The Alphabet Ends at Y…

Sue Grafton

While in Venice with jet lag, awake all night, I learned that Sue Grafton had died. This hit me rather hard. She was an author whom I almost felt like I knew, in the way that you sometimes feel you “know” a celebrity you’ve never met. I introduced myself to her books one day as a fourteen-year-old when I stopped by the library to get a book to read on my lunch hour during a summer job. It was A is for Alibi, recently published. I’ve always been a mystery fan; this one was about a young, female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone who is sassy, street-smart, intelligent, and independent to the point of being almost neurotic. A next-generation Nancy Drew and Miss Marple, living in a parallel universe to Jessica Fletcher, and a soul mother to Veronica Mars, who wasn’t even an apple in anyone’s eye yet. Like me, I’m sure lots of women and girls saw something of themselves in her – as did Ms. Grafton, who admitted that Kinsey was her alter ego. I read somewhere that Ms. Grafton’s inspiration was her divorce – unable to sleep, dreaming up ways to get away with murdering her awful husband after something else he’d done.

I loved all of this, and went back for more. At that time, the alphabet only went to C, so I had to wait a year for each further installment. As the alphabet played out, Kinsey continued to be a feminist role model and pioneer for this new type of female detective. Meanwhile, the books expanded their scope a bit to discuss social issues; in one, Ms. Grafton tries to plausibly recreate and solve a real-life cold case from Santa Barbara, California (the real-life setting for the fictional Santa Teresa). That book’s appendix lays out the facts of the real case, and a plea for information that could bring Jane Doe home to her family, and her killer to justice.

The books became a traditional, yearly Christmas present, a constant way to mark time over the years. Right up through grad school, I was reading the then-current novel (R is for Ricochet) in a hospital waiting room.

Around this time, due to work and school, I fell off from reading the new book as soon as it came out and then pining for a year or more while waiting for the next (the precursor to binge watching Netflix!). Just a month or two ago, I read that Ms. Grafton had published Y, the planned second-to-last book. I made mental plans to catch up with the last 5 or 6 books that I’d missed, and to reread the entire series in the lead-up to the publication of Z.

Then I heard about her death, and I’m sadder than I can say.

After this summer’s publication of Y, she hadn’t yet fleshed out, let alone written, Z. Her daughter said that, given her mom’s (well-known) hatred of adaptations, there would be no ghostwriter or posthumous additions to the series. There is no Z. As the family statement read: “As far as we’re concerned, the alphabet ends at Y”.

I once read that Ms. Grafton called this series of books “my life’s work”, and that struck something in me. As a fellow artist, I feel an ache for an unfinished body of work that was so, so close to being complete. I wonder how Ms. Grafton made peace with it.


Tess Martin, Ginevra

This fantastic, animated cut-paper film at Bellevue Arts Museum has very neatly intersected two trains of thought that have occupied my mind recently.

One is the issue of domestic and other violence against women. #MeToo; Harvey Weinstein and all the others who were unmasked after him, not to mention before him.

The other is, very simply: what happens after death? I’ve been thinking about the energy and physics of life quite a bit recently. As an off-and-on atheist/agnostic, I have been fairly certain (and then again, not certain at all) that nothing happens after you die. I’ve begun to change my mind recently, to consider other, energetic, possibilities. Where does the energy go? What does physics say about energy? And then with the recent death of my father-in-law, this question has recently shifted from a philosophical to a personal one.

This film by Tess Martin is based on an unfinished Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (which was based on a legend of an Italian woman of the Middle Ages, who allegedly woke up a day after she died).

I had to arrive at the end before I truly appreciated the film. At first, I was overly critical of the animation, thinking it too primitive (South Park viewers would see similarities in production values), but by the end, I came to believe that the simplicity actually enhanced the magic and feeling of the story. (Later, when I saw the set, which was approximately 18 inches square, I found myself amazed by how expansive the film actually felt. Beyond impressive).

Tess Martin, Ginevra

The action unfolds slowly, detail by quiet detail. We see a woman murdered in her bedroom, presumably by her husband, and then watch her mother pacing the quiet house with grief. These scenes aren’t played for drama, but with maximum feeling. The mother mourns with the body, which lays in state on a canopy bed, near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a balcony, and then, the countryside. The mother is surprised to see the body rise, cross the room, climb the balcony railing, and surprisingly, sprout feathers with which to fly away. Which she does, with a sense of utmost grace and freedom. The last we see of Ginevra, she has joined a community of owls and other large birds who slowly circle the countryside, alternately flapping their wings and resting in the draft.

A beautiful ode to mystery, and freedom.

The Homely Protestant

Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant

I love Robert Motherwell because of his smarts. While so many of his (male) contemporaries were making fools of themselves in bars, he was making poetic work – about poetry – and other big themes, and writing intelligently about it too. I read the wall text for this painting at the Met and was reminded again of why I love him.

To paraphrase, Motherwell was struggling with naming this painting, and finally remembered a Surrealist technique of engaging with chance. He opened a book (Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce), blindly pointed his finger at the text, and upon opening his eyes, saw that his finger was resting on the phrase “the homely protestant”. “Of course!” Motherwell said. “It is a self-portrait”.

It’s amusing to me to imagine the emphasis on different words. Of course, it is a self-portrait. Of course, it is a self-portrait.

Interesting musical footnote #1:

I believe the Beatles used this same technique for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but they did it the other way around by choosing the phrase first, and constructing the song around it.

Interesting musical footnote #2:

I just learned that Motherwell was from Aberdeen, Washington. Safe to say that he was the most famous native until Kurt Cobain came along?

Dore Ashton, In Memoriam

Dore Ashton, from Queens Economic Development Corp. website
Dore Ashton, from Queens Economic Development Corp. website

I always loved reading Dore Ashton’s writing. It’s clear, but elegant and beautiful. Her friendships with artists put her in the unique position of being able to reveal anecdotes that cast their work in a new, more personal light. In her hands, they were significant yet little-known accounts that further enlightened the artists’ work; they were never gossip, nor did they ever inflate her own role. Not many writers can pull that off.

It’s because of her writing that I am charmed by the thought of Joseph Cornell, the shyest of shy people, holding a small afternoon gathering at his house in Queens, at which he was uncharacteristically charming and voluble. At the end of the party, he gleefully whispered to Ashton about Octavio Paz, who was in attendance with his wife: “Was he really an ambassador?”

That childlike wonderment has informed my sense of his collage boxes ever since. What a new and delightful way of looking at them.

Another personal favorite is Ashton’s account of a visit to Mark Rothko’s studio in the late 1950s, when Rothko deliberately kept the lights off. Ashton compared the silence and dark to that of a cathedral, and as her eyes searched in the dark, she felt, more than saw, the presence of his paintings. At one point, a white cat walked into the middle of the room; the visual contrast was enough to startle her. For me, this story reinforces the two most important things about Rothko’s work: the theatricality of it all, and also the weightiness of his search for morality and truth in his paintings.

Thank you for some of the most graceful and captivating writing about art.

Happy Imbolc!

St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

Imbolc is a Celtic holiday that celebrates the coming of spring, as the days get longer and the very first buds make an appearance. It’s still celebrated today in Ireland, as folks make St. Brigid’s crosses and hang them over their doors for protection. This day is another in a long line of special days celebrating light, or perhaps more exactly, the return of light, as the shortest day of the year recedes into the rearview mirror. These festivals are ripe with new beginnings and directly or indirectly reference light: Winter solstice (the days start lengthening again), Christmas (Christian adoption of the solstice celebration, literally adding lights to trees and other objects, Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights), New Year’s (fireworks and sparklers, perhaps), now Imbolc. (Thank you to a yogi friend for pointing out this connection to me recently).

Imbolc falls halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, so this is the last of the light festivals, since soon we can celebrate spring itself!

I’m grateful for any chance to make a new start. This year, I’m especially starved for it.

Pride Project #30 – Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Barbara Jordan, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

This is the last post celebrating Pride Month!

U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan embodied many important “firsts”. She was the first southern Black person elected to the Texas State Senate following Reconstruction. She was the first southern Black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was the first Black woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, in 1976, and despite not running for President, she received one delegate’s vote. She’s the still the only Black woman to have ever served as governor (she was Acting Governor for one day in Texas, and that stat doesn’t count Lieutenant Governors).

She was a lawyer, and a professor too. In fact, she had such a keen legal mind that President Bill Clinton said many times that she was his top choice to appoint to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, by the time he was in a position to make a nomination, she was too ill to accept.

Ms. Jordan, in true lesbian fashion, met her long-time love on a camping trip, though she wasn’t out publicly.

She carried a copy of the Constitution at all times, in her purse.

Pride Project #29 – Dave Kopay

Dave Kopay, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Dave Kopay, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Dave Kopay, a retired NFL running back, was the first professional athlete from a team sport to come out of the closet.

This was in 1975, three years after Dave had retired. He read a newspaper article, along with its follow-up letters from readers, about an unnamed NFL player and his experiences in the league as a gay man. He recognized the player (because he’d slept with him) and knew that the story was accurate, but was upset by the readers’ feedback claiming that the story must be false.

Kopay decided to contact the reporter and verify her earlier story. That, in turn, led to an autobiography that was published in 1977, which was influential to people all over the world – from young kids in the Philippines all the way to Billie Jean King – who were grappling with their own issues of coming out and sexuality. King has said Kopay’s book was helpful to her as she navigated professional life in the wake of a public outing in 1981.

Pride Project #28 – Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Lorraine Hansberry, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Lorraine Hansberry is the first Black woman whose play, A Raisin in the Sun, appeared on Broadway. She was also the youngest playwright so honored.

It pains me to say this, but through two unsigned letters that she sent to The Ladder, a lesbian magazine, in the late 50s, as well as lists that she regularly made for herself, we know that she was uncomfortable with her sexuality.

The lists, especially, show her ambivalence and her struggle to process her identity. They reference her delight at “the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth” and “69 when it really works”; her love of “slacks” and “Eartha Kitt’s legs”.

For me, though, the most poignant entry lists “my homosexuality” under the headings of both “I like” and “I hate”.

Pride Project #27 – Geri Jewell

Geri Jewell, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
Geri Jewell, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

Geri Jewell is the first person with a disability to be cast as a regular in a primetime television series, when she played Blair’s Cousin Geri on The Facts of Life in the 80s.

She got her start as a standup comedian who joked about her own cerebral palsy and got lucky one night when producer Norman Lear and MRS. GARRETT were in the audience. The rest is television history. She worked on other shows like Sesame Street, 21 Jump Street, Deadwood, and Glee.

Years later, she came out as a lesbian (though she says that actress Lisa Whelchel – AKA Blair and Geri’s real-life roommate – knew at the time that she was gay and closeted. Great Hollywood gossip 30 or more years after the fact!).

Pride Project #26 – Leonard Matlovich

Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich won the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War but was discharged when he came out as gay to his superiors and refused to sign a pledge to “never practice homosexuality again”.

This was a calculated move to try to test anti-gay policies in court, and with his spotless record, Matlovich was the perfect face of this campaign.

Time magazine featured him on its cover in 1975, the first openly gay person to land there, and the first time the gay rights movement was featured. This was back when Time was a big deal and brought the queer struggle to lots of American homes via their mailboxes.

Matlovich sued for reinstatement and won in court, but the Air Force preferred that he accept a financial settlement instead of reenlistsing. It was only $160,000, but he took it. He became politically active, and used his celebrity status to campaign against various anti-gay initiatives around the country.

In his last public speech, in 1988 as he was dying from AIDS, he said:

…And I want you to look at the flag, our rainbow flag, and I want you to look at it with pride in your heart, because we too have a dream. And what is our dream? Ours is more than an American dream. It’s a universal dream. Because in South Africa, we’re black and white, and in Northern Ireland, we’re Protestant and Catholic, and in Israel we’re Jew and Muslim. And our mission is to reach out and teach people to love, and not to hate…And in the AIDS crisis – and I have AIDS – and in the AIDS crisis, if there is any one word that describes our community’s reaction to AIDS, that word is love, love, love.

If you’re not already crying, there’s more. His tombstone reads:

When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Not long after his death, I saw these words (or something very like them) on a panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt when it came to UC Berkeley. I don’t remember the name on panel, if it was Leonard’s or belonged to someone else in similar circumstances, but I vividly remember reading it and crying huge, sobbing tears in the middle of Sproul Plaza.

Those remain some of the most powerful words I’ve ever read in my life.

Pride Project #25 – Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Sylvia Rivera, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Sylvia, like many queer kids, became homeless as a kid because her family (in this case, her grandmother who was raising her) didn’t approve of her queer identity. The queer community, especially drag queens, took her under their wing and christened her “Sylvia”.

Her experiences hustling in Times Square and living at the Christopher Street piers in NYC fueled her later advocacy for homeless queer youth and trans women of color. She always maintained that she was there at the Stonewall Inn during the riots in 1969 (though some, including her best friend, say that she wasn’t).

In 2015, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery included her portrait in its collection, making her the first trans person represented there.

You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

Sylvia Rivera, on the Stonewall Riots

Pride Project #24 – Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Sor Juana, a nun who lived in New Spain (colonial Mexico) in the 17th century, taught herself to read in her grandfather’s library and entered the convent to continue her studies (the only avenue open to a girl at that time). Her living quarters, filled with books, became the salon of the day, where contemporary cultural progressives gathered. She was an early feminist, with her most famous work being a manifesto that advocated for the education of girls and women.

She also wrote love poems to a countess.

Pride Project #23 – St. Brigid

St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
St. Brigid, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

St. Brigid was an early Catholic nun, (who was probably a Celtic goddess and “Christianized”; her feast day is the same as the Druid Imbolc, which celebrates spring). She founded convents all over Ireland that focused on education and art. I read somewhere that she also enjoyed beer.

She was very close with another nun named Darlughdach, who was significantly younger. They shared a bed together at the convent, and were so close that when Brigid had a vision of her upcoming death, Darlughdach prayed that she might have a simultaneous death, because she didn’t want to live without Brigid. Brigid begged her to hold on for a year, to continue Brigid’s work at the monastery, and Darlughdach died exactly one year later, to the day.

Pride Project #22 – Dr. James Barry

Dr. James Barry, Mixed media on board, 4" x 5"
Dr. James Barry, Mixed media on board, 4″ x 5″

Circa 1800, James dressed as a boy and entered college at age 10, graduated medical school at 13 and became a surgeon in the British army.

This red-headed Irishman’s interests and accomplishments revolutionized medicine:

  • he promoted hygienic medical practices before that was common
  • he relished difficult assignments to tropical areas with deadly diseases
  • he treated the poor, Blacks, prisoners, and others at a time when doctors could – and did – refuse to treat these people
  • he called attention to the inhumane conditions in insane asylums
  • he posted notices to educate the public about symptoms of and precautions against smallpox, plague, and other diseases
  • he performed the first Caesarean section in which Mom and Baby both lived

As if he weren’t already proven to be brilliant, ahead of his time, and on the right side of everything, he was also against slavery.

At his death, it was revealed that he was born a woman, when his body was undressed to prepare for burial. This was explicitly against his wishes – the undressing, not necessarily the burial – since he’d repeatedly stated his desire for his body to remain untreated in any way, and to be buried in the clothes in which he expired, with only a sheet wrapped around the whole package. No undressing – it was very clear, and expressed many times during the last 25 years of his life, at least.

Interestingly, the feminist and queer movements have begun a tug-of-war over whose camp he belongs to…was James a woman forced to live as a man in order to realize a dream of becoming a surgeon – a course that wasn’t open to females – or a queer who identified as a man and lived his life accordingly?

There was a Hollywood movie several years ago that spun James’ biography by introducing a heterosexual love affair with a male governor who fell in love with James as a woman. This is unsubstantiated by any historical documentation. Some accounts that I suspect have been “straightened up” (we’ve seen it before) state that the servant who undressed James at death saw abdominal stretch marks that proved James had been pregnant into late term.

Although we’ll never know the true story – James never recorded any thoughts on the subject – this feminist has to side with the queers.

First, there’s his lifelong insistence on never being undressed, even at death. If James were living as a man only for career purposes, the case could be made that the empowered-female-within would have wanted to be unmasked at the end of life.

But my best piece of evidence? Written accounts call James a notorious “lady-killer”!

Pride Project #21 – Kiyoshi Kuromiya

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Mixed media, 4" x 5"
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Mixed media, 4″ x 5″

I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”

– Kiyoshi Kuromiya

Kiyoshi Kuromiya was born in a Japanese internment camp in rural Wyoming during World War II. As a college student, he participated in some of the earliest demonstrations of the civil rights movement: “Annual Reminders” held in Philadelphia in the 1960s on the 4th of July.

He was active in many capacities in the gay community, notably as a gay delegate to the Black Panthers convention when they endorsed the fight for gay rights, as a proponent for medical marijuana, and as a litigant against the Communications Decency Act. Despite all this, he was probably best known as an AIDS activist. After his own diagnosis in 1989, he founded an AIDS resource center that served as a nexus for information, support, and action.

Fun fact: Kuromiya assisted Buckminster Fuller in writing a book on technology, and was a nationally ranked Scrabble player.