Thursday, April 23, 2015

Kate Bolick Chases Her Spinster Wish

I've been married for nearly 12 years, but I continue to harbor fantasies about how great it is to be single along with possibly overly fond memories of how much I loved my life when I was a modern-day spinster in my 20s and 30s.

Nobody cared whether I stumbled home drunk on a week night! I could walk around the apartment in my underpants whenever I wanted! (OK, I still do that now.) I could lie around in bed for hours and read novels on weekend mornings, eat spaghetti for dinner every night, take baths at midnight, and have long, involved phone conversations with my sisters and girlfriends to my heart's content.

Now, I've learned, I'm not the only woman with fantasies of spinsterhood. Kate Bolick, a New York-based writer and contributing editor to The Atlantic, has just published Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own, a personally engaging and thoughtfully researched book about her life as a modern urban woman who is sometimes "alone" without a man in her life, sometimes attached and always single by choice.
Kate Bolick, "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own"
Bolick writes of something she calls her "spinster wish," which she describes as "shorthand for the extravagant pleasures of simply being alone." When Bolick was just out of college and journaling furiously, she covered hundreds of pages with all her tedious thoughts and feelings about the latest dramas in her  romantic life. But every now and then, when one of those romances had crashed and burned, Bolick would write about returning to the joys of spinsterhood: "Oct. 3, 1995: Ah, finally, W has left; back to my little spinster ways....Nov. 12, 1995: A long, perfect spinster wish of a Sunday, read all day, took two naps."

Now over the age of 40 and still unwed, Bolick has since seen more men come and go in her life, along with a marriage proposal or three, but she hasn't given up on her spinster wish. If anything, she has formalized her relationship to it with time and study, and now has a book to show for her efforts.

Some might describe the book as a would-be feminist cri de coeur. "The deeper question about women's relationship to conventionality might be why it's apparently a bigger factor for us than for men. For Bolick, the answer is fear -- her personal fear about becoming a bag lady or a cat lady, both living proof of what it means not to be loved," writes Laura Kipnis in Slate.

Others may see Spinster as a highly personal literary memoir, and indeed, I can't recall ever having read an analysis of Victorian women writers that segues into the hamster wheel of dating life in 21st-century New York. Heather Havrilesky in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, calls Bolick's book "an idiosyncratic journey through Bolick's decades-long exploration of how to live independently, with cues from an assortment of nontraditional women."

Those nontraditional women are five women writers, all of them bad girls by my reckoning, called "awakeners" by Bolick in a term she borrows from novelist Edith Wharton. In addition to Wharton, Bolick's awakeners are poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, New Yorker essayist Maeve Brennan, magazine columnist Neith Boyce and short story writer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

It's entertaining to read about these five women's careers in the past century, and to learn of their struggles to juggle their personal and writing lives. (If you're familiar with this blog, you'll know that I love women in history who fought for their rights to live, love, work and party.) But the trouble begins as it becomes apparent over the course of Bolick's book that none of her awakeners fit the traditional definition of spinster: an unmarried woman.

In fact, all of Kate Bolick's spinsters were married, some for a short while and some for the long haul, but married nevertheless. And I predict that Bolick herself will be married at some point, and we'll hear about it on social media when it happens, as her critics feign shock! and scandal! when they report the news.

Yet her book is about spinsters, and so she engages in some magical thinking that extends to her apparent belief that everything happens for the best.

If your magazine gets shut down, as Bolick's did, and you have to move back in with your family at the age of 38 because you were stone-cold broke, why, it was meant to be on your magical path to modern-day spinsterhood! And if you then scratch together enough cash to move back to Brooklyn because you were bored being stuck back at home, and you land a new job plus a sexy younger boyfriend, well, who's to say that's not being a spinster nowadays?

Still, Spinster is a surprisingly compulsive read. It's confessional, brings historic figures to life, and is likely to remind any woman who reads it that we are all feminists if we have a pulse.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Laura Nyro Obsession

In my youth, I was never much of a groupie. Even when I was crushin' on David Bowie or Marvin Gaye, I didn't see the point of making posters or rushing to hotels for a glimpse or scheming to get into a show and sneak backstage. I was too shy, and the thought of collecting albums and studying lyrics and cover art embarrassed me. The closest I ever came to being a groupie was in my obsession over Laura Nyro when I was a junior high school girl in the suburbs of Chicago. And it was more of a private affair. My big sister had three or four of Laura Nyro's albums, and when I was alone in my bedroom, I would listen to Laura, memorize all of her lyrics, and learn to sing her songs note for note when nobody was home so I could really let those highs and lows fly.
 I emoted right in sync with Laura on "Wedding Bell Blues," "Brown Earth," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Captain for Dark Mornings," "Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp," "And When I Die," "He's a Runner," and on and on. Never mind that I hadn't even been properly kissed at that point, let alone been in a relationship or gone to Spanish Harlem. No matter. With Laura, I felt and experienced it all: broken-hearted loneliness, tom cat love, day-fancy dreams, the taste of sweet cocaine and Christmas in my soul.

New York Tendaberry

Only twelve years old, I knew Laura was all mine. There was one precious time years ago when I saw her perform at Ravinia Park, outside of Chicago, on a rainy night, when mud-sliding philistines rode the muck on their bellies as if they were at Woodstock instead of a performance by the greatest singer-songwriter the world has ever known. Oh yes, she was mine alone.

Then last Thursday night, I attended "New York Tendaberry: The Iconic Songs and Life of Laura Nyro," in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I learned that I was far from the only girl with a passionate Laura Nyro obsession back in the 1970s.

Here was producer and host Louise Crawford, of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn fame, who put the evening together, standing before the tightly packed crowd at The Old Stone House and revealing that when she was twelve, she listened all the time to "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession," enthralled with its deep magic. And her big sister and friends were so cool and in on the Laura Nyro experience that saying "Eli's Coming" was code for "I'm about to get my period."

Tripping Down the Side Streets

In my Midwestern suburban youth, Laura Nyro also was the start of my New York obsession. Laura was the prime example of New York womanhood to me, tripping down the side streets all smoky eyes, wild brown hair, hoop earrings, gypsy bangles, lipstick on her reefer waiting for a match.

There stood Louise on Thursday, one of how many thousands of Laura lovers, still crushin' on her almost twenty years after her death, reading the poetry of "New York Tendaberry," and now that I'm a grown woman and living in NYC myself, it felt like home: "Sidewalk and pigeon. You look like a city. But you feel like religion to me."

Thanks, Louise, for bringing back the iconic songs of Laura Nyro with brilliant interpretations by artists Erika Amato, Debbie Deane, Amy and Andy Burton, Jennifer Lewis Bennett, Tim Moore, Ina May Wool and Nancy O. Graham. (And a special shout-out to Don Cummings, whose "Poverty Train" was a knockout.) The evening ended with a stunning video by Mary Bosakowski and Kristin Lovejoy, shown at Laura Nyro's memorial service back in 1997 and including personal footage of Laura speaking to the camera about her life.

Since Thursday's performances, my entire vinyl collection of Laura's albums has been in heavy rotation on my stereo here in my Brooklyn apartment. I'm remembering what it feels like to lift a record needle and put it back on a track over and over again. Remember that? I'm gushing, I know.

I own my Laura Nyro love proudly. I guess I'm a groupie after all. So to end it on a special note for all you other insiders, maybe you've already obsessed over every single YouTube video starring Laura Nyro, including, of course, the Monterey Pop Festival performance where she blew everybody away with the sweetness of "Wedding Bell Blues" and the intensity of "Poverty Train," and mistakenly believed the crowd was booing her when in fact they were loving her and calling out their appreciation but she couldn't feel it because she was just such a special and tender artist with an unparalleled sensitivity, though if she only knew how much she meant for me, personally, during my own very sensitive growing-up years when she showed me what it is to be open to an honest and true creative experience, and how I wasn't alone, and in fact she gave so much to so many of us in pain or passion or trouble or sadness or joy, then she wouldn't have been so timid about giving herself to an audience because she would have felt deeply how her songs and lyrics and musicianship went out into the world and changed it in a very real way and we will always always know and remember and cherish her from a respectful distance so as not to drive her away but in love and awe.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dr. Zhivago: A Movie Plotline Made Unworkable by Digital Communications

Lara (Julie Christie) and Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif) foursquare each other in Moscow and realize they've just left restaurants on the same street!

He texts her from the tram.

"Hey! Whassup? Did you just come out of the Social Democratic Pierogi Bar? I think I saw you!"

"No way! lol"

"Where u at now?"

Lara speaks.

"I'm on the tram, standing right behind you."

"Cool. Let's get a beer."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Don't Tell Me About the Queen of the Night

In June, I'm going with some friends to attend a performance of Queen of the Night at the Paramount Hotel in NYC. Shelling out $200, and I have no idea about the show's theme, who's in it, who wrote it, how long it runs or anything else about the production. Apparently there's food and drink involved, so I don't have to eat before the show.

Oh, and there's this photo I saw in The New York Times of a beautiful woman wearing a headdress:

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But other than that, I don't know a thing about Queen of the Night. Nada. And please don't tell me about the Queen of the Night. I don't want to know. "Immersion theater," meaning shows where you, the audience member, are pulled into the production by the performers, and you walk amongst them and the set and the props, is a very personal thing and can't really be explained. You interact with the show and feel yourself becoming part of the performance.

I've done this before at Sleep No More and Then She Fell, voluntarily wandering around in a state of confusion, trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It's the best.

At Sleep No More, an entire four-story building on the West Side has been taken over by the show. Somebody told me that the old Twilo nightclub used to be there, but now it's called the McKittrick Hotel, and it's the site of a nightlong mystery theater where performers rush around dancing and stripping off their clothes and washing off blood in the bath. I've heard the show is partially based on that Scottish play by Shakespeare and partially based on romantic mystery films of the 1930s, which sounds fine, but I've been to Sleep No More four times now and I still don't know what the hell is going on.

The point of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is to:
  • explore dark rooms enveloped in a moody soundscape and a peculiar smell of incense
  • happen accidentally upon a large dinner party in a ballroom with a cast of handsome, despairing characters who all seem to hate and mistrust one another
  • open drawers in ancient wooden desks that contain bits of hair and hospital reports written in spidery script
  • try not to bump into any of the strangers that are wandering around with me (did I mention that all audience members must wear Commedia dell'Arte masks?)
  • eat penny candy out of giant apothecary jars, and 
  • follow a woman I believe to be Lady Macbeth up three flights of stairs to her bedroom

John Singer Sargent's 1889 painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

When I went to Then She Fell, my friend led me into the theater building blindfolded, and by the end of the evening I had played games with a white rabbit, drunk tea with a mad hatter and brushed the hair of a pretty girl in a blue dress named Alice. Don't ask me what it all meant....Well, I guess what it meant was that once upon a time, a New York woman ventured out into the night for an immersive theater production and came away having lived a personal experience that engaged all five of her senses.

I love a good story. And after years of seeing plays, watching movies and reading books, if a talented theater company wants to offer me an intriguing assortment of people, places and things to become absorbed in, I'm happy to tell myself a story of my own devising, even if it is non-linear and makes no sense to anybody but me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Merry Christmas & Happy New Novel

Going to England for Christmas on Wednesday. Yay! That's where I was inspired to start writing my first novel. It's an inspiring place.

Here's how my novel begins -- and it draws on a lot of the "bad girl" research I've done over the years about women in history. The first draft is nearly finished. Yay! Perhaps in the new year I'll get back to blogging. Perhaps...
 Inga’s night had been restless, and she was glad when the morning light through their tiny bedroom window grew bright enough to allow her to get up. She rose as Mike slept on, and she crept down to the kitchen and dressed as fast as she could. It was a good thing he was sleeping so deeply after his night out. Finishing up with the packing had been easier.

She found a wet, sour-smelling washrag in a corner of the kitchen sink, and though it didn’t matter anymore, she poured fresh water into an empty dishpan, added some soap and a capful of bleach. She threw in the rag, gave it a swish and a scrub, and hung it to dry on a peg next to the sink.

Turning away from that final chore, Inga pulled on her coat and searched in the left pocket for a small jar of Imogen’s fancy French hand cream. She unscrewed the silver lid and applied a generous dab to her rough hands. As she smoothed the cream into her skin, she gazed into the middle distance, then pulled a handwritten note from the right pocket and placed it on the kitchen table.

December 21, 1918
Dear Michael,
I am too young for this. I’ll always love you, but I am leaving. Please don’t try to find me.
Love, Ingeborg

She bowed her head over the table, pressing her palms against the oilcloth that she had bought all those months ago with her pin money and paused a moment — no, several long moments — eyes closed. A shadow crossed her face.

Inga took a deep breath, straightened her back and opened her eyes. She walked to the hall closet and pulled out a large leather valise, Imogen’s valise, which Inga had been hiding for several days.

Grasping the handle with both hands, she heaved the overpacked bag out the apartment’s front door, shut it quietly, and took care not to make too much noise descending the tenement’s creaky stairs. At the landing, she peeked out the entryway window at the patch of sky above the buildings of the Lower East Side. The weather was clear, and the snow had melted from the sidewalks of Rivington Street.

Inga stepped outside. She struggled down the stoop, crossed Norfolk Street, and began her journey north with small, slow steps, dragging her bag behind.

There. Now she was gone.