On Sensory Pleasures, Writing in the Air and also William Blake

If you see me walking down the street, and you are very observant, you will notice two things: I’m gently frowning (this is something that I will need to work on as I stare down the barrel of my 40th birthday; it’s definitely going to stick that way); and my fingers are subtly moving, as if they are on a keyboard.

This “air typing” is a dead giveaway that I’m composing in my head.  In fact,  I often don’t realize I’ve made the shift from non-specific fretting and planning to something more creative until I notice my hands doing their little keyboard dance.

[N.B. I really want to emphasize the delicacy of this movement. When my fingers are doing this maneuver, my hands are where they naturally fall at my side -- not poised  in front of me bunny-like. I really do try to avoid looking like a total maniac when I'm out and about.]

The connection between composing words and moving my hands across a keyboard is now hardwired in my brain, although this wasn’t ever thus.  As mentioned, I’m about to turn 40, and so I’m a member of the last generation who did not start and end every piece of writing by tapping on a computer keyboard.

When I started my writing career waaaaaaaay back in the day when there was  this thing called “paper,” I composed first on a legal pad, with a pen — and then I moved to the computer.  (I did use an actual typewriter in high school for term papers, but that’s because I was a deprived child. Many of my peers did have word processors and computers.)

It took me a few years to get comfortable with composing rough and first drafts on a computer, but that was a long time ago, and now I really can’t do it any other way. I do sometimes still write on paper, but that’s because it forces me to slow down — it takes me at least twice as long to write a sentence with a pen than it does to type it.

And also,  I enjoy the feeling of a writing implement on paper. When I don’t write on paper for a long while, I miss it. There’s something that has always seemed strange to me about the sensory deprivation of contemporary writing — no scent of ink, no sound of an eraser, no feel of the tooth or gloss of the paper,  even after a piece is published.

I’m not saying I would trade those tactile pleasures for the inconveniences of writing in a pre-computer age — I’m really quite  happy that I’ve been able to rearrange the sentence you’re now reading three or 12 times without having to retype the whole thing. But over the past year I’ve become aware that I really do want to feel more of a connection between creativity and an actual, tangible, physical something.

If you think about it, there really isn’t that much of a sensory difference between typing in the air and typing on a keyboard — especially if that keyboard is a piece of glass, as it is on iDevices.

Stein Drypoint Plate

I’ve been studying visual art for the better part of this year. I’ve tried my hand at silverpoint and collage, I’ve painted with acrylic, oil, watercolor and gouache. I’ve made boxes, I’ve made books, I’ve learned to make paper from a t-shirt, I’ve operated a letterpress, and a solder torch.  This is all so different from the work I’ve done in my adult life, which has really been about using a keyboard to arrange pixels around a screen in exchange for money.

I’ve found myself drawn most to art forms that provide the most haptic feedback — etching into a piece of plastic with a scribe for a drypoint, gouging out a woodcut, pulling a threaded needle through fabric. It all just feels so fucking good.

But as I’ve spent more time on the visual arts, I’ve realized that there’s a certain experience that writing provides me, that no other art form has been able to replicate. This is not a sensory experience, per se, but it does produce a certain feeling that does seem almost physical, whether I’m typing on a keyboard, or using a pen or pencil.  When I’ve gripped onto an inchoate idea that I’m trying to render in words that another human will read and understand, I’m mentally pushing against something that feels like an entity. And entity that resists, until it yields.  And when it gives…it feels extra fucking good.

(Dirty minded readers are reminded to lift their minds from the gutter at this time.)

And so after due consideration, I’ve decided that out of all the notable figures in literature and art, it was William Blake who really had it right. Poet and printmaker, writer and visual artist. He wrote:

Till she who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes? and must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?

Okay, he wrote that in an entirely different context. And I will agree that I can no longer be fairly said to “burn with youth.”  (Maybe I’m still slightly singed?) But what I’ve decided he’s saying here is this: there’s really no need to choose one good thing, whether it’s the haptics of visual art, or the deep thought of writing. I’m choosing a life where I can have both.

Regarding My Lie About the Three Cats

“Yes, I have a cat,” I said to the gentleman taking me out on a first date.

It was out of my mouth so fast that I heard it when he did — a lie that came out so smoothly, so confidently, that it would have been awkward to immediately amend.

I’m pretty sure that I didn’t bring up the subject of felines, although maybe I did. The truth is that I do have a cat.

And I also have two others.

In fact, in total I have three cats, a reality that only became uncomfortable to me when I became single. Three cats didn’t seem so extreme to me when I was married, and living in a house that could easily accommodate three cats. (Although that is also a bit of an exaggeration, since my marriage played out in apartments more often than in houses…but at the end we were living in a house.) We got our first cat in college, then we got another cat to keep the first one company, and then we had to adopt the sweet cat with the missing leg. I drew the line at three cats.

Catlas

So it was for a number of years, he and me and the cats that numbered three. When they got old and started dying, each loss seemed unbearable, and by then, three cats seemed right to me, it just seemed like regular life. We adopted our way back up to three cats.

Immediately after our separation, there was some talk of my ex taking one of the cats — but I decided against that plan when I learned that he had another woman. You’ve had enough pussy, I declared. (I actually didn’t, but I totally should have!)

Anyway, the reality of being a single woman with three cats is somewhat different than being a married with the same pet complement. It’s not that three cats are so much more daily work for me to handle than one, although there is a bit of that. It’s not even that it would be very hard for me to evacuate the three living creatures in my apartment, plus myself, in the event of an emergency, although it would be. It’s that having three cats and no husband makes me seem a little insane. It makes me seem like a crazy cat lady.

Catlas

Life for me is much like what is described in A Man and His Cat,  a most-emailed essay by Tim Kreider, about a man and his close relationship with his cat. I identified with a lot of it – that my home is never empty, that the interior lives of the cats I share the house with is often interesting, sometimes zany – like why did Henry decide that it would be a good idea to squeeze himself inside the pillow case, along with the pillow, this morning?

But I also thought that it was an essay that would not have been published, had it been written by a woman. There is something especially clichéd pathetic about being a single woman and having a cat, that does not apply to being a single male cat owner. It strikes me as the difference between the two words applied to single men and single women respectively: bachelor and spinster*.

And yes, these are outmoded gender roles. But I’m not sure why, when you hear about a lady and her cat(s) that what leaps to mind is a cat who is prickly and solitary and hard to know, and not a sleek sexy cat costume, not Eartha Kitt? And when there is more than one cat in the mix — or heavens, more than two — why does it speak to some sort of a deep hunger for connection, some kind of a collection of ersatz connections to replace the “real” human kind?

Kreider talks about this in his essay: “I’ve speculated that people have a certain reservoir of affection that they need to express, and in the absence of any more appropriate object — a child or a lover, a parent or a friend — they will lavish that same devotion on a pug or a Manx or a cockatiel, even on something neurologically incapable of reciprocating that emotion, like a monitor lizard or a day trader or an aloe plant.”

My instinct here is to reject this assertion by protesting that I had plenty of connection when these cats were adopted, and don’t really lack for that today. (And as for the question of cats being inappropriate substitutes for the children I’ve not yet summonded forth from my own uterus… I’ll leave that topic for another day.) But then I will say that I have decided that I will not be replacing two of this crew of three whenever they make their final exits, whatever my marital status or living situation. (Okay, maybe I won’t replace one of the three…you really can’t trust my first take on this subject at all.)

Catlas

So back to my first date lie. I nonchalantly corrected it  on the second date, casually worked into the conversation the phase actually I have three cats. And it didn’t make much of a ripple. So could it be that the notion of being a crazy cat lady is…all in my mind? And if so: does that make me even crazier?

*I recently learned that the word “spinster” didn’t always have a negative connotation. A woman who could spin wool was able to support herself and therefore was not forced into marriage by financial exigencies.  If she married it was because she wanted to.

On the Tragedy of Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr.

My guess is that most people who read about the death of race car driver Kevin Ward Jr. in the New York Times  over their breakfast this morning have never been to  Canandaigua Motorsports Park, the upstate New York race track where he died.

The circumstances of Ward’s death were notable because while the track calls itself “The Land of Legends,”  most of the drivers there are not superstars, or even full time racers. But that night, there did happen to be a big whoop racer on the track, NASCAR’s Tony Stewart.  He was “getting back to his roots” on a local track, “known for his hot temper” and so as the night went on there inevitably was a crash, Ward got out of his car to confront Stewart, and it seems that Stewart accidentally ran him over. An investigation is underway

It is tragic. And it also has all the makings of a classic tragedy which is why the national media is all over it. I’m sure a made-for-TV movie is being pitched at this very moment.

As I read about this accident in my apartment in Greenwich Village, I remembered the nights that I spent at Canandaigua. I’m quite sure that most people did not arrive for the races as I did: armed with a container filled with vegetable curry and a copy of Vogue. In what should have been an early sign of incompatibility that would not fully play itself out for another couple of decades, my college boyfriend was in the pits enthusiastically preparing a friend’s race car. I was there being a good girlfriend. After it got too dark to read, I would spend the first of many nights trying to find something of interest in the evening’s proceedings.

This was not a minor passion of this man I’d hitched up with, he thought about racing constantly, watched it obsessively, could think of nothing better to do on a summer Saturday than spend it at the track. I tried to get it, and to be supportive.  I sometimes accomplished this with more or less grace.

Anyway, whether it was Formula One, NASCAR, or the dirt tracks of upstate New York, like Canandaigua, during the hours and hours of my life that I spent at the races, I would fight deep boredom and discomfort. These races stretch on for multiple hours, they are loud – ear plugs are a good idea – and if it’s a dirt track, messy. If you open your mouth to yawn or speak, by the end of the night your teeth will be coated with fine grit.  In the early parts of the night, I could entertain myself by observing the brightly colored paint jobs on the cars, but once they started moving and dissolved into a noisy giant blur I would retreat into my own thoughts, and keep an eye on the lap counter, calculating how much longer it would be until we could go home.

Racing is obviously popular and has many true fans – I’m sure no one in those grandstands was ever as bored as I was. But upon learning of my then-husband’s passion, almost every other person we ever met in an urban context would struggle to understand what he found so fascinating about cars going around in circles on a track. I struggled to explain, but my best answer is this: when I spoke to less sophisticated people about what they enjoyed about auto racing, they’d often acknowledge that what they found most interesting about the sport was the crashes.

I’m not arguing that racing is a snuff sport, but this is why some of the handwringing that goes on post-driver-fatality, as is happening today, strikes me as disingenuous. Crashes are not an anomaly in motorsports, but a part of the plan. Drivers count on a certain number of “cautions” – periods of time post-accident when the racing stops and the cars creep around the track while the debris is cleared – to handle their routine car maintenance during an event.

Any fan that lives a considered life would have to realize that the practical guarantee to witness a crash and its aftermath during a night of racing is part of the reason why they buy a ticket. Driving is the most dangerous activity most of us will ever do in life — and we humans are inveterate rubberneckers, fascinated by what might take us out.

During a race, the crash is classic Aristotelian catharsis, the release of powerful emotions through a build up of pity and fear. Ordinary life is disrupted when the cars collide, often spectacularly, with a car flipping or catching fire or seemingly disintegrating into tiny crumpled pieces of sheet metal. (I learned over the years that the worst the car looks, the better off the driver, since the car absorbed the impact.) The moments after the crash occurs, people in the stands tell each other what happened, while the white clad track officials and safety officials in yellow run towards the afflicted car or cars. The crowd hushes if the ambulance which is always on hand flips on its lights, or cheers if the driver climbs out of the window unscathed and waves at the crowd.

 It’s beyond dispute that the governing organizations of these race series give safety a lot of thought. The drivers wear fireproof underwear, they have various different head and neck restraints and complicated seat belts, to say nothing of the way the cars themselves re designed. But none of this prevents accidents, or fatal ones, and no safety measures really help if you get out of your car and walk on the track, as Ward did on Saturday night in Canandaigua.

But that, too, is part of the ongoing drama, part of the appeal of watching the cars go ‘round in their circles. The rage the drivers feel upon being hit, the way that they fight after – who hasn’t wanted to throw a punch at a person who cuts them off on the highway? Part of the outrage is the risk the accident poses to the driver; part of what’s at stake is life itself. No one who went to Canandaigua last Saturday night hoping to see a kid get killed – in fact, they wanted to watch everyone tempt death, evade it and go home safe. But the chance that it might happen is at least an important part of racing’s appeal. As this Stewart/ Ward drama plays out, that’s important to acknowledge.

Finding Beauty in the July 4th Trash

Independence Day Three times in my life I have moved into apartments that were, to some extent, trashed.

The first apartment that I lived in with my college boyfriend turned out to be the place where all the black flies in the county came to die. It also initially had no running water, and we had to walk to the gas station when we needed facilities.

Years later, I moved back into the apartment I grew up in, after it had been occupied for some years by my mentally ill former stepfather.  {An essay about him is here.} And after my divorce I moved into the apartment that had been my grandparent’s place in Greenwich Village. It had only been neglected for a couple of decades.

Trash can be cleared away; a new life can be fashioned in the wreckage.  I’m pretty good at taking a look around at a crime scene and saying, okay, so what can we do with this?

By the way, that’s also the work of an essayist.  Two quotes I repeat often: “Only trouble is interesting,” wrote Janet Burroway, “Everything is copy,” said Nora Ephron  (“Copy”, in the old hard boiled journalist use of the word, means “written material”.) She also said “I feel bad for the people who don’t at some point understand that there’s something funny in even the worst things that can happen to you.”

Recipe for Writing (and perhaps Life?):

  • Take one (1)  shitty thing that happens to you.
  • Gain distance.
  • Fashion it into something that helps you understand it and helps others too.

Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of rehabilitation projects. But it’s a lesson that life keeps on handing to me, so I guess I better pay attention. The most recent iteration was at Kripalu over Independence Day weekend, where I took a painting and collage workshop with Linda Novick.

On the first day, we worked with oil pastels and water color in a resist technique. You put down a layer of the oil pastels, and then cover it water color, and the pastel repels the water in interesting ways.

I resisted this resist technique. I didn’t like what I did at all; I thought it was stupid and gaudy.  So the next day, when the task was to make a quick and dirty collage on cardboard, I eagerly teared up my pieces of resistance and said: now what can we do with this? And how quickly can I get it over with?

To my surprise, I ended up working on it for a long time and liking what resulted. I  bootleg bound it into this asymmetrical, pageless, wordless book.

Independence Day 2

This is the back:

Independence Day 4

It was only after I finished it that I realized how much the front piece looked like fireworks… and that this piece was really about Independence Day, my second least favorite holiday on the calendar because it has twice been the occasion of big life changes.

So the book is called “Independence Day.” It’s both uneven and unstable — I cut scallops into the bottom of the front cover. It can stand on its own, but only very carefully.

The interior, which you can’t see here, is fairly dark. And then…there’s a more gentle ending with gold and cobalt blue.  Could there actually be a hopeful being alive inside this cynical creature?

Which is the other annoying thing about fashioning something great out of something lousy: you always end up learning something in the process. Often it’s about yourself.

Drawing on Reality

You wake up in the morning, you open your eyes, and you start to have experiences. These experiences may be very ordinary — your cat jumps on your chest on her way to her food bowl, you fry an egg — or you can learn something that cracks your entire world open.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — that the need to function and be sane in this world requires us to filter out almost all the sensory information we receive. We make our mental maps, we basically follow them, and this is how it should be.

The really way-out-of-the-ordinary we note and respond to, but the little bits of ambiguous evidence that could actually point to the fissures leading to the world to crack open…those are discarded along with most of the rest of the actually unimportant. This is what Virginia Woolf called “the cotton wool of daily life.”

In fact, daily life isn’t anything close to cotton wool, but if we saw everything that there is to see, we’d be off rocking in a corner or loading our pockets with stones lickety-damned-split.

[--]

Still, I think it’s better to be awake than asleep, better to see what’s there, better to know the world is ending if it has to do that.

One way to pierce the cotton wool, at least visually, is to learn to draw. This has been my project these past few months, and I have a long way to go.

Let me say now, there is nothing as humbling as learning to draw as an adult, realizing that my hand refuses to follow my eye. Some of that is just my brain making its new connections, and I can feel them  forming slowly in my brain.

But I’ve also been struck by the deeper issue here. People who really know drawing have explained to me that being able to copy what you see is not really the issue. It’s about first see what’s actually there, specifically instead of generally. Not just summarizing: cat, chair, egg. But getting very specific about the black cat with the three legs and the heart condition, the chair that swivels, the brown egg.

And then it’s about interpreting what you see, understanding that drawing is putting marks on a surface to represent experience and more of an investigation of what you’re observing.

I copied this into my sketchbook the other day, from a book by Ron Bowen called Drawing Masterclass.

Our sense of the way we understand is that a kind of form shapes itself around our experience, in which all our observations make sense.

Drawing is the attempt to capture that form, and that context.

Forgetting My Divorce

It’s called a flow state — the condition of total immersion in a project — and I experienced it the other night in art class.

I was working on a piece intensely and after an hour or so, I glanced up at my phone and thought, oh, I need to tell P.  that this is great, but that I will be home soon.

My hand was hovering over my phone when I fully remembered that no, P. was no longer my husband, and that our marriage of sixteen years had ended abruptly some eighteen months previous, that we do not communicate at all anymore…within seconds I re-entered and caught up with full reality.

It was really something to remember it all at once, and it left me feeling shocked and sad. Shocked because this divorce has so occupied my mind that I couldn’t believe I was able to totally forget it had happened entirely, even for an hour.  And sad because I realized that although I have moved on in basically every single conceivable way,  there’s a cellular memory of being married that lingers in my subconscious or unconscious — some deep part of me that has yet to get the memo that the marriage and the relationship has ended.

Napa

It’s funny because  this happened right after I returned from a trip to Napa  — a place we’d vacationed together many years ago, and where I haven’t been since.  I couldn’t remember which wineries we’d visited way back then. I’m sure he remembers; that’s the sort of thing he would remember.

I didn’t just shoot a text over to ask him, of course. For one thing, it would be very weird for me to break a brokered and beneficial silence to ask an unimportant question about a vacation we’d taken many years ago.

For another, I still can’t reconcile my memories of that person– the husband of the Napa trip– with the person he has shown himself to be since our separation. These seem like different people to me entirely.

It’s a weird thing to adjust to: essentially it’s coping with a death while the “deceased” is still alive. I’m doing a good job of it, on a conscious level. But apparently it will take more time for the deeper layers of my psyche to catch up with the fact that the version of the man I remember, the one I’d still like to communicate with — he’s simply gone.

 

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