Saturday, October 30, 2010


photo: Mark Friedman

Nelly is hosting her boyfriend Playtpus the setter this week. (As my son hastens to tell everyone, Nelly has three boyfriends. He does not yet know to apply the term, but he does know that dogs are polyamorous. He believes in his gut that people are not.) Platypus is beloved--of her, of his owner, and now, of me.

I am recalling some of the wonderful, and mysterious, behaviors that emerge when two dogs live together. (There are plenty of even more mysterious behaviors that come out in humans when they live together--Can you not throw your socks into the hamper? What about that is so hard?--and if I allow my living-alone state to persist much longer, I don't know that I could ever stand to share a roof with someone else again. The years make of one a calcifying control freak, and I find myself wondering if such things as love, companionship, assistance, and warmth could ever offset the terrible difficulties engendered by discovering yet again too late the toilet seat has been left up.)

Dogs who live together send invisible (to us, that is) signals to each other. The most fascinating concerns the trade-off of empty dinner dishes: as soon as both are through, they switch places and lick out each others' bowls. This practice is invariable, from what I have experienced of multi-dog households. Another, similar, communication concerns who is to take care of that poor sot, the human, on a walk: "OK, it's my turn to stay within ten feet of her--you can go disappear for a while. But be sure to come back, because you'll have to take care of her next." Then they trade off, but I have never been able to locate the semaphore they wave in order to signal it's time.

Then they love. They love by playing at aggression and control--they roll around on the floor in the most X-rated of fashions, growling, taking hold of each others' ears and legs in fearsome-looking, but factually gentle, teeth. This is my gift, watching this pure, animal energy of affection. I could watch it for weeks.

Taking care of another person's beloved animal also brings with it a heavy weight of responsibility. You don't know this dog as you know yours--the sound of the breath, the habits of sleep, when things are just right and when they are ever so slightly off. I love Platypus, but I am on edge. I will be happy when his owner is back, and I can sigh with relief as I hand back the reins. "It was lovely having him here! [Which is true, but it's lovelier having you take him back, safe and unharmed.]"

On Monday night, though, all of it--the love, the worry, the desire for another body in the night--came together at once.

I stayed up late working; I have developed bad habits that are in part born of necessity, in part my inability to deal with things like blank pages on which I am supposed to write something partway readable. I wait. Or I am blindsided by weeks in which all at once there are school holidays, costumes to make, other assignments to do, friends' visits, social events, homework to monitor and soccer practice to go to, and the next thing I know it's 10 p.m. and I haven't started to write the chapter that was due two blown deadlines ago. So I sit down then and start. The next thing I know it's past 2 a.m., and I need to be up by 7.

I lay there in bed, awake. My heart has been hurting for weeks, my mind roiling. And now my heart is beating erratically, not only figuratively, but actually. In my chest. Ah, perfect. The literary theorist heart. It manifests its metaphors literally. And gives me something else to worry about.

In a way, I feel as though my world is breaking apart. That is how things can feel in the dark of the night at 3 a.m. when you are also wondering if you should drive yourself to the ER now, before you start getting the paralyzing pain in the left arm. I don't know what to do, in any way. That is when Platypus starts up the stairs, and I hear him fall. Finally he makes it, jumps up and curls himself up at the foot of the bed, next to his dear Nelly.

My foot feels something. He is shivering. A rhythmic, episodic shivering that gets stronger and stronger until it shakes the whole bed. Now the two of us are beyond help, lying awake in the middle of the night. I try to hold him tightly, but not too, knowing that sometimes some firm weight around us when we are frightened gives the apprehension of solidity. He is afraid of something, I am afraid of something, and now I am afraid I did something that will kill this other person's beloved. Was it the lamb bone he ate tonight? Ach, I shouldn't have given him that lamb bone. Did he break his leg on the stairs when he fell? Should I take him to the ER too? If so, which one of us should go first?

I pulled him up to one side of me, so I could curl myself around him and stroke him, to try to calm him down. Then I pulled Nelly on the other side of me, so I could stroke her to try to calm me down. I recalled that she has been with me through some of the direst nights of my life, always steady, always there. She did not know how much I needed her then, or how much I needed her now.

At some point, we fell asleep. All three of us, into whatever dream worlds were there waiting. In the morning, Platypus jumped off the bed, tail wagging. When Nelly moved to jump off too, he showed his teeth to her--Grrr! I'm fierce! You will not pass by me, you rapscallion!--which is one of those things dogs do to one another when they live together. When they share what they mean what we call love.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

White Out

I have lots of new experiences (even if at my age the occurrence of the truly new has slowed down a bit). For instance, at this moment, I'm listening to my absolute favorite new music, Sleigh Bells. But sometimes now, when I feel like doing something new, it's actually old: a reconnection with something that once was new, and important. Vastly important. Get-under-my-skin-like-chiggers important. For me, this is art of the sixties, seventies, and some of the eighties--the part that contained neo-geo (some of it).

I reconnected with this part of me by visiting DIA Beacon again recently. And what I encountered in the halls of this enormous ex-factory (which, should it not be currently housing seminal works of contemporary art for all to see, would actually make a splendid home and party space for me and my friends [that includes you]--all three hundred thousand square feet of it
. Give or take. Will install pool and bowling alley).

It was like coming home to myself, wandering and standing, moved anew, before the works that formed me. I don't know how they did that, but I think the experience of first seeing Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, Joseph Bueys and John Chamberlain, Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson, scored me right across the flesh, leaving a permanent scar. This stuff resonated with some part of me, made me feel fluttery, excited enough that I wanted to collar passersby and cry, "Do you see what's going on here? I mean, do you see this surface, this sensual, worked-over surface? This painting that appears to be on
ly white/only black--it is not, and it . . . " Every passerby in New York City can thank their lucky stars I never actually did this. Gawd.

This post is intended to be the visual analogue to the formative-record-albums post of a while back, and which got so many people remembering what music made them (and collaring-passersby excited). But I wonder: Does everyone have formative art, in the way they have forma
tive music?

If there was one single piece that turned me quite around, it was one by Richard Serra (well represented by other pieces at DIA Beacon). Installed at the exit of the Holland Tunnel, it was the purest expression of what sculpture is I had ever seen. It was both theory and practice at once, in a stripped-down, compressed, infinitely subtle, powerful package. It used the speed and vantage point of the car, in which the viewer sat, encountering the piece as if from inside a movie camera. That's when you got it, smoothly and fully, that sculpture becomes another sculpture every second, flowingly, as the viewer moves around it. In its immovability, it moves. Or moves you. Or som
ething. Damn this gets me bollixed up. Always did. The head wants to burst. But I think that's the point, too.

Another revelation at DIA was re-learning that Warhol could be better, realer, than the Warhol who has been beatified in art-history texts.
The installation here, Shadows, stops you cold. It is a bit of a religious experience, standing in the middle of the room (or reclining on the conveniently placed kneeling-pad, er, sofa) and being eaten alive by the slashing black and chrome-hard color.

Some have expressed the opinion that the reverence shown to this particular art, sanitized and en-altered in this rich-people's church of accepted high art, kills its intent. Yeah, I'm sure it does. (We got nailed by the black-clad guards with their little headsets, for letting our kids go and explore the art by themselves. They could take their own time, bypass what they wanted, spend time with what they wanted, say what they wanted. But no: Children must not be in the galleries unaccompanied. They might fall into the Heizer holes in the floor; they might touch a piece of glass from the pile that is Smithson's Map of Broken Glass, now immobilized in a way I can't believe Smithson ever meant. You must stay with your parents! Horrors. What would Warhol have said?)

Nonetheless, standing in front of Chamberlain's mashed-car hunks made me happy. Discovering Bruce Nauman's neon in the basement disturbed my son. He saw things in the De Maria that I didn't. This was formative for him. In the second half of life, he will reconnect with it. Or with things, unimagined by me, unseen yet by him, that will mark him. What marked you?

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I am watching a room full of children finding that in life which we all search for: the sense of dancing, with tightly fixed control, along the edge of the uncontrollable. I am watching my son's karate class.

Eavesdropping, as is a parent's wont, on my kid's writing essay last week, I peeked inside his private life. "'Pack every punch with focus and with life,' my karate teacher says," he wrote, and this was galvanic: for it was a global truth. A generalizable
truth. (On the way to the class, my child tells me I have "a big taste for small things," in response to my sudden laughter at his lovely turn of phrase after he'd asked me to tie the knot on his red belt: he could only make a "sad knot" himself. It's a beautiful image, one that could easily support a poem built atop it. It also yielded another pleased laugh at his big-truth appraisal of what moves his mommy.)

Now the teacher is saying, of a student who wears a perpetual mysterious smile: "I want to know his secret--I want to be like this guy." The teacher who teaches the c
hildren is in turn taught by them.

What the children do not know, but I do, is that their sensei has a reason that the smile, its inner impetus, eludes him. He has lost someone. I lost her, too, a friend. But he lost much more, when the young woman he loved left the world upon which she shined, in an eclipse that left us breathless in the dark.

He is looking thin and pale these days, even as he exhorts his students to "get into it, with spirit--that's more than half the battle. Every day, apply yourself to something. Y
our homework, doing the dishes, your sports, whatever. If you do something, really do it."

I am learning things here, too, watching and thinking, as the late-day full sun streams through the windows at this nice school. I am thinking about going home and applying myself to something that waits for me, something I need to hit as hard, with as much "ninja spirit," as my child just hit the practice pads (thump-thud). A fleeting thought intervenes--"I wish I had enough money to send him to this nice school"--and I realize that, indeed, if I truly applied myself (thump-thud) I probably could. I thi
nk of how I miss seeing my friend's child in this class, his happy, funny presence, because now that his mother is gone, he has had to go live far away. To leave us, and start anew. To hopefully apply himself to a new life.

Most of all, I am thinking about how desperately much I still need to learn about this time I have here, however much there is left. Part of this is how to move through loss with the grace of the karate master, with application and spirit and focus and humility. At this moment, in particular, I am thinking about how you get out from under an opponent who has got you on your back, with his full weight on you and your muscles quivering with the impossibility of it. I want to know how you make the im
possible possible. I want, as the sensei now observes to the children, the feeling after battle that is "kind of losing control, but in control; kind of angry, but kind of peaceful." It's a strange feeling, he says. I am thinking I would like to feel it soon.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Golfing in the Desert

The earth owns itself.

What a strange concept, eh? It's very similar to the notion that An animal owns itself (the idea that PETA tries, in its regrettably bullheaded way, to get across--and an idea that is so logically, morally, and intellectually unimpeachable that the greatest difficulty I have now in life may well be trying to wrap my brain around how a single human, much less most of us, can hold beliefs like "animals are ours to wear" or "animals are ours to torture to death with chemicals" or "animals are ours to cage so we can look at them").

Add now to the list, though a bit farther down in immediacy, the difficulty in comprehending what's up with building golf courses, not to mention spas, luxury condos, and vast retirement communities, in the desert.

That bizarre concept--the voiceless earth has a right to speak--came into my mind as I was driving north in the Arizona desert recently (yes, in a car, with my closest relatives in it with me, only weeks after I had been in Arizona on a motorcycle, gloriously free of the compunction to order a Bellini at poolside). We were driving back to lie down and nurse the aftereffects of a grand dinner that included a bottle of champagne, and lobster--the latter not ordered by me, I'll have you know, since I also have a tough time getting the logic of putting a living creature into boiling water. It was the most lavish meal I'd had in years, in honor of my mother's eightieth birthday, and we were en route to the most lavish resort I've ever been in, an almost sickening spread of lush villas and a spa and, of course, the grotesque indulgence of golf greens made to grow from desert sand amid the saguaros.

Yet there are javelinas out there still, in the night . . .

(I longed to see one, but restrained myself from leaving tortilla chips out on the back patio so I might have a sighting. A fed wild animal is a dead wild animal. And I'm really, really sorry for feeding that chipmunk at the Grand Canyon, but he raised his hands in supplication and told me he was starving. Truly.)

"Someone bought this land, when it was boulders and space," my sister wonderingly said.

"Bought it from whom? Who 'owned' it?" I asked. Stolen from the Indians, who never dreamed of a thing called ownership. Strange concept, made up from whole cloth, I am beginning to suspect.

And that's when I thought it. The earth owns itself already, so it can't be owned by us. How then did the idea get flipped over on its back, so now it waves its four legs helplessly, scrabbling at the air? "We own it all." So that it, like all our animal brethren in the world, can be bought, sold, killed, or played golf upon.

Strange concepts indeed. I'm taking an aspirin and going to bed.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Walking through the fall woods, suddenly I make a realization: All squirrels have granite countertops. You think you are cool, stepping up to the de rigueur symbol of attainment in today's world? You secretly go into your kitchen in the middle of the night, don't you, and stroke that cold, shiny, black money with which you've lined the counters, don't you?

I don't know if squirrel society has its yuppie class--"My work surface is bigger and flatter than yours"; "My tree is a Lexus, you Corolla-dwelling commoner"--but I see the evidence of their winter food preparation occurring all through the forest, on low, wide rocks. They have left the crumbled shells of acorns behind. They are getting ready.

Should I be getting ready, too? Oh, I forgot. I have ShopRite. Any week of the year, I can get bananas and strawberries (they blow, of course, but they look like strawberries). Maybe I should be getting, you know, psychologically ready.

For autumn is a little death. (Hardly as pleasant as the French variety; I don't feel like fully explaining the petite mort reference now, or especially why I thought to make it. Never mind, please.) It's the part where things die in preparation for rebirth; that old wheel, turning, turning. Reruns. Endless reruns on the TV of life. This is partly why some people get depressed around September. Others of us are remembering the gut-searing anxiety of the school year. Why? What was so damn terrifying about it?

Perhaps it only was for me. To tell you the honest truth, I don't know if I'm even reasonably normal, or if I'm like the kind of godawful psychological wreck that people can only talk about in private, it's that bad--and that irredeemable. There's no value in telling her . . . they think to themselves.

This is like going through life not knowing if you are a blonde or a brunette.

I guess I won't be finding out at this point. But it remains that I still do not know what I feared so deeply about the post-summer return to campus that to this day, decades later, gossamer butterflies still beat their ghost wings against my ribcage at the approach of fall.

And then--they cease. Or maybe migrate. I am no longer afraid, just eager. There is a use to be put for all of it: the shorter days (more work, more reading, more movies watched in bed); the cold (bracing walks, with Nelly bounding after squirrels, zinging with energy all of a sudden, coming to a dead-square unmoving of such magnitude she makes of herself a statue of watchfulness; then bounds away again, and I am filled with loving admiration of her skills, herself); the holidays (more excuses for prosecco). The negative curmudgeon in me deplores the smarmy, featherbrain's phrase, but fall and winter indeed make me think, Hey, it's all good! Fires in the fireplace, too: oh, yes.

The squirrels don't think it's all, or even a little, good. It's life and death. Edging closer to the latter every minute. Unaware, the heedless driver of a two-ton weapon runs over the mate busily helping put in stores for the lean time ahead--I have seen one half of a couple rush out in disbelief to investigate the corpse of the newly dead partner--and I have no problem (indeed, no particle of doubt) believing the survivor feels the sharp knife of grief, and hopelessness, and terror. And that she weeps.

Why should we have been singled out by evolution as the only animal to experience sadness, and to respond with the full range of emotion to it? It makes no sense whatsoever. And the biological world, if nothing else, is scrupulously logical.

Welcome fall. Fear it, only a bit. And drive exceedingly carefully, for the squirrels are en route to their luxuriously appointed kitchens. They have serious work to do.