Donner Party in My Mouth and Other Inquiries

The Tin Drum Diaries, Part 3

The summers that I was 16 and 17, I went to a three-week summer writing workshop at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was wonderful, both times, for different reasons: the first summer I made the kinds of friends the people around me in high school seemed to have already, who were like me and loved the things I loved, and we were teenagers hanging out on a gorgeous college campus in the Berkshires in the summertime writing for a couple hours a day and then had the rest of the day to ourselves to walk three miles into the adorable college town nearby or be taken on field trips to Jacob’s Pillow and Northampton and The Book Barn, where my parents still go regularly and is one of the greatest bookstore experiences you can have if you ever get the chance… or, as was more the flavor of my second summer at the workshop, to sneak off to fields and empty science buildings and have first-ever sexual-adjacent experiences. (The second summer I was an RA, technically an employee, so my dalliances with my first love, a first-year workshop attendee, that summer were uncool and inappropriate professionally, though not really in other ways; we were the same age, and I was seventeen and, as I said, this was my first ever of such experiences, so, you know, it was about goddamn time. But I was not invited back to be an RA the following year, and my understanding is that they added some new rules in bold print to the employee handbook subsequently.)

One of our field trips, both years, was to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which remains one of my favorite places; in addition to all the other rites of passage this summer workshop bestowed upon me, it was when I first loved contemporary art.

Unlike our other field trips, this one was required, and part of the writing program: we were given an assignment — a sheet to carry around and fill in as we looked at the art, like on a school trip to Ellis Island, but these were so much more fun than the school version. Mostly, we were asked to select works of art that spoke to us, and ask questions of them. (Yes, at the museum the second summer, my Forbidden Love and I did take advantage of the often darkened-room settings of film installations to make out, but I totally did the assignment again also, even though as an RA I was not required to.)

Inquiries. It was so endlessly sophisticated and satisfying: to look for a little while at eleven green bottles on the floor in a circle, and then write down, “What happens if your circle is broken?” At sixteen! Those rule-less assignments conditioned me to experience contemporary art in a way that stuck: it’s confusing, it’s fun, it’s as serious as you want it to be, it’s infuriating, it wants you to ask questions. The following year, my freshman year in college, I went to see Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim, which was such fantastic timing, because that shit is bananas and sometimes gross and enormous and brightly-colored and huge and outrageous — exactly what I want from my art. (That was a precedent-setting first, too: I vastly prefer to see modern art by myself, so I can be weirded out by what I’m weirded out by and strangely compelled by what I’m strangely compelled by, sucked in and repulsed and bored and delighted and upset and free to, as my teen writing workshop facilitators would have asked of me, have a private conversation between myself and the art.)

So I might henceforth, or maybe just right now, approach these diaries in that way: as an inquiry to the book. Or, that was my thought when I first sat down to write this anyway; now I’m realizing a bunch of other connections between my Mass MoCA story and Oskar’s story and my story. Let us inquire.

Inquiry: Gunter Grass, Are You a Modern Artist?

My mother also loves art, and is an artist. She’s not really a Cremaster gal, but she’s up for weird, upsetting, dark stuff (and, as with her literary tastes, German stuff!): Egon Schiele (her fave), Louise Bourgeois, and this painting at MoMA that she says has been her favorite one there since high school, when she’d come in at lunch to look at it (she went to a prep school that no longer exists in a brownstone a block away from the museum). It depicts, more or less, a tree made of demon babies. (You should click that link — as my mom told me when we were looking at it, the painting has quite a history of being taken down and put up again in different parts of the museum, and that page chronicles the whole business.)

You should probably also look at examples of my mom’s art, too.

Ok, so here’s my mom’s favorite book, and it’s upsetting and bizarre and whimsical and not entirely bound by the laws of reality while also deeply deeply tied to very, very real human suffering, and follows its own dream logic — our narrator Oskar’s logic — making its own sort of language, like modern art does too, sometimes. When you read it, there’s that feeling you get sometimes when you’re looking at art, like, “This may not be for all of you, but if it’s for you, it will sound unshakably in your deepest core.”

Greff was a greengrocer. But don’t be deceived. He believed neither in potatoes nor in cabbage, yet he knew a great deal about vegetable-raising and liked to think of himself as a gardener, a friend of nature, and a vegetarian. But precisely because Greff ate no meat, he was not an authentic greengrocer. It was impossible for him to talk about vegetables as vegetables. “Will you kindly look at this extraordinary potato,” I often heard him say to a customer. “This swelling, bursting vegetable flesh, always devising new forms and yet so chaste. I love a potato because it speaks to me.” Obviously, no real greengrocer will embarrass his customers with such talk. […] Everything about Greff was overdone. Did he absolutely have to wear a green apron in the shop? The presumption of the man! The knowing smile he would put on to to explain that this spinach-green rag of his was “God’s green gardener’s apron.”

What questions do you have for that piece, young workshop student?

Inquiry: Would Oskar Have Fooled Around on the Bus to the Art Museum, Too?

The other connection is that Oskar, like me at seventeen, had his first sexual encounters in the part of the book I’ve read since last I spoke to you. There’s so much more to unpack about that: Gunter Grass’s affinity for a multitude of metaphors for both sex and for genitalia — music, military strategy, and of course his ol’ standby, vegetables; the mystery cast by early sexual experience as recounted through magical realism, making it sometimes very unclear what did or did not happen (at seventeen, and to some extent through my mid-twenties, one of my most primal drives was embarrassment at my lack of sexual experience, in conflict with some Internal Shit that makes outright lying very difficult for me; it occurs to me now that perhaps I could have used more creative narrative techniques to help bridge that gap when discussing sex with my peers. Or, ideally, I could have been a more truthful and actualized person and just not worried about it so much, but let’s move on); and, related, some DOOZIES about the level of consent or lack thereof involved in these encounters, which is like, a whole other blog, about reading pre-contemporary literature that deals with pretty much sex in any way.

So that’s another inquiry to explore, but I’m cutting it short for now in order to get to, really, the most pressing one of all:

Inquiry: When Will My Mouth Stop Hurting?

Ok, I had my wisdom teeth taken out a week ago. It sucks and I do not recommend it. I keep waiting for my mouth to not hurt for the entire day; hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve spent some of my lying-in-bed-with-bloody-holes-in-my-mouth recovery period reading my Breaking Drum book of the moment, which is about the Donner Party. I don’t think catharsis is the right word; what word am I looking for, when what you’re reading makes you sink more into the feelings you’re feeling? When you’re lying in bed hoping enough time has passed since you last took your hard stuff painkillers because someone recently went digging around in the roots of nerves in your actual head, for real, so now the entire lower half of your face is just defeated, like all right, I tried, I was the lower half of your face for 35 years and we had a good run but apparently this is how you feel about it so I’m not even worried about leaving on good terms, fuck you and good luck finding another lower half of your face, asshole, and at the same time you’re reading this book that’s like, look, here’s the deal, I know you’re reading this waiting for the people-eating part, clearly we put the words “Donner Party” in the subtitle, perhaps at an editor’s suggestion, because that’s what was going to make weirdos like you read this thing, but you need to just cool your jets because about 60% of this book is just making extremely clear to you that traveling across the United States during frontier times was such an unspeakably shitty experience in every single way you could possibly imagine that by the time you get to the people-eating, which takes up kind of surprisingly little of the book, you’re like, you know what, I really don’t know what possible other outcome there could have been. Like having to eat a compatriot was the number one worst thing that would have happened to you if you were on that trip, and the fact that you were pretty much walking in waist-high snow barefoot every day because your shoes at that point were reduced to so many feeble strips of leather and your socks had just rotted away, would only be like 23 on the list. Because number 2 is your infant child possibly being trampled under a wagon (which happened like, pretty often), and number 3 is like, the snow blindness that you almost definitely already have to some extent gets more acute and you actually permanently go blind. Think of how awful that is. Today if your shoes got just wet in the snow and you had to live with that for twenty minutes it would ruin your entire week.

So that synced up pretty well with me being 35 in 2021, employed and insured and housed and generally in a position of privilege in most ways possible, reading about their plight and thinking, you know what, Donner Party? I GET IT. My mouth hurts, like, really bad, so I absolutely get it.

To wrap up: a lot of people are actually really suffering right now, and I hope you’re doing ok. If you’re not, I hope that you’re allowing yourself to do something that feels good if you can, like watching forty episodes of a sitcom from your childhood or writing a big to-do list with a good sharpie or putting a mask on and going to a bookstore you like for ten minutes then going back home to be safe again or whatever weird fucking thing your weird body and soul needs for a minute. Consume some ridiculous art that feels like it was made just for you and give yourself a minute before real life calls you back in.




Raphaela is a writer living in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of the novel Monsters:

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Raphaela Weissman

Raphaela Weissman

Raphaela is a writer living in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of the novel Monsters:

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