Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Big Shrug, Along with Small Shakes of the Head

(This garment is in fact called a Shrug.)
Ø  When you are single, you begin to feel you must always move for couples who cannot sit together on the subway—how bereft and sad they can look, and I want to say, “I hope this is the longest you are ever parted.” Even now when I am happily in love, I don’t move for them. Fuck their separate little asses. 

Miss O' sits her ground.

Ø  One man with courage makes a majority, especially a homeless man who has the courage of his body odor. If there is an empty subway car, especially at rush hour, it’s empty for a reason.

When I am overcome by odors, especially perhaps, the stench of unwashed flesh and, more frequently in the day-to-day in New York, stale piss on pavement, John Steinbeck comes to mind. In Cannery Row, he writes, “The memory of odors is very rich.” Odor comes up as a sensory detail in many of Steinbeck’s novels, and his calling our attention to it is not incidental to his work. Steinbeck sniffed out seedy underbellies of America; and even in the ugliest landscapes of human life, always managed, without too much ceremony and keeping just to the side of cliché, to turn over the most noxious patches and find, deep in what would seem to be the most polluted soil, human love. To that man, on this mid-March day of slight weatherly forgiveness in a continuing, unforgiving winter, I say kudos.

“One man with courage makes a majority,” said Andrew Jackson, or was it Woodrow Wilson, or in fact NO one, depending on which misinformative site you go on; and yet it’s a thought for the day I used to put on my chalkboard (found it in Bartlett’s, and they don’t lie, do they? except they do); a quote I found myself alternately agreeing with (Gandhi, for instance) and disagreeing with (Putin, say), depending on how one defines courage, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what that “courageous” leadership in fact spawns, and in how many, and to what ends. And now I learn that no one can find the source of this tee-shirt-worthy quote. What does that say about us as a species? My friend Howard, who has been doing copious research for a new book on old Hollywood, came across an extensive quote by the costume designer, Adrian (The Wizard of Oz, e.g.). Howard, who researched Adrian for ten years for his first book, Gowns by Adrian, said to me, “I had never read that quote in all my years of research. I was stunned! How had I missed this, you know? And so I go to the endnotes, and you know where the quote came from? Howard Gutner, Gowns by Adrian, page 22. The hell it did! And no one checked! He must have just made it up.” We both find this trend depressing. We are fond of facts. Is this nostalgic of us? When I think lately about quotations—how much I love them, use them in my own thinking—I become more and more saddened by the disappearance of copyediting as a profession. No one checks facts, let alone typos, anymore. (Another friend from work, Frances, saw a documentary about an art forger whose forgeries of masterworks or in the style of the masters—many such works hanging in galleries undetected even today—are considered by many critics to be superior to the originals. So what is art?) My job title, for example, is no longer “senior editor,” but “academic designer,” not that anyone would know what that was (even I don’t). And I become, as I say, nostalgic, which I’m not sure is useful, and yet if it’s not useful, why do so many of us bum a ride on that nostalgia train?

Ø  Woodward and Lothrop sign in DC, seen from the Amtrak train I was taking to Virginia from New York City—it got me thinking of the signs of our youth, the brands you counted on, the feeling of security in that. The memory of advertised products is very rich.

Not Vivian Maier, just the time.
Is it wrong to be sentimental about stuff, about time, about a certain slant of light? My friend Howard up there loves photography, and I told him about a new documentary coming out, Finding Vivian Maier, about a street photographer whose work was recovered when the contents of her storage locker went up for auction in 2007. Inside trunks were the negatives and prints of 100,000 photographs, taken in Chicago, New York, and all over the world during the course of this mysterious woman’s lifetime. When Howard and I looked at one of the photos, Howard said, “Oh my god! I used to go to that theater! In Chicago—United Artists! It’s torn down now….” I felt a deep glow of recognition when I saw another photo—not of the place or subject (though that is adorable), but of the light, the cars, the signs. The year was 1968. I would have been four. And it’s beginning about then that the world takes shape for me in memory, when I begin to be aware of life beyond the walls of my house, the fence of my yard. Why do we look at old photographs? That mechanism that allows us to stop time, to stare deeply into a moment in time, is one of humankind’s great achievements, I think. Vivian Maier’s photos kick me in the gut, and how much better can art get?

Thinking about the past does not make me feel old, or even older. But winter does. In February while visiting friends, I composed this haiku.

older friends' back yard
where sunflowers and tomatoes grew
a rock garden

See? The winter and its dangers: If it’s not falling into pits of nostalgia for spring and warmth and hope,  or composing bad haiku, it's stepping into once-frozen puddles of pissy. There is milder weather today, and I’m too tired to enjoy it. Maybe art will help.

Jean LeBlanc, Postcards from her exhibition.

I should be in New Jersey today hanging out with George and Jeannie and Ted and Linda, in order to attend Jean’s photography exhibit opening out in Easton, PA; but I thought I was going out to another part of NJ to hear my friend Mark play piano with his trio, to the vocal stylings of the incomparable Harlem blues singer Ruth Brisbane, while enjoying a lovely dinner with Ruth’s adorable husband, Milton. However, this being Mark, and winter, Mark wrote to say his life was crazy busy and would I mind NOT coming? He must have felt I was just one more thing to take care of. Oh, winter. You have been a bitch.

                                 (Nous continuons.)

So no art this weekend, either visual or musical. Okay. Life could be worse, and every time I so much as glance at the news, it is. “There is overwhelming public support for the Keystone Pipeline.” As if the “public” has been told the whole story about that project. Stupid, stupid, stupid. And Vladimir Putin, a psychopathic closet case whose status as former head of the KGB gives him, doubtless, unlimited blackmail powers to keep him front and center as Russian dictator (and, as we watch the fall of Ukraine, USSR empire-restorer) for years to come, is admired and respected by the United States Republican Party. Meanwhile Barack Obama, the fairly-elected president of the U.S., a thoughtful, inherently decent man leading a nation-gone-mad, going up against an entire party of sociopaths and turd-mongers, and trying to hold together even the people who support them against their own best interests, is the GOP’s “worst nightmare”. Blamed for everything from insurgent attacks in foreign nations to lousy sports teams to flu outbreaks, I don’t know how my president keeps it together.

Because some days, even I can’t. So reliant was I becoming on wine to anesthetize me against all this stupidity, I gave up alcohol for Lent way back in February. I realized that pots of tea are just fine as long as I don’t watch the news. My parents, Bernie and Lynne, are feeling the same way. And then there’s this.

In the words of my friend Tom Corbin, “Jesus Christ.” I think if we liberals spent more time building cases and less time counter-attacking, we might actually get somewhere. But progressive desires for clean air, clean water, decent jobs and wages, affordable health care, arable land growing organic crops, green energy, and love for all our fellow men apparently aren’t SEXY enough for mass media. Who wants forward thinking when you can chomp the red meat of Rand Paul’s Clinton penis envy ca. 1997?

It’s Always Showtime Somewhere

Yet continue we must. All this not going anywhere this weekend worked out just great in the end, I think. Yesterday, for example, was my sweet boyfriend’s 60th birthday, and as a result of all the defunct invitations, I was home to do something for it. (I’ll be 50 in May—we both turn decades over together). His past with his ex did not include celebrations with flowers (she threw them in the garbage, "a waste of money"), or much else, and he’d sort of given up being feted beyond love and presents from his children; and so I gave him a bouquet. He was stunned, and it was so sweet to see (even if it was "reverse," as he put it). Among the many stories we shared over two pots of birthday tea while sitting in my kitchen (and a little bourbon for him, as he nurses a back in pain from too much winter shoveling), the theme of freedom and what that means seemed to be most on our minds. It began when he talked about how great his four kids are—all grown, smart, college degrees, no trouble with the law, so good to him; and I talked about how all my parents’ kids have been good citizens, done our best, still love and like each other, call our folks on the weekends. And yet we both know people who did all they could for their children, and the children turned out rotten. One immigrant friend of my (immigrant) love’s said of his own son, “He cannot handle our freedom. Prison is his freedom. That is where he is home.” And we started talking about prisons—I thought of the prison that is the barstool, the ways that so many of us cannot cope with choices, with responsibilities, with our own power. And all the while…

We can feel imprisoned every day—in cubicles, in our cars, on subways, on crowded streets, behind bars, in our poverty, even in our riches. So much is about perspective, when it isn't about being fed and housed, feeling well, having meaningful work, or having the capacity to give and receive love. And I thought of the line, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” and looked it up online. I guess I found the real poem from which it comes—how would I ever know? I placed it at the blog's close. Good stuff. 

Oh, freedom, you are, in the way of so many misattributed quotations or media mudslinging, too often manipulated for malodorous ends. I freely take the moments of my free weekend—bouquets, photographs, and purloined art—and blog the shit out of them. What else can I do? I can freely look up Vivian Maier, look at her portfolios of lives on the street, moments of living in time; and so can you. I can freely give up my seat for the old, the infirm, the weary. I can love my loves, freely; tell the truth, fight the good fight, and goddammit I gotta learn to shrug off the rest. Free something up in my spirit, at least until I can quit wearing all these winter woolen layers.

At the very least, I can not be the stench that closes up a whole free subway car, as best as I can help it, is what I’m saying. There’s hardly enough room as it is. Let us breathe, and free.

Full of sound and fury, signifying shrugging,

Miss O’
In the kitchen with Miss O'

348. To Althea, from Prison

               ~Richard Lovelace, 1618-1658
WHEN Love with unconfinèd wings
  Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
  To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
  And fetter'd to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
  Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
  With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with roses bound,
  Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty grief in wine we steep,
  When healths and draughts go free—
Fishes that tipple in the deep
  Know no such liberty.

When, like committed linnets, I
  With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
  And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
  He is, how great should be,
Enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,
  Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
  Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
  That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
  And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
  Enjoy such liberty.

Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250–1900.

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