Terry Bisson/Ellis Avery

SpongeBob blushesI am so grateful (and blushing like SpongeBob) because I just got my first blurbs. The legendary science fiction author Terry Bisson called my book, “Rich and wild, dark and funny, as fearless as her legendary journalism and as scary as a fairytale.” And the extremely exciting fiction writer Ellis Avery said, “Brilliant… Minkowitz takes a dazzling leap of fancy and then writes a new bridge into being behind her for the rest of us to follow.”

I am SO thankful to both of them.

Here’s a quick update:  The final title of the thing is Growing Up Golem: Learning to Survive My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, and it comes out September 21 from Magnus Books.

You can hear a preview at the reading I’ll be part of in New York Thursday, August 22 7:30 at the Lit!  series at Dixon Place, where I’ll be reading with four  superb writers, Rachel Simon, Melissa Febos, Shelly Oria and the aforementioned Ellis Avery. (161A Chrystie Street, no cover, cash bar.)

Publishing in September!

Pinocchio statue

[POST UPDATED August 17, 2013 : The book title is Growing Up Golem: Learning to Survive My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates.]

Hi lovely people who read my blog,

I just wanted to let you know that my new memoir will be published in September by Magnus Books!

I am very excited about this 🙂 🙂

The book, whose first chapter you can read here, is a magical realist memoir that uses the conceit that my mother created me as a golem, the magical servant-creature out of Jewish legend. (In real life, my mother actually did tell us that she could do magic she had learned from her Romanian Jewish grandparents, and my sisters and I believed her. My mother was an extraordinarily– at times revoltingly — creative person, so it was no great stretch to believe she had made me by hand like a golem or a living toy.)

In the book, I try to pass for human, becoming a golem who does queer activist reporting for the Village Voice, etc., trying to have relationships with real human women, but I remain, inescapably, an obviously fake imitation of a person programmed to obey commands, not have feelings or take pleasure. Matters come to a head when I turn 36 and all the false trappings of my life – career, friendships, fake sex life, even my body – suddenly flare into crisis.

So what, you’re probably wondering, is the title?

IT IS STILL UP IN THE AIR!

I feel like Bilbo Baggins In Lord of the Rings, feverishly writing and crossing out MY DIARY. MY UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. THERE AND BACK AGAIN. AND WHAT HAPPENS AFTER. ADVENTURES OF FIVE HOBBITS. THE TALE OF THE GREAT RING, COMPILED BY BILBO BAGGINS FROM HIS OWN OBSERVATIONS AND THE ACCOUNTS OF HIS FRIENDS. WHAT WE DID IN THE WAR OF THE RING.

What am I going to call this mashup of memoir and myth?

Stay tooned!

If you want me to keep you posted on further developments, just write “keep me posted” in the comments section!

My Dream Man

Black bull

I’ve begun sweating hard on the upper chest and forehead several times a week. It’s only menopause, but I’m imagining I’ve become a transgender man and am suddenly staggering and shaking with the amp-force of testosterone. Women who have actually transitioned into men have said they felt like they were going through a second adolescence, and I feel like that, haggard, hamhanded and stapled into 780 volts of something electric I cannot understand.

Weird pustules popping out on my face. Itchy, literally and figuratively. Bursting out of my skin, like a werewolf. I dreamt I was at a conference and wound up having sex with my roommate at the conference hotel, a fictitious gay male friend. In the dream, he was a kind of gay man who is a sort of icon for me, bearded, curlyheaded, sexy, smart, activist. Teddy-bear-like, and smiling at me from the other queen-size bed. Fiendishly energetic and productive.

My roommate was also gregarious and kind, and our sex was friendly, funny (“Who’d ‘ve thought I’d wind up having sex with you! I haven’t seen a penis since 1980!”) and surprisingly fun.

“But I always knew sex with you would be really, really special.”

So who was this gay man? I was kind of frightened of the dream (I am a lesbian happily married to another woman) and spoke to my therapist about it. She said, “Do your dreams normally come true exactly literally the way it happens in the dream?”

“No.”

My therapist is gnomic — although she does not look like a gnome — she’s short, like me, but not masculine in the slightest, although she’s about 10 years older than me and therefore postmenopausal almost certainly. A crone, by the mythic definition at least. A little frilly —  she likes florals, wears hose — but not a femme fatale either, thank God, because that would terrify me in a psychotherapist.

“I like to think of every character in a dream as being part of the dreamer. Because who else would they be if not you?”

Who would they be?

“My lost brother.” The thought comes to me (I’ve never had a brother in the waking world), and at the same time the dream man looks just a little like my old editor H. who, balding, sweaty and fat but bearded and mustached, could burrow through any obstacle whatsoever with the sheer force of his energy. Let me be perfectly clear about this: I hate H. But when he was my editor I was telling him all the time that he was like a second father to me. (For all my hatred, it was true.) He never seemed particularly pleased to hear it. Still, the man was productive.

The dream man was far nicer and far cuter, but with a similar power as my mentor. The poet Denise Levertov wrote about him once without knowing that was what she was doing:

“the flowerlike
animal perfume
in the god’s curly hair”

My dream guy’s hair denoted animal powers — almost the “animal spirits” of the stock market — a sort of mammalian joy in what was possible, what could be done, in the work that could be accomplished. There was an “agricultural” sense to him, like a Wagyu that longs to plow the field. Brown and Taurean, beaming sweetly under his horns, able to give because so gay and empowered.

Able to love because of the enormous cord of muscle on his chest.

Stamping down the floor.

Tenacious. I have been tenacious but not in as entire a way as this man. Not in as direct a way as this man.

Just seeing my 48-year-old face in the mirror, trying to find a way not to see it simply as fat, exhausted, lined.

His face my face. Not so bloody different. I happen to be a Taurus, too. My hair is naturally brown. I make things I love, and I still love them after I have made them. I love to make love, and I still love my wife after I have made love to her.

“Power becomes you,” my first therapist once said to me. And, though I’m not transgender, I pretty much always have identified as a boy, but a weak boy. A boy of fluff, a boy not as confident as his actual powers would suggest, a boy afraid to use his core of fire. This man in my dream was different not so much by being male, but by being a man.

And indeed now I am faithful, as I never was. For I am not changeable anymore. I am myself all the way through — I know what I am, every piece good and bad, and I will not shatter or crack.

This has nothing to do with the blood no longer soaking my uterus every month, and everything to do with awakening from a delusion.

I find my Self inside me suddenly like a dragon of all genders, flexing its green limbs, coiling and uncoiling wings and legs and slow-raised eyelids, glancing softly at the world. Long eyelashes batting, webbed talons raking the black soil, look of love.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

On Wanting to Be Liked

Sometime in the late 90s I got the erroneous idea that Jana Finkelstein was interested in me.

She was a writer who was just coming up, and I was an established writer in the lesbian scene at least, and when it became clear that Jana was impressed with me and had a strong desire to network and hobnob with me, I became somehow convinced that Jana wanted to fuck me.

My erotic radar had never been very good. Its mechanisms had been smashed by a hasty forklift turning sharply in the factory, and I had hardly ever been able tell whether there was a spark between someone and me or I just had too many frankfurters that day at lunch.

In particular, I had often been confused about the difference between someone liking my work and thinking I was smokin’ hot. There was the horrible time a sweet young staffer at a gay rights organization in DC had gotten me tickets to Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and I had assumed that rather than just being nice to a journalist, the girl was ready for a night of love. Then there was the lissome woman in Queer Nation who’d exclaimed, “Wow, so you’re Donna Minkowitz! I really love your journalism,” and I’d thought we’d definitely be eating spicy crab and playing footsie in a week or two.

It wasn’t simply that I was a cad, although one effect and perhaps cause of my confusion was that I was. More than that, though, I was spectacularly clueless, erotically colorblind.

I guess I had been brought up with two fundamentally contradictory but powerful assumptions about myself: that I was a stinking, livid turd freshly emitted from the ass of a sewer troll and the brightest human being in New York City.

This was what my mother had always told me — both things. First one, then the other, alternating.

This impacted the whole of my relations with other people. I suppose it’s natural that I saw the entire sphere of the social as subject to manipulations or inducements, like whether I could get someone free tickets to a play, or increase their cultural cachet by having their friends see them with me, the famous lesbian Village Voice writer. (By extension, if I ever exhausted the pool of free theater tickets, or if my writing ever stopped being published, I thought that no one would ever want me.)

In all fairness to my mother, she had made a similarly vertiginous assessment of her own value as a person. What she painstakingly taught my sisters and me as soon as we could hear was that the dividing line between paradisic charisma and worthlessness was horrifically narrow, and that it fluctuated in a strange and dizzying fashion. We could do hardly anything to affect which quadrant the needle fell in, but we must affect it, must perfectly and unerringly affect it at every moment and steer it into the right corner, at the cost of an unnameable terror.

So I was both desperate and “utterly confident,” naked and clothed in a fake armor of perfection — so that when Jana came by and remarked that she used to live in the same apartment building as me and had always been tickled to be my neighbor, I felt buzzed, anxious and under terrific obligation all at once: Here was some of this mysterious current of being liked, which alone — in the form of praise, sexual attention, publications, awards, and coffee dates — could certify me against the fecal. Continue reading

First Impressions of Talde

I don’t want to tell you about Talde being hot, or about how annoying its chef, Dale Talde, was on Top Chef. What I want to tell you is what eating at Talde was like in spite of that, or, better yet, having nothing whatever to do with that.

I went for brunch even though I had no one to go with me, because dishes like “pretzel pork chive dumplings” and “lobster buns with chile mayo” prickled the pleasure centers in my brain as soon as I heard of them, and wouldn’t stop prickling them. My wife was busy having brunch out herself with a friend, and I wanted something fancy, special, and delicious, too, to compensate for not having been invited.

I was surprised that in this case, hotness did not mean superciliousness, and I was welcomed with warmth even though I was a woman dining alone who did not want to sit at the bar. Also that Talde was so good that it made me want to communicate minutely about every aspect of the food I could, as though it were a piece of poetry or a weird white flower growing on the moon.

Talde is an Asian-American restaurant (that’s what its owners call it) in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. I ate the bacon pad Thai, which is an oyster-and-bacon pad Thai at dinner, and was stirred to a degree that bordered on emotion by its sour, complicated, enlivening flavors. With fat chunks of bacon, it tasted of lime, of fish funk from the great sauce called nam pla, of salt, and an almost indescribable tanginess. I wanted more fat and even more of that funky fishiness – probably the addition of oysters at dinner helps it. There were some peanuts, but I wanted more, and some more minced herbs for contrast. Even so, I loved it so much that its peculiar sour mix of flavors has stayed with me a month later. I ate the entire bowl, even though it was huge and mostly noodles.

One more thing: Talde’s cappuccino. I got it because they only had Americano, cappuccino and latte, and for me cappuccino is the least offensive of the three. (I prefer coffee, and I need it at brunch.) Usually cappuccino at restaurants that do not specialize in outrageously-good coffee is terrible. This cappuccino was, strangely, the best I’ve ever had.

It was strong and buzzy enough to hold up to all that milk, it did not taste like a would-be coffee dessert or coffee for weaklings. It was bracing, yet a little fruity – coffee, with a dose of steamed milk, the way they do it in Spain.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

All I Ever Need to Know I Learned in Pilates

“I’ve got you,” I say to myself as I bend over at the low drinking fountain at the Y. Bending this way has been a scary movement for me for years, with low back and shoulder injuries and a perennially weak body.

Perennially, yes, but changing. Talking to myself, I’m speaking in the voice of my abdominal muscles, of all my muscles in fact, the internal and external obliques, the transverse, the rectus, and the thighs and pelvic muscles too, reminding the individual cranky and scared parts of me that they are not alone, never alone, that they are held up and cared for by all of me together and I’m not letting them go.

My teacher taught me this on the weird Pilates contraption known as the Cadillac, the one that looks like the medieval torture device known as the rack. I almost didn’t get on it. But when he put those disconcerting-looking metal leg springs on my legs and showed me how to let my stomach take the weight so that my poor back wouldn’t have to, I felt a surprising Ah inside, the Ah of my chest opening and magically getting lighter, the Ah of my entire body becoming more spacious — whole apartments and subbasements and rooms, inside my body! Whole gathering spaces and meeting rooms and galleries, an entire city of bone and ligaments and muscle!

A big pink flower in my body, like a tall lily stretching from my collarbone to my coccyx, and the leaves of it coming down my legs!

It is hard to say this, the following thing: it is hard to say this. Fear and tightness have been a very big part of my life. Not just physically! It’s not at all uncommon for me to feel stifled, strangled, caught. Like a fish in a net gasping, unable to move one way or the other; literal torture. I have often been afraid “the worst” would come — So, what do I mean by that, “the worst”? I mean something like feeling agony forever, physical or mental, and being forcibly stuck and held there, feeling shame, being starved for care and connection, even from (perhaps most from) myself.

Some Christians say that “hell” means most of all alienation, alienation from “God” meaning being denied contact with anything, anyone that contains the sacred. Because I think all human beings partake of the sacred, to me hell means, most fundamentally, not being connected — to yourself or anyone else.

Oh my reader: sometimes I’m afraid that people who act like they like and respect me actually think I’m stupid. It gets worse: Almost everyone I talk to each day I think, in some deep way, is going to hit me. Almost everyone I email, too. Hit me over the head with a pipe for being such an inferior person.

Sometimes I want badly to tell a friend or a relative something about my life and for a reason completely unknown to me, I can’t. I mean literally, I can’t. I pause, my speech gets labored, I grimace and gesture and look like I’m being stabbed — perhaps I am being stabbed — I’m frustrated and I struggle to try and drag myself up a path my vocal chords do not want to go. The person I’m with often says, “Wow, it’s seems like this subject is really hard for you. You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to!” But I do want to.

People think of Pilates as just a kind of trendy exercise. But as I’ve used it to heal from my body’s injuries, the system Joseph Pilates invented has also been startlingly applicable to emotional and psychological barriers, interpersonal tightness, pain of the mind.

Oh, pain of the mind. Surely we all have it. I bet it was the same back when the cheerily depressive author of the Tao Te Ching wrote, “I alone am confused/Desolate/Oh, like the sea/Adrift/… I alone am different from others/And value being fed by the mother.”

Pilates is actually about being fed by the mother — the mother in our bodies, the vastness inside ourselves. I called the author of the Tao Te Ching “cheerily depressive” just now because in fact, he wasn’t feeling too bad about being confused, desolate, adrift.

He was accepting these feelings, even celebrating them, because he was celebrating and accepting all his feelings and needs right then.

He trusted “the mother” in the Way, “the mother” in himself to supply what would feed him.

That is what I learned in Pilates starting about five years ago, to connect with “the core,” “the powerhouse,” “the center” in my body and mind. And I learned that all parts of the self must work together and support one another, that no parts of the self (or body), even the hurt parts, even the parts that are not yet strong enough, are bad. From a deceptively slight-looking former dancer I learned that human bodies are flexible, that the spine is supposed to move, that even the weakest person has inherent power and that all of us have a “magic belt” around us that can provide nearly infinite power if we only let it support us with its discernment and love. And I learned that mindfulness is the soil to grow it all.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Wordsworth Eroticized, or Sexual Feelings in Childhood, Part Two

A little later, at age 10, the hot, fried apple pie from, yes, McDonald’s was the wild fulcrum of my most intense pre-sexual desires. I did not understand them:

I was moved deeply by something about the burning liquid inside the pastry package, the near-searing of my lips when I took a bite, the mystery of the musky, tangy ooze cut with cinnamon. I wanted that pie in a way I have never wanted any other food. (I think I was literally in love with it.)

Nor did my longing have to do merely with wanting to eat one. It was a more basic and primal longing than that, and probably one that could not have been satisfied in space and time.

That McDonald’s hot apple pie carried my sexuality through underneath the soil till it was finally ready to be revealed, first in the vague pleasure I got touching my armpits in the fresh spring of sixth grade (my mom: “What are you doing that for? Stop!”), and then in the dawning of confusing fantasies about punishing women’s breasts (seventh grade) and very clear ones about lying on Michael Zappalini’s lap.

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Mile End Sandwich

So sad to go to Mile End Sandwich last week — the new Manhattan offshoot of the delicious (and ultra-hip) Montréal Jewish deli in Brooklyn — and have there be no seating there whatsoever. THERE WERE NO CHAIRS THERE. We were supposed to take our voluptuous but ridiculously expensive sandwiches and cram them down our digestive cavities in the time we could muster standing at a long ugly beige “standing table.” The standing table made the experience of eating comfortable only for a maximum of five minutes. Clearly, the intent was for us to fress down our food and get out of there as soon as possible, freeing up the space for a new cohort of suckers.

Indeed I felt exactly like a factory-farmed cow, making money for the Mile End empire at the maximum rate per time spent at the trough. My tongue sandwich on pumpernickel was really tasty but tiny, and it certainly didn’t make up for the feeling that the owners didn’t care one bit about my comfort or my sense of being welcome and at ease. It reminded me of eating at the Momofuku Ssam Bar, where David Chang deliberately installed wooden boxes to sit on that were as uncomfortable as possible, and polluted all the vegetable dishes with a soupçon of meat to assert his contempt for the vegetarians who had hoped to be able to eat at his restaurant.

Or of once, when I was having dinner at Rosewater in Park Slope and I asked the waitress if they could please leave a certain side dish off the entrée because I knew it would play havoc with my acid reflux. The waitress furrowed her brow. “Chef really doesn’t like being asked to change things.”

I like food. It’s true. A lot. So much that I am willing to spend a crazy portion of my 99% income paying for fancy, delightful, hormone-free stuff. But I am not willing to eat at restaurants that ignore the original meaning of the word: to restore, to make feel at home. It’s called the hospitality industry because proprietors are supposed to make us feel like we’ve been given hospitality, as though we were guests at somebody’s house.

Chefs, even really good chefs, are not rock stars. They are there to serve us, in exchange for our hard-earned dollars. They are there, at the most basic level, to care for us. Despite the less-than-stellar seating at Mile End Brooklyn — most the seats don’t have back support, but a significant minority of them do — I have always felt cared for there. The servers are warm and welcoming. And there are seats to sit in. At Mile End Manhattan, I felt like just another critter to stuff with silage to advance the bottom line.

 

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

Sexual Feelings in Childhood, Part 1

Tony the Tiger, the sexy hero of my childhood
Been thinking lately about what my “sexuality,” if I had one, was like for me as a child. Early on, it meant being attracted to Charlie the Tuna, the handsome, cartooned face of a tuna representing the Starkist company. Charlie had big, dark, masculine eyebrows, glasses, and a flirtatious smile, tongue slightly revealed in that inimitable cartoon way and lips almost scooping the viewer up. I realize now he shares some of the ineffable qualities that draw me most compellingly to my wife, Karen. How could I try to name these things? “Masculine, affectionate mischief?” A funky and winking confidence, plus goofiness and muscle?

“The debonair?”

When I say “attracted” I mean I believe I was actually sexually attracted to that cartoon tuna. I think I also imagined his taste, and a sense of sexy “slipperiness” that I have learned is certainly true of tuna sushi. Some of my friends, men and women, say that they masturbated from a very young age. This was not true for me, but I did feel discernibly “erotic” feelings for animated characters, for a few foods, and for certain smells.

At around five, I had been even more attracted to Tony the Tiger, the champion of Frosted Flakes. In fact I can’t stop thinking of Karen now when I see Tony’s sexy leap across the cereal bowl in the commercials of today. Tony leapt, then and now, with paws that looked like arms ready to embrace a person. He stirred me in a way I couldn’t explain.

Sometimes at 47, I will smell a particular “crazy, sweet smell” that made my nostrils flare when I was 3 and a half feet tall. It still stirs me, hard, so that I come to attention like an Army private. The scent was on my bamboo bathroom towel today, but what is it, smells like the woods in June, like an animal, like an armpit? It pushed my brain’s pleasure centers in a way that made me want to take it to my nose and smell it again and again and again, like (later) some girls’ panties. Did I encounter it en route to a family picnic, through the car window? Was it a forest animal’s pheromones?

[To be continued…]

(c) Donna Minkowitz 2012

What’s Spiritual about Memoir?

Pens that can fly


Th
is is from a talk I gave at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in October 2010. It’s about why memoir is good. 🙂 For writers, readers, and the entire world.

I started writing memoir in the early 90s, when I was a journalist at the Village Voice. And almost inevitably, when I was at a party or the gym or a political meeting and said what I was doing, someone would ask, “Aren’t you a little young for that?”  I was 28 when I began.  And I would take a deep breath and answer, “No.”

Before the late 1980s, people generally used the word “memoir” to mean a fat and comprehensive book written by someone at the end of their lives, almost always someone very famous, like a president or a movie star or a Titan of Industry.

Of course, people who weren’t as prominent as that had been writing personal accounts of their lives for hundreds of years, thousands if you count poetry. They just hadn’t been calling them memoirs. Continue reading