Friday, July 30, 2010

The Birth of an Artist

This week I read a short story in the New Yorker that I felt was perhaps the most amazing story I ever read. Since I would kill to write a story this good, I've decided to share it here by way of my own retelling. I only ever wrote a short story once, myself, about the time I bought a dog home from the pound after moving to my mountain retreat in Blacksburg. I fell in love with the dog, which I named Woogie, only to decide after three months that I lacked the necessary caretaking gene to keep it. This story, too, is about finding and then losing love. Called "La Vita Nuova" by Allegra Goodman, it can be found in the May 3rd issue of the News Yorker.

The day after Amanda's fiance ignominiously dumps her, declaring that he finds her a very dark person and feels suffocated by her, Amanda takes her vintage wedding dress to the Garden School in Cambridge where she teaches art, theater, puppets, storytelling, drumming, dance, and fabric painting to children. Carefully, she spreads the white satin gown on the floor for her students to decorate--an exercise which eventually leads to her teaching contract not being renewed. "Your personal life is not an appropriate art project for first grade," the principal tells her, letting her know that the school is moving in a different direction.

Amanda then gets a job baby-sitting Nathaniel, aged six. They spend their days going places together, and their daily outings become a form of hypnotic enchantment for the reader. They eat chocolate mice at Burdick's and then stand in front of the Harvard Coop, listening to Peruvian musicians. They explore the cemetery, where Amanda tells Nathaniel that the gravestones are dragons' teeth. They take the T train to Boston and stand in line for the swan boats in the Public Garden, which turn into real swans at night, according to Amanda. They watch Charlie Chaplin movies rented from Hollywood Express, while eating pizza and pop corn. They go canoeing on the Charles River and write a story book together about pirates. They have a conversation about donuts, and study the red ants of Buckingham Street, feeding them cake crumbs.

The only cloud over these ecstatic days is that Nathaniel's father has become sexually attracted to her and is surreptiously making unwanted overtures. Amanda finds him creepy. Meanwhile her family, especially her father, begins to wonder what she plans on doing with her life. After all, he says, "I paid for Yale."

One day, after a walk to Harvard Square to watch the street musicians, Amanda and Nathaniel share summer rolls and Thai iced tea, which Nathaniel thinks tastes like orange chalk. They end up in a store called Little Russia, where they discover lacquered babushka dolls, nested one inside the other in decreasing sizes. Inspired, Amanda orders a set of blank wooden dolls online and begins to paint them in acrylic, adding the necessary high gloss afterwards. At the beginning, the dolls represent different stages in the narrative of her life, but her repertoire then expands as she builds up a body of work. Eventually she imagines herself living in New York City, becoming an artist, and having shows.

Summer arrives, and Nathaniel is scheduled to go to the Cape with his father. Amanda declines the invitation to go with them, announcing instead that she has decided to move to New York. As a special present for Nathaniel, she has created a handmade map of all the places they had visited together, and the things they'd done there. Realizing he is losing Amanda, Nathaniel goes berserk with grief. He tears the map. No one can get him to stop sobbing. Amanda takes him in her arms and rocks him, saying quietly, "I know, I know."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Month of Bad-Hair Days

If ever a month seemed to have a hex on it, this was it for me. It all started when the space bar on my computer keyboard jammed. The Internet still functioned, but all typing, e-mail sending, and blogging ceased operations, until I could get new keyboard. I went to the VA Tech bookstore, but no luck. Try the branch on campus, the sales clerk suggested. I asked if he would telephone them first, to see if they had what I needed, or could order it. Somewhat haltingly, he pulled out a cell phone from his pocket.

Finally he got a human at the other end. It seemed that, yes, it could be ordered, but there wasn't one in stock. I asked to borrow the phone to complete the transaction. Meanwhile, the clerk whose phone I was using wandered off, and he didn't come back. Not wanting to just abandon the phone on the counter, I went looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found. I asked some girls on the other side of the store if they knew where he had gone.

"To the hospital," they said. "You're kidding," I said. "What's wrong with him?" "We have no idea," they answered. All of this happened within the frame of some five minutes. I handed over the cell phone, but was very rattled. Later that day, an email arrived from a neighbor I don't know who lives on my road, to alert people that her house had been broken into and robbed. A few other e-mails followed, with accounts from neighbors of a "dark-haired woman" who was knocking on doors, trying to sell an alarm system. The neighbors all described her as behaving oddly. I had a talk with the police, who were only mildly reassuring. The e-mails stopped coming, and after a day or two, things settled down again, but I was rattled.

Then, I turned on the computer only to find it was black. I thought it had suddenly died, until I noticed none of the lamps nor the radio in the same room were working either. An electrician had to be summoned. He solved the problem with a flick of a switch. Problem was, you had to know which switch to flick. A day or two of calm followed, until my cleaning lady announced that the basement carpet downstairs was wet. The heat pump man had to be summoned--as the air conditioning system had sprung a leak. O happy days. He soon fixed it. But after that, I had to find someone to come and vacuum up the water from the carpet. All this causing much anxiety and costing several hundreds of $.

None of this compares, I know, to the daily travails of the poor people living in the beleaguered Gulf. The gusher has been temporarily capped, so for the moment at least, the Nazi oil is being kept at bay. But a storm is on the way, and clean-up crews have had to stop working and evacuate the waters. Drilling of the relief well is on hold.

Meanwhile, Obama continues to labor on his St. Catherine's Wheel. Every piece of reform legislation the Democratic Congress manages to pass, causes his poll number to drop. Talk about Theater of the Absurd! Republicans have successfully demonized him as the devil incarnate who is destroying our country. Michelle Bachmann, one of his leading detractors, said recently, "I think all we should do [when Republicans take over the House in November] is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another and expose all the nonsense that has gone on." How are they getting away with this? It makes you scratch your head in disbelief, until you consider the statistic I discovered this week: only 40% of Americans have a college degree. Stupidity combined with political viciousness can make for a heady cocktail.

I hope your month has been better!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Period of Calculated Waiting

No two ways about it: we are definitely in a time now of what the I Ching calls a period of "calculated waiting." In my previous post I referred to the oil spill and the war in Afghanistan as "America's bleeding ulcers," but that description applies equally to the state of the economy, which is precariously poised for collapse like a house of cards--unless by some miracle it doesn't. (Just as an aside, it remains shocking to me that, in every parsing of the economic statistics for growth, unemployment, and jobs creation that is offered by pundits and the president alike, not one single person ever mentions the horrendous economic impact presented by the oil spill, which has the potential, after all, to totally derail whatever measly economic gains have been accrued so far.)

Maybe it's because everyone but me is in thrall to the philosophy that "success starts with positive thoughts," I don't know. Only time will tell how these various scenarios play themselves out in the end. Personally, I confront them all with a mind infused with a dread of what's to come--which is, of course, exactly what the I Ching advises should NOT be done during a necessary period of calculated waiting. It was for this reason that I was prompted, when the spill first happened, to read Anne Frank's Diary, which I had never read, I thought I needed some serious mentoring in how to live with dread. I wanted to see how a 13-year-old girl managed to survive being stalked by death, and to deal with her fear of the Nazis, who might, as she put it, come at any time "in the middle of the night to take us away,"

Anne Frank was only 12 years old when her family first went into hiding in 1941, in the upstairs annex at the back of an office building in Amsterdam. The family of four imprisoned themselves, eventually to be joined by four others, and remained hidden there for two years, until the morning of August 4, 1944 when the SS and members of the Security Police (who had probably been tipped off) showed up at the door and arrested them all. The beleaguered Anne ended up in Bergen-Belsen, where she died, probably of typhus, in an epidemic that had broken out in the camp, shortly before it was liberated by Bristish troops on April 12, 1945. The others had been shipped to different camps, and the only survivor was Anne's father, Otto, who, after his release, spent the next 30 years disseminating the publication of his daughter's journal.

I must say that I was totally unprepared for the majesty of Anne Frank's writing skills, the stunning maturity of her emotions, and the wisdom and courage with which she confronted her destiny. I still cannot get over how extraordinary this book is. If you only read it once when you were 12 years old in school, I cannot recommend it highly enough as an object lesson for our own terrible times--in which many people, for the first time, are unexpectedly and seriously frightened of the future. I can only imagine, for instance, through Anne Frank's eyes, what some people living on the Gulf coast must be feeling right now as they wait for the oil to invade and further upend their lives. In what follows, I want to share some of the most poignant passages from her book. They are more than worth the time it will take to read them, I promise. From Anne Frank's Diary:

"Our only diversions are reading, studying, and listening to the radio...Yesterday was my unlucky day. I pricked my right thumb with the blunt end of a big needle. As a result Margot [Anne's younger sister] had to peel potatoes for me. And writing was awkward. Then I bumped into the cupboard door so hard it nearly knocked me over, and was scolded for making such a racket. They wouldn't let me run water to bathe my forehead so now I'm walking around with a giant lump over my right eye. To make matters worse, the little toe on my right foot got stuck in the vacuum cleaner...Relationships here in the Annex are getting worse all the time.

"We don't dare open our mouths at mealtime...because no matter what we say, someone is bound to resent it or take it the wrong way...I've been taking valerian every day to fight the anxiety and depression, but it doesn't stop me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten valerian drops, but we've almost forgotten how to laugh...All the bickering, tears, and nervous tension have become such a stress and strain that I fall into my bed at night crying and thanking my lucky stars that I have half an hour to myself...My nerves often get the better of me, especially on Sundays; that's when I really feel miserable. The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish, leaden. Outside, you don't hear a single bird, and a deathly, oppressive silence hangs over the house and clings to me as if it were going to drag me into the deepest regions of the underworld.

"Everyone is subject to moods and fearfulness...The war is going to go on despite our quarrels and our longing for freedom and fresh air, so we should try to make the best of our stay here...I'm preaching, but I also believe that if I live here much longer, I'll turn into a dried-up old beanstalk. And all I really want is to be an honest-to-goodness teenager!

"Just imagine how interesting iit would be if I were to publish a novel about the Secret Annex...ten years after the war people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate, and what we talked about in hiding...When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But...will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?,,,I know what I want, I have a goal, I have opinions, a religion and love. If only I can be myself, I'll be satisfied. I know that I'm a woman, a woman with inner strength and a great deal of courage! If God lets me live, I'll go out into the world and work for mankind! I know that courage and happiness are needed first!

"Vegetables are still very hard to come by. This afternoon we had rotten boiled lettuce. Ordinary lettuce, spinach and boiled lettuce, that's all there is. Add to that rotten potatoes, and you have a meal fit for a king!...I've asked myself again and again whether it wouldn't have been better if we hadn't gone into hiding, if we were dead now and didn't have to go through this misery, especially so that the others could be spared the burden [refers to the small band of helpers who brought them provisions in secret so they could stay alive]. But we all shrink from this thought. We still love life...and we keep hoping, hoping for...everything. Let something happen soon, even an air raid. Nothing can be more crushing than this anxiety. Let the end come, however, cruel; at least then we'll know whether we are to be the victors or the vanquished."

And so, in our own lingering, unfinished stories of calculated waiting--the oil spill, an unwinnable war, the threat of financial collapse--we, too, are haunted by precisely the same question: are we to be the victors or the vanquished? Will we succeed in overcoming these formidable obtacles or will they destroy us? Right now all we do know is that we are having to live under a cloud of sickening uncertainty.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Salty Smell Has Disappeared

I've been noticing how, when visceral realization of the full scope of the oil-spill disaster finally strikes among my friends, it arrives, not in slow, incremental thrusts but as a full-spectrum nuclear blast on the entire nervous system. And one becomes like a turtle thrown on its back, helplessly pawing the air. It happened this week to my friend Elizabeth Indianos, the one person I know who actually lives in the Gulf, in a small, spectacularly lovely, fishing town called Tarpon Springs, an hour away from Tampa.

I've been waiting for months for the spill to really impact her, worried to death, but Liz has ben sublimely preoccupied, indeed all but consumed, by a public art commission she's been working on for weeks and weeks: the construction of a giant Sundial she designed for the Northwest Florida State College campus in Niceville, FLA. It has meant long hours of work, and commuting back and forth to another town every day. As a result, our phone calls have flagged.

At one point I had meekly asked her, "Liz, things are really gonna get bad. Do you have a Plan B?" She replied that she'd been too busy to really think about it, or even watch the news. She seemed happy inside her bubble. Besides, Florida was still okay. I could tell she just wasn't "there" yet, and I had already determined it was not my place to blow up her world. It would happen in its own way and in its own time. Let her have peace for as long as possible. She is, after all, one of the smartest-in-the-world people I know, so I was all too aware that, once she really confronted this head-on, it would be absolutely devastating for her. No point in rushing the awful process.

This week, however, it happened. The art project finally done, Liz went to the Alabama coast for a little holiday with her husband, to visit his parents who have a house with a direct view of the beach. Just as I knew she would be, my poor darling friend, whom I dearly love, suddenly looked the Medusa in the face, and has gone belly up with the sheer horror of what she has seen. Here, in her own words, is what she writes about her experience there:

Elizabeth Indianos – 6/30/2010- Writing from Gulf zero- on the porch balcony of a lovely beach house overlooking Gulf Shores, Alabama -- and the worst nightmare. I'm freaking out around the clock, off center like a listing ship. It's hard to witness this up close and personally. I’m just another mortally wounded, oil coated, squawking bird, hopelessly ducking into my room when I tear up, blasting off a torpedo of poetry between sobs. I don't know what else to do while my world self-destructs.

It's all too much.
Have to snap out of it.
Can't just hide in my room.
Going to wipe my face and go out.
Pretend. Drink margueritas with the family and hope I don' t implode.
It’s tough being an artist canary.
I down my margeurita, spiff up with my lipstick, dab some erase under my eyes.
I don't have my usual coping skills. I'm not tip-top.

Alone, I go out on the toxic dunes, interview the workers, and shake hands. What do they think? Most are young, healthy, strong workingmen and women, adhering to a militaristic protocol and cleanup regime. It has to be that way. There’s a lot to consider.

They are happy to see me; a person from the outside who asks how they’re doing and what they’re doing. No one joins me. I gather that it’s not that civilians don’t care, but I keep hearing derisive comments about workers being lazy, doing things stupidly, happy to make money on this cleanup. Everywhere, there is misplaced, political blame-calling and scape-goating. The cleanup crews are on par with the poisonous, garbage rolling up to their feet.

Young man Aaron wears gadgets that monitor the air, sun and humidity. He’s in charge of checking his workers at regular intervals, making sure for health reasons that they stop, hydrate and comply with Osha and other regulations. Though the crews wear special boots, gloves, hats and suits, Aaron is nervous. Arsenic and toxins are in the water I had my toes in earlier. Fumes are in the air. He nods towards the Gulf and says, “ Don’t go in there. I’m worried about the effect this is going to have on my workers. Everyone on the Alaskan spill came down with cancer.” When I ask, he explains some of their clean-up methods. All along the shore are balls that look like grassy, college football pompoms put into the water to soak up oil. Long booms resembling cotton tubes soak up oil when it hits the shore. Both methods are changed out 3 and 4 times a day, like huge Band-Aids absorbing blood at the aortal artery. He agrees with me that the task is daunting. Neither of us say hopeless but we think it. Aaron describes finding a big, black, tar rectangle at low tide…He thought it was a car. He tells me he told officials that cosmetically plowing the beach, tilling the oil under the sand at the end of each day with bulldozers is not an answer, but rather a problem. No one will listen.

Another worker, Lucas, says that the boats peppering the horizon do a good job, endlessly sucking, absorbing and corralling oil with rotating skimmers. The boats move and change their locations following where the oil plumes go. Sensing that they could talk to me for hours, I thank them for their hard work and leave, carefully dodging tiny, dime sized tar balls as I trudge up the dunes to hang with the family watching me from the two-story veranda.

We cook a big dinner; carnitas with slow roasted pork, salsa, and blueberry cobbler, our Margaritaville Eucharist. Everyone keeps drinking. We are in lock down, embedded in a Jimmy Buffet song where he sings- "There's good news and there's bad news. The bad news is that the world is coming to an end. The good news is that there's gonna be a party- SO DON"T BE LATE!"

Immersed in our desperate reverie, conditions worsen by the minute. Elongated, chocolate ribbons stripe the water and move in, rolling closer into shore. Clean up crews are gathering. I sense panic and run down the dunes to hear, “This is what we’ve been waiting for!” The crews kick in and fight the noxious, endless sludge into the night; soaking up oil, dispensing it in bags, removing it against a backdrop of hovering coastguard boats. How can it ever stop? Will it ever stop? It stings our eyes and through a blur of tears I remember the last line of the Great Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I’m devastated all night. My son-in-law attorney in NY lets me know that his uncle in Florida thinks the government is covering up the toxic effects and that the entire state of Florida is going to be evacuated. My friend and creative collaborator Mike, a composer and GREEN activist nails the irony in an email:

“It’s a fucking nightmare…Almost 3 months and it’s just like they said it would be, still spewing our precious, liquefied dinosaur bones into the water. Isn’t it totally absurd, by the way, that we power our our cars from the bones of T-rex? ”

Last night on the news, Liz reports, they said that fines up to $40,000 would be given if pics are taken. Too bad. I took mine before the warning so the hell with them.

Liz's POEM:

Gulf Tears- June, 27th 2010- Elizabeth Indianos

Family vacation.

Brown rivulets surround

my feet in the water.

Strange bubbles

Sting my feet.

I have toxic toes now

on a spongy chemical sand.

No salty smell, where is the nectar,

the fish?

Only, sharks, those oily buzzards,

come in to eat the dead ones.

I spot a brave sandcastle

breaking out like beach graffiti.

Defiantly, I eat with the locals,

shrimp and oysters twice today

and shake hands with those doomed miners;

crews in makeshift work camps,

who bulldoze and patrol shores

-intent on cosmetic cleanup.

A full moon sparkles white velvet on waves

but, the night has company.

A hive of boats twinkle like stars,

working overtime, to

clean up the horizon.

Is this real Science Fiction?

I’m standing at the wake of

my Mother Ocean,



Removed, looking into the casket,

determined not to love her anymore,

because she’s gone.

I haven’t cried yet and

try to take pictures,

but even my camera shuts down.

It can’t bare witness either.

I’m a sorry daughter, wishing she had done more

while her parent was alive.

I should have loved you better.

You’ve known me all my life.

Finally, with this oil and ocean,

the body and blood of my hemorrhaging planet,

chemically camouflaged to disperse its salty tears,

I cry a requiem.