January 1, 2007
It was 17 years ago on this night that my mother believing my youngest brother’s sickness was incurable shot him and then shot herself. That is the simplest way to tell the story, the facts of which are as stupefyingly shocking today as they were when I first heard them over the phone on January 2nd 1990. Our maid had discovered them.
I was sitting in an office in the Citicorp Building in New York City when I got the phone call. I was four months into my first post college job. It was 10:02 in the morning. There were three calls actually, the first two were the sounds of someone wailing. Not understanding what was going on I hung up twice. When I finally answered I felt as if someone was turning a knob forcing all my senses into an uncomfortably accute range. I could feel the air on my fingers, hear the sound of the wind on the windows, see the minute hand of my watch move second by second. It was as if all the filters allowing me to tune out distractions were ripped from my head. Preternaturally composed, I made flight arrangements to Texas. Then I walked down the hall and told my boss the story and said I would be leaving for a while. My boss followed me down to the street, flagged a taxi, and told me to take as much time off as I needed. I saw him standing there with tears in his eyes as we sped away. A friend and his girlfriend met me at my apartment. We packed in just a few minutes, but the flight wasn't for a few hours. Not knowing what to do we killed time at coffee shop on Lexington and 78th before heading to Laguardia. In the cab we didn’t talk. I kept thinking back a few day to when a black balloon had appeared outside my office window on the 53rd floor lingering there in the air seemingly in defiance of physics. It had floated away horizontally. My mind was turning slow irrational somersaults. "There must have been some horrible mixup," I thought, "none of this makes sense."
I was wearing an old shirt with buttons thinned by wear, and on the flight I remember rubbing the buttons between by thumb and forefinger. The facts were what they were of course and when I arrived home late that afternoon to a houseful of family and friends all in various states of anguish it all hit me like a sledgehammer. I first went to my grandmother kneeling before her and wrapped my arms around her. "I don't understand," she whispered in Spanish, "why?" That night I couldn't sleep and felt the need to write something. The first words that came out were: "I realize with profound clarity that we have choices. The type of life I will live is determined by the choices I make. Starting now."
In the coming days I immersed myself in the bureaucracy of death, getting police reports, ordering official documents, canceling credit cards, arranging the funeral... I remember a funeral director wearing a tieclip in the shape of a shotgun. He said, "Don't worry son, we all have pain in our hearts eventually." This was Texas after all. Having something to do was easier than trying to explain the question everyone kept asking. "Why?" I didn't know why and what I did know—my certainty that this was an act of extreme empathy born of blinding if perverse love—was unmentionable. Too difficult for others to hear or for me to say.
The police report said that my brother died instantly, but that my mother was probably alive for some time, maybe up to an hour before finally bleeding to death. She had missed her heart. That hour haunted me. I had been hit by a car as a 13-year-old and remembered vividly what it was like to lose blood and go into shock. The mind is not turned off in those moments, instead there is a brilliant clarity as in a dream, but the body is immobile and helpless. Was she wracked with regret and doubt, did the terrible folly of it all come crashing down on her? Did she think of us?
When you experience tragedy, someone will inevitably tell you that time will heal you by scarring over your wounds. But time becomes meaningless when you lose the people you love and sometimes you don't want to scar. The rawness of tragedy opens you up as a human being allowing you to feel as never before both the good and the bad.
It was almost two months after all this happened when I finally arrived back in New York on a late flight. My cabdriver was playing a Charlie Parker tape and despite the crisp February air, his window was rolled down so he could take drags from a cigarette. As we drove over the 59th Street Bridge clouds parted revealing the thinnest sliver of a new moon hanging over a glistening city. The vision of the city filled my eyes with tears. "I choose hope," I said to myself, "I'll be ok". Half a lifetime later I can say I was right. The question I sometimes ask myself on January firsts is, "Is it possible to fully enjoy the deep sweetness of life without tasting profound sadness." I don't know the answer but I ask it every year.
related: 1/1 2005
My Korean mother-in-law apropos of nothing:
"You are soooo lucky. Your new baby will be a pig. Not any pig, special red pig, once every 60 year pig! Jenny is cow. I am mice. What year were you born....? 1967? Hmmm. You are sheep. Oh sheep not so good.... but you are lucky to have pig baby soon. I told people in my church and they say you are full of blessing. Some Koreans think pig year is so good thing they have two babies in one year. Really. Pig people get a lot of property, money. Everything. They are sooo lucky."
related: Mrs. Yunnisms
1. Do more serious astronomy.
2. Cut more grass = Buy more records.
3. Build a pulley system in the fort.
4. Develop a network of hiding places.
5. Learn 6502.
6. Run more.
7. Hit some home runs!
8. Study the Aztec and Olmec civilizations.
9. Take black and white pictures of everybody.
10. Write down funny things that happen.
December 31, 1978 10:32PM
related: 10 wishes for2006
I was driving down Flushing Avenue near the Brooklyn Navy Yard tonight when I passed a friend biking down the other side of the street. If you don't know it, the Navy Yard is sort of a semi-abandoned walled off industrial area. It features ruined mansions, the parking lot where police tow cars with too many delinquent tickets, and some sort of sewage treatment plant. Anyway, at night whole area is pretty deserted so I slowed down and shouted over to my friend as he pedaled along at a furious pace. I yelled hello and drove off but he soon caught up to me at a red light. Through the open window I asked after his wife who is pregnant and he said he thought she might give birth tonight or tomorrow... He said he looked at her this morning and was just staggered. We forget what those last days of pregnancy look like. She's due. Overdue probably. He was rushing home and after that brief exchange he zoomed off at full speed not bothering to stop for the lights...
It's a very specific feeling— knowing your wife is on the cusp of giving birth. I used to use the analogy of being in an airport, heading off for a big adventure, but being on hold, waiting for a flight that you know will come, but that keeps being rescheduled or sometimes I would use the analogy of being a kid waiting for Christmas... But these descriptions are thin soup compared to the complexity of the actual emotions. And for the woman the physicality of pregnancy and birth adds dense layers of hard to define feelings to the whole thing. My wife Jenn isn't due until the end of February but already tiny hands, feet, and elbows push out from her belly. That supreme intimacy with another human being can be profound and overwhelming all at once. She's ready to have the baby tomorrow. That's the thing with the second baby. Jenn is ready. Enough already she says.
We dads have it easy. We worry a little. We try to keep things under control. But mainly we ride our bikes in the dark as fast as we can hoping for the best.
related: a post titled circling from before our son was born (note: at that time we thought we were having a girl). It would be another week before he was actually born.
I've been a fan of Dylan Chatain's photography since I saw a few of his prints at the Jen Bekman Gallery last year... He's recently posted more work online from project The American Imagination. When I saw his prints lat year and when I checked his work online, the phrase that kept floating into my head was quietly evocative... but instead of reading a description, why not just look at the pictures...
on the upper and lowercase Z: "And last, but certainly not least, the Z, with a final flourish, a sword slash (I know!), a signature of completion. The Z has exhuberance and balance ... alas, with the lower case z, the alphabet goes out with a bang and a whimper."
James Brown: Christmas in Heaven
Posting will be sparse until after the holiday.... I trust you all will pass it well.
related: same window
Mexican crime photographer Enrique Metinides' work often leaves viewers unsettled. He is compared to Weegee because of the macabre subject matter and yet Metinides work strikes a darker chord. We look at Weegee's dead mobsters and think they got what they deserved, but when Metinides shoots a kid floating on bottom of a pool the tragedy is palpable...this could be someone you know. Reviewers always compare Metinides photos to film stills maybe because he shoots wide tableaus including bystanders—passersby frozen in a moment of contemplation—this gives the images a larger than life reality that competes with the unreality of the subject matter and distinguishing the images from common tightly composed flash-bulbed newspaper pulp (as an aside it's an effect many art photographers especially those from the Yale school of photographic thought keep trying to replicate). Many of the pictures are hard to look at and yet you are drawn to them. This is not exactly rubbernecking, it's a more primal pull. These are views of death that carry the shade of hard reality. We viewers become bystanders ourselves.
532 West 20th Street
related: another good article on Metinides
Other shows I want to check out this weekend:
These were a few of the proposals for the Chrysler Building by architect William Van Alen... Apparently the Chrysler board liked the 2nd proposal, but Chrysler himself didn't think it was modern enough, and pushed the architect to do better eventually leading to the final design. The final decision was made by two men: Chrysler the client and Van Alen the architect with no committees or boards to dull the boldness of the design. Architectural critics of the day hated it by the way which tells you a little something about architectural critics.
Every time I see the Chrysler building from afar I literally hear music in my head... sort of an low chord under an angelic "ahhhhhhh....". This happened the first time I saw the building in person at the age of 4 and it happens today. I hope it never goes away.
In small towns, like the one in which I grew up, you can often go weeks without running into a stranger. You know people's stories and they know yours. You find mystery by picking up on dissonance between the facades people present and the realities underneath... But in big cities virtually everyone you encounter in a day is a stranger. You pick up little snippets of conversation, see bits of urban drama, but you always catch the stories in the middle. And the beginnings and endings are left to the imagination. Why was there a man in a black overcoat and black sunglasses standing alone on the promenade holding a child's pinwheel? What happened to the young couple fighting on Cranberry street? Did he mean it when he said he would change? Change what? Did she believe him or was she going back to her mother's house in Connecticut as she had threatened? Did the young thief being chased down Atlantic Avenue by cops escape with his loot from the pharmacy? And what of the very old man who wanders the neighborhood with a little camera around his neck? What does he do with those pictures he takes so unobtrusively, unnoticed except by other photographers? Does anyone ever get to see them?
I see this man around the neighborhood several times a week. He always carries a dog eared book in his big hands. I've never seen the same book twice.
When my childless friends ask what it's like to be parent, I often say that it's like being in a boat lost in fog, but then you figure some tiny thing and the fog clears to reveal a full moon over a calm sea.
Tonight was one of those nights.
Our son fell asleep normally, but kept waking up and crying for his mom. After the 3rd or 4th trip downstairs for my very pregnant, very tired wife, I volunteered to take a shift. The minute our son saw me instead of his mom, he started crying inconsolably.
Now if you've never seen a 2 year old cry, especially a kid like ours who is pure sugar, it's like watching all the sadness in the world poured into this little pup of a human being. There is no anger, no reproach, just pure unfiltered sorrow. So I try to hold him and he just turns away, giant tears streaming down his cheeks. "No daddy. Noooo..."
There is one school of parenting that says, offering comfort in these situations is exactly the wrong thing to do, that you need to steel yourself and be hard and that by going cold turkey the child will learn to sleep by himself. We tried that once or twice and our son sobbed so hard he started throwing up. He was a headbanger as an infant until we brought him to our bed. The headbanging stopped immediately. The kid is just a people person.
Anyway he was sobbing, crying for his mom, and I told him if he felt sad to hold my hand. His hand reached out, grabbed my finger and squeezed it hard. I asked him if he felt better, and he nodded. He turned to me and through a stream of alligator tears said, "Up. Up. Momma. Momma." I told him his mother needed to rest and eat dinner which led to more gulping heaving sobs. He turned away again. He was trying to keep it together, but not doing a very good job of it, with cycles of crying and wails. This went on for a long time and I was about to break down and call for Jenn. Then I whispered, "Hey, I'll hold you until your mom comes to bed, however long it takes. You can hold me too." He turned to me, gave me the tightest hug a kid his size can give, rested his forehead against mine, and held my face with both his hands. The tears stopped, he gave me a kiss, closed his eyes, and fell into deep slumber. That was all there was too it. He didn't want to be alone tonight. And who does really?
Sybil Miller put up a nice post yesterday on Helen Levitt's color work along with a links to several images from Levitt's book Slide Show. Slide Show is on my Christmas list in case anyone in my family is reading this.
Gabriel García Márquez on marriage in Love in the Time of Cholera:
"Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness, and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was time when they both loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other moral trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore."
Jonathan Moller spent ten years in Guatemala photographing rural Mayan communities at war with the government. The stories he tells are tragic, heartbreaking, and beautiful. A monograph of this body of work is titled Our Culture is Our Resistance. (Note the images on Moller's personal website are presented with lots of compression. Slightly better quality images are viewable, although without context, here.)
I don't remember many of the details of funerals of my childhood, but I do remember hanging out with all my cousins, playing cards, and chasing each other through house. We kids might might cry upon seeing the dead, or afterwards at night, but the sheer exuberance of youth would not allow us to remain sad when so many cousins were around. It was that way this weekend at the funeral of the father of a friend, a respected 70 year old doctor killed in an instant by a drunk 20 year old driver. The brother of the doctor said this, "As I get older I realize more and more that the constant in these family gatherings, the thing that cements them in memory, is sound of of the kids voices and the rumble of their feet tearing through house. I look around this room and I can see almost everyone here as one of those kids. I remember when my brother and I were those kids... it doesn't seem that long ago."
There is a moment during great concerts after last note has played out, but before the applause starts, of lingering clarity. The music trails in your head, the musician waits expectantly for the audience reaction, the crowd recoils silently with palpable tension. The quiet is delicious and I always want it to go on forever. But then, usually too soon, people leap to their feet spontaneously, applauding and cheering. The artist relaxes, smiles and the moment has passed.
That in-between moment is the best way I know to describe the experience of seeing of seeing my son for the first time. After the drama of being born he was lying in an incubator squalling under the attention of a small battery of nurses and doctors. They parted allowing me in and there was a sudden quiet. My son's eyes opened for the first time and we looked at each other. He held my finger. Everything fell away. Lingering clarity... and then of course it was time to bring him to his mother who worked so hard to get him into this world and things got noisy again.
With a first child you spend nine months speculating. What will he look like? Will he have a sense of humor? Will he hate eggs like I do? Will he have my toes or yours? But when the child is actually born, sitting there blinking, still steaming from the womb, holding your finger with his entire hand, you realize, you don't know anything, you have no idea what to do, and the only thought in your head is, "What have we done?"
Fast forward two years to this morning. My son is hiding under a blanket. When I peek underneath he says in his scariest voice, "Boo" and pulls down a corner. From my perspective I see a blanket covered mound shaking with giggles. He refers to watermelon as "mmmmmmmmmm" as in "yummmmmmmmm". He is moved by music of all kinds, finding it impossible not to sway his entire body from side to side when hears something he digs. He insists we join in his rapture so if you see the Gutierrez family at an Indian restaurant and they are playing Bollywood tunes (he loves Hindi music), you will see all of us chair dancing in unison and a huge smile on my son's face. He loves the moon and wants me to grab it for him. None of this would I have imagined.
Of course it hasn't all been fun. Sleep has never been our son's strong suit... All the clichés about not knowing vulnerability until you have a kid are true... wait until your 3 month old has a raging fever, or you watch your 6 month old topple from a chair, or witness a 4 year old sucker punch your kid in the playground. Each incident stops your heart for a second, but while these things hurt our parental minds, the kids are, for the most part, oblivious. They're hard to break. It is a necessary trait of the very young, to shake things off and to keep moving forward without looking back.
Time has a different meaning for a 2 year old. He can spend an afternoon chasing ants and have it pass in a second, but 5 minutes in a car seat can stretch out to eternity. For us parents days flicker by with blinding speed. We look at pictures from 3 months ago and say to each other, "My god he was such a baby."
Life is full of so many firsts. First smile. First steps. First time seeing the ocean. First ice cream. First stars. First time wearing waders in the rain. First time playing in a pile of leaves. First scar. Maybe first memories.
And for this particular two year old life has been full of people who love him, and he expresses love in return with an almost heartbreaking openness. If only things could always be this sweet...
When was the last time you sat in a darkened room and listened to a great album from start to finish with without distractions? No internet, no books, no preoccupations- just you and the music... this, I recommend.
I do not like cheese
a well known fact
nor rainy days nor purring cats
there are so many things
that displease me
now go away and let me be.
December 5th, 1976, Lufkin Texas
(written on the back)
p.s. Happy Martin Van Buren's birthday.
related: about a year later
One of the most compelling recent trends in blogging has been the artist interview. This Simon Norfolk interview on his war photography (and much more) by blogger-extrordinaire Geoff Manaugh is a prime example.
December has arrived and just on time.
One of my favorite photographers, Andrew Moore, has a show up at Yancy Richardson through the end of January. It's a broad review of his work over the last couple of years... I missed the opening last night which is annoying as I was only a few blocks away.
535 West 22nd Street 3rd floor
New York NY 10011
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 10-6 PM
related: Andrew Moore's Russia
When you walk to the corner deli having conversations with neighbors along the way completely forgetting you have a zebra stickers on your forehead.
Haraboji was born into a wealthy family in what is now North Korea. His parents, like their parents before, were strong Christians in what was then still an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. He rarely fails to mention this. "5 generations of Christians. Very strong," he will say. The family lost everything including their names to the Japanese (he went to Japanese schools and still can speak the language), but he bears little bitterness. After World War II his family recovered their house and some land, only to lose everything again to the communists. He joined the anti-communist army and fled south, almost losing his wife and children in the chaos. Eventually he ended up working for the US Army as a translator and continued working for the Americans through the rest of the Korean War and into Vietnam...
The date on this snapshot leads me to believe it was taken in Vietnam at an on-base store. Maybe it was meant to be sent back to Korea as a holiday greeting. Haraboji had 5 daughters before he producing a son. Jenn's mom is the third daughter. The entire family moved to the states a few years after this picture was taken. He is now in Philadelphia where he lives very close to four of his daughters (his wife died 3 years ago).
A more patriotic American you will not find although his dream is to go back to the village where he grew up. "My house was made of wood and looked out at the mountain. Very beautiful house." he says, "I dream about my village. We will go back soon... after North Korea is finished. I want to see my house."