April 19, 2006
Think of 3 scenes from your life-inflection points from which you defined things as before and after. Describe the moments and why they are important. My theory is this:
If you are a man, you will describe the overall scene often including your geographical location. Then you will move smaller until you get to yourself. At this point you might throw in a few details: the smell of the summer air, the crackle of the car radio... When you explain the before and after you will tell it as a story.It's just a theory, but in my tests so far it's been accurate. I don't know why.
If you are a woman you will start with the personal details, the sweater you were wearing, the feeling of the wind on your face, and then move outward. You will gloss over details of place but will locate the memory precisely in your emotional history. When you explain the before and after you will tell what the moment meant ignoring narrative.
3 Inflection Points (without the descriptions):
1. It is 1979. August in Texas. I am in the corner of Tim Almond's living room on Live Oak Lane. The sofas and chairs have been pushed aside to make a ring. 10 boys are chanting "fight, fight, fight!" Bill Melton is standing on the other side of the ring without a shirt on cursing me at the top of his lungs daring me to hit him. Angry and scared as I have ever been, I step forward.
2. I am on the 53rd floor of the Citicorp Building in an office looking out onto the Chrysler Building. It is January 2, 1990. A secretary tells me I have a phone call and the person on the other end is speaking in Spanish. It is my uncle. When he hears my voice he can barely speak. He tells me my mother and brother are dead.
3. New York City, the Lower East Side many years later. I have a dinner with a girl named Jenn. We had met the night before. We talk through dinner. We walk around the city. Hours pass. We end up at the Cloister Cafe in the garden. Flowers from a tree are falling onto our table. We have been talking for 8 hours now. A strap on her blouse falls off her shoulder. She is still talking but I am not listening anymore. I reach over and replace the strap with my index finger. I say, "I'm sorry I couldn't concentrate." She smiles.
I have a large stack of notebooks I've been keeping since high school. This fragment comes from one dated July 22, 1988. No recollection of the context (story idea, overheard conversation, etc)...
The girl: You don't know what you are doing, how could you, because if you knew, you would not walk away, not like this. The truth, the real truth is, you are terrified because I make you feel something and after what happened you have grown comfortable in your numbness. You observe the world from afar but you are not in it. In these last hundred days, every morning while my head was resting on your pillow even before my eyes opened, I had this thought: I am not the girl you adore, but a subject of study, someone one should adore. You have used me so that one day you can write about the girl you once loved. But the girl in your story won't be me. You will change small details, you will forget things and you will make me say things I would never say. You will paint yourself as tragic and beautiful and you will make this moment seem inevitable, but it is not. I am asking you to say something. I am asking you to stop thinking. I am asking you to change.
I recorded a few bits from The Burden of Dreams Werner Herzog documentary for my ipod because there's no seriousness like German seriousness: Herzog on making art. Herzog on the jungle: Part 1 and Part 2. The sound level is low so you'll have to crank up the volume also note they take a few seconds to load up.
Elsewhere: Werner Herzog shot with an air rifle, The famous Werner Herzog eats his shoe documentary, Kinski on Herzog, and finally a gallery of stills from the official WH site. More information and fun trivia in his wikipedia entry.
It is 3:24 AM.
I am in the attic office and it's raining out. A minute ago I heard heavy footsteps tromp across the roof from somewhere around the chimmney. Wind? No steps. Step, step, step. Must be a man, a big man. It, no correction-he, pauses seemingly right above my head. Chills. My first thought: "The shovel is right over there and I can get it before he can." I edge over to the shovel. Pause. Listen. It's late I must be imagining things. I should be asleep. A big rat maybe? Then, unmistakably, more heavy steps. He stops at the skylight (all the townhouses from the early 19th century have skylights over the stairwell). I am a few feet from the skylight and I am furious that this person is on my roof. I creep over to the opening with my shovel to see what I can see. There is a face and two hands peering down through the thick 19th century glass. He doesn't see me yet. At this point, it gets hazy because I am in a rage, but I bang the shovel against the frame like a madman and in a full terror, yell, "GET OFF MY ROOF!!" The face vanishes followed by the sound of quick footsteps slipping and sliding over to the next house. Now silence.
Ahh Brooklyn at night. I will sleep with one eye open.
Mr. Apagya is photostudio photographer based in Accra in Ghana. He takes studio portraits in front of hand painted backdrops. I find the text in the accompanying article a both mildly patronizing and silly (and obnoxiously all in lower case), but ignore the text, enjoy the images. More images here and here.
Photostudio portraits from other places can be found in the flickr photostudio group. BTW if anyone who loves photostudio portraits should watch the Burden of Dreams, a Werner Herzog documentary about his epic Fitzcarraldo and wait until the very end when you can see a the entire process by which a local Amazonian photographer makes his beautiful black and white prints. I would kill to have some of those... almost worth a trip to the middle of the jungle. The documentary is running on some of the independent film channels this month...
About half an hour ago I was standing in the middle of our kitchen in the semi-darkness eating an apple and thinking about stuff. These are all things I do often: apple eating, hanging out in the dark, thinking.
The scene: The family is asleep downstairs, the house silent save for the occasional blast of Arabic from the baby monitor picked up from the mosque down the street . Rain is falling pulling flowers from the tree outside the window. Across the road my neighbor is watching TV as she often does at this hour. Blue light flickers against the back wall of her room. In the brighter flashes she is revealed spread out across the bed in her bra, panties, and socks. She hugs a pillow and eats some sort of cracker. Woman relaxed.
There have been times when I have caught her in her window looking over at us... my family at dinner, Jenn and I on the couch reading in the living room, sitting on the stoop with the baby. She always runs off or pretends to be doing something if we look in her direction, but she's not very quick and her staring is pretty obvious.
It is rare to see strangers so completely unwound hanging around their houses late at night in their socks. Rare indeed, and the knowledge of seeing such moments is necessarily private. I mean it's not like I can say anything if I happen to run into the woman on the street. What would you say? Anything said would sound terribly inappropriate. Possibly creepy. And yet there is that desire to say something: "I have seen you in repose. I know you exist." But of course I never do. God no. We smile, say 'hello', and leave it at that.
Related: Neighbors on This American Life
Our son is (finally) starting to walk on his own, but he's fairly stealthy about it all. For example I'll catch him in the mirror and turn from brushing my teeth. Like a wild animal caught in the highbeams he will freeze and quickly drop to the floor. Jenn says seeing him walking is like spotting a unicorn.
One of my favorite films La Jette, is available (temporarily I'm sure) in it's entirety on Google Video. This is the original version in French without subtitles. Download it for your computer/ipod while you can. The subtitled version of the film is available as part of a compilation on CD but it's expensive. I am happy to report (as I own a copy) that a book made of the movie's stills has become a collector's item.
1. Call when I am in the tub.
2. When I tell you I'm in the tub and not to call back for a while, call back a minute and a half later.
3. Ask about my wife, who you have met, and then refer to a girl I last dated in 1992 and haven't spoken to since.
4. Call me Ricardo. Twice.
5. Refer to me as a "buddy" after you've called me Ricardo (twice).
6. Ask the question, "What'dya say chief?"
7. Hang up because you have to take a "really important call".
"The girl is very handsome, but what's so magnificent about this picture, apart from its immediate beauty, is that it takes me to a world where groups of friends re-enact scenes from Godard films. That's already a very bold, sexy and interesting world. It reminds me that an image is not just remarkable for itself, but also for the parallel world it invites us to imagine and enter, the world in which the anomaly it depicts is normal."
We all have images stuck in our heads that drive us towards something or away from something. Indelible images that come to us at odd hours of the night.
Bernstein in Citizen Kane: " A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."
I am haunted by a dozen and a half such memories several of which I did not actually see with my own eyes, but images I picture clearly nonetheless. My own constitution is such that no one vision dominates and they are equal parts pain and pleasure. Having a child has certainly added to the inventory and perhaps colored the collection in memory.
When I was a boy I was fascinated, as most boys are, with fireworks. In Mexico there was a grandmother in the neighborhood who sold bundles of gunpowder extracted from bullets. They would be delivered neatly wrapped in small brown bags through her bedroom window. She also sold handmade watermelon popsicles. I visited often. For a few pesos we would amass quantities of the dark powder, hiding it in cigar boxes in the back of a dresser. With a bit newspaper, a wick from a candle, and some wax you could make a pretty good firecracker. We would sneak out to abandoned lots and experiment. A stolen can of gasoline, rubbing alcohol, and motor oil were used to turn our small firecrackers into larger bangs and eventually we were blowing up rocks and cans.
One sweltering August afternoon after a particularly satisfying round of explosions things went wrong. A little girl, someone's young sister who had been watching from a distance, was upset by a fire burning in some trash. She picked up what she thought was was a cup of water but was actually a cup of rubbing alcohol and threw it on the fire. In a flash the flame raced back up the liquid and she ignited. She fell to the ground, rolling and making screeching like an animal. The fire was out in a few seconds but the damage was done. The skin on her legs and arms was melted and she screamed. The other kids ran away leaving me standing there alone.
For many years I saw the image of myself standing there immobilized with fear, guilt and horror. I remember her eyes and I remember closing my eyes before I could summon the will to do something. But now my memory has shifted. While I see the little girl, my primary image is now of the mother. Weeks after the accident I went to the girl's house to apologize. The mother opened the door but would not let me in. I understand now what she must of have felt in that moment and I know why she could not meet my eyes when I told her I was sorry.
1. Explored the High Line with Jake.
2. Took the Chinatown bus to Philadelphia. (tickets $5-$12)
3. At long last went to visit the Barnes Collection.
4. Reported to my wife that I might have lost my wedding ring.
Me: I think I lost my wedding ring. The last time I remember wearing it was in the Dominican Republic.5. Passed many accidents on the NJ turnpike. Stopped at the Grover Cleveland Travel Plaza.
Jenn: This is a good one. Novel. Emotional and hard hitting. Very good. A few years ago you would have had me, but I know you now and I'm not going to get involved in one of your psychodramas.
Me: I've turned the house upside-down. It's gone.
Jenn: Stop. How many times have we done this? I know how it goes. The fear, the self loathing, the ever more implausible theories... and then the inevitable, "oh, here it is."
Jenn: I'm not listening.
I discovered the photography of Andrew Moore a few days ago and keep going back to his site for more. His Russia portfolio is magnificent, a visual feast.
Jenn and the baby have been down in Philadelphia for a few days and the house is unusually quiet. Too quiet. I can hear myself think, hear my footsteps... the hum of the refrigerators and the city sounds which I never normally notice. For the many years I lived alone, a quiet house and solo meals were never acknowledged. Never noticed. But with the family away our empty bed is cold and the incessant stillness keeps me awake.
I wonder how my father managed in the long years after my mother died in that big Texas house all alone. In that era he hated weekends and would often go in to work or fly somewhere, anywhere, just to be on the move. He had to get extra pages in his passport for all those long aimless weekend trips. I know now why sometimes back in those days a conversation over the phone would end (I would have something to do or read) and he would ask if I could just stay on a little longer. Sometimes we didn't talk, I doing whatever I was doing, my dad listening to the static. Sometimes I could hear him pacing. Those years were so hard, but eventually he fell in love again and we've all moved on. Life right now is almost unbearably sweet, but that sweetness makes me understand what my father lost and those long stretches of static haunt me because I could have done more.
I mistyped something in my browser and came across tetrachromat.com. Sort of a long way around the block for a little joke, but I approve. 'What's a tetrachromat?' you ask. I first read about this phenomenon here: Looking for Madame Tetrachromat. This wikipedia entry provides some more info.
My question, 'Why do jumping spiders need to have super color vision? What advantage does it give them out there?' Perhaps knowing the subtle difference between similarly colored leaves gave them some evolutionary advantage over another type of less visually acute spider now long extinct... When I was a kid I prided myself in being able to name all the various colors in the big box of crayons. Without looking at the labels I could tell the difference between violet blue and blue violet, brick red from maroon, spring green from sea green. I remember thinking there were never enough reds but quite enough blues. How many more blues could a jumping spider perceive? I feel jealous.
(in no particular order)
A trip down the Niger river in Mali.
The road from Asmara to Assab in Eritria
Pyongyang, North Korea
Longsheng, China in the early fall
Harbin, China in the dead of winter
Malinge Lake, Canada
Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai, Lithuania
The source of the Mekong in Kham
The Cotswolds (by foot)
Snowdonia National Park, Wales
Tangier (see previous post)
A few years ago I caught wind of an exhibition by photographer Yto Barrada documenting life in Tangier. As Tangier is on my "I want to experience before I die" list it piqued my interest and I wasn't disappointed. The image above was from that previous show. The new exhibition is titled A Life Full of Holes and it should be interesting. I'm sad I'll be out of town.
Friday April 7th, 2006
6:00 to 8:00 PM
Cocktail Reception for the Artist
at The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street
I stumbled upon the work of Michal Chelbin today. Her photography is one part Balthus, one part Arbus, made stranger by being set in the Russian hinterlands. The images are creepy, beautiful, and foreign. The site suffers from an awful flash interface, but if you can get past it, there are some compelling images to be had.
Yesterday (actually the day before yesterday as it is already tomorrow), was our anniversary. Three years. Leather. THREE YEARS! Time accelerates at an uncomfortable pace. If I rewind to the moment Jenn and I were at the alter being lassoed together (literally lassoed, as this was a Mexican wedding and that's part of the ceremony) I remember time suddenly becoming very slow, expanding, and silencing the room.
It was an improbable situation. A couple of hundred people from the many disparate parts of our lives converged in a little village church 4 hours away from anything. The scene was pretty-radiating strands of flowers hung from the wooden beams down to the alter. Villagers in their cowboy hats had gathered outside to watch the men in tuxedos, and the women in hamboks, saris, and dresses pass through the old wooden doors. It was sunset just as we had planned and we knew by the time the long Catholic service was over stars would be peeking out in the desert sky.
So many things had gone wrong leading up to that moment- big things. Serious things like Jenn being stuck down for 3 days with food poisoning, my tuxedo going missing in a cab, and a bus of Koreans getting lost in the desert. When they placed that lasso over us, the same one that had married my parents, I felt it was the first time I could take a breath, look over at my lovely bride, and just relax. I held her hand. In a minute my godfather would give us thirteen gold coins (another Mexican tradition) and then in a few more minutes, I would put a ring on Jenn's finger.
I thought many things in that long moment most of which I have forgotten, but the one question that stuck was, "By what principle will we lead our life together?" Someone had just spoken about us and had said our greatest virtue and our greatest flaw was that we loved beauty. That we would search for it. "True," I thought, but surely beauty is ephemeral, hardly an organizing principle. 'Love' seemed too obvious, too broad; 'truth', self righteous. I decided the question needed more thought and of course consultation. This would be decided together. Three years later we're still asking the question, and perhaps the answer is that there is no simple answer, perhaps the important thing is to remember to keep asking the question despite the years rushing past and all the other things that make us forget the moments when time stands still.
One day if you are lucky, you will travel across the the Taklamakan desert of Xinjiang. And on the journey you will stop in the small oasis towns along the way. And if you do find yourself in this situation, if you are the type of person to find yourself in the middle of the Taklamakan, inevitably you will walk to the outskirts of those villages where the irrigation ends and the desert encroaches, it is here you will find holy sites marked with prayer flags, a practice perhaps borrowed from Tibetans or perhaps inherited from distant Sythian ancestors. Lisa Ross has visited these places and stood there and photographed them. Her fantastic new show is called Traces of Devotion. It opens tomorrow and if you are in Dumbo you should check it out.