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From Phyllida's Desk

Why I Write

Will, Intellect, Sensation, Emotion, by John Covert. (Oil on wood)

A few years ago, when I still had a job, there was another part-timer, a woman I'll call Kerri, whom I only saw occasionally when our schedules overlapped. We always enjoyed talking, and when I discovered that the retina of my left eye had torn, the result of my severe nearsightedness, Kerri began to tell me about her husband (I'll call him Ben), whose eye problems were similar to mine, but about ten times worse.

Jim was losing his sight. And he was, understandably, frightened and depressed.

At this point, as Kerri and I started discussing, for the first time, the fraught topic of "disability," she revealed herself to be one of those, what I think of as disapproving doubters. Her first anecdote was about a friend or relative, someone only seen at Thanksgiving, who exhibited "learned helplessness." Always asking for ("demanding"?) help. Always claiming to need more help than Kerri judged was warranted.

If we're being urged nowadays not to be afraid to ask for help, it's people like Kerri who force us back into cautious silence, people whose first reaction to a claim of disability or difficulty is: Are you sure? (Are you really disabled? Do you really need help? Do you really know your own body and abilities?) People who think first of the scammers and the malingerers, the fraudsters and the grifters.

It's the culture, how most of us are raised. Don't burden others. Manage on your own. And never, ever, complain.

Perhaps the last conversation I had with Kerri occurred shortly before the Covid layoffs, as Ben was heading into blindness. (And yes, I know that the visually challenged themselves are the first to say it's not a tragedy.) But the transition from sighted, to impaired, to loss–especially in middle age–can be a terrifying journey. It's not only the problem of accomplishing daily tasks, great as that is, but the loss of pleasures, of reading, and seeing–art and nature and movies and television; the faces of one's family.

Kerri compared Ben's situation to mine, with my deformed hands (and wrists and arms, although people rarely "see" those). "You just do what you can," she said, admiring, since I had rarely spoken of my feelings about it, what appeared to be uncomplaining competence. "You manage, you do the tasks you have to. If things are difficult, you find a way."

Her last comment, as I was throwing out my lunch trash to head back to work: And if you can't play the piano, so what?

And that's why I write.

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Medusa and Me

Classical Greek gorgoneion; fourth century BC
Classical Greek gorgoneion; fourth century BC

After I got lucky, had my bisexual romance novels published, and was still basking in the afterglow, I renounced the idea that writing has to be painful, like sitting at the typewriter and opening a vein (according to Red Smith, or Ernest Hemingway, or other great writers). If writing stops being fun, I said, I would quit.

Well, writing stopped being fun a long time ago, but I didn't quit. I just got very, very sloooooooow.  Read More 

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The Language of Confession

Grace Church Brooklyn Heights

How bad a year was 2020? So bad I started attending church regularly, for the first time since Sunday School. Even fifty years ago, the Episcopal Church in New York City was welcoming and liberal; going back now, during the last days of Trumpigula, was more comforting than oppressive.


Of the many changes in the liturgy since 1979, I'm most struck, as a writer and performer of spoken word, by the difference in the General Confession.  Read More 

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Playful, gentle space oddity

If Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth spent a dirty weekend (as the Brits say), Stephen Quatro's How I Saved a Planet would be the lovechild. These books share a playful, gentle morality wrapped in a tale of alternate universe or space travel, generously laced with wordplay and witty dialog. Quatro's language abilities are astonishing, with puns, anagrams, cryptography and linguistic jokes throughout--even a few nonsense poems.
As Planet begins, the narrator, home for a boring summer after his first year of college, is terrified by a pair of giant eyeballs peering in his bedroom windows. The eyes belong to a size-shifting, scaly-blue-skinned alien named Qarl (not Carl. "I can tell you're not pronouncing the Q") but our intrepid narrator is easily convinced to go off with this stranger, despite his mother's warnings, because Qarl has candy. Milky Ways, naturally.
In the course of the characters' journey across the universe on a quest to save the planet X@X, readers are introduced to the idea of haggling up, where customers try to pay more and sellers try to reduce their price because money is a necessary evil and people want less of it; to the polite planets (the largest is Adanaq), worlds of pleasant trees and nice cities; and to the planet Hob, guarded by Hob Goblins that look like hairy baked potatoes. Still, as the narrator learns, "your mom" jokes are universal. And the Elixir of the Damned turns out to be … ginger ale.
Like Tollbooth, with its feud between the language-oriented Dictionopolis and the mathematical Digitopolis, and whose narrator, Milo, begins his journey in a state of boredom, Planet explores the way familiar words and phrases can be turned inside-out to produce multiple and contradictory meanings, and how language signifies morality and vice versa. And like Wrinkle, with its Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, who are and are not quite witches; with its Happy Medium personified in a laughing clairvoyant with a crystal ball; and its horrifying Thing of tangible Darkness battled by stars giving up their life and light in heroic battle, Planet provides a minimal "sci-fi" framework for a story of rescue and redemption.
Quatro's book isn't as profoundly Manichean as L'Engle's, but there are serious moments among the levity, especially in the area of gay or queer (Q). Qarl and the narrator are like a pair of bitchy queens, arguing and squabbling but ultimately becoming friends. "Did I come into your house and just start touching things?" "Actually, you did." In much of the universe "the female gender isn't as sexualized as the male gender." The clearest exposition of the book's point of view occurs in Maryville, where mourning is the only acceptable way of being. A character says, "There were moments where I hated who I was and wished I could be like everyone else. The constant urge to be joyful was exhausting to fight. I eventually couldn't do it anymore." Explaining why he became a lawyer: "I wanted to fight for gaylien rights."
Several reviewers have said that, based on the cover, they thought Planet was a children's book and were surprised by the "adult" moments. For example, the Queen of the Cosmos has a, shall we say, unusual way of displaying her power, and we learn that Orion doesn't have a belt but a penis. Not to mention the occasional fuck (pardon me, fuq).
Apart from the obvious advice on how not to judge a book: seriously, folks, it's 2020, an annus horribilis if ever there was one. Since this book was published early in the year, I can only think that Quatro must have literally bought some time, as can be done in his alternate world, saw the future and gave us this gift of a book. We need it now more than ever.

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Help is not a dirty word

Last year, explaining to a coworker why I didn't want to volunteer at the children's Halloween party, I said what I thought was obvious: "I don't feel like having the 'What happened to your hands' conversation a gazillion times."

She apologized, saying, "People just don't see it after a while."

That's nice for people. Because it’s the deformities they stop seeing, not the disabilities.  Read More 
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Two Best Books I Read This Year--or Ever!

I'm a reluctant member of Goodreads and other amateur book reviewing and rating sites, including Amazon. Maybe it's my age, although I think it's more about temperament. One of the best things about graduating from college (English major) was never having to write a research paper again, or a "book report." And that's what these sites feel like to me: a class assignment.  Read More 
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Advice Too Good to Ignore

Advice from a Wild DeuceAdvice from a Wild Deuce by Tiggy Upland

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What's the best part of any newspaper or magazine? The advice column, of course. And what's the best kind of advice column? A sex advice column. If you're tired of Dan Savage's biphobia (I know, he got better, but still) and if you'd like something more real than Penthouse Forum, Jen Bonardi's Advice From a Wild Deuce : the Best of Tiggy Upland might be what you're looking for.

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Economics 101

The hardest course I encountered in my four years of college was Economics 101. In high school I had been one of those annoying students who was good at everything, and I assumed that, even if I didn't find basic economics thrilling, I would be able to get a decent grade and satisfy the distribution requirements (still in force in the 1970s), allowing me to pursue the history, literature, and the gods help me, philosophy, courses I preferred. Instead, from the get-go, it felt as if I had walked onto a friendly neighbor's freshly-mowed lawn and fallen into a cesspit of crazy.  Read More 
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Barbarism, Decadence, and Bisexuality

There is a disparaging quotation about Russia (more often now applied to the USA), claiming that it went directly from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization. I thought of this after reading Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, last year's multiple-award nominated novel, only in this case it's bisexuality that has been skipped over. Not to equate bisexuality with civilization but .... it sometimes feels as if our society has moved within the span of a human life from homophobia and persecution to (in some places) acceptance of sexual and gender fluidity--without ever acknowledging bisexuality.  Read More 
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Furies on the Shuttle

In Greek mythology, the Erinyes (Furies) are "the angry ones." They are chthonic (underworld) deities whose purpose is to punish crimes against the ancient "natural order": young against old; child against parent; host against guest. The furies are so terrifying that they are seldom called by name. The title of Euripides' play The Eumenides is a euphemism: "the kindly ones."

In my Christmas letter, I included a link to a video of me performing my latest work, "What is the Matter?" Apart from any question of poor judgment (guilty!) what has troubled me in some peoples' responses is what I would call a one- dimensional way of thinking about the subject of the piece: two points (terminals) linked by a shuttle. There is no place in the middle, much less a second or third dimension.
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