New York State of Mind

Last Sunday, at the bookstore, I saw the name ‘Emily Gould’ in red letters on the spine of a book in the memoir section. I don’t forget the names of editors I worked with briefly as a literary agent. Back then Emily was an editor at Hyperion. She has since worked at Gawker and is now on her own doing freelance. Her memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, is a snapshot account of her life from college through young adulthood in New York City.

“I felt the vacuum of the empty suburbs surrounding me like a black hole in which my body was suspended, as though I were the only warm alive thing left in the world (Gould, 27).”

After her childhood in the burbs, Emily only lasted one year at Kenyon, a university in the Midwest full of loser frat boys, where women end up objectified or abused. It’s obvious that she does not fit – the same way that I did not fit at small, conservative George Fox University. While all of my roommates were out with their fiancés, I was sitting alone in my bunk bed with a stray cat, eating Chinese take-out and watching old Fellini films. I dreaded the moment when they would return, “What is this crap you’re watching? It doesn’t make any sense!”

Once in the city, Emily pays her way through writing classes with a series of server jobs where she suffers from anxiety. She feels exhausted from performing, leaves her feminism at the door, and puts up with being treated like a dimwit.

My first job in New York was in Soho at an Italian restaurant. The manager wanted me to stand outside to try and draw people in. I was not even a host, and I was not getting paid. Around 9pm, a band started to play, and the manager asked me to sit with some rich businessmen. I have to admit, though he was turning me into some kind of unpaid escort, I enjoyed the conversation, since one man owned the art gallery across the street, and bragged about how he had worked with Andy Warhol.

The manager said I would be serving at another location that was just opening up in the Lower East Side, where my commute would take twice as long. On my first day there, the owner only came upstairs to yell at us then disappeared into the basement for hours.

The other two servers were actors and called me “babe,” in a condescending tone that I found irritating. There were no sections, and they viciously fought for tables. Being the newbie, I had one lone table, and ended up bussing the other 49, spinning in confusion.

When it was time to go, I went downstairs to find the boss. Down a long hallway, he was sitting in a grimy office smoking a joint and counting piles and piles of money. There were at least twenty stacks over six inches high. I’d been in New York for one week, and already I was working for the mafia. I’ve since learned that in Jersey and New York, restaurants are backed by mafia money, while in Seattle they are backed by drug dealers – same thing, different titles.

I walked back to the original location and told the manager that I wanted to work in Soho, but he didn’t have a position for me. It was a good thing. I was the only person there who wasn’t right off the boat, and all the money was under the table with no salary. I was beginning to think that the entire city was outside of the law.

A year later I ran into the manager again at a party thrown by a flamboyant Italian man. At all of his parties, the host hired a model to walk next to him carrying a sign that read, “Stefano Is Here” with an arrow pointing down. The manager was working as the DJ that night, and I had been hired as a dancer with a percussion band that I performed with. We were at a swank restaurant uptown, called Zanzibar, and the party had a tribal theme.

The ex-manager/DJ was completely shocked to see me. I was no longer shell-shocked and outside of my element. In fact, I was getting paid to be the life of the party. Things moved fast in New York, so fast, I can’t believe it all happened.

After a series of serving jobs, Emily Gould found herself working as the Editorial Assistant to a Senior Editor at a publishing house.

“I was realizing that the production of book-shaped products had very little to do with “books,” the holy relics that my college education had been devoted to venerating (Gould, 99).”

Once at the literary agency, I imagined myself taking on literary clients and life-changing books, but I couldn’t halt the constant stream of fluff being thrown at me by my boss or the pressure to find a sale that could meet current trends. I didn’t feel strong enough, or maybe nothing seemed good enough, and everyday was a pressure cooker to make that deal happen.

Being let go was a tremendous relief. For all that time I’d never been able to read my own books, or write my own words. So every morning for the next six months, I was up at 6am to write for an hour outside the coffee shop, with people rushing past me to work. After writing ten pages, I would begrudgingly join them, and go to my shitty job in the city, numbering every single piece of crap artwork that came out of Peter Max’s factory. Like that first restaurant I worked at, only recent immigrants lasted in his exploitation-fest. He was donating millions to charity, and I couldn’t afford to live. But as long as I got that writing in every morning, it seemed okay.

Emily Gould still lives in Brooklyn, and I have to admit, I feel a sense of envy that I am not still in New York too. There is always the sense that I am missing out on something – connections, parties, shows. You can find all that in Seattle too, the problem is that I really haven’t yet.

I also have a theory – that when you leave New York you get slightly weak and introverted because the pressure is finally off. I hadn’t realized how much energy it took. I’ve watched as friend after friend left the city and completely went into reclusive mode. One friend even took to the mountains, and never lasts for more than 24 hours when she comes to visit me. In New York she was a tough, angsty, goth rocker chick in platform boots. Now she is a peaceful hippy, who prefers to live in a yurt, pee in an outhouse, and grow vegetables.

Five years since my move back, I’m teaching myself how to refind my New York energy. I’m remembering that in New York, amidst all the crazy, I learned how to live, how to survive, and how to love exponentially. Not the fake romantic love of adolescence, but real love for all of my friends and my community.

Instead of complaining about how I lost that when I left, I’m now remembering how to be what you wish others would become. And surprisingly, I’m finding what I’ve been looking for. Friendships are flowing naturally, the way they should be. I sense I’m growing closer to the pulsing beat of energy. Life takes a turn, once again.

Traveling Sisterhood

Esther Freud’s novel, Hideous Kinky, is a semi-autobiographical novel of two sisters traveling with their hippy mother through 1960’s Morocco. Freud is the daughter of the famous figurative painter, Lucian Freud, and the granddaughter of Sigmund Freud – a fascinating family rife with details we would all like to know more about, but privacy runs in the family.

The narrator of Hideous Kinky is a four-year-old English girl. Her narration is deceptively simple, leaving the reader to comprehend the complex layers of the story on their own. Mysteries are left untold, such as what they left behind in England, who her father is, and who sends the money. Through the little girl, we are unable to decipher the details of her mother’s love life (though we can surmise), and never know where they are traveling next, or how long they will stay. We feel the confusion and the uncertainty. Time slips away without the basic information needed to succeed back home in England, such as even, how to count.

My emotions over the mother ran the gamut. At times I felt exhilarated that she could live so far off the edge with two little girls in tow. At other times, I felt angry when the girl’s were not receiving education, medical care, food; at one point even spending a day as beggars. Upon their return to England life would seem so regimented in comparison. How would they adjust? But those events take place after the last page.

I’d seen the film before I read the book – and they both have much to offer. One did not ruin the other, as is often the case, though the details of the story differ.

My two nieces are missionary kids. They have been going back and forth between a jungle village in Papua New Guinea, a mission base, and the states all of their lives. Life for them is a constant readjustment. They are flexible and easygoing, because they have to be.

The oldest is very social, relates better to boys than girls, and likes to write fantasy stories (mainly, because she lives one). The youngest is exactly the same as I was at her age – always up in her head, living in imagination, weaving thick plots to escape the boredom of the present, yet a social underdog. However, that was two years ago, and every time I see them, they are different and yet the same.

Now that they are thirteen and ten, childhood is quickly disappearing. They are on the border, where glimpses of the women they will become disarm you completely – vivacious and strong, with lively blue eyes that are full of curiosity.

The oldest is at the stage where her parents and those in her environment are forming strong opinions in her. When they were younger it wasn’t that big of a deal that we have different beliefs. But they are being taught to look down on those who do not believe what they do.

They have always looked up to me. And now, at this stage, I’m afraid of being looked down on. Maybe it’s all in my head. But it isn’t, because I was taught exactly the same thing, and at that age, I looked down on, and judged everything that was “of the world” and “fallen”. I didn’t yet understand life as it really was.

There are cracks in the veneer every now and then. The oldest is now on facebook and she once posted a comment that read something like, “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there could be another life out there.” I went searching to find it again, but she has since erased it. Don’t we all feel trapped within our parent’s existence until we are free to go?

But for now, my nieces live below the equator, a day ahead of us. When it is summer here, it is winter there. In my neighborhood, it is loud with the noise of people and cars. In the jungle, it is loud with insects, birds, and animals. They navigate difficult terrain over-run with foliage. I navigate cracks in the pavement and annoying people asking for money.

When my oldest niece was a baby she crawled like the natives in the village – with her left knee on the ground, and her right foot walking. She had ringworm from sitting naked on the dirt. I worried over her – but she was completely resilient. It’s the babies that are born there that are really at risk. Many of them don’t even survive birth.

In four weeks, my sister’s family is coming home on furlough and will be in the States until April. When they are gone, I turn off all thoughts of them with the press of an imaginary button. But now, the button is off and I think about their return constantly.

The night before my sister’s wedding, I couldn’t stop crying. As her bridesmaids flitted about, she came into my bedroom to comfort me. It didn’t matter what she said, I knew that I was losing her. She’d found her husband and now all they needed was a distant place to be sent to. A year later they were gone.

They said it was a twenty-year mission, and it’s been sixteen years. As their responsibilities grow, I keep wondering if they’ll ever come back. And how will they cope with life here, without financial supporters, without constant movement, with some sort of steady job that is the same day in and day out?

When we were kids we used to pack our suitcases, hoist everything up on the swing-set, and pretend it was a train that would take us all over the world. It was her favorite game, her escape from boring suburbia.

We have both traveled, escaped conformity, and found an obsession with words – she as a linguist, and me as a writer. But I don’t really know who she is anymore. She never talks. We have only been alone together once in the past sixteen years. We took a walk, and she told me that there are things about my life that she envies, because as a missionary, you have to keep up the façade of minimalism. I told her that I envy her nomadic existence.

When I was a teenager, I idolized her, and thought that I would never measure up. She seemed like a saint, and I felt like a failure. I was her project, something that needed to be fixed.

My nieces represent something that was lost between my sister and I. They are the next generation of traveling sisters. They talk in secret sister code. Life will be a shock for them when they leave the fold. In some ways, they are even more sheltered than we were. I wonder where their lives will take them. I wonder if they will ever consider Seattle home.

Write To Live

I am feeling vulnerable.  The pitch for my memoir is about to be sent out to editors, and I have spent the last ten years pouring everything I have into this book.  It has evolved and grown with time, and thanks to rejections of past versions, it has become more refined, more complete, more honest.

Though I try my best to not take rejections personally (having worked in publishing has helped me a lot with this), it is still always a hard blow to the ego, with days spent feeling like a failure.  I know my book has enormous potential, now I just need people in the publishing industry to see that too.

In vulnerable writer moments, the best author to turn to is Erica Jong.  “Only if you have no other choice should you be a writer (Jong, 6).”

I have just finished reading her book, Seducing the Demon – Writing For My Life.  The stories from her life are all hilarious, and told in nonlinear fashion.  Most memorable would be how she broke up Martha Stewart’s marriage when it was already falling apart (picture Stewart’s husband as an emasculated chore boy).

Humorous stories aside, it seemed that Jong was speaking directly to me and everything that I am dealing with right now – death and the struggle of trying to capture life in words.

“Life is a dream, but the dream disintegrates unless you write it down (my father) reminds me (Jong, 253).”

I first began writing because I wanted to end my life.  It was a common theme throughout my adolescence, but escalated when I was twenty-one.  I always knew that I was not the person my family wanted me to be.  Within my core, I was not a Christian, but I was told by everyone around me that if I did not follow I would lose their acceptance.  I would be fallen, lost, going to hell.  I did everything to make God real to me.  But instead, I began to see that everything I’d been told was false.

In the process of all this, I was prone to deep depression and would fall into trance-like states where I left my body and began to ponder how I could destroy it.  Looking back, it was symbolic, since the Christianity I was raised with denies the body.

Eventually, when that mode became an everyday issue, I had to enter therapy.  The therapist didn’t sort my issues since I was still stuck within my Christian university and didn’t feel free to speak what I was really feeling.  What really changed my life was writing.

“Writing is tough, but it’s a lot less tough than depression.  Which basically leads to suicide.  Unless you make a joke (Jong, 232).”

At first the writing was not good.  It was melodramatic, sickeningly romantic, full of unnecessary flourishes and old-fashioned language.  Through hundreds of poems, I attempted to express what I was feeling.

I experienced a real breakthrough while reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.  Here was a man who bravely and beautifully wrote about gay sex in the 1950’s.  If he could do that then, than I could celebrate sensuality in my poetry, turn it in, and risk getting marked down or reprimanded.  Surprisingly, my teacher raved over the poem I wrote.

We normally looked at each other’s work anonymously.  But at the end of analyzing my poem the professor said, “And the girl who wrote this…” (Everyone looked around since there was only one other girl in the class) “Ope!  Sorry Lauren!”

The room full of boys twittered in embarrassment.  But then my professor continued, “This is the first poem I’ve seen all semester that is ready to be published.”  I sat there red in the cheeks, but brimming with pride that this professor who was such a tough nut to crack, who was known for yelling at people for using the word “deep” because it didn’t express anything, was now telling me I had potential.

“For the poet, the lover becomes the world.  The exploration of love becomes an exploration of life (Jong, 66).”

Before poetry, I painted portraits, then realized I had more to tell.  Poetry was vague enough to feel safe writing what I had to say.  But then I wanted to tell the whole truth and share the whole picture.

To write I have sacrificed money, jobs, relationships, and security.  But I have no choice, and wouldn’t be happy any other way.  My book sits there like the holy grail, full of promises that might not be met.  When I first tried to publish it, I was cocky, with no doubt that the first agent would snap it up and put it on auction, scoring a great book deal which would lead to it becoming a bestseller with a movie deal in the works.  I literally did not doubt this one iota.

In it’s earliest version (not nearly as fleshed out as it is now) it was rejected by over a hundred agents and editors.  Back then it was just a novel about a girl who parties too much.  Now it’s a memoir about a girl trying to forget an oppressive upbringing through an underground subculture that turns dark quickly.

“People who most crave ecstasy are probably least capable of moderation (Jong, 134).”

The people I write about in my book will be both horrified and gratified to see themselves frozen in time.  But the only reaction that really concerns me is that of my parents.  I hope they can forgive the fact that I need to lay them bare to understand my life.  Like many parents, it’s painful for them to allow their child to be their own person.  They will never fully accept who I am because it doesn’t fit into their worldview.  I am the reality that they find hard to face.

“If you want to be a nice person, don’t write.  There’s no way to do it without grinding up your loved ones and making them into raw hamburger (Jong, 239).”

Now when I actually see the living people who embody the other characters in the book, I hardly know how to look at them, without only seeing our past.  To me, they have become caricatures of themselves, mythology.

“Time and again I have found that once I have frozen a person in a book I can hardly remember what the real person was like (Jong, 268).”

At a memorial, I saw them all two days ago.  I realized, that they feel the same way about me.  They are completely unable to understand who I am now, unable to listen, and can only speak in jokes or insensitive diatribes.  They have frozen me in time.  I didn’t want to be there, but in coming together over the death of our beautiful friend, I came to the ending of my story.

“You are not doing it all alone.  You are standing on the shoulders of the dead.  You are writing love letters to the grave.  The word is a link in a human chain (Jong, 61).”

I’m in those last years where you can be considered young.  But I don’t feel young at all.  I feel like time is too short and I have too many stories to share to fit into that shortness of life.  Ideas keep popping into my head.  I want to write them all, to share this thing I cannot stop.  To live, I must write.

Life Is Never What You Expect

I once had a professor who said, “You live one life, but you have many lives within it.”  The same can be said for a book of short stories.  They are all unique, but each story is connected, and wouldn’t be complete without the others.

Aryn Kyle’s collection “Boys And Girls Like You And Me” is honest and full of humor over the sad circumstances of life.  Her characters all want to really live, but life is never what they expected it would be.

“That was the real bitch about time: Everything true would become false, if only you waited long enough (Kyle, 123).”

I am hard at work, putting the finishing touches on my memoir.  In the last week, three people who are a part of those stories have died.  Two of them were shot and killed in the Seattle shootings.  Drew Keriakedes and Joe ‘Vito’ Albanese.  I first saw them when the show, Circus Contraption, started about eleven years ago.  As the bandleader, Drew wrote all the whimsical music.  The show went on to New York City (where I was so homesick I went to see them three times in a row) and performed internationally as well.  When Contraption came to an end, the two were in a band called God’s Favorite Beefcake, and performed once at a friend’s wedding.  The day of the wedding I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me.  But I didn’t.  I got shy, even though I had spoken to them before in New York.  Their music was genius in that vaudevillian sense.  There was no one else like them.

The last thing I ever thought would happen was this.  The last thing that should ever happen to beautiful artists who spread joy and laughter and music throughout the world is violence.  And all because some mentally unstable guy got out of the house with a gun and decided to go on a shooting spree before he shot himself.

All moments and all people pass away, but art gives us the remnants of what once was.  I realize more than ever, the importance of capturing these moments in my history, and all the beautiful people I have known.  My generation has such a limited experience of death.  Death is a reminder that my introversion is a waste of love I could have given.

Life is short, life is intense, life is funny and sad and unpredictable.  We’ll only make it through if we hold each other up.  It just takes being vulnerable again, to learn how to try.

In memory of Arthur, who also passed away last week, I would like to share this poem I wrote about him ten years ago.  He was a beautiful man. 

Arthur’s Kiss

Smooth into me

like butter, you ooze

flicker glisten skin

glide cross fingers

no angles pointed joints

just round solid

foundations formed

through anticipations

refused content.

The Fat Is On The Fire

Two months ago, I bought a necklace with a black metal pendant cut in the image of Hunter S. Thompson. Ever since then, his spirit has been following me around, reminding me to “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” More even, than his words on the paper, he has a lot to tell me.
Away at a Writer’s Refuge, working on research for my memoir, I found a note I made twelve years ago that read, “Read Hunter S. Thompson.” I turned around from the table where I was sitting and looked at the five books I brought along with me. One was Thompson’s Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ‘80’s, a collection of articles he wrote in the mid-eighties for the San Francisco Examiner.
My favorite bits are Thompson’s personal tales of car explosions, raising peacocks, owning a strip joint, bad gambling deals, people out to slit his throat, incognito travels, and random chats with people like Nixon’s secret Chinese mistress who lived on a Houseboat near the Sacramento River where a humpback whale was causing a ruckus.
As Thompson floats through good ol’ boy territory and rebel remnants of the west, it’s hard to decide which is more loony – his crazy life or the Republican Party. His articles cover batty political figures and power-hungry televangelists trying to make their play for the White House. He manages to make them all look like corpses in an article entitled, “The Other George Bush” where his friend Skinner recounts a bender:
“… he’d spent the last two nights arguing with George Bush about the true meaning of Plato’s Republic and the Parable of the Caves, smoking Djarum cigarettes and weeping distractedly while they kept playing and replaying old Leonard Cohen tunes on his old Nakamachi tape machine (Thompson, 298).”
Skinner was convinced, here was a man “smarter than Thomas Jefferson,” who could “stand taller than the two Roosevelt’s put together.” Thompson doesn’t resolve the mystery for us, but he has plenty of dirt on “Big George.” As for Reagan, “Old actors never feel guilty for crimes they committed at work – because all they ever really did was play roles, and that was all Reagan did as President (Thompson, 215).”
The religious right permeated culture throughout the eighties. Even beyond the church, the mentality of doom and destruction and punishment were prevalent. Ronald Reagan told People magazine in 1986, “This generation may be the one that will face Armageddon.”
“That is the hallmark of the Reagan administration – a Punishment Ethic that permeates the whole infrastructure of American life and eventually gets down to George Orwell’s notion, in Animal Farm, that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others (Thompson, 206).””
The pendulum swung, as it always does throughout history, into an era of fear and a backlash from the orgiastic drug spree of the 1960’s. Aid’s hit, though it took the mainstream a long time to really admit that it existed. Instead, there were reminders that sex could kill you, and living means dying. “… “safe sex,” the meanest oxymoron of our time (Thompson, 206).”
Thompson’s stories collide with recollections of my childhood. I was born in 1979. My first experiences of the world were in a decade that I now look back on with words like – fear, greed, power, money, poltergeist, apocalypse, punishment. It’s no wonder that my generation flipped out and went grunge.
“The President’s wife, in her role as main spokeswoman for the administration’s War on Drugs… has created so much pressure on a whole generation of confused pimply teenagers who may or may not “Say No to Drugs” that the last of the ‘80’s seems destined to produce another generation of criminals like the one that got caught on the cusp of the ‘60’s, when Jell-O conformity of the Eisenhower Era finally created so many socioeconomic rejects that it eventually became fashionable to be one (Thompson, 207).”
My mother was highly susceptible to all of this fear. I wasn’t allowed to own a Cabbage Patch Kid. She had heard a story that one became possessed by a demon and talked to a kid. Dolls with creepy faces were suspect in general, especially ones with eyes that blinked. Our house was at constant risk of becoming a poltergeist. As long as you clung to Jesus and said his name over and over, you could avoid spiritual catastrophe.
Alcohol and drugs, it seemed, were the ultimate invitation to demons – just try it and they could infest your house like fleas, hiding in the carpet and the crevices of the couch just waiting to claim another soul for the dark side. All it took was a moment of weakness. Life had the horror and magnificence of a Sci-Fi film. Any mistake could cause you a lifetime of punishment. Perhaps the extremes were what made me want to screw up in the first place, just to test it out. All that striving for perfection and bullshit can really weigh you down.
It was a strange era to spend the first ten years of my life. Stranger still, that the current Republican nominees resemble something more akin to the ‘80’s than 2012 – slippery slicksters who might just bite us in the ass because we’re too anesthetized to do anything about it.
When I talk to people just ten years younger than I am, I get the feeling I’m actually talking to the Internet. They spit out facts and ask me, “Have you heard of this band?” “Have you seen this video?” “Do you know who this guy is?” and pop out their iphones at me with the source of their never-ending information that they want to spew in my direction.
What happened to the human beings? Are we all just extensions of machines now? Showing off our prowess through information rather than active imagination?
I’m grateful that I was born before the era of the Internet and the cell phone. While I enjoy the ease that they provide, I appreciate being unplugged and fully committed to the moment. Thompson reminds us, that if you’re not living you’re really dying.
Nature is tough. To survive, you have to be a warrior, but to thrive you have to remain open, even when struggles make you want to go into seclusion. For those with courage, life is full of thrills, ups and downs that bring you closer to your own true nature – honest and pure.
The smoke from Hunter’s cigarette is drifting in tendrils around his face as he gives me that devious half-smile. He’s still wearing his Aviators even though we’re in some dark seedy restaurant with holes in the booths. I watch him sling a few back, and have a feeling he has more chaos to share before the night is through.

The Little Death

The first thing I noticed when I picked up my used copy of Platform by Michel Houellebecq, were the bits of jizz on the edges, making the pages stick together.  Not surprising, given the amount of orgy scenes.

Houellebecq’s exploration of our contemporary malaise is only relieved through the constant pursuit of sexual adventure.  The protagonist, Michel, is a depressing character with really no personality to speak of.  He drifts through life bored and alone.  “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing (Houellebecq, 148).”  He is unable to find a suitable partner, or even really, connect with anyone at all.  But then he meets Valerie on a group tour in Thailand, where he goes to enjoy the benefits of Thai prostitutes.  In Valerie he discovers a sexually giving nature with the benefit of having someone to love, talk to, and enjoy life.

She works in the tourism industry, dealing with the problem of customers who are bored by their vacation experiences.  Michel suggests a line of hotels that specialize in sex tourism.  At first it’s a huge success – until Muslim terrorists step in.

“The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the Prophet already existed here on earth.  There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred meters of our hotel (Houellebecq, 250).”

Michel listens quietly to his companion, but he is more concerned with the sexual problems of westerners.  “Something is definitely happening that’s making westerners stop sleeping with each other.  Maybe it’s something to do with narcissism, or individualism, the cult of success, it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that from about the age of twenty-five or thirty, people find it very difficult to meet new sexual partners…  so they end up spending the next thirty years, almost the entirety of their adult lives, suffering permanent withdrawal (Houellebecq, 172).”

In my early twenties I attracted more men and even women than I ever have since.  And since then I have been analyzing exactly why this is so.  I had that youthful glow and was always smiling and laughing, whether it was nervous laughter or not.  I was much more friendly and open to all experiences – not yet scarred by all that was thrown at me later.  I was naïve, which older men found highly amusing for a while.  In fact, I was everything they were looking for to make them feel young again.  I was the answer to their existential crisis – youth.

My 22 year old self

For a number of these men – sex in its basic form wasn’t cutting it anymore.  They were resorting to cocktails of Ecstasy and Viagra, group sex, role-playing, bondage, domination, whips, hooks, orgy-parties.  And yet, they were still always bored.  “Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among overcultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction.  For everyone else, there’s only one possible solution: pornography featuring professionals; and if you want to have real sex, third world countries (Houellebecq, 175).”

When I did date normal, mainstream guys, I was bored out of my mind.  They were so vanilla, with nothing to talk about and a limited capacity for pleasure that was stunted and one-sided.  They were also not as honest.

Since then I have gained much more than lost.  But if I have lost anything, I would like to bring back that openness I had to people all around me.  I want to love fully without fear, with more effort on my part in the awareness that we are all as one.  Houellebecq, of course, puts it more bluntly, “It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable (Houellebecq, 63).”

Houellebecq has a dire view of the world, and though he writes of the dangers of isolationism, he also gravitates to it.  I see it as laziness. How can you feel connected to others, if you are not first willing to give? The character of Michel expects women to sexually fall all over him when he has not given them anything to fall over.  He is a walking dead man. There is nothing lovable about him.  And when he meets Valerie, it is hard to understand why she is attracted to him.

Behind Houellebecq’s fictional sexual forays is the mind of a Puritan. His characters are always punished for finding sexual satisfaction.  They begin and end in their fear of intimacy.  The sterile, noncommittal experience of a prostitute becomes the safer approach.

I watched Houellebecq’s interviews, and got the sense that he is already dead.  He appears to fall asleep, and takes an inordinate amount of time to answer questions.  His hands and mouth constantly grab for the stimulus of a cigarette.  In an interview for The Paris Review, he was asked how he has the nerve to write some of the things he does.  He answered, “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.”

A Real Live Girl

            For a while, last summer, I made a good attempt at going to book readings at Elliott Bay Book Company.  I like to study what authors do in their readings, how they present themselves, what sorts of people show up besides the two old ladies who sit up front and knit sweaters with their bifocals on.  Unlike the two knitters, I could only make myself go if I actually wanted to buy the book.  And this fall there has been little to draw me in.  I’m not much for all the cozy historical fiction and ‘we are the world’ multicultural fare.  I realize what really excites me is a thought provoking memoir.  Nothing ever seems stranger than the truth and I like to experience the author’s process of release.  When we write down our stories, we are finally able to let them go.
I went to see Sheila McClear give a reading for her debut book and memoir – The Last of the Live Nude Girls.  She looked stunning with none of the visual queues of an ex-stripper.  Tall, slim, and flat chested, she had the same body type as I do but with much better legs.  She wore a white shift dress that reminded me of the Jetsons with a zipper going all the way down the front.  Her tall tan wedges and long feather earring added contrast to her choppy asymmetric haircut.

The interesting thing about this reading was that I was seeing someone comparable to myself.  My age, first book, sexual subject matter.  I related to her intensely before she even opened her mouth.

There were not enough people in the audience, maybe five or six.  I sensed her embarrassment over this.  She told the organizer the book had gotten great reviews in New York, but she was having trouble garnering interest outside of the city since it was a memoir about working in the Live Girl Peep shows of Times Square.

She began the reading, and all I could feel was how awkward she felt.  It was impossible to tell if the book was any good by the nervous way she read her work.  I thought to myself, at least I’ve had a lot of stage experience for when it comes time to do my own readings.  But then I remembered she had been onstage too.

After the brief reading, she took a few questions.  One man in the back asked, “So why do you think Peep shows have gone out of popularity?”  She didn’t really have an answer, and neither did we.  They just seem like a thing of the past in an era of lap dances.  Left behind with the unsanitary version of Times Square, before it became a Disneyfied family attraction.

I began to feel nervous as I always do when getting a book signed by an author.  Racking my brain for something good to say.  Apparently authors feel the same way, because almost always they compliment me on an article of clothing I’m wearing – a coat or a hat as though this is written in some book promotion guide for writers.

“Awesome reading,” I said abruptly.  She signed the book, “8/25/11 Hi Lauren!  Thanks for coming to see a live girl in Seattle!  XXXO, Sheila McClear”

I thought it was clever.  I liked her, and I desperately hoped I would like her book too.  It was a great read and I couldn’t put it down.  But I felt it could have used a better editor, and that her experience had needed more time for processing.

I am still contemplating how exactly she was drawn into the live shows.  I understand the giant leaps we introverts sometimes take to overcome our shyness.  I also understand just how easily New York can suck you up and spit you out.  Look at me, after three years in New York I had to give up because I couldn’t find a job that paid as much as the first lucky find I’d had.  There is still always the thought in the back of my head that I could’ve made it if I’d just tried harder.  Why hadn’t my tenacity kicked in a little more?  But the sheer force of home drew me back.

In those last few months in New York, I had a friend.  We met through a man we had both been involved with.  Originally she taught English as a second language.  But over ten years prior, our mutual ex-lover had come along and she decided to show him how much he hurt her by working as a prostitute in a fake tanning parlor.  I’m sure it didn’t phase him at all, but now she was running a brothel out of her apartment in the West Village.  It seemed her main motive in being my friend was to convince me to come work for her.  She couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t.  I couldn’t accept that she only saw me as a commodity.

“My Dad can help me out this month, “ I always told her.  I was the only person I knew of who didn’t have a jackass for a Dad.  Cliché as it is, maybe my rejection of sex work partially stems from that.  Why didn’t I do it?  I still wonder.  Reasons why – I hate living a double life and had already done enough in that regard.  I could disappoint my parents by being who I am (aka not a Christian), but I couldn’t abuse them with the knowledge that all the money they’d spent for my education, all the love they’d given me would be in vain since I would be the antithesis of the strong person they raised.  It was also personal.  I didn’t want to end up hating men.  But would it have come to that?  Who can know?

All I saw was that my friend was hugely depressed and didn’t seem to know it.  She resented people for everything they took from her, though she offered them everything.  And towards the end she was ridiculously flaky.  I got off the Path train to meet her for coffee.  “Oh Lauren, I’m so sorry.  A client just called and is only in town for the day.  I’m meeting him at his room at the W.  I can’t make it.  But please come!  I still want you to sit in on a session and just observe to see what you think.  He’ll pay you $300.  And then you can see if you’d like it.”

“Oh no, that’s okay.  I’ll see you another time.”  But I never heard from her again.  She gave up on me.  I found it bizarre that men paid for her – she looked like a stressed out housewife with long scraggly brown hair and a deep worry crease between her eyebrows.  I guess she made men feel safe.

Years later in Seattle I briefly saw her leaving a bar in belltown, getting into a limo with a big group of black guys.  It happened so fast, walking past her in that tight hall as I came through the door; she seemed like a mirage.  Her entire life is like a mirage – appearing here and there in different cities, sitting beneath the law, fading from people’s lives before they ever get too close.

Her loneliness had weighed me down.  Her money weighed me down too.  I was too broke to afford the cabs and expensive restaurants she wanted to eat at.  She probably held that against me.

“Things like sex and nudity were supposed to be imbued with meaning.  But isolated from a relationship, they meant nothing – or rather, I realize now, they became something to be negotiated, and I became nothing – little more than a dress-up doll for them to project their narratives onto (McClear, 22).”

One night at this friend’s apartment I met a woman who worked for her.  She was getting a divorce, her husband had cheated on her, and she had two kids.  She liked sex work almost too much and was lonely enough to find solace in it.  Tall, blonde and bare-breasted, she spread her expensive lingerie across the kitchen table, deciding which lacy silky thing she would wear for her client.  I didn’t realize that business would be in session while I was there, but I decided to roll with it.

It was supposed to be a forty-minute session, but she wouldn’t stop talking to the guy afterwards.  They were in a front room blocked off from the back of the apartment.  We had to be quiet in the back.  But I had to leave.  It was midnight, and I wanted to catch the next train that only came every half hour late at night.  Against my friend’s wishes, I busted a move for the front door.  It jammed and just then the John walked out into the hall.  I saw his look of astonishment as she shoved him back into the room until I could get out.  What had I been doing there anyway?  Out on the street I breathed in the cold air, with every step feeling further away from that heavy, alternate reality.

“That’s what I was learning from New York: you could fit in anywhere if you hung around long enough (McClear, 201).”

In the book, Sheila finally escapes her peep show life and finds work as a writer with enough love, acupuncture and therapy to begin to heal.  But how can you begin to shake off all of those faceless men who make you what they want you to be, or the fellow live girls who disappear into the ether or turn into over-sexualized plastic deformities?

“There was a moment, after every show, after the light abruptly snapped and the glass fogged to opacity, when I could suddenly see my reflection: naked and alone, untouchable, on display like a zoo animal, suspended behind glass (McClear, 45).”


Patti Smith Lays It Bare

Last night I was driven to finish Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, before going out to see Annie Clark aka St. Vincent play at the Neptune.  The book’s ending left me sad and stoic, barely able to look forward to the show.  But I was blown away by Annie’s performance.  I never expected she would have the raw emotion of Patti Smith, gritty and truthful, losing herself in a cover of an obscure punk band.  We need more of that energy out there – real poets who internalize the pain of the world and magically transform it into beautiful art.

In the book Patti shares the development of two struggling artists.  She leaves home and moves to New York with nothing, but when she gets there, she finds Robert Mapplethorpe.  All they have is their dreams, but as they become devoted to each other they manage to survive and build a life on their combined skills.  Their dedication survives Mapplethorpe coming to terms with his homosexuality, and their differing lifestyles as Robert climbs up into high society and Patti chooses the raw environs of rock’n’roll.  They remain until his death interchangeable artist and muse.

Patti Smith to me is synonymous with CBGB’s.  New York lost one more inch of its soul when CBGB’s closed and turned into a trendy John Varvatos boutique.  The boutique celebrates the grit and history of the venue without any of the grit left behind.  Now it’s all shiny and new with expensive clothes to give you that ‘rock star look.’  The dressing room is built over the stairway that once led to the most disgusting bathroom, magnificent in its filth.  Before it closed, the entire venue was a mutation, a continuing saga of live music.

I was fortunate enough to perform there just weeks before CB’s closed. It was before I began turning poems into music for the mandolin.  I was belly dancing for a percussion group, though with the addition of a keyboardist, our set was transforming into a jazz aural landscape.  I always danced barefoot, but the guys in the bands we came with thought the stage was too disgusting.  It had layers and layers of shit on the floor, built up over time.  Blood, sweat, broken bottles, sticky boos and who knows what else.  “I hope you got a tetanus shot.”

I loved experiencing the energy of the bands that had been on each stage, and felt that my bare feet brought me closer to those that had passed before. Despite everyone’s fears, CBGB’s ended up being the greatest bare foot stage experience.  As I danced I felt Patti Smith, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, the Talking Heads, Blondie.  It made me feel I could touch their success.  As though after our set I would step off the stage, put on some shoes and walk in their footsteps.  Surviving on hot dogs and lentils didn’t matter so much after that.


“I can’t believe I just performed on that stage,” I said to a guy at the bar.

“Well, you didn’t play an instrument!”

What an ass.  I turned away from him and gave the bartender my drink ticket.  Playing an instrument is easy in comparison to dancing onstage. Though I did not play music through my hands, my entire body was an instrument.  Like visual sound, I was showing the audience how music moves. From then on our group performed one song where we all joined in a drum circle, building the beat into a crescendo that came tumbling to a halt right after it’s peak.  It was a kick to surprise people as I sat down with the drum – no one could say I was just some fluff dancer.

In a review of our show at CB’s, the writer compared me to the last belly dancer he’d seen at the venue – a woman who stripped back in the seventies.  He claimed my performance was G-rated in comparison, as though I was only there for his titillation. I felt misunderstood and interpreted as an objectified female.  To top it off, after reading the review, the percussionist asked me to wear a skirt with some slits up the side.  I was the lone belly dancer in a universe of men and their opinions.  Despite all of that, every show was a new adventure that I enjoyed immensely.  I bonded with many new people, and as my stage persona changed I went from being called “the belly dancer” to “Joan Baez.”

I no longer perform as a dancer or a musician because I lost the passion for it.  Performing was not the same when I moved back to Seattle.  I never felt a sense of community and support.  Instead of people working together to create something amazing, it is every man for himself.  My skin isn’t thick enough to withstand all the empty venues and people who don’t give a shit about the music.  At my very last gig, I got in a fight with the musician I was sharing a bill with.  He was determined to talk as loud as possible over my set and it was impossible to hear the music.  Through years of being onstage, I never encountered a more offensive musician.  And as I’ve gotten older, I have grown more sensitive and outspoken.

Instead, I like to remember the time I got up to play for a full house, and I saw two girls in the back who were about to leave.  As I began to play, they turned around and were riveted by my song – a poem about the limits of love. They felt what I had written and they knew it for themselves.  It was so intimate, as though there was no one else in the room.  I gave them every word like drops of blood, and by the end there was a tear in my eye.

Being onstage gave me motivation, discipline, confidence.  I learned to take my abilities much more seriously.  Just like Patti, I didn’t know I would ever turn my poetry into music and sing on stage.  But submitting to the flow of creativity, you release yourself to whatever will come.