What is tenderness?

Sometimes before I blog professionally I like to come here to remind myself of the kind of writing I can do when I’m not trying to be authoritative. Authority on the internet makes me want to crack wise and self-deprecate. Whereas self-writing, here where it is public but not publicized (that is, intimate) makes me want to be tender. Similarly, the paranoia of diary-writing becomes joyful to me when I write online; maybe because there’s less expectation of close reading. This ambiguity reminds me of Anne Carson’s gloss on Bellerophon in Iliad 6:

and Proitos sent him to Lykia and bestowed on him a written text that would kill him for he wrote many life-destroying things on a folded tablet and bid him show it to Anteia’s father so that he might be destroyed. (6.168-170)

What are the “life-destroying things” (thumophthora) on the folded tablet?…[Bellerophon] is unwitting victim of the sign the carries. First his own beauty, gift of the gods, seduces Anteia, unknown to him. Then the folded tablet, bestowed by Proitos, writes the order of his death, and he does not read it. (Eros the Bittersweet, p. 103)

But my mind alters the myth; I misremember it every time as a wax tablet Bellerophon cannot read because he carries it openly on his forehead. Self-writing is like that. If you read it too closely you’ll decipher the “thumophthora” (elsewhere translated as “heartbreaking things”), you’ll become aware, evade the Chimera that beauty-struck Anteia has left for you, you won’t get your heart broken by life destroying things.

Bellerophon chose to remain tender.

What is tenderness? Tenderness is a subject position some people experience more than others. Queers are tender so often it makes them angry (and isn’t that a strange equivalence?). Tenderness is the feeling you have for your favorite childhood outfit which was secretly hideous.

What to call ourselves

I never know what to call my career. The caption to my articles reads “Johannah King-Slutzky is an essayist and blogger” which is more honest than calling myself a “reporter” or “journalist” — actually I have no understanding, disdain even, for people who want to be those things — but really that’s me closing my eyes and whistling. Anyway, I thought this digression in Elon Green’s annotation of “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, was a useful distinction.

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It’s true, I would never hound somebody, except maybe in my personal life.

Unspooling Challenge Update and Mason Jar Ideology

Classic blog post– I haven’t been blogging what I said I would. I’ll try again tonight.

Yesterday at writing group someone asked me if I still write poetry. I said I’d had a crisis of faith last year and haven’t written much since, but I’m not ready to stop. I have the same problem in poetry as in life: how to authentically emote. You know, I think the idea of “craft” did a real disservice to poetry and now poets are in a hurry to prove they’re modest tinkerers. I can relate. I don’t care for modernist spectacle, either, but how about a little George Herbert style angst? On sad days I get “Is the year only lost to me?” stuck in my head, but I transpose the words– “Is the year lost only to me?” as if to say, Where is everyone else on this? The only poets I’ve ever seen do “craft” without sacrificing emotion are Louise Gluck, Tony Hoagland and Jorie Graham– maybe because they write so much about parenting and being parented. It seems okay, to me, to acknowledge the craft in building people. That’s a Biblical trope, not just some mason jar ideology.

I’m grappling with authenticity all the time. A couple weeks ago I got into a fight with a friend over something critical I’d written on Twitter. It was four tweets over the course of a couple months, and two of them were indicting the culture of rich people without referring to her even obliquely. (I am still frustrated by our confrontation, but I respect her wishes that I no longer complain about her or her world online. I think this much is okay.) In the course of our fight she told me she thought I’d internalized bad advice from self help books because I was insisting on my right to be loudly angry. I disagree, but sympathize. Then today I woke up thinking about mason jars– how they’re not objectionable for their insistence on authenticity, which is okay, but because they present a specific vision of authenticity that requires money. Growing up we took our lunch to school in reused Chinese takeout containers: not the squat round kind, but the paste-translucent ones restaurants use to transport egg drop soup. Other homes had tupperware with hard, guileless plastic. They had so much food storage they kept their cereal in oblong tupperware above the fridge: a luxury. Not that poverty is necessarily a virtue, but I won’t be satisfied until “shitty egg drop soup container” is an acceptable vehicle for my bloody mary. Or to translate: it’s okay to have conventional values like “authenticity” as long as your authenticity isn’t exclusive to one socioeconomic and racial culture. That’s a new idea for me. I’d like to say, Hey, lighten up Johannah! Yield to the conventional morality of authenticity, you’ll feel better.

The Unspooling Challenge

Strange how you can be perfectly cogent in one writing mode and incoherent in another. I distress over that when I’m writing fiction– “Write the story like it’s an essay about something that hasn’t happened yet.” (Cool idea, but this never works.) Relatedly, my good-writing voice is only sometimes plugged in. I’m working on a project with another friend for The Toast which required me to edit a three-hour gchat session. I thought I was holding my own with the adults– a foreign policy analyst and an assistant professor– who sound more concise and authoritative than I do unedited. But upon review, I was same old me: a blowhard.

Relatedly, I am blogging less and using Twitter more. “Didn’t you start this blog to track how Twitter would affect your thought process?” asked a friend on Sunday. Yes I did. My more substantial ideas go to paid work, which this WordPress is not. Plus, there’s something Twitter Lily said weeks ago — why commit to coherence when on Twitter people will respond to what’s good and ignore the rest? But internet writing appeals to me for its ability to unspool and draw out, so I’m going to try something new: for at least the next week, at the end of the day I will turn a tweet into a blog post. Maybe the good-writing voice will appear. The good-writing voice’s chief characteristic is it knows exactly where nouns-as-verbs sound poetic– I think of Ben Lerner’s love of the verb “to brain,” a word like an American baseball bat boring a hole in your skull from the broad end. The goal of good-writing voice is to sound like a Russian laureate translated to his or her limited maximum abilities in another language. Good writing voice is conspicuously absent tonight. Too much articulation isn’t healthy for me.

What if the apple… is just an apple?

When I was a second year in college I took a survey course on American modern literature taught by a man I admired. I wasn’t opposed to the subject matter but it wasn’t why I was taking the course. The course’s true appeal was social climbing and a chance to get closer one really great crush. (I alternately love and hate this as a literary trope, as in, in The Flamethrowers, when Reno moves to New York City in pursuit of a bad boy from art school.) One day I had a revelation while my professor, who you should imagine physically and dispositionally as the English teacher from Boy Meets World, was talking about the infamous pile of shirts in Gatsby’s closet.

My professor

My professor.

Suddenly he stopped: “What if the shirt” (long pause) “is just a shirt?”

This blew. my. fucking. mind. Of course! The shirt doesn’t need to be a literary symbol for the scene to function. Sometimes a shirt is “just” a shirt.

Recently I found an unexpected reiteration of “What if the shirt is just a shirt” in abbot Nilus’s 5th century interpretation of Genesis:

It was the desire of food that spawned disobedience; it was the pleasure of taste that drove us from Paradise. Luxury in food delights the gullet, but it breeds the worm of license that sleepeth not. An empty stomach prepares one for watching and prayer; the full one induces sleep. (Abbot Nilus, Tractatus de octo spiritibus malitiae, chap 1, p.79, col. 114B, trans. by Musurillo, “Ascetical Fasting,” p. 16)

Really takes the wind out of your sails, doesn’t it? Maybe the apple was just an apple, something to fill the stomach and cause pleasure.

Gertie the Dinosaur

I’m working on a new project about the Rube Goldberg machines in Betty Boop cartoons. (Unsurprisingly, Rube Goldberg was producing actual Rube Goldberg machines around the same time as Max Fleischer was working on Betty Boop for Out of the Inkwell.) I already knew one count on which this is a personal topic — my father’s diminutive for me when I was very young was “Booper Girl,” after Betty herself.

Betty Boop animators Max and Dave Fleishcer developed rotoscope, a technique by which live action stills are traced over and animated, following the success of Winsor McCay’s “Gertie,” a sloppily amiable brontosaurus that McCay made the lode of his vaudeville act. In the vaudeville finale to “Gertie the Dinosaur” McCay jumps behind screen and re-appears in Gertie’s mouth as a cartoon. This was purportedly the inspiration for the Fleischer brothers’ new, ultra-realistic technique.

Cab Calloway was rotoscoped as a walrus for this 1932 Betty Boop cartoon.


Promotional Poster. The animated cartoon is a black-and-white line drawing.

I like this dinosaur heritage to the Fleischers’ career. I have one tattoo: a lithograph of a brontosaurus on my left bicep. The tattoo appealed to me for its impersonality compared to, say, an effigy for the dead or ostensibly “deep” Chinese letters. But I also like that dinosaurs confuse reality and illusion: Although they appear in myth as dragons, they really existed. And one more reversal in fictitiousness– most of us know dinosaurs chiefly through the movies. The dinosaur’s reality-busting heritage isn’t specific to commercial blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Land Before Time, but was present at the very genesis of animated cartoons.

Gif'd from "Gertie the Dinosaur"

Gif’d from “Gertie the Dinosaur”