Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The return trip

When I was young my aunt lived on Maui. We'd fly from New Jersey to visit.  I remember the trip when I was about ten. My father wore corduroy OP shorts, and my mother wore elegant sarongs that she would tie up around her neck.  Skinny like a grasshopper, my brother was impish, refusing to smile for photographs.  We stayed in a beach condo softened by bunches of magenta bougainvillea and a tumble of green lawn.  There was a pool with a black iron gate around it, and on the other side of the bars was the beach and then the Pacific ocean.

We spent long mornings at the beach, mostly in the water.  Swimming was like plunging into a liquid jewel, the water clear and faceted and so lovely it was hard to take your eyes off of it. I stared at my toes in the sand, so many feet down, shimmering in aqua water.  Waves stretched into clear tumbling curves, and when the timing was right I would ride the frothy edge to shore.

When we got hungry, we'd walk to a local beach restaurant that served the best onion rings.  Imagine, the crust was made of crushed up potato chips.  Salty and crunchy on the outside, a little bit sweet and mushy on the inside.  I'd have a banana smoothie with them.  This was before any kid from New Jersey (where we lived at the time) knew what a smoothie was.   The adults drank Mai Tais, which they renamed Bye Byes because they were so strong.

Last week I had the chance to step onto that same beach, in front of the black iron gate, where those very same condos still stand.  The restaurant is gone and there were a few more people on the beach, but everything else was just the same.

Squishing my feet in the sand, I felt a faint tickle in my chest, a fizz like tiny champagne bubbles popping, the cellular memory of joy rising to awareness.  That sensation mingling with the current moment led to a sense that happiness could be layered generation after generation, and that to have born to a line of people who knew how to be happy and anchored that feeling to a place that would outlast all of us, that this was a blessing of unknown proportions.  Maybe this is why, for the past few years, without a plan or without reason, I have been on a series of return trips, revisiting he places where my growing up family taught me how to plant seeds of joy, so that those same seeds can be sown in the next generation.  I do not know what collaboration of fate has offered me the privilege to pass on this learning, but I do know that it is no small thing to know how to be happy, to have learned how to dance with the world and how to love the goodness of every sparkling jewel at your feet.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Love letters

Last month I mentioned that I have been translating my great grandfather's letters.  Here's a little peek into that project.  This is a typewriter produced by Olivetti, the company my great grandfather founded:

The Olivetti Valentine typewriter was released on Valentine's Day in 1969.  You don't need to know a thing about typewriters or about industrial design to feel it's visual impact.  It's like a Ferrari, but with typing keys.  Its clean lines, its color (it actually came in blue and green too, but it is only ever remembered in the red), and it's curved corners pack a memorable punch.   It's portable too, with a stiff red case that slides over the body and snaps onto the back of the type writer, where there is also a built in handle.  Once you've popped it into its outer shell you get to walk down the street with a hot-rod brief case feeling like a poet-spy.

Forty-five years after its release, The Valentine has gotten cooler with age.  If you go to buy one on Etsy, you'll have to spend upwards of $750--and that is without it's must have manual.  ("Dear Valentine, This is to tell you that you are my friend as well as my Valentine, and that I intend to write you lots of letters," it reads.)

At the time it was released, though, it was a commercial failure.  It was priced too high, it didn't sell well and even Ettore Sottsass, the designer on the project, was disappointed in the design.  In an interview years later he compared it to, "a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up."  

But in 1971, only two years after the Valentine's release, it was admitted into MoMA.  Most American design museums followed suit, and this typewriter is a permanent fixture in many contemporary design collections.  More importantly, of all the typewriters that Olivetti produced the Valentine is the most memorable.  So while it failed to make any money, over the arc of time it has proven to be valuable in an entirely other realm, one that feels a lot more like magic.  It is like a dream you can't shake, poking into memory, stirring up emotion and continuing to hang around in an influential way.  It is a piece of art.

My great grandfather died twenty-six years before the Valentine was released.  Some people might say that naturally implies he had nothing to do with that design.  I disagree.  In fact, when you read the first letter I translated in this project, you'll see for yourself it would be difficult to imagine another artifact that so perfectly captures the founding of his company than the Valentine typewriter.  

Here's the letter.  My great grandfather wrote it to his wife Luisa on the occasion of producing his first typewriter in 1908.

Dearest Luigia,

This is the first letter that I'm writing on the new machine and it is with great satisfaction that I dedicate these few lines to you I hope you receive them with pleasure.  The machine isn't perfect yet, but I think in a little time we can make it as well as the best machines of its kind.

A thousand affectionate kisses for you from 

If that isn't a Valentine, I don't know what is.  A message of love carried along by the generations.  Like a child's macaroni art, and all other things worth saving,  it was created with love and saved by love.  And in the saving, some artifacts that might seem worthless in one way succeed in 10,000 ways we could never know.  The Valentine is one of these kinds of things.  

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 10, 2014

More on the question of art

I love this poster that hangs in Eloise's classroom:

If you can't quite make out the words, it says, "Art has the role in education of helping children become more like themselves instead of more like everyone else."

I feel lucky to pass by this message daily.  Figuring out how to become more like ourselves seems a decent reason for anyone at any age to practice making art.  It may also be one of the reasons that prospect of making art, at least as an adult, can feel like running naked through the streets.    

Sometime between second grade and college graduation I digested a set of messages about how to inhabit my own uniqueness that led to an organizing theory about as nuanced as a sledge hammer.  Instead of learning to be more myself, I figured out how to be a lot like everyone else, just a smidge better.  I learned to establish my individuality by excelling in areas that came easily to me.

The main problem with this strategy was how successful it turned out to be.  And along some tree-lined path in Harvard yard I started to feel the pinch of having backed myself into a corner.  I had channeled most of my effort in school around a few academic strengths leaving entire regions of my being untapped by my education.  At times I dipped into small projects that felt silly, like staying up late at night to make anonymous cards with upbeat quotes for schoolmates, or mailing long group letters to my summer camp cabin mates (that I would copy by hand, in sets of 8).  But they felt about as relevant or useful as a pot of daisies at a highway construction site.  The best idea I could come up with to bring together the power tools with the flower pot was to prepare to apply to medical school (you can see how well that worked out).

At the end of four years of college, I had become such a lopsided version of myself, that sometimes I think it has taken the years between then and now to even myself out.  A career as a writer would have been unthinkable to me then.  And I promise you, if one of my friends had told me they wanted to pursue acting, I would have had to wrestle desperately to hide the visible pity and terror I would have felt for them.  

It makes me sad to think how many years passed before I started to find my way out of the corner.  I forgive myself, at least a little, knowing that a similar kind of logic drove Ann Patchett (one of my favorite authors) into writing.   In her most recent collection of essays she explains that she was not a good student at elementary school, and that she knew she wanted to be a writer, at least in part, because she struggled with pretty much everything else.  She went with an effective strategy, but it makes me wonder, is this the best way for a culture to select for its artists?

Years ago, before a trip to New York City, my mom asked me if I would be interested in seeing the revival production of Eugene O'Neil's play, A Long Day's Journey into Night with her.  Having been away from New York and out of the theatre scene for sometime, the first thing that registered was that this downer of a production was a full four hours long.  I could already imagine my head bobbing in the darkened theatre.  But out of filial obligation I agreed to join her (note to self:  may I be as kind as my own mother when the day my adult daughters show up this clueless).

The night of the performance we made our way to our seats, which were in about the fifth row, at center stage.  The theatre glowed with an amber light, and the air hummed with anticipation as throngs of fellow audience members took their place for the evening.  By that time I had learned that the production included Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.   Nevertheless I still feared that I'd fall asleep.  And then, something surprising happened. Claire Danes and Meryl Streep sat down next to each other in the row in front of us.

The next four hours were a hypnotic journey, so intimate I felt I had become part of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.  The world fell away, and the only thing left was their dark panged living room  brought to life by four plainly dressed actors on a set so minimal I hardly remember it.  The acting was so compelling, especially the performance from Hoffman, that when the performance ended all my mother and I could do was sit there in stunned silence.  Claire Danes and Meryl Streep did the same.  

Forever after that, I felt a certain closeness with Hoffman.  Not that we were friends, but that I knew he had shared generously with me.  I walked away from the theatre carrying a gossamer swath of him.   His burly voice, his blue eyes, and a certain intensity of presence not too unlike thunder as it rolls in during a summer storm, were all woven into a sheer veil that I was allowed to keep.  The feeling was strange, but unmistakable.  I absorbed something from him that night that is still with me today.  So when the actors returned to the stage for the curtain call, I joined the whole theatre in a riot of tears and applause, a roar of live gratitude the likes of which I have never experienced since.

Carrying this sheer cloak of him within me, I lament his death like the death of someone I actually knew.  The loss feels shockingly personal.  And yet it still does not quite account for how I find myself pulled over to the side of the road, crumpled over the steering wheel weeping.  It feels a little crazy, to be cracked this way by a Hollywood story.  

And then I think of Eloise and Ruby, and the poster that watches over them like an angel, telling them every day to become more like themselves.  I think of how they pass their days cocooned, protected by kind women and unlimited supplies of paper, paint, glue and markers. All day long they work their little hands as a trail of art streams behind them. I realize that I am weeping for them, weeping for all the art they will not make, for the way the art supplies will dwindle from the classroom year after year, how the prevailing culture will corner them, and how without knowing it I will participate in the process.  As I sit in my minivan on the side of the road, I realize that I can do better. I promise the gods or my ancestors or whoever is kind enough to be watching over me that I will be brave, I will even run naked through the streets if I have to, to prove that we can make art that reflects who we are and live to tell the tale.

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