Peach Courage

masked woman
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

Earlier this year when I was trying to work up the courage to quit my job, I went to see the performance artist and musician Peaches at one of those “in conversation” events at a Berlin art gallery. I had moved to Berlin with my husband in 2015 for my job, with the mutual understanding that we would only stay for a year. That deadline was looming, and I had cold feet.

The setting and inspiration for the talk was an exhibition of sixty-five photographs by Cindy Sherman, an artist who’s been tackling the concept of identity in her work since she first started taking her portraits of herself in the 1970s. Sherman usually works alone in her studio and the resulting pictures often portray social and cultural stereotypes, from starlets and pinups to, more recently, aging society ladies and fashionistas. I first came across Sherman through her so-called History Portraits. I was taking an early Italian renaissance art history class at college, and the counterpoint of Sherman’s Madonnas—often equipped with obviously prosthetic, exposed breasts—made me laugh. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, but they’re often referred to by the numbers curators use in exhibition catalogs and, as in the case of the History Portraits, thematic groupings. In other words, Sherman declines to identify any of her pictures about identity.

I nabbed a seat for the discussion in the second row with a perfect view until, minutes before the program was set to start, a middle-aged woman doused in perfume and wearing a matching white fur jacket and hat sat down in front of me. It quickly became clear she had no intention of removing the hat—which was the primary offender in blocking my view—and when she turned around, I thought I may have figured out why. She had black hair, the texture of which looked like a wig, with spare tendrils of odd lengths spilling onto her shoulders. The hat seemed to be holding the whole arrangement in place. Her coral-red lipstick was smeared and she wore black eyeliner and a blank stare as if the point of her eyes was to absorb the snatched glances of those of us around her. A closer inspection revealed she was wearing rather fabulous high-altitude platform shoes, the heel of which was scalloped in gold metal. When the second man approached to kiss her hand, I was sufficiently intimidated to lose my nerve over asking her to remove the hat. She looked like a Berlin version of one of Sherman’s Hollywood/Hampton Ladies, a series of photographs displayed on the wall at the back of the room, and it only occurred to me the next day that she could have been Sherman donning a disguise to attend a talk about herself. This would certainly explain the hand kissing.

If it was Sherman, she wouldn’t have been the only one in the room fiddling with her identity. I was there straight from work and dressed in my version of a businesswoman costume—Isaac Mizrahi for Target blazer, Banana Republic dress, Wolford black tights and LK Bennett boots—feigning to be a fan of Peaches when, in fact, I had just read an article about her in a magazine a month or so earlier. I was a legitimate fan of Sherman’s, but on some level I was attracted to the event by its association with the radical art of Peaches. Simply by attending, I was asserting my identity outside the narrow confines of a normie, trying on the idea of what it might be like to be the kind of person who’s a fan of Peaches. I was too timid to go to a club to see her, but here in a gallery at the gentle hour of seven-thirty p.m., Peaches was accessible to me.

•••

In addition to being an artist and musician, Peaches—who was born Merill Beth Nisker—is a forty-nine-year-old Canadian super-fan of Sherman. Like Sherman, Peaches’s work explores identity. While we think of Madonna and Lady Gaga as our culture’s pre-eminent pop-star chameleon queens, Peaches’s subversive take on identity, particularly when it comes to traditional gender norms, exposes their work as merely conventional. The video for Peaches’s recent single, Rub, was banned from YouTube, perhaps for being “a lesbian desert sex scene, but without the male gaze,”—which is how one of the video’s co-directors, artist Lex Vaughn, explained it to The Daily Dot. During the course of the conversation at the gallery, Peaches screened this banned video along with the one for Dick in the Air, in which she and comedian Margaret Cho don fuzzy onesies complete with built-in, penis-like appendages that they proceed to, you guessed it, wave in the air.

In person, Peaches is nothing like you might expect from her videos. She wore a baggy brown dress that hung in swags around her like something from a Greek statue, Dr. Martens boots, a couple of hair extensions, and no makeup. As she remarked to the interviewer when asked about her penchant for elaborate stage clothes, sometimes dressing down is its own version of a costume. Her manner was down-to-earth and engaging while displaying a self-assured intellect. When the interviewer occasionally veered into presumptive lines of questioning, Peaches managed to disarm him with the politest of is-that-sos?

Commentators on Sherman’s work sometimes characterize it as an assertion of identity as a performance. When asked her views on identity, Peaches answered that it’s something we’re constantly creating through trial and error, starting with the identity-less child who learns by mimicking her parents: the child sees her parents holding a phone and holds a spoon up to her ear. I like this concept of trial and error better than performance; it asserts an earnestness where performance asserts artifice. The two can, of course, co-exist.

At one point the conversation turned to Sherman’s series of the Hollywood/Hampton Ladies. What’s easy to read in these portraits is satire of the desperation of middle-aged women, both their makeup and their facial expressions trying too hard. But Peaches pointed out that Sherman is also showing us their vulnerability inherent in this set of headshots designed to garner interest for their third act in life. Where I previously was simply in-on-the-joke of these portraits, I could now intimately—and uncomfortably—relate. The Hampton/Hollywood Ladies had something to offer me, a willingness to try and to make myself vulnerable in the process I was going through in defining my own next act.

At the end of the evening Peaches stood in front of the room and performed an unexpected costume change, using the draped dress as a beach towel changing device. Now donning a blush-colored sequined shorts romper, she belted out an excruciatingly raw rendition of Private Dancer. It was earnest and imperfect, an ending dedicated to the concept of quite literally exposing oneself. People whooped and applauded, smart enough to know they had seen something special.

•••

My takeaway from my evening with Sherman and Peaches wasn’t inspiration to embrace an identity radically different from my own. I am early middle-aged and inexorably shaped by the values and mores of life so far, and I didn’t leave the show ready to dye my hair pink and join the circus. They are the artists and it’s their job to operate at the radical edges of identity to show the rest of us what’s possible, giving us room to maneuver in the space in between. But I did take the experience as a reminder that my relative financial security was a ticket to engage in some trial and error about what I would do next, to emulate the toddler that Peaches had described.

She also seemed to be telling the room to be brave. Watching her perform considerable feats of derring-do like changing her clothes in front of a room full of people before belting out a vocally challenging song—and then, crucially, seeing that nothing bad happened—was a life affirming thing. To put it coarsely, I took her performance as a sort of creative invective to grow a pair. So much of my resistance to change—specifically leaving my job—was fear-based: that I would never find a job that paid this well again or that I would never find any job again. The inquiry pretty much stopped there, failing to go to the next step and ask “and then what?”

It reminded me of one of my favorite regular features in a Sunday newspaper magazine, an interview that always asks the subject “What would you do if you lost everything and had to start again?” Invariably the answer inspires less dread than one would imagine. Often it evokes the opposite in the interviewee—a sense of liberation, an opportunity to get back to what he or she loves. In other words, the answer to the question “what’s the worst that could happen?” usually isn’t that bad. Even if Peaches had bombed in her performance and everyone had booed, well, so what?

Years ago I was receiving instruction in sitting meditation from a zen Buddhist priest. Whenever I tried to sit cross-legged, one of my legs would invariably fall asleep. Alarmed, I called out to the teacher that my legs were falling asleep. “Is that so,” he responded, more statement than question. Without having to spell it out, the teacher had made his point: what’s the worst that could happen if my legs fell asleep? Not much as it turns out. If it got really bad I could always uncross my legs, an option that, remarkably given it was always wholly in my control, I seemed to have ruled out because I thought it would mean I was doing meditation wrong.

This is another abiding fear of mine in life: that I am doing it wrong.

And this, perhaps, is the siren call of artists like Peaches and Sherman. They are decidedly, unabashedly doing it wrong. Sherman’s Madonna is squirting milk from her plastic boob and Peaches is waving her penis in the air, both of which make it just a little bit easier for me to remember that quitting my job wasn’t really living life on the fringe. What could possibly go wrong?

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has recently appeared in the anthology, A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis, as well as Fiction Advocate, ExBerliner, and Remedy Quarterly. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

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The Fear

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

The doorbell rings. It’s five in the evening on a Saturday in April and I’m home alone. Not expecting anyone—not really knowing anyone in Berlin, where I’ve recently relocated from California for work—I’m not sure if I should answer it.

If my husband was here, he would have groaned, “What are you doing?” when I finally went for the door, telling me to “leave it.” But he wasn’t there and it’s almost impossible for me not to respond when summoned, a deeply ingrained response from most of my life up until now. If a call comes in from a number I don’t recognize, I’ll answer just in case someone actually needs to speak with me even though I know it’s almost certainly someone trying to upsell me a premium cable bundle. Maybe, I thought, it’s a neighbor wanting to ask if we have hot water, as I had done some weeks ago when we had none and it turned out our whole building was having problems.

“Who is it?” I ask through the still-closed door.

“It’s your neighbor, Christina. I need to come in. I am having a panic attack.”

There are eight apartments in my building, and I had only met the occupants of two of them: the woman who’d helped me when the water heater went out and the stern woman across the hall who rides a bicycle with a wire basket threaded with plastic pink flowers. (The stern woman had been our neighbor once before when my husband and I lived in the same apartment for eight months in 2011. She looked like she had seen a ghost when she saw us the first time after we moved back in.) I’m sure Christina is neither of them, and, despite the fact that we were in a building with a locked front door in a relatively affluent neighborhood, I pause to consider if Christina might be a crazy woman with a knife.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I’m not sure I feel comfortable letting a stranger in my house.”

“Please, I need to come in. I am having a panic attack,” she tells me again.

This time I believe her. I turn the bolt and pull open the heavy wood door, lacquered in a dried-blood-colored paint like all the others in this former East Berlin, turn-of-the-twentieth-century building. Kristina is wearing pajamas and glasses, her long blond hair unbrushed. Perhaps sensing that I’m sizing her up, she apologizes for her appearance. I’m also self-conscious. It’s too early in the day for the pajamas that I also wear, my contacts already replaced for the evening with glasses and my hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. I don’t apologize for my appearance, though; I’m not the one knocking on other people’s doors. I scarcely form these thoughts before Christina is speaking.

“I don’t know what to do. Since last night I have had the fear,” she says, each word articulated precisely in her German-accented English.

Fear is a direct translation of the German word angst, but it’s her use of an article in front of the word that anthropomorphizes her distress and catches me out. What was likely nothing more than a minor grammatical slip by a non-native English speaker reminds me of how I felt about my husband’s depression four years earlier in this exact same apartment. I came to think of it in human terms: an unwanted mistress that no amount of hand wringing from either of us could drive out.

•••

This evening was not the end I had anticipated to what had been an unusually euphoric day. My husband was in England for the weekend, and I had taken the opportunity to indulge in a day of carefree wandering that had somehow morphed into a shopping spree. It was the first real day of spring in Berlin since our arrival that March, and the city was buzzing. (I am not a woman who uses words like “euphoric,” “carefree,” “spree,” and “buzzing,” and yet they are true.)

It started with a bathing suit. I had no intention of buying a bathing suit, but it was a black, retro-style, one-piece number, the kind of thing fashion editors might refer to as timeless, and it seemed like a good idea. As did the scarf, dress, and two pairs of shoes at the shop around the corner. And the dress and two pairs of jauntily patterned flip-flops at the new-to-me Spanish chain store a couple blocks away. Then I ate a lunch of salad with a glass of Sekt at Lindner, a posh German deli. I can blame the backpack and pink-and-white-striped-slip-on sneakers that followed on the Sekt, but not the items that preceded them.

As I walked home, I pondered my uncharacteristic consumerism—this was the largest quantity of clothing I can remember buying in one outing since I was a teenager—and felt ill at ease with my happiness. I am of the school of thought that as soon as you become aware of your happiness, it’s destined to end.

To ward off my discomfort, I silently intoned Zen truisms, acknowledging I had no expectations for the happiness I currently felt to be permanent, and I joined a line for ice cream that had spilled out on to the sidewalk of Weinbergsweg. Here a theory emerged. My elation that had found expression through my American Express card was a product of being separated from my husband for the first time in many years by mutual choice without any anxiety attached. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t heard from him since a brief email exchange that morning. Nor did I feel worried about being out of touch. Just a couple of years earlier, this would have been unimaginable.

Around the time of our last stint living in Berlin, my husband’s depression and anxiety—and my complicity with both—had escalated to the point that any extended length of time apart simply wasn’t worth the angst. When my work required a business trip, my husband coped by demanding adherence to a strict ritual of communication: at least thrice-daily phone calls and regular text messages to keep him informed of my movements at all times. Should I lose track of time at a business dinner and fail to contact him, there were consequences. The worst of these occurred during a work trip to Shanghai when, late one night after such a dinner, he threatened to check himself into a hospital if I didn’t fly home that evening. At that point it seemed to me his “threat” was the most humane thing he could do for both of us.

I didn’t fly home (despite my husband’s pain, he has never been suicidal), but I still felt defeated. When I had some free time the next day, I stayed in the hotel rather than stroll on the Bund—which I had hoped to see on what I thought would be my one and only visit to Shanghai—because I knew that I could only get a reliable phone signal and access to my email at the hotel. It was just easier that way. Neither did my husband check himself into a hospital in my absence. Instead we both carried on in this state, equally suspended in the disbelief that this was really happening.

How could it be happening when we had both seen a therapist regularly for years previously? We had done the work, slayed the demons. We clung to these former lives as therapy patients like a talisman even when it resolutely failed to protect us. Insanely, we even undertook an international relocation for my job, our first move to Berlin in 2011.

By then I was used to the demands of being constantly in touch via text message, even if my husband had the uncanny knack of summoning me as I was carrying bags of groceries up the five flights of stairs or fumbling for my keys. Mobile phones had become the curse of my existence, but they were nothing compared to his crying jags and panic attacks. These started in earnest in Berlin, once while on a walk around one of the many Seen (lakes) on the outskirts of the city, another in the Eames-style armchair in the guest bedroom of our furnished rental apartment. An English-speaking cognitive behavioral therapist with an office near Zoo was identified, and my husband returned from his first appointment with stacks of photocopied pages for me on how to respond to someone having a panic attack. They helped when, on a bench in the departure hall of Schönefeld Airport waiting for a flight to England, he told me he couldn’t get on the flight. At least I knew there was no use trying to talk him out of it. We stood and walked silently back past security, then down the long outdoor corridor to the S-Bahn back to Alexanderplatz.

•••

Back in the Berlin apartment, I tell Christina to sit down and direct her to a metal chair with a raffia seat in a tiny alcove of the entryway. The better part of me thinks I should ask her upstairs to sit on the couch, but I am still on guard.

“I have the same chair!” Christina says, and we are both grateful for the reprieve of ­­this kindred if unlikely brought-to-us-by-Ikea moment.

“Would you like a glass of water?” I ask.

Christina does not want a glass of water, which she indicates by ignoring the question and telling me several times in a row that she doesn’t know what to do.

I think of the time four years ago when my husband sat slumped in that same chair, having just thrown a Roma tomato at the wall in an act of poignantly impotent rage. I tell her what I should have told him then.

“You need to see a doctor.” (What I told my husband instead: “I’m calling my father,” a declaration made all the more strange by the fact that my father and I do not have a close emotional relationship. But I couldn’t think of anyone else who had the virtues of being both unencumbered enough and willing to fly across the Atlantic to help extract us from the situation.)

“I can’t. I’m on family health insurance. My parents won’t pay for me anymore to go to the doctor. I went to the doctor today, and he tells me because my blood pressure is normal there is nothing he can do,” Christina tells me in despair.

I fantasize about grabbing that doctor by the shoulders and shaking him. I wonder about the state of German mental health care, which, aside from the American therapist my husband saw privately here in 2011, I know nothing about. I tell her again that she needs to see a doctor.

After a few more minutes of sitting in my entryway, Christina leaves, having resolved to try to call her parents again. I wonder if I should have been more generous, insisted she stay longer, come upstairs, and relax a while. But the truth is I am also worried that I’ve opened a Pandora’s Box with Christina that I will regret. Will she knock on my door again in the middle of the night? The next day? And the day after that?

“It’s not your fault, you’re going to be okay,” I tell her as she steps onto the landing to go back downstairs to her apartment. “Everything is going to be okay.”

•••

These days, things are okay for my husband and me. I didn’t call my father that afternoon in Berlin. Instead my husband and I endured too much for too long until, finally, back in America, we both went back to therapy and he went on antidepressants. Four years later we’ve returned to Berlin to the very same apartment. Memories of things I’d rather forget are inevitable. Even beautiful spring days can’t escape suspicion.

•••

Christina never knocked on my door again, but sometimes I think about what I’d like to say to her if she did, and, I suppose, what I wish I had been able to say to my husband and his “mistress” four years ago. In this fantasy I morph into Anne Lamott acting out a postmodern version of a knock-knock joke.

Christina: Knock, knock.

Me as A.L.: Who’s there?

Christina: The fear.

Me as A.L.: Why come in and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea! Maybe the fear would like a slice of cake, too?

It’s an unlikely scenario because, at forty-three, no matter how much I admire the tribe of warm, wise women that Lamott represents, my inherently prickly nature always manages to poke through. Personality limitations aside, I like to think that at least next time I could tell Christina this: Don’t worry—we all have the fear. Even those of us who spent the day shopping and eating ice cream and walking in the park while sending inane tweets about how spring has finally sprung in Berlin. Most of all, we have the fear.

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 IndieReader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Tales from a Small Planet, and she’s a contributor to Edible Ojai & Ventura County. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.