Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 17, 2016

We’re at a dance party.

The DJ is talented, the people have come — even on a school night — and the birthday girl is happy. At 65 years old, she has a certain amount of defiance stored up, especially when you factor in a family escape from East Germany at a young age, a penchant for rock and roll, a love of leather, camo and militia boots and that inscrutable Germanic black-and-white-and-primary-color view of things. That’s reality, you know? Cut to the chase. Tell it like it is. Get in someone’s face if it will make a difference.

At some point, the mic is in her hand and she’s giving a spiel. How she never saw Jimi Hendrix (the great regret of her life), but how she managed to see Queen twice (while no one in the audience has ever seen them at all). How EXPLETIVE happy she is to see everyone at her party; how when they turn 65 maybe they will find it in themselves to EXPLETIVE think of her because chances are at that point she will have been dead a very long time….

That now, however, it is time to EXPLETIVE dance.

Yeah. She pauses. EXPLETIVE, yeah!

One fist shoots up in the air.  It’s one of those movements I’ve never been able to pull off — that I might have to try out in the privacy of a bathroom or something before liberating it. More likely, it is one of those body-words better left unarticulated by me. She, on the other hand, can pull it off, no sweat, because it comes naturally, like a sneeze. It’s one of her go-to physical articulations. You know, you can feel the essence of the fist up even when someone else does it; it plays sort of like a micro-anthem, a bird getting out of a cage. She works the crowd to get their fists up.

I’ve been to a lot of dance parties with this woman. Some with three people and some with a hundred. I’ve danced to the Stones, and Prince, and the BeeGees and Ricky Nelson, and Pearl Jam and French rockers from the ‘60s. I’ve done line dances, gotten on tables, done the twist, shimmied, bumped. Gone in costume (many of them from her closet), gone in jeans, even pajamas. We’ve danced with our daughters who grew up together — right up until the point that they started rolling their eyes at us. Then we kept on dancing anyway.

It’s gotten hot. The mostly middle-aged crowd, already dripping with sweat, is really beginning to let it rip. You got your people shakin’ it, your people grindin’ it. You got rockers slamming into each other. Your couples occasionally swinging too hard and twirling too much. You got your lone free spirits expressing grandly; your ladies-with-husbands-at-home pulling it off, inner fists up. There’s an audience participation version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a big group in a huddle singing every word as they stare into the mirror of each others’ faces. There’s a make-way-for-dancers version of Night Fever.  Hips instead of lips get looser.

Birthday girl, in her black jeans and black top and punky shag-spiky black wig, is moving through the crowd to be everybody’s partner.  In “Moves Like Jagger,” she’s got her hands behind her back in chicken wings, homage to her man, Mick.

What a blessed thing to see 22-year-olds and 70-year-olds and everyone in between on a dance floor! I feel happy to be dancing, especially happy to have a husband who loves to dance. But dancing has always given me this gift. I feel happy in fifth grade in ballet class. Happy in sixth moving onto Michael Jackson. I feel happy in college in a ballroom dance marathon, happy in New York learning Martha Graham technique with zero prior training. I feel happy in ‘80s aerobics classes, happy in Zumba, happy back in my own living room cranking the Motown and funk. Dancing is one of the few things that roots me in the present moment with instant and unequivocal joy.

So Baerbel, happy birthday!

I wish you many more opportunities for fist-up, smile-on, Jagger-moves dancing. And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all those moments together on the dance floor — from the tiny patches of cleared-out living rooms to the bigger stretches of scuffed up, drink-sticky parquet. Thanks for loving and worshipping music’s ability to raise blood temperature and bring joy, and for creating a space for me (and lots of other people in your life) to turn up the volume, peel off a layer or two, and get real. [Insert fist-up here]

Between rooms 3 and 4

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dear Mr. Security Guard at MOMA,

I really don’t know how you do it, standing in a doorway between two rooms as the hordes mill by, firing off their three questions — Can I take a picture, Where are the restrooms, and Which way to the Matisse cutouts.

Sometimes you have to scold people – the food hiders, the photo sneakers, the loudmouths, the kids doing this, that or the other thing. Or, as in the case of my friend, because she was trying to get in touch with her hubby about the early lunch we were all supposed to have at the noodle place, you have to physically escort someone out. Of course, she is a person who would have nothing but admiration for a museum guard actually taking her elbow, lifting it high and moving her firmly towards the exit with the words, “No, no, no. We don’t do that here at MOMA.” But a lot of people would get miffed, huffy and red-faced and say something nasty, and you’d have to be stoic and show them a thing or two about good behavior.

I guess you’re sort of the good cop, bad cop, and yet not a cop at all. You can’t move from your spot. You have to pay attention, and be vigilant while at the same time ignoring every annoying little thing, even things that aren’t technically infractions that you can’t do anything about.

Yes, it’s true, on the one hand, yours could be viewed as some of the lightest duties on earth, especially when compared to those of the legions of less fortunate. You don’t work in the mud of a diamond mine. You’re not a flagman doing roadwork in Fairbanks in January. You’re not trying to sell something like a better phone plan over the phone to people who know there’s no such thing as a better phone plan. So.

In spite of the fact that you wear what appear to be the benchmark in sensible shoes, and your blue suit and white shirt seem comfortable enough, especially given the hyper-climate-controlled environment of a museum…. I don’t know what kind of deal you have with the cafeteria, but it would appear your baseline needs are being met. Presumably you make a decent wage. Maybe you even have benefits.

Even so.

It might be different if you were surrounded by Bonnards, say, or Van Goghs. Art history and personal taste aside, that stuff is pretty easy on the eyes. Or the big paintings from the ‘50 and ‘60s. I know I’d never tire of that stuff, I’d even want it to be the backdrop of my life.

But that’s not where you are. You, my good man, are between rooms 3 and 4 in the Robert Gober Exhibit. One is a room of wax limbs sticking out of the walls. Human hair is used quite deftly and unpleasantly, on the legs especially. One of the walls is papered entirely in tiny male body parts, which is not as shocking as it is grating. Anyway, you could probably ignore this room or simply avert your eyes from the floor where most of the dead waxen legs are, if you so chose.

But that other room. The one with the row of TVs, each one flashing a series of disturbing images that somehow go together and go with the loud, disturbing and repetitive sounds…. I’m sure you’re aware they torture people with images and sound, that sameness and loudness is an actual form of torture. I myself can hardly stand my forty seconds in the room, even given my preoccupation with other people’s outfits and accessories. I cannot wait to exit. Once I’m out, I can be irritated or amused or even curious, why, because I am gone.

But you must stay. And what kind of zen or Navy Seal mentality gets you through eight hours of it, of clashing repetitive noise pitted against bright and flashing TV screens? What are you doing in your head to retain the even-est keel, not to go completely mad and explode? Therein lies your strength and mystery.

To me, Securityman, you’re a superhero. Your superpower is steadfastness. The ability to stand firm, day after day, on sensible soles of sensible shoes. Who knows how you arrived at your post between two rooms, and who really cares.

What I know is you keep art safe for the masses to view, and I, for one, salute you for that.


Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 23, 2014

A little boy about five years old peers back from row 30 and looks at me. He’s cute. Big brown eyes, curly black hair, communicating with his expression since he doesn’t have English at his disposal. I smile at him, and he shyly holds my gaze. No trace of a brat. Occasionally I hear the low voice of the mother but I can’t make out the language.

I have row 31 all to myself on this flight from New York and have been reading and staring out the window a lot, thinking about One World Trade Center, 1776 feet, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and now open. Window washers have just had a close call on floor 68. Our entire town could easily fit in one of these vertical needles. How does this teeming, grinding, vibrating city do it?

Halfway through the flight, the mother of the boy, a beauty, taps me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, can I sit here?” Despite an accent, she speaks without faltering.

Sure, I say, and she immediately curls up in the seat, knees up, and conks out like a light. I actually crawl over her to get to the bathroom at some point, and note she’s dressed like half the rest of the people on the plane — jeans, hoodie, sneakers, leather shoulder bag, leather watch. By the time I return, she is awake.

She has three boys, in fact, and a husband (and a brother-in-law farther forward). When she takes the three year old into her arms, I motion for her to use the middle seat for him, and once he falls asleep she looks at me, “We are all so tired,” she says, a little sheepishly.

“Where are you coming from?” I ask.

“Turkey,” she says. “We were two years there. Before that, Iraq. Now we have been sleeping in the airports for two days.” So, they are all kinds of unfathomable layers of tired.

She was at university, she says, when she had her first child. The boys are now three, four and five, “like steps. Not one child, not even two, but three!” She says this both exasperated and captivated, as if now, tired with travel and the further unraveling of her story, the magnitude of this brood has finally exploded. The two older boys are lying like sardines in row 30. The husband has found himself an empty seat across the aisle.

I ask if she speaks Turkish, too. “Not perfect, but well.” She smiles and says she likes languages, that they are good for — she points to her brain. Now, she says, they are on their way to Portland. Where they have friends. It soon becomes clear this is not a simple visit but a permanent one.

I tell her Portland is a great city — and the water is nice. Her eyes light up. “Water?” she says. She has no idea that Portland is on the coast. She is looking forward to cool weather, she says, loves the cold, Iraq is so hot. She tells me she is worried about getting a job and wonders out loud if it will be okay. I tell her my mother was an immigrant and she thinks about this, studying me, and then tells me I look American. I tell her she looks American, too — that anybody can look American here in America. She smiles at this.

“We are starting again,” she says. “We are from Iraq — we are not bad people,” she pauses. “We have dreams.” The word dreams resonates and I feel the miles she has walked and the lives she is carrying on her back. “You’ll be fine,” I say.

“You think?”

I nod. “Yes,” I say. “Be strong!” It is not something I have ever really said to anyone but they already know what strong means, I’m just adding a little more kindling to her fire.

Once we’ve disembarked, I note that the two men have paperwork in plastic sleeves strung around their necks on lanyards, paperwork that says, we are fresh, we are legal, we are vulnerable and we will take your help if you give it. I steal one last look as they all stand there studying the departures, one zoom-click closer to a fresh and unimaginable life.

This is still America. People are still arriving, homeless and tempest-tossed, as the poem says. Their huddled mass may be family-sized but they are tired. They have dreams. They are pilgrims on missions to lay rest to their past unrest, to start all over again with hope and determination.

What a beautiful thing to remember as we prepare to break bread, slice turkey, and eat pie together, 393 years after the original thanks-giving feast.


Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 9, 2014

It’s 1963 and we’ve started acquiring stuff, antiques mostly, because my father is newly infatuated and obsessed. A Pennsylvania boy by birth, he has unexpectedly made a French girl into a war bride and adopted a new country, replete with mind-blowing food, rich history and beautiful objects (which have now become objects of a great and burning desire).

A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dad has secured a last tour of duty in Orléans, France. There are seven of us, including my paternal grandmother, living in a tiny (1,100-square-foot) stone hunting chalet on the banks of the Loiret, a lazy tributary of the Loire that comes equipped with swans, ramshackle rowboats and willow branches idly skimming the water’s surface.

Aside from the fact that my mom does all the wash by hand, the four kids (6, 14, 16 and 17) sleep in bunks in the attic, and my grandma Beatrice does not much care for my mother, never has and never will, it’s a dream. We have a billiard house in the back, fruit trees and farmers with kids as neighbors. I have little boys as best friends, a blue bike and lots of time to be outside.

For two reasons in particular, we are nicknamed the crazy Americans. One is that we shop at the army commissary and spend many American dollars at a time, stocking the house like survivalists, something no French person in his right mind would ever dream of doing. The hordes of paper bags unloaded from our pink Buick are part of a strange rite they know nothing about.

The other thing is, we have a prize-winningly large pet rabbit, who not only runs freely in the house, has a full agenda of shenanigans and scratches at the door to get in and out, but has an actual name. Mr. K. This is not a bunny in a hutch, but a bunny who sleeps on the couch no matter how many times my mother tells him not to. A member of the family. A bunny the French neighbor brings home if he runs too far afield.

The value of being viewed as exotic is in the people you perchance to meet. One of our special friends is an antique dealer called Lartigue, a guy with an allegedly shady history and a warehouse full of old and fascinating stuff, all of it decadently piled high in a sort of bonfire-of-the-vanities-type heap.

Lartigue not only loves my dad’s American accent and his unique way of expressing himself in French (hilarious constructions and undaunted), but also his enthusiasm for antiques and their history. Lartigue makes it his mission to get dad to as many auctions as possible and since dad can’t go anywhere without a regiment of people around him to command, we are all dragged off on furniture-buying missions, to auctions mostly, with Lartigue and his dog, Micki, in tow. (Micki, for one, loves the notion of a clever rabbit, and were it not for the sheer difference in size and speed, might have met his match in their notorious backyard chase scenes).

Long before other Americans have caught on, dad goes nuts at the auctions. Chairs and settees, beds, clocks, paintings, chandeliers, tables, porcelain, books, just lots and lots of stuff, most of it pretty beat up. The kids, under direct orders from their commanding officer, are given the task of refurbishing it using steel wool and rags and oils and Q-tips, and the pieces come back to life, one by one, sometimes bearing a distinguishing mark — one time an actual royal seal. Dad is possessed. The notion that weekends are for relaxation is no more (maybe it never really was).

Lartigue then hooks us up with the artisans who will repair and re-upholster and cane and tend to the furniture in the proper way, and by the time we are ready to return to the States in 1965 after three years, we’ve got a container full of antiques to ship home to Seattle. Not a single clock dome makes it back unbroken, but pretty much everything else does.

Dad, of course, has already drawn a scaled floor plan of the house, his blueprint for where each piece of furniture, each clock, and each chandelier will go, a location that is destined not to change in the 30 years we are there.

As I think back on this story of acquiring stuff, I am surprisingly most grateful that my father gave us the opportunities he did to connect with the pieces — fetch them, touch them, labor over them, live with them. Because, really, isn’t this what separates the good stuff from the bad in the end? It’s nice to think so, anyway.