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.