The Brain-Smashing, Pity-Bashing Art of Blind Punks

“You must sing like an angel,” a woman said to me as I prepared to go onstage with my “Avant Accordion Brain Smash” act in a Brooklyn warehouse performance space. She either did not notice my hand-sewn black bustier, or decided that my white cane rendered all the badassery surrounding it null. When I began bellowing about some murderous renaissance dude with the refrain, “He left the people stunned and satisfied,” she got the message: I was not that kind of blind person.

Although I know more than my fair share of angelic blind singers with perfect pitch (four, to be exact!), this is not about them. This is about blind punks—slamming and screaming, defying authority, getting into trouble, getting drunk, getting angry, getting even. This is about using the white cane to (metaphorically) smash people’s brains.

Punk does not protect one from physical injuries, but it does a great job of protecting one from the psychological hurt arising from pity.

While my act with accordion and loop pedal was not punk in the strict sense of the musical genre, it represents my life-long obsession with the aesthetics of anti-establishment ugliness, with pushing the limits of tolerable. In losing my vision over the course of decades, my ability to move through life with a confident, boisterous stride constricted. I felt blindness creep into my posture, my presence. It is sometimes hard not to cringe when your default mode of getting about is pinball. I am not always strong enough to embrace bashing as a way of life, but when I do, I feel the pity others may feel for me shatter.

Avant Accordion Brain Smash at Carnivale in Brooklyn. Godin lying down with mic, loop pedal and accordion.

“I can honestly trace punk through everything I do whether I want to admit it or not!” blind sound artist, performer, musician, and disability advocate Andy Slater told me in an email leading up to our recent phone conversation. He sent me recordings of “nineteen-year-old Andy screaming like an eleven-year-old girl” in a band called Jarts (named for the lawn darts banned in the ’80s for impaling children), in such heart-pumping ditties as “By the Way, I Fucked Your Mom Today.”

Andy Slater has since parlayed his youthful screaming rants—he couldn’t read his lyrics, so he’d make shit up and no one could understand what he was saying anyway—into sound art, which, even if exhibited and performed in such established venues as the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne, is less distinct from his early punk as one might imagine. His most recent field-recording project Unseen Reheard uses “the sounds of modern, antiquated, & experimental accessibility technology, echolocation, and spatial recordings of his white-tipped cane.”

Andy lives in Chicago and I spoke to him over the phone about punk and art and the weird, unstable stance of losing vision over decades. “The first time I remember distrusting authority,” he told me “was when I was ten.” He loved space and astronomy—what kid doesn’t?—but he even “had the National Geographic Atlas of Our Universe book, which is this huge coffee table size book of the universe, and I fucking loved it.”

So he was super excited to visit the planetarium with his class: But the powers that be decided at the last minute that he could not go: “Oh Andy, we don’t have a chaperone for you and you can’t see in the dark. You’re gonna stay here.”

Instead of putting him in the library or with another class or letting him go home, they put him in a nine by twelve room—“Prison-size shit”—and gave him an encyclopedia and paper and “had the fucking gall to say, ‘Why don’t you write a report on space?’”

Ten is a striking age for a lot of kids, I think. It is the year that many of us begin shaping ourselves in accordance with, or in opposition to, the authorities that dictate our world. When those authorities tell lies and manufacture excuses for their own inabilities, their own unwillingness to admit ignorance or ineptitude, mistrust bubbles up from the depths of our yearning.

For me, it was the men in white coats that covered over their impotence with silly non-diagnoses that caused me to think twice about their trappings of knowledge. They didn’t know why I couldn’t see the blackboard from the back of the classroom and so they started making shit up: “Her eyes are growing too fast for her body,” or perhaps it was that “her body is growing too fast for her eyes.”

And the greater their power, the less equipped to deal with ignorance. The head of ophthalmology at the Letterman Army Hospital in the now-decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco scolded my mother: “Maybe she can’t see because you’ve been taking her to so many eye doctors.” It was out of frustration at not understanding the problem, of not being able to help or assert his deep knowledge of the eye, but it taught me quick that people in authority have fragile egos. And thus the men (they were all men back then, it seemed) in white coats ushered me into a world of distrust. Protective of their superior positions in the world, their superior knowledge of the world, when their façade cracked it was not pretty.

This was the early eighties in San Francisco, where the Dead Kennedys were pissing people off with thrashing satires such as “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Too Drunk to Fuck.”

Further south in a bedroom community ripe for instilling mistrust in a certain kind of kid with an eye for inconsistencies and falseness in the American Dream, Agent Orange was blending punk and hardcore with surf guitar. They released Living in Darkness the same year I received the diagnosis of degenerative retinal disease. They were my favorite. I would chant their punk anthems “Bloodstains,” “Everything Turns Grey,” “Living in Darkness,” over and over in my room in my mom’s apartment in the Outer Richmond—the far west of San Francisco, just a few blocks from where Hunter S. Thompson set up his office in the Seal Rock Inn (a family style motel), in which he wrote his author’s note to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72: “Dawn is coming up in San Francisco now: 6:09 a.m. I can hear the rumble of early morning buses under my window at the Seal Rock Inn . . . out here at the far end of Geary Street: this is the end of the line, for buses and everything else, the western edge of America.”

Thompson’s disillusionment with the American dream—that it stops in a spluttering of buses and barking seals, prophesied the California punk scene, distinct from the East Coast varietal. Less glamorous perhaps and more overtly, pointedly political.

In ’85 or so, my friend and I were supposed to see Agent Orange at The Farm (a real urban farm by day and punk venue by night), but the show was mysteriously canceled. We were so young, we may have been crushed—physically, not just metaphorically, as we were—if we’d gone, but we stayed in her room and did acid instead.

LSD was a major part of my growing up. I sometimes wonder what my brain would be like if it hadn’t spent so many hours sizzling just like that iconic egg in butter: “this is your brain on drugs” ad of the ’80s. I will never know, because, during my early teenage years, like fourteen and fifteen, every Friday was a FryDay.

At no point in my youth did I consider not doing drugs. I also did not stop to consider why I found brightly colored hair—green and blue and pink—shaped into mohawks or liberty spikes so appealing. These days brightly colored hair is everywhere (as are tattoos), but not so back then. It was ugly and beautiful and raw and mixed up with some honest anger and anxiety.

Perhaps the most cliché moment of my teenage years was being stoned and listening to Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” And my mom walked in and said, “what’s wrong with you?” and I said, “I’m all right, mom, just get me a Pepsi.” Just kidding. I didn’t ask for a soda as the kid in the song does, but my mom saw right away that something was wrong and said, “You’re on drugs!” She tells me to this very day that I gave her a smile that made her blood run cold. I was not institutionalized, but I did get sent to a drug counselor and marked “unsafe to self.”

And all this while the eyes were getting worse. I found it hard to read and couldn’t do well in school. I pretended to not give a damn. And the drugs and the punk and the anger and the lashing out was part of the feeling that I was going blind and couldn’t do a thing about it. What I knew for certain was that I would never use a white cane. I saw blindness as a terrible end, but I was young enough that aging was just as terrible. I liked to say, “I’m gonna die before I’m thirty.”

Needless to say, I did not.

Slack Jaw by Jim Knipfel book cover.

Instead, age brought a cringing and a fear of being watched—a paranoia—that shunted aside the rebel. Perhaps being a girl was part of it. I was afraid to bash my face. Once I did run drunkenly into a tree protector on the way to a school dance, and was quite proud of my near miss—the bloody scratch was just under my right eye, and I proceeded to make out with some boy despite or perhaps because of the gash. But that was the exception.

Despite the inner anti-authority workings of my core, the default became a kind of shriveling shame.

I trailed my friends in the record shops, squinting at covers, trying to recognize a name I wanted. At first difficult and then impossible. I could only read the letters if they were very big and clear. But when I saw a name I knew—a Black Flag or Skinny Puppy—I’d buy it. Album covers still appear as inchoate square landscapes in my mind’s eye. I can still see jagged red letters or an x-ray luminous fist on black background.

The lack of the printed word made it hard to keep up. I could not read zines and music rags. I could not follow the anti-establishment underground with its bits of paper photocopied with wacky font or even more established rags like the Bay Guardian or Spin—they simply were not accessible to me. Books on tape were extremely limited and braille books even more so. I followed accessibility into the established and mainstream. It was not where I wanted to go, but where I was allowed.

“Tap and Roll” from Unseen Reheard by Andy Slater

We blind punks did not know each other growing up, but Andy and I and a handful of others have been able to find each other through the wonderful world of the digital—the much-maligned Facebook and ebooks have been very good for blind people. We were all stuttering down similar paths, all with degenerative eye disease, which caused us to spend much of our lives as visually impaired people before going blind—not that this is a requirement!—but it seems not unrelated.

In ’90s Vancouver, for example, another retinal degenerative blind guy Ryan Knighton was forcing his bad eyes into mosh pits. “You might think an appetite for something called a night-club would be a bad idea for someone called night blind,” he writes in his 2006 memoir Cockeyed. “You would be right. Equally wise would be me joining a gun club. Nevertheless, to this day I owe a debt to punk rock. Its culture helped me become as blind as I was but couldn’t admit to being.”

I followed accessibility into the established and mainstream. It was not where I wanted to go, but where I was allowed.

Like basically every going-blind person I know, Knighton steadfastly rejected the white cane long after it was wise to do so, and his crashing around—the daily humdrum of visual impairment—was covered over by the chaos of the scene. “The culture camouflaged my inability to cooperate with other bodies. In growing blindness I became, oddly enough, safer and more like the postpunk scenesters around me than I was like my peers at school. Booze helped. Everybody was bent, legless, gassed, rat-arsed, and every other word for blind drunk. Bumping into people was acceptable, even expected, and I was practiced at bashing into folks on a regular basis, whether I was in my cups or just spilling them.”

But before Andy, and Ryan and me, there was Slackjaw—Jim Knipfel, misfit stepfather to all us blind punks.

In Green Bay Wisconsin, Jim Knipfel was starting his path down blindness and rejecting mediocrity. He hit fifteen in 1980, and “despite a loving family and a stable home life,” he wrote in his 1999 memoir Slackjaw, “as I entered my middle teens things started to go very wrong. Not just with my eyes, which were noticeably worse, but inside my head as well. I became a grim and lonely youth, who spoke little and had few friends . . . I became filled with the contempt and hatred for the world and humanity so common among bright young boys who read too much and listen to punk rock.”

Later as a disenchanted philosophy major at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jim met ne’er-do-well pal Grinch and, after their political Nihilist Workers’ Party blew up, after Jim was dubbed Slackjaw, after the weeks of dizziness from walking into a lamppost and slamming his head, they founded the Pain Amplifiers. Their grand finale was opening for the Mentors (a band not widely known until, during the Parents Music Resource Center hearings in the mid-eighties, Tipper Gore brought them instant notoriety by citing and reciting their lyrics as perfect examples of the kind of garbage that children needed to be protected from.”

The Pain Amplifiers had, by the time of that last show, worked out some songs like “Superbowl Sunday,” “Blood-Sucking Freaks,” and “Thuggery and Buggery.” “All too long,” writes Jim, “all intolerable, most of them based on found texts.”

Andy told me that during Jim’s recent visit to Chicago, where Grinch also now lives, he recorded some of their old tunes because they never recorded. I told Andy he needs to get me those tracks when he finishes mixing, and he promised he will.

Down There featuring Godin on drums looking a bit aloof in her red slip at Checkpoint Charlie’s in New Orleans with her best friend Indigo Verton as lead singer. Photo by Jason Quinn.

I was in New Orleans when I founded my first band—an all-girl punk band called Down There. It was short-lived but loud and obnoxious. A friend said, “you guys are kind of good and kind of suck, and all awesome!”

Yet, I could not get over the self-consciousness I felt on stage. I did not use a cane or a dog. I did not get help from my bandmates. I felt discomforted by the loudness in unfamiliar places. I was shy about my awkwardness in these dark places.

I felt similarly when I founded my second band in NYC when I was already in grad school. Though I was better able to articulate my needs to my bandmates, I never felt comfortable. The fear of looking incapable or awkward was too engrained by then.

We were Gutter & Spine, a little bit country, a little bit punk, and all nerdy—the gutter and the spine being parts of a book. I played drums and shouted punked-out interpretations of the Renaissance literature I was reading: “Sludge,” a reworking of a Mary Wroth poem, “Dorca,” a retelling of a brutal Machiavellian anecdote, and “Ode to a Motherfucker,” which was, I believe, inspired by some Shakespearean sonnet. So yeah, I should have felt free to be loud and obnoxious and brain-smashing, but instead I felt blind and awkward, pinned to the wall by the gaze of the sighted audience. I wish I would have had my cane and said, “fuck it.” It surely would have made life easier.

In all the stories and memoirs of those in my age group going blind slowly, acquiescing to the stigmatized white cane is always pushed off until danger threatens or worse. For Andy, a car had to hit him to make him pull the cane out of the bag, and use it full time. Since then, it’s become a catalyst for art. The sound of its tap banging describes the audible space, which he records, mixes, and plays back.

In 2018, he was invited to Australia to record the sounds of his white cane slamming around an old, abandoned jail outside of Melbourne, Australia. Old Castlemaine Gaol was built as a kind of audio panopticon. Although the guards could not see into the individual cells, they could hear every whisper. The inmates were not to speak to one another. The inmates often went to the gallows. The inmates’ voices and movements were amplified, then squashed. It is powerful to hear Andy slicing through the dark confinement with the stigmatic white cane.

Paranoia of the sighted gaze is my most imprisoning disability. I feel those sighted eyeballs like the inmate of the panopticon prison. But I believe there is a way to turn my own discomfort against the panopticon of the sighted gaze. Or rather, there are ways. Not conforming and not giving a damn about what the sighted world thinks about my abilities and disabilities. In fact, using that ubiquitous judgey gaze to disarm its power, which is why Moses, my cane, figures in so many photos of me these days. Embracing the stigma and using it as a weapon feels punk.

While training with my most recent mobility instructor in Denver, I was meant to cross a fairly major four-lane street. I had the light, but my mobility instructor gave me the heads-up that a car had overstepped its bounds and pushed into the crosswalk. When I hit the car with Moses, instead of stepping aside quietly, I continued along its contour, banging as I went. I heard some teenage boys laugh heartily along with my instructor, who told me after the crossing that the woman in the car looked horrified. Hopefully, she will not overstep in front of a blind person again.

In 2019, Andy Slater and two fellow blind sound artists put up a performance installation at the Chicago Art Institute involving a cacophony of disabled voices called “Is It Cool That We’re Here?” The intelligibility of each voice surfaces out of the jumbled, pitch-shifted recorded and electronic soup, and then fades back under. One memorable soundbite seems to be addressed to a museum guard: “Are you afraid that my cane is going to knock something over?”

“That performance was totally punk and totally radical because the whole thing was a critique of museums and art,” says Andy. and it was performed in what used to be the Chicago Stock Exchange, a huge marble room in a building containing amazing works of art. “And they never ever have anything to do with sound.”

This lack of sound art in museums is one thing Andy addresses in his SOVISA (Society Of Visually Impaired Sound Artists) Manifesto: We need “to get more sound art into these places so that blind people don’t need to have a dictated experience.”

When I asked him my final, loaded question “does punk fight pity?” I received a few seconds of wind sound effect like a small gust blowing through an empty hall. Then, “So I think that I can answer that. In my experience, taking a punk aesthetic or being punk about something controls the narrative. So there. Is. No. pity.”

*For more on my thoughts about blind punks, check out my interview with the CBC’s Tapestry: How Punk Rock Helped One Woman Find Power in Her Blindness

*This essay was first published last fall at Catapult in A Blind Writer’s Notebook.

The Blind Feeding the Lame: Growing Disabled with Dad * Essay & Live RISK Performance

This essay about the very different experiences my father and I had growing disabled first appeared at Catapult last June. I performed a storytelling version for a live taping of the Risk! Podcast, which aired in December in an episode called “Quality Time.” Scroll down for the performance followed by the essay.

I republish both versions here in honor of my father, Lee Goodin, who died a year ago tomorrow. It was, however,  a year ago today that I received the call that told me he was dying. My stepmother had used his phone to call and so when I answered, I was prepared to receive birthday wishes, but instead received her no-nonsense, nurse-practitioner announcement that he was in the hospital and not coming out. So my birthday on August 18th and his deathday on August 19th are forever linked in a two-day bittersweet celebration of life.

You can read more about my dad in my personal obituary for him and get a taste of his writing in this post that includes three of his many letters to the editor published in the San Francisco Chronicle. But for now, please indulge my need to tell you about our respective disabilities and the joy of sharing delicious food and booze no matter the obstacles…

Performance

Photo of Leona Godin on the large Bluebird Theater stage taken from the balcony. She stands alone with a mic and her cane, Moses, wearing black and sunglasses.

Essay

Now my dad is disabled. The military man, the world traveler, is in a wheelchair. A degenerative neurological disease has turned his feet into blocks, his hands into mittens. But we still can drink together, his blind daughter finding herself singularly helpful in these new circumstances. In his kitchen, where his wheelchair cannot fit, I slosh Beefeater into glasses, and, with directions called out from the dining room, I locate the pâté, the crackers, the Dijon mustard, the knife, and return to the table, not realizing that a strange moment of intimacy, such as we’d never shared before and will likely never again, is about to take place.

*

I barely knew my father from the time I was three, when my parents got separated and then divorced, until I was nineteen and surprised us both with a visit.

While I grew up in San Francisco with my mother, he was stationed in Thailand, Turkey, Italy and Germany. I saw him twice during those years. I believe the first time was when he and my mother signed their divorce papers, perhaps I was five, and we took a ferry ride in the rain to Sausalito. We went into a glassblower shop and that luminous fire magic took my breath away. He bought me a glass Cable Car and a bird. My mother drove him to the airport and I have a memory of waving to him until he disappeared. Immediately I crumpled to the floor, and I remember the feel of that Ford’s floor and the look of the child weeping as if I could be the protagonist and spectator both.

The next and last time I saw him as a child, I was nine. My grandmother died and he returned to San Francisco for the funeral with his new wife. Not long after that, I started losing eyesight. It was just the beginnings of the eye disease that would eventually make me blind. For decades after diagnosis, I was visually impaired, and it was as a visually impaired person that I met my father again, after several years of dwindling correspondence had resulted in us finally losing touch.

*

The night before we were to set out with our giant backpacks for a three month Euro-Trek, my best friend called to tell me that she had fallen off the wall at Ocean Beach. She’d been drinking a farewell bottle of cheap wine with her boyfriend when her hat blew off. Reaching for it, she’d slipped. “I hurt my knee,” she told me and said that it wouldn’t change a thing. It turned out she had torn a ligament, and that fact changed everything.

At that time in the early nineties, plane tickets to Frankfurt were among the cheapest, which is how we ended up flying into the city next to the town of Wiesbaden, where my father was stationed. Upon arriving in Frankfurt with my crippled best friend, in the early morning hours, with the lurid airport porn shops and bar that served us, the foreignness was overwhelming. They’d given me a wheelchair to push her and our packs around, but once we left the airport, how I’d get her anywhere came crashing down. I decided finding the bus to the Wiesbaden military hotel was the only viable option.

For the next two days, my best friend did nothing but lie in bed and moan. Once I tried to go out by myself but it was a disaster. My low vision made it impossible to carry out any plans, as I couldn’t read street signs or bus numbers or maps–this was long before GPS and iPhones helped to level the playing field for visually-impaired travelers. Although I’d had no intention of contacting my father, and probably wouldn’t have if my best friend hadn’t been out of commission, I’d agreed to take his number.

If large black letters were set on a small expanse of nothing–a 4X6 index card for example–I could still read using my peripheral vision. With a cigarette in one hand and trembling fingers, I dialed the number. I listened to the foreign ringing until the voice, somehow still unmistakable as my dad, picked up, and I said, “Hi Dad, It’s me.”

“Oh hello.” He may have even said, “Hi kiddo, what’s up?” Apparently unruffled.

I said, “I’m in your neighborhood and thought I’d give you a call.”

“What neighborhood?”

“I’m in Wiesbaden.”

He asked if I had plans for the evening. I looked over at my best friend prone on her little twin bed, and said that I was pretty open.

A year or two ago, after my dad was put in the wheelchair but before his chronic infections had progressed to where they are now, during one of our pleasant “liquid lunches,” I asked him if he’d had forewarning about my arrival from my aunt and uncle. It had suddenly occurred to me, after all these years, that his nonchalance could have been attributed to them mentioning my trip to Europe. He assured me that he had had no idea that I was coming, but that being career military primed him on being prepared to deal with unforeseen events.

On our first father daughter date, we went for dinner, which was a miracle of conviviality. We smoked and drank wine and talked as if no years had passed, no childhood lost. We held hands in the misty streets and he kissed me goodnight. Such is the strangeness of the human psyche, that the exhilarated bounding I did down the enormous, crystal-dripping hallway of the hotel built for international delegations–at that late hour empty but for me in my exuberance of finding a father–sits in my heart alongside one or two of the most romantic moments of my life.

*

After my dad and his wife retired, they moved back to the states, first to a tiny town in California’s Gold Country, where he became mayor, and then to his native San Francisco, where he still lives. As I turned from a visually impaired person into a blind person, my dad metamorphosed from an able-bodied person into a disabled person. The neuropathy progressed from the soles of his feet up to his knees, and from the tips of his fingers halfway up his arms, leaving him without sensation. When he stopped being able to feel the pedals of his Jeep, he had to give up driving. His wife continued to work as a nurse practitioner. She still works and goes to the theater and travels, while he has degenerated into helplessness.

They’d been accustomed to go on grand vacations for over thirty years–to more than a hundred countries and to all seven continents, and now she does these trips by herself. Putting my dad in what he calls “my kennel”–a small group home for elderly people in Pacifica.

It saddens me that for several years, my dad has spent his days sitting in his wheelchair, afraid to venture out alone, reading the newspaper and watching Netflix, all day while she’s at work. On more than one drunken occasion, he told me, “If I thought I could manage it, I’d shoot myself in the head.”

*

Nearly 1 in five Americans have a disability, and the vast majority are older people, according to the U.S. Census. When I was visually impaired, I never thought of myself as disabled–the very idea of it would have been insulting. As I’ve aged into my disability, both in terms of acuteness and familiarity, I’m proud of being a marginalized group on the rise. Proclamations of non-discrimination pertaining to diversity still do not often include disability, but that is slowly changing. Unfortunately my dad is of the wrong generation to benefit from this change. I hope to live to see it blossom.

Disability is the one variety of diversity that can strike anybody at any time, so why not prepare people to embrace it as difference rather than affliction? This shift in attitude will likely benefit you. At the very least, it may help you cope with your end of life disabilities, or those of your loved ones.

Having started on my road to disability at a young age, I feel strangely equipped to deal with what’s to come. In his 1911 essay “The Handicapped,” Randolph Bourne insists on the benefits of growing up and into oneself and one’s (dis)abilities:

When he [the handicapped man] has grown up, he will find that people of his own age and experience are willing to make those large allowances for what is out of the ordinary which were impossible to his younger friends, and that grown-up people touch each other on planes other than the purely superficial. … He will have built up his world, and have sifted out the things that are not going to concern him, and participation in which will only serve to vex and harass him. He may well come to count his deformity even as a blessing, for it has made impossible to him at last many things in the pursuit of which he would only fritter away his time and dissipate his interest. He must not think of “resigning himself to his fate”; above all he must insist on his own personality.

Even after more than a hundred years have passed since Bourne’s essay appeared anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly, it seems to me that we have yet some growing up to do. When will we finally recognize ourselves as precariously able-bodied, tending towards disabled, instead of constantly comparing ourselves to some mythical potent youth?

*

Last night my dad called to tell me that he’d made his decision. For almost a year he’d been facing the choice to either cut off the feet that keep getting terrible infections from wounds that do not heal because of his lack of feeling down there, or continue to get infections that will hasten his death. He reminded me that when we’d first had this discussion, I said to him, “The choice seems to be your feet or your life.”

It had struck me as obvious. But he’s resisted all these months, and yesterday brought finality. “I’m saving my feet and sacrificing me.”

Although the choice has been complicated by his weak heart that might not survive the amputation surgeries, it has always been more than loss of life that frightens him, I think. He prefers to die whole and intact. The idea of being footless would irrevocably launch him into the land of the disabled.

“No heroics,” his wife had told me last week, I think to prepare me. “He’ll go home and get what’s called palliative care.”

I was meant to understand that route was terminal. My dad confirmed it in a subsequent conversation.

“When do you go home?” I asked.

“Maybe a week, maybe a month,” he told me, “but don’t get your hopes up. It doesn’t look favorable. Don’t dwell on it.”

Between his nurse practitioner wife and his no-nonsense attitude all the conversations in the past weeks that touch upon his death, up to and including last night’s, have been singularly devoid of tears. It feels strange even to write about this finality with no surface emotion. I know that the loss of my dad will be painful, but I also know that he’s not been living the life he loves for a long time, and that the ground has been laid for all of us to let him go. Besides being world travelers, my dad and his wife had been avid skiers, avid theater goers, avid devotees of the good life, and I had, through many transcontinental cocktail conversations and on my bi-yearly visits, enjoyed that with him. I will miss our liquid lunches and our drunken conversations, but I know that he is already missing so much more.

*

I place the pâté, mustard, breadsticks, prosciutto, crackers, a knife, a plate, and lots of napkins on the table, my dad directing my movements. “There, yes, put it there. Open that prosciutto.”

He had once been a wonderful cook–the sort that took pleasure in serving up multi-course meals for ten or twelve intimates–and so this fumbling with food in front of him provokes more than a little self-consciousness. I do my best with the butter knife to slice the thick Trader Joe’s plastic, muttering a narration of my efforts, though he can see my progress perfectly well. I finally get a hole in it and rip the rest. “Now what?”

He informs me that the prosciutto must be wrapped around the breadsticks, like flesh over bone, and we get to work.

“Ah, shit” he says, and I hear a delicate snap. These are dainty breadsticks, no thicker than my pinky. Without feeling in his hands, all digital movements must be guided by sight alone with no tactile input. Hence, it’s awfully easy not to know one’s strength in the way of breadsticks and crackers.

I on the other hand complement this lack with my tactile-heavy relationship with the world. I ask if I can make him one, and he agrees.

I take a thin breadstick and a thin slice of prosciutto and dexterously roll it up. It is much easier than rolling joints or burritos. I hand it to my dad who smacks his lips. Then I make one for myself and I smack my lips. We continue for a few rounds.

I ask what the plan is for the pâté, and he instructs me to take a cracker, spread pâté on it and top it with Dijon. I do this and try to hand it to him. But, not being able to see, I cannot put it in his fingers, and not being able to feel, he cannot grab it without cracking it in two, so after a few frustrating attempts, and much pâté lost in the effort, we hit upon the expediency of me holding the cracker in the direction of his face, whereupon he grasps my wrist and shoves the cracker (and sometimes my fingers) into his mouth.

We do this over and over and the gin helps us forget the unsanitary way in which I grip the knife and thrust it first into the pâté  and then into the mustard and sort of push lopsided toppings back onto the crackers with my fingers, which, nine times out of ten end up in contact with my dad’s mouth. And each time he grunts his approval in a closed-mouth yum-yum kind of way, I know I will never forget the way he let me help him –at least for a few minutes–enjoy one of his last tastes of the good life.

Flaubert’s Rule for Artists: Be Regular? Settled? Ordinary as a Bourgeois? Essay 28 of #52essays2017

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” –Gustave Flaubert

I first encountered this quote a few weeks back in my Catapult Advanced Writing Workshop with the amazing R.O. Kwon. I liked it and it felt right. Having no set schedule as a writer makes it very hard to allow for the indulgences of friends with location-specific jobs–when you have to show up somewhere, for pay, you do, painful as it may be. But when you wake up destroyed by life and world events and have some stuff to write with tomorrow deadlines, you may be inclined to pull the blankets over your head. In addition, I’ve found that mad debauchery in one’s youth is helpful for expanding one’s mind, or having a certain amount of savvy vis a vis the underbellies of things, but in the days of aging, merely distracts from the difficult job of putting stories and articles together.

This quote of Flaubert seemed to me a perfect invocation of moderation for art’s sake, but when I shared it with Alabaster, he said, “Didn’t Flaubert die of syphilis?”

And I was like, “Did he?” and promptly busted out the Flaubert Wikipedia page in which I read:

“Flaubert was very open about his sexual activities with prostitutes in his writings on his travels. He suspected that a chancre on his penis was from a Maronite or a Turkish girl. He also engaged in intercourse with male prostitutes in Beirut and Egypt; in one of his letters, he describes a “pockmarked young rascal wearing a white turban.”

Gustave Flaubert photographic portrait by Nadar.At first glance, I took this to indicate a lack of order, at least of the sexual variety, and suspected that Flaubert’s quote was more a prescription of how he would like to live than a description of how he did. But as I used to tell my NYU students, Wikipedia is a start not an end in research, so I got ahold of some books.

The first and very beautiful was The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, in which the two friends and “troubadours” write to each other about the quotidian, art, politics, family, death, disillutionment, hope, and their love and admiration for one another, despite their differences. Throughout, it’s clear that in his later years, of which these letters are representative, Flaubert was a self-imposed recluse. In 1867, his friend grows suspicious of his solitude:

“And the novel, is it getting on? Your courage has not declined? Solitude does not weigh on you? I really think that it is not absolute, and that somewhere there is a sweetheart who comes and goes, or who lives near there. But there is something of the anchorite in your life just the same, …”

To which he responds:

“…no ‘lovely lady’ comes to see me. Lovely ladies have occupied my mind a good deal, but have taken up very little of my time. Applying the term anchorite to me is perhaps a juster comparison than you think.

I pass entire weeks without exchanging a word with a human being, and at the end of the week it is not possible for me to recall a single day nor any event whatsoever. I see my mother and my niece on Sundays, and that is all. My only company consists of a band of rats in the garret, which make an infernal racket above my head, when the water does not roar or the wind blow. The nights are black as ink, and a silence surrounds me comparable to that of the desert. Sensitiveness is increased immeasurably in such a setting. I have palpitations of the heart for nothing.

All that results from our charming profession.”

Ah yes, I can relate! (Except for the rats, and of course, I have a lovely companion in Alabaster.)

George Sand photographic portrait by Nadar, 1864.Alas, the quote in question did not originate in that book of intimate and useful letters. Though the quote seems to be repeated ad infinitum on the internet , I couldn’t find its context. More tantalizingly, I could find other translations that made me want to see the French for myself, for example:

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

What? Fierce? I think I like fierceness even more than violence.

Then there’s the matter of the omitted “like the bourgeois,” which occasionally creeps in. More often, the English translations ignored the reference to the class of people that Flaubert, under most circumstances, disparaged, although he himself was a member. In Flaubert, a biography by Michel Winock, I read:

“His hatred for his era settled on the bourgeoisie, which in his eyes embodied the debasement of mind, mores, and taste. This criticism reveals some contradictions because Flaubert himself belonged to this class; but for him, the bourgeois was first and foremost the modern man made stupid by utilitarianism, bloated with preconceptions, deserted by grace, and impervious to Beauty.”

In Winock’s biography I discovered that, not only is the bourgeois ignored, but orderly is not the thing at all, but ordinariness, which seems to me much worse! Here’s the translation in Flaubert:

“Be settled in your life and as ordinary as the bourgeois, in order to be fierce and original in your works.”

With this biography I also finally got a date 1876, just a few years before Flaubert’s early death. The date and a few words that I thought I could assume in French helped me find the original. So here we go, Flaubert’s “rule for artists” (“une règle pour les artistes”), en français, written in an 1876 letter to Madame Tennant:

“soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d’être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.”

Gertrude Tennant, ne. Collier. met Flaubert when they were young and flirtatious. Later in life, when this letter was written, Flaubert was 55, George Sand was no longer among the living, and Gertrude was 57, a mother fretting about her adult children, in particular her son. Consolation regarding that son prompted Flaubert to offer the famous quote.

According to her Wikipedia page, Gertrude Tennant helped to edit Flaubert’s correspondence, the very correspondence in which she is memorialized. It makes me a little sad and wistful for the letter writing that brings these long-dead people to me with such intimacy. They seem the very essence of a life. Our written correspondence is rarely so detailed anymore. People are generally put out by long emails.

That said, I do not lament email, the internet, Facebook or even Twitter. They all lend themselves to the propagation of electronic texts. And, as I’ve written before, and will continue to celebrate, the digitization of words has given me access to truckloads of ephemera and substance too. It is an amazing time to be a blind reader, a blind writer, who is able, with a little diligence, to sniff out the original of a quote that so many sighted people were content merely to reiterate.

*This is #28 of #52essays2017. Read #27, about Helen Keller’s opinion of Trump HERE*