Exploding Stigma with Heidi Latsky Dance

#MeOnDisplay means exploding stigma!

Earlier this week, I received information about an open rehearsal/audition with Heidi Latsky Dance and thought it sounded fun; I haven’t danced in a while and I decided that, whether or not I’d be accepted into the performance, it would be a cool experience. I did not realize the experience would begin before I even got there…

After emailing the coordinator my headshot and resume, I visited the company’s website. I did not get very far when I encountered a link called #MeOnDisplay. I clicked on it and read:

“Every day we see people on display on magazine covers and billboards and we KNOW we are not reflected in those images. It’s time we own our truths, imperfections, and fierceness.

Join us in redefining beauty one image at a time.

Take a STAND. Take a PHOTO.

Tell the world what being On Display means to you…”

So before finding out more about the company, I injected myself into their “Social Media Revolution!”

After thinking for a moment about what photo to use–I knew I wanted to use one featuring my blind cane–I decided on “Behold my Unisphere!” a photo of me pointing at a giant metal structure of the Earth constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, as if I were a general indicating my territory, lately conquered.

I uploaded it to Twitter, but In my excitement I’d neglected one of the directions, so @HLatskyDance urged, “@DrMLGodin loving this! To us #MeOnDisplay means taking risks. What does it mean to you?! Let us know and we’ll add it to our gallery TwoHearts emoji [I don’t know how to make emoji on my PC!]”

My first thought was to write #MeOnDisplay means reveling in difference, but then I thought that might be too flabby, or worse, that someone else had already said it or something similar–I am a little OCD about uniqueness! So I read through a few of what others had said, then did a search for difference and sure enough I found something–wasn’t mine, but it was close enough, so I thought some more…

I’ve been reading Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, and my ears pricked up at her use of the word stigma. Referring to work by Erving Goffman she writes that “a central feature of the operation of stigma, especially toward people with impairments and disabilities, is the denial of individuality: the entire encounter with such a person is articulated in terms of the stigmatized trait, and we come to believe that the person with the stigma is not fully or really human.”

Ouch! But I take her point as she develops it into the recognition of the age-old amazement people who do not perceive themselves as disabled have when they discover something quotidian in the behavior of one they perceived as wholly different:

When such a person performs the most normal actions of a human life, “normals” often express surprise, as if they were saying, “Fancy that! In some ways you’re just like a human being!”

Though she is not speaking specifically of blind people here, it has certainly been my experience that sighted people get excited about the dumbest things with respect to my behavior and congratulate me on things they would ordinarily reserve for children. In other words, one who is disabled often feels the impressing people bar to be rather low.

I’m the first to admit that if you are going to judge me according to whether I do a bang-up job of walking a straight line or eating politely with a fork and knife, I will likely fail. But frankly, my expectations of leaving a mark on this world have absolutely nothing to do with the quotidian. Though I sometimes feel bad about my lameness at using my blind cane, mobilitying oneself to the bodega does not a genius make.

To take an extreme case, if we judge Stephen Hawking on the basis of normalcy, he too will fail, but of course, we do not. I’m not a (physics) genius and I shudder to think of the bodily sufferings he’s gone through, but when it comes down to it, there have been countless humans birthed into this world and deathed out again, and greatness is not always measured in physical ability.

Despite my shortcomings in using him, I love my blind cane, who, you should know by now is named Moses! My boyfriend and I do not agree who awesomely dubbed him Moses, thereby conjuring powers to part the endless Red Seas of New York City, but we agree there is magic in naming a stigmatized object–the lowly government issued white cane with red stripe and reflective tape–after a biblical man of power.

A couple years back, I was lucky enough to find myself in LA on a national commercial set and it was positively charming to see how the crew, when introduced to Moses, referred to him with no small reverence, and even, in some darkly fantastic way, seemed privileged to hang with him. This is what exploding stigma means: using the mark of shame to blow up perceptions!

I’m thrilled that Heidi Latsky’s #MeOnDisplay helped me articulate a thought that’s been rattling around my head for some time.

Share Button

We Are Vagina, an Apache Myth of the Future

Created for Sparrow Film Project, and featured in their 2015 Gala at the Museum of the Moving Image, We Are Vagina is the weird child of a film challenge, involving randomly selected myths as prompts–ours being, of course, the Apache Vagina Girls!–and, by way of an indifferent spin of a giant wheel, eras–ours being the year 3000…

 

 

We created the soundscape for the film-making team Lowe & Kasnakian. Listen closely and you will hear not only our most endearing vagina voiceover and a beautiful composition by Alabaster Rhumb, but also some of our favorite-sounding emoji–yes, emoji speak!

Finally, in case you’re curious, here’s the Vagina Girls myth as told by the great Joseph Campbell in his Masks of God…

 

…there once was a murderous monster called Kicking Monster, whose four daughters at that time were the only women in the world possessing vaginas. They were “vagina girls.” And they lived in a house that was full of vaginas. “They had the form of women,” we are told, “but they were in reality vaginas. Other vaginas were hanging around on the walls, but these four were in the form of girls with legs and all body parts and were walking around.”

As may be imagined, the rumor of these girls brought many men along the road; but they would be met by Kicking Monster, kicked into the house, and never returned.

And so Killer-of-Enemies, a marvelous boy hero, took it upon himself to correct the situation. Outwitting Kicking Monster, Killer-of-Enemies entered the house, and the four girls approached him, craving intercourse.

But he asked, “Where have all the men gone who were kicked into this place?” “We ate them up,” they said, “because we like to do that”; and they attempted to embrace him. But he held them off, shouting, “Keep away!

That is no way to use the vagina.” And then he told them, “First I must give you some medicine, which you have never tasted before, medicine made of sour berries; and then I’ll do what you ask.” Whereupon he gave them sour berries of four kinds to eat. “The vagina,” he said, “is always sweet when you do like this.” The berries puckered their mouths, so that finally they could not chew at all, but only swallowed. “They liked it very much, though,” declared the teller of the story. “It felt just as if Killer of-Enemies was having intercourse with them. They were almost unconscious with ecstasy, though really Killer-of-Enemies was doing nothing at all to them. It was the medicine that made them feel that way. “When Killer-of-Enemies had come to them,” the story-teller then concluded, “they had had strong teeth with which they had eaten their victims. But this medicine destroyed their teeth entirely.” And so we see how the great boy hero, once upon a time, domesticated the toothed vagina to its proper use…

Share Button

A Pain Named Dog, Poetry inspired by Nietzsche’s Gay Science

 

I have given a name to my pain

And call it Dog.

I can tell it to sit, lay down,

Roll over, play dead.

I scold it and shame it

And pretend it’s my bitch

And though it worries my carcass

And growls and shits,

It gives me a leg up. On profundity.

 

I have given a name to my beauty

And call it Snake.

I observe it wind my hand

Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs

I tell it, PULSE DANGER.

            SWALLOW BLIND MICE.

And though its little murders do not ripple

The still-water universe

It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.

 

I have given a name to my anger

And call it Cockroach

I fatten it with booze and candy

It waxes petty and cruel

I chase it to squash it

Curse its very existence

But because it incites war

In the bowels of men

It does me some good. Keeps them in check.

 

I have given a name to my disease

And call it Devil

Sad Devil. Mean-spirited

Jealous and cruel.

I know the Fiend called Devil

Is the Blindness called Life

Still I shout HUZZAH

With the rest.

It appeases. Why not?

 

I have given a name to my sadness

And call it God

I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.

Long live you?

I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER

            At least fucking PLAY DEAD

And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining

Shameless as any other god,

There are others. I pray.

*First published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review*

Share Button

Smelling Old Books While Reading EBooks

When I was about fourteen, my eye disease stole my central vision and left me unable to read normal print. Books handed down from parents and grandparents–Treasure Island and Jane Eyre and (my favorite when I was a kid) a collection of Poe Tales–were suddenly reduced to the physical sensations of touch and smell, traces of what I had been, a voracious sighted reader.

You may understand then, dear reader, how wonderful the ubiquity of EBooks is for me and so many other blind readers. Until recently, obtaining accessible books relied on a handful of not great alternatives–braille, talking book, scanning into a computer–all of which took a lot of time and money to produce. This meant that when and how many published books were made accessible was quite limited and created a huge disparity between sighted and blind readers. Perhaps you may also understand how difficult it is to hear backlash from readers, writers and publishers who take delight in railing against EBooks.

Last December I read a Publishers Weekly article called Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize in which I found his blithely naïve reason for not publishing a digital version of the acclaimed anthology: “’in the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” to which I cry, “Not anyone!”

I generally don’t like to come off as a prickly blind person, so I stewed in the implications of such a statement for nearly six months. Then I had an unfortunate encounter with a Guardian opinion piece called Books are Back. Only the Technodazzled Thought They Would Go Away, which opens with this hook: “The hysterical cheerleaders of the e-book failed to account for human experience, and publishers blindly followed suit. But the novelty has worn off”

Apparently reading an e-book is somehow not part of human experience, so that, for the Guardian author, only his way of reading–holding a print book to his eyes–is real: “Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen.”

To which I say, “EBooks are accessible books; if you want to deny them reality, try poking out your eyeballs!

Just kidding. But seriously, for me, EBooks are not virtual; they are real, while bookshops with their physical books are virtual, or nearly so; they do smell nice.

If the Pushcart article had not hit me first, I likely would have dismissed the Guardian article as tawdry comment-pandering, inflammatory and beneath my notice. However, I do think the problem is systemic, particularly in the highfalutin literary fiction world (less so in genre fiction) where, for example, many of the acclaimed literary journals do not publish electronic versions. Resistance to EBooks is an easy way to maintain a rarified air.

The biggest problem I have with all this is the idea that EBooks must necessarily push out physical books, or vice versa–why can’t we all live together?

Readers of all stripes should have the choice to read however they please, and frankly it costs next to nothing for publishers to make EBooks available at the same time as they print on paper–perhaps this is really the problem. EBooks are so easy and cheap to produce that for those who cannot extricate value from cost, they must be worthless, as if putting Plato’s Republic, Ulysses, or the King James Bible into an e-book form makes them less difficult to read or less important culturally.

Though I cannot understand another’s intolerance for EBooks, which for me, and many others, revolutionized the accessibility and immediacy of countless works, I can understand the fetish for books, with the fresh cut paper and ink smell of new books and the grassy vanilla mustiness of old ones.

The sense of smell, unlike the other four senses, has a direct pathway to the part of our brain responsible for the processing of emotions and memories. As V. S. Ramachandran puts it in Phantoms of the Brain (which is strangely available as an Audible but not Kindle edition), “[Smell] is in fact directly wired to the limbic system, going straight to the amygdala (an almond-shaped structure that serves as a gateway into the limbic system). This is hardly surprising given that in lower mammals, smell is intimately linked with emotion, territorial behavior, aggression and sexuality.”

Smell then feels more primitive and embedded with our deepest emotions and beliefs. Perhaps this helps to explain the intolerance of certain book lovers when it comes to eBooks. Perhaps also, this offers us a method of reeducation…

To fill the olfactory void left by digital books, I offer you book-scented products! As the author of 30 Book-Scented Perfumes and Candles puts it, “Any of the items listed below can be a perfect gift for anyone who tasted the convenience of reading on the Kindle, Kobo, or Nook, but will never forget (and doesn’t want to) the addictive smell of the old good books from childhood.”

As I write, I’m burning Oxford Library, a candle made by Frostbeard. Though my choice was in no small part dictated by economics (some of the book Scented products on the list are pretty darn pricey), I must admit to being influenced by this charming claim: “You’ll dream of sliding ladders, spiral staircases and leather-bound books when you curl up with a novel and this seductive, earthy aroma.” According to their Etsy page, the Oxford Library scent is composed of oakmoss, amber, sandalwood and leather.

Curious to know more about the lovely smells of Oxford, I looked them up in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, and found that oakmoss signifies, “Different species of mosses from which are extracted dry, bitter-smelling materials essential to chypre fragrances,” and amber is “A blend of fragrant resins, such as styrax, benzoin, and cistus labdanum, traditional to the Middle East,” and that sandalwood, with its long history in perfumery, provides some of the “main chemical building blocks of fragrance” and is one of a few materials “found in almost every composition,” and that the smell of leather is “characterized by bitter-smelling isoquinolines or smoky-smelling rectified birch tar, to replicate the smell of the tanning chemicals used to prepare leather.”

All these combine to create an aroma of masculine luxury, seeming to represent the dusty men as well as the dusty books of Oxford. The smell suggests at once the Platonic ideal of “Father” and a first edition of Wuthering Heights–not bad for a few bucks!

So where does the actual smell of old books come from? Perhaps it is obvious, but much of the glorious smell indicates degradation. As reported by The Telegraph in The Smell of Old Books Analyzed by Scientists, a team of scientists developed a “sniff test” for old books to determine their level of endangerment: “Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, and lead author of the study, and her team note that the well-known musty smell of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper.”

Certain of these chemical compounds can be used as a warning sign for libraries: “The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimize their preservation.”

Of course, one of the simplest ways to preserve a book is to minimize handling, and the easiest way to minimize handling (without denying all access to its contents) is to digitize the books!

Yep, I’m back on my soapbox: digitized books–searchable electronic texts as well as facsimiles, help preserve the originals while simultaneously making the works available to people who may not be able to travel to the Bodleian Library at Oxford!

In other words, accessibility is not just about blind people but also about the general reading public. Take for example HathiTrust, whose tagline is, “Welcome to the Shared Digital Future,” and whose mission is to work with institutions around the world to “ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.”

It may be this very accessibility that really sticks in the craw of a person like our Guardian author, as if the means of dissemination has anything to do with people taking the time to read the books in question. For those of his ilk, the physical manifestations of books are meant to be treasured and amassed: “A book is a shelf, a wall, a home,” oh my!

Wonderful as they are, a personal library does not a reader make. Spending time and energy reading, having a mind-meld with an author–perhaps across centuries–should be the primary endeavor, and the acquisition of a beautiful edition a distant second, a luxury for those with the money and space to collect such things.

Speaking of luxury, when things get a little less tight in the Astoria Bat Cave, I may have to invest in a fragrance called Paper Passion, which invokes the smell of a freshly cracked new book. Then, whenever I feel blue about a snooty publisher or author neglecting to publish an electronic version of this book or that, I will spritz myself. And, while I deliberate whether or not buying the physical book, and spending the requisite hours scanning, is worth it. I will sniff my book-scented skin and be grateful to live in the digital age, hopeful that accessibility will win out in the end.

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*

Share Button

Helen Keller on Vaudeville Provides Fodder for a Lifetime of Art!

Yes! Helen Keller really did perform on vaudeville stages for four years (1920-1924). I stumbled across this odd fact while finishing up my PhD (in 18th Century English literature) and tucked it away for further investigation. That investigation–into Helen’s motivations and the reaction of others to her short-lived but startling career move–became The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville?!

Much of the script of the Star of Happiness quotes Helen’s eloquent words about her uniquely glamorous life as a performer, her unenviable frustrations at not being taken seriously as a politically engaged and often radical thinker, and her poignant thoughts about living life as “an unmated.” Furthermore, as I’m wont to do, I complicated Helen’s words with my own perspective. As a blind writer, performer and doctor of philosophy I melded irreverent humor with reverential admiration in a patchwork of biography, jokes, philosophy, and the sound and vision scapes that call attention to the joys and superficialities of sensory experience.

Five years later and I’m still wrestling with Keller’s words, ideas and identity…

I’m happy to report that I’ll be presenting a portion of my strangely fictionalized adaptation of The Star of Happiness in the fall at Queens Council on the Arts with Boundless Tales‘ own five year anniversary celebration.

So here’s to more Star of Happiness weirdness, where Historical fact and schoolyard humor collide in my autobiographical treatment of Helen Keller’s time on vaudeville. It may no longer be a one-woman, two-voice, three-act theatrical production, but it will still grope towards an understanding of the blind spectacle.

Share Button

The Spirit of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur

This past spring, there was “sad news in the spirits world” when it was reported by Eater.com and countless other food and beverage blogs that Robert Cooper, the founder of the wildly popular St-Germain elderflower liqueur, died suddenly at the age of 39.

 

Cooper was born into the booze business, but struck out on his own when his idea to make an elderflower liqueur (like those he’d encountered in London) was pooh-poohed by his father. The elder Cooper had cause to regret his indifference since, as The New York Times put it, “St-Germain, packaged in a striking Art Deco bottle, landed like a thunderclap in the then-burgeoning cocktail world.”

 

Cooper’s inventive marketing (which highlighted bartender’s ingenuity) and the distinct flavor of St-Germain (often referred to as “bartender’s ketchup”) helped boost the mixology trend that has proved so interesting in the past decade or so, pushing a creativity in cocktail-making that goes hand in hand with this millennium’s DIY zeitgeist. With craft spirits and handmade bitters, bartenders armed with droppers and spritzers, today’s mixology far surpasses anything seen at the bar since prohibition. Although, as with all trends, there is an annoyance factor, I, for one, am excited by the explicit interrelations of booze and botanicals–that is, after all, what this column is all about!

 

St. Germain was sold to Bacardi in 2012, but in its press release, they stressed that the artisanal methods would remain unchanged. They present the charming picture of free-lance pickers who for 4-6 weeks in the late spring harvest the delicate flowers and bring them to collecting stations “where harvesters are paid by the kilo for their flowers, often using specially rigged bicycles to carry them.” There they are quickly macerated to preserve the “captivating fresh flavor, reminiscent of tropical fruits, pear and citrus with a hint of honeysuckle.”

 

To be honest, I was surprised by the tropical fruitiness of St-Germain because my first experience with elderflower was as a hydrosol from Stillpoint aromatics and it was, as I mentioned in my previous article on The Botanist Gin, like chocolate if chocolate was indigo velvet. So completely different from St-Germain’s bright fuchsia nectar. Just goes to show you that different methods can produce different flavors from the same plant.

 

Also, as I don’t drink liqueur (except when I visit my mom and pour a little Kahlúa in my morning coffee), I’d not prepared myself for the sweetness, which was dumb because, as I learned from a quick Google search, sugar is one of liqueur’s key ingredients.

 

In his comprehensive book, Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits, Andrew Schloss explains the role sugar plays, “The more sugar syrup added to the alcohol base, the silkier the mouthfeel of the finished liqueur will be. This viscosity slows down the flow of the liqueur across your palate, which allows the liqueur to linger in your mouth longer, thereby giving your taste buds and olfactory receptors more time to pick up flavor, which is why sweeter liquids taste more intense than thinner ones.”

 

It turns out that liqueurs are composed of three elements: a base spirit, one or more flavoring agents, which have been macerated in that spirit, and sugar. That’s it!

 

Maceration or infusion–the terms are used interchangeably–refer to two sides of the same process: one macerates a solid in liquid in order to soften it and extract its flavors and aromas, while one infuses the liquid with these aromatic and flavoring compounds. If the process of maceration/infusion sounds familiar to herbal and booze enthusiasts alike, that is because, although one generally buys tinctures at the health food store and bitters with their booze, they share a common origin.

 

As Brad Thomas Parsons writes in his book Bitters, “Using bitter herbs, barks, and botanicals for medicinal purposes dates back centuries, and versions of some of these potable elixirs are still around today, like the herbal liqueur Chartreuse, which was first made in 1737 by Carthusian monks who based their recipe on an ancient elixir…”

 

Parsons goes on to explain that while bitters are composed of many flavoring agents–bark, peel, herbs, flowers, etc.–and are also often diluted and mixed with sugar, tinctures are a “single-flavor infusion” and do not contain anything other than the chemical constituents extracted from the plant material and a high-proof spirit. Hence, Chartreuse is sometimes referred to as a bitters-based liqueur, while St Germain can be said to have tincture of elderflower at its heart.

 

I’ve not been able to find anything about how Cooper came to call his elderflower liqueur St-Germain, but I like to think that it was named after the Parisian neighborhood and Medieval Benedictine abbey Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, as a nod to the spiritual roots of his quintessence of elderflower.

 

Quintessence is a term taken from Aristotelian natural philosophy and used by alchemist-monks such as the 14th-century John of Rupescissa, to describe spirit of wine, (brandy). In his book The Secrets of Alchemy Lawrence Principe writes, “John considers this “burning water” the “fifth essence” of the wine, its quinta essentia in Latin.”

 

Since John was interested in the health of the body as well as the soul, he appreciated alcohol’s magical ability to extract and preserve the qualities of medicinal herbs, thus transmuting the putrefying-prone plant material into a quintessence that might last indefinitely.

 

Principe writes, “the central chymical operation of distillation–the separation of a pure, volatile (that is, “spiritual”) substance from the crasser, baser components of a mixture–appears frequently as a trope in devotional literature.” To illustrate the point, he quotes the bishop Jean-Pierre Camus (1584-1652):

 

“Let us put all our good and bad thoughts, affections, passions, vices, and virtues all mixed together into the alembic of our understanding. Place it then upon the memory and recollection of the eternal fire as if upon a furnace, and we shall see some marvelous subtle effects. This fiery cogitation will separate the confused elements, the hullabaloo of ambition, the earth of greed and lust, the winds of vanity, the waters of covetousness, the air of presumptions. It will dissipate all these follies, destroy the dregs and lees of a thousand earthly desires, in order to extract beautiful and completely heavenly conceptions from them … it will dissolve all our vices and sins, and extract from our souls a quintessence of piety and devotion…”

 

It is no coincidence then, that our word for high-proof booze is spirit. Perhaps it also seems less strange, now that we recognize this connection in the Early Modern imagination, that monks were responsible for the first liqueurs. But what about this elderflower?

 

Though we may imagine them as ancient tree beings, akin to Ents, the etymology of the English word elder derives from its more humble use as kindling. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Mrs. M. Grieve writes: “The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. In Anglo-Saxon days we find the tree called Eldrun, which becomes Hyldor and Hyllantree in the fourteenth century. One of its names in modern German – Hollunder – is clearly derived from the same origin. In Low-Saxon, the name appears as Ellhorn. Aeld meant ‘fire,’ the hollow stems of the young branches having been used for blowing up a fire…”

 

Elder is often called the Medicine Chest of the common people. Grieve attributes this epithet to Ettmüller (a 17th-century German physician and botanist), and describes the many medicinal uses of the plant, for example: “Elderberry Wine has a curative power of established repute as a remedy, taken hot, at night, for promoting perspiration in the early stages of severe catarrh, accompanied by shivering, sore throat, etc. Like Elderflower Tea, it is one of the best preventives known against the advance of influenza and the ill effects of a chill.”

 

Grieve also tells how, “In Denmark we come across the old belief that he who stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, attended by all his retinue.”

 

And if that’s not enough, Grieve goes on to give a recipe of our great-grandmothers beauty secret: a toner made from a strong tea of elderflowers mixed with “rectified spirits”–a happy addition to every lady’s toilet! “She relied on this to keep her skin fair and white and free from blemishes, and it has not lost its reputation.”

 

She concludes: “A well-known French doctor has stated that he considers it a fine aid in the bath in cases of irritability of the skin and nerves.”

 

All this was enough to inspire me to procure some dried elderflowers from the beautiful East Village herb shop Flower Power and, in parting, I share with you my recipe for a magical elderflower moment:

  1. Throw a handful of Elderflowers into a muslin bag, and toss that into a tubful of hot water.
  2. Pour yourself a civilized glass of St-Germain. WAIT, don’t drink!
  3. Put your St-Germain within reach of the tub, light a candle, turn out the lights, sip and soak.
  4. . Give thanks to the spirit of Robert J. Cooper and the magical elderflower.

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine in my column, Distill My Heart, about all things alcoholic and aromatic*

Share Button