16 January 2017

I am invisible (carrots and blue)

E did not speak any English until she was almost 5. It all began the night I moved out of the apartment, how she found the words for the first time. Before that she spoke Russian, but when we lived in America she was exposed to many languages at a makeshift International school. When she was 9 months old she told me something in Chinese, which her teacher had to translate for me. She had been standing behind a curtain, and told me "I am invisible". Those were her first words. 



V has been talking nonstop. She began addressing the colors some months ago, and now there is a complete set of names she uses. They are a hodgepodge of Russian and English, but the names of objects have replaced some of them. For example, orange is "markovka" for her, which is the Russian word for carrot. Black, she says ""back" in English. White is "beh", short for the Russian word for white "belieh". Green is "agurshei" her way of saying the Russian word for cucumber. Pink is "pika" - a fabrication, a mix of the word she uses to describe a pig and just her imagination.

She points at the markers, and we draw things for her. Of course we drew carrots for her with the orange marker, and maybe that is why she calls it a carrot color. We draw bears with a brown marker and of course the color is "Boba", the nickname for her teddy bear. But blue, she says is blue, and yellow is pretty much yellow. Purple is hard to say, but it sounds a lot like purple. Sitting with her for five minutes is a walk in strange lands, the circling thoughts in her head expressed without hesitation. Fingers jabbing in the air, her quiet face nodding in satisfaction when she is understood. She cracks such a Mona Lisa smile when the page is full of drawings of our little family, and a monkey and a pig and some snowflakes and some vegetables.

I have read about the way language shapes thought, how the lack or abundance of words to express something in a culture manifests itself in people's actions. The confines of language can limit thought. Living in more than one culture often feels like an act of stretching, of bridging two lands that do not want to have anything to do with each other. So many things in Russia (and Russian) are the opposite to the West. Do you want to go, yes? Or, do you want to go, no? Wedding rings in Russia are worn on the right hand. Every time I go back to New York, I have an odd tradition of changing my wedding ring to my left hand once the plane lands.

But there are wonderful words in both - sincere, naive, classic, absolutely - that I find myself using here, without hesitation. I know that they mean what I think they mean. Sincere is sincere, freedom is freedom.

I wonder what is in store for V, and what expressions she will invent next. I imagine she will have her own adjectives, based on the color of the sky, or the sound of the crow in the tree outside our window.








09 January 2017

bears

Snow is falling, with the loose-boned abandon of a wounded animal. It is colder then cold right now, -30 at night. A wind whips up. Trees are cracking as they bend into it. The baby is restless. There are dirty dishes in the sink. A guitar leans against a stand, unplayed. I move from room to room, catching my reflection in the iced up windows. As usual, I do not recognize myself. I am not that man with a crust of bread in his mouth and a few slices of hard cheese balanced in a bowl. 

Everything comes to a complete stop. 

January is always like this. It is not a new story. 



Someone is painting in the hallway and the reek of turpentine and chemicals wafts under the front door, one more selfish act. All of the rooms are kept closed to keep in the warmth, but I throw doors and windows open hoping the fumes will go away. The air runs into my nose, hard sharp breaths inside. I decide to go to buy bread.

In the path, a handful of glittery hearts flip in the wind. They are scattered in all directions. Maybe someone got married today, and they are on their honeymoon in a hotel room far from here. Or, maybe they are just upstairs sipping strong tea. I kneel down, convinced I need to take a picture of one of them. An old woman appears out of nowhere, grumbling behind me, cursing as I delay her. I gesture to the red and purple hearts and she sneers. She hobbles past me, her ancient fur coat like the shell of a bear hanging from her tiny shoulders.






02 January 2017

after post truth

I pulled the white table from the balcony. It was covered with greasy soot, the stuff that drifts in the windows every day here. After a few soapy passes, it gleamed wet in the afternoon light. My favorite pen, an almost-empty notebook, a cup of good coffee, they rested there. I sat down to write something new on the first day of the year.

The plan was to write a piece of non-fiction, to take an event from my life, a terrifying one, the kind that breeds nightmares and get it down on paper. But these thoughts kept creeping up my arms as I worked. There is no difference between a truth and a lie these days. There are truths and then there are alternate truths. Narratives are controlled. And these narratives - they all pretend to be the truth.

My pen rests on the page. It has grown dark and I decide to light a plate full of these cheap candles from Ikea. Corny, romantic, and they smell of sweet cinnamon but I light them all the same. I cannot stop thinking that our world has fallen apart and we are all in denial. It ruptured some time ago, and we could not embrace that. Our old ideas of war and peace, they mean nothing now. In our age, we can be at war without soldiers on the ground. We can tell ourselves that our little corner of the world is at peace as long as we watch the screens, pat ourselves on the back and say "whew, we dodged those bullets" and breathe sighs of relief, when in fact we have been bleeding for a long time, hemorrhaging for years. Who will stand up, and admit something? I do not mean defeat, just coming clean.



There was a moment almost thirty years ago in documentary class, when our beloved professor went around the room asking how our treatments were going for the film we would make that semester. I told him about these empty trains, these forgotten, rusting hulks that once glued the country together, belching smoke and inspiring people to run out, to wave as they passed, a modern miracle. He paused, and told me about a beautiful case of lenses he owned, for his film camera. He imagined them broken, in the mud someday, useless after hearing my story. But it was not a story, it was something I had seen with my own eyes, something I wanted to record before it crumbled to nothing.

Later in the hallway, he leaned over and told me, "No one wears white."



It is dark now, and the candles are low. I do not like what I have written very much. The sharp memory of jangled nerves and fear, of hushed phone calls and the undertow of helplessness, they just are not there on the page. It just sounds sad and angry. But maybe that is the truth, and the rest was an opera in my head.

I don't know.

26 December 2016

make you feel my love

E does not want to sing any more. I wonder if this is a case of becoming her own worst enemy, a trait she might have inherited from me. We do try a few songs at the kitchen table, but her heart is not in it. She would rather play piano, but she refuses to do anything in time so it is very hard to play together. She is simply on her own course. I decide to step out of the way, and let things unfold. My regret has been noted, and I sit down to sing all by myself this time, while she watches one of her tv shows in the next room, curled on her bed.

Later, she agrees to stand in the cold showing some words on cards. I show her the original Dylan clip. She nods, as if she knew about it already, a piece of old news.








19 December 2016

Moscow in winter


I have started to ignore the Russian winter entirely. The ground has been thick with snow since early October. I slide on wet ice. I stomp the muck and slush from my boots in front of doorways. The snow falls with measured grace from time to time, but mostly in the middle of night when no one can see it swirling around the street lamps. I forget to draw smiles on the hood of N's car. None of this is real. It is simply outside, and I want to stay in.

When the coat is pulled on, I forget. Hat found behind a door, gloves shoved into the back of a closet, I go out to buy chicken, and milk. In the early darkness, people plod along, many with a cigarette dangling from their fingers. I navigate the hovering parked cars, exhaust choking from their tailpipes. The stores are muddy, desperate, the faces tired and confused. The aisles are re-arranged in one, but there is nothing new on the shelves, just the same dented boxes of juice.

This is Moscow in winter.


12 December 2016

work sets you free

As I began working on the script for each episode of Blackbetty, I named them first. The titles are ironic, even cryptic, and they help me immensely. I knew I wanted to create something audacious, something that would make people uncomfortable at times. The election was underway then, and I saw a massive shadow reaching its fingers around the world, knowing no matter what the outcome, we had already arrived at a very dark time. 

The characters presented themselves. I listened to their thoughts, as their embarrassing private lives unfolded on the living room table where I work. Some were bleeders. Some were pretenders. Some were piss and vinegar madmen. Some were just lost. I had scribbled a page of titles to work towards, matching each character to one of them. I don't really know how it happened, but I put "Work will set you free" on this list, the famous phrase that hovered on the gate that lead into Auschwitz. I had just learned that this phrase was not a Nazi concoction, but one that they had lifted from a book by a man named Lorenz Diefenbach. They had stolen this handful of words, using it in a case of bitter irony, perverting its original meaning with a sneer at optimism. I wondered to myself, sitting at that table, the sun growing low in the afternoon while E hammered away at her homework in the next room, while a pot of chicken soup bubbled away in the kitchen. What if I reclaimed this phrase? Or at least, what if I tried to. 


I was in rooms with a number of jewish people last week, a guest at their quiet family gatherings. In their innocence, some asked me in broken English about Trump, hoping I would say something positive. The Russian news tells its own version of events, and that is all they have heard. When I pointed out that Trump's supporters are spray-painting swastikas on houses, on the brick walls of the art school I attended, their mouths fell open. They had no idea. It seems impossible, but yet it is true. The paint does not lie, the same as a gate, the same as the people that built them, and the men that stole that naive phrase.

At home, late that night I wondered again if I had gone too far, if my attempt to infuse this phrase with new meaning would make people furious. In the story, a young man is asked to work far beyond his means. He is no hero, just a mechanic that lives with his mother. There are countless reasons for him to take that all too familiar step back, that quiet move, hoping things will somehow get solved all on their own.

We all know that rarely happens.

05 December 2016

coney island baby (licorice and Hershey bars)




E's favorite was Coney Island. We took the D train, and when it lurched from the underground tunnel and began rattling over the buildings, she stared at everything. Miles of graffiti, stretches of forgotten furniture, signs for tire fix places. This was a scene for Blackbetty, which I had hoped for but was ready to surrender if she could not travel. I had seen her face, chin resting on the cold glass so long ago. The sun is out today and giant flares dance around the lens as we splash in and out of shadow.

And then, the ocean stands in front of us and her walk becomes a run. She dances, arms flapping like one of the gulls and she is right on the water's edge. Feet soaking wet, the waves surging around her she turns and smiles at me. I cannot remember her this happy.

Shells and bits of ocean glass are studied and collected.
"Look Pop, part of a crab!" She shouts at me, pointing at a stray blue claw.

The wind whips up, blowing sand into out eyes.

My film falls together, like some sort of prophecy coming to fruition.


The next days churn into one, and we are already on that cab ride to the airport, weighed down with strawberry licorice and Hershey bars. We sleep the whole way home.

Moscow is cold, great drifts of snow already turning grey and brown from truck exhaust.

Her head leans against my shoulder.