Announcements, Reminders, and Quitting the Snare Drum
First, a fun announcement (“deal report”): I’ve sold my fifth book, and first novel, to Harper Via, pub date to come.
The Beidermeier is a not-quite-glamorous women’s hotel in an unremarkable neighborhood (Turtle Bay, after the UN Headquarters and associated subsidiaries cleared out the last of the Bohemian holdouts) during the declining half of the 20th century. What the YWCA and the Village’s Women’s House of Detention are to down-and-outers, and the Barbizon is to Midwestern ingenues with anxious, moneyed parents, the Beidermeier is to under-the-radar office girls. Most of them have jobs rather than careers, cadge free lunch under false pretenses but try not to shoplift, are cheerfully aware of the obsolescence of their surroundings, and are slightly skeptical of any attempt to improve their circumstances, whether that be the sexual revolution, gay liberation, the marriage plot, public reinvestment in urban development, the suburbs, or the telephone-operators’ union. Arresting the slide and staying in place is their shared ambition.
Women’s hotels, a briefly-popular ersatz stand-in for the family escort that bridged the collapse of nursing and nunneries as the primary repository of misfit girls in the decades before widespread access to regular hotels and credit cards, were already running down the clock by the 1950s. That peculiar waiting period where the writing is very much on the wall, and yet the wall remains –– Part icebox for storing female virtue, part hive for concentrating feminine efficiency; an automat for girls’ futures, all lined up and gleaming behind a glass partition. Dreams of efficiency, hygiene, reproducibility, upward mobility, the misplaced inheritance of the Art Deco age and the first half of the century. Katherine experiments with a number of potentially transformative processes – communist organizing, that first baby gay haircut, cross-dressing, politically-motivated androgyny, the marriage market – before establishing her own way of dealing with the world outside of a cloistered institution. In the meanwhile, her fellow residents secretly juggle competing jobs at rival anarchist presses, abandon their children, start and abandon art collectives, get laid off from the telephone company, watch a skyscraper fire, attempt manslaughter, and train as stenographers, all somehow aware that while no future is inevitable, the mid-range women’s hotel is unlikely to carry the day, and that they’d better make the most of it while it lasts.
I’m excited about it!
It’s also been about a month since my good pal Jo Livingstone and I launched the Stopgap, a fun little side project to satisfy my longstanding fondness for blogging without getting into the weeds here. My general sense is that the most anyone wants to receive an email newsletter is about twice a week. Maybe three times a week every once on a while if you’ve got really great ideas, but more than that and you’re trespassing on people’s goodwill. I never want to email people so often that they wish I’d stop emailing them altogether! The basic differences between the Chatner and the Stopgap are:
1. I don’t make any money from the Stopgap (neither does Jo); I do make money from paid Chatner subscriptions, although more than half of the newsletter issues are for free subscribers
2. Things I write for the Stopgap are generally shorter than what I write here, although not always
That’s pretty much it! Stop by the Stopgap anytime if you’d like to read more from me without incurring additional emails, and don’t if you’d rather not.
In the meantime, please enjoy a piece about “early-onset gay lying syndrome” I read during my recent book tour in Australia.
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Unless you are especially precocious, very often the first meaningful form of expression available to the gay child is lying. I don’t mean the sad sort of gay lying, where your gruff father barks “You’d tell me if there was something wrong with you, boy?” and you stow away your giant lolly and sailor suit, despairing of ever really getting through to him, but the inexplicable, profitless sort of gay lying, that makes your fifth-grade teacher take you aside and deliver a confusing lecture about creativity and never giving up but also the importance of completing assignments as written. This is distinct from the manufactured illnesses brought up to avoid a test or criticism, the invented career as a baby model or pretend near-fatal car accident1 to show up a friend you hate, pretending to own a horse in order to win recess, et cetera, which I assume are a normal part of healthy child development, especially when your primary reaction to the world around you is “Don’t you know who I am?” when “what you are” is, so far, “a fairly unremarkable ten-year-old with no real power to speak of.” Any other form of queerness was so far off in the distance it couldn’t possibly matter to me. Sometimes I imagined getting shot at Oberweiss Dairy (a lot of my friends got summer jobs at Oberweiss Dairy), where one of my friends’ boyfriends (a lot of my friends got summer boyfriends) would have to kiss me as I lay dying in a pool of my own blood, because I would say (bravely) that I didn’t want to die without ever having kissed anyone, but also in admiration of my bravery, but that was about as far as things went until I was seventeen. So lying was pretty much it.
Like many other thwarted ten-year-olds before me, I decided to join the school band, where I played a plausibly deniable gender-non-conforming instrument: the snare drum. Technically I was a girl, which was the style at the time, but there was another girl drummer of fifteen snare drummers total, which kept my plausible deniability intact. Had I chosen the tuba, I would have had to come out immediately, but with Jenny by my side, I could do anything. Not anything. I could not, for example, successfully play the snare drum part to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which my band teacher particular wished me to do. But I could have a snare drum, carry my snare drum around, et cetera, without open challenge, which isn’t nothing.
At some point those of us in the fifth-grade band were invited to individually instruct a group of kindergarteners in music appreciation class on our various instruments. A flutist would go and play something on the flute in front of the class, and speaking afterwards about the importance and rewards of flute-playing, followed by a trumpeter, and so on. I was asked to speak to the kindergarteners about the importance of snare drumming, followed by a demonstration of just what the snare drum could do.
Do you know what I’ve always found suspicious about memoirists who dwell on their childhoods in seemingly-rich detail? They always seem to remember perfectly what they wore on such-and-such a day and who they spoke to and who else was there. Do people really remember the names of important figures from their childhood? I could name my mother, of course, and could confidently give you the first and last names of about four children I knew in the 90s, but everything else is really just an amalgamated haze of information like, “I have a general sense of a person named Kevin” or “My teacher that year was a woman with a last name” or “I certainly lived on a cul-de-sac, and babysat occasionally.” All this is to say that I think the name of the music appreciation teacher was a Ms. Janssen, or possibly a Mrs. Janssen, but I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law. It could just as easily have been Jahnke. Do you know, I think it was Jahnke.
The upside was that by instructing the kindergartners, I could get out of my own class, and you’d be right in thinking I’d leap at the chance to give up on learning something in order to show off before a group of easily-impressed five-year-olds. But as I began to set up my instrument (badly, I should add – there are all sorts of gears and twistings you have to master in order to get a snare drum on its stand, and I never really mastered the process, I’d just keep twisting things until it all worked out or someone else helped me) I became increasingly aware of how much I didn’t know how to play the song I was supposed to play for them.2
I wonder if you have heard of the Peter Principle? It’s the concept in management theory that people tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence”; that is, that employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent. Ironically the term for being promoted due to incompetence, in order to minimize the reach and scope of one’s incompetence, is percussive sublimation. In that moment, struggling to set up my own instrument before an unyielding sea of eyes, knowing I would not be able to play the song given to me (and that even if they wouldn’t know the difference, that I would), unable to bear the shock of such a humiliation, I knew only one path lay open to me, perhaps the most important weapon in the gay child’s arsenal:
I was going to fake an injury. More than that, I was going to fake an injury so implausibly, in so publicly and obviously a fashion, that no one would dare to contradict me, even if that meant contradicting the evidence of their own eyes. I stood up. I looked at the sheet music (one page). I looked at the children. And I said “Ow, my ankle,” in exactly the same tones that Marcia Brady once said “Ow, my nose.”
I had injured my ankle terribly! How? I had just injured my ankle terribly, and in front of everyone! What, precisely was wrong with it? I would not be able to play. What had happened to my ankle? I needed to go to the nurse immediately. Which ankle was it, and what had happened to it? There was no time. I needed to limp bravely to the nurse’s station at once and lay down for the rest of the day. The nurse’s station is the natural habitat of, and functionally heaven to, the gay child, except for the jock kind of gay child, who moved in mysterious ways their wonders to perform.
I learned a valuable lesson that day, more valuable than anything those kindergarteners might have learned from a successful rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Lie incredibly. Lie fearlessly. Lie in the direction of your dreams. Lie like everyone is watching. I quit the school band after sixth grade because they moved practices to before school and I didn’t want to get up at five o’clock. But I’m sure I gave the conductor a better reason.
Ironically, I would later go on to break that same ankle several times as an adult, and it still pops audibly every time I rotate my foot, which I do often.
It happened just before I moved here, in first grade, so you wouldn’t have heard anything about it. I didn’t want to say anything at the time because I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. But I did almost die. And now I really want you to feel sorry for me, while also being impressed with me at the same time, because of how much I dislike it when people feel sorry for me. This is what is known as “having it all.”
In my memory, this was “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but it could just as easily have been something else.