The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer’s book about living in one of the surviving hutongs that was slated for destruction in the tidal wave of modernization that the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought. This was a great read, well written and packed full of detail about the crumbling neighborhood that was a community destined to be exploded to the winds. Once evicted by The Hand, they could fight for compensation that would barely get them a part of one of the new (and not yet constructed) apartments that were in suburbs far from their current location. It was a great reminder that this type of destruction of the past is happening everywhere, and nowhere as rapidly as in China.

Meyer comes to China with the Peace Corps and stays on to teach English at a local school in his hutong, Dazhalan. He is known as Little Plumblossom and accepted into the community, and his book provides us with a stunning first-hand experience of the destruction of this part of town. Drawings go up around town to depict the future avenue, only the people aren’t Chinese but white-skinned. “The only depicted shop signs were for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.” This new plan completely disregarded the principles of feng shui that once governed the construction of imperial cities in China, where a town’s central axis should be unimpeded in the south and shielded in the north.

He used to play hockey with other locals on a lake near the Drum and Bell towers and there was an old man who had been sharpening skates since 1937, even during the 8 winters of Japanese occupation. “He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.”

Construction never stops, even in the case of discovering 2,000 year old artifacts. The Cultural Relics Bureau was given a week to grab what they could from the discovered site before the land was covered with new cement foundations.

One explanation for the lack of interest in historic sites comes from architect Zhang who noted that Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years. Old buildings were seen as reminders of feudalism.

This section reminds us that the whole world was destroying its old buildings:

The assault continued worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”

Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s nineteenth-century design. Thousands of New York building were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. “Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures.” The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old Cit like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact.

Haussmann’s Paris also gets discussed. But is preservation the right answer? Meyer mentions seeing the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, Laos threatened not by bulldozers, but tourists. The historic structures were converted to guesthouses, increasing sewage, traffic, and making the city a cultural Disneyland.

This is crazy to think about: “At a time when New York was building skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Beijing still delivered water to homes by wheelbarrow.”


Poetry State Forest

Bernadette Mayer strikes again, playing with words, showing you her old notebooks with lists of words, creating poems out of daily life that reveal bits of herself: her fights with Phil, presents from her son Max, the neighbor who buys the land next door to put up a cabin (“At least it’s not a walmart/a used care lot or a mine”), railing against George Bush (W), going to anti-war demonstrations, talking about the gloomy month of December. My favorite one was “Idyll,” written from the perspective of a know-nothing typical redneck white male who’s vacationing by the lake, dousing his bbq with lighter fluid, fishing, tossing his cigarette butts in the water, then throwing more of his garbage in. Mostly it’s a book of play, words dancing and pirouetting and bowing and scraping across the page.

You & a Bike & a Road

Eleanor Davis sketches a beautiful story of her solo bike touring as she bikes from Tuscon, AZ to Athens, GA. (She ultimately gives up in Mississippi, but the journey to get there takes 57 days). She sings and soaks in the gorgeousness of farmland, icing her swollen knees with frozen green beans at a coffee shop inside a grocery store because she doesn’t like peas. She meets lovely people along the way that provide shelter or guidance or acupuncture or vegetable soup. Through it all we know that she’s struggling with depression, that she’s got to do this trip now or wait 20 years because she and her husband want to have children. She camps along the way when she can, resenting shelling out $60 for motels when conditions require it, and when concerned people ask if she’s doing it alone she assures them her husband is with her, imagining a knife she calls her husband to do the trick if anyone were to try anything funny. The border patrol in AZ, NM, and Texas are all omnipresent, she’s shaken by the image of a man walking slowly in the canal, agents on either side waiting to catch him, but she does score some water from them occasionally as she’s biking. Delicious treat for the eyes and brain.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Exhausting. I’ve been wrestling with this book for a couple of weeks now and would have given up except the subject matter is too compelling. Because I’m high on Highsmith I suffered through the terribly constructed, bloated biography that Schenkar put together. That may be harsh criticism, but surely there was a way to chop the 600 pages into something more manageable. And nothing is more deflating than struggling through hundreds of pages of Pat’s tempestuous affairs with ladies (and a few men), looking up to see that you are in Part 14 of the section, Les Girls. I almost cried when I realized how much she’d packed into those pages. Did every single detail of every single affair she had need to be included? Ye gods. (Pat was a busy woman, frequently sleeping with several women at the same time, preferring love triangles or affairs with married women so there was no possibility of it continuing).

The most interesting intel I got from this was Pat’s secret life as a comic strip writer. During the 1940s she was the “most consistently employed female scriptwriter in the Golden Age of American Comics,” and she continued to write them freelance while in Europe trying to make ends meet. Comics she wrote for include: Black Terror, Pyroman, Fighting Yank, The Destroyer, Sergeant Bill King, Jap Buster Johnson, The Human Torch, Crisco and Jasper, Real Life Comics, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Golden Arrow. She hid this work from everyone, ashamed of it, but admitted later that it helped her tremendously in having to crank out huge quantities of pages around tight plot lines. This is also where she picked up the dual imagery she clung to in her own work, the alter-ego.  The biographer goes on an interesting tangent about that era of comics and includes Gertrude Stein’s impression that Americans “do the best designing and use the best material in the cheapest thing.” Apparently Stein had Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids strips mailed to her in Paris, sharing them with equally obsessed comics fan Picasso.

As a girl, Pat read obsessively and used books as “drugs”—sounds familiar—and later in life read the dictionary for half an hour each night (“As a novelist, I can say the dictionary is the most entertaining book I have ever read”). She kept snails as pets and would unleash them onto the dinner table to freak people out.

An alcoholic, she shunned food and actually marked a line across the bottle for each day’s rations of booze (beer and gin or vodka in the morning, scotch for the remainder of the day). The author, Schenkar, claims: “Coffee, scientists now tell us gravely, helps to protect the livers of heavy drinkers from cirrhosis,” meaning that Pat was preserving herself by being a huge coffee drinker along with consuming astounding amounts of booze. She was also known to be furious if she was at a party that ran out of alcohol.

She was obviously deeply into murder, and her last writer’s diary calculates that “one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. Those over eight would take two blows to kill.” What circumstances would drive her to this frenzy? “One situation—maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.” Amen, sister. Later she says “Families are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live with one.” Pat had a ridiculously complicated and fraught relationship with her mother Mary, having to cut off contact completely in later years after one too many screaming matches.

A misanthrope, she preserved herself by “avoiding meeting people, encountering them on my walks, greeting even the most pleasant acquaintances by crossing the street when I see them far ahead of me on the sidewalk… I feel that I am never quite myself with others.” Another great quote: “I can easily bear cold, loneliness, hunger and toothache, but I cannot bear noise, heat, interruptions, or other people.”

She met Carson McCullers (who told Pat all afternoon that she had a “very good figure”). She also met Shirley Jackson who advised her about the importance of finding a literary agent. Jane Bowles told her “Don’t plan. It always works better to write first, and then rewrite.”


The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser makes the case for poetry, the transfer of energy between writer and reader. It’s a book that makes you pause, linger, think, and is unable to be slurped up quickly like so many others I’ve devoured lately. Originally pub’d in 1949, thankfully reissued for a new generation of writers and readers.

I muddled through most of it because she absolutely nails a few things with such clarity that she deserved to be heard in full. The beginning was particularly hard-hitting for me, dealing with the fear of poetry that I think affects most of us. Written almost 70 years ago, her words resonate particularly well in today’s troubled times:

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves. If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun. Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has—the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge—infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

Our resistance is a signifier of how afraid we are of poetry. The post-modern search for uniformity leads to mental disease and a fear of poetry. And yet poetry is everywhere, in songs, theater, books. But put a book of poems in someone’s hand and they freeze up, frightened. It’s the least recognized and rewarded art form. Why?

On Writing Well

I read this book ten years ago (here’s my breathless and inept review from 2007) and was reminded of Zinsser’s book after reading Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship. The re-read was coincidental to the launch of my August writing group and provided some guide rails of additional thought.

Most advice about writing circles around the same concepts—be yourself, tell your story, provide interesting detail, avoid platitudes.

Writing about a trip? “Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and ‘all’ is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know?” You don’t actually have to travel far to write about a place, just settle into a spot and distill its uniqueness. Another exercise: think about one place that’s important to you, tell us why you want to write it and how you want to write about it. Bonus points if quest or pilgrimage.

This also struck me: “Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

The advice offered by S.J.Perelman also rings out: “[To write humor] takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity. The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good. Even if he isn’t.” You have to jump start your own engine, get started, and do it every day.

Final advice: “Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”

Works & Days

Who am I to judge poetry? And yet, that’s what do with each entry here. I liked this collection less than Scarlet Tanager, it felt like an exercise in filling up some pages to get paid, moaning about not having money, being poor, Phil having to go to his job and the car being broken. Including bits of Jumble words as filler. Entries like spasmodic journaling. I did learn that Monsanto has a building in the St. Louis botanical gardens named after it, though. And I did like this poem called “Walking Like A Robin”:

take 3 or 4 steps then stop/look smell taste touch & hear/is there anything to eat?/oh look, there’s some caviar/it must be my birthday, thanks/i must be very old, like seventy/i guess i’m falling apart, i’ll just/sew myself back together but will it last?/please take a piece of me back home, each piece/is anti-war and don’t pay your rent, in fact/remember: property is robbery, give everybody/everything, other birds walk this way too

Bruce Conner: The Afternoon Interviews

Tape recorded conversations with Bruce Conner from the 1970s until 2000s, speaking to V.Vale who started the punk mag Search & Destroy and got Conner to photograph punk banks at Mabuhay Gardens. The chats are transcribed into meandering bits, always interesting tales. Many rants against the behavior of Timothy Leary and his institution which sidled up to millionaires to solicit funds but never really did much beyond funding Leary and a tight cohort of his friends. Leary also boorishly blared into Mexican villages demanding to know where the mushrooms were and how people felt when they took them, acting as the obnoxious American and ensuring people would just clam up and not talk to him. Also of interest is when Conner meets Duchamp, brings him a box sealed up that has his signature stamp inside and asks Duchamp to give it to a mutual friend, which he does. Lots of talk about music and the bands that were in town, and a digression where Conner was trying to remember the name of a group of black men in the 1950s who were actually several different groups sent out on the road to maximize ticket sales because the producers felt like people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Calling Jello Biafra a nut, “he’s insane.” Getting death threats when he ran for the Board of Supes (BC got 5400 votes). His experience in Tokyo with everything running on time and feeling like an “enormous intruder… I’m too big. I’m too clumsy.” At one point BC is trying to convince Vale to go to the club that night but Vale wants to stay home and watch television, specifically “The Prisoner” which was on PBS. Bruce tells him:

“You should’ve seen it on commercial television. Because what happened was, when the commercials came on, there wasn’t any difference between ‘The Prisoner’ and the rest of the television thing. It was like the commercials are all part of this diabolic thing that was happening… It was as though you were locked into this labyrinthine structure and the TV commercials just fit right into it… It would come on and then it would just totally alter your consciousness of television, so you’d get into this grotesque, surrealistic thing of who’s number one and who’s number two and obscure plots where you don’t know who’s causing what and posters–all sorts of things that are caricatures of our 20th century of living And then the commercials would come on and the people that were in them were just like these sort of robot-like number threes and number fours, talking about brushing their teeth and happy all the time, and positive, and announcements – everything was like that, even the breaks for the station.”

The Prisoner,” by the way, looks amazing.

A few hours after reading this, I’m struck by the fact that Jean, Conner’s wife, comes into the conversations a few times, always as someone telling Bruce it was time to eat. This another example of a male artist benefiting from the structure of marriage, to the detriment of Jean’s own artistic work.

Lulu in Hollywood

Louise Brooks was an actor who could write, or perhaps a writer who could act. At any rate, she was an artist (also dancer!) and she left behind this collection of memories that is well worth a read. Stories of dancing in New York City in the 1920s, getting lavish presents from rich men (converting real jewels into cash and fake jewels so they were none the wiser, “ours was a heartless racket”), resisting the pull to Hollywood but finally caving and making some pictures under contracts she deemed slavery. Louise was a reader all her life, surrounded by books, reading Schopenhauer on the set, an anomaly in the world of acting.

Wondering to herself why she hadn’t written about her good friend Pepi Lederer, Maron Davies’s niece, she goes to her shelf and pulls out an old dictionary whose flyleaves were covered with pasted quotes from Goethe: “For a man remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.”

Hollywood and celebrity do find her. She spends weeks as a guest of Hearst in San Simeon, ends up divorcing her director husband Eddie Sutherland and fooling around with the Redskins owner George Marshall who likes her for her mind. “He understood my passion for books, which has made me perhaps the best-read idiot in the world.”

There’s a section on Humphrey Bogart, one on W.C. Fields, one with Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo. She dishes on what it was like to work with Wallace Beery (dreamy) and admits to sleeping with her stuntman. She muses on all the horribleness of the studio system, contracts locking you in and forcing you to do bad movies. She ultimately refuses her new contract which had a huge pay cut when talkies were coming into their own, got blacklisted from Hollywood. Later she’s invited to write about films and later still she’s visited by college boys in the 1960s who expect her to be thankful that they’re remembering her and wouldn’t she just write their paper for them for film school.

“As a loner, I count as my two most precious rights those that allow me to choose the periods of my aloneness and allow me to choose the people with whom I will spend the periods of my not-aloneness.”

I wish she’d left us more words.

Scarlet Tanager

After I read Bernadette Mayer’s poem, Politician (“It seems to us you convert your farts into speeches”), I immediately headed to the library to pick up the collection of her poetry that includes that one. Oh wonderful Dewey Decimal system, I parked in the 811.54s and went to town, greedily grabbing all of her work and snooping to see what else looked good.

I have a love/hate relationship with poetry and it’s mostly been hate for some reason (Muriel Rukeyser has some thoughts about that if I ever get around to finishing her book and posting it). But it’s the perfect form for today’s attention deficit. Have 60 seconds? Read a short poem instead of 10 tweets. Such as Grow Up, which has some great advice for poets:

i don’t know what to do next, this/is not how anyone should feel, most/bad poetry is badly thought through, it’s/terrible because it’s chaotic, whenever/you read it you feel full, actually/you should feel hungry when you read poetry, it’s like/an amuse-bouche at best, someday/you will have the main course, but/if the poem’s short & excellent, probably/you won’t need it, this/poem will drag on forever, rendering/you full as a whale’s brain, full/as the stupid future, however/you may take a shortcut, hit/on some beauty, maybe, probably/just homework, drudgery/making you feel the sink is full, you/have nothing to eat, why/don’t you just watch goldfinches?

Book of Mutter

I will read every book that Kate Zambreno publishes, but this will not be one of my favorites (that honor goes to Heroines and Green Girl). I’m just not a sucker for the drama of the mother-daughter relationship, with the daughter left scurrying about trying to make sense of it all in the aftermath of death.

But once again she’s introduced me to a whole cast of characters, weaving in Louise Bourgeois into the story, reminding me of Henry Darger, and creating a compelling tale through sparse, tight, poetry.

This roll call cuts straight to the chase. I’m never going to turn my back on anyone who name checks Valerie Solanas, Virginia Woolf, Chantal Ackerman, Shulamith Firestone, Sylvia Plath, and Zelda Fitzgerald:

All the women Louise Bourgeois collected like these fragile glasses, women I also collect, fictional and fictionalized, that I abandon myself to in acts of intense research and investigation—Anne Sexton, Antigone, Marilyn Monroe, Medea, Ophelia, Cassandra, Sylvia, Virginia, Zelda.

Addendum: Barbara Loden, Nella Larsen, Diane Arbus, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanas, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Chantal Ackerman, Louise Brooks.

Any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate. I collect them for my mantle.

In her acknowledgements, she mentions that while she was finishing up the book (it lingered over 10 years), she found out she was pregnant. I hope that this addition to her life does not take her or her intensity away.

The Helens of Troy, New York

I love this idea! Bernadette Mayer wraps her poetry skills around an investigation of all the women named Helen who live in Troy, NY. She interviews them, photographs them, then writes their poems. Some are hardcore sestinas or villanelles, others merely meander.

My favorite was that of Helen Crandall Whalen, a looping villanelle. What’s that, you ask? Officially it’s a French poem highly structured with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. Bernadette flexes it up a bit.

Helen Crandall Whalen Villanelle

everybody died
i’m learning to control my temper
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

there were cameras in the store
i don’t have to look
everybody died

one helen’s enough, trust me
i love reading books
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

people think i’m stupid
i went to proctor’s theater
everybody died

there’s nothing more to say
my hair’s braided like a family
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

i’m 66 & smart as a whip
they’d call me the orphan-brat
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

when you’re an orphan you do anything
i went to proctor’s theater
i’m learning to control my temper

it’s been rough
my favorite color’s maybe yellow
everybody died
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

This is the type of book that gives me nightmares. It hovers in mediocrity with brief flashes of insight, and my greatest fear is that my own writing falls into this tepid category. I’d rather not be published than to be allowed to put something like this out.

The book has every indication that it’d be up my alley—it’s a book about her (Pamela Paul’s) lifelong journey through reading, centered on a notebook she’s kept from 1988 where she enters the book titles she’s read. Sounds familiar, but she abandoned the idea of recording her thoughts about the books and only lists titles. Is that really useful? Unfortunately, the flaccidity of the story proves that it takes more to being a solid writer than hoovering up books for decades. There goes my lifelong preparation, guess I’ll have to start pushing the pen across the page instead.

We have several things in common—a likelihood of mispronouncing words we’ve only seen in print, dubbed “mumblenyms” by Liesl Schillinger); the realization that the more you read the more you realize remains to be read and the more that you’re aware of not having scratched the surface; the fact that being told “you should read this book” is never as simple as it sounds (and most likely not advice to be taken).

Pamela’s life is sliced and diced into chapters, overlain on a particular book’s theme. Not all lives are worthy of this dissection, and I yawned reading the cliché of her Southeast Asian travel years to boring first marriage to dull rebound relationships to even duller second marriage with family life. She read Hunger Games. I should have thrown it down at that point. (And hasn’t read Ulysses.)

She’s the editor of the NYT book review, the only part of the Sunday Times that I immediately recycle, which should have been a red flag for me and made me avoid this book. Alas.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

I spent way too much time reading this book but I’m a sucker for adventure travel books, especially when they combine lyrical descriptions of surfing/beaches/the sea. I’m sad to see that this won a Pulitzer, since it’s a fairly uneven book. If Finnegan had stuck to writing about surfing, he would have earned that prize fully, but he veers into the danger zone when he starts blathering sexist comments about the ladies he’s encountered. He doesn’t know that he’s being terrible, laying himself bare with eye-popping statements. The utter cluelessness yet confidence of white males will never cease to amaze me. One of  many examples: he breaks into an all-women commune in Australia to search for a girl and has the cops called on him.

Unlike most negative reviews I issue here, I won’t obsessively catalog the flaws of this book, since it was buoyed by its positive aspects. I will mention a few: a phrase that should never be used— “pursing his own PhD in having fun;” the time a woman lets him know that his endless chatter about surfing is mindlessly boring, she’s “rudely interrupting;” his pretentious lit-talk discussing “the decadence of Sartre and situationism;” his goal go “sleep with women from many lands” being cruelly foiled by the prudishness of the Tahitian women— “I did not want to leave someone else weeping. Neither did I want to get my ass kicked by her uncles.”

The good parts are the surfing parts and luckily that’s most of the book. He takes up surfing early as a kid in LA, then his family moves to Oahu where he surfs, then he ditches UC-SantaCruz to surf some more, then a quasi-round-the-world surf trip for 4 years where he finds many occasions to be an asshole surf tourist somewhat aware of his privileges but pushing on regardless (and years later having regrets about not paying the family that they imposed on for many weeks, instead giving them worthless trinkets).

Really interesting section about surfing San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the 1980s. Apparently there were pedestrian tunnels under Great Highway—now you’ve got to scurry across the road like a chicken. The surfing sections are where his descriptive powers excel and all the cultural bullshit he’s caught up in unawares fades away. He moves to NYC and surfs there, finds a buddy who convinces him to surf Madeira in Portugal before it gets modernized (they actually destroy the surf by building a seawall for some reason).

If you’re an old white man, you’ll probably enjoy this book 100%. Everyone else might register at 85% or less as you see what types of adventures are possible if you were a white male growing up in the 1960s.

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

I’m muddling through reading a sexist and mundane book about surfing, so it was a relief to switch over to reading Schulman’s intellectual musings about gentrification, specifically the impact that the AIDS holocaust had on accelerating the process. I’d never thought about this, and she raises an excellent point—you had a generation of artists who died off, unable to leave their apartments to their lovers (they weren’t “married”), and suddenly rents skyrocketed from $300/month to the market rate in NYC and SF. The high rate of death from AIDS was a significant factor in the rapid gentrification of certain Manhattan neighborhoods.

Her book is a bit of a ramble, but I didn’t mind taking that leisurely walk with her brain. She had a front row seat to seeing gentrification take over her East Village neighborhood. Privileged new tenants didn’t have to be aware of their power or even of the people who’d been brushed aside. They “saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order. This is the essence of supremacy ideology: the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement.”

Since the mirror of gentrification is representation in popular culture, increasingly only the gentrified get their stories told in mass ways. They look in the mirror and think it’s a window, believing that corporate support for and inflation of their story is in fact a neutral and accurate picture of the world. If all art, politics, entertainment, relationships, and conversations must maintain that what is constructed and imposed by force is actually natural and neutral, then the gentrified mind is a very fragile parasite.

She and two lesbian artist friends watched limos arrive in 1980 to the first art gallery on E 11th and Ave C where champagne and oysters were served up. She and her friends felt no sense of threat, just watched it as a spectacle. Then a posh restaurant named after the Hawaii Five-O tv show opened on the block:

Almost immediately it was filled with a kind of person unfamiliar to us, wearing clothes and paying prices that came from another place… That was one of the bizarre things about these new businesses. They would open one day and be immediately packed, as though the yuppies were waiting in holding pens to be transported en masse to new, ugly, expensive places.

After the influx of Europeans into the East Village, the acronym “B&T” for bridge & tunnel got amended to “B&T&A” to include airplane.

While outlining the connection between AIDS and gentrification, she isn’t shy about speaking truth about gay men. “Although I have spent thirty years of my life writing about the heroism of gay men, I have also come to understand their particular brand of cowardice. There is a destructive impulse inside many white gay men, where they become cruel or childlike or spineless out of a rage about not having the privileges that straight men of our race take for granted. They have grief about not being able to subjugate everyone else at will.” She then calls out Andrew Sullivan for declaring in 1996 that we’d reached “the end of AIDS.”

Schulman goes after the younger generation of queers, too, saying that they don’t seem to appreciate what had happened, seemed blithely unaware about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, seemed to take their freedom for granted. Artists, too, seem to be much more conservative, flocking to get MFAs instead of congregating with freaks and other artists. Schulman was tapped to write a piece about emerging theater in 1997 and she was shocked by the new scene that was geared toward profitability instead of pushing boundaries or talking politics. One director said that “issues are for television,” while another amazingly said “Many artists today don’t have to suffer like they did in the fifties. They have enough intelligence to avoid it.” The MFA crisis is another function of gentrification, homogenizing the creation process.

I was pleased that she included a significant section of devotion to Kathy Acker, a victim of the forgetting/whitewashing away of gay thought more than a victim of AIDS (she died of breast cancer). Ultimately, Kathy’s wealthy background gave her the ability to create art, and Schulman says flat out that many people who aren’t the source of their own financial lives are infantilized and tyrannical. “They seem to believe, on some level, that they deserve this advantage. In Kathy’s case, her background and financial cushion gave her a sense of entitlement that was unreasonable.”

Schulman holds her own writing workshops out of her apartment, called “The Satellite Academy”, charging $40 a class and providing “no chit-chat, no nurturing, no consciousness raising or eating. They come on time, and I take out my little blackboard and we go through each person’s work with an eye towards craft alone… We’re artists together, looking at each other’s work, and I am the senior one sharing what I know. In this way, I have recreated my lost world for myself, and it give me hope that bohemian, smart angry girls with something new to say and a desire to say it are never in short supply.”

Her interview with Marcia Gallo about her book Different Daughters included detail about the shock troops who were working to enact change. Gallo’s comments about feminism are strong:

Feminism is still subversive. It’s still scary. Feminism means humanity moving forward and addressing inequalities. And that women lead. Independent women who do not need men for their emotional, physical, and economic well-being are scary still. Even those of us who love men. I think that the fact that we strive to be independent is frightening because we challenge all the paradigms. When we’re at our best we challenge the way power gets constructed. We challenge how knowledge is transmitted. We are just too powerful, too uncontrollable, too queer.

I’m always appreciative when someone comes right out and says what they feel about raising children as clearly as Schulman does, watching her lesbian friends adopt or get artificial insemination to carry on the mother duties:

Very few children actually grow up to make the world a better place. Personally, I don’t feel that creating new victims, perpetrators, and bystanders is the great social ooh-and-aah that it is made out to be. I do understand that people want to have children for reasons personal to their own needs, not necessarily for the child or for the world, and perhaps that’s reason enough, but I don’t know why.