Sunday, September 7, 2014

50 Works of Art, Part V

Final installment! Here are the last 10 works of art that have influenced me:

41. “Swim” – Ani DiFranco

Whatever Ani is doing to her guitar to make it sound like that, this song does to me. The sound and lyrics capture, to me, that feeling where you know you're not exactly OK, but you will be. There's hope.

42. “As I Walked Out One Evening” – W.H. Auden
…Because who doesn’t love being reminded that every day hurls us closer to death and human lives don’t mean that much anyway!

Images of lives like wheat (you know, which get collected by a REAPER), or of Time as a river that flows on after we’re gone, sneak into our consciousness as we read this. I always get lulled by the melody and simplicity of the language, and so the heavy ideas don’t overwhelm. Well, not right away. Rockabye baby, here’s a gushy love song… oh and by the way YOU CANNOT CONQUER TIME!

Nope, Time breaks us down gently, gradually. We don’t even notice it most days because we’re so distracted by little things.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
 Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

These two lines gut-punch me every time. Every. Time.
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

43. “Henry and June” – Anaïs Nin

I admire Nin's fiction for the unusual word choices she makes and very powerful imagery, but I truly envy her for her journals. She had an uncanny ability to write about her own life as it was happening in cogent, highly readable ways.

Yeah, it helps that this collection from her journals is about seducing the wife of author Henry Miller and then seducing the author himself--it wasn't a dull life, to be sure. But it still unnerves me that she had editors--including Henry Miller!--read over her journals almost as soon as the ink was dry to try to make the writing better and tease out certain ideas.

Nin lived her art and didn't put up boundaries between her work and her life. I am the sort of idealist who admires that.

44. Kenneth Patchem
I learned about the life of Beat poet Kenneth Patchem through a graphic novel history of the Beats.

Patchem was the product of the working class Rust Belt in the early 20th Century, and developed a talent for startlingly beautiful and tender prose and poetry. At a young age he suffered a spinal injury that would plague him for the rest of his life, often leaving him confined to bed. And yet, he recounted almost ecstatic beauty in his writing.

I found his story, and his art, beautiful and heart-breaking, It will always stay with me.

45. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” – David Foster Wallace

This collection of stories broke my brain. There wasn't a single traditional narrative. It's all fragments and obsessions over the tiniest of details that make up life.

This is a jarring, uncomfortable read at times, but it can also be tender. It made me want to experiment with how a story is told.

46. “Bird by Bird” – Anne Lamott

This is a great read about why we write--fiction, essays, school reports, anything--interspersed with Lamott's memories of becoming a writer.

What stands out of me is the author’s zany sense of humor. This book came into my life when I was still in high school and taking myself a little too seriously. I wanted everything I wrote to be dramatic and serious. Which is fine, but I spend a good part of each day of my life laughing. It’s important to be able to capture that, too, and to share it.

As far as I’m concerned, no one writes better essays or nonfiction than Anne Lamott. 

47. “The Tao of Pooh” – Benjamin Hoff

This unusual nonfiction project changed me forever when I read it at 16--I desperately needed this book in my life at 16. Taoist philosophy is patiently and warmly explained through examples from A. A. Milne's Winne the Pooh.

I’m not sure if I see the influence of parable in my own writing, but I was strongly attracted to the use of a familiar childhood icon to explain what was to me at the time a new way of seeing the world. I loved the fusion of this book.

48. “The Little Prince” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Hmm, perhaps the theme of this list is Children’s Lit That Makes Me Weep

Maybe I should take back what I just said about parables. They appear a lot on this list.

49. The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare
This is the first Shakespeare play I ever loved. I saw it put on at a festival when I was 11 years old, and I’ve had a soft spot for smart ladies who need to put on drag to be heard in their time/place/society ever since. THANK YOU PORTIA, NEVER CHANGE.

This is a controversial play and I never studied it in a class. The representation of Shylock is complicated, and certainly comes with the baggage of an ugly past. Readers are stuck with what’s written/recorded in the text, but on stage Shylock has at times been portrayed as a hideous stereotype of a Jewish banker.

But look at this modern embodiment care of Al Pacino:

Here Shylock is a sympathetic character. He’s not the hero, but he is certainly human; every reader can admit to being wronged and the desire for revenge. He isn’t stupid or petty or cruel. He’s proud and disillusioned and humiliated, and my heart breaks every time I watch this scene. (I own this version on DVD so that’s pretty often.)

I want to write messy characters, and sometimes the characters we love will fail. Characters don’t have the narrator’s birds’ eye view. To keep a story realistic, characters must get trapped by the pitfalls a reader may see coming. It can be emotionally exhausting for the reader/audience, but that also means that a work is resonating (succeeding).

50. “The Giving Tree” – Shel Silverstein
Yeah that’s three Silverstein entries on this list. Deal with it. No one has ever written more honestly or successfully about love than this author in this work, in my most humble opinion.

Evidence of a Night Out

Behold, all the telltale signs of a Ladies Night Out:

A collection of clutch bags at the table:

Approaching the night out: Hot Buns, activate!

The evidence is getting kind of obvious. I rest my case:

We have arrived.

We... we were just leaving!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Long Weekend's Labor: Eating All the Food

I have three back-to-back days off from work this weekend! And all I have been doing is eating delicious foods!

I have some very important breaking news: I have discovered the perfect poppy seed bread.

THIS IS A BIG DEAL. This sweet bread is an important part of holidays in my family, and getting poppy roll on a non-holiday occasion is a special treat. In my hometown there are a few options for places to get this (I know the delis but I don't know their names. They're just called "The Polish Store" or "The European Store").

But then, this summer, a new loaf entered my life, from a Hungarian bakery a few towns over.

Samples! We just had to make sure that we liked each flavor. Several times.

Poppy bread tastes like waking up early on Thanksgiving, with cold feet. Walking into the kitchen to smell that the adults are already drinking coffee, and maybe hadn't slept much the night before because of all the cooking. The whole house smells like sauerkraut, brown sugar, apples. Dinner is early for us--12 o'clock sharp--but we're allowed to have a small plate from the meal to come. We are allowed a little slice of poppy bread.

The day continued to be one of the most Eastern European days of my life: from poppy seed bread to a deli for stacks of rye bread and different cuts of pickles.

A stack of meat. I didn't eat it! But I can admire it.

And then, because my life is hard, I took a nap and then went out for dinner.

I'm still getting to know a new camera, so I play with FLASH vs. NO FLASH after dinner at the Famished Frog in Morristown, NJ.




Morristown is a gem! We saw several bars/clubs in MoTown, and ended at Iron Bar:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

50 Works of Arts, Part IV

It's been more than a month since I left off on this list, where I name 50 works of art that have struck me and influenced my taste. Time to pick it up again! Here are the 30s:

31. “My Worst Habit” – Rumi
The poet Rumi is a highly influential Sufi (the mystical branch of Islam) poet who wrote about seeking spiritual fulfillment and being ecstatically in love with the divine.

My worst habit is I get so tired of winter
I become a torture to those I'm with.

If you are not here, nothing grows.
I lack clarity. My words
tangle and knot up.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can't hope.

The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.

Look as long as you can at the friend you love,
no matter whether that friend is moving away from you
or coming back toward you.

Loving this poem reminds me how much I need art, especially literature, that comforts. Whenever my soul feels thirsty, I give it Rumi.

32. “First Love” – Stanley Kunitz
I tried to be choosy about artists who appear on this list multiple times, but Stanley Kunitz absolutely gets more than one slot. He chooses exciting words--I swear I can feel them in the tactile sense as I read along. Every time I read this it feels crisp and new:

At his incipient sun
The ice of twenty winters broke,
Crackling, in her eyes.
Her mirroring, still mind,
That held the world (made double) calm,
Went fluid, and it ran.
There was a stir of music,
Mixed with flowers, in her blood;
A swift impulsive balm
From obscure roots;
Gold bees of clinging light
Swarmed in her brow.
Her throat is full of songs,
She hums, she is sensible of wings
Growing on her heart.
She is a tree in spring
Trembling with the hope of leaves,
Of which the leaves are tongues.

33. “The Missing Piece” – Shel Silverstein
Actually, there may be more Shel Silverstein than Stanley Kunitz on this list because THAT’S JUST WHO I AM.

I happen to believe that good writing is clear and concise. It can be brief. It can be simple. It can be for children. As long as the words are powerful and hit the right notes, there isn’t an age limit on a good bit of writing. Especially when paired with art/illustration.

This is the first book I can remember loving. I love it more now that I’ve grown up a bit.

34. “Daytripper” – Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon
Speaking of words and images paired well together, I have never seen a better example than in this graphic novel. I get chills remembering this intimate, fantastical portrait of one character’s life and the days that shaped him.

35. “Danza de la Muerte / Dance of the Dead” – Federico García Lorca
There was a summer of my life when I read Lorca very deeply. I’m a little bashful with how much I can see his influence on my writing from that time. For one summer, I was dreaming about the Dance of the Dead…

Los muertos están embebidos, devorando sus propias manos. 
Son los otros los que bailan con el mascarón y su vihuela; 
son los otros, los borrachos de plata, los hombres fríos, 
los que crecen en el cruce de los muslos y llamas duras, 
los que buscan la lombriz en el paisaje de las escaleras, 
los que beben en el banco lágrimas de niña muerta 
o los que comen por las esquinas diminutas pirámides del alba. 


But it isn’t the dead who dance,
I am sure.
The dead have been buried and devour their own hands.
It’s the others who dance with the mask and strings.
It’s the others, drunk on silver, cold man,
those who grow in the cross of thighs and hard flames
those who seek the worm in the landscape of ladders
those in the bank who dry the tears
of dead girls

(This is only an excerpt, full text available here. Also, something very cool is going on here.)

36. “All About Love” – bell hooks
This nonfiction work (I think it’s categorized as Philosophy?) transformed me—as an individual trying to figure out the world, and also as someone who creates things. This book changed what I would like to create. It changed the lessons my characters in fiction would learn. It changed all of my conclusions.

I take notes on everything I read, but I couldn’t articulate, at the time, how this book was shaping me. These are some of my notes:

Love is an active force that leads the individual into communion with the world.


Love cannot save us but it can transform us.

Hmm, I think I need to reread this soon…

37. Casablanca
I loved this classic film as a child, as a teenager, as a college kid, as an ex-pat, and now, and forever.

I guess all I want to say is that I don’t think good characters (clever characters! funny ones!) need neat, happy endings, or true love. I don’t think they need to get what they want most for a story to have a strong conclusion.

But for all the gruff cynicism, they’ve got to have heart.

38. “Othello” – Shakespeare
I have never been assigned to read this play during any year of school; I tackled it the summer after sophomore year of high school, on my own.

I suppose I found the mention of Othello’s race/appearance/nationality intriguing, but what truly struck me was Iago’s jealousy and machinations. I resented this character, strongly, at that time.

This play gave me a visceral reaction. I knew it was a tragedy going in, but it still broke my heart. It came into my life at an age where I could really experience emotional investment in a work of fiction and also question why or how. And ever since, I have been determined to use words in ways that evoke some sort of strong reaction in readers.

39. Pablo Neruda
I am not picking just one work. Don’t care. It’s just too difficult.

Neruda spills lush, living words on every page—in the original Spanish, but even translated into English. No one knew more about love, or beauty.

Here I came to the very edge
where nothing at all needs saying,
everything is absorbed through weather and the sea,
and the moon swam back
its rays all silvered
and time and again the darkness would be broken
by the crash of a wave
and everyday on the balcony of the sea
wings open, fire is born
and everything is blue again like morning.

Or! From “Pacaypalla”:
Errante amor, retorno
coneste corazon fresco y cansado
que pertenece al agua y la arena
al territorio seco de la orilla,
a la batalla blanca de la espuma.


Wandering love, I come back
with this heart both fresh and wearied, belonging to water and sand,
to the dry spaces of the foreshore,
to the white war of the foam.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

You mean I don't have to wind the film?!

I love taking pictures, though I know very little about how to do this. My technological history is pretty pathetic, and I swear it was never purposefully ironic!

I went away to college, and even studied abroad, with a five-pack of disposable cameras. Yes, 35 MM film cameras. No zoom, brutal flash, no settings at all. You want to zoom in? Take a step closer.

These are all things I captured on film. The pics are grainy and blurry, but that's how these scenes looked in my memories too:

Cape Town, 2009.

Madison, WI

Home from the Midwest, at Evelyn's, New Brunswick, NJ. 2010?

Milwaukee, WI

Milwaukee, WI

Observatory, South Africa. 2011

I got my first digital camera at the end of 2010. (I swear I had not been living in an Amish community up till that point. I'm just a late bloomer.)

But I could capture LIGHT! And depth! And still-life wasn't blurry!!

Finds at Madison Farmers Market

South African graffiti

Sea Point, South Africa

Chicago, IL

My first digital camera was a hand-me-down. I got a new point-and-shoot digital camera for Christmas 2012.

When I get the chance to play with or borrow a real camera, I take it. And then worry that I don't know what I'm doing, because I'm not used to working with something with a lens cap, let alone options for shutter speed.

Ah well. Experiments, below: