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Gary Goldschneider compiled the character traits of over fourteen thousand people to create The Secret Language of Birthdays. This bible was Goldschneider’s crowning achievement, though he had others. A self-described “personologist,” he was also a pianist notorious for marathon performances: he played all of Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas, in chronological order, in one sitting (twelve hours), and all of Mozart’s sonatas in one sitting (six hours, three water breaks). The Secret Language of Birthdays follows the same gloriously logical yet irrational ordering principle of this kind of marathon performance. The 832-page volume devotes two-page spreads to every single day of the year. Goldschneider’s pronouncements rely heavily on the twelve zodiac signs—indeed, the book’s introduction provides the layman with a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of sun-sign astrology—and so the year begins on the first day in Aries, and the vernal equinox. Each day gets an enchanting definite article; August 24 is not just any old Day of Astute Examination but the day, the only one that could possibly be thus.
Each spread presents an equitable overview of the personality traits of people born on that day. Take mine (thanks for asking!): I’m December 16, the Day of Soaring Imagination. The description of those born on the day begins with the positive—“among the most imaginative people”—but doesn’t fail to offer the flip side: “December 16 people are not the easiest to live with … some born on this day must be in their own world to work effectively.” The back-and-forth continues, in a Dagwood-sized compliment sandwich. Ultimately, “the highs of laughter and the depths of deep silence are all colors found on the December 16 palette.” Goldschneider also presents celebrities born on your day, as well as a tarot card and a mantra (“The storms of life eventually blow over”). An interactive web version of the book is explorable here. During the pandemic, the birthday book became one of my trusted methods of marking time. Hours felt oversignified, weeks became muddled, but the book’s Days—whose defining characteristics existed vertically through the years, like a tree trunk’s rings—gave the calendar a symbolic consistency that had nothing to do with anything going on yet was always oddly relevant. My friend unexpectedly went into labor on February 4, the Day of the Curveballer, and it blew straight through February 5, the Day of Quiet Eloquence; she birthed her son on February 6, the Day of Popularity. (“A popular kid?” she lamented.) The book has both the joy of revelation and the comfort of continuity. In high school, my Latin teacher sometimes began our class by opening an almanac and recounting what had happened on that day in history. The moral of the story, always: Nihil novum sub sole. Nothing new under the sun.
—Adrienne Raphel, author of “Felix by Proxy”
Lately, I’ve been spending too much time online. I’m submersed in an infosphere that’s somehow both incredibly hyperbolic, constantly at ignition point, and yet filled with art and writing about art that’s so thin and anodyne that I often think the words unremarkable, content collapse, and press release, on repeat. But each morning I read a piece from Vile Days, Gary Indiana’s collected columns from the three years—1985 to 1988—during which he served as The Village Voice’s art critic, and this is my reprieve.
Indiana always reads real; he never bullshits. “We should distrust ‘great,’” he writes. “According to whom? According to what?” Though his criticism is often harsh, it’s never petty, and is motivated by deeply held beliefs on the role of art in the world. Describing the paintings of Nancy Chunn, he writes: “These works are not didactic; they don’t lay out a program but simply ask us to be conscious that art and life are inextricably connected—that we all live in the same world, which is not a happy place in most places.” Indiana’s column chronicles these connections. He reviews not only the shows on Greene Street and at the Venice Biennale but also the art that hangs in the banks of corporate New York—ChemBank, Chase. There are interviews with Tishan Hsu and Barbara Kruger, punctuated by dispatches on the AIDS crisis and, at one point, his rebuttal to being labeled the “ringleader of a homosexual cartel.”
I don’t recognize most of the works being discussed, and though I’m sometimes compelled to google them, Indiana’s criticism stands alone. He’s a master of the anecdote, the aside: “This doesn’t have anything to do with art,” he’ll say, before going on to describe a fight on the street or a man jerking off in a parked Rolls-Royce on Second Avenue. All of this is written in the rapid-fire sprezzatura that would come to characterize his later novels, prose that takes on the fervor of a fever dream—or perhaps of something closer to the brain on uncut amphetamines.
—Paul Dalla Rosa, author of “I Feel It”
Lately I’ve been thinking about the body; the incredible mystery of it, its peculiarities. Perhaps you’ve considered the incongruities of our bodies, how we all share a limb that’s larger and longer than its counterpart. The ways even our eyes often refuse symmetry: one fuller, alert and curious, while the other appears lazy, cynical, almost sleepy in its modesty. In grade school, we used to trace the outlines of our small hands upon construction paper: an exercise in coordination and creativity. We made a mess with glue and glitter while decorating and coloring our drawn hands, then practiced our counting by the loopy points of the fingertips. I took my project home and asked my mother why my right hand was bigger than the left. The obvious answer might have been that my tracing was more controlled with one hand than the other, but my mother only looked me plainly in the face and told me that’s just how God made us. One side of our body is a lil’ bigger, she said. I remember my confusion, though I didn’t question her at the time: Why would the creator make our bodies so imperfect?
This line of questioning has remained with me as I’ve aged, buried within the murk of the subconscious. It was only when I started writing fiction that my lingering fixation on the body was brought to my attention. Readers were quick to notice the ways my stories emphasized the body. Characters gazed at their images in mirrors and pools of water. They felt the heaviness of their weight while moving through the world, they disassociated from the body while making love, sometimes they sought means of escaping corporeality altogether.
For years I’ve collected pictures of the art that’s most inspired me, and those images overwhelmingly capture the absolute beauty and ordinariness of bodies. My favorite compositions are unassuming, quiet celebrations of women merely existing: Nude. Brown. Unfazed by their imperfections or the eyes upon them. I think Archibald Motley, an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, best executes what I aspire to do with the body—on the page, and in personal relationship with my own. His painting Brown Girl After the Bath is exquisite in its ordinariness: the soft pudge of his muse’s belly, the slope and sag of her breasts. Diego Rivera’s Dancer Resting also manages to grasp the fullness and elegance of the feminine form in our most vulnerable and natural states. I’m struck by her hips, her thighs, the fatigue expressed in her eyes. These are profoundly imaginative moments, an artist recreating the art that has been expressed in a multitude of shapes and hues by the ultimate artist.
—Lakiesha Carr, author of “Tomorrows”
Diego Rivera, Dancer Resting, 1939.
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