Foremothers

Victoria

My aunt Vicki died from ovarian cancer when I was 10 years old. She was about 35. Because she died when I was so young, I never knew her very well. But as I was growing up, people would often compare me to her. Which is a bit creepy, telling a kid she reminds you of a dead person… I took it as a compliment. She was a perfectionist. Her home was impeccably kept, everything tasteful, coordinated and in its proper place. My mother told me that Aunt Vicki would break down in tears if a dish she was preparing did not turn out ideally. She was beautiful. She looked like Natalie Wood. She once told me that if a man proposed to me, I should never say yes unless he had a diamond. She was very Christian, athletic, and had a wonderful husband and baby boy. One of those people who seemed to really have it all together, whose only fault seemed to be all the effort she put into not having any. I couldn’t tell you if she was shy or just incredibly well composed. It is probably because I only knew her briefly during my childhood that I remember her having an ethereal way about her. She was intelligent and polite, but not stern. Active and engaged, but not gregarious. Lovely and proud, but not fake. That is how she seemed to me. One of the things I remember most about her was her dog, Dusty. It was a fat, smelly, psychotic, ugly little black poodle she would have groomed. Every time I saw it, it had a different color bow on its head and matching nail polish. Peach, mint green, red… It was total madness. I think that dog must have been her outlet.

We kept a picture of my Aunt Vicki in our living room. It was a photo of her as a child, with her bobbed hair, her thoughtful eyes and the Mona Lisa smile she always wore. That’s how I see her when I think of her, not as the young housewife or the wisp of a woman confined to the living room couch, a silk scarf around her head and dark circles around her eyes. I actually don’t remember her often. There’s nothing I can do about it. I remember her when I give a doctor my family medical history or when my ob-gyn asks, and she always asks, “How old was your aunt when she died?” Then she gives me the look. Like I need to be reminded that I am at the age my aunt was when she got sick and died. Like I’m not in her office precisely because of this! I resent that this is the only person who ever vocally reminds me about my aunt. But I don’t need the doctor for reminding. My family is crazy, laid back. Not caring what others think of them is some tribal stamp and “propriety” is not even in their vocabulary. I feel like the odd one out here. I want my apartment so clean it looks like no one lives there. I become inconsolable the moment things do not go strictly according to plan. I’m a neurotic, a perfectionist and I do care what others think. I don’t know if I am shy or just incredibly well-composed. I luxuriate in propriety and think people should make the effort. My mother would find me in this state and declare, “Where do you get this? I didn’t raise you to act like this.” My grandmother would mumble, “She’s just like Victoria…”

Ruby

My grandma Ruby Ladd was insane. But I don’t judge her. Ruby liked to do silly dances to Johnny Cash albums. Ruby liked to tell us stories about escaped convicts who were on their way to her house this very minute. Ruby was profoundly depressive and lonely, though I don’t ever remember a boring moment with her. Ruby had old time religion and a mean streak. Ruby had a makeup drawer that contained nothing but tubes of red lipstick. Ruby looked exactly like that lady in Grey Gardens. Ruby thought no one loved her. Considering what she gave and got in return from us, she may have had a point.

She lied about her age, so I don’t know when she was born. 1911? 1917? 1921? My grandfather was born in 1898, and she was scandalously younger than he. She was from a family of Arkansas share-croppers, ran away from home and lived in a convent while working at an ammunition factory, and eventually married my notorious Irish grandfather, who then died when my mother was 14. Ruby became the quintessential Miss Havisham. Nothing in the house changed much after my grandfather’s death, except that a brief courtship with an antiques dealer left her with even more old valuable stuff around the house, adding to the Dickensian ethos. The house was as haunted as all get out, largely because she refused to let my grandfather die. There was a little compartment under the table -the house was full of such secret nooks- in which my grandmother would leave money or treats and tell us Grandpa Ladd had left them for us. She’d speak of him as if he were still alive. She’d wake us in the middle of the night, pile us into an ancient car and drive to the cemetery (owned by our family) to “visit Grandpa.” We were just little children. Can you imagine?!

Her home was my second home. On many weekends and some school nights, my brother and I would stay with her. Sometimes I was so afraid, I would spend the whole evening in the kitchen, by the back door. In case I needed to make a run for it. Other times I’d spend hours in one of the back bedrooms, lost in a game of dress-up, to look in the mirror and see her standing the doorway, staring at me. I’d scream in fright, thinking she must have been there for some time. But for all the spookiness, it was also exciting to be a kid in her charge. The house was magnificent, wall to wall paintings, china, chandeliers, hand-made furniture, and curiosities like the buggy bench, the mounted deer head, the wine press and the whiskey barrel, the tv from the 40’s and the old telephone with the hand-crank. And the etching of two children burying a dead bird, which hung above the antique bed where my Grandpa died. Her closets were filled with silk gowns from the 30’s and 40’s, wool suits from the 50’s, fur coats, opera gloves, boxes upon boxes of jewelry. One closet was a walk in and up -there was a staircase in it!- devoted simply to hats and shoes, all in their original boxes. Dresser drawers contained intriguing lingerie contraptions that must have dated back to the early part of the century. Downstairs, she ran a beauty salon. And Grandpa Ladd’s “workshop” contained rusted old tools with mystery uses, cans of lead paint and DDT (discovered after she moved out) and a creepy old crib. Continue reading

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Is Annie Hall Damaged Goods?

One room in the basement of the Midwest ranch house where I grew up had been converted into a den. The décor incontrovertibly child molester chic: cheap paneled walls, beige shag carpet, fold-out couch, mounted deer head and the second TV in our home, the one with a VCR. The surrounding rooms, laundry, storage and workshop remained unfinished, lending the den a creepy, sound-stage artifice. This was the room where my father would take me to screen pornographic tapes and pleasure him. It was also the room where I, alone and of my own volition, watched my first Woody Allen film and decided I wanted to make movies. Apparently this was a profitable profession for awkward intellectual types. Not all of my innocence had been destroyed in that room.

I was preparing to go to college and deciding upon a major. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than get the hell out of Dodge. I chose film and Russian, not with any serious career strategy in mind but because these were my interests when I was 16. I wanted to go to NYU, but my mother said it was too far away. I landed at Northwestern. My dream of becoming a filmmaker waned after spending lots of time around other people with the same, no, with the genuine ambition. I enrolled in all the film theory and history classes instead and carved out a niche in which I wrote obsessively about cinema, propaganda and the molding of identity. My interest in Russia metastasized. And my admiration for Woody Allen slowly grew into something precious and reliable, like elderly friends exchanging correspondence across continents, or that corner bar in your old neighborhood. Whatever emotional or financial, familial or romantic storms blew into my life, Woody Allen would still be churning out new movies, I’d still be going to the theater to see them and leaving feeling just as dizzy and gorgeous as the first time I saw Annie Hall.

I only became aware of Allen’s lascivious interest in minors after discovering his work. Even then, most of the press, which, as an 18 year old, I was hardly absorbing ravenously, focused on an adopted daughter of consenting age. (Was it? Was I guarded from the more upsetting accusations by a parent’s click of the remote? Did I simply do a successful job of ignoring or mentally suppressing the allegations of child abuse? I’m told people like me are good at that type of thing, forgetting stuff no normal person should forget.) Regarding Allen’s daughter-bride, one felt self-consciously Puritan for objecting too very loudly, yet too viscerally disturbed to say nothing at all. But celebrities do outrageous things every day, and paying too close attention to the fact has always left me feeling petty and small. It was the 90’s. Clinton was President, and I just wanted people to do their jobs and keep their sexual indiscretions a bit more discreet. I’d yet to tell anyone of my father’s. I’m not sure I’d honestly told myself. I reasoned that if no one knew about it, it didn’t really happen. It only existed in my memory, like the flick flick flick of a movie reel at a screening for one. Not part of objective reality, out there, in the world. I had by this time stopped conceiving of my father as an actually existing human being but as something more akin to a monster under the bed, or in it, as it were. Again, not real. Memories can’t hurt you. Just like dreams. Or movies.

Years passed. Memories ended up hurting. A lot. People were told, families fell apart, threats were made, restraining orders were required, psych wards were slept in and, worst of all, my own private nightmare became part of objective reality. But upon unburdening my soul, present life too became real. Crazy romances were had and nervous breakdowns. Travels abroad, lobster boils, midnight phone calls to boys to come kill the spider in my apartment, infinite earnest conversations about literature or movies that sometimes ended in someone storming out of a restaurant, analysts’ couches, therapists’ sofas, movings-in and breakings-up, wet city streets and foggy streetlights and stolen kisses and cabs and jazz and I don’t think any murders but yes a lot of vodka. I never consciously aspired to be a character in a Woody Allen film (ok, save for the few months after the first time I saw Annie Hall.) But I took intimate pleasure in those moments when I could have been. With my track record, I preferred him directing than the God of my youth. Moreover, because he kept making movies, and I kept seeing them, I continued to be treated to a deeply longed for feeling of being understood, known. He kept up with my life like an inquisitive aunt, the external and interior: Europe, check. Crazy painter affair, check. Wanting so madly to live in 20’s Paris, check. Losing all of my financial stability, having complete breakdown and drinking Stoli like water, check. Uncanny.

The actresses, we’ve heard them swoon over his roles for women. I walked out of Blue Jasmine, after having lost everything of my own, dumbstruck. Hollywood – which one must admit, it’s a funny thing we are putting Allen in this category, “Hollywood,” it’s off, no? – it produces almost singularly fucking idiotic roles for women. One dimensional: The Smart One, The Pretty One, The Crazy One, The Innocent One, The Nurturing One, the Dangerous One, The Heroine, The Evil Bitch. Woody Allen can write all these parts into one character and with fascination where others would resort to easy judgment. The fact that any filmmaker would write women as multi-dimensional beings gave me joy. The fact that he’s great at moral ambiguity may or may not be worth celebrating. Amid my own suffering his movies provided a reprieve, an escape and, most importantly, moments of feeling my that own fucked up yet vaguely eventful life was connected to the human condition, somehow universal enough to end up in a major motion picture. And not as a warning or lesson or some bullshit cultural propaganda about how a girl should be. Dignity, if you will. Validation. Solidarity with these other messy women he seemed to love, or at least let be themselves in all their glorious messiness. And if they could be loved… In not the least of ironies, watching his make-believe characters made me feel more real and human than much of my actual experience of reality. I will here unabashedly assert that this is one of the key functions of art.

I’ve no interest in selling the world on the merits of Woody Allen’s films. People love them or hate them or have no opinion one way or the other, and what should it be to me any more than if you love or hate Picasso or Fitzgerald or have no opinion one way or the other? God forbid I were judged solely on my media consumption habits. More than no accounting for taste (there is some actually,) there’s no controlling what resonates with us and what does not. A swoon gives fuck all about metrics. Yet in the criticism I have seen of his better films, the chief complaint is aimed at their subject matter rather than technical skills like direction, mise-en-scene, writing, lighting, pace and whatnot. Self-absorbed privileged people who just talk talk talk about their self-absorbed privileged lives. It’s an over-simplification, one I may have used myself in a dig against a Chekhov play, but admittedly a genre not for everyone. Continue reading

Ferguson, MO: The Three Tipping Points

I thought brain sandwiches were weird, but St. Louis has some strange fruit.

 

I have been asked to write about the “race riots” in Ferguson, MO for PoliSMI.ru. I am not going to write about race riots, because that does not adequately describe what is taking place in Ferguson. On one evening a number of individuals did riot. What is important to understand are the events preceding this and those that have followed.

 

I must qualify my perspective, which is neither that of a journalist nor that of a citizen of Ferguson. I am originally from the St. Louis region (Alton, IL) and have family across the St. Louis metro area, where my ancestors settled in the 19th Century. I have spent a lot of time in north St. Louis County where Ferguson, MO is located. I am white. My little brother used to manage one of the stores attacked in the riot. The following is my understanding of events shaped by reading live reports from local residents, speaking with my friends and family and my own knowledge of the history and culture of the area. I cannot pretend that I am not emotional, that it has not impacted me in personal ways or that I understand what it is like to be there on the ground or a random American in Ohio watching this on the news. I cannot speak for anyone or claim objectivity. I can try to provide context and insight.

 

Last Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old. Unofficial explanations for why police were pursuing him have varied from shoplifting to resisting arrest (for what?) Officially, no explanation has been given. Brown had no criminal record. According to witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air when police proceeded to fire multiple bullets into him, he was denied medical help and his body was left in the middle of the street for hours. Horrified by the unwarranted use of lethal force, the treatment of his body and no explanation for the shooting, residents of Ferguson gathered for a public vigil that evening.

 

The senseless killing of a young man by police. Young black men are shot everyday in America, but we often only hear about it when they shoot each other. We expect black men to kill each other. It’s sick and wrong, but it’s true. That he was shot by the authorities who were entrusted with protecting his life made it both a tragedy and serious professional misconduct at minimum, a State-sponsored hate crime in the eyes of many. While far less publicized, police routinely mistreat and even kill black men in America. But the real-time communication magic of social media was quickly conjured, and news of the disturbing event traveled like wildfire. The shooting of Trayvon Martin was also still fresh in public memory. These factors ensured that the death of Michael Brown garnered public attention, but I expected the event to disappear with the next news cycle. The residents of Ferguson were determined to make sure that did not happen. And they got a LOT of help from Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments.

 

The day following the shooting, peaceful protesters demanding an explanation and investigation were met by riot police pointing guns at them and accompanied by police dogs. Such tactics recall imagery of the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s, a time of often violent confrontation between police and American citizens marching for desegregation and voting rights. Protesters in Ferguson already believed that the shooting of Michael Brown was racially motivated. The police dogs and riot gear solidified this fear, the fear that in the eyes of police they were guilty until proven innocent, and that being black in public was the crime. It is worth noting that while the majority of residents in Ferguson are black, the Ferguson police force is almost entirely white, and black residents are disproportionately the targets of police suspicion. That local law enforcement used intimidation tactics in response to people asking for justice was interpreted by many as an attempt by the police to distract attention from their own heinous misconduct and as intentionally confrontational.

 

Late that night, over a dozen local businesses were looted, vandalized and/or burned by young black men. There is dispute as to whether the looters were residents of Ferguson acting out of anger or people from other parts of city taking advantage of the unrest for personal gain or, probably, a combination of both. These riots were not on the scale of those following the Rodney King beating or the Watts Riots of the 1960’s, but they were evocative of them and the unrest that rocked the nation during those years. And with this night of riots, what was previously seen as an unfortunate event in a rough neighborhood became a situation in a major US city. If the shooting death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for Ferguson, the riots were a tipping point for St. Louis. Continue reading

A Week In Autumn

It began as bleak as anything could be. Going on day four of solitude, alternating between pacing the room, writing down everything frantically for posterity, for clarity, for any idea of what to do next, then curling up in a fetal position under a pile of down blankets, I was running empty on my own resources. I wished myself no harm, nor others, I just wanted everything to. go. away. But no amount of fluffy bedding could muffle the sound of the cat’s worried mews, of the hellish symphony of construction next door, of the ominous howl of the wind through the drafty window, of my own racing thoughts. I had to get out of this noisy apartment.

 

It was a quiet, grey Tuesday afternoon in October. I exited the Jarvis el stop, lit a cigarette and held my head up high. I was there to meet a friend, a friend who had always been there for me like he was there for me today, whom my former beau had informed me only kept my acquaintance because he wanted to get into my pants. I didn’t have the luxury of debating if men and women could ever really be friends at this point though and resented that I was going to have to explain why I’d been ignoring his texts. I saw him waiting for me. Chin up. He gave me a hug, and I burst into sobs. Sobs I’d been holding back for days. In silence we walked down the sidewalk, tears streamed down my cheeks. We sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach at the end of the street, I offered him a cigarette, told him everything, every dark and confused thought, every fear, every way I had fucked up, every regret. I sat looking straight ahead, across the horizon, eyes scanning the small hill of grey stones, the smooth sand, the dark, turbulent waters, the overcast sky, the lilac clouds in the distance giving way to those promising rain. An icy wind scalded our cheeks and threatened our cigarettes and snapped me out of it. After a half hour of crying and confessing with abandon, I gathered my composure and dug about in my bag for something to wipe the mascara and mucus from my face while he doled out advice and shared stories of his own screw ups and struggles. “I care about you, as a friend. Do you understand? I have no ulterior motives.” “I want to believe you, but it’ll be a while before I can trust a man again. Or myself.” “I know.” The wind kicked up, assaulting us with sand, water, leaves and bark, and we headed inside. We warmed ourselves with black coffee at the dining table and chatted about work, vacations, life while two cats vied for our attention. The sky grew dark, and a small lamp in the corner cast everything in chestnut tones. “You seem better now.” “I feel better now.”

 

By the following evening, all hell was breaking loose. Outside, pedestrians were losing battles with umbrellas. Inside, I sat in a booth drinking a “pumpkin spice latte” and picking at a whole wheat “bagel” with “hazelnut cream cheese.” I had no appetite, but needed to get the manufactured, cloyingly sweet taste of pumpkin goo off my palate, and I had to keep drinking the coffee to stay awake. The evening was not going well. I’d just been given a lecture on how my lack of interest in marriage and a family, along with my penchant for sleeping with artists, must mean I enjoy being miserable and unstable. As if people with spouses and children have inoculated themselves against misery and instability. As if my ambivalence to the institution were not a consequence of my own miserable and unstable family. As if I had ever dated an artist before. As if I’d plans to do it again. As if I thought it were helpful to speak of people in stereotypes. I’d left the office shaken. What the fuck was wrong with people? I hadn’t even gone there to discuss relationships. I needed paperwork signed. Doctors should really stick to doing what they know, like paperwork, and not try to analyze people they see for 5 minutes every 2 months. In the coffee shop I tried to read. Well, his wife is dying. I should not take that marriage stuff personally. Still… Jesus, this latte is disgusting. I was supposed to be meeting someone for coffee. I texted, called, nothing. Well, traffic was a mess, and I was in no hurry to venture out into the gale. I wrote a bit, tried to read. I’d been in a boring normal appropriate relationship for 8 years, and that made me miserable. What the hell did he know? I thought if I took another sip of my seasonal concoction I’d puke. Still no texts. Things were getting chaotic out there in way that encouraged me to leave sooner rather than later. “Hey, L-, it’s T-. Not sure where you are but I’ve been waiting for you forever and I am not waiting any longer. I mean, I hope you’re not trapped under a fallen branch or something.” I left, wrapped my trench coat tight around me, gave up on the umbrella, tugged my beret down over my head, found a doorway where I eventually was able to light a smoke. The night out there was wet and black and slick and wild and everyone was either running or holding on for their lives. People enjoy being miserable and unstable my ass.

 

Storms departed, leaving warm orange days in their wake. Friends poured wine. Family phoned. Ex-therapist e-mailed. Cat stopped behaving upsettingly (except when I caught him watching a slasher flick, his eyes dilated and bulging from their sockets, all cartoon-like.) I cooked, slept, did yoga, wrote, paid visits, read a bit about Buddhism, read a bit about Fascism. I picked up a Reader and put it back down. Fuck all, he’s probably sick of himself at this rate… I gathered myself. I watched a documentary on Catholicism. God is love. But what the hell is love? Continue reading

Montrose Point

Late one June morning I rolled out of bed in the black tank that is my second skin, pulled on some thrift-store jeans and Merrills (me, in hiking shoes), brushed my teeth, put on black eyeshadow and sunglasses, got a to-go cappuccino and headed to Montrose Point. And it occurred to me then that regardless how forlorn or otherwise stricken I feel, I can always manage to get to Montrose Point for a stroll, or walk, or hike or just to lie in the sun and read and write and watch.

 

“I wanna see zees beek beeldings, your beek beeldings,” a friend visiting from Paris once insisted. Yes, we have big, big buildings. But Chicago, though notorious for segregating its citizens, has managed to integrate its Industrial Revolution decay and grime with oases of nature and tranquility, to balance the yang of its tall structures and hard edges with the yin of verdant parks and a lapping waterfront. Our skyline of concrete and steel edifice is dramatically underlined by what is possibly the best front yard on the planet, “forever open, clear and free”. By law. For what “law” means in Chicago. Which isn’t much. Which makes its continued existence all the more incredible.

 

Between me and the lake lies a quintessentially dangerous and colorful inner-city neighborhood known for its crime, deteriorating Jazz-age facades and the invention of poetry reading as contact sport. Between this neighborhood and the lake lies a talon-shaped slice of heaven.

 

Montrose Beach

My trek often begins at the northwest base of the park where the beach shoulders Lake Shore Drive and, in the warmer months, involves traipsing through the shallow water, petting other people’s dogs, tripping over other people’s children and fantasizing of stealing away in a kayak all the way out to the Atlantic ocean. In the colder months, I just sit and let the wind smack sense into me. After the blizzard this year, the beach was lined with massive freak sand-ice glaciers; it looked lunar.

 

“Montrose beach is Chicago’s largest beach. It is located in Uptown.[12] It also houses the most parking of any beach in Chicago. It is one of few beaches patrons may launch non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks and catamarans into Lake Michigan. It also has one of only two dog beaches in the Chicago Park District, making it a popular beach for dog lovers. In the fenced off dog-friendly section at the north end of the beach leashless dogs are permitted once on the sand. Montrose beach hosts the Junior Guard regional championships, the annual Beach Soccer Festival, and numerous runs and walks for various charities. The beach house on the south-end of the beach was designed by E.V. Buchsbaum, it was modeled after the North Avenue Beach House, and looks like a lake steamer. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, the east wing of the beach house burned in a fire, which was not rebuilt.[13] The beach house was recently remodeled with a 3,000 square foot patio deck, it will house only the third full service restaurant, named “The Dock at Montrose Beach”, at a Chicago beach after Oak Street Beachstro and North Avenue’s Castaways. It is part of the Park District’s plan to add “more upscale concessions to the lakefront”.[14] Due to budget constraints Chicago eliminated the traditional July 3 fireworks in Grant Park, instead opting for a down-scaled fireworks displays in three different locations in Chicago on the 4th of July, the north side display will now be held at Montrose Beach every year.[15]” ~from Wikipedia: Montrose Beach

 

That’s not true. Rahm cancelled the fireworks this year. All of them. He’s the Grinch who stole fireworks. I love fireworks. They remind me of my mother who died tragically of cancer, because she loved fireworks. I never did, but now they remind me of her. And Rahm has taken that away from me. My dead mother is waiting in hell to thank Mayor Emanuel personally.

 

Conventionally the beaches nearest downtown, Oak Street and North Avenue beach, have been considered the sun and sand destination points for residents who actually seek out that kind of thing. The rest of us who are honest with ourselves about where we live, which is not Miami or LA, just go to the neighborhood beach, largely out of a sense of obligation. “Shame not to take advantage of this weather. We get so few nice days like this.” But according to a recent poll, my neighborhood beach is the best one in Chicago. They’ve cleaned up the trash, added pretty blue chaise lounges with umbrellas, a patio bar/restaurant, pretty blue recycling containers, pretty security and lifeguards. Even the kayak rentals and volleyball courts that have always been there no longer look post-apocalyptic. There is also a popular section just for dogs. Pretty dogs. On my latest pilgrimage to Montrose beach (previously called Wilson Ave. beach when it was covered with used syringes and invasive zebra mussel shells, and while it actually remains located nearest Wilson Ave., Montrose, the name of the street on the opposite side of the park, is, well, prettier…) I half expected to spy the cast of Baywatch running in slow motion across the shore. Somehow neighborhood yahoos have quickly adapted to their new beachfront. High-tops and Doritos bags have been exchanged for sarongs and Nalgene bottles. I’m afraid to ask what they did with the poor people, or when Rahm will begin charging admission. Or cancelling summer. Continue reading