Everything is Personal, This is Personal Too

Editor Emmi Mack reviews Laurie Stone’s latest collection, Everything is Personal: Notes on Now.

Everything is Personal: Notes on Now / Laurie Stone / Scuppernong / $18 (Paperback)

In her latest collection of hybrid nonfiction, Everything is Personal: Notes on Now, Laurie Stone presents her thoughtful brand of cultural criticism through deeply intimate snapshots of memoir. Her perceptions of art, both contemporary and what’s stuck with her for decades, emerge inseparable from the current events which pervade and define daily life in the era of Trump and #MeToo, so seemingly far from the heyday of The Village Voice where Stone was a regular writer exploring and reveling in 1980’s New York City.

Beginning with the aftermath of the 2016 election, the essayistic prose of Everything is Personal exists in ten distinct pieces. One of these, The Clock, is spliced between every other chapter to recur again and again. In this braided format The Clock is at once tucked away and lurking. When Stone’s other works reach, inevitably, their conclusions, one must only turn the page and there it is again! The Clock still ticking. Structured like diary entries, every subsection of The Clock contains dated, staccato observations that fold back onto memory, recalling characters and grappling firsthand with grief. The experience is not so different from an eloquent version of cellphone Notes or scrolling down the timeline of a Facebook oversharer.

So enjoyable was digging into this version of Stone’s private world that I limited myself to one essay per day, and so my reading stretched over the course of two weeks. Though jam-packed, Everything is Personal is a slim book and every morning I found myself looking forward to the day’s brief entry which I usually took alongside a cup of cold black coffee. This lengthened allotment of time, in the end, led to deeper clarity inside my own thoughts as I reacted to the page. Stone’s writing invites the mind to speak back casually, naturally, and also to take itself seriously. So here are my own notes on now, as I am reading and quarantining and watching the news and graduating college and being personal too.

May 15, 2020. I moved back into my parents’ house today. It’s mother’s day. I’ve spent the past two months holed up at a friend’s apartment, trying to wait out the virus and finish classes online. My friend’s apartment is in Wicker Park, basically the trendiest Chicago neighborhood, and her building overlooks a street full of loaded retail, like the Carhartt store and the Yeti water bottle store, and a maple-glazed donut stand and a boutique hotel. Her apartment sits above Doc Martens and its ceilings are lofted so the windows are so tall. The two of us sat on the sill and looked out everyday to empty sidewalks and empty shops. When I got back to my parent’s today there was a book waiting for me. I forgot that I had ordered it on Amazon weeks before. Recommended by the algorithm.

May 18, 2020. I don’t know who Laurie Stone is. But I’m familiar with Chris Kraus, who wrote the intro. At college I studied nonfiction writing and in a few days I will be graduating via broadcast commencement. While I may not get my cap and gown, I will still be able to display my diploma frames proudly with my accomplishments. Still, I think that lately I feel very overwhelmed by time, or the time, and it’s really comforting to read someone who is openly combing through the present and that must have been what appealed to me in the blurbs about this book on Amazon. I also read the weekly recaps of TV shows I’ve never watched and am never going to watch. I also read so many mean reviews of bad movies. I think I like writing that’s extremely literal and that reflects back to a story, sometimes more than I like reading a story. Stories can be scary! They ask and expect so much.

May 19, 2020. In introducing The Clock, Stone writes about seeing the 2010 art film by Christian Marclay, also called The Clock. Stone encountered chunks of this work on December 4, 2016 as she described in her notes on December 5, 2016. Marclay’s film is 24 hours long, and looped, every minute consisting of another film clip where a clock is shown displaying that exact numbered moment: At 12:05 pm there’s Richard Gere shirtless, gumming cocaine and singing along to his clock radio while he rifles through the closet (American Gigolo, 1980). At 12:06 pm Max von Sidow hunches nervously in black and white as he turns to check the grandfather clock, its swinging pendulum (I’m not sure where exactly this scene comes from). At 4:41 pm, Robert Redford hits a home run and the baseball crashes into the big board stadium clock, smashing it to pieces (The Natural, 1984). I love that movie. I saw The Clock for myself in 2015 at LACMA. I was in California on vacation with my parents, we were renting a condo at the tar pits and I spent so many hours of that lovely week alone in the air conditioned dark room of the museum. The Clock is 24 hours long and wherever it plays, it plays all night. I kept sneaking off there. I was only seventeen, admission was free.

May 20, 2020. I thought I’d keep a quarantine diary but I didn’t. There was nothing going on. I hardly wanted to write my final papers. For one of my papers, the last one, I barely strung the argument together. Instead I listed a bunch of facts regarding and coincidences connecting the movie Chinatown to the life of Marlon Brando. (Our class was on the Beat Generation, and the final week’s readings concerned method acting.) I turned in the list which sounded cool when read aloud, I thought, but my professor responded that tricks will only get me so far.

May 21, 2020. There’s something that really scares me about Chinatown. I think about it all the time, how Noah Cross is so evil and wins. I watched Chinatown for an American history class and during discussion, the professor explained how Roman Polanski’s mother was killed in Auschwitz and little, dancing Roman was used by German soldiers for target practice. Obviously, the story was meant to illuminate the past of a man who we all know did something bad. Some of the kids in class were angry to be discussing Polanski at all, and they said so. I didn’t say anything though, I didn’t raise my hand. Personally I think Polanski’s abuses heighten the terror of Chinatown‘s ending and complicate Cross by forcing aspects of his character into the critical realm of nonfiction, deepening the film’s impact and inviting further questions of futility. But I found this impossible to explain out loud. In her essay, “Was It Good for You?” Stone challenges the notion that art produced by a person who commits “bad” acts “contaminates the culture” because “Art, for the most part, is more complex and mysterious than the person who made it… No more Rosemary’s Baby produces a duller, more shriveled world.” In another essay, “In 1968 I Thought It Would Always Be 1968,” Stone says, “Rosemary’s Baby is terrifying, conjuring menace in ordinary life, something brewing in the body, the family, the polis that controls us.” Last halloween I dressed up as the devil and my roommate was Rosemary. We did his makeup gaunt and I wore a stick-on beard. Is that lame? We went to parties in Brooklyn. Is that missing the point?

May 22, 2020. I’ve been reading the book in the backyard while my dad cleans the garage. As long as I’ve been alive the garage has not been clean. It’s so full of stuff: lawnmowers hanging from the ceiling, industrial-sized refrigerators, shelves of tools, empty plastic buckets, dented garden hoses, so much dust, dead rats. I’ve never seen a car inside of it. But my dad is replacing the brake lines on his Tahoe and needs the space to slide under the frame. (We don’t have a driveway.) So first, he will clean the garage which could take weeks. He retired last week. From the patio, I watch him schlep out box after box of garbage.

May 23, 2020. My group of friends from college have sublet their Harlem apartments to rent a house upstate for the summer, near the Baseball Hall of Fame. New York City is on hold anyways, they figured, and nobody has a job. I wonder if I should join them. Of living upstate in Hudson, Stone writes: “In the 1970s and 1980s, empty storefronts with dusty chairs, withered plants, and other remnants of tragic departures alternated with antiques stores run mainly by gay men and women. These days a pound of salami on the high street costs $32.”

May 24, 2020. I listened to a podcast about the St. Francis Dam disaster. The St. Francis Dam was engineered by William Mulholland, who masterminded the infrastructure which diverted water to Los Angeles from Owens Valley in 1913, thus cementing Los Angeles’ future as an urban metropolis and inciting the water wars which served as historical backdrop in Polanski’s Chinatown. The martyred character of Hollis Mulwray is modeled after Mulholland. Though Mulholland never formally trained as an engineer, he succeeded in building the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Ten years later, he headed the construction of the St. Francis Dam, a new water repository, located 10 miles north of what’s now Santa Clarita, which could provide the backup necessary as Owens Valley farmers continued to attack the aqueduct with dynamite. The St. Francis Dam held 12.4 billion gallons of water, and stood for exactly two hours following Mulhollan’s final safety inspection. When the dam collapsed, the water besieged neighboring towns as crashing waves carried on them houses and uprooted trees and cars and bodies. The death toll is estimated at 431, although this number is likely vastly undervalued as it does not account for undocumented workers and their families, many of whom traveled from Mexico to build the dam.

May 26, 2020. Today a video went viral. The police officer knelt on the man’s neck for nine minutes.

May 31, 2020. My best friend from high school lives in Minneapolis now. He called to tell me about the protests which have been nonstop all week. He sounded exhausted and exhilarated and old. He described biking around town with milk jugs and dousing people’s eyes. Two of his roommates were marching on the 35W bridge when a semi truck drove into the crowd and one of them was arrested in the resulting chaos. My friend said that the memorial which has sprung up on 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, the corner where George Floyd was killed, was becoming a quiet and reflective space. All of the protestors there are very defensive, he said, of the memorial and of each other. They stand out all night. He also told me about the Target, the first store that was looted. He snuck inside days later and sent me a video. In the video, water is ankle-deep on a familiar white floor. DVDs float by, glinting, the shelves are toppled. The alarms are still ringing and blinking even though the lights are off.

June 1, 2020. The Doc Marten store in Wicker Park was looted too.

June 2, 2020. I have a Facebook friend who is occasionally very lucid on the internet. He used to hang out with my roommate and he teaches philosophy. Today I stumbled upon this post: the constant attempt to tell “good” from “bad” protesters testifies to a familiar liberal pathology. the liberal picture of political action imagines a self-possessed and assertive individual who knows what they believe in and act on these beliefs. ideally, that individual is capable of transcending their self-interest and raw emotions and act on some sort of pure and disinterested political (or rather “moral”) cause. in this picture, collective political action arises from such individual actions – an aggregate of such self-possessed, morally driven, individuals. but it’s nonsense. people come out to the streets for multiple, often contradictory, motives – because they’re enraged, loving, bored, feeling guilty, horny, believe in justice, believe in nihilism, hate trump, hate biden, hate themselves, love themselves, believe in the afterlife, in this life, fancy content for instagram, fancy a gucci bag or an iphone… collective political action is not the aggregate of self-possessed, assertive individual actions. it rather requires the ability to tell a new yet old story, organize and offer a vision that help people make sense of-indeed justify-their immediate, raw feelings and aggression, including our much deserved right for an iPhone or a Gucci bag.

June 5, 2020. My dad found a Wesley Willis painting in the garage. Wesley Willis was a schizophrenic and intermittently homeless punk musician who gained a cult following in Chicago during the 90’s. He sings Rock & Roll McDonalds. His visual art is also popular, as he produced hundreds of large-scale colored ink drawings of street scenes. All the license plate numbers are supposedly real and recreated from memory. Willis died in 2003. His drawings are typically valued at $5000 although ours is probably worth less. The corner is water damaged.

June 6, 2020. I’ve been attending protests wearing latex gloves and an N-95 mask beneath a plastic face shield. A friend and I have been passing out bottles of water at the protest. We go through a few hundred bottles at each event since the days are so hot, plus passing out water offers an excuse to avoid entering the crowd. I’m avoiding crowds since I’m still living with my parents, whose age puts them at risk for the virus.

June 7, 2020. At protests it’s funny to watch how eagerly everyone grabs the water bottles since I’m accustomed to people wincing over the waste generated by single-use plastic. One friend in particular, an environmentalist acquaintance from college, was always especially harsh regarding my habit for throwaway plastic water bottles. But my dad encourages drinking from them. When I was in high school he started working at the Chicago water plant, fixing the big machines which perform purification for our local lake water. He loved tap water before that (most Chicagoans do) but once he started working at the plant, he never trusted it again. He told me about pulling out mangled seagulls last-minute that would get stuck twisted in the aquatic basins. And so for almost eight years now, we’ve been a bottled water family. I honestly don’t think about it much, except one time when the college environmentalist convinced a few of us to attend an Extinction Rebellion meeting in the basement of a church near St. Marks. Nobody else showed up and so we were stuck sitting directly across an imaginary circle from the meeting moderators on metal fold-up chairs. We were all supposed to share something personal. The girl who brought me started crying when she described the smog she saw while traveling through Australia, I don’t remember where exactly. I believe that her tears were authentic, however it sounds. But I could never make myself cry thinking about climate change and so instead I thought about my friend from high school who had OD’d at a party a few nights earlier. Charlie. Was there religiosity in the basement or did I imagine it? When I had to speak for myself, I mentioned how often I find myself thinking about this one episode of The Daily podcast from more than a year ago. As Michael Barbaro detailed the predictions of the UN’s damning climate report, the impending extinctions and fallout, the segment was so heavily scored. A stringy symphony swelled and as I stood listening through earbuds on a city bus, my eyes were wet with surprising tears. And from then on I never forgot how all it took to overcome me was theatrics; I’d read all about the report by then. But the score was so fundamental. The activists in the basement might have disagreed, although they humored me and called it an interesting point. Nowadays I’m noticing the same thing in commercials for DoorDash, where the camera pans vacant restaurants set to piano keys and a kind voice over says: Open for Delivery.

June 30, 2020. I thought I’d keep a quarantine diary but I didn’t. I’m lazy. I watched sitcoms instead and now I’m rushing to come up with something. There was a quote by Andy Warhol in Stone’s book that really stuck with me. First, Stone presents the story of Valerie Solonas’ life, explaining her early abuse, lesbianism, the SCUM Manifesto, and the various attempts made by other artists to capture Solanas’ life through fiction. Years after Solonas shot Warhol, Warhol said, “Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there – I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”