Saturday, October 13, 2007

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, LIZA!

(Self portrait by Liza Cowan, copyright hers 2007)

This night one year ago, I wrote my first e-mail to Liza Cowan.

I knew of her for at 30+ years, and her influence on my life had been intense. As one of the founding voices of Lesbian-feminism, her courage and clarity had helped bring me to similar attributes. And, I'd written her decades earlier, when she and Penny House were co-editing DYKE: A Quarterly. I was living in a Lesbian land collective that subscribed to DYKE, and we'd noticed their publishing name was Tomato Publications. We'd had discussions about why that name -- it certainly wasn't from the sexist term for women, because Liza was one of the language pioneers helped us unravel gender role conditioning.


Eventually, I sat down and wrote her (circa 1978), posing the question: "Why Tomato Publications?" She wrote me a postcard back that began "Why not?" A familiar humor, now. Then she explained they'd read a national study which said that men's favorite vegetable was cucumbers, while women's was tomatoes.

Somehow our physical paths never crossed in all that time, although they could have more than once. She remained an influence across a distance. I often wondered what she was doing now.

In June of 2006, I began writing what Liza has called the Great American Lesbian Novel. Since the main character was based on me, I gave her the same connection to Liza that I had, and you can't write a novel about politically-active and culturally-revolutionary 70's dykes without mentioning Liza Cowan more than once. Some time during that summer, I found out that Alison Bechdel was having an art show at a gallery in her town of Burlington, and when I investigated it, I discovered the gallery was owned by none other than Liza. Now I knew what she was doing. I found the Pine Street Art Works website and munched my way through it, then went on to Liza's personal website and discovered her art.

Which blew me out of the water.

In August, partly as an antidote to extreme isolation and personal difficulty, I did something I never had before: I posted a comment to a blog. It was in response to attacks on Lesbian cultural institutions and to some really shitty thinking about children, both of which I found impossible to ignore. I was attacked, then defended, then found a small but growing online voice. In the course of that thread, Liza posted -- not about the main topic, about something else, but it was clearly her. Kinda cool.

I've been a leader since I was a teenager, and an artist (writer) for longer than that. I really despise the American cult of celebrity, how people fawn on those who have fame and a certain kind of ability. I find it self-disempowering and just plain icky, especially if I'm on the receiving end. If you want a relationship with me, ask for it, and accept my no if that's what you hear. If you want to fantasize about me, I don't give my consent. And if you don't have a personal relationship with me, trust me, you don't know me through my poetry, my other writing, or my activism. You know only those aspects of me.

I have demons and damage. I also pretty much like myself just fine, but the reasons I like myself are not necessarily what you'll see from my public persona. So I don't indulge in being star-struck, and I don't let others aim it at me. It's really easy to discourage, if you're honest and not passive-aggressive out it. And, of course, if you don't secretly crave it.

So I was reluctant to write Liza what I wanted to write her, which was basically, how the hell are you? How's it been for you the last couple of decades, as we've seen our movement revised, reviled, lied about in every possible way, and still they can't shut us up or kill us off? Mostly, I wanted to know if she was happy, what she was thinking about, and how she was expressing herself. It mattered to me.

I also wanted to tell her how much her work had meant to me and my life, because I think every artist and leader deserves to hear that in a non-adulatory way. But I had to make sure I wasn't coming from a place where there were any strings attached. Just a "thanks" was appropriate, I felt.

(Photograph by Liza Cowan, copyright hers)

So, it took me until October 13th. I had gone back to her website often, to look at the art again -- great art is something I never quite get enough of. And finally I wrote down what the art sparked in me, read it over, decided it was "clean", and posted it to her website.

Only it wouldn't go through. I tried three times and I kept getting rejected. I remember laughing out loud, thinking, "Well, either this is a sign or you're just not geek enough to figure out what's wrong." I let it go and went back to work.

A couple of hours later, though, I remembered there was another e-mail address listed somewhere on the website -- I'd noticed it because she'd used her real name, something few people did with their e-mail addresses any more. I went back, found it, and fired off my thanks. I returned to work.

Fifteen minutes later, she answered.

She knew who I was, had noticed and appreciated my comments on the thread, and we began talking. It's been a year of serious conversation. A completely cyber life, but I consider her a friend, a sister (in the 70's sense), and one of my most crucial supporters of my writing. She has a major gift for fostering the art of others, as well as her own -- as long as you work with her as an equal, she's not charmed by either self-abasement or self-absorption. She's hilarious. She can express herself as well as I can -- and, not to be immodest, that's the highest compliment I can pay somebody. She's an extraordinary mother; we bond a lot around mothering. She's generous and self-maintaining. She knows how to have reciprocal relationships where that's appropriate. She's loyal and she honors confidences. Her intellect includes Jewish irreverence, deep pragmatism, pop culture, academic, anti-academic and Buddhist ways of thinking. She's happy being a woman, and she defines that her own way. She's an extraordinary ally around class -- I trust her as much as I trust most working-class people, because she's worked her ass off to sort through the shit we get about class in this culture.

(Self-portrait by Liza, after a day of painting, showing necklace made for her by her oldest daughter Willa)

In other words, she's just fine, and better than ever.

So, thanks for the year, Liza. Hope there's many more to come. I've written two novels and started this blog, all with your support. I was online with you when I got the call about my father's death, and you were a rock to me throughout that. You are unsentimental about the hardships of my childhood -- you're very clear that I've done a great job getting past it, AND I'd be better off if I hadn't had to waste so much time on healing. (I think so, too.) You've opened up to me slowly, honestly, and intelligently. I think you're swell. I'm so glad I had the good sense to write you, and just as glad you had the good sense to write me back.



You go, girl. Eat your tomatoes and never let them shut you up. I promise to do the same. Love, Mags

14 comments:

liza said...

Mags, my life is so much richer for knowing you. I knew it was about a year, but since I rarely even know the day of the week, I hadn't pinned it down. It's October now, right?

Really, I kind of don't know how to respond to this but to say that the admiration and respect and glee and, most important, the trust, is mutual.

Now I'm rushing off to my kids' Halloween party. In our family, Halloween lasts a month.

Love ya Mags.

little gator said...

It's been a bad October here. Only half the decorations are up, and i don't even have a single pumpkin yet.

Mr Gator update: gallbladder seesm to be fine but he likley has "fatty liver incusrion" and a possible goiter, plus a thryoid crash. All treatable non surgically.

little gator said...

for the latest updates, LOLSCOTT is on the notes section on Fnordy's facebook(acount name Fnord Prefect Fnord)

Oh noes!
what?
My nose! iz Froze!

now if we can figure out what Polar ceiling cat is watching...

Im in ur something, xing your y...

I've learned that Oates' famous last words were what they said when one of them left the tent to take a dump. Is it possible that's all he meant, and he intended to return but then couldn't? seems like an obvious guess.

liza said...

I should mention that the image on the cover of DYKE comes from a 19th century photographer named Alice Austen. We speculate that she loved women based on her images, but at any rate, she was a first rate photographer who mainly took pictures of her small upperclass world in Staten Island NY.

The issue featured a photo essay about Alice.

I decided to give the a Japanese woodblock feeling, with the chop influenced title and the graded red background.

It was printed by Tower Press, a Lesbian printshop in NYC.

kat said...

wow, how cool is the internet that two people can come together, though remaining physically far away, and bond so thoroughly.

It also made me kind of sad. I don't know about other places, but the Bay Area scene doesn't have a whole lot of sisterly bonding lately...Maybe we're all so used to our insular little progressive universe where we've all let our guard down? I dunno....

That "Dyke" cover is really fantastic. It made me think about this composer, whose name I've completely forgotten, who in turn of the 20th C England was not only writing kick-ass operas, but was also openly, shamelessly loving women. I read about her in last month's Opera News, which may or may not have an online version.....If I can find the article, I'll post it here.

kat said...

Polar bear is subbing for ceiling cat, waiting to pounce?

Maggie Jochild said...

Liza, is Alice Austen one of the women featured in JEB's slide show about Lesbian photographers? (The Look, the Stance, the Clothes!) Is she the one whose negatives were discovered being used as glass in a greenhouse?

I wish I could see that slideshow again. Especially with a roomful of dykes who were all having epiphanies in the same moment. CR group, anyone?

little gator, I'm glad to hear Mr. Gator's gallbladder is fine, and that the treatment offered is nonsurgical. Livers are blood cleansers and as such often fatty incursions, otherwise known as garbage sifted from your bloodstream. The thyroid crash is serious (both in terms of living wretchedly as well as cascading to other health issues) but it really does seem to be treated beautifully by medication. One of the successes of Western Medicine.

And the news about Oates' comment being their code for going to the bathroom -- where did you find that information? I've read a lot of their original journals and never ran across it. It makes sense, but I'd like to have the source to file away for myself.

Kat, the "Sisterhood feels good" aspect of our generation was often more theoretical than practical. Though for those of us who believed it wholeheartedly (as I did), it was a solid community. But, the whole era was one of counterculture, standing up against The Man, which is very bonding. We had the economic slack to live part of our dream (no Reagan and Neocons yet in charge), we had much more sexual freedom than I think exists today (despite the myth about anti-sex crap), and, with regard to Lesbian-feminists, we had a certain homogeneity (age, woman identification, not dealing with male conditioning in our groups or our beds, being white, and being working-class or pretending we were) that makes it possible to focus in a particular way. It was phenomenally productive, it was genuine, and it was an anomaly. The means for sustaining it were destroyed by the backlash. Another means of binding together a counterculture will arise, and will NOT come from those who are focused on proving our generation wrong. (Doing the opposite is still letting others define you.)

Let's watch and see. The time is ripe. I'm personally hoping it organizes around either race or class.

Liza said...

I'm not sure if Alice Austen's photographs were in the JEB (Joan E. Biren) slide show but Austen's glass plates were stored safely, and were rediscovered shortly before her death.

There is a website you can go to for more information. www.aliceausten.org

I agree that the "sisterhood feels good myth" was just that - a myth. It often felt crappy, as we turned against each other for petty wrongs. See (or listen to) Alix Dobkins, "My Lesbian Wars." But it was hopeful and we were optimistic for a while. And productive.

As happens, the next generation demonized us. Now we are all but forgotten.

Yet, here we are, alive and kicking. Right, Mags? In case anyone out there wants to write a book or make a film or something.

Maggie Jochild said...

Yep, Liza, that's who I was remembering. She almost died in wretched poverty, saved at the very end by a rediscovery of her work.

Which raises the question: Is DYKE how JEB found out about her? Your publication predates her slide show by at least a couple of years.

little gator said...

I'll see if I can find that source again. Another site said they constantly had cold wet bottoms cause every time they dropped their pants snow would blow into all their clothes.

How could I forget at least one "ur doing it wrong"?

and why brown eggs? Its not like whole grain, it just came from a different breed of chicken.

My first dog Brindle(Plott Hound) had a bizarre thryoid disorder, Usually they give you symthetic T3, which is converted to t4(or vice versa) but Brin couldnt convert and had to have synthetic t4(or vice versa). Worse, she must have had some weird autoimmune thing going on, cause we had to give her 20 mg a day of predisone or no thyroid drug worked.

This is a huge and usually deadly dose for her size, but it was an easy choice. Give her the big dose, she was happy. Not give it, and she was so miserable she'd have been put down. So we decided to let her enjoy herself till it destroyed it.

And it took a while to diagnose because hypothroid usually makes you fat and
gives you unhealthy dry but not especiallu uncomfy skin.

Brindle was skeletally thin and itched like crazy.

Amazingly enough she took this dose for 8 years, and at 14, she'd had a longish life for a dog anyway.

The other thyroid story was my grandmother, She was about 40 when she got type ONE diabetes, which is weird enough. even back then most diabetics did ok with two insulin shots daily, but she fell apart without 3. And she reused needles till they got dull, boiling them between uses. My mother was amazed when my cat Buster Kitten got diabetes and got a fresh sharp needle each time.

Grandmother had heart disease and hypothryoid on top of diabetes. It's a nasty combination. She died at 67 and so did her mother. My mother, her daughter, was quite worried the year she was 67 but now she's 79 band doing fine. She has an aunt who is still alive at 106, and did quite well after a hip replacement at 99!

Lots of heart disease in my family and little cancer. I expect when i die it will likely be a heart attack or stroke.

Maggie Jochild said...

Most of the chickens used for egg production in the U.S. (the ones who make white eggs) are of a similar species, so similar that when an epidemic strikes that's resistant to all our current meds (as it surely well, because of overcrowding and overproduction), suddenly there'll be no eggs for sale. So, in Utne Reader a decade ago, they had a list of ten easy things you could do to help the environment. Creating a market for the chickens who lay brown eggs was one of those things -- as I understand it, they're not only genetically distinct from white-egg chickens in terms of diseases, there's also more than one strain of brown-egg chickens.

Likewise, buying something other than regular white potatoes is a boon. First of all, the vitamin and mineral content of agribusiness white potatoes is 75% less than it was when I was a child. There are literally dozens of species of potatoes, all of them with distinct, delicious flavors. At the very least, buy Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold. But I love the blue ones, too. And wow, can you taste the nutrition in them.

little gator said...

Brown eggs are the usual in New England. I approveof anything to reduce monoculture in plants and animals. There a species of chicken, mostly homegrown, that lays blue and green eggs.

links you wanted:

www.solarnavigator.net/history/scott_of_the_antarctic_explorer_robert_falcom.htm


www/tepapa.govt.nz/dayinthelife/bodies.htm#


www.spearhead.com/0008-ds.html

little gator said...

that one url was too long for this format.
so go to


www.solarnavigator.net/maritime_history.htm

and click on scottof the antartic under general history

little gator said...

I'm doing it wrong. Pleas eley me know if the links are correct.