The Wishing Chair, 2018

It’s past nap time, but my Californian daughter doesn’t wanna go home.

Why would she? It’s Saturday, so she gets an all-day Mama after 45 hours  at preschool. The sun—Mister Sun, to give his formal title—is warming every face, so we have to remind ourselves that our huddled relatives in Limerick, Ottawa, and Michigan don’t need to hear us gush about t-shirts in February. And we are up in Berkeley, which Tara pronounces with three syllables and great delight.

Ber-ke-lee means climbing rocks to throw stones in the creek that runs through campus. Ber-ke-lee means watching students and squirrels orienteering in the eucalyptus groves. Ber-ke-lee means a visit to the library, and maybe her own latte at the Starbucks across the way. Ber-ke-lee means the art and film museum—BAMPFA—where she can apply her member sticker, then run up stairs painted International Orange to order egg sandwiches at Babette, or run down to play with stamps and blocks in the Art Lab below.

Who would want to leave this paradise for car seat straps and a darkened crib?

Not me either. I’m happy to watch her sing Despacito and throw dance shapes in the sunny BAMPFA lobby. Her father is already outside, but through the glass he seems glad to have a few moments of peace.

There’s a new wall of little plywood boxes that I haven’t had a chance to look at. I’ve never spent more hours in museums than this past year, but have to snatch minutes to look at what they show. I sidle over while Tara belts out her song.

TENgo QUE bailAR contigo hoy…

Postcards. Dozens of boxes of dozens of postcards, each printed with a fragment from a Bay Area writer working today, or from their dead literary heroes.

Tú, tú eres el imán y yo soy el metal…

I know that my darling two-year-old needs a grown up to take her by the hand and lead her toward a nap, even though it will wipe the joy off her face and make her screech. But I can’t bring myself to turn away from treasure boxes of printed matter.

The postcards were made in BAMPFA’s Art Lab downstairs. On some the type is set crookedly, and typos have crept in. I don’t care. I feel excited, hungry, greedy. I’m a small girl again, holding a ten pence piece in the penny sweet shop. How many can I get? How long will they let me stay to mull the choices? Where will I go to devour them? And (already, even before I’m led away) when can I come back for more?

There’s a quote from Fred Turner that fits one of my current work projects. I pocket it and scan for more.

Some of the postcards are a single line, others are densely printed. My eyes skitter across the longer ones, or the poetry that doesn’t yield immediately. Later, my mind mumbles, followed by a tinge of shame. My attention, always flimsy, has dissolved in smithereens from years of Twitter’s squirts of dopamine and cortisol. I gulp whatever’s short and easy, and hoard anything harder for a later that will outlive me. It’s Gresham’s Law for base content. 

I spot six lines of what looks like prose in red serif on a gray card. That’s more or less my span, so I pull it out. Truong Tran, it says at the bottom, and a recognition stirs. I know that name. Do I?

The hardest part about this or any endeavor—finding the
courage to call it out or claiming it as your art—the hardest
part is that moment in the making when you discover that
you, the maker, are implicated in your own work; that the
work reflects on you—the part of you that is hidden
inside—that you are hiding inside, you hide this inside.   

—Truong Tran, from The Book of Others

I skip back and forth around the em-dashes and semi-colons, picking up scraps:

The hardest part…
finding the courage…claiming it as your art…
you discover….
implicated in your own work…
hidden inside…
hiding inside.

That recognition again, flickering but excited. Is it a thief’s buzz at finding a fragment that might speak for me, without the trouble of laboring over my own words, or even bothering to read it through? Blah blah my depths are hidden and profound but creating is super hard et cetera.

My reflexes are pure 2018: Snap the postcard, bits to atoms, hashtag BAMFA. Pin it on the wall behind my desk, where it will recede unread. Gulp and display. Next.

Instead, I hold the postcard in a beam of sunlight and read it again. Slowly. Fidgeting. My daughter is still dancing to her own music.

And then he swims into view: Truong Tran, the poet from whom I bought my Eames lounger—how many years ago?  Truong, who liked beautiful things, but did not permit himself the luxury of sinking into them. Foster-guardian of the chair I adopted.

I had scoured Craigslist for months waiting for that chair. It would save me, or at least present me as I hoped to be seen, as a grown woman of substance and taste. In a rented apartment, in a temporary city, that chair would become a tiny plot of owned ground, at about the same cost per square foot as local real estate.  

I wrote an essay about what that chair meant to me at the time, and titled it The Wishing Chair.

On the way home from BAMPFA, I called up this near-dead blog on my phone and searched for the essay. It was twelve years old, and I’d forgotten most of it. That it was Kevin who drove me to pick up the chair in his truck, and did all the carrying. (Have I seen him since?) That from Truong’s ad, I’d expected an accountant, and encountered a poet. That I was lonely and scared back then, and wanted a chair built to hold me and hug me. 

There’s a photo at the bottom of the essay, a reflection in a TV screen from a time before we coined “selfie.” The digital camera and the bulky TV belong in the first decade of this century as surely as the chair comes from the middle of the last.

I’m sitting in the lounger, feet tucked on the ottoman, looking watchful. (Probably just trying to focus.) My neck has a smoothness that I miss now, but the scraped-back hair and sweatpants reveal I hadn’t left the apartment that day. I can cast back and feel that I was sadder than I let myself know, but I don’t remember why.

The Wishing Chair, 2006

I’d like to talk to that younger woman, draw her out. It would take a while. Even the silver backpack behind me in the photo was a carapace.

And still: I was writing. Sending words out into the world from that chair. I forced my puny attention to wrestle essays into being, and they became vessels that always took me to places I didn’t expect.

The essays were gradually replaced by Facebook updates, then retweets, and then nothing at all. I deflected any requests for more. I forgot that my Wishing Chairs had always been made by bending words, not wood; and that my wishes could only be crafted, not bought.

Four years after Kevin hefted Truong’s chair up the stairs in Bernal Heights, a big company paid strangers to carry it to my next stop, in Seattle. Five years after that, more movers brought it back to California. When they closed the door behind them, and I was alone for the first time in the first home I’d ever owned, I flopped into the Eames lounger, hauled tired feet up onto the ottoman, and watched baby Tara squirm in my huge belly. How rarely had I ever let myself just sit in that damned chair.

“Was a gift but can not afford to have such luxuries,” Truong had written in his Craigslist posting. Reading it again years later I realize that I’d felt entitled to be the chair’s owner, but not its occupant.

I hear the same austere Craigslist voice in Truong’s postcard poem. I wonder who chose that particular fragment to represent his work at the exhibition, and then read on the back that he selected it himself. There’s a blurred little author photo in place of a stamp. Truong regards me with the same sidelong stare as my own TV photo.

This poem is the art for which he sacrificed loungers and lounging. This art is the endeavor for which he freed himself from the seductive rails of corporate life. These lines are the gift he chose for BAMPFA; for me on a sunny February Saturday in 2018; and for the younger me writing her way out of hiding in 2006.

Do I take it as an admonishment? A tender confidence? An invitation to come back?

I lay my sleepy daughter in her crib, and start to write him back.

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BAMPFA, February 3, 2018. Photo by Keith Cormier.

Way-Bay postcard project, Truong Tran
Truong Tran, from The Book of Others

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The Prodigal Mother

I have been wandering
Twenty years now
Glancing in windows
Looking for home

Would I know the place, even?
Did I pass it miles ago?
Had I stayed once, but left before dawn?

Too late to double back
The light won’t last
Keep walking, stay warm.

I did not know you were waiting
Unhurried and wise
Not too late at all.

You knocked,
Asked to grow a soft body
To house a small soul.
I said the best yes
While not even awake.

My briny spaceman
Bending new knees,
Floating and anchored
In your undersea cave

You, the size of a Christmas orange
At the foot of a war orphan’s bed
Nod a sage’s huge head
And murmur now:

“Beloved, did you not know?
You are home
This is home
We are home.”

–Massachusetts, November 2014

San Francisco Chicks

My Friday evening taxi driver was a 56-year-old woman with waist-long blonde hair. She had rambled up and down California since she was nineteen, apart from a few stints in Hawai’i and Oregon. Did I ever go a Renaissance Fayre? Or Burning Man?
“Oh wow,” she said, as we sat a red light. “Look at that block with the trees. There aren’t enough trees in San Francisco. It nourishes my soul to see them. I could paint those, with the tops of those two Victorians and then the trees. I’m learning to paint, and it’s teaching me to see things that _other people don’t see._ I feel the world is becoming special to me again, and me to it. I think I’m going to sell some paintings at Renaissance Fayre…”

California’s hippie boomers seem to be forever addressing the mommy who asked about their day over milk and cookies.
Continue reading “San Francisco Chicks”

Losers’ Lounge

“I spent three weeks in [New York] in January and found it […] as full of people worth living near as I knew it would always be,” writes Wil from Tokyo. It is.

Going back to Losers’ Lounge felt like a reunion with old friends. This moveable feast was founded ten years ago by Joe McGinty and Nick Danger, and is gaining strength as the performers edge past forty. McGinty is the MC and keyboard player for The Kustard Kings, the tight band that backs a dozen or twenty downtown singers in a laidback monthly tribute to a chosen singer-songwriter.

“I spent three weeks in [New York] in January and found it […] as full of people worth living near as I knew it would always be,” writes Wil from Tokyo. It is.

Going back to Losers’ Lounge felt like a reunion with old friends. This moveable feast was founded ten years ago by Joe McGinty and Nick Danger, and is gaining strength as the performers edge past forty. McGinty is the MC and keyboard player for The Kustard Kings, the tight band that backs a dozen or twenty downtown singers in a laidback monthly tribute to a chosen singer-songwriter. They’ve done Burt Bacharach, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, The Kinks, Harry Chapin, Elvis Presley, Roxy Music, Abba…and, well, name that tune. Last night, for St. Patrick’s week, they toasted Van Morrison. Next month, to celebrate Easter, Jesus is the featured artist, with the music of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Losers’ Lounge started at Fez, the basement under Time Café. A few years back they moved to the Westbeth Theater in the Meatpacking District, where café tables gave a cabaret air and the musicians always seemed to be having fun. Sadly, last night’s Van Morrison tribute at the Knitting Factory was an altogether slicker event sponsored by Guinness. They ran two shows back to back, and limited the number of singers drastically. Instead of the usual rambling three or four hour show, this was an hour and fifty minutes of greatest hits, though still studded with an oddity or two. David Terhune delivered a medley of the demo tapes he claimed a disgruntled Van had delivered when he was more pissed off than usual with his recording contract. “I see from your face you have ringworm,” he warbled, “Ringworm, ringworm…” Hmm.

Even if the show delivered only one song per dollar instead of the usual two, Van’s genius still made it a good deal. If you don’t know the man, perhaps Paul Durcan’s celebration, “The Drumshanbo Hustler”, can convince you to make his acquaintance.

You can hire the Losers for your wedding or bar mitzvah. On their website there’s a photo of Illeana Douglas in a veil duetting with Joe McGinty. His lanky, bedhead sex appeal makes him a younger brother to Bob Geldof, and I’ve nursed a crush on him ever since he dj’ed when my friends Cliff and Arlene married four years ago. Cliff is the official Losers’ Lounge cartoonist, and so he called in the favour of decent music, the only ingredient that turns a wedding into a party.The average American wedding costs in the region of $30,000 these days, apparently, which, amortised over the length of an average American marriage, comes out pricey. I am free of Bridezilla instincts, but if I ever did feel the urge to drop an annual wage on a public display of affection, I would fly the Losers to a beach on Lake Superior, import my pals from their continents, and dance barefoot for a day to interpretations that made me hear something new in my desert island discs.

Fake is a Feminist Issue

On Saturday, Gareth took me on a tour of the finest pick-up joints in Cork. We spluttered together, evil Dublin and Limerick spies, watching the crowds that split girl/boy as neatly as if they were still under the thumb of the Christian Brothers and nuns. Cork men wear those Tin-Tin quiffs–bless–except for the brave types who go for bizarro boyband spikes. They orbited the gangs of women, who focused all of their very confident attention on each other, tossing hair and comparing tops. The women wore halternecks, straight-ironed hair, and tans, and they looked much better than we did ten years ago, when UCD girls shrouded ourselves in bulky sweaters and jeans for fear a provocative curve might show. They also looked better than Irish lads, who tend to wear beer bellies scarily young.
    “She asked for a six-pack and he gave her the whole keg,” says Gar with a smirk.

The tan thing, though. This bothers me. Irish skin is clear and fair, but no longer good enough for local breeding purposes. My beautiful youngest sister never heads for a night on the town without tinting her skin. Our female TV presenters are orange, and so are the Aer Lingus flight attendants. At Irish dancing competitions, a subculture that has become as creepy as the junior beauty pageants of Jon-Benet Ramsey, fake tan is obligatory for seven-year-old girls. I asked Gareth, my one-man poll of Irish singles, if he liked fake tans. He shrugged. They looked fine, he supposed, but he didn’t know why they did it.

Last week I read that Accuvue is launching a new range of coloured contact lenses for daily wear in Ireland. All kinds of colours will be available, they said, but they expect the most popular choice to be Chestnut Brown. Brown eyes: double-dominant genes that are the default setting across 95% of the world. We Irish are a potato-faced lot, but from even the spuddiest faces shine jewel-coloured eyes. Yet our bias is pronounced. It is the _Brown-Eyed Girl_ that Van Morrison serenades.

Imagine a streaky Molly Bloom. Picture Jennifer Connelly with fake brown eyes and an orange tan, and weep. We have few enough natural resources as it is. Listen, lads, buy Irish. Don’t put out for these homegrown Donatella Versaces, and they’ll soon see sense.

The Return of Cabin Girl

Outhouse

I have come up with a plan that Adam Stein deems “sufficiently asinine” to meet his approval. This verdict is from a man who bussed across China during the SARS epidemic, so I am proud.

Ranger Tim owns a log cabin on Kedey Island in the Ottawa River. It’s a beautiful cottage, built by a retired cop from Ottawa. Not surprisingly, the ex-Mountie didn’t manage to get the logs to fit as perfectly as the Finns who built the Beaver Rock camp in the 1920s, and so this cabin is not exactly winterproof. In fact, Tim clocked it at 26 below in the kitchen last February, with the small woodstove going full blast. I would start weeping and shedding extremities at those temperatures, but then, I am not Canadian.

So I am going to help him to build a small winter cabin before the Ottawa freezes, which should be any minute now. I’m considering it a second autumn. He doesn’t have a job. I don’t have a job. We have copies of A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, and several worrying titles along the lines of Fun Projects With Your Chainsaw. He just bought an outboard motor, a secondhand chainsaw, and several boxes of woodscrews. I bought steel-toed safety boots. I am all set for Cabin Girl: The Sequel.

Kedey Island is almost civilisation. Just across the river is a village that could be in rural Connecticut, and the bright lights of Arnprior are just six miles away. The Pilates-and-Pinot-Noir yummy mummies of Ottawa’s Glebe are forty-five minutes away. But when you can only leave the island by boat, it feels closer to Laos than London. Water comes from the river. You chop wood to stay warm. You “flush” the toilet with ash from the fire.

Kedey Island cabin

When I arrived from Ottawa yesterday morning, I paddled the groceries across by canoe and then helped prime the pump to squirt Ottawa River water into the washhouse. No more sweet Lake Superior water; this stuff runs brown and silty. The well stinks, so we ferry drinking and cooking water across from a kind neighbour’s house. My tasks so far, other than bringing order to chaos, evicting hundreds of spiders, and making large pots of soup, are mysterious. I will be “chinking”. I will be digging a trench to sink the waterline. I will be splitting wood. I will be…um, sitting on the sofa playing hooky with my laptop while Tim goes to Canadian Tire.