Sunday, December 29, 2013

At the Start of the New Year

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky."


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Writing in Cafes

Friends often say they'd like to travel with me, but actually I am a boring travel companion. I don't really to do much of anything. I don't go sightseeing. I don't head out first thing in the morning to capture a sunrise or stand in line to be the first into Pompeii. I've never made it inside the Duomo in Florence.

What I do almost every morning when I am in the road is go to a cafe. And there I sit and write and watch the world go by. I sit with my journal and paints and perhaps a book I am reading or one I am writing. I edit, draw, and scribble. And I generate new material. Cafes are is in fact where I do most of my work. And especially when I am away.

I used to think that it was odd that I spent much of my travel time in this way until I read about Graham Greene. Every winter he went to Capri for a couple months and here he did all of his writing. Then he returned to England where he revised and tended to the business of his life, but he never actually wrote anything there.

And so, when I'm away, I search for the perfect cafe. It has to be one where they let you sit for hours. Here I'll work, not on a laptop, but by hand in my journal or on yellow pads. Clearly, especially in Europe, there is a tradition for this. Once when I was living in Rome, I met a screenwriter who told me to stop by his "office" one afternoon and talk about film. His office turned out to be a cafe off the Campo di Fiori where he sat all day, sipping espresso, mineral water, and, later in the day, compari and soda.

I have taken to finding my own office wherever I go. In Vienna recently it was the Cafe Eiles. Truly one of my favorite cafes in the world. One of those Old World places where men and women come and take one of the many newspapers available on those long wooden sticks (I don't know what these sticks are called. Is there a word for them?).

At the Eiles my husband, Larry, and I would find a table that didn't get too much sun, but was light enough. We'd ordered a Viennese breakfast of coffee with whipped cream and bread and butter and jam. And there we'd sit. Hour after hour. The drawing from my journal here is a page I made at the Eiles. In Florence it was the Gilli at the Piazza della Republica. In every city I find one of these cafes and make it my own.

Except Paris. I know this will sound strange, but in Paris I have had a difficult time finding just the right spot. The tables are too small and too close together and, despite France's literary history, the waiters actually don't seem very patient with a writer taking up a table all day long. What's the point of sitting and reflecting if someone is mad because he cannot turn his table around.

In New York, Brooklyn, near my home I have several haunts and this summer in Spain they sprouted up everywhere. Even a short walk from our house in a little square that served wonderful coffee and tapas in the morning and poured effervescent glasses of the Basque wine called txacolin in the early evening. Apparently, I read recently, Americans are reluctant to start and finish their day at the same establishment.

Hence we have our coffee shops for the early part of the day and bars for the evening. But in Europe these places are contained in one so you can literally begin and end your day in the same spot and I must admit I have done this more times than I can remember. I can see why writers have always been drawn to cafes. Life goes on around you, yet somehow you can be isolated and contained. No one bothers you and yet you are never really alone.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ithaca - In Honor of Cavafy's 150th Anniversary


When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don't in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn't anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Haste and Waste

Yesterday I was standing in line at JFK en route to the Canary Islands.  I was excited by the trip and had lett myself plenty of time but still the lines were long and slow...and annoying.  So I did what most people were doing.  Fanned myself with my boarding pass, checked my phone, sighed heavily.

Then I noticed a girl behind me.  She's 20 something.  Maybe 30.  In a yellow sundress and flipflops, blond hair and she's definitely impatient.  I can't tell if that's just the way she is or if she might miss her flight to Paris but she keeps jockeying for position and making very exasperated sighs.

At last I reach the security line.  The couple ahead of me is slow in taking off their belts and shoes and then they push on.  As I reach for two plastic bins, she grabs two others and jumps in front of me.  Now I don't mind if someone says excuse me but I'm going to miss my plane or just sorry, in a hurry.  But nothing.  She just plunked herself in front of me.

I read about a study recently that said that most people would prefer to wait in a slower line than in a line that moves faster but someone cuts in front of them.  In other words we prefer a wait to rudeness and that sense of entitlement.  Well I'm on the side of the line waiters. But I decided to shake it off.  Her problem; not mine.

As I was preparing to go through the machine, she was huffing and puffing on the other end.,  She had rushed through security without pushing her things on to the belt which I was left to do for her.,
I saw her grab her things and rush off as I gathered up my mine.

The couple ahead of me were still dealing with their belts and shoes and I had a slight wait, but when I went to take my belongings I saw that a blue backpack was left on the belt.  I asked the couple if it was theirs and they just shook their heads.  "Must've belonged to the girl who was in such a hurry," they replied as she had pushed past them as well.

Now I'm not going to lie.  Did I gloat a little?  Did I have a small satisfied feeling rush through me.  I did.  You see, "excuse me" and "thank you" are very high on my list of human exchanges.  But I also thought about what a bad day or flight or year that girl was going to have.  I recalled the time I'd left a bag with my journal, address book, and grandma's earrings in the back of a Chicago cab.  Or my husband Larry's story of being robbed of his backpack and all of his film the day he returned to Canada after a year of travel. Let's face it.  As travelers these are moments we never forget.

Those moments.  When we lose something.  We forget something.  The fact is had she been nicer, had she not shoved ahead, we might have caught up with her.  We might have called out and she wouldn't have forgotten her backpack. 

I don't know the end of this story.  I don't know what was in her bag, but I'm sure it contained things that mattered to her. I don't know if she remembered and went running back.  If she missed her flight.  If she got on the plane and in a moment like the one in Home Alone when the mother suddenly remembers the child they forgot to bring.  I don't know.  I'll never know. 

Travel can be disorienting.  Sometimes we are in a hurry.  But excuse me can go a long way. 

It might mean the difference between someone helping you out or just watching as you rush off to wherever it was that you had to get to.  I feel sorry for her.  I think about her.  I wonder what was in that backpack and if she lost it or got it back.

But maybe this will make her pause the next time.  Maybe she'll even say excuse me as she rushes ahead on the line.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Heading Home on the Northern

Last weekend Larry and I were leaving a friend's on Long Island, heading back to Brooklyn.  We were running a bit late and Larry needed to get to work. We were reluctant to leave. I'd just had a great swim and Larry was tossing a ball with the dog.  We were having a good chat with new friends. And the day was a kind of marker - the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.  The end of summer.  That feeling one gets every year.  Time has passed.  A moment for carefree days and cicada-filled nights, sipping rose and grilling fish with good friends was almost done. But we had to push on.

It was a clear, warm day.  A slight breeze.  The kind it would be nice to go sailing on, but that wasn't to be. Finally it was time.  Except we couldn't get the dog into the car.  That took a minute or two.  Then I realized I'd taken my friend's charger so I had to run back into the house and return it.  Then on the way out of town we had some trash in the car and we stopped at a garbage can. 

Tiny delays.  Minor interruptions.  Perhaps slowing us down by four or five minutes.  Things that in the normal course of a life mean nothing.

At last we were on the road.  South County to Station Road.  Station to Horseblock, then on to the L.I.E.  Our goal was the Northern.  That's the way we always drove home.   We were zipping along, making great time.  Then we pulled on to the Northern.

We hadn't driven a hundred feet when we knew something was wrong.  It wasn't just that we saw the brake lights of cars ahead of us.  It was that traffic was actually coming towards us.

Then we saw it.  Not five hundred yards ahead.  A tree had fallen across the highway on a clear summer's day.  All the lanes blocked.  And all the cars heading back to the city were turning around and driving right at us.

We couldn't tell if the tree had struck anyone.  If it had fallen because someone struck it or if anyone was injured.  The first responders hadn't even gotten there yet. 

"I'm turning around," Larry said as we made our way onto the off ramp, again against traffic.  It was a rather remarkable moment of human cooperation.  Dozens and dozens of cars, turning.

We last were off but we needed a detour.  The LIE was packed so I said to Larry, "I think I can get us back on to the Northern past the accident.  As we drove, emergency vehicles passed us.  Fire, rescue, ambulances.  Our hearts began to sink.  Was anyone hit?  Did they drive into the tree?  we had no way of knowing.  We just continued on.

We took a long detour but at last we were on a ramp that took us back on to the Northern ahead of the accident.  But, and this was the eerie thing, we were the only car on that road.  The tree had blocked the Northern and no one else had taken the detour. 

We drove along on that ghost rode in silence, realizing that those tiny delays, the things that don't matter in the course of a life, that are easily forgotten, may have made the difference between a horrific accident and the fact that we were sailing down a vacant road into New York City.

I recalled that Sufi tale.  The appointment at Samara.  About the servant who runs into Death at the market place in Baghdad and races home, begging his master for a horse to escape and ride to Samara.  His master didn't hesitate.  But later that day the master also ran into Death at the market place and he asked Death why he had startled his servant that morning.  And Death replied that he didn't mean to startle the servant.  He was just surprised to see him here in Baghdad because he had an appointment with him tomorrow in Samara.

So it wasn't our time.  Not our appointment and we hope no one else's with Death.  Still.  A ghost highway, a silent ride home.  Those tiny delays.  Just dumb luck or fate.  We got away and we made into Brooklyn faster than we ever had before. 


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer

 A few minutes ago Diana Nyad completed a 110 miles, fifty hour swim from Cuba to Key West.  Without a shark cage.  It was her fifth attempt, her first being 35 years ago at the age of 29.  Now she is 64 and she said this would be her last.  Well, she made it. 
When asked by a reporter what advice she'd give to others, she said "Never give up.  Follow your dream."  And something else that CNN managed to loose.

I've pretty much been a swimmer all my life.  I'm not very good or very strong, but if you put me in water, I'll just stay there all day.  I'm closer to a dolphin than a human at times.  I don't swim so much as dive up and down.

I've tried to do distance swimming, but the problem is I'm also a writer.  Writing is very solitary as we know.  And swimming is about as solitary a sport as you can find.  Not only are you alone, but you aren't even really in this world.  And yet I love it. 

But not laps.  I don't like to swim laps so much.  I don't like to count.  I just like to move in water.  It is hard to go from one solitude to the next.

Many years ago I was incredibly moved by the book and then the film of Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  I can still see the montage that runs through the boy's mind as he runs through the woods at the reformatory where he has been sent to pay for his crimes.  The solitude of the boy with his conscience and his running, with the swimmer and the writer (or any artist really) it is all the same, isn't it.  A montage floats through our minds.  We see images one after the other.

In the end despite its solitude only swimming can soothe me after a long day of writing.  It is Philip Roth's chosen sport as well.  I read once that the best way to relieve anxiety is to exhale.  And swimming is all about the exhale.

So we soldier on in our solitude, searching, swimming, trying to accomplish what we never thought we'd do.  And I don't think any of us - whatever sea we're swimming in - has the safety of a shark cage.  To paraphrase, rather badly I'm afraid, Henry James, we swim in the dark, we do what we can. 

And the rest if the madness of art.  Or swimming if you will.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Children at the Beach - Milwaukee, 2010

We were driving out to Long Island this weekend and listening to Seamus Heaney's poem, "Railway Children," in an NPR podcast.  The Nobel laureate had passed away last week and we heard these words.  "We were small and thought we knew nothing worth knowing.  We thought words traveled the wires in the tiny pouches of raindrops."

These words brought me back to another poem about childhood, my favorite poem really in the English language, "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas.  It's a poem about a farm and what it means to be a child, living in the moment, and how we know nothing of time.

When I got home and was going through some pictures for other reasons, I came upon these.  A couple of years ago I went to Milwaukee to visit my mom.  She was very old and demented and it was depressing and sad to
see her.  I woke up one morning.  It was a beautiful summer's day and I couldn't resist a detour to the beach.  All my life I've gone to Lake Michigan whenever I could and this day was no exception.  I'd always found the lake restorative.

I put down my blanket, my book, a hat on my head and thought I'd relax.  But I hadn't been there long with a group of children came and started playing right in front of me.  I'm not sure why the rope is there.  I think it was corralling them in.  Anyway I couldn't resist.  I had my camera with me and I got a lot of pictures.  To me these children represent childhood and all its happy memories but especially those of the beach.  And the innocence of these children -
their ignorance to anything that might stand between them - touched me.  In many ways.

 I suppose these are sentimental snaps, but no apologies.  I loved these kids and for an hour or so they made me very happy.  I think about them now.

 They are older, walking, talking, in school.  Are they still playing together on the beach today?  I think of that wonderful story by Stephen Milhausseur - about the boy who doesn't want to go into the water for his first swim of the season because he senses that when he comes out of the water something - his childhood, his innocence - will be behind him.

I loved snapping pictures of these kids before they'd had that swim.  I believe it was Matisse who said that he had to grow up to be a child again.  Maybe that's really what an artist is.  Whatever.  I loved these kids and was happy taking pictures of them.

They brought back to the last lines of "Fern Hill" which some may find morbid or sad, but I find stunningly accurate - one of those truths about life that only the poets can put their finger on. "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea."

With thanks to the poets.  And to these kids.  Wherever they may be.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Balloon Takes A Walk

As Proust said, travel isn't about seeing new places but about looking with new eyes.  The other day we came upon this curious little fellow, out for a stroll.  We were out walking our dog when another dog began barking.  Approaching we saw what was disturbing him.  A small black balloon with pipe cleaner legs, was walking on Carroll Street.  We don't have big travel plans for the moment, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy all the odd things that life has to offer even if we're close to home.  In other words I guess I'd have to say that I'm always traveling - even if I'm two blocks from home.  Which brings me back to Proust.  You don't really have to go very far to see something new.  Maybe there's a little balloon following you.



Thursday, August 15, 2013

What I love about where I live.

Doesn't that old tune, "There's No Place like Home," have the refrain  "no matter where I travel, no matter how far I go, be it ever so humble....I've been all over the world, but I had to take a long bike ride through Brooklyn Bridge Park to fully appreciate what I have that's so close to home.

Sometimes we just have to look around us.

As my cousin Marianne reminded me, "You have always had the power to return to Kansas."  This was the message Dorothy receives from Gilda, the good witch, at the end of her journey.

This gorilla was at the end of mine.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"It was here in Big Sur...

 that I first learned to say 'Amen.' "

              -----Henry Miller

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Faraway Nearby: On Watercolor Postcards

Rebecca Solnit titles her new book after a salutation that Georgia O'Keefe used.  O'Keefe while living in New Mexico missed her life in New York.  She'd sign off on her letters to friends and loved as from "the faraway nearby."  Meaning that even in distance we can remain close.

The faraway Nearby.  This has always been a bit of a struggle for me.  How do we bridge the distance when we or our loved ones are away.  Recently I've been trying to find new ways to connect in part because our daughter, Kate, now lives three thousand miles away in Los Angeles.  How can we stay close when we are far?  It has taken me a while to understand that of the things that can create distance between people geography can be the least significant.

While it may be difficult, or even impossible, to bridge emotional or ideological rifts (my father and I wrote a series of angry letters during the war in Vietnam), landscapes can be literally and figuratively linked.  The suspension bridge is not just a metaphor.   One solution I came up with was the idea of watercolor postcards.

I began doing watercolors in my journals a while ago.  I don't have much technique, but I love color and I enjoy doing these.  I only paint when I'm on the road - most often in my journals while sitting in cafes.  On most trips I carry with me a journal I like (unlined with sturdy paper), a travel watercolor kit, a pencil case with some watercolor crayons, brushes, waterproof pens for drawing.

But on this last trip to Spain I also brought with me some watercolor postcards (you can get them at any art supply store).  I decided to send them to four friends who I thought might appreciate something that's not just a generic postcard.   And so I painted and sent out a few. They were like little gifts.  Here are two of them.

People say to me all the time.  "Oh I can't draw.  I can't paint."  Well, honestly I can't either.  I have very few drawing skills.  I know a little about perspective and can do some things with a brush.  I like color but can't draw people. brings me pleasure.  In The Rose Tattoo a woman holds up a landscape she's painted to Marlon Brando who stares at it blankly.  And the woman says, "I know they aren't very good, but I feel better when I do them."

Maybe herein lies the entire secret of art.  Whether it's good or bad, perhaps that doesn't matter at all.  What matters is that we feel better when we do them.  To me this is reason enough for putting pen or brush to paper.  And it is just an added bonus when it makes the person on the receiving end feel better as well.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What We Ate For Dinner at Censin da Bea, Borgomaro: More from Bella Liguria!!!!

Censin da Bea is an old mill (antico frantoio) that has been beautifully resorted into a simply gorgeous restaurant.  We arrived with a group of ten.  The restaurant serves family style, prix fix, and you don't know what you're getting until you get there.

And this is what we ate:  In order of appearance:
cheese, sausage, bread, sundried tomatoes, tiny olives, fried baby onions, foccacio with tomato and rosemary, foccacio with  garlicky sauce, one bowl of aoli made at the table by Pierre, most sauce for dipping, ravioli with sage, trumpet pasta with pesto and green beans, smoked sea trout, beef with arugala, fried frog legs, snails, grilled eggplant, tiramisu, panacotta, lemon sorbette, two grappas.

It was literally amazing.  At midnight we crawled home.  And paid for it a bit the next morning.  But it was a dinner that we'll always remember in one of the most beautiful and romantic places I've ever been.  

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bella Liguria!

Liguria, or the Italian Riviera, as it is commonly known has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  A drive along the Grand Corniche, visits to towns such as Cervo made us see that.  Here are just some shots of the wonderful Hotel Caravelle where we stayed in Diano Marina and some other lovely moments that we shared in this beautiful, underappreciated land. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Moonstruck: The Problem of Re-Entry and the S.O.V. solution

We've all faced the difficulty of coming home.  You've gotten away for a couple weeks.  You haven't had to walk the dog or pay the bills (you took care of all of that before you left).  You aren't going to get any bad news.  Or good for that matter.  You can briefly put your money woes aside.  Then you go home.  As any astronaut can tell you, re-entry is always a problem. 

Somehow from the minute you get on the airplane all the good loose feeling just goes away.  The seats are cramped, your seatmate snores.  Your jaw tightens.  By the time you've landed you're already tense, and it's downhill from there.

This is how we felt when we got home from Spain.  Where were those pintxos (Basque tapas) on the bar?  The wine poured from high?  Basically we wanted to sell our house and move there.  But was it really Spain we wanted or was it the way we were when we were in Spain?  I realize that's a complicated sentence, but I can't find another way to say what I mean.  We live in New York City.  Surely we can recreate some aspects of our Spanish vacation.  But can we morph into the footloose people we were then?

 We woke up Saturday morning, feeling blue, and decided that we needed a plan. A plan that would take us back to how we'd been a week before. So we created S.O.V. day.  Not to be confused with S.O.S. or s.o.b.  Or S.U.V. or my favorite show, S.V.U.  Or even H.O.V. whatever that means for commuters on the L.I.E
We decided to have a "Stay on Vacation"  day.

Now "Stay on Vacation" shouldn't be confused with a "staycation."  A "staycation" is a holiday you have at home.  But we were trying to recapture what we'd just done in our two weeks away.

And what did we do on our vacation?  Well, pretty much nothing.  Which is something we're actually very good at.  We like to stare into space.  We can easily sit in one cafe for four hours, then move on to a bar for another three.  We didn't force ourselves to go to museums and look at art (Actually we couldn't because there is no museum in San Sebastian and, despite our best intention, we never made it to Bilbao).  We didn't go sightseeing that much.  We went to cafes.  We wrote in our journals.  We scribbled and drew.  We sat and let our minds wander.  Now we wondered if we could replicate this feeling in NYC.

We packed up our bag with pens, pencils, book to read, journals, the movie section of the NYTimes, my paints and off we went.  First stop was Cafe Martin not far from the house where we read the paper (a luxury we rarely allow ourselves) and sipped espresso from ceramic cups (NOT styrofoam).  Then it was close to noon and we headed to midtown where we stopped at the Biryani Cart on 46thst street for arguably the best chicken tikka with rice in NYC.  And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

On to MOMA where we'd intended to see some photographic and art exhibits, but since we are members we can go to go MOMA anytime.  Instead we found some chairs and sat in them for four hours.  At which point Larry went up to the outdoor bar and brought us back a beer, for him, and a lovely glass of Sicilian rose for me.

On to the Village where we wanted to find a restaurant we like a lot, but haven't been in a while, that's near the High Line.  We got off at West 4th.  Ambled.  Lost our way.  Ambled some more.  Tried to remember where the place was.  I took out my IPhone and then put it away.  I wanted to follow my nose, not my phone.

Half an hour or so later we were seat, eating crostini and frissee salad at ZAMPA (Highly recommended for small bites, near the High Line).  Then off to the High Line for an eve
ning walk.  As dusk was settling we didn't want to go home.  Larry recommended that we go to Txikito - our favorite Basque restaurant in NYC.  Given that we were just back from Basque country what could be better than a glass of txacoli and a plate of Guernica peppers which is what we had.

On our way back to Brooklyn we were stopped dead in our tracks.  I'd read about it.  The Supermoon.  The moon that night at its perigee (the closest to the earth it ever comes).  It was the night of the summer solstice and the moon at its point of perigee.

We stood looking at what seemed like a moon someone had just stuck in the sky.  Like that moon in "Moonstruck."  "Was it Marisa Tomee in that film?" I asked Larry.
"No," he said, "I think it was Cher." Then he paused.  "Maybe they were both in it."

By the light of the Supermoon we made our way home. But we made one more detour, at our local jazz club, for a nightcap of Irish whiskey where we toasted and planned our next "S.O.V."

(Pictures:  My feet and art supplies, at MOMA; our little meal at ZAMPA;  Lovers on the High Line;  Goldenrod blooming on the High Light;  The Empire State Building by the light of the Supermoon)