The Boldness of Eccentricity: A Remembrance

Eccentric

The woman standing at the front of the classroom never suffers fools gladly. Instead she writes theorems on the green chalkboard rapidly, with her back turned to a roomful of privileged ninth grade girls at this pressure cooker prep school in Memphis, girls poised for success in one venue or another. She is lean, a smoker, but what flesh hangs from her arms jiggles as she writes. She begins explaining the theorem before she places the chalk on the board’s metal lip, and rubs the dust from her hands. She continues as she turns to face the class, some girls taking notes furiously, and focused, others silently chewing contraband Wrigley’s and watching the second hand on the classroom clock, one girl in particular routinely balancing on the back two legs of her chair—rearing back as this teacher will observe with disdain time and again over the course of years. There is nothing eccentric about her; you know where you stand with her, and that is all.

Questions before I continue? She is unamused, just doing her job. The bloom of youth is gone from her, not too long, but her jowls have already given way to the forces of nature—gravity is doing its own job on her.

I sit in my chair with all four of its legs planted firmly on the carpeted floor in this hallowed math classroom, sweating. Yes, yes, yes, the adolescent voice inside me urges, you do have questions! Shhhhhh!, I snap at it uncharitably. I fight back hot tears of frustration, my rational self growing more irritated with the rest of me by the moment. I am already lost in the first five minutes or so of the class.

Nobody raises their hands, nobody seems concerned. I have to sit on my own hands for fear some reflex within will throw one of them skyward, and all these judge-y eyes and ears will be where I least want them, on me. I don’t understand anything you just said! I scream silently. I will default to my time-worn strategy: maintain a cool exterior, pretend I understand, and then beg my parents for help later. This school is notorious for its academic standards, for its heaping piles of homework and high expectations. These girls will go on to discover new chemical elements; the ones who do not hold these lofty aspirations will at least possess a closet full of Lilly Pulitzer. Math should take a half hour tonight; now it will take three times that, and even I can calculate those repercussions in my head, factor in those variables with my daily ballet classes, chores, and the rest of my homework.

Two decades later in Knoxville I’ll pass the torch to my own child, who will struggle harder still with his mathematics; the bar will be set higher for him, not only because he attends a school of the same ilk, but because his brain is wired to make this—and everything else—more difficult for him. He will develop bravado to hide his confusion, and some of his teachers will misinterpret that as cheekiness. But his endearing personality will make up for so many of his shortcomings. On a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee, I will bake cookies with that boy and we will package them in a pretty basket and walk five blocks up the road to deliver them to an eccentric neighbor, because we want to.

Martin the octogenarian, Martin the flamboyant queen, Martin the proud subject of a cover story in the local indie newspaper, a story that celebrated a handful of the city’s eccentrics. When that paper hit the newsstands, something inside me jumped for joy: it’s high time to honor this man, I thought. We were neighbors, but we met at church a decade earlier; you could not sit anywhere near Martin and not notice him—if not for his unabashedly vibrant couture, then for his greeting during the exchanging of the peace, a ritual in the Episcopal church that happens just before Holy Eucharist: Peace, baby! exclaimed Martin in his unmistakable drawl when he shook hands with the communicants around him. Macular degeneration had taken its toll on Martin’s eyes, but he still looked right at you; one morning he told me I was gorgeous.

The year Martin added us to his Christmas mailing list I felt privileged. There he stood on the cover of a card with his much younger lover, both bare-chested men wearing aprons besmeared with the statue of David, minus the head. It made you look twice: two ripped nude males holding hands—oh, wait. Very clever, Martin. That card was a gesture of trust reaching beyond the mere exchanging of peace.

It was not to be taken lightly: Martin had many more reasons to mistrust people around him. On one occasion he boldly put a question to a guest lecturer during the weekly education hour at our cathedral church—an hour programmed for reflection and inquiry, a thing Episcopalians pride themselves on. A church poster campaign at the time even trumpeted this cherished ethos, holding up the Apostle Thomas as an exemplar—it’s okay to doubt, and to ask questions—Thomas did. This lecturer, though, was unaccustomed to Martin’s unrelenting style and plowed over the question with an evasive answer. Martin stood up: I really want to know the answer! There was nervous tittering. Martin even giggled at himself. The lecturer kept on going. NO, Martin insisted. I REALLY WANT TO KNOW! I turned and looked at him, this bold eccentric, all around him people gazing at the floor in embarrassment, a few rolling their eyes. None of it was lost on a courageous and savvy, old blind man, who eventually fell silent and sat down while the lecturer kept going. I narrowed my eyes at the lecturer, thinking uncharitable thoughts: either answer the man’s question, you blowhard, or admit you don’t know.

Now I am sitting in Martin’s compact townhome’s tiny living room, where so much artwork hangs on the walls you’d be hard-pressed to find a square inch of empty space. Male nudes are everywhere, in any style you can name, even in the first-floor bathroom—a ‘lifetime supply’ an irreverent neighbor later observed. My boy and I sit here and eat cookies and pass a little time with an engaging person who reminds me of my beloved great grandmother, who would have applauded Martin’s tenacity that morning in church. Martin is a treasure, I am thinking, like my great grandmother was: each of them storytellers, each blind by the time they reached this milestone in their lives, each so courageous in the face of adversity. Wouldn’t it be something if their paths had crossed at some point, I think.

Later I spotted him walking down the gravel path on the main thoroughfare in our old neighborhood, a wide boulevard with a generous median. Hey, Martin, it’s me, I hollered. He recognized my voice. Martin, is that a flower pot on your head? He removed the upside-down basket with a wide lip on it and grinned and hollered back that it worked better at keeping the sun off his face than any of his other hats. You be careful out here, Martin.

Now I am worrying about him a little, an aged blind man walking alone in a neighborhood where traffic often moves too fast. Then I remember this is Martin-the-Eccentric, Martin-the-Fearless. Martin, who would never let a trifling thing like traffic, or judge-y church parishioners, or humorless math teachers—or blindness—stand in the way of his bold, adventuresome mind.

Sunday Photo Essay: Remnants of the Adelphi

Wish You Were Here

Broadway is the main drag in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, a smallish upstate city with a distinctly urban feel and an appealing quirkiness that defines so many downtown districts coming into their own after a period of modern-day decline. A city with so much going for it—named for the mineral water that flows beneath it, possessing bragging rights to a Thoroughbred racing legacy reaching back to the Civil War, to say nothing of its art and culture (it’s been New York City Ballet’s summer home for decades)—can surely survive any old decline short of a post-apocalyptic zombie invasion.

And so it seems she will. The historic Adelphi Hotel built on Broadway in 1877 is slated to reopen this summer after a long renovation. Give me any structure with a past worth revisiting and I’m in—I’ll probably never patronize the Adelphi except perhaps for a cocktail sometime or other. But now I own a little piece of it.

Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I spent a pleasant while in a nondescript Clifton Park, NY warehouse fingering the remnants of the historic Adelphi at the everything’s-gotta-go tag sale. The first sale was some five years ago, when the hotel’s new investors bought the crumbling grand dame, “the last surviving hotel from the 19th century,” goes the Wiki entry. We suspect these were the leftovers siphoned off in a single lot to an estate liquidator, the picked-over artifacts after the ‘good’ stuff was gone. We were hopeful but realistic.

Blue Willow for days

What we found after browsing the mostly boring modern commercial kitchenware was no less than magical, a treasure trove of artwork with stories to tell. Some of it surely hung on the walls in the Adelphi’s common areas, some probably in the guest rooms. Most of it was in bad shape, every stitch of it spoke to me through broken glass and dismembered picture frames. I can only guess what must have gone before it, but these tattered scraps held so much appeal.

A Serious Affair
I will sit here with my hat on my velvet knickers while you simultaneously spin wool, chat with me, and read your book
I am pretty sure this is against union rules
Hate wearing dresses
Giselle Act I, perhaps?
Cherubim and Seraphim
Cupid’s Slow Day
The Birth of Ballet
Dance Master

That last one followed me home—how could I say no? It will need some revitalization and shall have it in due course. I wanted the one above it, too, but together the two of them exceeded my paltry, self-imposed budget. Plus, I had to have a little Blue Willow. A woman behind me asked why I was not getting both pictures and I said I was finished, but went on to explain to her how the image perfectly captured the provenance of the movement that still defines classical ballet today. She bought the picture for herself. And HCB found himself salt and pepper shakers to add to his burgeoning collection.

This morning I had the best coffee ever.

Perfect Cup

Manchester by the Sea: Reflections on the Human Condition

No one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.—Julia Sugarbaker

I chide my twenty-something for goading me to watch horror films with him when we’re together. Twice he succeeded some years ago, once for The Ring (do not go there, gentle reader), and again for The Strangers, which is less horror than psycho thriller; these victories have fueled his hope for the future. I was talked into The Strangers because of its cast (could any Liv Tyler movie be all bad?), but by the end felt so wounded I’ll never revisit it, ditto the Merle Haggard standard “Mama Tried,” spine chilling now thanks to the movie. The Strangers came into our living room on the heels of an especially horrific week in my erstwhile family life; I watched it with my boy on the sofa next to me because it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

But I digress. I’m not a fan of horror because of its lingering effects: being deliberately scared seems emotionally expensive, damaging, and pointless. A friend once made a similar observation about sadness—there is so much of it everywhere in the world, why on earth would you want to provoke it on purpose?

I can think of some occasions where you should. The Holocaust Memorial Museum is an example, a reminder of an important chapter none of us should forget, ever. Going demands an emotional commitment—a willingness to embrace melancholy for the rest of the day anyway, and most likely longer: you will not emerge from that experience and then shout, Who wants ice cream! (And I would urge any family touring our nation’s capital to save it for the last day if it’s on your itinerary.)

We dipped into sadness Friday night, although I’m not sure we knew we were headed there at first, HCB and I. He brought home Manchester by the Sea after I mentioned I wanted to see it. Somewhere I’d watched the trailer or part of it, where a reluctant uncle found himself the unexpected guardian of his teenage nephew, and I somehow concluded this would be an uplifting and redemptive story. And I’d heard a scene on NPR that felt tragically comic, about frozen chicken and a frozen human corpse and the well-intentioned uncle trying to navigate his way through a teenager meltdown. At least it struck me as comic at the time.

Manchester by the Sea is instead a tragedy through and through—Shakespeare would be proud. You can find situational comedy in it to be sure; catharsis saves us in the end, because life without it is unthinkable after all. But stylistically you’d probably call this movie realist cinema, after the painting style where the artist leaves little to the imagination, exposing the subject unapologetically and without romantic flourishes (the movie’s score is haunting, at least). Or if you likened it to architecture you might call it brutalist.

The real genius of Manchester by the Sea lies in its character development. We understand the protagonist Lee Chandler because we’ve met him: the quiet apartment building maintenance man in Boston (could be anywhere), a working class hero wound tight as a drum, volatility simmering just beneath his calm demeanor. The movie wastes no time revealing this character trait. But as flawed as he is, you still find yourself in his corner, proof positive of a plausible and vulnerable character well played. Nor is Chandler merely flawed, he is ruined, the cause of ruination revealed to us over the course of the movie in a series of artful flashbacks. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee Chandler is brilliant: you can’t avert your gaze for the duration.

An undercurrent of substance abuse weaves its way through the plot, too, the scourge of our time. But the story is finally less about the physical and emotional consequences of addiction than it is about unbearable grief and damage to the human spirit, so profound in this character he is finally too frail to fulfill his emotional obligations to the people around him—he is damaged beyond repair.

The movie resonated with me more now than it might have five years ago, before I moved to New England and got the lay of the land, and observed the palpable effects of a failed economy (worse here than down South) and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the region. There is also a vulgarity in the common man here that would make even my endearingly shameless Irish grandmother blush were she alive today: if you do not know these people personally, you’ve at least stood shoulder to shoulder with them in line at the grocery store. Dropping the F-bomb is a way of life in some New England towns (Vermont is no exception), and you’re well advised not to ask anybody to put a sock in it, like I nearly did one afternoon at a local discount store before I thought better of it.

‘Crazy’ (or neurotic, if you prefer) is a trait that lies on a continuum from manageable to psychotic, but that most of us possess if we’re being honest, even if we’d rather not shine a light on it. There is a kernel of truth to the quip about Southerners parading around crazy and handing it a cocktail instead of hiding it in the attic. But in the Northeast, at least as portrayed in Manchester by the Sea, we understand the kind of crazy that comes after an unthinkable tragedy strikes for which there is no one to blame but yourself, can only seethe beneath the surface, erupting now and again in bits and pieces—in coarse language, in the occasional barroom brawl, and in frozen chicken mishaps, like a fault line belching out small tremors: at some point it will snap, as surely as a damaged soul somewhere beaten down by life will finally give up.

Most of us who’ve had time to live a little understand this story and know firsthand about permanent emotional damage—nobody is exempt from the human condition. But can there be a yardstick to measure the damage? High blood pressure? Cancer, or some other insidious disease? Years shaved from one’s life, which was so full of hope when it began? Or does significant emotional damage simply make you go mad over time? And if you did find a benchmark to measure the damage, how to fix it? There is no surgery, or neutralizing tincture for some kinds of crazy. But maybe there is more healing after all in parading it around than in hiding it in the attic.

Manchester by the Sea is worth your while if you’re willing to devote an evening to a little thoughtful sorrow; I suggest salty snacks and a good bottle of wine to soften the blow.

Simple Living versus Excess (or How Not to be Insufferable)

iceonbattenkill
Ice Formations on the Battenkill

It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.

scoutdiscoversgeese

Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.

Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.

I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.

Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.

Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.

After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.

Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.

But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.

My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.

By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.

I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.

I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.

But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.

Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during migration attempts during the 1980s
Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during the migration attempts of the 1980s

Art is the Consolation Prize…

art_consolation

…for the human condition.

Catchy, isn’t it? I can claim it only partly. Came to me in the car, where all profound thoughts outside the shower do, while I listened to the inimitable Meryl Streep discuss her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie named the same. Jenkins was a real-life character, a New York heiress notorious for her pronounced ineptitude as a singer but shameless resolve to sing nonetheless. (No one, before or since, wrote one historian, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.) I can’t quote Ms. Streep directly, but she did mention the word “consolation” in reference to art and its effect on us as a species, whatever talents and gifts may elude us. She’s spot on about that: when the world comes crashing down around you, there is art to pull you from the rubble, a joyous ray of hope fighting its way through the plumes of dust.

If you were a liberal arts major in college chances are excellent you took at least one survey course in anthropology, where you learned about the emergence of art on the timeline of humanity. But for those who did not, who among you has never seen cave paintings like the ones discovered in 1940 at Lascaux? They’re estimated to be as old as 17,000 years, which in the grand scheme of things is not old at all; earlier examples have been discovered elsewhere. Nor have they escaped Disney’s pop culture canvas, as any self-respecting five-year-old can tell you.

But when you were sitting in that survey course you probably also learned that art came later, after the rather more pressing business of survival. Art, our professors opined, was what separated civilized societies from the rest, societies who’d figured out how to grow things to eat, and then store food for later. Art was a glowing beacon that announced, We have time on our hands—looky what we can do while the rest of you are out there driving bison herds off cliffs.

And that is precisely why losing the great art and architecture of the world to natural and unnatural forces alike is so tragic. And why leaders who champion the arts tend to govern great societies who collectively hold the arts in high esteem. And why steeping our children in the arts is so important, and why singing or dancing or painting or playing an instrument, even badly, is so utterly worthwhile.

Art holds sway over us all, whether or not we recognize its power (so much power it inspires love on one end of the continuum, and despicable acts of intolerance on the other, to say nothing of garden-variety controversy between those two extremes). It does not matter where or how you found art, whether it defined your life from the get-go, or you stumbled across it later on. It only matters that you found this beautiful thing for which climbing down from the trees was worth risking our necks: it elevates us as a species. No time like the present to elevate ourselves—in the end, art may be more than our consolation prize—art, the arts, may finally be our salvation.

A Day at the Museum: MASS MoCA

Every small-to-midsize Massachusetts town I’ve had occasion to drive through or visit these last three years seems to possess a seamy industrial underbelly, more often than not in plain view of historic dwellings in varied states of loving restoration or decline, depending. (Second Empire is hands-down my favorite iteration of the Victorian style, and it is everywhere in these parts.) There is palpable evidence of renewed life in some urban centers where the recent past has not been kind, others are not yet there. The decline of American manufacturing and industry echoes in grand industrial buildings where architects once paid exquisite attention to detail: you can see it still, even where windows are replaced by plywood or missing altogether, and rotted foundations are betrayed as far aloft as rooflines.

Mass Moca 35 a

Give me gritty nineteenth century industrial buildings and a jaw-dropping collection of modern art any day of the week—is there a better combination of the built environment and our own creative thumbprint? MASS MoCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—occupies a campus of some 26 of these buildings (not all of them yet renovated), every bit the attraction as the art collections therein. The buildings themselves were home to the Sprague Electric Company from 1942 to 1985 (maker of weapons systems during the war and consumer electronics in peacetime), and Arnold Print Works prior to that, a Civil War-era textiles company whose fingers reached into the modern manufacturing era. A squat building at the entrance to the sprawling campus still bears a rusted sign reminding employees to present identification before entering.

Mass Moca 34 a

HCB and I spent an indulgent Saturday there; it was a spiritually and intellectually nourishing day. Standouts for me were Clifford Ross’ Landscape Seen and Imagined photography exhibit (I have not felt so moved by photography since my introduction to the work of Ansel Adams in the early 1980s), and Jim Shaw’s bizarre but evocative collection, Entertaining Doubts, which included an honest portrayal of his own father’s immersion in a 1950s correspondence school to learn how to draw. Knowing that piece of his past somehow made his own art feel more accessible.

Mass Moca 56 a

I could not pull my eyes away from the main building itself, a delicious new detail around every corner. You can’t touch the art in a museum; there are no rules about touching walls and windows and doors. My past as a student of historical archaeology urges me to touch everything, and I did. And I was delighted to find tell-tale striations of original, early glass through which the outside world appeared distorted in a pleasing way.

There was music in surprise places: a bluegrass band in a freight elevator followed visitors up and down with a serenade in tight quarters; my camera could not deal with the darkness in the confined black box, but I still loved the unintentional movement in the photos I made. Another appealing Celtic ensemble entertained visitors in the museum café.

It was a beautiful day, bumper to bumper. Hat tip to my friend Margaret for the alert to the free admission.

Mass Moca 5 a

Mass Moca 7 a

Mass Moca 6 a

Mass Moca 1 a

Mass Moca 3 a

Mass Moca 11 a

Mass Moca 17 a

Mass Moca 19 a

Mass Moca 28 a

Mass Moca 25 a

Mass Moca 27 a

Mass Moca 23 a

Mass Moca 22 a

Mass Moca 12 a

Mass Moca 9 a

Mass Moca 10 a

Mass Moca 36 a

Mass Moca 47 a

Mass Moca 16 a

Mass Moca 26 a

Mass Moca 59 a

Mass Moca 32 a

Mass Moca 33 a

Mass Moca 41 a

Mass Moca 43 a

Mass Moca 20 a

Mass Moca 15 a

Mass Moca 29 a

All images of artwork in this post are of works currently on exhibit at MASS MoCA.

Homecoming Finale: In the Company of Artists

Jonesborough 4

That is one Gwynn Root, a beautiful professional ballerina who currently dances for Festival Ballet in Providence, Rhode Island, although she has danced professionally with several other companies in her career to date. Here she is more recently, with Festival this past summer, in an image from the WaterFire Providence website:

Gwynn Festival

I met Gwynn eight or nine years ago, just as she was preparing to embark on her life as a dancer; the connection was my mom, who was and is still occasionally Gwynn’s coach. In the intervening years since our first meeting I’ve had the great privilege of also meeting and spending time with Gwynn’s family, who are among the most talented DNA-sharing people I know. Gwynn’s mom and dad are artists, Peggy and Tom Root, Peggy known mainly for her lush landscapes, and Tom for his incredible portraiture. Tom made that picture of Gwynn when she was little and uses it on a professional brochure.

And there is also younger brother Charles, probably the most gifted twelve-year-old kid I’ve ever encountered. He comes by it honestly.

They are also quite possibly the kindest people I know. I really, really miss the Roots. When HCB and I started planning our Way Down South trip, I suggested we set aside a day to go and see them (all except Gwynn, who had already launched for the fall season in Providence) in their home city of Jonesborough, TN. If you have never heard of Jonesborough, you should know it holds the distinction of being the oldest town in the state (challenged by some), and also the storytelling capital of the world.

Amazingly, despite having grown up in Tennessee and living there most of my life, I had never been to Jonesborough. I wanted to go there to see the Roots, to see their new art school on Main Street, and to see the town. And to have another chance to spend a few moments with my mom and her husband and their young daughter Grace (who is officially and incredibly my 50-years-younger sister).

So that is what we did. Peggy opened up her huge, huge heart and the school to host a potluck lunch for us. Mom and Peggy did all the work, we did none of it. It was incredibly incovenient, and they were unbelievably gracious to do it.

Jonesborough 1

Jonesborough 1

Jonesborough 3

That’s Grace, who needed to sample some of the chocolate cake she helped bake for this event. She needed to sample it often.

Charles was also able to join us. I shot one photo of him, which does not represent his demeanor at all, but does capture his handsomeness (the Roots are all beautiful people).

Jonesborough 9

It was a bright, hot summer afternoon in the South, and I think that is clear in Charles’ expression. He is growing up in a way that is rare indeed these days, with ready access to the businesses that dot Jonesborough’s Main Street, ducking into them as time and temperament allow, helping out when he is needed. Everybody knows Charles. It is a wholesome existence that is a throwback to another time. Not surprisingly, he is already an accomplished musician and artist. This is a piece inspired by his sister Gwynn and her life as a dancer. They love each other very much.

Charles Root Dancers

I also had permission to shoot some of the work hanging on the walls at the school.

Jonesborough 6

Jonesborough 5

Jonesborough 5

And my own handsome son B continued his theme of selfie photo bombing.

We abandoned ship when Tom came in to set up an afternoon session with his students.

Jonesborough 25

Which was the perfect opportunity for chocolate from the shop adjacent to the art school.

Jonesborough 3

Jonesborough 4

And then Peggy (who somehow escaped my camera lens) walked up and down Main Street with us. For me, this was a delicious, indulgent sampling of the vernacular architecture I love so much, led by someone who knows the town intimately.

Jonesborough 8

Jonesborough 10

Jonesborough 11

Jonesborough 12

Jonesborough 13

Jonesborough 14

Jonesborough 15

Jonesborough 17

Jonesborough 18

Jonesborough 19

Jonesborough 20

Jonesborough 21

HCB, B and I made a brief detour to the visitors’ center just up the road, where we saw the beautiful mural painted by none other than Tom and Peggy.

Jonesborough 23

And had a moment for a quick game of checkers.

Jonesborough 24

And sadly it was time to say goodbye, but not before a brief chat with Gwynn when she called mer mama.

We finished our day, and our whirlwind tour of East Tennessee, with barbecue at one of B’s favorite eateries:

IMG_20150920_074649

Yes, it was pretty damned amazing. But bittersweet. I hate saying goodbye to my son. I really hate living a thousand miles from him.

That was Friday. Saturday morning launch for Vermont came early, but before we left Tennessee for who-knows-how-long ’til our next visit, we stopped by mom’s to get some of my things she had been storing for me. And I was able to wrestle this out of her hands:

IMG_20151011_195211

It is one of Peggy’s. Mom agreed to make it my Christmas present, a wee bit early.

Our Way Down South trip was stressful, fun, emotional, exhausting. It was important to do. There are things I miss about the South, others not so much. I hope to flesh out these thoughts more.

I’ve spent the last three days in the company of artists from all over the country, about which more very soon.

 

 

Homecoming, Part the Second

IMG_20150907_194244

It is beyond me how 1000 miles disappear so quickly in the rear view mirror, or how four days dissolve in what feels like a half hour. It’s what has transpired in the intervening hours since 2:30 Saturday morning when Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I began our long drive south to see family and friends, some for the first time in three years. And for HCB to see the gaping hole left by the taproot I yanked up three years ago. And just to get out of Vermont for a few days and shake off the cobwebs and stretch our legs. The sun rose Saturday morning in Pennsylvania.

I wish we had more time already and we’re only now settling into my erstwhile hometown of Knoxville for a few days. I have so many thoughts about the landscape between the place I call home now, and the one I once did. And a desire to learn more about the vernacular Dutch architecture that dots the Pennsylvania countryside, a place that blurs the lines between North and South. The moment the first cheerful “How are you’uns?” washed over our weary selves snuck up on us. Some thoughts are gone already, some I may be able to reclaim. It feels like we’ve crammed months into hours.

Partly by design (and the balance geography) we started in Highlands, NC, where the small cottage that served as a happy vacation home in the last chapter of my life stands forgotten and neglected, suffering, awaiting its unknown fate. We went to check on things and reclaim a few belongings. I knew it would be hard, and would bring raw emotions to the surface. It did that in spades. I did not make photos of the house, but I did the landscape, seen above and below, and a busy intersection of a town teeming with new life and new young families. I no longer have a life there, but I hope its vibrant pulse bodes well for the future. An unlikely encounter with a favorite babysitter and her own young family felt perfect: my son was with us on this leg of the trip, and the reunion with the person who first introduced us to Highlands—in Highlands itself—brought much needed poetry to an otherwise difficult and emotional day.

IMG_20150907_173534

IMG_20150907_194402

IMG_20150907_194059

Bentley 9.6.15

The Ocoee River Gorge hems you in for mile upon serpentine mile, the river on one side, sheer rock walls and gnarled outcroppings on the other, the instability looming overhead urging you to keep your foot on the gas and both hands on the wheel. After a while you yearn to be let out, walls closing in with the fading light of day. Sunday was an exemplary specimen, the intense late-day sunlight filtered through rain, then late evening darkness gathering quickly, the backdrop for memories recalled along the way and answers to questions unresolved until Chattanooga grandparents could address them later. (What was that sketchy looking thing up on the ridge? A water flume, turns out, been there since the 1930s, carries water to this day.)

IMG_20150907_194643

IMG_20150908_184859

In two days’ time we ate our way through Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dad’s lovely wife shared with us one of her own traditions from the Deep South, biscuits with butter and chocolate. We were in bewildered awe, any doubts I had about properly introducing HCB to Southern cuisine evaporating with the steam coming off the melted confection set before us.

Downtown Chattanooga remains a favorite. The three of us struck out on our own for a day at the Tennessee Aquarium and some walking. Devices are a foregone conclusion; life—aquatic, avian, insect, and even human—could still hold sway over them from time to time.

IMG_20150907_194820

Aquarium 1

Aquarium 2

Aquarium 3

Aquarium 4

Aquarium 5

Aquarium 6

I have everything to learn about making beautiful photographs with my new-old camera, even more about capturing motion. But I was able to pet a moving sturgeon, and that is something.

Aquarium 7

Climbing from the Aquarium into Chattanooga’s Bluff View Art District is worth sweaty knees and elbows, as is a late afternoon at Rembrandt’s for coffee and handmade chocolate; but chocolate does not always hold sway over devices.

IMG_20150907_195012

Hunter Museum

IMG_20150907_195158

IMG_20150907_195321

Back at our hosts’ home there was not enough porch time for this Southern girl, but I am especially fond of the porch itself, which emphatically does not hold sway over devices.

IMG_20150908_185102

In all fairness to the boy, he had just snapped several amzing photos of this incredible porch-time interloper; this is my photo, which paled in comparison to his:

IMG_20150908_184742

IMG_20150908_184626

That’s my dad and his lovely, gracious wife; I think they look great. My dad knows so much about so many things. Water flumes built at the top of the Occoe Gorge during the Great Depression, the history and evolution of the Cavalier Furniture Company, WWII-era aircraft, the whereabouts of the nearest Krystal burger: he’s your man for all this and so much more. I hope like heck it’s not another three years before we see them again.

We’re already on the next page of this nine-day-long story; ’til soon.