Saturday, March 26, 2011

Wishful Thinking

What would I give.

Sometimes the mind slides an updated picture over what is actually in front of the eye, and so it was yesterday--the day before the snow that is now whitening the view out the window--at the place called Big Deep.

Nelly and I walked through the woods along the creek, following it all the way to the elbow bend where the water is caught in a great cup of rock, and there it collects, deep and green. One perfect giant of a tree is poised at the very edge of this C's midpoint, and on one of its strong arms, held out high over the water as in benediction, a thick rope has been tossed and secured. The big knot tied at the end is the place where bare feet press together, once airborne, then let go when the farthest reach has been attained--and splash. Into the swimming hole that suddenly is before me, a vision of August here in March.

There are dozens and dozens of people here. Towels are spread on the soft dark sand--bequeathed thoughtfully by early-spring floods--under tall pines. Nylon chairs are set in the shallows, and teenage girls cool their heels (and ankles) while chatting at the same time they listen to the radio that sits on top of an ice chest; a multitasking talent of young ladies who could also add painting their nails and making life decisions into the mix without a carefully combed hair escaping their braids. Dogs wade (Nelly looks for unwatched picnics). Children line up for their turn on the rope. It is the community swimming hole 2010, but its pleasures are essentially unchanged from the swimming hole 1910.

The only thing that's different, apart from the portable radios, is the concentration of people. It's ten times greater, because so is our population. But there is a bigger factor: there are vastly fewer swimming holes these days. People are rapidly shutting off access to spots people have been using to battle the summertime heat for generations. Perhaps someone can explain to me what changed somewhere around 1990 to make litigation the number-one threat to what remains of our steadily diminishing commons. There simply had to have been some legislation, or consolidation of power, that got slipped onto the books around then. Someone can explain to me, and then I'll feel simultaneously sad and mad, which is the state into which modern society puts anyone who is awake enough to notice what is being lost.

And so, if you possess any knowledge of a great swimming hole--one that feels practically yours alone--guard it closely. It may be taken, and what then would you do on a long hot summer afternoon?

It has been a few years since I last visited the gem of my private collection of swimming holes (yes, I'll share them, if you are very, very nice to me and/or help work on my motorcycles). It sits at the apex of the crown because it is not one, but rather six, ponds in which to float solitary, swimming among the clouds that have photographically printed themselves on the flat surface of the water. This was as far as the developer got: six gravel drives to six ponds at six homesites. But no homes. And no one around. Oh, and a secondary benefit of disturbing the soil to build those drives: the thickest concentration of blackberry canes in five counties. You can pick quart upon quart in minutes, then sit down by your very own pond--which one shall it be today, dear?--and eat all the berries you can hold before splashing back into the icy cool.

What a freaking Norman Rockwell, eh?

The earliest in my collection was practically literally painted by him, or maybe closer to the physical equivalent of inhabiting a Charles Ives symphony (most probably New England Holidays). My childhood best friend, the daughter of two artists, spent summers at the family farmhouse in Vermont. And sometimes I went there too. For an image to complement the description, refer to the Charles Sheeler photograph previously posted. Shaker austerity. The very paucity of any raucous amusements--mainly, we went outside with our sketch pads, or went blueberry picking up the mountain, or collected fresh fir balsam to stuff sachets, or played Scrabble at night and assembled puzzles when it rained; that was about it--is exactly what made these vacations seem unspeakably rich to my young mind. And then there was the swimming hole. A concrete dam had been built on the brook rolling down the hillside from some cold origin, and the water backed up nine feet deep. We threw ourselves, again and again, screaming at the shock, into the numbing water. I will never forget that time and that place: it is an immersing memory of a private place that seemed there for us alone. The essence of summer, and the fullness of a wet joy. I hope you remember your own. Better yet, I hope you have it still.

photo: O. Winston Link,
"Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole,
Luray, Virginia," 1956

Saturday, March 19, 2011

10 Pictures

It is a Palace of Democracy. What is inside was made for kings, pharaohs, generals, dictators, thieves, and the wealthy, who are all of those things. Yet here I was, and now all of it was mine--only temporarily but hey--for the price of a dollar ("Suggested admission: $28" ["Pay what you wish" in type almost too small to see, or that was their hope]). The plunder of nations and the ages, all collected in one lavish, epically scaled building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I like entering by the grand staircase of what appears to be a thousand steps: one should sweat a little for prizes like these. Into the immense white hall, with its sprays of fresh flowers the size of a football player. (They are replaced once a week, year round, under the terms of an endowment to the museum expressly for this purpose.) The Great Hall functions as a mountain: reminding us how
small we are.

This day, we let the two boys, clutching their drawing pads, rush ahead into the Greek wing. They hunkered down on the floor, blending into yet another group of art students, clustered at the feet of ancient heroes, with their offerings of sketchpad and charcoal. I was drawn, not to the heroic, but to the impossible: a small case containing glass. From Rome. Whole, unchipped. It spok
e of miracles. Maybe they were small ones, but those are the ones we can grasp.

After the sculpture, the boys intended to visit (of course) the swords. Then the samurai armor; it always frightens me. But them--it makes them dream. Of being frightening. That which the male of our species hopes for, while the female yearns to attract the warrior so he will take off the frightening armor, frightened of her. We wear it in different places, that's all.

The ladies decamped to the more intimate spaces upstairs, to see some photography. I wasn't much interested in the show of Steiglitz, Steichen, Strand--it is hard to see these grandaddies with a fresh eye, just as it is hard to look at the Mona Lisa and see anything but a thousand parodies--but I was interested in a show titled "Our Future Is in the Air: Photographs from the 1910s."
It got me thinking of the photographs I love, that always look new to me, and I felt like mounting my own exhibition, an intimate chronology of the art, starting with two from the aforementioned show.

Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Tadeus Langnier

Anton Giulio Bragaglia, The Typist

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley

Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Bichonnade Leaping

Charles Sheeler, Doylestown House--the Stove

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina

Garry Winogrand, New Mexico

John Pfahl, Trojan Nuclear Power Plant

Lewis Baltz, from Park City

Richard Misrach, Desert Fire #249

I tried to figure out what linked these images, and for a long time I could not--apart from the fact that I love them especially, for they each appear to me nearly perfect. They are from different traditions and visions: futurist, formalist, snapshot, the "ruined landscape," the age of Manifest Destiny. Then I realized: they are all linked by their dedication to surprise, to opening the eye to what has been unseen in what is always seen. They are new, even if they are old.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


I had it; now I had to make it mine. That is, I had to get it registered--in New Jersey, the state that presents its problems.

The first was figuring out how to break into a closed circle, viciously constructed of sticky red tape: I could not ride it until I was licensed, and I could not get licensed until it was registered, and it could not get registered until it was inspected. By someone riding it with a license. This is where strangers on the street come in.

I saw someone down the bloc
k leaning over a motorcycle. Desperation is good medicine for shyness. I approached.

Sure! He'd be happy to take it for inspection. His buddy would follow, driving me in his car. That is how I came to be sitting on a Saturday morning at the inspection station behind my new old motorcycle, watching in growing agitation as we . . . sat there. And sat. (New Jersey, Land of the Eternal Wait.) I realized that the fellow did not know, or appreciate, the fact that this was an air-cooled machine, and idling in the close summer air was cooling exactly nothing. After a while, fighting with my impulse to not upset the boat, to not second-guess people who obviously knew better (A Man! And a Man Who Owned a Motorcycle!), my compassion for this poor machine finally propelled me like a nine-foot wave. I ran over to him.
Huh? he says. Oh. Okay. And turned it off.

Later I learned it just as easily might not have started again for a long while, after such abuse. But it was a V50, my V50, and it was endlessly forgiving. It was a stalw
art machine. A forever machine.

And that is how I came to be riding it through the Holland Tunnel of an evening. (When the traffic was at a standstill, I lane split, illegal though it was, reciting in my mind all the while the little speech about the needs of an air-cooled engine--never mind the rider's need for oxygen--I would give to the sympathetic gendarme.) I was heading downtown, the site of all hope and life and des
ire in the early eighties, in one's middle twenties.

First there would be dinner at the place in Tribeca whose name I have forgotten, along with the food. (That was forgotten about three minutes after it was eaten.) The notable thing about the place was that it may well have been the last place in New York City where artists were permitted to run a tab--a long tab. The walls were hung with paintings from those whose tabs were left open a little
too long. No matter; they paid up one way or the other.

I parked on the sidewalk; that is what we did then, in the era of many latitudes. We did what made sense, in that age before parking infractions became municipal big business. The cops had better things to do. Especially in the depopulated nether regions of the city, the places where after 5 the streets were left to those relative few of us simply wandering in our search for our own kind in the dark.

After dinner I went back out, pulling on my helmet as I went. And stopped, when I saw something had been left on my seat.A half-filled pack of cigarettes, of a type I had never seen: Ducados. At a time when everything was taken as a sign, a swirling mystery (that music--is it speaking to me alone?
that boy--could he be the one? ), this was a mystery indeed, and one that filled me with a shivering. Did someone know I was still yearning for the departed lover, the one who rode Ducatis?

It took me years to realize that (duh) someone passing by had simply stopped to light a smoke, perhaps chatting with a pal and using my bike as a coffee table. But this night, it had meaning. Like every vision, every minute, in New York City when every wish had yet to be fulfilled, and might be--in the very next moment.

All these memories come raining back as I read Patti Smith's Just Kids, her memoir of her life as a beginning artist in a milieu that was a stewpot for a creative soup, in this very locale only a decade before I came to it. I ate in the same places, walked the same streets, shopped the same stores. The city welcomed the hopeful, and rewarded them with food to eat: psychic food, and on occasion actual sustenance (I, too, often visited Nathan's in Coney Island, where she and Mapplethorpe ended after their ride on the F train).

I found out about a nightclub I was told I would be welcomed to, in this era of the forbidding velvet rope and stone-countenanced bouncer, so long as I arrived on a motorcycle. What luck! I had one! The proprietor was said to be a collector.

That is how I ended up at an unmarked door on an alley downtown, on St. John's Lane, between Canal and Beach. (Was it another sign that, ten years later, I would find myself living on a street named St. John's Place?) The heavy velvet curtain inside the door parted, and I was in Madame Rosa's, where DJs played the most amazing, previously unamalgamated, infectiously danceable music I'd ever heard in my life. I went there every chance I got, parking the Guzzi in a line of other unusual motorcycles. Then something happened, I don't remember what. The time of Madame Rosa's came to an end. The Mudd Club, CBGB, came to an end. The unnamed restaurant came to an end. Robert Mapplethorpe came to an end; Patti Smith is in her sixties. The time of the V50 came to an end. The New York City I knew came to a crashing, shuddering end. Youth, too.

How often I am startled by my own past, when I chance to walk past its visions, now preserved in their own discrete vitrines. Later (I must remember) what happens even now will still later appear to me, behind glass, with informative wall tags. I must remember.

It was only later that I realized there was more to come, an endless string like pearls. Nothing, yet, has come to an end. I am tired of sadness. There will be more to come. (Except the nauseousness of getting groped in crowded subway cars; those days really are gone.) So it is that memories still live, still re-form. The necklace adds to its length.
I called this "Genesis." What comes to an end comes to an and.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Party Down

It's a strange custom, all right.

1. Go to the store and spent a large wad on viands, wine, sweets, candles. Oh, and olives. Got to have olives.

(In days of yore, more or less the same thing: Snare rabbit; dig up potatoes; chop wood for stove.)

2. Spend the entire day rinsing, dicing, marinating, sauteeing, and baking.

3. Chance to go into downstairs bathroom; gasp. Run get broom and Comet cleanser.

4. Just after dark, make sure outdoor lights are on (insurance), switch on Pandora, put match to candles.

5. Wait to see headlights in your driveway or dog to start barking madly, whichever comes first, or simultaneously.

6. Four hours later, so tired you'd gladly fall into bed still wearing your shoes and earrings, embark on an hour and a half of continuous wineglass washing, pot scrubbing, spill wiping. Vow never to do this again. The next day, start remembering only the great things, and go get calendar to find next open Friday night.

The custom is the dinner party. How long has it been going on? How long have we been craving this admixture of preparations and anticipation, work and giving, chatter and smiles, laughter and consumption, together? Friends in the kitchen: there is nothing so deeply desired at times, and nothing so deep.

There is something in the dinner party that is both highly refined--codified, even, from the moment of entry with proffered bottle in outstretched hand at the same moment as the happy greeting, through the hour of cheese and crackers (and olives), to the first forkful and the praise--and stone primitive. It's huddling around the fire and the roasted bits of torn rodent inside the cave, washed in eons of bathwater until it comes out smelling of candlewax and chevre, martinis and chocolate mousse.

After a while I start to itch if I haven't given one, or gone to one, in some time: last weekend was a scratch-fest. On Friday, at my house; on Saturday, at others'. Of course, this means dual dinner parties both nights, as there are children aplenty. You cook first for them (Friday night, nachos; Saturday, pasta), then put them in front of a movie, where they will be held rapt so the grownups can finally move to the table, sit down and refill the wineglass. We talk, talk, talk--about what? It doesn't matter. It's connection. We are as hungry for it as for the food (menu: mixed seafood; red potatoes roasted with rosemary; spinach with feta, washed down with sparkling wine, to toast a friend who will have a solo show of art in New York next month). Some of these friends are seen only at dinner parties, so dinner parties there must be.

(Nelly, too, partied down. Or shall I say up: near the end of the evening, she figured out how to get on top of the breakfast-room table. Which is where the kids had left their many plates of half-eaten cake. Nelly was now grazing, very much like a cow or horse, moving from plate to plate. This means that forever after, I must be vigilant about pushing the chair all the way up to the table, so as not to give her a stepladder to Nirvana. Do you think I will be able to remember? Your vote counts. Well, at least she made this brilliant advance in her knowledge base after the cake had been served, rather than before.)

Every element of the ritual we have long called "dinner party" stands for something. It's like a church service. The giving of time, and trouble; the receiving of hors d'oeuvres. The hellos and goodbyes, and something in between: humanness, elemental. We state our needs outright. I need sustenance. I need you. I don't know--do you crave this too?