Writer Ray Lipstein describes the melodrama of looking in the mirror.
ABOUT THE GUEST RL (Ray) Lipstein is a writer, editor, and performer who works for The New Yorker, and previously for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and the United Nations. They were elected president of Girls Nation in 2009, on a universal healthcare platform, before leaving mock politics and organized gender.
ABOUT THE HOST Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.
ABOUT THE TITLE SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.
CREDITS This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund. Producer: Devon Guinn Creative Consultants: Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue Mixer: Andrew Litton Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver Theme Song: Jeff Hiller Website: Itai Almor & Jesse Kimotho Digital Strategy: Ziv Steinberg Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Larry Krone, Tod Lippy, Sue Simon, Jonathan Taylor
NEIL: I am so happy to have Ray Lipstein with me on a remote version of She's a Talker. Ray, thank you so much for being with me.
RAY: It is my pleasure. More than my pleasure.
NEIL: What is more than your pleasure?
RAY: My pain, I guess. I don't know.
NEIL: So you're saying it is painful to be here.
RAY: Yeah. It fits somewhere between ennui and delight. It goes backwards.
NEIL: There falls the shadow. So we're talking remotely, how are you doing? Whatever that means. We're talking, I think, probably two months into quarantine in New York.
RAY: I am holding up well. I rearranged my bedroom last night in a feat of extreme 2:00 AM industriousness and it feels great. It's converted the bed psychologically into a day bed, the new orientation. So I'm excited for my roommate to get back who is with their partner. They're not a Gog. I'm going to send them away again. It's very big news.
NEIL: Okay. When someone asks you what you do, how do you succinctly describe to them what it is?
RAY: I work at The New Yorker. No further questions.
NEIL: Okay. I'll accept that.
RAY: No, no, no, don't accept it. Don't accept it. If someone asks me, what do I do, well, first of all, I would say, "Do you mean for a living? What do you mean? And why are you asking?" Those are all first line questions. And if push comes to shove, I say I'm a copy editor at The New Yorker.
NEIL: All right. So first card is most photography is melodramatic. By definition, photography is melodramatic because it's the moment, right? It's always the moment.
RAY: To preserve a moment is melodramatic.
NEIL: Well, I don't know if to preserve it, to present it, to say, okay, here's this flux of life and I am going to take this one moment. Fuck preserving it. And I'm going to offer it. I'm offering you this one moment. Okay. That's the theoretical problem with it, but then I think pragmatically, photographs often look melodramatic just by virtue of something being stopped in the middle of something. So let's say you're looking at a picture from a photo album where your mother is looking into the camera and your father is looking off to the side and you're in the baby carriage holding a rattle. That is melodrama, because all that shit by virtue of being extracted from the flux of time is being given this outsized importance.
RAY: It definitely seems like a bit arrogant or presumptuous. I mean, that seems like part of it, right? What you're saying that, to free. Yeah. And to present any moment, any given moment in time, it's something worthy of, as you say, isolating it out of that flux. I associate melodrama with overwrought emotionalism.
NEIL: Which I think this has paradoxically by its restraint.
RAY: Huh? Yeah. I mean, if you're going to say that, I mean, I have to say that all art is melodramatic then. I would say that card is melodramatic.
NEIL: Oh, all the cards are melodramatic because it's by virtue of saying, look at this thought I had. It's worth your attention. It's sort of like at the beginning of the podcast, can I tell you this may be a slightly different thing, I've in the past introduced it by saying, "Hi, I'm Neil Goldberg, and this is She's A Talker. That to me seems like the height of presumption or melodrama or something, like who the fuck cares if you're Neil Goldberg and who cares if the podcast is called She's A Talker?
RAY: Well, once you said that it's melodramatic in its restraint, I kind of start to feel like everything, including life, is melodramatic because then both the things that are literally melodramatic and the things that are restrained are melodramatic. And I absolutely feel that way. We're constantly looking to melodrama.
NEIL: Everything. Everything is melodramatic basically.
RAY: And you would only start it with most photography. How quickly were you realized? Yeah. I mean, I think for practical reasons I can offer a defense of you giving your name and the name of the podcast at the beginning, but I definitely see why it seems crazily hubristic and presumptuous and absurd, but it also feels crazily hubristic and presumptuous and absurd to look at myself in the mirror in the morning and try on multiple outfits and then go out the door thinking about how I look. I mean, it's presumptuous to have an identity. That's why you just got to strive for ego death. Everything short of ego death is melodrama.
NEIL: Next card. Does the immune system ever get tired of all the conflict?
RAY: This one made me giggle. I love to personify the immune system.
NEIL: When you kind of personify it, does it have features?
RAY: My immune system would be extremely neurotic. It would be anxious and avoidant and inefficient, over-reactive. Oh, all these sorts of things that you also might characterize me with. It would be true of him, my immune system.
NEIL: Okay. Your immune system is gendered male.
RAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, yeah. Uses he pronouns for now, I guess.
NEIL: You say that your immune system is avoidant. What does it avoid?
RAY: I mean, I think of my immune system's avoidant in terms of hay fever. When allergies come, it just absolutely drops. The ball runs the opposite direction. It doesn't even put up or maybe that's wrong. Maybe it's an over, I forget exactly what is it.
NEIL: If you have allergies, that means you have an overactive immune system, I believe.
RAY: Yeah. I think we're going to have to scratch all this for my pride, but I mean, it may not be avoidant in a literal sense, but it's avoidant emotionally and it knows that and I know it. Just because you're tackling, you could be avoiding a real conflict by throwing yourself at the conflict in an inefficient way. There's all sorts of ways you can avoid.
NEIL: Oh my God, that's the story somehow of my art career, but not about conflict, but about opportunities.
NEIL: Once one has decided that the Zoom meeting is over the rush to end the call. I'm talking about pressing the button that actually ends the call, so as not to be in that zone between when the meeting is over and the call has been disconnected.
RAY: Yeah. I'm so glad you named this. I relate to it strongly. And I embarrassed myself at work Slack bemoaning it happening to me with my therapist. Every time we Zoom, she beats me out of there. So I'm working on it. Because it feels, and that doesn't just feel like embarrassment. That feels like abandonment. I mean, it's therapy. Every time.
NEIL: You don't want to be abandoned.
RAY: You don't want to be abandoned.
NEIL: That's it right? It's about abandonment.
RAY: You don't want to be the schmuck alone in the room. Yeah. It feels like rejection, I suppose. But the Zoom, you have to click it and then it'll say, "Are you sure you want to leave the meeting?" So there's that second. That's where I always get held up. Everyone leaves while I'm waiting to confirm that I want to leave, but on FaceTime, they don't ask you anything. And I was talking to a good friend of mine yesterday or two days ago, and I wanted to beat her out of that call so that I didn't feel abandoned. And I tried to compensate for the popup and there was no popup. And instead I hung up on her in mid sentence and that's kind of like, that's the price you pay to make sure you're not the last one left.
NEIL: That really reminds me. I was deep into magic as a kid in high school. No. Well, yes, in high school, but all the way in elementary school. And I remember I once did a magic show for the elementary school. Maybe I was in junior high and I came back to the elementary school to do a magic show. And the teacher was introducing me, but I had the feeling like, wait, she's actually not going to introduce me. She was doing kind of a roundabout introduction that I think was maybe speaking to magic broadly, and I had this profound fear that she's just going to forget to introduce me. So I just came out in the middle of her introduction and started doing my show. Let's sit with that, right?
RAY: There's a lot there.
NEIL: I think I do, and I suspect you do too, if someone is, well, an introduction is often praising and of course I desperately want to be praised, but I don't want to be seen needing the praise, so I try to preempt it. So if someone is saying something nice about my art, which of course I want to hear, but I'll often cut them off. This connects to a card actually that I have here, which is when people praise me, it makes me wonder what narcissistic thing they detect in me that is pulling for them to praise me. Whenever someone's praising me, I think, oh wait, they can tell I'm asking for the praise or my whole personality is structured around needing praise.
RAY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What makes you think that they can tell?
NEIL: Because I feel like one is always 100% transparent. That I deeply believe. People can always tell, don't you think?
RAY: I don't know. I don't know. I was in a dialectical behavioral therapy group for a bit and they have these versions of Zen koans, but they're kind of very banal phrases instead. And there's one that's like, never in the history of the universe has anyone ever read another person's mind. But I took issue with that one because I mean, it really just eliminates the idea of magic from the schema. I don't want to believe it, but also it does give me some comfort because then no one, you know. I remind myself that constantly that no one can read my mind and it helps. It might help you receive compliments, because you do. We really want them.
NEIL: Okay. There's the magic version of reading minds, but reading a mind is also just picking up on cues that manifest themselves. I feel like I'm a terrible liar. I just know if I'm lying to someone, unless they're just really tuned out, they can tell it. So that's not them reading my mind that they know what I'm saying is a lie. They can read it on my face. Likewise, if I'm feeling greedy for a compliment, I just think that manifests itself.
RAY: Maybe you have very expressive body language.
NEIL: This card says, how animals hide their pain, but what about a hypochondriacal animal?
RAY: Do you have an animal that is hypochondriacal?
NEIL: No, I had known lots of people and people are animals, but no, the closest I could come up with are those birds that as a strategy to protect their nests, they fly away from the nest and pretend they have a broken wing to attract the predator to them and then they fly away. Is that hypochondria or is that, well, it's a strategy and maybe hypochondria is a strategy. And it draws attention, which hypochondria does.
RAY: That's interesting.
NEIL: That's the closest I can get to a hypochondriacal animal.
RAY: There is a dog in this 19 whatever vet book about an English veterinarian who lives in the countryside.
NEIL: All Creatures Great and Small?
RAY: All Creatures Great and Small.
NEIL: Oh my God. That was, I think, the first book I ever read.
RAY: No shit. Yeah. Really?
NEIL: Oh, I was obsessed with it. James Harriot. James Harriot, right?
RAY: Yeah. Totally. So right. James Harriot goes, he's this country doctor and he has to earn the respect of his eccentric boss and join the practice. He's seeing a Pekingese, I think, who is owned, I forget what the Pekingese's name is. I'm trying to find the, oh, I opened to it. Amazing. Ms. Pumphrey. Oh, yeah. Tricky, the Pekingese and Tricky needs, I don't know whether it's Tricky who is the hypochondriac or Mrs. Pumphrey, but he needs to squeeze Tricky's anal glands every so often.
NEIL: Oh, I remember this vaguely.
RAY: Tricky gets uncomfortable. Yeah. Iconic. I mean, definitely an iconic one. And then the story is really about how Mrs. Pumphrey anthropomorphizes Tricky and how James Harriot has to make sure to thank Tricky and not Mrs. Pumphrey for the cigars and the sherry or whatever he gets at Christmas because the gift is from the dog, but the dog, he doesn't really even seem to need the anal glands being squeezed. So actually I think it's still the owner who's hypochondriacal unfortunately at the end of this whole story.
NEIL: You're right. It's like Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy. God, lots of memories from that book. And I worked summers in high school at veterinarian's offices, because I wanted to be a veterinarian for a long time. An animal lover.
RAY: Was it because of the books?
NEIL: I think the books were because of that. I was just obsessed with animals from an early age, but one thing that will turn you off to being a veterinarian is working for veterinarians. I think for me, it was just seeing a lot of animals suffering. I just couldn't deal with it. But I saw a lot of anal glands being expressed. Did you say express?
RAY: I didn't.
NEIL: Because that's what it's called. You express the anal glands.
RAY: I love that more than anything I've heard all day. That is. Tell me if this is true, because if so, it's tragic. Must anal glands always be expressed by another or can they express themselves?
NEIL: I don't have the answer to that question. I got to believe that they can be expressed themselves, unless that was some real clever form of domestication that happened. It's like maybe that's why dogs domesticated themselves, to get their anal glands expressed.
RAY: They lost the ability to express. Yeah. Well, let's just hope they don't take up photography.
NEIL: People who go through a stage where they don't smile for photos should just skip that phase. I went through that phase, I should say.
RAY: Let them just skip it. Let them skip it. They don't need it.
NEIL: And there are some people who are stuck in that phase. But you're right. You don't need it, but is there any photograph that's better by virtue of the fact that the person's not smiling?
RAY: Loads, millions, all of the ones. I think so. It introduces this kind of amazing mystery to all the photos before the convention of smiling in photographs. There's a photograph in my parents' basement of a great aunt of ours. And there're just all these incredibly pale looking Latvian girls in dark robes and they all look, they're so serious, but you know that they're school girls and someone's got gum in someone's hair and eight of them have crushes on each other. What's happening? And you can't tell. There's this sort of unaccountable distance that the imagination has to bridge between what these faces might look like if their personalities could have come through if they'd had more choice, I suppose, in how to form their expressions.
RAY: I guess what I advocate for is choice ultimately. There shouldn't be a mandate to smile. If you think you have a crappy smile and it makes your face look funny, as I kind of feel about my face, then you shouldn't have to smile. You choose the expression most appropriate in the moment.
NEIL: I like that.
RAY: And that's the only way to really keep it from being a melodramatic photograph, I think.
NEIL: I think smiling in a photograph is a way to acknowledge the melodrama. How's that? I think not smiling supports the melodrama.
RAY: Yeah. Smiling fights it. I agree, because then it's a farce if you're smiling.
NEIL: You're acknowledging. You're acknowledging it.
RAY: Yeah. I'll just say if you take away the coy avoidant pout from me for a photograph, you'd be depriving me of one of my few remaining crutches, so I hope you come around.
NEIL: I do know that pout. I know that pout. I like it. I love it. I also love your smile though, because I feel like your smile is a hard one smile.
RAY: Interesting. It's about a great battle. That does recall, yeah, I was going to say something earlier when you were talking on the card, the card on people praising you because it makes you wonder what narcissistic thing you did they detect. I mean, please don't include this. But there was in high school, they called this face I made the a hundred face, which was when I got back an a hundred on a quiz or a test and it would be this evil, a rapid flicker between a smile and a frown and a frown that was exaggeratedly. It's a horrific, horrific bastardization of what a facial expression should be. Just a constantly moving war to prevent a smirk, a smirk for getting at a hundred on a quiz or a test, or just to hide the joy or to hide whatever the self satisfaction. And whenever it came, I was so conscious of what my face looked like to others, that they gave it a name.
NEIL: The hundred face, but can we just completely put a button on this by saying, you say there's no such thing as mind reading, you were trying to kind of jam the signal of people's ability to read your mind as expressed by your facial expression. This speaks to the truth that people can read your mind, or at least you fear people read your mind. I have to include this. You prefaced by saying not include it. I just feel like I would violate, even though this isn't journalism, I would violate journalistic ethics to include that.
RAY: Oh my God. Only if your credibility as a journalist is on the line. If those are the stakes, then I will see.
NEIL: Oh my God.
RAY: And maybe my friend, Lizzie, will hear her famous phrase.
NEIL: Oh, I love Lizzie for naming that. You know what the hundred phase reminds me of by the way, although I think it's actually totally different, but it's this thing I do where I'm saying something and I'm about to use a fancy word. And by the way, I'm using that word not to show off, I think, but because it feels like the right word, but I don't want to be seen as trying to show off. So there's this little stumble or pause or something I do before I say the word that actually I think it then draws attention to the word or to me. I don't know. Do you have that situation?
RAY: Yeah, I have that situation really bad. I don't know if I do the pause, but no matter what, the way I handle the self consciousness makes it more conspicuous. I think I just make a really shameful hand in the cookie jar kind of face and dark glances to see if anyone's noticed that I've used an unacceptable word. And I mean, I was made fun of this my whole life for using big words, I guess, was the common accusation. And like, "Why do you have to talk like that?" All sorts. And they're absolutely right. There was no reason to talk like that. I mean, it's just I was getting vocab words in my lunchbox every day from my mom from a book and there's only so much you can do with that much input and had to use it, use it or lose it.
NEIL: Because your mom is a librarian, right?
RAY: My mom, she works at the library. She is a library circulation. She's a clerk.
NEIL: And she would slip a word into your lunchbox every day?
RAY: She would casually slip a word of the day every day of the week. And then on Fridays, a vocab quiz, or maybe it was the end of the month after and I do 30 of them, I'd get quiz.
NEIL: Wow. Now, would she ever slip in a vocabulary word, but forget your actual lunch?
RAY: I think probably the words were what kept her remembering to make lunch.
NEIL: Maybe your mom should be on She's A Talker since it's so centered around these index cards.
RAY: Yeah. Well, in fairness, they were cards printed with the names of Lindt chocolates in different combinations, like milk chocolate shell with a hazelnut filling and a coconut shavings on top and numbered and then the backside was blank, and they were being reused from when my dad was a market researcher and Lindt Chocolate was his client at one point. And for our whole lives, our note cards were these focus group discarded Lindt Chocolate cards.
NEIL: That's so beautiful. I hope you're saving that for whatever, for your novel, for your one person show.
RAY: I think I was saving it for this. And this is where this memory will finally be discharged.
NEIL: I love it a discharged memory, especially remotely. A remote discharged memory.
RAY: I knew you wouldn't let me get away with saying discharge.
NEIL: When this is all over, by this I mean our current who the fuck knows what over means, but what is it you're looking forward to?
RAY: What am I looking forward to? One thing I miss is getting on the subway and moving through all the cars of the train in case my one true love is somewhere on the train, but not in the car that I got into and going from car to car to see if someone is there who I will meet, and none of that is possible now.
NEIL: I love it. I'm sending you a huge virtual hug out to Bed Stuy from the Lower East Side. Thank you so much for being on She's A Talker.
RAY: Neil, thank you so much for having me. It's been a total delight.
NEIL: She's A Talker with Neil Goldberg. She's a talker with fabulous guests. She's a talker, it's better than it sounds. Yeah.