Yesses. August 13, 2017.

“By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” ― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

 

My devoted and quirky giant tuxedo cat, Oscar. The grace of a great blue heron taking flight. The enchanting arrival of a snowy owl on a winter day. The majesty of a red-tailed hawk swooping low overhead. The breath caught when coming upon a deer in the woods. The respectful nods exchanged when passing a coyote on a dark city street. That humans and animals, and animals and animals, form emotional bonds with one another.

 

Finding people waiting for you on the platform when you disembark a train. The unexpected arrival of a lengthy hand-written letter. Acquaintances with heads full of knowledge generously shared and who remain curious into old age. Thank You and Please and Excuse Me and I’m Sorry. The old world etiquette of never showing up to someone’s home without a gift of wine or chocolate or flowers. The ease with which you make friends when you travel. The endurance of a friendship you can set aside for a decade and pick up where you left off as if only days had passed.

 

The fearlessness and camaraderie city living cultivates. The gritty noirish hue Chicago’s sulfur streetlights cast on the night. The 24-7 street life and fossilized Jazz Age buildings of Uptown. The spic-and span glamor of the Gold Coast. State Street decked out and bustling at Christmastime. Miller’s Pub. The Green Mill. Merz Apothecary. Chinatown shops full of mystery candies and Hello Kitty pencil sets. The elevator operator in the Fine Arts Building. Escaping from the world at the Art Institute and humming the Ferris Bueller song when you look at the Seurat. The view of downtown Chicago from Lake Shore Drive that always induces child-like awe. The view of Lake Michigan from Montrose Point that clears your mind of worldly preoccupations.

 

The first warm day after a long winter when everyone leaves their homes like released hostages, mesmerized by the thawing rays of sun on their skin and the vivid colors of the natural world. The first firefly of the season. The late summer dirge sung by a chorus of cicadas. Autumn harvest festivals that echo ancient traditions beneath their façades of epicurean hoedown amusements. Sweater weather. Charlie Brown weather. October. Children dressed like the goblins they are. Pilgrim weather. The warmth of Thanksgiving dinner. The dance the Peanuts kids do and you do too when you hear that song. Christmas carolers. Real Christmas trees. The quiet that descends upon the city after a heavy snowfall. The way snow looks like diamonds in the moonlight.

 

The cinematic suspense of watching a storm approach from a Midwestern farmhouse or from a North Atlantic cape. Early morning spectral fog. Early evening sunlight filtered through leaves- komorebi. The seductive smell of decaying leaves and mud and moss. Fall foliage and limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River. The way barren winter trees look like haunted calligraphy. Ravens. That there is a lake on the bottom of the ocean floor. That there are places on Earth completely uninhabited by humans. That there are humans living in space.

 

Being able to fly in your dreams. Returning to places in dreams you’ve only ever been to in other dreams. The way when you swim in the ocean you feel the waves again when you lie down to sleep. Sleeping with the windows open to a cool breeze. Sleeping until you wake up naturally. Mid-afternoon baths on weekdays. Slipping into crisp white cotton sheets still warm from the dryer. Mornings when you awake feeling gloriously relaxed and bathed in love. A full body, cat-like stretch. A scalp massage. The shiver down your spine when someone whispers in your ear. Exhilarating sex.

 

The way the bodies of men in cowboy boots move. Riding a motorcycle down county roads and going to biker bars. The petty criminal atmosphere and funnel cake aroma of carnivals. Skinny-dipping. Hitchhiking on a New Jersey back road in the middle of the night and surviving it. The devil-may-care catharsis of crying on a public bus. Campari sodas on long summer nights. A day of sweaty manual labor followed by beers and classic rock. Dive bars. Guys who smoke cigarettes outside of dive bars. Men who fly you to strange cities.

 

Moscow. Paris. New York. Hanging out in the lobbies and bars of posh hotels you’re not staying in. La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. The fact that nothing bad can happen at Tiffany’s. Grand Central Station. Waterfront property. Meeting Mary Oliver and her dog on a beach in Provincetown. Being carried along a bank of the Seine by a beautiful man. Falling asleep under the Eiffel Tower. Montmartre. Patisseries and boulangeries and brasseries. Street musicians. Terrace cafes in public plazas. Georgian feasts and toasts. A troika ride across the Russian winter steppe. The mystical pulse under the Russian soil that I think just made up but absolutely believe in. Banyas. Orthodox icons. Catholic goth and ostentation. The blue mosques of Islam.

 

Yves Klein blue. Post-impressionism. Abstract art. Miro. Modernism. Art Deco. Ostalgie. Constructivism. Symbolism. Russian ballet. Bob Fosse choreography. The Costume Institute at the Met. Satin ribbons and miniature perfumes. 1920’s drop-waist dresses. The September issue of Vogue. A man in a well-tailored suit. Palazzo pants. Sunglasses. Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My grandmother’s cat-eye glasses and red lipstick. Black turtleneck sweaters and never out of style trench coats. Calvin Klein minimalism.

 

Sunflowers in blue pitchers. Vases of pale peonies the color of Miss Havisham’s wedding gown. Fresh cut flowers on the breakfast table. Literally stopping to smell the roses. Formal public gardens full of people minding their own business. Lilac bushes in their ephemeral bloom. The honeysuckle trees that lined my grandmother’s yard. Cars with Christmas trees strapped to their roofs. That sensible modern people bring entire trees into their homes all pagan-like. Vetiver. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Eucalyptus branches hung in the shower. Lavender used in food and drink.

 

An expertly made martini. A Casino Royale vesper. A G&T with elderflower. Freshly chopped herbs and the aromatic stains they leave on your fingertips. Bowls of lemons. Calhoun County peaches from roadside stands. Homemade apple butter. Beach plum jelly. Hibiscus sorbet. Saffron bastani. Zanzibar chocolate ice cream. Jean-Yves Martin’s croissants and Picasso’s Coffee cappuccinos. McDonald’s French fries. 99 cent slices of pizza in Midtown Manhattan. Jewish food. Borshch. Homemade soup and crusty bread. Making crepes for Pancake Day. Blueberry pancakes at the old Lincoln Inn. My grandmother’s latticed blueberry pie. My mother’s peach cobbler. The bowl of spaghetti my mother always made for me when I was out of sorts. Family recipes.

 

Communal meal preparation. Homes where the kitchen is the central gathering place. Sun filled rooms with high ceilings. Built-in bookshelves. Blue and white china. Cloth napkins. Mismatched antique furniture. Down comforters. Deep claw-foot bathtubs. Black and white tile. Secret staircases. Shoe boxes containing small objects of sentimental value. Old photo albums. Apocryphal family stories. Finding the forgotten cemeteries in the woods where your ancestors settled.

 

Ghost stories. Russian novels. The spare, poignant observations of Capote, Modiano and Hrabal. Red leather notebooks. Colored pens. Wood-paneled library reading rooms. Ephemera found in old books: a pressed rose, a late 1930s Austrian train ticket, a pre-revolutionary Russian leaflet… Poems you return to in times of strife or exaltation: Oliver, Whitman, Mayakovsky, Tennyson… The book you can’t put down. The book your mind picks up. The movies you’ve seen a hundred times and mouth the lines to while you watch them. PBS. British murder mysteries and Merchant & Ivory films. Woody Allen films. Going to the movie theater alone.

 

Going on day trips with sassy great-aunts. Unsolicited glances of approval or mischief from old ladies. Smart, courageous women who make you stand up and applaud. Living long enough to know what you need and what is not worth it. The day you realize the world won’t end if you say or do something shocking. An innocuous observation that forever changes the way you think of something. Tipsy-headed, impassioned political debates. The adrenaline rush of a bustling political campaign office. Winning.

 

My mother’s record collection. My grandfather’s Dvorak album. Mozart’s violin concertos. Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” Post-punk and New Wave and 80’s dance pop. Dancing to the radio when no one is home. Listening to opera or soul music while cooking. Listening to Kind of Blue in the wee hours and Time Out on dreary days and Vince Guaraldi when leaves begin to fall. Practiced notes wafting from the music school behind your building. The typewriterly tapping of rain on a roof. The clanging of sailboats in a harbor. The sound of a train in the distance. The faint snores of a sleeping cat.

 

Love.

 

 

 

 

Adult Content and Contentment

a sociological explanation…

After repeated commendations from critic and author Jessa Crispin, I recently read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Despite the mortifying title and cover art, it’s a compellingly argued treatise on the many ways in which capitalism, feminism and technology, by addressing pre-modern power imbalances between men and women, have unwittingly created new ones that may be no more conducive to happiness than the systems they’ve replaced. It’s not a condemnation of the progress that has been made so much as a sober examination of that which remains. The book surveys heterosexual, middle-class Western courtship codes, critiques contemporary economic, psychological, biological explanations for human behavior and draws heavily upon literary sources, from Roman de la Rose to Austen’s Regency novels, from Madame Bovary to Bridget Jones. While some find fault with casting a net of research so wide, doing so illustrates the ephemerality and malleability of behaviors we often attribute to innate gender differences. Withholding moral judgment, analyzing romantic decisions through the contexts in which they are taken aka “the architecture of choice” and presenting the frequently unsatisfactory results with Chekhovian pathos, Illouz offers a smart alternative to the narcissism or oversimplification of pop-psychology. The result is a cool, informative discussion of a topic typically relegated, at least on bookstore shelves, to mediocrity and predation.

Illouz’s argument resists distillation, but here goes. Capitalism, feminism and technology have given women and men more economic, sexual and experiential freedom than ever. And freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose… Many of her observations are enlightening in their perspective. For example, when smitten men pursued women in olden days it was interpreted as nobility of character, morally transcendent and even the socially responsible thing to do, yet when women do it now men fear it is evidence of a toxic, peculiarly feminine neediness. Illouz’s explanation for this new form of sexism is impressively non-judgmental. She also deconstructs how and why we have come to interpret reciprocated love as a measure of self-worth, an apparently modern idea that would have baffled the lovelorn of yore. Gender roles have always been oppressive, and love has always involved suffering. But as a friend lamented about living in contemporary Moscow, “At least in the bad old days you knew what to expect.”

I take issue with Illouz’s assertion that modern women disproportionately value commitment because they are starting families later and have a smaller window of fertility and hotness than men. Why is commitment to another person as an illustration of respect and maturity not considered outside the realm of parenting? Expectations of commitment are alive and well in other spheres of life. We maintain roles of mutual support in dealings with family and friends. We don’t show up to work on an as-fits-our-schedule basis. And the Dickensian ruthlessness with which student loan repayments are required suggests the Devil himself expects an 18 year old boy to be a man of his word. To bail on even casual acquaintances is considered poor form. Codes of dependability appear, in Illouz’s observations, singularly inconsequential to those with whom we are most intimate and vulnerable. This is bizarre to me. And I don’t even go in for marriage.

Women: Where is their there there?

Illouz’s book reminds us that it remains surprisingly radical for women to forego the roles of mother and wife and to be taken at their word when they do so. The unmarried mother has become almost ubiquitously socially acceptable in the U.S. Married women who remain childless, if equally “tragic,” are increasingly common. A woman who desires neither husband nor child is looked upon with suspicion and confusion, like there’s no there there. I want to understand why. The presumption that women are, zombie-like, compelled bear children is as reductive as the presumption that men are, zombie-like, compelled to spread their seed. Like those of most men, most women’s bodies are designed to procreate. They are also designed to begin deteriorating at a certain age, but it would be absurd to suggest that ergo we must secretly want our teeth to fall out and hips to shatter. There is nothing defective in not desiring parenthood any more than free will is a defect. Marriage? It is a legal contract, a strange thing to be biologically predisposed to.

A common refrain about childless singles is that they seek to evade adult responsibility and perpetuate a state of selfish infantilism. Yet adulthood comes with endless responsibilities, most of which are not optional. The accusation of selfish infantilism is either creepily Freudian or inaccurately conflates the experience of childhood with that of being spoiled. Perhaps it is not adulthood one attempts to evade by clinging to autonomy, but its antithesis. Perhaps perpetual infancy isn’t sought so much as interrupted. A male acquaintance commiserated with my confession that as a kid I couldn’t wait to become an adult: “I wanted to grow up so people would stop talking to me like I am a child and show me some respect,” he said. I shook my head in frustration and replied, “But I am a woman. People still talk to me like I am a child.”

The revival of Twin Peaks got me thinking about the social anxiety womanhood produces. When it originally aired, I watched it religiously. It was the epitome of cool. The music. The clothes. The camp. I had friends over for viewing parties, drank coffee, ate pie, the whole thing. I dressed like Audrey Horne, taught myself to tie a cherry stem in my mouth and fell asleep listening to Julee Cruise tapes. In hindsight, I suspect I must have appreciated the way young women were portrayed as adults, not just through their sexuality, but their composure, sophistication, secrets, pasts, autonomy and power. The teens in Twin Peaks sat at the adult table. But as the series confirmed, young women doing adult things is problematic, even dangerous. You should have seen the look on my mother’s face when I finally got the cherry stem in a knot. Precocious girls induce anxiety because they mature too quickly. Precocious women induce anxiety because they mature too slowly. By mature, we mean become a mother.
Continue reading

The Maltese Courtyard: Cultivating a Garden of Earthly Delights

Contents: Not terribly safe for work but much too long for you to read on the job anyway. Can however be read in the vicinity of your wife.

I’ve seen much written recently, among the journalism, cultural criticism and literary milieux, on the topic of pornography. On the rapid decline of the industry as the internet is inundated by amateur contributions. On its disturbing use as a modality in sex education for young adults in Britain. Informative “it’s a job” accounts from women neither expressly ashamed nor naive about their work. Manifestoes asserting its culpability in the rise of bad sex between couples. Zombie debates among feminists attempting to appraise its moral value once and for all. Creative non-fiction seeking to identify the locus of the genre vis-à-vis erotica. Musing essays on unidentified muses.

I’ve noted its increasing appearance in casual conversation in an era when data privacy, security, access and profitability are the stuff of dinner party-talk. It also feels like an elephant in the proverbial room into which we as a nation forced to choose our next President have been locked, a metaphor for the spectacle we watch day in and out, leaving us feeling collectively ashamed but captivated by the obscenity. Or worse, verbatim reportage from the campaign trail. In more intimate arenas, I, a comfortably sex-positive woman, don’t get far into conversations with men before the subject arises. Usually his opinion as expressed to me hovers between, “Yeah. But it’s lame,” and “Never. It is degrading to women.” Continue reading

Prekrasny Diletant

Vice

My approach to music resembles my approach to booze: I know what I like and what gives me a headache, and I never cook without it. I can get loose-limbed on Charles Shaw, and I can send back a poorly made cocktail. Twice if need be. I have high standards and prosaic pleasures.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently, and I keep coming back to my peculiar relationship to it as a field of interest. When I am passionate about something, I usually want to know everything about it, analyze it, be able to craft informed critique, flaunt my discriminating taste and flash my repertoire of knowledge. I want to preface proclamations about it with the word “actually.” I can be a pretty impossible person to be around at times. But I am content to listen to the music I love with willful abandon, sometimes never even asking its name.

I know I’m not a music snob because I know a lot of music snobs. People who are opera singers, who run classical record labels, who DJ at hipster stations, who hang out at the local record store for fun and who go to all those gigs where some band you’ve never heard of killed it. When I think of people who are music snobs, I think of people who know what’s on the liner notes, who have season tickets to the symphony or, hell, who actually buy music. This is not me. Jim DeRogatis is not a person with whom I feel I could ever have an informed conversation, though I can easily hold my own on just about any other art form, even if it requires a good deal of improvisation and charming admissions of ignorance about a particular figure. Though I have remained curious and even a bit snooty about music, my investment in it has always been visceral rather than intellectual.

It’s not just my investment. It’s my addiction. I cannot not function without it. I visit friends or family, wine and conversation flow, food is prepared, laughter fills a room, and if music is playing I think, “This, this is life. This is the answer to the question, ‘Why?'” If no music is playing, I am perplexed, and over the course of the evening I convince myself my hosts are aliens or psychopaths who didn’t get the memo that in order to pass as human you have to listen to music. Because that’s what human souls need. By the end of the night I’m having a psychotic break like a tormented Twilight Zone character and don’t feel safe until I am home. I listen to music to celebrate, yes, but to motivate, to rage, to calm… Routinely to complete the mise-en-scene of my life, which is sometimes the only part of it one has control over.

Saintly Relics

I’ve often read that scent is the sense most evocative of memory. After my mother died, I purchased a bottle of the Oscar de la Renta perfume she wore when I was a child, when she’d come home from a night on the town and the cold night air would carry her scent through the opened door, announcing her arrival moments before I saw her, looking as beautiful as Sophia Loren, swooping us into her intoxicating arms.

Sometimes I still open the bottle and remember her like that. More often, I listen to her music. Like all children, before I had my music, I had my mother’s. Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, The Mamas & The Papas, The Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hair, The Doors, The Dead. It’s the Motown music I associate most with my early childhood, my parents cranking up the car radio while I nodded off in the backseat, their nostalgia lending already soulful music the haunting allure of a bygone-era. I looked up at the stars and imagined a time when everyone ironed their shirts and had velvety voices and slicked back black hair. And Hair. But Hair wasn’t played on the radio back then.

Then there was my paternal grandmother, who taught me to waltz to a scratchy old record compilation of classical compositions like “Humoresque,” “Greensleeves” and “Claire de Lune.” And my maternal grandmother, who watched the The Grand Ole Opry and had us kids listening to Johnny Cash every night such that he may as well have been a family member, a grandfather whom I never met. And my older cousin playing Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt on sunny summer afternoons when her good-for-nothing husband was out of the house. If you searched my playlists today, you’d find all these artists somewhere. Not entirely because I adore their music, but because they connect me to people I no longer have. Because people pass through our lives and their signature scents get discontinued, but their music does not.

Communion

We got cable TV when I was a kid, right around the time the first video killed a radio star. Continue reading

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