25 July 2016

the ocean waits

You smell it first, then feel something ride along your skin - the salt, the sense of things wet and green, of bits of seaweed. Then a little shiver runs up the back of your neck, realizing how long it has been since you stood in the sand at the water’s edge, the lapping sound at the edges, the rustle of weeds in a low breeze. It will take some time, standing here to put everything in its place and for once, there is no rush. 

Tiny dark tails are wiggling under the surface, darting schools of minnows that later turn out to be baby eels. They move like birds in the sky, graceful arcs twisting around the sandy floor and the sun is beating down hard. 

I make my way back along the little road, hearing the sound of everything. My breath and my shoes scraping on the asphalt, the trees bending, a motorcycle in the distance. 

The ocean waits. 





In the city, I find the familiar places, the loose stool at a diner late on a Sunday night and they are still making hamburgers so I order one. All at once Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes comes on, and I think of V fast asleep still and how she likes this song so much, bouncing on my side at breakfast as the music jumps around our kitchen. Everything reminds me of them, a yellow splash of graffiti on a bright wall and I know E would like this, smiling at it if she was next to me. A perfect iced coffee and an almond croissant and I sense N’s chin on my shoulder, tearing off the corner and popping it in her mouth. 

The next morning I go to the Cup and Saucer, for eggs and sausage. The same faces are there, that trapdoor behind the counter flips open and a young cook crawls up from the basement. The girl with the stray eye hands me a menu but I already know what I want, and pass me the tabasco please. I eavesdrop on conversations to both sides, men talking about their children’s weddings, talk of the weather, no politics, no drama just 80’s hits playing on the radio and air conditioning pumping into the place making the napkins flip around.  









18 July 2016

miniatures (a storm)


A wind comes up from nowhere, flipping the drapes all the way outside the windows. The sky flashes, dead silent. No thunder, no delayed crash and crackle. Just fingers of electricity drawing briefly, shooting up into the clouds, drawing down to the trees. The clouds pulse, backlit, as if bombs are going off in the distance. It feels like a silent war has begun.

We stand at the windows. E is wide awake, her face turning up to mine, her eyes wide. N tiptoes in, and tells us to stand back from the balcony, that it is not safe.

The baby is still sleeping somehow.

Trees are bending hard. The smell of ozone and smoke is drifting up to us.

The rain does come, with little patters and then cupfuls. I close all of the windows tight, my feet wet from what has come in already. Thunder finally cracks, the first sound in half an hour to come from that bright sky. There will be a flash flood, a night of drops smacking against the windows like little bells.

I fall asleep to this sound, knowing E is warm under her red blanket, seeing V twist in her sleep, her legs caught in some briefly imagined infant ballet for a moment, then folding back to her side. N is curled next to her, an arm bent to keep the baby close, so that she senses that little touch of skin on skin, just brushing elbows, that miniature connection that lets us feel that everything will be ok.

11 July 2016

the hardest thing

I used to call it the magic thousand dollars. I was twenty-one, fresh in New York living in Greenpoint before you could buy Thai food there, when everyone spoke Polish or maybe some broken English and I was the minority. I had a friend named Sal, and he was getting divorced. He asked me if I could lend him some money, so he could try to find his own place, try to pull his life together. I gave him much more than he expected, that even thousand. He did not know what to tell me. I remember his hands, frozen in mid-air, his jaw loose in his face. But Sal was tough, did not want to talk about it after that, just that the money would come back as soon as possible. It did, less than a year later, a crisp check written out to me, a hushed thank you. It was easy to help him. Almost thirty years later, I begin to understand how hard it is to ask for help.

That thousand dollars, it never stayed with me too long. Another friend, another tough moment and I sent it away. I imagined it circulating New York, like some ultra-karmic collection of birds. It went on like this for almost twenty years until I suddenly needed it back. And it came. 


Two weeks ago, I began a crowdfunding campaign for an episodic narrative project. I could call it a book of short stories that happen to be little films. I made a video, sitting in a chair baring myself to the naked eye of the camera, then edited it, seeing my face as not mine any more at some point. I wrote long explanations about where the money would go, what the challenges would be. I pressed the launch button in the middle of the night and went to sleep. When I woke up, there was already one pledge. My elbows jumped, as if I had knocked my funny bone against the wall.

Like many creative people, I spend a very long time thinking about something before I begin to make it. It is an insular, meditative experience and a lonely one. Just the idea, and me going to buy milk, or sitting on a bus, maybe scratching notes on a napkin in an airplane. When I am ready, I tell N about it, on a quiet Saturday night at the kitchen table with just the light over the stove on, us sitting in the shadows, our hands close together. I watch her face. She asks questions. She helps me understand what I want to do. It becomes ours then.

Eventually, the real work begins and I only share bits of pieces when I think they are working. This crowdfunding has turned me on my head. I find myself talking to a universe of people, with nothing but the raw ideas, a few little tests, and me rambling until I think I have explained it well. It is already terrifying, and I think of Sal. I think of the way he looked at me, and begin to understand what he must have felt. It is completely overwhelming.





04 July 2016

the faucet (drawing a line in the sand is not as easy as I thought it would be)

The walls seem to step back a few inches. All of those wishful thoughts, the daily bowl of optimism, the hesitated checking - they are shoved aside. I am a week into my first crowdfunding project, and all I can think about are the number of people killed last night in Baghdad. More than 140, the news says. Not soldiers, just innocent people. And in Turkey a few days ago, more of the same. It seems like such an awkward act, this waking up to send thoughtful notes, asking for help. They are grieving in Florida still. The twist inside, it never really unknots. 

Back across the ocean, I imagine people are standing around backyard grills, cold drinks in hand. There are pies. There are children laughing, playing in tall grass. Maybe there is a good breeze, maybe old friends not seen for a long time are there. There are grandparents, aunts, uncles, corn on the cob as yellow as the sun, great red tomatoes bursting with green seeds that pop in your mouth. I remember it all. I took all of that magical, everyday wonder for granted, never imagining I would be here for more than a month let alone years. 

This is our modern dilemma. Knowing all we know, at any moment we could be grieving or joking, smiling or sighing. It happens all at once, flashing wild and furious from that one big faucet. There are days when I can wrap my arms all the way around it, and days that I can't. 

Stories came to me long ago, about the people left behind, the survivors of tragedies. They have seen too much, and they want to do good, something worthwhile but there is no clear path. They care for their children, feeling damn lucky to be alive, still standing. They want to look at themselves in the mirror at the end of the day and not lower their eyes. The characters develop over time. One is having a birthday, in some empty mess of a city. Another is reluctant to admit they can still find joy in such a broken place. Their acts are mostly random ones. It feels like the very universe is just pulling at straws sometimes. This is what I want to make, with the help of friends and strangers. This is where I have drawn a line in the sand and said "help". 

E is wandering over to me, her face pale, her hair a blunt mess. She asks if I can take her temperature and sure enough, she has one. 

So the walls take one more step back, and the day is going to be about a giant bowl ready for her to throw up in, should it come to that. Another pot of chicken broth to make from the frozen bones I keep. More towels run under cold water to squeeze before resting on her forehead. More quiet walking around the rooms, listening to hear the sound of her sleeping without disturbing her.

















27 June 2016

Use what you have


The news came just before the sun, a double uppercut, a southpaw crackle of skin and bone. It sinks in as the coffee brews, as the baby wakes. There is a giant, invisible bell ringing that no one can hear. The wind slashes through the trees. I fumble into the day.

People are talking about a new age of paranoia, about fear and great walls to keep strangers out. The wanted and the unwanted, the upper crust and the soft underbelly, the chosen few and the naive masses. No one saw this coming. No one took it as seriously as they should have.

This is how change happens - when you least expect it.


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There is a round little woman who sits on a bench near a playground. She has a small notepad and writes in it constantly. There are no friends nodding hello to her, no children she is with. Later, she wanders the parking lots writing down license plate numbers. She approaches strangers, maybe with a child asleep in a stroller asking something odd, mistaking a boy for a girl. The people walk fast as she approaches after this, eyes aside, then forward and moving far from her. She can be seen for days doing this, and there is no good reason for any of it.


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I am out on a Sunday afternoon, the sun smacking hard against the sidewalk. It is over 100 degrees, and people are moving in hordes to the air-conditioned shopping mall. There are two trolley buses  ahead of me, somehow resembling resting elephants in my imagination. I snap a picture with the Leica, wondering why I even took it. As I pass the open doors, a woman in a uniform leans out.
"What are you taking pictures of?" She asks, arching an eyebrow and dead serious.
My shoulders shrug.
"Trolley buses." I say. "Life, people, faces, streets."
She stares are me hard and another woman leans in from behind her.
I point at the camera.
"This shoots film, not digital." I explain. "I am an artist."
Her head shakes once, then again.
She turns and looks at the other woman over her shoulder.
They eye me, as if to suggest I should not do this any more.
They wave me off.
I did not realize that the hair had gone up on my arms, that a lump had grown in my throat as I dealt with them, all smiles and shrugs. It was a stupid thing to do, I tell myself. I need to be smarter, more careful.

I walk in the shade, looking for a special brand of baby food V likes. They are out of it in one market, so I walk all the way down to the river to try the next one. The lump in my throat shrinks, and I have one of those formal conversations people have with themselves.
"This is not a free country, stop pretending you can do whatever you want to. It is childish."
"I know, I know. I have a family. I need to act more responsibly. But sometimes I forget that something as innocent as a picture of an empty bus is a problem."
"There are workers everywhere, not all of them are legal, not all of them are in the right place. People get fired for no reason here, why scare them? Why make them feel like they are being spied on, documented, recorded?"
"I was just thinking of myself. I am tired of pictures of the backs of old women's heads. I wanted to do something different today."
"You can make art with anything. Use what you have."

The next market is also out of the baby food. I still have two others to try, closer to home. I think of that woman making notes on the playground, how no one tells her to back off. It isn't fair, I mumble. But that's the lesson. Only children believe that the world is a fair place. The rest of us should know better.





20 June 2016

the dinosaur and the cockroach


I grew up on this fantasy that someone from my generation would write the next great American novel. Then it became the all-encompassing album. These structures, these great houses, the traditions I went to school to learn how to build  - they became dinosaurs in a handful of years. Do people still try to pull off this minor miracle, this speaking directly to everyone? Of course they do. There are always survivors - brittle, tough, unyielding die-hards that think this is still possible.

Plenty of catch-phrases make things easier to swallow  - "Three chords and the truth is all you need."  or "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." In truth, these are optiates, soothing pills to lesson the pain. Sometimes it feels like a curse, to be born in-between the end of something  and the beginning of something entirely different. At what point do you abandon ship, and try on a lifejacket? I am not a person who surrenders easily. One more catch-phrase hangs in the air - "No one likes a quitter." 

Maybe reinvention is the greatest obstacle for an artist. Nostalgia is a heavy load to shoulder. We all feel the hot sting of loss at one point in life. How to say goodbye to stories half-told? How to look at the world with fresh eyes? It is like getting a divorce. Everything you poured into that cup, it leaks slowly to the floor, wasted. Lost time, lost money, lost ambition. And then there is that low flame of embarrassment, for the nights you talked in a hushed voice about all you would accomplish, a drink swirling in one hand as the ice slowly melts. 

You choke on what you abandon. 

Of course, you can just keep on going with blinders on. Keep your nose to the stone, hacking away at that pile of dog-eared pages. Jot down lyrics on scraps of paper in the wee small hours of the morning. Yes, stare out the window while you are on a train thinking about the book you will write after this one, if the next collection of photos will be color or black and white, if that film title still works or if you need to cook up a new one. 







13 June 2016

not all seeds grow (please tell me, some precious things)


There was a seed planted six months ago, for today's post. I cannot say more than the fact that it never happened. Not all seeds grow. It was painful, as deep a wound as any. But then I took a walk with N and V and E. I pushed my children on swings. I ate something. I answered questions, and felt useful, needed. No hurt can linger in a house crammed so full with love.

The weekend was lost in catching up on sleep, on staring at trees bending hard in a cold, wet wind. It whistled and howled at the edges of the windows, and I wrapped myself tight in warm blankets. V took a liking to one of my hats, and paraded up and down the hallway with it cocked far back on her little head, or dangling from one hand as she dragged it across the floor. After everyone went to sleep I pulled the guitar to my knee, and found something there as I often do in tough moments. 

                    Don't know if I'm good or bad, 
                    just what you tell me.
                    She had a gift for taking things away
                    so please tell me, some precious things.
                    Like when I was a boy,
                    when I was the new kid.

I walk home with E on Sunday. It is raining and the sun is shining all at the same time, a classic stroke of irony that causes no one here to bat an eye. The news comes in, another shooting back home. The numbers grow, as the details filter in. 

We are sitting at the dinner table, a full seven hours later than Florida and New York. The story unfolds, as sad and pointless as ever. 

All pain is pain. All suffering is suffering.

How to sift through all of this? A child drops an ice cream cone and cries out. They know nothing of the news, of deaths far away, just immediate loss, and a question “why?’ or “why me?” or “why me, today?” 

There is no answer.