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…

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.

Likenesses, A Family History Through Photos, Real and Imagined

My story Likenesses, about love after death, was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of FLAPPERHOUSE.

You can hear a fun interview with me discussing the writing of it with the smart and charming Ilana Masad on The Other Stories Podcast, episode 63!

 

And, if you like to listen to your literature…

 

[1981]

 

When they found Leona’s body it was curled about an old grey cat, also curled and stiff. The funeral director’s assistant (who did all the dirty work with the fluids and convex plastics to keep skin from sagging, while the funeral director–the artist, he called himself–fussed with lipstick and wigs and hands folded just right) said he’d never had such a hard time prying two bodies apart, said he’d almost given up and buried them together, “but of course one can’t find a casket shaped like that.” He was telling his cronies at the bar after work and they all laughed to hear how the cat’s stiff paws would not let go of the human hand. “The thing that gets me is how they must have died at the same damn time,” he said and drank his whiskey dry. “That’s some crazy bond.”

 

[Mama and Papa, 1910]

 

Mama was born Katherina Wiget, of the original Canton Schwyz Wigets who boasted a family crest of gold wheat on a field of blue. If she had been a joyous child, nobody in America knew, for her unhappiness blossomed with her youth when she was unceremoniously shipped off to distant relatives after her father married a younger woman to replace her dead mother (the young wife having no use for her predecessor’s children). At age twenty, Mama found herself working as a seamstress in St Louis, where she met Albert Beynon , another Swiss, but from the other side. He spoke no German and she no French. Their common language was their adopted tongue of English.

A young and charming rake, whom the Americans called Frenchie, Papa worked as a mechanic on the ford Model T for much of Leona’s childhood, first in St. Louis and then in San Francisco. Not the factory type, Papa managed always to steer clear of the assembly line, working independently as a mechanic who fixed cars for the youngsters who’d grown up wanting them, not making them. Having apprenticed in Geneva in the early days of the internal combustion engine, he was a tinkerer at heart. If he had not the temperament nor genius nor entrepreneurial spirit of a Ford or a Benz, he shared with them a great facility for putting things together and taking them apart, as well as a soft spot for the new and ingenious which found expression in his trade of mechanics and his hobby of photography.

In Leona’s photograph of them, Mama dwarfs Papa, whose head is nearly level with (and not quite as big as) her enormous breasts. Dressed in calico, she seems painfully aware of how ludicrous they must appear in the eyes of posterity and hence refuses to meet our gaze. She stares off camera and away from her husband. For his own part, Papa adored posing for pictures almost as much as he loved taking them. Hence he looks directly into the camera, seeming almost to delight in his new wife’s embarrassment. The result is a portrait of a couple whose eyes’ trajectories form an acute angle, symbolic of their married life.

 

[Papa, 1923]

 

Papa left on his first solo sojourn when Leona was thirteen. She cherished the photograph he sent back in which a swashbuckling Papa wearing tilted hat and lace-up boots is surrounded by otherworldly trees with knotted flowered arms that stretch to the sky, on the back of which he wrote, “6 November, 1923, Mojave Desert Love Papa.” Leona felt not the least resentment towards him for leaving (Mama felt enough for the two of them) and rather admired the rugged jauntiness of his likeness, as well as the cleverness of the timer-camera and the hand-built automobile, which, though they did not make it into the frame, add greatly to the charming picture of independence.

As the ’20’s roared along, Papa spent less and less time in San Francisco, so that when the Crash of ’29 hit, his absence was more fixed than his presence. The sporadic letters wrapped around small bundles of cash had also grown scarce then vanished altogether, but by then Leona was a woman. She took jobs cleaning Nob Hill houses to help support the family, which also included her little brother Arthur who, being eight years her junior, was almost more son than brother.

Mama had a tyrannical disposition which, if it were not for Leona’s being her equal as a workhorse on the one hand and impervious to black moods on the other, would have made the double-mother household unbearable. As it was, the two balanced each other out, and raised Arthur with much discipline and coddling respectively. Arthur rewarded their ministrations by being the first in their family and their acquaintances to go to university. Good at math and eager to travel the world like Papa, Arthur studied mining, a subject which had, since the Gold Rush days, become a marvel of science and engineering, while it maintained its adventuring mystique.

 

[Alcidos and Leona, 1939]

 

Working and helping Mama to Raise Arthur had left Leona no time for socializing or finding a husband until Arthur went to work in the Nevada City mines and began sending money home. By then she was no longer young–nearly thirty–so of course she thought herself very lucky when she found Alcidos at the William Tell, where they offered Swiss fare and nightly dancing.

Alcidos Goodin, of French Canadian ancestry, was born with surname Godin, but followed in the footsteps of several of his twelve elder siblings by adding the additional ‘o’ in order to avoid the unfortunate American pronunciation. A construction worker who followed WPA jobs from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos proved a perfect gentleman and a brave worker too. He’d helped build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as its younger and more splendid sister span, which had opened just before Leona and he met. Alcidos would have good, if dangerous, work for years to come. Best of all, he also loved to dance and wanted lots of children.

Unlike the portrait of Mama and Papa, the photograph Alcidos and Leona had taken at the Golden Gate International Exposition shows two bright-eyed smiling faces, serene and confident in their future happiness together.

Thus, as you might imagine, the first time Alcidos returned, Leona did not recognize him. She was so big, the baby due any day, that she mistook him for an angel. She had been resting for a moment on the little back porch of their new home in Visitacion Valley, when the hummingbird flew to her and hovered, drenched in sunlight. Her heart sang with joy. The baby would be swaddled in love and happiness as voluminous as any babe could want.

It was not long after that, friends of Alcidos who had been working on the job with him, and his foreman knocked on her door. The darkness that encompassed them chilled her. It was an unthinking certainty of doom. Probably the foreman spoke first, clutching his hat, “How sorry we are to have to bring you this sad, very, very, sad, dreadful news…And, especially as you are in your condition, Mrs. Goodin…We are not sure how it happened…” He did not want to say it right out. He wanted to prepare her.

Strangely, she was suddenly the calm one. She asked, “My husband has been hurt?” Their hesitation and furtive glances told her what they could not say. “Alcidos is dead,” she whispered, to herself or them it didn’t matter. They were relieved. They continued as if it had been one of them that had braved the evil words. Leona let them prattle on, condolences and regrets piling one atop the other, a rubble heap as tall as at one of their construction sites.

Others, tongue-tied or talkative, came and went. The parlor filled with the sounds and scents of birth and death. Gifts of baby booties and tiny crocheted hats sat alongside impossibly dense clusters of flowers and baked goods. Cards of happy congratulations mingled with those pronouncing sorrow. Mama took care of her in the four days between death and birth, and remained with her thereafter. Alcidos Goodin Junior (Alci) was born while his father rumbled away on an eastbound train; his family wanted to bury him in their Minnesota plot. Leona was too shocked by the first loss to protest the second, but it developed that his body was inconsequential.

 

[Alci, 1942]

 

Alci’s first years passed while the Second World War raged in Europe, and many in Visitacion Valley (which resembled more closely the ranch it had once been, than it did the rest of San Francisco) went back to their roots to survive. One day Mama came home with a crate of chickens and soon thereafter bartered eggs for goat’s milk from the neighbors across the fence.

In this way, Alci grew up chasing chickens and looking, with his hand-me-down brass-buttoned coat and handmade knit cap, “just like Papa as a boy,” said Arthur chuckling, and snapped a picture of the funny little Old World child. When she saw the photograph Leona thought how her son had been born in mourning and was being raised in calamity, but that somehow his cheeks remained flushed with a happy rosy glow.

It was around then that Leona recognized her husband in the figure of a chicken. He had not been one of those Mama had brought home but rather sauntered into their yard from nowhere it seemed, and made himself right at home, laying more eggs than the other three together. Leona couldn’t say for certain when she recognized the chicken as her beloved husband exactly, but when it came to her, she’d known it as a fact. She’d felt that her dear Alcidos hovered near, watching over them, almost from the moment her son had been born, but now it appeared to her as a comforting and certain truth, as if an unseen hand gathered in all that was good and kept everything else out. From her moment of revelation, Leona lived with the father and the son in a trinitarian paradise, while Mama hung in the background like a reliable, if disagreeable, clock.

 

[Alci, 1958]

 

After the chicken Alcidos returned as a dog. Actually two dogs. Alci found the first on the street on his way home from school. The pup grew monstrous in size and in his devotion to Alci. For a few years he was bigger than the boy, and the two were inseparable. The second, a spotted brown runt, Leona herself found sniffing around her front stoop petunias. Leona realized that although Alcidos wanted to watch over his son, he understood that the boy had become a young man whose every care was not about pups. It was Leona who mostly took care of the second dog and she was grateful that it was small, almost no trouble at all. Her husband seemed to be conforming to their ever-changing situation.

During high school Alci (or as he preferred, Al) was hardly home. When he did come home, he merely patted the dog as he went to his room and on his way out again. He was very popular in school, a yell leader surrounded by other fine young men and a bevy of pretty cheerleaders. He told her, “yell leaders are as popular as football players but without the bruises.”

In his graduation picture he wears a sweet smile and glasses that enlarge his hazel eyes, twinkling with a touch of the devil, just like Papa.

Alci graduated from SF State with a degree in sociology and, after bouncing around the city with a few odd jobs, decided to join the military. Leona could not be surprised; the wanderlust was in his blood, but her future loneliness and uselessness blanketed her in a black fog. She forced herself to play a part, acting happy although her heart was breaking. A handsome young officer off to see the world, She did not want to dampen his excitement. On the day of his departure, his taxi arrived and she kissed him goodbye. When he was truly gone, she crawled back into bed and indulged in self-pity for the first and only time in her life.

All were gone and it was February. The previous February had seen the death of Mama. In February, twenty-three years earlier, her husband had died and her son had been born. How many anniversaries can a person cram into one dark month? She lay in her tiny creaky bed and cried until she could not cry anymore. She watched the ceiling turn gold to black. Looking back on that day with no little shame she thought perhaps she had feared her husband would leave too.

That night, Alcidos visited her as a man. He walked into their room just like he had done in the short precious year they’d had together so long ago and lay down next to her. She nestled into him and he folded her into his warmth. They did not talk for a long time and when they did it was in whispered breathless phrases punctuated by sweet kisses. He told her how he’d been walking the roof of the Rincon Annex, whistling a silly medley of popular “baby” tunes: “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” and thinking of his wife glowing with their baby inside her.

“I was in bliss over the idea of having two babies to love when my foot stepped onto a loose board in the scaffolding. Heaven knows how many times I’d stepped on just such rickety things before and not gone tumbling over the side like a klutz! I worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and it was a post office on Market Street that did me in!” He chuckled and Leona let out a little laugh that turned right into a sob. He continued, “That time I went flying because my mind was not on my work but on my love. Do not cry darling Leona,” he hugged her tighter, “for it was meant to be. You see, I have been able to stay with you and our boy all these years. I have always been here whether or not you have recognized me.”

“Will you go overseas with Alci?”

“I will be with you forever.”

When Leona woke the next morning, her eyes were burning and she felt bereft of her husband all over again, but then she washed her face and bustled about the house, cleaning and humming those happy songs from between the wars.

That evening, when she opened her kitchen door onto the back porch, a tabby cat came running in meowing. She laughed and picked him up and kissed him on the head. Then she opened a can of tuna for him. That began the age of the cats.

 

[Alci and Demi, 1968]

 

Alci returned home to San Francisco, which he had done periodically through the years, but this time it was for a purpose. He planned “to get hitched.” He had received a promotion and, after five wild years in the Far East, would be living on a base in Virginia surrounded by families. He told his mother, “A wife is vital in a place like that. Everyone will be married. A nice girl will keep me out of trouble.”

He took the old high school sweetheart, whose name was Demi, out a few times, then got drunk one afternoon and called her at The Emporium where she sold cosmetics. Leona almost dropped the dish she was drying when she heard him say, “Do you have a dowry? A dowry, yes. How much will your father give me for you?” The wry smile could be heard in his voice and the woman seemed to understand he was joking, for Leona could hear her laughter through the phone line before she hung up.

She called him back though, and they went for dinner that night. Alci returned home with her and announced to his mother that they would drive to Reno on the weekend to tie the knot.

“You’re eloping? Can’t we at least have a party?”

“There’s no time Ma. I ship out next week. When we get settled, we’ll fly you out.”

In their wedding portrait Demi wears a white lace mini-dress with a hem appropriately short for the times and startlingly prophetic regarding their marriage. The bride appears shy, perhaps embarrassed by the brevity of the dress and the recent courtship, while Alci looks like a rooster preparing to crow.

 

[Michelle, 1976]

 

After five years of military sojourning and the creation of a girl child, they separated. Alci called to say that the marriage was kaput. It was a distant event since they were stationed in Holland, but still Leona felt it to be dreadful: the slow dissolution of her parents’ union by inherent unsuitability, the abrupt termination of her own by tragedy, and now the divorce of her son–Were the marriages in her family under some kind of curse? No, she decided, Alcidos and she were different, for their love tethered them despite universal laws.

One wonderful repercussion resulted from the breakup; the wife returned to San Francisco bringing with her the granddaughter. For that Leona was grateful. Michelle, that was her granddaughter’s name, was as clever and eager to please as Alci at her age and it was a joy to have her around. Whenever she visited, she would ask, “Where’s Kitty?” and would poke around until she found him. (Leona had named all the kitties Kitty so as not to slip up and call them by her dead husband’s name and cause people concern for her.)

Michelle loved to run around the house trailing string for the cat to chase. Leona chuckled at the way Alcidos teased his granddaughter. He clutched at the string and jumped and pounced. Then just as the little girl ran down the hallway, he pretended to lose interest so that she was forced to peer around the corner to see where he was.

Leona had a camera of her own now, a Polaroid Instant that her son had given her, and managed once to catch that sweetly expectant expression. After the image emerged, Michelle asked if she could put it up on the mantle with the other photographs, which stood like sentinels in little gilded frames.

 

[1981

 

Her last cat grew all white about the whiskers while he waited patiently, watching as Leona taught Michelle how to make Christmas ornaments, pancakes and apple head dolls. The little girl grew, but had not yet reached an age to leave her grandmother when her grandmother left her. One evening Leona lay on the couch curled around the cat, the cat curled around her hand, when she whispered into one furry ear, “Please Alcidos, do not leave me again. Take me with you this time.”

Above on the mantle, the family photographs would remain, innocent of death, the likenesses nearly as slender as the life lying coiled before them.

A Flame’s Progress, Greek Easter 1981

We arrived late as always, so that there was no place to sit, though there’s not a whole lot of sitting in Greek Orthodox churches. Standing in our coats, clutching our unlit candles, we crowded in with the others who, like us, came to church but once or twice a year. I was between my mom and my Thea Yvonne and on the other side of her was my Uncle Art–there’s a strange convention in our family to call our Aunts by the Greek thea but our uncles by the American uncle. I don’t know why, but it pretty much sums up the willy-nilly Greek/American distribution of traditions on my mother’s side of the family. And if there ever was a perfect blend of these two strains of holidaymaking, it was for me Easter, when I got the best of both worlds.

 

I waited impatiently for the music that heralded the candle lighting, and when it happened, the church erupted in song. “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ has risen!”) was sung over and over again. Wikipedia tells me that this is called the Paschal troparion, originally written in Koine (common) Greek, the original language of the New Testament, but translated into countless languages and sung in Eastern Orthodox Churches all over the world, as witnessed by this YouTube video.

 

The gold ceiling caught fire as the candlelight passed from the priest to the ancient and impossibly shriveled old ladies who sat at the front of the church swaddled in black, like ornery newborns. I could not see them, but knew they were there because they were always there, coming early for the good seats and staying late against their doom.

 

The stone church glowed like an oven when the first candle of my relatives was lit. My mother nudged me to hold my candle with its protective cup to catch dripping wax, straight. This I did with great anticipation, mouthing the words of Greek I wished fervently I knew, a desire, which would be forgotten by morning when American Easter baskets of chocolate bunnies and sugar flowers would drown out the yearning for the culture in which I feebly swam. But for now, it was the dark ritual that sparked passion in my young heart, and it was coming to its wonderful climax.

 

Being in the back meant that although we were among the last to arrive and receive the flame, we were the first to leave. Once all candles were lit, and a final round of Christos Anesti sung inside the church, the doors were flung open and we took our fire and our song and our ancient ritual with its pagan roots outside.

 

We circled the Ascension Cathedral thrice and, so embedded is the celebration of light in the human imagination, that even my profoundly secular heart (which loves all dark and mysterious things without attributing the magic of life to any great being) find this ritual memory moving to the point of tears. Who can deny the beauty inspired by belief? There is horror inspired by belief also, but this essay is a celebration of the beautiful.

 

Atop the Oakland hill, the streetlights twinkled below. Our flames’ progress was not the only light in the darkness, as our forefathers may easily have imagined on some Hellenic hill in centuries past, but still, as my eyes were just beginning to show signs of the degenerative disease that would eventually mar distinctions between day and night, I easily imagined ours to be the only light in that dark bosom of midnight. What ten year old could fail to appreciate the delicious transgression of wakefulness? Or to relish the solemn joy that was the reenactment of the ultimate Christian paradox: in order to live, one must die.

 

Perhaps some of the congregation reentered the church to finish out the service, and there is some part of me now that yearns to return with them into that quiet place, filled with the recent echoes and rustles of some hundred souls. But that was not then my yearning. In the back seat of my uncle’s Cadillac, I stared at my candle and chattered about how beautiful it all was while already my mind was turning to dinner with its own set of light-hearted rituals.

 

The table spread out like an Easter parade with silver candelabras waiting to embrace our still-lit candles set next to baskets with glittery grass and shining colored eggs. We did not then do the red eggs as is traditional in Eastern Orthodoxy, though, in recent years, my mother has placed the incongruous blood-red eggs (with all their gruesome metaphorics) into American Easter baskets. But when I was little, she wanted me to enjoy the sweetness of the American dyes as if to preserve my innocence, although, even then, the veil had begun to fray.

A mysterious dystrophy was happening in my retinas and I’d already been to one or two ophthalmologists that year. It was precisely those doctors who, confronting their own ignorance and inability to explain why their lenses could not correct my vision, opened a great and never-to-be-closed chasm in my child’s psyche: I was made suddenly and irrevocably aware of the limits of human understanding. It was in 1981 that I learned how the smell of ignorance permeates all–never mind the bright white robes of clean and apparent knowledge.

 

 

It is also in my memory that at that year’s Easter dinner I had my first taste of watered wine and felt very grown up. I was the youngest and only girl at the table. The only other kids there were two of Thea Yvonne’s three sons, who were quite a bit older than I. Thea Yvonne had yearned for a girl child that she might pamper with all the sweet things her own childhood in the Greek mountain town before and during World War II had not offered her and her sisters, and I was happy to step in. Her beautiful house offered me eyefuls of objects to gawk at and love, as well as a storehouse of visual memories to treasure, now that I can no longer see:

 

A collection of Madame Alexander dolls dressed in costumes from around the world, and Art Deco prints with elongated women in peacock dresses whose skirts are attached to gloved hands. Pristine and plush white rugs led out to a dark pool–one made of stone that puts aqua fakery to shame. And, beyond the pool, Thea Yvonne’s rose garden taught me to love outrageous blooms with august names like Queen Elizabeth and Sterling Silver that resembled not at all the upright uniformity found in shops. One blossom presents itself to my mind’s eye in a cinematic close-up: a pale rose with a dark center, its ivory petals rimmed with wine.

 

I am suddenly tempted to Google “Easter egg fight,” to know if it is American or Greek, though I suspect the latter for two reasons: First, Greeks tend to be a competitive lot, and second, because the tabletop tournament requires some Greek be spoken. But I will not. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant and pretend my family invented the game.

 

I believe my mother conducted the Easter egg fight that year, but that could be because she was my first combatant, sitting next to me as she was. “Pick your eggs!” Everyone reached into the baskets and chose, very carefully, the egg they believed would beat the rest. I chose a purple one. It felt strong and solid as a stone.

“Ok, pointy end to pointy end,” said my mother. “You want to hit first?” “Uh-huh,” I said and poised my egg above hers.

“Christos anesti,” I said and my mother responded, “Alithos anesti.”

“Oh!” we both cried. I was victorious.

“Turn your egg around.” This time she hit me, but again I prevailed.

 

I took my winner egg to my cousin, whom I may have had a little crush on, as I did most boys since I didn’t have many of the male persuasion in my life after my parents divorced and I started at an all-girl school. But I beat him too, on this my favorite and most special Easter ever. And on it went “Christos anesti–Christ has risen!” Alithos anesti–Indeed he has!” BONK Smash CRACK I went around the table to the eggs that remained uncrushed and crushed them all!

I was so proud. My champion was placed back into the basket with great solemnity.

 

Then I selected another egg to be sacrificed to my dinner–sliced and generously sprinkled with salt and pepper and eaten on top of buttered pita bread–what we called the sweet Easter bread that required much love and warming blankets to encourage its multiple risings. I was not much of a meat eater back then, so I can’t tell you about the leg of lamb, but my current, wiser self knows it was delicious and regrets her youthful folly!

 

Eventually my eyes grew droopy. There was no more postponing the inevitable. I was tucked into bed. First to sleep, first to rise, I woke up to a new house–one transformed into an Easter Bunny’s playground, and enjoyed an Easter egg hunt made for one, traipsing around the house finding little nests of candies with clues to the next treasure written on cards decorated with baby chicks.

 

Because my eye disease stole my central vision first, it would not be long before I could not read such cards, but on Greek Easter 1981, the year I was ten and balancing on the cusp between seeing the world through a bright child’s lens and darkly through that of an adult, I was filled with excitement at finding what had been created just for me. I ran upstairs to show my mother each piece of candy and trinket I found, as if she had never seen it before, as if we’d never either of us seen anything like it before. Or would ever again.

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

Snake Oil Essentials: The History and Science of the Much-Maligned Medicinal

Chinese Snake oil, from the erabu sea snake, has been a traditional remedy for arthritis and bursitis for hundreds of years, and seems to have been introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century when thousands of Chinese laborers were contracted to help build the Transcontinental Railroads–an estimated 180,000 emigrated to the U.S. between 1849 and 1882, according to Richard White’s book Railroaded.

The laborers “may have offered snake oil to fellow workers as relief for suffering long days of physical toil,” writes Cynthia Graber in a 2007 Scientific American article. She continues, “Richard Kunin, a California psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology research, became intrigued with the idea of snake oil in the 1980s. He had been following early research on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for health and it dawned on him that the much-maligned snake oil might be a particularly rich source.

Kunin thus went to San Francisco’s Chinatown, bought some snake oil, and had it analyzed alongside the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes. He published his findings in a 1989 letter to the Western Journal of Medicine, but before we look at his findings, let’s see about these rattlesnakes.

Common in the American Southwest, the rattlesnake has been widely adopted into religion and ritual. In her classic book of anthropology, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict describes the Hopi Snake Dance: “In the first set the Antelope priest dances, squatting, the circuit of the altar, and retires. The Snake priest repeats. In the second set Antelope receives a vine in his mouth and dances before the initiates, trailing it over their knees. He retires. Snake follows, receiving a live rattlesnake in his mouth in the same fashion and trailing it over the initiates’ knees.”

In another account at The Free Dictionary, the Hopi Snake Dance ends thusly: ” A priest draws a circle on the ground, the catchers throw the snakes in the circle, the Snake priests grab handfuls of them and run with them to turn them loose in the desert.” Neither account suggests the killing of snakes for medicinal purposes, rather, they are explicitly released.

That did not, however, deter enterprising nineteenth-century medicine showmen who seem to have fused the efficacy of the Chinese Snake Oil (supplies of which were probably easily exhausted) with the sacredness of the native rattler, added a giant dose of entertainment, exploited the great yawning need for cheap cure-alls in frontier America, and presto, you get Stanley’s Snake Oil, and Arizona Bill’s snake oil, and Wormer’s Snake Oil and Miller’s Snake Oil… There were a lot of them and although, as Wayne Bethard describes in his Lotions, Potions and Deadly Elixirs, “most of the old medicine show formulas contained no real snake oil at all,” they were nonetheless ubiquitous.

If we are inclined to scoff at the great popularity of the medicine show, we ought to first consider our own television shows that squeeze more than one pharmaceutical ad in nightly! Ann Anderson makes the connection clear in her detailed analysis of the rise and (supposed) fall of the phenomenon in Snake Oil, hustlers and Hambones. It’s a great read and loaded with colorfully dusty characters, but here’s one example to the point: “Arizona bill was an Indian medicine showman whose Welsh origins and British accent did nothing to damage his credibility. Billing himself as “The Benefactor of Mankind,” he wore fringed buckskins and long hair in the manner of an Indian scout. He told a story about being stolen by Indians as an infant and raised in their midst, all the while learning their miraculous herbal cures. His specialty was Rattlesnake Oil, a liniment that when rubbed on sore muscles would enable the most decrepit Indian warrior to keep on fighting.”

Arguably, the most famous and notorious snake oil was that of Clark Stanley “The Rattlesnake King.” Stanley had been a cowboy before he turned to peddling snake oil and paints a convincing picture of “life in the far west” before he gets to recounting the origins of his formula in his little book The Life and Adventures of the American Cow-boy. I would like to quote the whole damn thing, for one cannot help but be charmed by, for example, his defense of the “cow-boy’s outfit” against the people of the East who have the impression that it is worn merely for “show and bluster,” or the many lonely cowboy verse and lively cowboy dance tunes such as this one: “Gents chase and put on style, Rehash and a little more style. Little more style, gents, a little more style. First lady out to the right; Swing the man that stole the sheep, Now the one that hauled it home, Now the one that eat the meat, And now the one that gnawed the bone,” but I must move along to the relevant:

“After the round-up in the Spring of 1879 I started with some of my father’s best friends to the Moki [Hopi], Pueblos at Wolpi, Arizona, to witness the snake dance which takes place once in two years; there I became acquainted with the medicine man of the Moki tribe, and as he liked the looks of my Colt’s revolver and asked me to show him how it would shoot, I gave him an exhibition of my fancy shooting, which pleased him very much; he then asked me how I would like to stay there and live with him, I told him I would stay until after the snake dance. …I was so much pleased with the dance I decided to remain with them and see the dance again. I lived with the Moki tribe two years and five months, and during that time I learned their language and dances and the secret of making their medicines. The medicine that interested me most, was their Snake Oil Medicine as they call it. It is used for rheumatism, contracted cords and all aches and pains. As I was thought a great deal of by the medicine man he gave me the secret of making the Snake Oil Medicine, which is now named Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.”

However much of Stanley’s story is true, I can’t say, but it bears a striking resemblance to those of other medicine showmen of the time. And, whether or not his original formula contained snake oil, by the time he came to making it in a factory in the East, there was not a trace of snake left, notwithstanding the rattlesnake holocausts: “I traveled through the Western and Southwestern States and met with unbounded success, and during the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, as an advertisement I made my Snake Oil Liniment in full view of the audience, killing hundreds of snakes which were shipped to me by my two brothers from my home in Texas.”

In 1917 his oil was analyzed by the government and shown to contain mineral oil, some fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), turpentine, red pepper, and camphor. Stanley’s “secret formula” was actually very similar to others of its kind. “Miller’s snake oil formula, a popular remedy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rode the tail winds of snake oil’s reputation. Millions of bottles were sold, which contained camphor, turpentine, coal oil, paprika, carbolic acid, oil of cassia, eucalyptus, cloves, origanium, sassafras, and methylsalicylate, and they honestly said so right on the label,” writes Bethard, but of course not everyone labeled their ingredients because, before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, they didn’t have to.

“The irony is, some of the old topical formulas actually worked on superficial aches and pains,” continues Bethard, who is a bona fide modern-day pharmacist. The typical snake oil formula resembles today’s over-the-counter liniments, which derive their analgesic properties from the same chemical compound that makes red peppers hot. In addition, camphor and turpentine, used since ancient times as decongestants and cough suppressants, are active ingredients in present-day cold products such as Vicks VapoRub, which, though I protested loud and long against my mother slathering it on me, did, I have to admit, work pretty well.

In other words, Stanley’s fakery was about false-advertisement, not necessarily efficacy. Blame for snake oil’s decidedly downward spiral may have been more diffuse if Stanley’s Snake Oil hadn’t enjoyed the unfortunate distinction of being singled out for analysis. In any case, the public turned quickly from buyers of snake oil to ridiculers of the same.

Stanley did not contest the findings and paid his fine of $20, but from that well-publicized moment forward, snake oil became synonymous with false cure and quackery, and the image was thence cemented in the public imagination with snake oil salesmen peddling their wares in the periphery of countless Westerns.

It may have been this universality that prompted Kunin, in 1989, to have the subcutaneous fat of two species of rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis and Crotalus tigris) analyzed alongside the Chinese snake oil bought over the counter. The rattlers were trounced. As Graber puts it, “Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), one of the two types of omega-3 fatty acids most readily used by our bodies. In comparison, the rattlesnakes had only 8.5 percent EPA. And salmon, one of the most popular food sources of omega-3’s, contains a maximum of 18 percent EPA, lower than that of snake oil.”

This begs the question: in an age where omega-3’s are coveted and everywhere praised and gobbled up in fish oil capsules and flax seeds, how is it that snake oil’s reputation has not risen with this tide?

Graber suggests the answer may have something to do with the fact that, when Kunin’s article first came out in the 1980’s we were just learning the wide-ranging health benefits of omega-3’s, and despite the fact that several Japanese studies have supported Kunin’s original findings, the Japanese research is not widely known in America. However, one might argue that it is not easy to overturn an ideology, even with the help of science. Despite several stories inspired by Kunin’s findings–NPR’s Code Switch for example–the quackery of snake oil is far too engrained.

Perhaps the biggest problem Chinese snake oil faces is that, in the western mind at least, there is as yet no romance surrounding the Erabu sea snake and plenty around the American rattler. The old medicine shows did too good a job making snake oil synonymous with rattlesnake oil, and then with fakery by not even filling their bottles with the real thing. Still, I’m sure those red-pepper liniments packed quite a bite!

Sewing Blind, Refashioning perceptions

My blind sewing adventure began about seven years ago when on a whim I searched for, and found, sewing needles at MaxiAids, a website that sells disabled people gadgets. As with so many of the great things that have happened in recent years to enhance my life as my sight fails, the technology inspired the activity and the activity inspired creation.

I bought two kinds of needles. The first I use all the time for general sewing they come in a rainbow pack of sizes, but each needle, from fat to skinny, share the ingenious feature of a slit at the top wherein you push the thread and it gets trapped by a little hook. The other needle is perhaps more clever but less sturdy and more prick-prone. It is called “Big-Eye” and this is not false advertising. The eye of the needle splits the slender flexible steel from one sharp end to the other. This is the needle to use for beading and the like because it is so skinny, but of course it tends to get bent out of shape with little provocation. With these two needles and my dress form, I have made all my best loved dresses.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and say that nothing I’ve made has turned out a sequined monstrosity, or deny the sad existence of more than one vintage-lace carcass, seem ripped beyond all repurposefulness. But there are a solid handful that have been successful enough to garner many compliments and become staples of my performing life.

 

The Little Black (Furry) dress

 

One of my first major successes was the little black furry dress AKA the sexy teddy bear dress. If you want to be petted, this is what to wear to your next cocktail party! Because of course, in the end, it’s all about texture.

I whittled away countless hours of listening to epic novels while creating this one, which consists of individually knitted patches of black eyelash yarn sewn onto a dance dress. You can see it in action in the behind the scenes portions of the Proto Trailer for The Star of Happiness, my one-woman show about Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville.

 

The burgundy corset Ensemble

 

Worn by Marie Antoinette in The Spectator and the Blind Man, my play about the very sexy history of the invention of braille, and removed by her over the course of her heart-breaking monologue, the Burgundy Ensemble has had a lot of performance wear. Come to think of it, it is not only my clothes that get repurposed. I refashioned Marie Antoinette’s monologue into a flash fiction piece called Nothing Can hurt Me Now, which has, I’m delighted to say also been published at Quail Bell!

The burgundy corset dress also features in the short film The Kerfuffle in which I play Sam, a blind floozy who gets busted for two-timing a couple of amputees… Oh just watch it; it’s cute! Even my mother thinks so.

The materials at hand, whether tawdry or elegant, shiny or shabby, provide inspiration for my sewing creations. In this case, several gorgeous yards of butterfly and flower embossed satin, given to me by my best friend when I visited her in Memphis, presented the impetus. The ensemble consists of A corset top and skirt with enormous pockets. I put pockets in all my designs because girls should not have to be encumbered by purses!

For the underskirts and halter ties, I used some opaque burgundy curtains I’d purchase years before. (It is likely that Scarlett’s green “Curtain Dress” in gone With the Wind is a significant design influence!) Finally, in an adventurous mood, I bought a handful of rhinestone flower ribbon decorations on EBay which cost $2.50 and took three weeks to ship from China, but which worked perfectly as accents on the bodice and the skirt.

The top’s foundation, an old and unattractive corset, came into my possession during an unfortunate performance on a boat in which I did not win a certain “Miss Demeanor Pageant” despite my first round sweep and my lovely assistant Millennium, my black lab guide dog! Anyway, somewhere in the madness of the dressing room I ended up with someone else’s corset that became the shell for my corset top. I draped and sewed the burgundy satin over that top and over a little side zipped skirt that I used as the skirt base. You see,   I am a very lazy sewer. I like to do the fun pretty draping designing stuff and the mindless stitching, but refuse to waste my time putting in zippers!

In fact, I think that even if I’d not lost my sight, I would not have kept up with the conventional sewing I learned in grade school. I could see quite well back then and, although I made a few cool things, the precision and patience of patterns and darts and button-holing was just not for me. So, oddly enough, I think that my blind sewing is something I’ve come to as a culmination of who I am as an artist and a blind person, not as an approximate adaptation of the former behavior of my sighted self. The spirit of blindness infuses everything I do and makes it, if not always better, at least more interesting.

 

The Crocheted Chimera

 

This one is comprised of no fewer than seven clothing items from decades of life and death. It began with fashioning the lacey waist-cincher pocket accoutrement out of several items bestowed to me by my mother’s friend who died and left me all her clothes from her seventy odd years of collecting/hoarding. I fastened that odd device, which on its own looked a lot like a holster, to a knee length circle skirt to which was added the real bells and whistles of the ensemble: a gold-threaded crocheted wrap that, although very glamorous, had always been too scratchy to use. I wear the skirt with a lacey crocheted top kept from my long ago wild days in New Orleans whose sleeves were cut for the heat. But, hot as NYC summers may be, one must have some portable sleeves to beat the arctic AC. Et voilà, enter the slightly bell-sleeved black crocheted half sweater with iridescent threads that ties under the boobs.

The whole ensemble looks good enough that I adopted it as my audition outfit. Good enough to prompt an ABC Casting director to say when I walked in the terrifying audition room, “What a beautiful dress!” Good enough to momentarily disconcert her, and boost my confidence, when I said, “Oh thank you. It’s my latest creation.” Herein lays the joy of wearing clothes made by you when you are a blind person: it confuses sighted people, which is often just what’s needed to refashion perceptions!

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*