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

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Stormy Weather

It was dark as dusk that afternoon when I lay down on the bed and gazed mournfully out the window. Our third floor walk-up on a narrow side street rose directly from a narrow sidewalk, on the other side of which was a narrow parkway lined with elms. A distinctly urban arrangement, yet one of forced intimacy with nature. The canopy of elms wrapped snugly around the sun room and grasped threateningly at my window, just out of its reach. In the growing darkness I rolled over and latched the frame closed to barricade myself from the approaching deluge.

Outside, a ritual summoning of the rain began. The branches thrashed. The limbs on the branches thrashed. The leaves on the limbs of the branches thrashed. It would start erratically, violently, as if possessed and intensify until they eventually thrashed together as one, in slow motion, gyrating like the last rotation of a spinning coin. Then, stillness. Silence. The entire performance would be repeated again and again until the rain arrived, sometimes lasting hours. Flashes of lightning captured the affair in lurid snapshots. I looked at my phone. No messages.

It had stormed every evening for days, for weeks. Every afternoon was oppressively hot and thick with humidity. People took water bottles with them to walk to the corner store it was so draining. People returned home bleary-eyed and monosyllabic it was so suffocating. Then at a certain point in the second half of the day, never the same time from day to day, never anyway to plan for it, never abiding forecasts, the sky would darken, trees would assume garish contortions, thunder would moan across the western border of the city and you’d hear the raucous clang of rain and hail before you saw it … like a warning. The entire city endured a daily meteorological Blitzkrieg.

Outside, people ran in all directions. Inside, people stood in windows and anxiously watched them. The narrow street became a narrow stream. The apartment shook. And it would all end as abruptly as it began. Except for the heat that refused to dissipate, always leaving it feeling unfinished somehow.

The previous evening I’d gotten out of the shower to find the day’s tempest had arrived at least three hours off schedule. He’d offered to come pick me up “all formal like” for dinner, and I had declined. I hadn’t even told him my name. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him my address. I towel dried my hair, poured a drink and monitored the storm and the clock. Storm. Clock. Sip. Storm. Clock. Sip. Thunder clapped. I cracked.”I’d like to request your chauffeur services after all.” “I’m in a cab.” Fuck. “I can have the cab swing by and pick you up.” Panic.

“No.” 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

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

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