Monday, December 15, 2014

The Cat in Antlers Tradition Continues

After an exhaustive search, and much to Hazel's dismay, I finally found where I put the antlers for safekeeping.  Merry Christmas!

A reflective reindeer.  

"Every. Year.  What's wrong with her?"

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Nothing New

I was talking to a friend of mine in New York briefly yesterday, mostly agonizing over the intricacies of buying a house (I was outbid; oh well), but also mentioned in passing that when not thinking about putting down roots here in Florida, I was thinking about moving to New Zealand. There are a lot of reasons on for that that make sense given my needs and values - love of beauty and nature, English-speaking so I could find work more easily, liberal policies including environmental conservation and universal healthcare.  It's a secular nation, and that's hugely appealing when I see the way religion has been corrupted here in this country, a country founded on the premise of religious tolerance and the division between church and state.  New Zealand is a peaceful place with a lot of open space.  I recently discovered that it's the first country to give women the power to vote.

It's also got a whole bunch of white people, and pasty gal that I am, I'd fit right in there.

That last detail is a little funny, considering that my current desire to move is based not just on my usual itchy feet, and the sense that if I am ever going to live in another country, at 45, I best get on it, but also because I'm just so damn disgusted with my own country right now, in particular with how much institutional racism is woven into the system.

I'm not a particularly political person. I have a opinions, but I don't like to argue, and my experience for the most part is that people seldom if ever change their mind based on anything I've ever said. More often, they've spent considerable energy finding a way to discount my opinion. Sometimes these ways can be valid, e.g., my lack of knowledge or experience, but often, the ways are more annoying, and include things such as my status as a woman, my history of mental illness, my sexual choices, my variable income and professions over the years.  Sometimes, points are detracted for style instead of content, as in, sometimes I'm not suitably polite in my argument.

I'm that liberal ilk people talk about and dismiss.  Heck, I'm an artist.  You know I've got to be flaky.

To a degree, I get that.  I'm no expert in, well, anything.  I'm not as up on, well, pretty much everything, as I should be, and I'm rather hopelessly naive.

For example: I figured if you shoot an unarmed man in front of many witnesses, and they all agree that's what happened, well then, that pretty much guarantees a trial.  Someone died. It seems like the least you can do is have a trial to look into how and why that happened. But of course, that's not what happened in Ferguson.

Another example: if, after restraining a man with an chokehold, he dies as a result of those injuries, and that death is ruled a homicide by the coroner, and there is a videotape detailing the whole exchange, well,  of course there would have to be a trial, right?


As noted, I'm naive.

I'm not an expert, but at the same time: I'm also not devoid of basic critical thinking skills and a moral center with ideas of what is fair and reasonable.  Here I come up against: how can this shit still be happening?  How can there be no consequences?

Clearly one thing I need to look into more is what the hell happens in a grand jury and how a group can come to such flummoxing conclusions.

When talking to my friend, and she asked about moving, I just alluded to it not being a proud time to be an American (which in my head encompassed the mystifying responses of the recent grand juries among other confusing events).  Getting the reference, in the politest way possible, my friend said, "well, that's nothing new."  

And of course, it's not new - it's just getting press right now.  I just float along with my white privilege and figure, huh, if someone bangs my head against ground for selling cigarettes, there will probably be quite a stink about it (I mean, unless I'm at a frat party, in which case, it will be filed under "boys will be boys" and "don't fuck with tradition" and the ever popular "she asked for it." But I'm digressing.)

The friend I talked to yesterday is a black woman who grew up in Memphis and now lives in a rather lovely apartment in Harlem high above Morningside Park, the park where in 1985, a black classmate of ours was shot while allegedly attempting to mug a plainclothes police officer the summer after he graduated.  His death was a startling end to what was supposed to be one of those great success stories - Harlem kid goes to fancy boarding school, gets scholarship to Stanford, makes good in the old white boy network.  It wasn't supposed to end with him dead in a park, but it did.

I didn't know Eddie at all, and while I heard bits about his death, rumors as it was sorted through the legal system, I mostly kept my head in the sand, consumed with being 15. There was, of course, a grand jury that found the the police officer acted within his rights to use deadly force. The other participant in the alleged mugging was tried and found not guilty.  Despite a fair amount of press and rumor, I managed to know little about it. As a teenager at Exeter, the reality of race largely just breezed on by me, and great majority of the other privileged white folks in our overwhelmingly white, upper class bubble.

Every once in a while though, there were moments of recognition. One of my more embarrassing oh-my-god, I'm-so-white-and-clueless memories is being at a photo exhibition on the Civil Rights movement at the student art center in 10th grade.  There were disturbing, stunning photos of KKK crosses burning, crowded marches with pickets and slogans, and scuffles in the street with close-up photos of white men screaming in rage at the idea of integration. I looked at the images the way you would something in an old museum, thinking about how horrible it all was, but my nice white folks would never have been that nasty racist - that was other people's people - so I was off the hook.  I hummed along with how nice it was that the Civil Rights legislation was successful and racism eradicated.

At some point, I looked at my friends next to me, one of whom was black, and finally realized that she was seeing these photos from a very different perspective.  This was not a shameful-but-resolved history (my racist violent forebearers, the people I so much did not want to identify with) for her, but the history of abuses showered upon her forebearers, abuses that continued on to that day - in subtler ways usually (although obviously not always), but with that same undercurrent of rage, violence, exclusion and oppression.  For me, it was a history I actively wanted to distance, and so happily wrapped it up in a pretty the-law-changed bow.  For her, it was just the earlier chapter of an ongoing story leading up to the current day.

For a brief moment, I realized how unbelievably insulated I was, how much just didn't even occur to me, and that I had not the slightest idea what it was like to be part of a minority population at such an overwhelmingly rich, white school.  I got in touch with my uber sheltered white girl.

And then pretty much forgot about it.  Because that's what privilege is like - you see it for a moment, but then it's gone, and you're back to being obtuse.  Because you don't have the security guard at the store following you around, and the nasty epithets screamed out by a driver in traffic doesn't apply to you, and you never worry that people are afraid to introduce you to their parents because they're from a small town in North Carolina that believes "like should stay with like" (unless of course, there is sex involved, as that would mean homosexuality, another no-no in the idealized 1950s), because of all that.  I wondered if I wore the right clothes a lot in high school (hint: I didn't), but I never felt like my skin was viewed as wrong.  That's a very different reality.

I've thought about that moment on rare occasions when I talked to men about sexism and male privilege - rare because I so often get frustrated if they just don't see it.  It's not their experience, so it flies under their radar. They've never had anyone refer to their ideas and ambitions as "cute" and felt that belittlement or had some company pay them less money because they know you have boobs. They've never had their comments ignored until the man standing next to them says the exact same thing, and is heard.

If you are not a straight rich white man, little question marks can intrude into every encounter. Did he not take my ideas seriously because he thinks I'm an intellectual lightweight based on an ill-conceived argument -- or because I'm a woman, and he believes women can't be smart?

The summer after my senior year of high school (having finally graduated high school after dropping out of Exeter in 11th grade), I was dating a Nice Boy who my parents liked because he gave me a coffee maker and I liked because he was a boyfriend, and I'd never had one before.  We didn't have much to say to each other, but kissing filled in a lot of awkward pauses.  When said boyfriend left for a month of travel, the day after he left, I ended up kissing someone else, whom among other things, was the only black guy that ran with my circle of otherwise white friends.  I was young and hormonal and heady with the idea that I could get attention through this whole kissing thing, and he was pretty hot, and funny, and I was pretty sure he liked me, but at the same time knew I was subject to a lot of rules; I couldn't very well start dating a new boy 24 hours after my official boyfriend had left down, or I'd be That Slutty Girl.

The new guy and I, and a bunch of friends, went to a party, and I remember touching his hand in the car, and thinking I liked him, even though the kissing was, honestly, not so hot, and I was confused. At the party, he avoided me, and then left for a long stretch of time to go get beer, which somehow took hours, during which time I got aggressively and ultimately successfully hit-on by the host of the party, a worldly older man of 24 (who later that summer would wander off with my virginity as well - a persuasive soul with, as it turns out, a tiny tiny penis, a questionable drug habit and a taste for women that were too young for him).  At the party, a whole bunch of drama ensued because when the guys finally returned with beer, I was by then making out with the even newer new guy.  I remember sitting on the porch and trying to apologize but also justify myself, which is pretty much all my teenage years.

I mention all this very old drama because years later, a friend noted that he thought I didn't want to tell anyone about our make-out session because he was black. For me,  I was worried about my slutty reputation (which, no surprise, I managed to acquire in short order anyway that summer, and on into college).  On any conscious level, I didn't think that race was factoring in. But I don't know that it wasn't in some other fashion.  There were hierarchies.  Maybe I preferred older tiny penis man not just because he seemed so into me, to want me so much (for the one evening), that he was such a fine kisser, that he was older and smart and "more sophisticated" as teenage girls say about their crushes, but also because he was white and the other guy was not.  Doesn't every gal want to hook up with the Rich White Guy?  Isn't that the fabulous American dream for women, as seen on TV, to marry wealth and power, items much, much more likely to be found with a white guy?

These many years later, I still feel horrible that that guy thought I ditched him because he was black - and enormous shame that maybe in some way he was right.  That my reaction to his race wasn't occurring to me consciously doesn't mean it wasn't influencing me in other ways

Yesterday, talking to my friend, I wondered if she thought I wanted to move to New Zealand because with all those white people  (so many, because the Maori population was decimated, now running at about 15%), I thought somehow in that homogeneity that I could get away from all the racism around here, because I knew I would "fit in" because of the way I look (as long as I kept my wrong-accented mouth shut).  This running from difference is basically the reintroduction of the "separate but equal" credo of segregation.  And that freaks me out.

When I was 19, I took time off of college, and lived in Boston, eventually living in the North End in a cheap apartment which, in retrospect, was probably illegal since the landlord liked to be paid in crisp 100 dollar bills in person every month.  But it was a great location, close to downtown and work, and with a 24 hours bakery just down the street.  When I contacted another Exeter friend of mine, by then at Harvard and asked if she would visit, she said, umm, I can't go to the North End.  At the time it was such a notoriously racist area that as a black woman, she didn't feel safe going there.

It had never occurred to me that it was an issue - happy white girl in a bubble, I didn't know about the hostility because it wasn't directed at me.

I only noticed when I didn't fit, not when someone else didn't.  I also remember standing in a store in Gallup, New Mexico, looking for cheap t-shirts, and suddenly realizing that a couple of people had done double-takes looking at me.  When I looked around, I realized I was the only non-Navajo person in the store.  The few days I was in Japan struck that home much more - never had I been anywhere were I was so consistently The Outsider.  No one was actively unkind, but it was somewhat like living as a ghost, with all decisions and conversations going on around me but without me - and that was not just the language barrier.

During the period of time when I was engaged to an Iranian man, I remember his mother looking at me with mild distaste.  I was so clearly Not Persian - I looked wrong, I sounded wrong, I didn't have the right manners or beliefs; I didn't understand her culture and certainly not her son.  And she was right - I understood his American side much better than his Persian side despite my trying to learn more of the language of his birth, the history of his first country.  My brief time with his family visits was my experience of being the one out of place.  His experience was every day when someone noticed his accent.  At the airport, even well before 9/11, his luggage was searched with particular thoroughness because of his Iranian passport.  Or so I thought - I never asked him if he thought the same.

But no one shot at me or put me in a chokehold - even then, my white, middle-class privilege applied, and if my almost-mother-in-law disliked me, she had plenty of other reasons (she was right that her son and I were not happy match). My Harvard friend didn't want to risk harassment in the North End, and we met in Cambridge instead, neutral territory.  And while I'm sad she never saw my apartment, I'm embarrassed for my old neighborhood, one which for me, and my whiteness, was otherwise one of the safest.  I think about how police might have pursued anyone who harassed her, how it might suddenly have turned into questions on what she was doing in that neighborhood. She had her Harvard card to play, but what if not that?  What if a black man decided to walk around a lovely and very wealthy white neighborhood?  How many "suspicious persons" reports would be called into the police?  And what happens when the police arrive?  More bullets and chokeholds?  Too often, being in the "wrong" place with the "wrong" attitude with the "wrong" crowd or the "wrong" clothes is translated to mean violence is somehow deserved.  Wearing short skirts doesn't justify rape.  Selling loose cigarettes doesn't justify that man's death.  Being a police officer doesn't provide immunity from the consequences of your actions, doesn't mean that you can use excessive violence up to and including killing someone without there being any repercussions - or at least, it shouldn't, in my mind.  Many grand juries seem to disagree with that idea, and I find it harder and harder to hide in my naivete.  

It feels in some way frivolous to talk about my middle-class liberal angst about worrying about my own internalized racism.   It's self involved and narcissistic, and yet at the same time, the only way that change happens is when it starts from within, when I, or anyone, starts to pay attention, when we can extrapolate from our own experience to someone else's, to see the similarities and differences and take the time to understand why they might exist and how they impact experience.

In wanting to do right over the years, in trying not to offend, I've often not asked the questions that might have educated me. I've not had conversations that are uncomfortable - race, sex, class, these are all hot buttons, and I avoid them because I'm tired of those arguments that don't go anywhere, I'm horrified by a system that still ignores the death of black men, I'm horrified by my own desire to run away and hide from the tough stuff, and at the same time, wonder if I have any right to speak given that I am still, essentially, a naive, clueless, spoiled white girl who most days doesn't give a moment's pause as to how privileged I am.

I don't know what to say, and I don't know what to do, but I do know, even though it's nothing new, this shit has got to change.  This is no way for any of us to live and die.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Time Lapses

After my mother died, I kept thinking about time. When she was sick, there were predictable thoughts -- precious time, wasted time, good times & bad, being cheated of time, how much time she lived and how long she suffered in illness.

But after she died, I more often thought about time as it works as a dimension. Time, sometimes called the 4th dimension, locates a specific event as it occurs in a specific location.  After she died, that's the time I wanted to understand.

I've long tracked my own history by location, e.g, if it was when I lived in New Mexico the first time, it must have been 2006.  Because of my many moves, my timeline is easily tied to longitude and latitude. Many of those locations I have repeated.

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy writes about the pleasure of repetitions separated by time.  In his character's formula, a repetition is "the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle." When I moved back to a location, it was often with the (mistaken) belief that the peanuts would be gone this time.  And, of course, it was never like that -- life is always throwing peanuts at you, no matter how many times you leave and return, a point that I'd been rather slow to learn.

During my mother's illness, time's looming presence for all our family was largely tracked by her life, with markers for key moments such as diagnosis, first surgery, chemos, remission, recurrence, emergency surgeries, hospice, death.  And we chronicled the first of every event after her death, as in, all the things she missed, all the times and places when and where we missed her.

But if time is just a portion of the equation of locating a person in a spacetime, I reasoned that it seemed like just one measly layer, one that if you could just peel through it a bit, you could see everything and everyone that had ever been there in that location throughout time, and see them clearly. Think time-lapse films, where the plant germinates, grows, blossoms, withers and dies.  Everything is there on the film, all happening all at once; it's just where you choose to play the film that gives you what you want to see.  

In the refashioning of history and relationships that happens when one party is no longer there to refute them, I found my mother everywhere. There were remnants of her in the places she frequented, in every object she touched, even in the way she appeared in dreams, as dream time seems the most permeable to changing the physics of time, a loophole or wormhole or what-have-you.

In Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything, he talks about the dispersal of durable atoms over time and points out that we all may have a little bit of Shakespeare in us (o happy writers!), as those freewheeling atoms have been circling about for long enough that some may have found their way into your pinkie finger  But if you're hoping that you have some Elvis atoms in you - sorry. There hasn't been enough time since his passing to have dispersed the atoms far enough through the universe for you have incorporated his atoms. I thought about Mom's atoms when I walked on the beach, splashing feet in the water, as up in Maine, some of her ashes went into that water. Who doesn't want the whole ocean, all oceans, as their mother?

People talk about ghosts, but what if it's just you can sense evidence of where they were, like perfume that lingers in a room someone has just left?  And what if everything is drowned in that smell, and peels layers of time away like turpentine on paint?

Or what if you just miss your mom - and you want to bend your limited scientific knowledge to keep her around for a while longer, even if only is in some great cosmic metaphysical time travel kind of way?

Joan Didion describes in The Year of Magical Thinking how after the death of her husband, when she was clearing out his closet, she kept some of his shoes because he would need them when he came back.  It was around then that she realized she was not, perhaps, holding things together quite as well as she had hoped. She writes:

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

I remembered that comment with particular relief when, after my mother died, I realized some part of me believed Mom was sending me messages in the lyrics of pop songs.

Immediately after she died, I moved to Florida.  Coincidentally, Phillip Phillip's song "Home" was playing incessantly everywhere, the song with the refrain, "Just know you're not alone / Cause I'm going to make this place your home."  If, for instance, you are afraid you're going to start to cry for no reason standing in the towels aisle of Target, and that song comes lilting on the piped-in music, it feels like a benediction - or it did for me.

And then I spent some time pondering how it must be for those people with schizophrenia or psychotic breaks of some kind who believe they are receiving coded messages from the TV, and I got a little uncomfortable with finding comfort in pop songs and feared I was just a short time hop away from wearing a tinfoil hat to keep the aliens at bay. But even with that, I took the comfort anyway, that moment at Target and those that came after, moments where the music felt like what I needed to hear just then -- a coincidence, a serendipity, a sign, grace, good vibes, self-nurturance or my mom looking out for me, whatever it was, I took that comfort. I let it be, which I suppose is my own version of faith.

So when an ABBA tune played while I was in the rug section in IKEA, I got teary because I figured it was A Sign that buying furnishings was a good plan, tending to my new home.  Mom and I listened to ABBA in the car on the way to chemo a couple of times.  She came to ABBA late in life, having spent most of her life listening to classical music and occasionally musicals, but somewhere in there, Mamma Mia picked up the relentless happy beats of ABBA.

After Mom died, I turned to time, wanting more of it, wanting to redo it, wanting to relive the good parts and fix the bad parts, and I wanted her to still exist in a fashion, to be literally living and breathing.  And in the timeline, she is.  I can't fold time over like a Star Trek episode, but then again, I live on a planet that is still receiving light from stars that could have winked out of existence hundreds of years ago.  If all things are simultaneously happening in all timelines, then in some tiny portion of those instances, there is Mom humming along to store music as she did sometimes.  Why shouldn't I find parts of her in pop songs -- or wherever else she pops up?

Graffiti seen in a park, Bangor, ME

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Back from the Dead

Having not posted on this blog for months, I found I'm tongue-tied by the prospect of return.  Like most things, writing is a habit, and when you fall out of the habit, picking it up again comes with the aches and pains of, say, trying to start jogging again (another habit I am trying to resurrect).

Confession: The last months have not been full of giant creativity.  Until very recently, my easel remained disturbingly dusty.  Last week, I finally brushed off some very old short stories for some revision.  But largely, I reached a What's the Point moment with art, which led to an extended stall, and so I explored other avenues in my eternal quest on How to Feel Good.

This wasn't made any easier in July, since it became clear my beloved 17-year-old cat Leo was heading down to his final decline.  In the weeks in between the 1st anniversary of my mother's death and her birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer, and became so weak that he could no longer walk. I had to have him put to sleep. I cried a lot in July.

Leo sporting his acupuncture needles. 
Aside from innumerable veterinarian visits, I also spent a lot of time in an easy chair napping with needles in my ears, arms and legs -- I discovered the magic of acupuncture. Typically, my cat received acupuncture first (from a vet), with the hope that it would help his pain issues, at first thought just to be worsening arthritis. And it did seem to make him feel more relaxed.   Given that animals have no interest in the placebo effect, it seemed a good bet it might help me too.  I found a community acupuncture clinic (for humans) ( and got myself into that lounger. On my first few visits, I was near elated post treatments, perhaps a sign that I really needed to calm the heck down.  More recently, my reaction has been less intense, although I still leave relaxed and soothed.

In August, I started a couple of classes at the local community college in environmental science. Given that it's been twenty or so years since I've taken a science class, that was a mild shock to the system.  And yet, my 20 year old student self persists in some ways, with notebooks full of doodles and journal entries interspersed with actual notes. I still sit in the back of the class and daydream too much and still manage to cram my way to As on exams (which probably pleases me more than it should, the gold star of intellectual approval). College campuses are, from the small sample of my recent exploration, more or less the same, except for the addition of cell phones.
You missed seeing this amazing mural from the exhibit My Generation:
Young Chinese Artists. 
It closed at the end of September.  Still time
to see Jamie Wyeth's Portraits of Rudolf Nureyev though. 
There are still guys on skateboards weaving between very young women trading stories about their, yes, prom dates. Color me Methuselah.

Through most of my silent summer, I continued on at work at the museum, and continued to be impressed by the kindness of most of my coworkers.  I left that job at the end of September, as their kindness no longer successfully masked the inherently dull nature of processing memberships. I saw several coworkers at the last exhibit opening, where I was just a civilian again, there to see the art and collect a little shop gossip. I'm immensely grateful to the people there for their good will during my odd transitional first year here in Florida, something I worry I failed to make clear.

In the last months, I've also spent a great deal of time looking for a house to purchase.  I've looked at zillions, thanks to a very patient real estate agent, and even made offers on a couple, but nothing has quite come together, which has left me questioning the whole project.  Is buying a home going to make me feel rooted?  Or trapped?  Will I feel at home, or like an impostor? Will I just add inability to decorate to my list of character flaws? Could I overthink this more?
17-year-old Hazel pointing out that not only is she still
alive, she is also still darn cute. She'd also like a backyard
for lizard hunting. 

In my online searching, for a time, I was also looking for dates when not scanning real estate ads. The process is not dissimilar, where you scan through pictures and profiles and see what you can live with (no garage, but a lovely fireplace) and what you can't (appears to be screaming racist and not-so-bright). Thanks to the wonders of online dating, I met with four people in person, and three of them were pleasant enough, if not fabulous love matches, a reasonable percentage all things considered. But then I reached my saturation point. Right now, I'm not sure I want to hear about more divorces and broken hearts (and this also begs the question, if you've only been divorced for 45 seconds, or you're desperately hung up on your all-but-perfect ex, or you're not sure, but you might actually hate all women, then why exactly am I sitting here having a cup of tea with you? Do I have a special gift for picking people who are unavailable? Or am I just too picky in general? Am I supposed to be so fanfuckingtastic that I make all forget any previous woes? Sorry, that's clearly not gonna happen; we all drag our baggage into the event, as evidenced by this mini-rant).

The aptly named Sunset Beach, Treasure Island, FL
Maybe despite all my relentless questing and researching and occasional successes all things are not found on the internet. Shocking. I am trying to spend less time tangling up in the world wide web and more time out wandering in the real live world.

Throughout my tenure in Florida, I've remained dedicated to my sunset walks the beach and enjoying people watching happy locals and tourists. A week ago, a woman was standing stock still at the tide line because an enormous dragonfly had landed on her.  She was beside herself pleased with its magical presence: "He thinks I'm a great big flower."  Yesterday, I saw a woman sauntering along with a brightly-colored parrot perched with great dignity on her shoulder.  Never underestimate how delightful it is to watch the tide slowly devour a sandcastle or how in-tune the herons are with the possibility of snacks as they linger by the fisherman.

Philippe Park
Besides my beach trips, I've been checking out local parks, mini-road trips to find new views.  The slightly-busted camera that lives in my purse is getting a work out, and I've explored places like Philippe Park, which is just crazily beautiful.

I know this much: happy does not come from basking in some external bullshit socially-acceptable status checklist. I know people with houses, jobs, relationships, friends and full bank accounts who are also flat out miserable, and desperate for someone/something to blame (a bigger house, a "better" job, more money, a spouse or partner who doesn't or does __[fill in the blank]__, losing just 10 more pounds, waiting just one more year for ____ to happen).  Who I don't know are that many people that are actually, on balance, mostly content with their lives.  Some, mind you, many even.  But not as many as you'd think given their full checklists.

And maybe no one should be too content, lest that be too close to complacent.  One review of the news is enough to verify that there is no shortage of pain, tragedy, misery and horror out there, the real stuff, not my first-world middle class angst. Should anyone be content in the face of the sad state of human nature, the environment, governments, world politics, religions, wars, swaths of --isms and violence run amok?

Or is that just evidence of my bad attitude, an inability to thoroughly embrace the power of positive thinking?

That's something to ponder as I walk the beach and see if I can capture a photo of a pelican in flight, something to mull on while I  breathe the sea air.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day

Quilt made by Margot Daffron,
finished by her daughter Susan
Designed and pieced together by my mother, this quilt was (we believe) intended for me, but still resided in the UFO (unfinished object) category at the time of her death. My sister had the pieced work professionally quilted and finished the edges and backing herself, and mailed the completed quilt to me a few weeks ago for my 45th birthday.

As such, on Mother's Day, I can curl up on the couch and be warmed by the colorful heart and creativity of my mother.

Thanks to my sister for such an amazing gift


Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  We miss you.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Impressionable Artist

Long ago, when I was in college, I went drinking with a strawberry blond boy named Jonathan.  At different times, we hoped some romance would blossom between us, but never at the same time, and so it never did, which is just as well, as we had not much in common.  The last memory I have of him is him emphatically and ineffectually trying to explain to me that the water filtration system he was selling was not, indeed, a pyramid scheme. 

Well before that, however, one evening we were up in his dorm room, and he showed me a painting he had recently done, an abstract.  He said it was a personal piece to him, along the lines of a self-portrait and I giggled and said, “colorful.”  He put the painting to the side then, and gave me a disappointed and somewhat condescending look, at which point, I sighed, and went on, “I see the slash of red working though it as a representation of the anger that runs through you that you both try to suppress and secretly enjoy, but that the blues and greens behind it are more accurate to your core self, which is more placid and flexible and liquid, if less aggressive – that’s where you peacefulness lies.  Over here, in that dark corner, I see a reference to the grief that you carry with you – your father’s death, perhaps – but this explosion of shapes and color over here, that seems really joyful to me…”  I went on at some length, weaving in whatever I had gleaned about him through brief conversations and what I had intuited about his personality and way of being in the world, and connected it into that painting, a complicated line of compliments and complaints wrapped in a filmy gauze of bullshit.  I was a twenty-one years old English major, after all; seat-of-the-pants critique and rampant symbolism was my world (see for another example of that). 

By the end my explication of his art, Jonathan’s eyebrows were pulled together in creeped-out alarm.   He turned the painting to the wall, out of view.  Shortly thereafter, he shuffled me out the door. 

This is the thing about art: we want to be known through it, but then we don’t.  We use our own codes and symbols, hide our truths in plain sight, and then see who catches on to the joke – or attempts to rewrite our lines. 

In senior year of high school, for instance, a lot of my notebooks have this symbol:
which I made up because it has all the letters of my crush’s name built into it, along with a modified eye because he had ridiculously pretty extra-long eyelashes, and I personally felt a little too self-conscious under the watchful gazing eye of society and nice-looking boys. My little logo served the same purpose as writing his name with little hearts around it, but in a less mushy, more abstracted way. 

Given that my way into art has always been through character, through the emotional world of the writer or painter (including when that artist is me), working in an art museum poses somewhat of a challenge. Although my literary knowledge is broad, I have zero formal education in art history, and scant teaching in painting technique from several short art classes.  What I do know is hit or miss through whichever signs I’d read in art museums I've frequented or the artists I've researched or tried to mimic stylistically.  I can tell an impressionist painting on sight, but I can’t tell you exactly why.  I've limited information on the revolution it posed.  I can tell you they used purple for shadows. 

I know Modigliani figures have elongated faces and long necks, and those graceful long lines give me some insight into how he must have been as a person, someone full of romantic ideals and yearning – but that is entirely imagined on my part, even less informed than my armchair analysis of Jonathan’s painting given I’ve never shared a beer with Modigliani.  Modigliani was ill for much of his life, and hid his illness with excesses of alcohol and drugs (which obviously came with its own set of problems).  I feel that secretiveness and despair in the way he presents people in the world.  But these are simply my own loosey-goosey thoughts on a famously tragic artist that died young. 

Mood and style are only a small part of the conversations of the art world, where artists are categorized into larger schools of thought, movements across time and society.  Artists rise to the top given the tastes and values of that time.  Warhol’s fame could not have launched in the era before mass-media advertising and a growing cult of iconic celebrity and narcissism.  The rise of photography likely impacted the fall of realism.  Art museums carry on the cannon of the accepted norms, expanding what qualifies as art only once it has been debated in the smaller galleries.  Not too long ago, photography was considered a science experiment, not fine art.   Now, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg (where I work) has a curator dedicated to its extensive photography collection.

While the sociological implications of movements of art intrigue me, they don’t fascinate me the way individual stories do.  My leanings are toward the microcosm, the personal, the individual, the emotional, the right brain.  Self-taught artists, especially those that are working through their own demons, particularly attract me.  My left-brain knowledge of the therapeutic effect of art creation is extensive.  I read reams of journal articles on art therapy, particularly as it applies to PTSD, performing research for a former client. Their project was to create an art therapy software program for combat veterans.  The user’s final product for that software?  Graphic novels.  Yes, comic books, that “low” art form currently enjoying a renaissance of reevaluation.  The MFA recently held a panel discussion with some of the leading comic artists, a sure sign that comics’ inherent “artiness” has been clearly established. 

These are conversations I seldom have at work though; I work in Development, not Programs or Curatorial. On our end of the hallway, our mission is to keep the financial wheels turning.  We speak eloquently, but sometimes vaguely, about the importance and relevance of art.  We seek to open eyes and hearts through museum programs, but also pocketbooks and wallets, as without those donations, the doors close, and Curatorial down at the other end of the all will have no opportunity to choose who among the many are worthy of display in the next exhibit.  The give and take between serving the community and being supported by the community is a tricky line in the art world.  There are days where I yearn for the purity of academics, where you get to dig into the meat of your chosen issue without thought of how it will affect funding.  [pause]. And here I recognize the naiveté of that idea too – if you, for instance, take your thesis advisor’s work to task, you may find your academic career brief; if your research and grant applications hold interest only to you, be prepared to fund them yourself.

The humanities always work within that strange context of trying to tease out, in a logical, left-brain way, what our right-brain just “knows.”  Minor keys sound sad.  Bright colors evoke strong emotion.  Short sentences spike up the action.  Humanities seek to quantify the techniques that raise some people’s art to, in some people’s eyes, exquisite levels. An art museum is but one forum, albeit at times a stodgy one, where that conversation takes place. 

And there are times where that conversation is just the rambling of young men and women wondering about their place in the world.  I’ve no idea what happened to Jonathan, if he still paints or sells water-filtration products or went on to do something totally different, finding ways to feed the hungry or shelter the rich.  I work part-time at an art museum and ruminate on art and emotion and wrestle with my odd paintings while trying to keep my geriatric cats alive.  Amedeo Modigliani died of tuberculosis in 1920 when he was ten years younger than I am today, leaving behind a body of work that continues to move people in ways they can’t fully articulate.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What I've Been Working On

After a distressingly long absence from painting, I'm putting in a little time at the easel.

Various paintings in process:

Heartbeat - This piece was a less-than-successful portrait I started in a class months ago that I put aside until recently. I changed a lot of colors around, added shadows, background texture, etc. I may never love it, but it's significantly more appealing than it was. Her face is based off a magazine photo, although since, ahem, representative drawing is not my strength, it only looks somewhat like the original person.
Floral - This painting originally had a watery base, that I've since added on some more impasto effects to give it more oomph and depth. It's still essentially abstract floral and light. I may try to emphasize where light is coming from more, or I may just leave it suffused - I'm not sure. I'm also not sure which way it goes; it may end up with a landscape orientation. The balance is not quite where I would like it, but for now, it's pleasant, simple nature.

Voices - This quick painting came out of one damn bad day.  I had a swirled background canvas, and staring at it, I started seeing cartoonish faces, so I pulled those all up to the surface and added in more color; this is how it landed. It's a not-pretty representation of the inside of my head on a rough day, conflict voices orbiting an angry center.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Recycling an Old Article: So What Do You Do?

Birds, and one man, in flight
Because the old version of is now dead, and the domain temporarily redirecting here to the Artful Mistakes blog, it's a fine opportunity for me to slap some old work up here. And so I will.

For a time, I wrote the back page article for a magazine for beginning computer users. I tended to have a hard time staying on topic, but the editor gave me a lot of latitude (thanks, Susie), so I often managed to work in what was on my mind if I at least, as in the case here, alluded to computers.

This article (below) was written in the winter of 2005, after I had finished a masters program in creative writing at UMiami and moved across the country to get rained on in Portland, Oregon. Oregon set records for the number of gloomy, gray days records that year, and my quest for employment was slow-going, leaving me to reflect on career choices. Not every point holds true to my current thinking, but I'll let it stand as is, a marker of that time.

What I like about this piece is that it hints at things that I would do in the future. I did, in fact, become a property caretaker, at two different places in New Mexico, in 2006 and then in again in 2012. I did end up taking painting classes, and sailing lessons. My interest in visual art was starting to bubble up a bit, before I was aware of it. And I still have itchy feet, prone to long walks and longer road trips.

I also still very much believe in the importance of dreaming.

So What Do You Do? 

Like the roots of plants growing in the same pot, identity and career are deeply tied and tangled. It's difficult to know where one plant ends and the other begins, even though on the surface, the different leaves and stalks appear distinct.

Here in America, "we are what we do." Politician or police officer, librarian or lawyer, musician or mortician, the answer to what we do (a verb) is usually announced as a noun: "I am a ____." We don't say that we politic and police. If we are trying to be a bit more evasive, we may say we are "in the __ industry." For example, you might say you're "in the film industry" when what you really do is drive a golf cart all over the set relaying messages and taking coffee orders.

These issues are on my mind because I'm unemployed and having an identity crisis. I'm pretty sure the two are related.

Technically, as a writer, I am not unemployed. I am "freelancing." Writers are either employed by a company or self-employed and freelancing. Of course, some writers are financially successful at freelancing. And then there are others, like myself at the moment, who quietly draw from savings and solicit loans to tide them over through lean times. (As the old saying goes, there's a fine line between self-employment and unemployment.)

Many of the efficient and gainfully employed around me have wondered, subtly and not so subtly, enviously and/or disdainfully, exactly how I've been spending my days. Here is the scandalous truth: courtesy of the Information Age, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time playing Internet dress-up with wildly diverse careers and the lives and personalities that might accompany them.

Over the last few months, I have looked into graduate programs in art, art history, library science, psychology, speech pathology, journalism, nursing, communications and business. (In a fit of confusion, I even read up on law school!) I've also pondered certificate programs in massage therapy, computer programming, and driving a semi. I investigated teaching English in Japan, organic farming in Maine, and permaculture in Costa Rica.

Under the idea of cutting expenses, I've looked into caretaker and housesitting gigs. So I've corresponded with a writer in Rhinebeck, NY, a graduate student in Cantonsville, MD, an artist/retreat owner ten miles from nowhere in Mississippi, and a very polite man in Portland, Maine, who didn't realize we were talking about two different Portlands (I live in Oregon, not Maine).

My surfing exploration has netted international opportunities such as volunteering at a yoga studio in Costa Rica, a fellowship in France, and sailing as crew on boats in exotic locales. I've learned surprising new facts, including of the existence of a country named Palau (1000 miles away from Guam, it is a tropical paradise devoid of any poisonous snakes).

Domestically, I've researched rents and yoga studios, universities and job markets in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Wilmington, North Carolina, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg, Florida through,,, and a whole lot of Googling.
Locally, I've inquired about positions in painting, jewelry making, working with an autistic child, and fruit basket assembly. Although none of those folks responded to my queries, I did interview at a health and wellness medical clinic and an upscale watch and jewelry store. No luck in either case, but I didn't mind because once I was inside, I couldn't see myself happy there for long. (Apparently, neither could they.)

Of course, if you've gotten this far, you may have noticed that the vast majority of this frenetic research has nothing at all to do with what I say I do when people ask. My actual stated career as a writer, excepting sporadic but enthusiastic work on my novel, ranting and researching e-mails, quarterly columns and rare blog entries, has been largely ignored amidst this uproar of possibilities.

So if "we are what we do," what does all this Internet research and dreaming and dress up say about me? That I don't know who I want to be, and I don't want to be who I am? Yes, in part. But in a larger sense, what does it say about our society that most people will no longer have just one career, but several? Amid the end of company loyalty and pension benefits, the Internet offers quicker and broader exchanges of information than ever before. It sets the scene for career switching to blossom as quickly as hothouse flowers.

Consider one of my friends, who went from seven years as a librarian, and then retrained to be a psychologist. Or my cousin the graphic designer who is now studying accounting. Or another friend who went from repairing Persian rugs to working as a computer guru, and is now starting his own business as a photographer. Two other friends both worked as lawyers, and then quit. Neither is sure what is next on the horizon. But then, another friend, a former caregiver and vet tech, is in her second year of law school, and loving it.

Americans, in particular, tend to ask that dreaded and dreadful questions, "So what do you do?" and then slot you into whatever category and status your profession allows. But we are not only that. We are also what we dream about doing even if we never do it. Because in those aspirations and explorations, we are trying to find expression for some part of ourselves that we want to expand and allow to grow.

We want recognition for characteristics not usually associated with our primary profession, or we yearn for something in our lives that the profession doesn't necessarily foster. The librarian realized it was the people he wanted to help, not the information he wanted to find, and so psychology was a reasonable switch for him.

Many people find a livable compromise in deciding that their hobbies outside of work can reflect other facets of their personality. Another friend runs a fashion design company, but I met as a classmate in a poetry class in graduate school. My aunt, who by day deals with bankruptcies, by night is ballroom dancing or quilting or otherwise doing something completely different.

We are not just what we do for work now, but also what we have done before for work, or for fun. Changing jobs does not change who we are. The librarian still lives in the psychologist. But even that history, the total of our actions in and outside of work, with friends, family and loved ones, this is still not all of it. We are also what we have thought about, what we have dreamed about, what we've wanted to do and might (or might never) do in the future. We are also what interests us, by which I mean, what we remember, what moves us, what motivates us, what we admire, what we care about, what makes us curious, what we want, rational or not.

We are not just actions. We are not (only) what we do.

The Internet makes it easy to let our thoughts wander. Wandering helps our dreams evolve, sets the scene for that serendipitous stumble into new connection. Without wandering through caretaking ads, I'd never have heard of Palau or ever corresponded with a literary archivist. Not that it may ever be important. But then again, it might be. Without the dress-up, without the random reading, without asking the questions, without exploring and e-mailing of experts and amateurs, how will we, in the present moment, continue to step forward onto increasingly authentic paths?

Preferred career: cat pillow
And yet: a caution. Many eastern religions stress the importance of being present in the moment, and there is great wisdom in that, in paying attention to precisely what we see and hear and smell and taste, enjoying, or at least noticing, the life we are living right now, rather than always daydreaming or researching an invented future. As much as I try to put myself in other shoes, I only have my current self. No matter how hard I imagine, I can't ever so completely envision my dream life as a dream lawyer or sailor or best selling writer so to determine my next move small with certainty – I can only expand the possibilities of which I am aware. Until I, or you, are in a place or situation or job, with all of its real life complications, until we are in a moment, actually doing something, we can't entirely know how we will feel.

In the end, every choice in life is a gamble on an unknown. We can't know if what we choose will be better. We can only know that if we choose change, it will be different. And even if we choose to stay the same, life changes every moment anyway.

Still, I'm pretty sure the next place I live and the next job I find will be perfect. Everything I've read on the 'net, and everyone I've asked have verified an idyllic world where I am magically transformed into a much, much better person than I am right now. It's all out there, just waiting for me to make the leap into becoming the person I've always dreamed of being.

Whoever that is.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Stonehenge, Treasure Island Style

Many days, usually around sunset, I walk from my home to the southern end of Treasure Island where it ends at a rocky canal.  One day I found someone had spent some time erecting their own mini-Stonehenge, beach-style.  The beach brings out the artist in people.

Chihuly Collection: Shine, Shimmer & Wave

A garden of glass, weirdly festive in a Dr. Seuss sort of way.
Gorgeous floral
-themed sculpture
A few weeks back, I did (finally) slide into the Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center. Viewing the collection is free for Morean members, but for whatever reason, it took me a while to actually get myself through the door.

The stunning collection contains enormous complicated gardens of glass interspersed with more moderate-sized pieces.  The collection is housed in a warm wood-beamed buildings and gorgeously well-lit, but felt thin on information to me (unless I wanted to buy a book in the gift shop, which I am way too cheap to do).  Perhaps I missed the signs while ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the glass.

The scale of this isn't apparent in the photo, but it takes over a whole room - that boat is the size of a real rowboat.