garage (where I keep my kayak, bike, and other outdoor/workshop items) this Sunday because they would be cordoning off the area between the two rows of garages and holding a liquor auction.
Never mind that Sunday is supposed to be a nice day weather-wise—quite possibly my first opportunity to get Bella on the water this season. I’d just like to understand why one would auction off beer, wine, and other spirits. For charity? Are these, for example, rare vintages of wine? That still doesn’t explain the beer or the harder liquor on the docket.
About an hour later, this was shoved through my mail slot:
Still no clue as to the purpose. But I’m intrigued by the registration requirement. I’m toying with the idea of getting out of town on Sunday, but if those plans fall through, I may have to check out this scene, if only to witness the spectacle.
Anyone have any idea what this might be about? Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve never heard of such a thing.
I’m still recovering from the dreamlike absurdity of a huge proposal effort at work that was aborted at the last minute through no fault or control of our own. I can’t remember much of the past two weeks, so my mind has gone back to my calm, warm vacation in Sanibel, and in particular one of the books I finished while I was there: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale.
I discovered this book when I read an intriguing review in The New York Review of Books. After I got over the fact that the author looks almost exactly like someone with whom I had two very bad dates, I decided to buy it on my Kindle so it would be nicely portable to Florida.
I think it’s one of the most original stories—and some of the most incredible first-person writing—I’ve read in a long time. Bizarre. Fearless. Hilarious. Vulgar. Intellectual, epic, and yet very simple in what I think of as its core premise: that language is one of the most powerful and beautiful phenomena of existence. I won’t say human existence, because that would go against the narrator’s passionate conviction. The narrator, Bruno Littlemore, is an erudite chimpanzee who learns to speak and gradually acquires many of the other trappings of human life. But that’s not the half of it. Bruno Littlemore (the novel) is really at least five books in one, each following a different stage in Bruno’s adventure of a life, and each as strange and shocking and gorgeous as the last.
For me, the best art is at once deeply disturbing and deeply beautiful, and Bruno Littlemore fits this bill. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone reaching the end of the novel and not having a strong opinion or reaction to something in it, whether it’s bestiality, the ethics of primate research, or Bruno’s myopic personality. But what I appreciated the most—and what I find exceedingly rare in great contemporary fiction that aspires to something more than a Robin Cook-ish conspiracy thriller—is that the author understands something about science, specifically primate evolution and behavior, and he has managed to both transfer this understanding to his narrator and also create a very real setting in which the initial experimentation on Bruno takes place.
But believe me, it’s not all lab coats and stainless steel. Not by a long shot. Bruno’s misbehavior (and it’s his misbehavior that is generally the impetus for a change of setting) takes him from the Lincoln Park Zoo to the University of Chicago to his grad student caretaker Lydia’s apartment to a millionaire’s ranch in Colorado to a second primatology lab to a seaside town on the outskirts of New York City and back to Lydia’s apartment again.
I know less about mammals than I know about many other types of animals, and I know less about primates than many other types of mammals. I’ve felt perfectly at home with all the mammals I’ve ever had the privilege to interact with, but I’m not sure how I’d feel around a chimpanzee. They are (literally) too close to humans. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable sitting in a room alone with one, which could be, admittedly, a pretty dangerous thing to do. It would be easy to become too comfortable around one, to forget that this creature is still a wild animal: physically strong, unpredictable, and subject to no laws of civilization or remorse. The scene in which Bruno loses control at the gallery-opening party in honor of his own paintings is classic. Being an introvert, I have felt the same primal, absolutely physical chest-shaking urge to flee large crowds of strange people, and the scene resonated with me. If only I could get away with the same behavior.
When I finished The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, I had the sweet aching feeling indicative of really epic fiction that I couldn’t believe I would have to go on without these characters, that there would possibly be an end to the story Bruno had to tell. It occurs to me as I type that this is precisely Bruno’s point about his own experience with language, and what humans think is unique about themselves.
If you read it, you will never look at a bored alpha male chimp lazing on monkey island in the zoo without also looking for frogs in the moat. I will not say more. You’ve been warned.
Eyes closed and snoring.
Sleep is the new sex.
Life shoots from every crevice in Florida. It will not be ignored. One of the first things we learn in elementary school science class is that the sun is the source of all life, and when I’m in Florida I’m reminded of this acutely. The sun calls northerners outside after a long gray winter and makes us want to expose large expanses of skin to its incredible all-engulfing yellow bliss. But you’d better be careful. Especially if you’re past the age of 25.
I hate this advice, personally. I lived a childhood mostly without sunscreen, my cousins and I turning gingerbread brown every summer in the pool and in the ocean. Our parents might have applied some SPF 8 to our arms and legs in the morning, but we were turned loose for most of the rest of the day, and the last thing on our minds was protecting our skin. This was back before the waterproof sunscreen revolution. We’re fortunate in that our Czech heritage means that we hardly ever burned and mostly tanned.
Now adult women are made to feel guilty for daring to worship the sun for any amount of time without protection. Once again, all the emollients and lotions and shields are wagged in our faces (especially our faces). “Do you want to get cancer?” (Well no, of course not.) “Do you want to get wrinkles?” (I don’t really care—it’s just that other people seem to care so much.) To be honest, whenever I see a (Caucasian) woman in her fifties or older with dark skin, belying a life spent in the sun, I’m almost jealous of her. I think about how much time she’s been fortunate enough to spend outdoors, her resilience in being able to stand and even love the heat and the light. It may be absurd, but these women, exposing their brown shoulders in halter sundresses, seem defiant, a quality not usually considered a feminine virtue.
Laying out beside the pool in our condo in Sanibel, I cover my face with a straw hat or with a mesh coverup to ward off the most direct rays. It’s as much for comfort and anonymity as sun protection. But through the holes in the hat and the mesh I can see and hear pin-skinny Anolis lizards skittering across the cement, through the grass, up flower stems, and into bushes. They are everywhere here; invisible except when they move. One of them flared his throat at me like the one in the picture below, (which I did not take).
They have a wise and skeptical look on their faces, with their heads often turned up and their tiny eyes able to scan nearly 360 degrees. If any animal can be said to be powered by the sun, it is a reptile. Being poikilothermic (the old term is cold blooded), their activity levels are directly influenced by their ambient temperature. A sun-warmed lizard is powered up, ready to forage for food, escape predation, or court a mate. A cold one is sluggish and vulnerable.
Anolis are the perfect Florida creatures, I think. They are quick, can hide almost anywhere, slipping into cracks and holes and brush, and they need so little to survive. They can drink a few drops of dew from a leaf in the morning and have enough fresh water to last throughout the day. They can eat any number of tiny insects that are prolific in the state. They lay their eggs in leaf litter, which is plentiful and constantly renewed. And it is very easy for them to move in and out of the sun at will, no worry about their skins, whose adaptations reflect the challenges they have faced and survived as a species.
I watch these critters from under my hat and envy their ecological economy. It must be nice to be so small and so fast and to need so little. I come to this state to worship the sun with my skin, too, but my devotion is emotional and, save for a little bit of vitamin D production, superfluous, a luxury for which I’m very grateful.
To say it here is a to add an aphid-sized voice to a global roar, but I can’t stop thinking about the Japanese tsunami. This from someone who routinely complains about the mud in the courtyard and on the pavement around her apartment that dirties up her leather flats so that she has to take the long way on the sidewalk instead of crossing the open ground to her car. I don’t have an excessive fear of death, but I do not want to die in the water. Tall waves are awesome, and I fear them instinctively like most people fear snakes. Whenever I dream about water, I know something primal in my life is deeply out of whack.
Some readers of this blog might know that Japan is number one on my wish list of international places to visit. Was number one. Now I guess I have an excuse to defer those plans indefinitely. Ever since I saw the exhibit Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture at the Japan Society in New York, I have wanted to experience contemporary urban Japan, particularly the interweaving of unabashed commerce, youth culture, the kawaii (cute) aesthetic, and the resilience of a national pride that witnessed and survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those events crossed the intellectual and actual threshold of auto-annihilation for our species, and we can never return to that state of pre-atomic innocence. Still, the tsunami reminds us that there are big things we (arguably) can’t control and that move at a pace too slow to register for anyone other than geologists. The pace is at ironic contrast with the lightning speed at which news and images of the tsunami spread across the globe. Tens of thousands of people were in the wrong place at the right time at the culmination of a geophysical process thousands of years in the making, and we in the U.S. witnessed it live from a safe distance as it was happening. Now Japan’s cultural resilience will be tested again.
What do you tell an individual who has lost everything except his or her own life? Or even to someone who feels that way, to the extent that his or her own personal loss, no matter how small, feels insurmountable? In my own life, I have not yet met an ache that is too large to write about. There is no waste in a writer’s life—every experience has the potential to be elevated or transcended once it’s put into words, both for the writer and for the reader. Even death and regret and loss and rejection are transformed into beauty by being described and transcribed. Maybe beauty isn’t exactly the right word for some experiences, but I believe what can’t be transformed into beauty can at least be transformed into usefulness. It’s a basic tenet of many schools of psychotherapy that storytelling has the power to heal both the teller and the listener. I’m not sure I would tell a Japanese person suddenly alone and still in the throes of early grief to just write it all down. But maybe eventually some will.
In conjunction with my 1980 musings, I was going to write about my memories of the album Paradise Theater by Styx (ca. 1980), but another proposal cycle has intruded at work and I don’t have time to really do it justice. So I leave you with this gem of a video of the song “Too Much Time On My Hands,” the song that my friend Heather and I routinely blasted in her bedroom when we were in (I think) 7th grade.
You will note:
- Dennis DeYoung, ushering in the curly mullet and the irony-free mustache. I am not a fan of Dennis DeYoung, but that probably merits its own post.
- Various chicks at the bar sporting the Fame-era early 80s dancer look, characterized by shiny lycra leotards, headbands worn across the forehead, and legwarmer socks. I dipped into this genre myself, although no pictures survive.
- Tommy Shaw in the turquoise jumpsuit. I can’t remember any other time in men’s fashion history when the zip- or button-front one-piece was considered acceptable outside a maximum security prison. The flame of the jumpsuit’s heyday burned high but not long. I believe my dad had a tan one with an attached belt. I might get in trouble for posting that.
- The 80s were the beginning of the end for bands whose members, no matter how musically talented they might be, didn’t conform to the standards of conventional attractiveness. Styx was considered a prog band (at least prior to 1980), and prog bands are not known for their eye candy.
I’d argue that Tommy Shaw has aged very well. Damn male rock stars—as long as they can keep their BMI below 27, so many of them just seem to get better looking with age. Wrinkles have only given Tommy more character.
Nostalgia, as I may have mentioned before, is a powerful emotion. It drew me to the Towson Record and Tape Traders earlier in the week to pick up a copy of Paradise Theater in disappointingly duller CD form. I remember the laser image on Heather’s LP. Now that’s an artifact.