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Wednesday
Nov192014

Dali's White Clogs

(I wrote this back in September after our visit to Portlligat, but I've been thinking a lot about Dali's clogs and so decided to post this today.)

I could spend the rest of my life touring the homes of writers and artists.

The fact that he and Gala collected smooth, round rocks in glass vitrines, the way his and Gala's white clogs sat side by side in the bedroom. The tour guide explained in three languages - Spanish, French, and English - how Dali decorated the house with Gala's favorite flower, the siempre-viva, the everlasting flower. His ghost was there too: in his and Gala's dressing room, the light coming in through the window cast a shadow across my face that made me look like I had a Dali moustache. He haunted J's cameraphone and warped the crutch-like appendages coming out of the pigeon tower

Even if we hadn't had this evidence, visiting the house of an artist or writer feels like a particular seance, invoking the spirit of their things, the light that inspired them, the sight of rock and sea out the window that lived on through his paintings. There were spirits in those glass vitrines, rememberances of who he was outside of his paintings, of how he lived. The paintings, the books, the films: these are one type of immortality, but the pristine state of his home, his paints lined on a sub-floor shelf, a small wooden chair in his studio covered in lightbulb packaging, the painting interrupted in media res, these are another type, and the one I find myself drawn to more. The Johnson's baby powder on a shelf, the photograph of a black cat slid behind the glass on a door of a closet. What we collect, what we surround ourselves with: this is who we are.

The only mystery left to us from Dali's home was the lack of a kitchen on the tour. I remember visiting Edward Gorey's home in Cape Cod, where Antonia stood next to the artist's toaster and said "I can just picture him standing here in the morning, light streaming in through the window, waiting for his toast." And it's true: the true spirit lives in the kitchen. This is where life happens: where we are fed to stay alive. I'll never know what Dali's toaster looks like, and that makes me a little sad. 

But I have his clogs. And his rocks in vitrines. And his little plastic bird. These are the things I know him by: the things that give his paintings dimension, that give him human form. 

Tuesday
Oct142014

Hello, Goodbye

Last October, I returned to New York for work. The day I arrived I stood in an elevator and listened to a tall dark woman lament about having to move out of Manhattan. "I mean, I can't even stand the idea. I have everything here! A 24-hour printer, a 24-hour manicurist..." I hid my smirk in my scarf. Those 3am manicures! Those late night Kinko's runs! I know some people live different hours, but 24-hour manicurists? (My neighbor here in Cincinnati works the night shift at the Amazon fulfillment warehouse, though I still can't picture her getting a 3am manicure.)

The man she was talking to shook his head, "yup, you got the best of everything here." Another smirk, deeper in my scarf. I thought of my happy little house on the edge of the creek. The flit of birds at the feeder. Each person has his own version of best. I stepped out of the elevator and tripletted my way into the subway. I pulled out my book and smiled again at the echo of the man's words: The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe. In it, a young secretary has just been shown a dirty picture by the ticket man in the subway. I looked around me. People teetered over the edge of the platform, waiting for the train. A man with a shopping cart piled high with his belongings and antique crosses stood barefoot on a piece of cardboard, bending over an open book in prayer. I stood watching him, considering his prayer, wondering how he ended up there. One of the platform waiters walked into my field of vision, trying to break my gaze from the praying man. This is not what we do here. Don't look. Don't look at this dirty picture.

Little did they know I was praying with him.

I spent the week packing in as many friends as possible amidst a week of work. I visited I Hate Perfume and bought slightly overpriced pine-scented "home spray." I found a prized Nazz album at a Brooklyn flea mall. I ate Persian food and drank copious gin fizzes and large glasses of wine in dim and dimmer bars and photographed my parents leaping in front of brightly colored trees in Prospect Park. I tickled a friend's baby and scarfed down a pork bun in a crowded fancy restaurant's Brooklyn outpost. I visited the first restaurant I ever went to when I lived in New York, still there, and ordered the very same steak salad, still on the menu, and still as tasty. I turned in my seat as the Q train emerged from the tunnel onto the Manhattan Bridge. As I always did. Rituals from my own New York past.

On my last night in the city, I met Masha, a retired actress, on a white couch beneath an overgrown palm tree in an apartment in Washington Heights. I told her that I was a writer when we were talking about careers in the arts, and why she gave up hers, and as we were commiserating over money issues she said "You know what you should read? There's this book called Goodbye To All That. I'm reading it now."

I nodded and shouted that the book was in my bag, bookmarked by my MetroCard, fresh of the top of the stack of them at Greenlight Bookstore ("Do you have a Greenlight loyalty card?" "No, I've said goodbye to all this." "..." "Sorry, bad joke." "No, nice use of the title. Where do you live now?" "Cincinnati." "I just moved here, two months ago." "Where from?" "Phoenix." "Wow, that's quite a change. Well, hello to all this for you...")

Masha's was the story of the native New Yorker: she grew up a block from the Chelsea Hotel (Patti Smith's New York in Just Kids "those stale donuts she describes? I used to drool over those stale donuts!"), and we sat on the white couch under the overgrown palm tree and talked about how sad we were about what New York had become and she said "I know but you're lucky that you have somewhere else that feels like home. What else do I have?"

When I first heard about this book, I was furiously jealous I didn't get to write one of the essays. I could write this essay. I HAVE written this essay. I didn't read any of the essays at first that were being flung around the internet because I knew it would heighten my jealousy. Then Emily linked to Rebecca Woolf's So Long, Suckers and in a fit of weakness I read. And I shook. And I nodded so violently my head hurt. Because here was exactly how I felt, perhaps a bit angrier than I was at the city, but just as betrayed. Emily said that she would have loved to have read my essay for this book, and I wrote to her that if the Woolf essay was any indication, then anything I might have to say was already said in this book. And oh how it was. Multiple women refer to New York as "the ex." Elisa Albert, bless her, even mirrors my insane obsession with malls after first leaving the city. Editor Sari Botton's rent-stabilized situation, the ball-and-chain that keeps so many of us there (but you have such a great apartment!) for far too long, matched mine so nearly that I had to look in the mirror after reading it just to make sure I was me. There are those who felt complacent staying too long, those who said the city was no longer their city...

Masha the retired actress echoed Emma Straub's frustration with people from anywhere but New York saying they are New Yorkers. "You know what I say?" said Masha "I ask them where they went to high school," a refrain that sounded deliciously familiar to me from conversations among natives in Cincinnati. I never was a New Yorker. I never even pretended to be, though I may have behaved at one time like someone's expectation of one. But I was always an Ohioan. And I always had Ohio to come back to.

On the train back to the hotel (dear god, a hotel in New York! With the dark window overlooking a shaft and the bloodstains on the top corner of the mattress where the sheet is coming loose) there was a man on that very very cold night begging for money, walking up and down the subway car in a T-shirt and bare feet exposing one missing toe, saying "Please help. God bless everybody. Please help. God bless everybody. Please help." Before collapsing near the subway doors and holding his head in tears. I suddenly couldn't remember if I'd seen him before, if he was one of the ones hardened New Yorkers tell you to ignore, or if he really needed my help, and for a moment I considered what might happen if I took his hand and took him to buy shoes.

Back at the hotel I called J and told him about the man on the subway and he said how different it must be to see a guy like that when you live there and you have money, versus living in Ohio and worried about how you'll pay for your plumbing issues.

So many essays in Goodbye To All That begin with stepping over bodies. And I left New York that time, not remembering if I'm supposed to step over the body or not. Or if it's my body being stepped over.

***

A year later, I returned again for work. This time I was staying with my brother in Brooklyn, on a brownstone-and-tree-lined street butting up against the back of the bandshell in Prospect Park. On my first day there, I pickled something. The mornings when I commuted into work, I saw so many children with parents walking them to school that I thought they were actual field trips. We ate bahn mi from the Vietnamese place on 7th Ave, and at night I watched the distant Empire State Building changing colors. I walked through Columbus Park in Chinatown and sat on a bench eating dumplings and listening to the sounds of Cantonese and Chinese Chess and erhus. I marveled at the tops of skyscrapers. I even talked with strangers on the subway.

I was more at peace with the city than I’d ever been.

Of course there were still times I lost my patience. I had a cab driver who drove too fast and made me nervous. I witnessed more than a few fights among strangers. After a Bryant Park lunch with an old co-worker, he accidentally led us through Times Square, and more than several times I was bumped, shuffled, blocked, spun around, to the point where I found myself standing still and screaming to the heavens. I’d lost my New York mojo.

There was something significantly different about this trip, and I realized that I had let go of any idea of this city as mine in the present: it was someone else’s city now. The gaggles of young kids standing in line for a club on the Lower East Side, a line through which we cut like a picket line after karaoke. “I could be their mother,” I said as we stood on the curb, watching their eagerness. The throngs of young professionals who now clogged the entrance of my office building, names I’d never know, editorial assistants who would one day soon rise to publishing stardom. Even most of the people I love who still live in the city were talking about their plans to leave it, and I realized that they were more or less my last ties there, and it now belonged to someone else.

My place was taken. I embraced the fact that I was nothing more than a tourist now.

On the Friday of my last weekend in the city, I was forced again to walk through Times Square to get to the train that would take me back to the brownstone-and-tree-lined streets of Brooklyn. I lamented it over the phone to J, who understood what I meant. Times Square was the worst torture ever held over the heads of resident New Yorkers.

But that’s not who I was any more.

I walked down 42nd street and looked at the street artists doodling caricatures of European and midwestern tourists. And then I saw him: an artist sculpting a bearded man out of clay. He moved his hands quickly and expertly, adding and subtracting gray mounds where the beard began to take shape. The subject’s friend stood to the side watching.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” His friend said. “He could work really fast and churn out hundreds of these but he’s really taking his time on each one. My buddy’s been here over half an hour.”

I decided I would be his next subject. After the bearded man and his buddy left, I sat on the little folding stool, possibly the first time I’d ever sat still on 42nd street instead of attempting to pierce my way through the throngs as quickly as possible.

The artist, whose name was Lin, had studied at the art academy in China. He hadn’t sculpted for 30 years, but decided to pick it up again last year.

“All people are artwork,” he said.

“Awkward?” I misheard.

“Artwork,” he repeated.

I told him my favorite number in Chinese was “er shi er” - 22, because I liked the sound of it. He then told a story in Mandarin to his neighboring vendor, during which I heard “er shi er” repeated a few times.

“Do you understand me?” he said in English.

“Not really,” I admitted, and so he repeated the story for me as he sculpted.

He had been gambling in China, and he sat at a roulette table. The dealer spun the wheel and then the ball, and it landed on 22. Nobody had won. But Lin had $300 left in his pocket, and at the table behind him, he said he heard the wheel spinning, making the same noise as the losing wheel in front of him had made. At both tables the dealer had started the opposite spin of the ball on the number “2,” and as Lin listened, he knew that the same sound (“chchchch” he imitated the whirl of the roulette wheel) meant that the ball would land on 22. He placed his bet, and he won.

“You mentioned 'er shi er,' which makes me think of this story,” said Lucky Lin.

Two women stood over his shoulder the entire time, commenting on his progress. “Oh my GOD that NOSE, that’s JUST like her nose.” “See that bump there on her cheek? He even got that right oh my GOD!” These women delighted me so much I kept laughing, until Lin reminded me to turn my head and resume my pose.

And so I sat still, for half an hour, looking a stranger in the eyes as he studied my face, and all the people trying to pierce the throngs of 42nd street passed by and commented on the progress of his artwork. When he finished, he turned to show it to me, and I saw myself at 38, exactly as I look. He even got the crease in my forehead, carved by years of anxiety, just right. In his rendition of me, I’m smiling the smile of someone who has been down a few roads, but is fine with where they all led her, and is now sitting in a place she never thought she’d sit still in, laughing with strangers.

I was there in the place I thought I hated most in a city that was no longer mine, listening to the sound of the spinning roulette wheel. And I knew then that I could finally beat the house by just stopping to listen.

***

Never Can Say Goodbye, the counterpart to Goodbye To All That, comes out today. And I can’t wait to read it, because I’m finally in the place where I’m happy to read about someone else’s city, a city that is part of my past, a city I said goodbye to long ago, ready to make my own mark in another great city. I’m lucky I had somewhere else to go, another place I could call mine. To those of you who loved and lost your New York: I'm so sorry. Honestly. To those of you who now embrace New York to the fullest, just as it is: please, it’s yours. I've vacated my spot, I'll accept whatever changes you make to it. Allow me this: just to pass through slowly, as a tourist again, head up, marveling at the tops of skyscrapers.

 

Monday
Aug252014

Ice Bucket Challenged

I watched the videos fly by in my timeline, people dumping buckets of all sizes on their heads, everyone with the same O face afterwards. The fails and the flops. The lady on a horse, the entire Reds outfield. 

And then, weeks after it began, when everyone was starting to become fatigued and the backlash was in full swing, I was challenged by my brother. He said that I could lip-sync to "Ice Ice Baby" if I wanted to, and lord knows I know all the words, but it didn't seem like enough. As I watched the water fly around Facebook, I realized that even though I'd seen a hundred videos, I had no idea what ALS really did to a person. My awareness of the challenge was raised more than my awareness of the disease.

In response to my brother's challenge, I thought of doing an "Ice Cream Bucket challenge," eating an entire pint of Graeter's ice cream. I thought of dunking my cats into an ice bucket. The internet would have loved that. Videos aren't really my forte, though, so I thought I might write about ice buckets. About the shock of O face you see when someone tells you they have a disease. The feeling of loss at an announcement of death. 

But I do enough of that.

None of it seemed quite right to me. None of it told me the story of ALS, a story I'm only distantly familiar with, once watching a friend's grandmother waste away with it in one of the darkened back rooms of her house. I had no other knowledge of the disease other than that memory of a silent old woman lying so still there in her bed. And so I decided to do a little research instead. 

At first I tried to find videos showing affected people on YouTube, but when you search "ALS" there, all you see are videos of ice bucket fails and Bill Gates' contraption. So I did some grown-up research by actually reading a few things. It didn't take that much longer to find information on ALS than it does to dump a bucket of water on your head. Here are some facts about ALS I found on the internet, including on the ALSA's website:

  • ALS stands for "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis." Lou Gehrig had it, and his retirement from baseball is when it started to receive greater attention from the public, which is why it's often called Lou Gehrig's Disease. Here's his farewell speech, with the help of some other ballplayers. 
  • The early symptoms of ALS are muscle weakness or stiffness. "Progression of weakness, wasting and paralysis of the muscles of the limbs and trunk as well as those that control vital functions such as speech, swallowing and later breathing generally follows."
  • There is no test for ALS, nor is there a known cure.
  • The life expectancy for people diagnosed with ALS is variable. While many people live no more than two or three years after diagnosis, "about twenty percent of people with ALS live five years or more and up to ten percent will survive more than ten years and five percent will live 20 years."
  • A small number of ALS cases are attributed to a hereditary gene, though most cases (90-95%) are not. Anyone can get ALS, though it is not contagious.

Still not satisfied? Sorry for not posting a video of me getting wet, but here is a much more important video to watch of a man who has just been diagnosed with ALS taking care of his mother, who also has ALS, so that you can actually see what it does to a person. In it, he talks about why this viral awareness is important to those with ALS: since the number of people with ALS is so small, drug companies don't want to invest in finding a cure. It's not a popular enough disease to warrant treatment. That made me incredibly sad. 

I'm making donations to both the ALSA as well as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, because I want to make sure that other organizations and causes I care about don't lose out, and I'm challenging all of you to educate yourselves a little bit about a disease that may not have affected you personally, but seems to be on the tips of everyone's tongues lately, or at the bottom of an ice bucket.

Wherever you find it, that's my challenge to you. 

Thursday
Jul242014

In The Picture

The brown sign says "Malabar Farm 9" and on a whim, I pull my car off to the right. I've got time.

This isn't my first trip to Malabar. Years ago, we took a tour there, marvelled at the author's books on the bookshelf, listened to stories of his wife's interior design. We admired wallpaper and bedspreads and looked at ourselves in the ornate mirrors of the Big House. But today my visit is fleeting; I simply stopped to smell the cow poo. 

It's still early; the gardener is weeding the patches of mulch around the flower bushes, just down the steps from where Bacall and Bogey posed for their wedding pictures.

There's a carving of Ganesha over the doorway. I notice that birds have built a nest behind it. Behind me, the green hills of Richland County roll out in waves, the sound of a distant mower revs up from behind a line of trees. The sky is a bright and intense blue, spotted with cotton ball clouds: unreal, like a child's Sunday school project. A rooster crows, a sheep baas. I peer over the fence at the animals in their pens. What a good life they have here in these hills.

"Do you want me to take your picture in front of the cows or something?" says an approaching farmer, lifting his John Deere hat off his brow, smiling his tanned cheeks at me and placing his arms akimbo.

"No thanks, I'm just here to take pictures of the house."

"You don't want yourself in the picture, huh."

But, dear farmer, I want to say, I am in the picture. I'm here in this picture as much as that famous Hollywood wedding is still here, as much as Bromfield atop his tractor. My face is in these hills, this sky. This farm is why my grandparents met. This is where my dad would ride his motorcycle, this is where his sisters would go blueberry picking. My grandparents, buried up the hill and around the bend, are now part of this earth, part of every blade of grass. My story is in these hills, in the dust we're stirring here now, exchanging words next to braying donkeys and clucking chicks.

I wanted to tell him: I am in the picture. I always will be.

Later, on the phone with Dad, I tell him where I stopped today, and say how lucky I think he was to grow up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. On the other end of the phone line, there's a brief, whistful silence, and I think how he'll always be right there in that picture too.

(I first wrote about my attachment to Malabar Farm and Louis Bromfield back in 2006.)

Friday
Jun202014

Everything There Is

The fireflies low on the fields of freshly planted corn and soy
Taking your breath away so sharply you think that might be the moment you leave the earth
It's a joy and a fear of dying so strong that it's almost as if the joy will cause your death
The moment when you realize that you can't record what you're looking at
The fear of not being able to put those moments down in words, or in photographs, or in paint
Because that is our immortality
And so instantly you face your mortality with the beauty and the joy
And everything there is
Terrified that you won't get those words down before you go
To the point where you rely on the voice recorder on your cell phone
To do the work for you as you race along the highway
So you remember those fireflies, that corn, that soy
The mist hanging low over the hills after the rain of the storm
The lightning flashing through the clouds in pinks and orange
The light of the sign: Ted Nugent is playing soon at the Indian Creek Tavern
Cars pull up, you wish you could go, but you know you're female, you know you're scared
But that light: the lighted arrows pointing the way
And yet you drive, and get lost, and drive by a cemetery
And hold your breath because you know that you're so vulnerable
That that could be the moment that it takes you
That you leave, that you're gone
The fireflies, the corn, the mist, the soy, the lights