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Pickle Me This

May 12, 2009

Magazine as Muse

My friend Rebecca Rosenblum (you know her, with a book just nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award, and she’s off to Japan this very day) has a wonderful piece in the current issue of The New Quarterly. “Stuff They Wrote” is part of TNQ’s “Magazine as Muse” feature, in which writers credit magazines that inspired them to start writing down words, and even sharing them. Rebecca has written an ode to edgy teen magazine Sassy, and its “staffers” in particular. She writes, “Sassy was like a novel in a fundamental way. It had characters. Sassy brought that always-lurking I-perspective of journalism to the centre. The writers didn’t take over the stories (usually) but they didn’t elide themselves, either.”

Sassy was a world in which Rebecca could imagine herself, the writers bridging that gap between her life and theirs, suggesting limitless possibilities for the kind of woman girls could grow up to be. And when Sassy became swallowed up by a corporate behemoth, and a strange zombie Sassy emerged, Rebecca knew enough to know the difference, and had confidence enough to put pen to letter-to-editor to say so. It wasn’t too long after that Rebecca had her first story published, and she wouldn’t dismiss the idea of some connection there.

Confession: I didn’t like Sassy. Sassy scared me. Their rules were too loose, they went too far, they used questionable language, and were touting something I found close to anarchy (ie SEX!). As a young teenager, I thought the wide world was generally terrifying, and was convinced that drugs, drinks and dyed hair were signs of slips towards hell. Beware of scruffy boys with cigarettes who might dare to sport an earring. (And tuck your shirt in, young man). Mine was a puritanism born of fear of the unknown, as most puritanisms usually are.

So I had a subscription to Seventeen. Writes Rebecca, “Seventeen was imperative-voiced: columns and service pieces about how often you should brush your hair and how you might get into a bad crowd if you didn’t listen to your real feelings. Seventeen wasn’t like a story; it was like a textbook, only there were Eye Makeup and French-Kissing classes instead of Math and Geography.”

Oh, but some of us were in dire need of schooling. In a world so incredibly chaotic (with dances, and lockers, and gym class– oh my!), a textbook offered some assurance, and I followed mine quite dutifully. Back to School must-haves, awesome locker organizers, lipstick colours, and the best kind of Caboodle. I learned that it was okay to like Evan Dando (which was something upon which Sassy and Seventeen concurred). Sassy preached that you could be whoever you wanted, but I didn’t know who that was yet. I preferred the message of Seventeen instead– play the game right, and I just might fit in.

Not that I did fit in. I had oily hair and pulled my pants up to my armpits, but one issue of Seventeen in particular suggested that I might have half a chance. It was the issue from April 1993, whose date I only remember because I had it with me on a family vacation to Florida when I was in grade eight. It was the one single issue that I even remember, as not so much a muse as a re-framing of my world view, or at least of my place in it.

This was a new re-formatted Seventeen. A significant departure– I’ve found a record of old covers on line, and March 1993 was neon-hued, Andrew Shue playing volleyball. And then came April, with its muted-toned Earth Day theme. Shouting, Save the Earth, Girl! Which was cool. I don’t remember noticing the model’s hideous eyebrows then, but I liked her funky rings and hat. Inside, I remember a feature on slam-poetry (though it might well have been slam-poetry-inspired Bohemian fashions, but alas…) headlined, “Poetry/ is such a thing now.” Groovy, man. I wanted a beret. Someone wrote a piece about how amazing were the Beatles lyrics (citing, “She’s the kind of girl you want so much she makes you sorry…”) in comparison with whatever hit of the day was out then, and it was the first time I’d ever seen The Beatles (to whom I was obsessively devoted, so much that I was forbidden to speak of them at the dinner table because I was so incredibly boring) noted in contemporary pop culture. Poetry too, which I fancied myself a writer of. Book recommendations included one called Mrs. Dalloway— something like “the cool story of a single day in the life of a woman getting ready for a party!” I tried to read it, didn’t get it, but began to have it fixed in my mind that one day I would.

I probably just should have read Sassy, but I wasn’t ready to leave my shelter. The granola-y “reuse, recycle, renew, respect” Seventeen, however, provided a glimpse of an alternative culture that might provide me some space within it. Books were cool, The Beatles were cool, and poetry was cool, all of which I’d known already, but now somebody else knew it too. It was 1993, and I was inspired. En route to Florida I bought a flannel shirt at a Kentucky outlet mall– this was counter-culture. Naturally, I tucked it into my tapered jeans that were still pulled up to my armpits, but it was something, nonetheless. I was on my way.

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