At the last of a long string of unpaid internships, I was sent on an errand with the gallery owner. He asked repeatedly for my name, then shrugged. “No. I’m not going to remember you. Interns come and go.” He may have seen me bristle, because he added, somewhat apologetically: “Maybe if you tell me something about yourself.”
Then conversation unfolded in the most surprising fashion, until suddenly he was pulling over to the curb through three lanes of traffic to tell me, “There is no truth but the human heart; nothing greater than tenderness in the face of adversity.”
Note: Today’s post is the fourth in a series of 100-word pieces I’ve been writing in solidarity with NaNoWriMo. Couldn’t commit to the 50,000 words, but I could do a lot more than I have been…and at 100 words a day, I’ll finish on March 22, 2017.
“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”
— Ai Weiwei
After driving carpools to schools on opposite ends of town last Thursday morning, I put a feline fecal sample on ice in the trunk–oh! my glamorous life!–and made my way through the pouring rain toward Pier 39. As a San Francisco resident, I avoid that part of town like the plague. It’s crowded, kitschy, and leaves me feeling swindled and somewhat culpable. Did you make your way from some other continent to eat substandard, overpriced clam chowder out of a sourdough bowl? I’m sorry. I am.
This time it was worth the effort and the heinous traffic, however. This time I was accompanying an art class on a field trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz.
It had felt like an indefensible luxury to take time from what I was supposed to be doing–working, tending to three sick foster kittens, preparing my presentation for the next day. What business did I have squandering four hours on art?
What I had forgotten is that art is not a luxury at all.
Art is good for the soul. Making it, viewing it, contemplating it, discussing it. It is the means for communication when mere words cannot convey what needs to be said. Art can speak truth to power, it can enlighten, it can challenge; it can soothe or amuse or complement the sofa. I’m not saying that all art is important, but rather that being able to do it and see it and think about it is vital. Where Ai Weiwei lives, his ability to make art is tenuous. He has been imprisoned and, after his release, continually harassed. His studio has been torn down by the local government in Beijing. He is forbidden to leave China.
I recall being in a snit once in art school, stressed out about some goofy project I had concocted–making portraits of George Bush by drizzling motor oil, of all things. “What am I doing noodling around in the garage while people are starving out there in the world?” I lamented to a friend. And she responded, “What sort of world would it be without any art?”
I think we both have a point.
Though unable to leave his country, Ai has somehow managed to create a provocative and politically charged show at a provocative and politically charged place. There are kites and legos and audio installations. You can sit in a cell and hear orchestral compositions written in a concentration camp or, a few cells down, hear songs by Fela Kuti, and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. You can read about the charges against 176 political prisoners and exiles from around the world, and write them letters while sitting in the prison dining hall. These are “the heroes of our time,” as Ai says. They have had the courage to speak up, and they are paying a high price.
Ai Weiwei’s vision has landed on our windowsill. Go and see it if you can. 1.4 billion people will never lay eyes on it.
A few years ago, I had to take a class that was supposed to be about graphic design, but instead focused on the moral superiority of mindful of food preparation.
Ah. Art school.
Fifteen minutes into the first six-hour class, I had heard more yammering about the meditative benefit of chopping each herb leaf thoughtfully than any parent of two should be required to endure.
Almost reflexively, I heard myself joining the conversation, “That sounds lovely, but if my microwave broke, I would cry.”
Everyone stared as I shifted uncomfortably in my folding chair.
I wasn’t kidding, though. That was the year of chicken nuggets–the only protein my pre-school kids would consume at the time. Who has time to thaw and bake those suckers for 30 minutes when the kids are already melting down? If I could stop the crying in four minutes flat, I was going to do so. Much as I love food, sometimes life dictates that meals be reduced to emergency fuel injections.
I can guarantee that the people who coined the phrase “slow food movement,” never stopped by my house in the late afternoon. It’s not only my kids who melt down, either. Just ask the college friend who traveled with me for seven weeks one summer. After a few days with me, she started shoveling snacks my way every 40 minutes–no doubt for her own self-preservation. Let’s face it, at 5:30 pm, the only coherent thought I’m capable of forming is: GOOD GOD, LET’S GET SOME FOOD ON THE TABLE, PEOPLE.
Somehow, all of my antagonistic feelings about hippy-dippy, artisanal, homegrown, hand-ground, infinitesimally slow food items have been channeled toward Mollie Katzen and her cavalcade of Moosewood cookbooks.
I blame this on the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a recipe I tackled once fifteen years ago. Imagine a vegetarian version of Midwestern hot dish with broccoli stems poked in like trees. Bland. Floppy. Nothing forest-y about that hot mess, and no tater tots or Durkee fried onions to offset the disappointment.
I suppose there are many reasons why I should love the Moosewood cookbook, I just can’t think of any at the moment. I do know what I don’t like, however:
There is an ungodly amount of cheese in there. All kinds. Especially cottage cheese, which is foul.
There are no photos, and I know why. Hippie food is ugly.
Stupid, stupid 63 ingredients in every dish. I blame Mollie for the jar of asafetida that sits in my spice cupboard. Does everything need to be so darn complicated? Each recipe takes a million years. Maybe y’all plan your meals a year in advance. Not me. News flash: at 5:30, I will not be soaking anything overnight, nor will I be driving from co-op to co-op looking for dried mint and a half an ounce of tree ears.
What the *()$%! is Noodle Kugel, besides grounds for divorce? Who puts noodles in dessert?
And what about Scheherazade Casserole? Is the cook slain after serving it, or is she saved by reading aloud the long-winded recipes?
Which reminds me, it is exceedingly wordy.
We played a little game the other night. Whoever was “it” would choose a particularly odd recipe, and everyone else would try to guess the ingredients. FYI: when all else fails, try “cheese” or “seeds” or “more cheese” or “raw bulgur.”
Here’s the main problem, though. It looks like a cookbook for nice people.
Little swirly things nestled between sections, sketchy drawings of seraphim and urns and trellises and lots of leaves that prefer to be carefully, thoughtfully, individually chopped.
And there is that cloying, lovingly handmade font. Given the date of publication, maybe the whole thing was hand-lettered, and I should probably be impressed. But to me, it is the visual equivalent of bad potpourri. A culinary bed and breakfast with stiff, frilly pillowcases…plus an annoying hausfrau who will not stop nattering on.
I’m sure there is lots of useful information and some tasty recipes buried in there somewhere. When my kids go off to college, I’ll take that thing down and read it cover to cover. In the meantime, though…I hear there is a website entitled: WTF should I make for dinner? Now that might fit better with our current lifestyle.
p.s. Sorry, mom. I will admit the shepherd’s pie was fairly tasty.
Though going to art school was inherently non-rational, I approached it in a methodical, uptight manner which might seem out of character. As a non-traditional, second-degree student and mother of two, I was not at a point in my life where it was acceptable to dabble and meander and find myself. I took the requisite courses, in the prescribed order, and checked them off my list.
But one summer, realizing I had a single elective to squander, I inexplicably found myself signing up for a sewing class in the Fashion Design department. I did not admit this to my classmates in photography, however. It seemed shallow and irresponsible. Maybe a tad shameful.
It was also ridiculously inconvenient. It met two evenings a week, from 6-10 pm, which meant that my husband had to rearrange his work schedule, and home life was turned upside-down for half of the summer. In order to get to the first class, I had to leave my family stranded and carless in Tahoe, drive three and a half hours, eat Taco Bell in the car, and change out of my sweats in the parking lot of Sports Basement. Then I drove back.
Meanwhile, I wondered…why would I invest so much time and money on this class when I already knew how to sew? I could sew on a button; I could hem pants. It wasn’t like I wanted to sit around and make homely, ill-fitting clothes in all of my ‘extra time.’ How would this help me in my art practice? How would this contribute to the world? What was I doing?
But I went anyway, and after covering everything I knew in the first twenty minutes, what unfolded thereafter was a complete surprise.
We were a small and motley crew: a paralegal, a woman from student affairs, a RISD student in the Bay Area for the summer, a chipper, chatty nineteen-year-old obsessed with lingerie, and a tough guy who worked in the wood shop. Plus me.
Outside, it was freezing in the San Francisco summer way. The fog would roll in right at the start of class, casting a gloomy pall over our fair city as I hunted for parking. Inside the sewing room, however, it was eternally close and sweaty. We hunched over our commercial machines wearing as little as socially acceptable. We lingered long after the official class ended–often staying until midnight–sewing an imaginary world made of fabric and thread.
We talked, ate picnic dinners on the cutting tables, and commiserated over the evil overlock machine, but mostly we just sewed in a zen-like stupor. Fans oscillating, music cranked, we listened to an endless loop of loud, meditative dance music selected by the club-hopping RISD kid.
I made a skirt I sort of like, an ugly, uncomfortable shirt, and two princess dresses–the last of which was my masterpiece. Including the muslin mock-up, I must have spent thirty or forty hours on that thing. But when I brought it home for my five-year-old, she wore it once and let it languish in the back of the closet. A little peeved, I asked her about it. “I’m not really into princesses anymore,” she said. “I’ve started my rock star phase.”
First of all, #$%*()@!
Second of all, what five-year-old talks like that?
Still, it doesn’t really matter. That class gave me endless joy.
To this day, when I hear the first couple of bars of Breathe by Telepopmusik, I am immediately transported to those long, hot, unstructured stretches of happy time. If something important is due, if I am frustrated or inconsolable, if I have 30 seconds to sit in the car before picking up my kids, I pop in my headphones, and there I am in the sewing studio again: feeding fabric, clipping threads, watching the needle go up and down. I let thoughts float and disperse like clouds, fixing on nothing in particular. Just breathing.
This is the story of abandoning my family for two and a half weeks one summer to do something ridiculously selfish and wonderful. It is also about gelato, meltdowns, memory, and déjà vu. Have I mentioned that already?
Here’s how it started. A photography professor of mine leaned across the aisle during a lecture. She told me that she was taking a group of students to Italy during the summer. “You should come,” she said.
I laughed a little hysterically, to the point where the exchange became awkward, and we tuned back to the lecture.
Up until then, I’d only slept away from my four-year-old two nights of her entire little life, and those were spent on the floor of a friend’s house a couple blocks away–clutching my phone all night, just in case. And I’d never been away from my two-year-old. I had to lay down with her for an hour or two every night to get her to settle and go to sleep. Though I had weaned her at 18 months, she had taken to digging in my belly button as a replacement soothing mechanism. She picked at me with her tiny talons until I bled. Scar tissue, it turns out, is surprisingly sensitive, but I wasn’t sure how to wean a child from belly-digging.
There are probably a few people reading this that will roll their eyes and mutter in that superior way about sleep training. In my defense, I did try it with the first child. After several unsuccessful attempts on my own, after reading a pile of helpful books, I finally hired a sleep consultant, and tried again. My child cried and cried and cried and cried. She did not let up for naps; she did not let up for nights. She would doze off occasionally, only to wake up ten minutes later and start again. I let her cry and cry until there was a hole in my heart the size of Saskatchewan. So after THIRTY DAYS, I gave up. I didn’t even bother to try with kid #2. Now, how was I going to leave my spouse alone with such a mess?
With all of this in mind, I mentioned the Italy trip to my husband, so he could have a good laugh as well.
“Maybe you should go,” he said.
Best not to ask twice.
Strangely, despite the enormity of the impending separation, I didn’t freak out right away. I had childcare issues to resolve, packing crises, film and equipment to procure, and a research paper due upon departure. I worried about all of that instead.
Then I got on the plane…and cried for a couple of hours straight. Not demure little teardrops, either, but swollen, hiccoughing, snotty, sobbing. My apologies to the bewildered man seated beside me. Eventually regaining composure, I spent the rest of the flight listening to language lessons and, undoubtedly, murmuring along with the patient Italian lady in my headphones. Again, apologies.
The first couple of days on the ground were a blur of disoriented jet lag, a breathless march from church after church to museum after museum. Honestly, all I really remember about Florence is the gelato. Limone. Pesca. Caffè. Cioccolato. Shop after shop, fresh fruit piled high atop the frozen tubs, a little melty on the sides from the summer heat. In between scoops, I was having an out of body experience with some really fabulous twenty-year-olds. I was completely untethered.
On day four, we headed off to a monastery in Tuscany, where the landscape did something wholly unexpected: it became familiar.
I had already seen this place, on coffee tables, in ads, in my dreams. It looked exactly like it was supposed to look, and I was unable to see it as a foreign place. Even as I was wandering this countryside for the first time, it was already a memory, part of the landscape of my psyche.
For days, I couldn’t make a picture because all of the photographs had already been made; making another would be superfluous. I focused on the long, lazy dinners–completely unknown to the parents of small children–the carafes of house wine, the late night walks filled with fireflies, frogs, and stars. I focused on the warm camaraderie of young strangers, who asked questions such as, “What is childbirth like?” “What are your irrational fears?” “Who do you secretly, shamefully lust after?” Or, “If you had to eat someone here, who would it be?” Those questions don’t often come up at pre-school potlucks. It felt so good to contemplate anything besides bowel movements, discipline, and sleep deprivation.
Since I would never forgive myself if I went home empty camera’d, I figured it was time to shoot something. And because I couldn’t make a new picture of the landscape, I tried instead to make pictures that looked like what I could see in my head. I attempted to capture on film my memories that were not really memories, that were not really mine.
After I returned to the States, I stumbled upon a passage that put this sensation into words:
“The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. Even that day, there on the porch…it had the quality of a memory…” excerpted from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
A very belated thank you to those of you who made that trip possible. I had a strange and wonderful time.
A few years ago, I wrote a list of all the reasons that I was not out taking photographs. Here are fifty-five of them, pretty much intact. Few things have changed, though I did finally graduate and purchase a digital camera. Now technological issues hinder me more than the cost of film, and–since my father stopped driving–I worry about his health instead.
It is terribly disappointing to discover that I still sabotage myself in exactly the same ways. Self-awareness may be the first step, but it’s obviously not the only step necessary to get out of my own way and MAKE STUFF.
I dedicate this list to Larry Sultan, a teacher of such power, insight, and humor that I will be forever grateful for that one short semester I sat in his class.
Roughly Half of the Reasons Why I Am Not Out Shooting Fabulous Photographs Right Now
I was up last night worrying about the shoot.
The light is not right.
I cannot figure out the spot meter.
The camera is wobbly on the tripod.
I do not have a light tight place to load sheet film.
I do not know what to take a picture of.
I suspect that I am not really a photographer.
I need a snack.
If I don’t try too hard, then I have an excuse later if nothing comes out well.
I think I might be getting sick.
I am panicked about finances.
I need to pay the bills.
I was up last night because the cat was making a ruckus.
My professional life is in the toilet.
I still haven’t finished unpacking the boxes from my move four years ago.
I am perplexed that Alan Ernst has not responded to my emails.
I am worried about my father’s driving.
I can’t find my checkbook.
The zone system does not speak to me.
I need a few things from the store.
I should really call my mother.
No matter what I think of, someone has done it well already.
I am not sure what to do about the gophers.
I just thought of a great status update that I don’t want to waste.
I need to read a little theory to situate myself.
I should probably head out early in case traffic is bad on the bridge.
I haven’t finished my homework.
I need to pick a celebrity doppelganger for my facebook profile.
I missed the light for today.
When was my last dental appointment?
I feel a little queasy.
I haven’t finished my thank you notes.
It’s hard to think straight when the place is a mess.
I am afraid of disappointing myself.
I am afraid of disappointing Larry.
I am too wound up to concentrate.
I accidentally unwound too much.
I should really make travel arrangements for the holidays.
I think I forgot my brother’s birthday.
I feel guilty spending so much money on film.
Maybe I should do a little research on digital cameras.
Was that my phone?
I feel guilty spending time at art school while my kids are off growing up somewhere else.
A little yoga would really clear my head.
I’m almost out of cat litter.
My pants are too snug to be comfortable.
I need to update my resume.
I can’t concentrate with the kids running amok.
Now that they are in bed, I am too tired.
I need to reorganize my negatives.
I am worried that my parents are going to die.
I can’t find all of the equipment I need when I need it.
I probably don’t have enough time now to really get a good start.