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.


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.


You Won’t Read More Than Ten Words – So Why Write Them?

Chances are good that most people who read the headline of this post will not read past this sentence.  In fact, if you got to this sentence, it’s a feat of readerly endurance, so congratulations to you.

The latest proof of reader laziness came from a rather brilliant NPR April Fool’s prank on Facebook, in which a click on a  provocative headline (Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore) was followed with this:

Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day!

We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this “story.

Sure enough, the outraged comments piled up.

When I teach, I’m often asked about how long a blog post should be. I’ve previously written about how that standard as shifted with the whims of the Google Algorithm Gods, and how lately this Capricious God irritatingly equates with quality with length.

Irritating not because I dislike comprehensiveness, but because the overwhelming evidence is that very few people stick around for more than a few words. Or, as Farhad Manjoo put it in a Slate piece. “The more I type, the more of you tune out.”

As someone who enjoys wrestling with complex subjects, both as a writer and a reader, I like the freedom of a luxurious word count. Besides, it’s faster and easier to write longer than it is to write short. (“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark Twain.)

But if communication is the goal of writing — and I daresay it is — pragmatists must concede that length isn’t the way to go.

I recently read about the work of artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who has created works designed to draw attention to the problem of street harassment. These are drawn portraits of women responding to men who feel free to comment/”compliment”/harass women, along with captions of retort, i.e. “My Outfit Is Not an Invitation,” or “Women Do Not Owe You Their Time or Conversation.”

I wrote about this issue in a slightly different context for the Washington Post travel section a few years ago, a piece I called The Ass Grab.  I like this piece; it came off well and it generated interesting reactions. But it occurred to me that Fazlalizadeh’s work has a far greater impact and reach than my 1,200 or so words in a newspaper and online.

So what to do? Clearly, I have no intention of giving up on words or only writing captions.  But, I do think that it’s important to learn to translate complex ideas into visual communication, which is why I’m now intensely studying art.  In the past few months, I’ve essentially become a full-time independent art student, piecing together a course of study from the classes and workshops that interest me at the School of Visual Arts, The Art Student’s League, The Center for Book Arts, The International Center for Photography and who knows where else.  If people won’t read more than a caption, I’ll communicate in a different way.

(N.B.: Irony noted, that I’ve chosen to communicate these ideas in 500 words, with no accompanying image.)

Fractured Family Passover Cookbook

Fractured Family Passover Cookbook, Alison Stein 2014

Collage is one of my favorite art forms, because it is so much like writing creative nonfiction, for which you assemble and gather words and stories that exists in other forms – in writing, this would be research from books, studies, extractions from people’s thoughts via interviews.

I’m of course not the first to notice the connection between collage and writing. From The Art of Assemblage, by William Chapin Seitz:

The arrangement of words, each carrying with it an image or an idea surrounded by a vague aura of associations, is close to the method of collage. The poet’s most important tool is the metaphor — the joining together of two things which are different…Because overtones and associations as well as physical materials are placed in juxtaposition, it could almost be said that a constellation of meanings can exist independently of the colors, textures and forms which are its carriers.


A few months ago, I went to the Strand Book Store to plunder the $1 and $2 remaindered books for collage materials. (This was an assignment for a design class I took at the School of Visual Arts.) When I found an old haggadah – that’s a guidebook for running a Passover seder — I immediately knew I’d use it. As a child, my first memories of Passover include passing around several different haggadahs during the meal –- to blend together the seders that the adults in the family remembered from their individual upbringings. No one haggadah did the trick. So although the word “seder” means order, the experience was not orderly, it was pieced together – more of a collage.

Fractured Family Passover Cookbook 2, Alison Stein 2014

Many years later, when my then-husband and I staged a huge seder for family and friends I explained to any guest who was Jewish and might actually know how the thing was supposed to work the approach we took to the seder would be more along the lines of “fuck the rules.”

Continuing to browse at the Strand, found The Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book.  It demanded to be joined  with the haggadah –- the books were of the same size and approximate age, similar type of paper, although slightly different tones. The Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook gave directions for the culinary aspects of these traditions, translating into English, in the same way that the haggadah gave directions for the way the Passover meal was to proceed, operating under the assumption that translation and step-by-step directions would be necessary. “Lift the cup.” “100 pounds of ham (from corn-fed hogs.)”

When I was in my early twenties, I lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for nine months I have since referred to as long and dark. When I first went to look around, I felt comforted by all the Jewish-sounding names – Hofstadter, Petersheim. I figured I’d be able to get a good bagel, at the least, and that I would find some cultural similarities with the populace that I had not found living in upstate New York, where being Jewish even in my own vague way made me exotic. In my experience growing up in New York, German last names were Jewish.

Not in Central Pennsylvania, because the Amish were German and most assuredly Not Jewish. I learned about scrapple, did not find good bagels, and, my then-husband and I were lectured for mowing our lawn on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. This was the Eastern reaches of the Bible Belt, a place where for many of the people there, religion influenced daily life. (The Amish and their buggies, the Mennonites and their caps.) There was an order to things and I was outside of it.

So I had those two elements for my collage. The next day, I went to Jackson Heights, and came across an edition of the Pakistani Post. It, too, was a soft shade that would work with the papers I’d already gathered, plus, Arabic lettering is beautiful.

And of course, I immediately saw the cheek of combining all these elements, of representing three of the world’s major and most conflicting religions in one fractured piece. I know it’s a gross oversimplification, but I like to think we can boil this all down to shifting culinary allegiances. The pork prohibition connects Jews and Muslims, but divides from Christians. Alcohol unites Jews and Christians, but divides from Muslims. (Theoretically, or should I say, theologically, if not practically.)

I do mean for the English words to be read; I took care in their placement to make new sentences or sentence fragments. (Click each image to enlarge.)  I can’t read either Hebrew or Arabic, so I don’t know what message I’ve included in this piece in those languages. Those words are just shapes to me. But I also like that aspect of it, since my creative material until lately has been only words. In some ways, this piece represents my first step to see words as shapes and images, and not agents of mere meaning.

A Walk in San Francisco’s Chinatown

San Francisco ChinatownIt’s funny, I live about five minutes from Manhattan’s Chinatown but I never go there just to walk around.

I’ll go to China, sure. And I’ll go out of my way to walk in a Chinatown in another city, but the one that’s right next door? Eh.

I’m tempted to make some point about being inured to home, and how travel cures that, since it shakes you out of your routine blah blah blah.  So insert all of that here. But I really do like San Francisco’s Chinatown better, probably because the hills let me get a better vantage on things. I always feel like I’m drowning a little when I happen through the Chinatown near me. I don’t know that I’ll be able to lift up my arms to take a photo.

San Francisco Chinatown

During my walk,  I once again mused on the exact nature of my close connection to Chinese food.  More than any other characteristic or belief, the way this cuisine comforts me, and matters to me, is what makes me culturally Jewish. (Read this on “Safe Treyf,” PDF. Apparently the close affinity between Jews and Chinese food has something to do with a similar preference for overcooked vegetables?)


As if to underscore the point, that very night I had excellent Kung Pao Pastrami and Schmaltz Rice at Mission Chinese Food.


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