Artist Date 48: I Think The Fish Guy Likes Me

There is something decidedly unappealing about gazing into the center of a slab of beef.

Perhaps pork is better.

William "For Sunday's Dinner."
William Michael Harnett. “For Sunday’s Dinner.”

It didn’t bother me to see hocks of pork bolted to a wooden bar, then sliced paper-thin, and served to me, when I was in Spain.  Neither did the whole chickens and rabbits hanging from hooks in the market, which I took photographs of, then framed and hung in my kitchen.

I am at the Art Institute Chicago for the member lecture and preview of “Art & Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine.”  Artist Date 48.  It is dark and warm in the auditorium.  A slide of a still life – fruit and meat – is projected on-screen.  And then another, a fish.

They are not beautiful.  They do, however, evoke a flood of food memories.

Like the time I received a whole, smoked salmon.

It was my 39th birthday and I threw a big potluck soiree.

The man/boy I was crushing on – but could, and would, do nothing about as I was married – was the first to RSVP, saying he would bring Tang.  I laughed.  Knowing him, it might have been true.

Except it wasn’t.

The night of the party, he arrived with a box in his right hand – carrying it like a tray, high above his shoulder.  His name was on the side in black magic marker.  This was something he had ordered.

Inside was an entire smoked salmon.  Head.  Tail.  Everything.  Glistening.  Beautiful.  Although not Jewish himself, he seemed to intuitively know the way to a Jewish girl’s heart was through cured fish.

“He likes me,” I thought, beaming.

The next morning I made scrambled eggs with onions and the leftover smoked salmon.  One of my girlfriends had come to town from Los Angeles to celebrate.  Over coffee, I said the words out loud.

“I think he likes me.”

She disagreed, insisting the fish was about him and how he wanted to be perceived.  That it meant nothing about me.  I didn’t persist.  It didn’t matter.  I was married.

I hadn’t thought about the fish story in a while.  Or the fish guy, which my friends and I affectionately called him from then on.  He moved away while I was still married — to fish.

Memory wrapped in food.  It seems nearly impossible to separate the two.  I am reminded of this all week while leading Weight Watchers meetings and trying to encourage a conversation about what makes Thanksgiving memorable – besides food.

Norman Rockwell.  "Freedom From Want."
Norman Rockwell. “Freedom From Want.”

For the most part, the members are having none of it.  They want to talk about macaroni and cheese.  Stuffing.  Pumpkin pie and cranberries from a can.  One woman mentions waking her daughters late in the evening, dressing them, and taking them shopping at midnight. I would have loved that, I think.  She is creating tradition.

I think about living in California and riding my bike Thanksgiving morning – before the feast at Tim’s house.  I think about the printed menus Tim placed at each seat, like Martha Stewart.  About roasted root vegetables and pumpkin gnocchi.

I think about the year I got married and leaving for my honeymoon on Thanksgiving Day.  Eating breakfast with Tim and his roommate, Steven at the International House of Pancakes near the airport.

I do not mention any of this.  It is their meeting.

The exhibit moves from still life to real life.  There are rationing cookbooks.  Bright Spots For Wartime Meals – a Jello cookbook.  The words, “Armed with a can opener, I become the artist-cook, the master, the creative chef,” from the Can Opener Cookbook, are stenciled on the wall.

They remind me of a story I once heard about the “original foodie,” M.F.K. Fisher.  Suspicious that her celebrity kept those about her in silence, she once made a meal entirely from canned foods.  When her guests swooned, confirming her intuitions, she informed them of the origins of their dinner.

There is a menu for a meal honoring Fisher, created by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse.  She is the Berkeley, California chef known for purple hats, and for bringing seasonal, local ingredients – cooked simply, cooked well – back into fashion, beginning in the early 1970s.

And there is a menu from Chez Panisse, celebrating Bastille Day in 1976, as well.

chez panisseI ate there just once.  On my birthday.  I do not recall which year.  I saved the menus – prix fixe, with gorgeous drawings of figs on the cover – for a long time, imagining I would frame them and hang them in my kitchen one day, along with my food photographs.  I never did.

Strangely, I do not recall what I ate.  I remember our server.  And the cost of the meal for two – $300.

Driving home in the first snow of the season, I chew on Brazil nuts – 30 grams of them weighed out and tucked in a small plastic container.  Just a snack.  I am full on memory.

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No Longer Waiting. And Other Little Miracles

I have a bit of a sugar hangover.  I blame the French meringues.  Stacked in big glass jars.  All shades of gorgeous.  Purple cassis.  Cocoa salted-caramel.  Yellow-cream.

2013-10-06 13.12.36I blame the lemon and apple tarts, covered with glazed domes, glistening, yellow and red.  So shiny and perfect, at first I think they are glass.

I am at my cousin Andrew’s wedding.

I had not planned to eat so much sugar.  I never do.  Just like I never planned to drink so much, for things to go sideways, as they often did.  Especially at weddings.

This is no longer my experience.  At weddings.  Or anywhere else for that matter.  I don’t stick my hand in the cake (already cut up and served, thank goodness) on the way out the door.  I don’t offend the groom’s cousin by dissing where he lives.  The bride doesn’t have to separate me and her 17-year-old boy cousin who I am grinding with on the dance floor.  The one who thinks perhaps this is his lucky day.  Or night.

I am grateful.

And I am triggered.

By this girl – a woman, really – who reminds me of me when I drank.  She stumbles back to the hotel with us, barely putting one foot in front of the other.  Shuffling.  Earlier, sitting at the bar, I watched her eyes roll back in her head.  Her words don’t make any sense to me.  She is speaking gibberish.

I remember making dinner for my girlfriends many years ago in California.  Being drunk before they arrive.  My friend Rainey, sweetly, sadly, telling me she doesn’t understand what I am saying.

Nobody tells this girl she doesn’t make sense.  No one seems to mind.  She smokes a joint thick as a cigarette and waves it about.  I have to leave.

I am triggered by my brother.  Showing up to the wedding with his new girlfriend.  It isn’t her.  Or him, for that matter.  But that he always has a girlfriend.  Always had a girlfriend.  Always.

I am triggered by my aunt’s stories of dating in her 40s, after her divorce.  The seeming line of suitors, one more exciting than the next, waiting for a chance to be with her.  Her year in Italy, living with a Count.

My aunt and I.  She is so beautiful.  I can imagine her line of suitors.
My aunt and I. She is so beautiful. I can imagine her line of suitors.

This is not my experience.  Any of it.  And yet, the shame that rises is all mine.  It is so familiar.  The shame I used to feel in my drunken-ness.  The shame I still sometimes feel in my alone-ness.  Even if I have – mostly – chosen it.

So sugar seems like a good idea.  At the end of the night.  Alone, in my cousin’s hotel suite.  Tired.  Waiting for him and his husband to take me back to their apartment where I am staying.

The meringues are like a siren.  The shiny slices of mango torte know my name.  Even the leftover pastry from the morning is alluring.  All from the patisserie where my cousin works.

I sample each, many times over.  Quickly.  And then…I stop.  I realize I am going to be physically uncomfortable very soon if I continue.  I say this out loud to myself.  I realize I am uncomfortable in my skin right now.  Triggered.  I call my friend Matt and we talk it through.

I do not shame myself for using food.  It is a small miracle.  A victory.  As is the stopping while I am in it.

This morning, it all feels a long time ago.

I am walking to the market to pick up some yogurt and produce for the apartment.  A coffee.  I am dropping into “my life” here in Minneapolis.  My life for two and a half days.

I marvel at how easily I can make a place my own.  Like I did in Dublin, with Steven.  Renting an apartment.  Finding my coffee shop.  My grocery.  My people in meetings in church basements.

I’ve done this in many places.  In Brussels.  In Charleston.  Even my hometown, Detroit.  Here, this morning in my cousin’s city, I remember a time when it wasn’t like this.

I was 17.  My parents sent me to Los Angeles to visit my cousin – their high-school graduation gift to me.  It is my first time traveling alone.  I am terrified.

Andrew goes to work, leaving me with a key and suggestions of where I might go while he is away.  Places I can walk to right out the door.  There are plenty.  Surprising for Los Angeles, but true.

I can’t leave the apartment.  I am stymied.  Paralyzed.  I hang out with the cat.  Listen to Carly Simon.  Smoke his weed.  Drink his booze.  And wait for him to come home.  While Los Angeles waits for me.

It is no different in the years that follow, as I continue to visit him in Los Angeles.  I stay in when he is gone.  Alone.  Afraid.

Perhaps it’s just age.  Or maybe it is travel.  But I cannot imagine sitting inside today, waiting.

Just like I can’t imagine being the drunk girl at the wedding.

I can almost imagine men lining up to date me, like they did for my aunt.  And that in itself is another miracle, that I can even imagine it.  Even if it hasn’t happened.  But I’m not waiting on that either.

The wedding.  The real reason I am here.
The wedding. The real reason I am here.

Instead, I think about now.  About dancing all afternoon at the wedding.  A three-piece band –  keyboard, stand-up bass and drummer – playing jazz and swing.   About Peter swinging me around the floor.  A strong lead, I follow easily.  He dips me at the end of each song and I smile big.  It is not a love connection.  We are just dancing, having a great time.

About Emiko, my cousin’s friend from Los Angeles.  She literally watched me become an adult, in those years that I visited, when I afraid to leave by myself.  We talk as though no time has passed, picking up the thread of easy connection and filling in the blanks.

About Monica, my cousin David’s wife.  The last time we saw one another was at my going-away party – when I was leaving California, with my then husband, for Chicago.  The city I embraced as my own – even though it was his dream that brought me here.

About her words to me.

She tells me she is excited for me.  For this time in my life.   For the adventures I’ve lived, and those I am about to live.  That I look amazing.

She doesn’t see the fear.  The worry.  Just this woman who flew in just this morning to show up for her cousin.  For her family.  For her life.  Not waiting…for anything.  For anyone.

This morning, walking, writing, making Minneapolis mine, if only for a moment…I see the same woman.   No longer waiting.

Artist Date 37: Before I Was a We: San Francisco Days, San Francisco Nights

I love a Woody Allen movie.  How it is always unmistakably his, from its first moment.  Jazz crackling through a phonograph.  Names in vintage font scrolling across the screen, inviting me in.  Makes me think of Buster Keaton or some other silent-movie great.  Another time.  Dreamy and romantic.

blue jasmineLike San Francisco, where Blue Jasmine takes place – Artist Date 37.

Sitting in the Davis  Theatre, I am home – to this place I lived for 14 years.  To familiar street names like Van Ness and Post.  And the windmill at Ocean Beach.  The sky is a pale, whitish-grey.  Fog.  Wind.  Like it usually is, as opposed to some Hollywood idea of the California coast.

The shots of Marina Green are spot on.  South Park too…although it would have been a long walk there from 305 South Van Ness, where Jasmine is coming from, into the final scene.  A solid half hour or more.  But this is something only a San Franciscan would know.

Like knowing Noe Street is pronounced “No E” and not “No,” as it was incorrectly called on Party of Five, the 90s Fox hit show.

Like knowing the Dirty Harry movies filmed prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake – when the Central Freeway still ran along the Embarcadero.

When I moved to Chicago in 2007, every sentence out of my mouth began with, “In San Francisco…”  It took a long time for me to even consider letting go of my identity as an adopted Californian.  (I grew up outside of Detroit.)

It is one of the things that kept my ex and I together, and that ultimately tore us apart.

We came here united in our assertion that the Bay Area was the only place worth living.  Hubris, in a New York center-of-the-universe sort of way.  We identified as “other,” “different.”  And we were certain that this was a mere sojourn.

But I got schooled.  My eyes opened.  I quit expecting Chicago to be San Francisco (or Oakland, where also lived).  I was able to see all that was right with this place Frank Sinatra called “my kinda town.”  And I fell in love.

We never said it, but with this simple opening up, I broke our unspoken rule.  I “betrayed” us.

I’m not thinking about that today, sitting in the darkened theatre.  Instead, I am thrust back to a time before that, before us.  My single San Francisco.  The place where I became a grown up.  Sort of.

Chinatown.  Teresa would send me here on days when I was blue, with explicit instructions to treat myself to something inexpensive and wonderful.  A silk change purse or lipstick case with a mirror inside.  Embroidered slippers.  Each just a few dollars.

chinatownMarina Green.  Rachel lived nearby on Chestnut Street.  Every Saturday I would walk from my apartment in Haight-Ashbury to her tony neighborhood for brunch and the hope of spotting the former conductor I used to date.

South Park.  The DJ took me to this then-off-the-beaten-path hip, cool patch of green for lunch.  I wanted it to be a date, but it wasn’t.  I knew what he was available for when I invited him to come by my apartment following his shift at the after-hours club.  I thought I could change his mind.  I couldn’t.

He was kind, and we developed one of those painful friendships – the kind where I waited for the day he would look at me and realize I had been there all along… loyal.  And then pick me.  Strangely, we did pick one another from time to time over the years…but never for the long haul.

He spun records at my wedding.  That was his gift to me.  I saw him in San Francisco the last time I was there.  Over noodles, he recalled our unorthodox wedding.  That I was the only bride he knew that danced to the Sex Pistols.  His words fell onto the table with a thud.  Neither my then-husband nor I said a word.

On the drive home, my now-ex asked me for a divorce.

Perhaps I let go of my strong San Francisco attachment because it was “ours.”  Blue Jasmine reminded me of what was mine – alone.

Wednesday night disco at Stud Bar.  Day-long walks through Golden Gate Park.  Burritos the size of my head at Taqueria Cancun.

A reclaiming.

golden gate

Artist Date 28: Me, Kate Moss and the Joannes

kate mossAbout this time last year, my friend Joanne told me she had two style icons – me and Kate Moss.  I was surprised and tickled.  But mostly tickled.

I remember  what I was wearing that day.  A tight pink and white striped “French sailor” t-shirt from Old Navy, with buttons along the boat neck.  Too loose, Army-green cigarette pants from Target, purchased prior to my ex asking me for a divorce – before the weight slipped off of me, seemingly overnight.  A thin, woven belt, and my yellow peep-toe wedges with ankle straps.

I felt like a page torn from Glamour –“Great Looks for less than $50,” or something like that.  Minus the shoes.  The shoes would put me “over budget.”

The shoes always put me over budget.

“What calls for the most care in a woman’s costume is unquestionably the foot gear and the gloves.”

The words are stenciled on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with numerous other pithy statements about dress.  I am here for a member lecture and pre-viewing of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” – Artist Date 28.

Sometimes I feel light, superficial, because I am delighted by statements like Joanne’s.  I feel that it should not matter.

And yet, I am at a show that has toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris before landing in Chicago, a show that is focused on fashion.  Earlier this year I saw another, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” at the Chicago History Museum.

I consider that, perhaps, how I choose to cover my body might not be a simple matter of practicalities and aesthetics.  That fashion – how we dress ourselves, individually and as a culture – is in fact, a statement of sorts.  A reflection of time, mood, politics.  Think hemlines rising as the economy upticks.

Or, as Gloria Groom, the show’s curator says in her lecture, “clothing is not fashion.”

The exhibit is bursting with paintings and sketches.  Advertising, bits of clothing and accessories.   Bustles, corsets, shoes.  Costumes for walking the boulevards of Paris.  For going to the sea.

“As fashion was an integral part of Paris’ character, some places – the boulevard, parks, racetracks and theatres – were constructed with the idea of it’s well-dressed pubic in mind.”

Groom ends her lecture with a joke, a “warning.”  That those experiencing a bad hair day, clothing day, face day, might do well to avoid the exhibit.  That mirrors and reflective surfaces abound.

I am standing in front of a collection of hats.  Fifty or more.  jeweled.  Feathered.  Contained in a single square of plexiglass spanning floor to ceiling.  I see myself admiring the millinery.  Recognizing one that reminds me of the hat I wore at my wedding.  I mention this to the woman standing next to me.  She asks me about it.

It is made of tightly woven straw, pinned up into corners, decorated with ribbon flowers and glass fruit.  I had to have it.

I do not mention I am divorced.  It does not feel germane.   We are talking about hats.  This is progress.

Manet-Lady-with-Fans_480My marital status creeps in later, standing in front of an Edouard Manet painting of Nina de Callais, called “Lady with Fans.”  She is lying on her side, looking straight into the camera.  If there were a camera.  Her eyes are big, dark, open.

She is dressed in black, but she is not mourning.  She is wearing jewelry.  If she were in mourning she would not be, Groom explains.  Groom adds that de Callais is divorced.  That perhaps she is “re-baiting the trap.”

The placard next to the painting notes that de Callais was known for hosting salons of writers and artists.

A woman next to me says, to no one in particular, “She is ugly.”  I do not agree.  “Don’t you think she looks and sounds like fun?” I say.

“Perhaps.  But she is ugly.  At least she is painted that way.”

I say nothing.  Like my friend Julie says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”

I wonder if I am re-baiting the trap.  Maybe.  Not long after I moved back to town, my friend Tori commented that I dressed differently – sexier, more body-conscious.  I wasn’t conscious of it.  But now I am.

There are corsets.  Boudoir paintings showing seductively naked shoulders and upper backs, napes of necks teasingly exposed.

“A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction.  But for us, fiction is better than reality.” 

I think of a party I attended in San Francisco in the mid- 1990s.  There is a poster of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, circa 1976, hung in the bathroom.  By today’s standards, and even those of almost 20 years ago, the women – once considered the pinnacle  of beauty in America – would be seen as flabby, soft.  Their breasts, saggy.  Their thighs, heavy.

Like the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that was recently popular on Facebook.  She’s in a yellow bikini. Boy short bottoms. Tie halter top (I covet this suit.).  She is reclining.  Folds of skin naturally line up across her belly in horizontal rows.

I have folds across my belly.

I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of Photoshop.  Of airbrushing.  That no celebrity would willingly allow this photograph to surface.  But that it might show up in The Star or The Inquirer, with a headline like “Monroe Hits Maximum Density.”

It is a little after 4.  I have given myself an hour to tour the exhibit.  It is not long enough.  I have somewhere to be.

I want to stay and stare at the woman in the Frederic Bazille family reunion painting.  The one in the polka-dot dress staring out at me.  Her face is sweet.  It is shaped like mine.

I want to take off my shoes and run my feet through the fake grass covering the floor in the Plein Air (open air) room.

Bazille-Renoir_360I want to lean into Bazille’s portrait of Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Hiked up on a chair, his arms wrapped around his bent knees.   He is bearded.  My type.

I want to scroll through Henri Somm’s sketchbook, digitally brought to life.

I want to see the related exhibits: “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy” and “Fashion Plates: 19th-Century Fashion Illustrations.”

I return home and there is a message from my friend Joanne.  A different Joanne.  She was at the lecture too.  She saw me.  I saw her.  But we didn’t see each other seeing one another.  She says, “You looked lovely in that dress.”

I wonder what this dress – its halter-style, plunging neckline and flirty skirt, covered in large red and navy flowers – says.  Is it a sign of optimism, worn the day before the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act?  Or is it nothing more than a response to a sticky, summer day in Chicago?

I Released The Gold and Diamonds of My Past

rings I released the gold and diamonds of my past.

Handed them

To a stranger.  And pocketed

A check for $217.

It was a generous offer.

Commodities.

No consideration of

Labor, artistry,

Time.

Only weight.

Once I would have drunk

This pain.  Eaten

This pain.  Fucked

This pain.

Fuck this pain.

No more.

It waits until

After

The headache, the heartache

The bellyache.

Waits

For tears.  For

Grieving.  I am

In a garden awash in violet.

13-L-7ED93F53-4573380-1280-100Hidden behind

Deceptive trees.

Hidden like the little stone

Of my heart.

I offer to take

A photograph.  Sweet lovers.

They will return home, holding

Evidence.  Their time

Together.

A line of people

Sit,

On a wooden footbridge, feet

In rows in water,

Still, man-created

Stream.

I join them.

Peel the yellow straps

From my ankles and plunge

Into the cool wet.

feet in waterSun burns hot

On my neck.  Kissing

My shoulder.

Spring has come slowly

This year.  I long

For the earth’s tongue

On my skin.

Inside my wallet,  Glass horse.

Ceramic salmon.

Medallion.  Roman numeral five.

Animal-spirit guides.

Passing of sober days.

Talisman.

Is man?

And a single

Penny.  Consider my wish.

For love.

For THAT kind of love.

Tongue on my shoulder.

Slow to come.

Cum.

Cool.

Wet.

I let go

Of another piece

Of metal.

Watch it sink to the bottom,

A lost and found of wishes

Dreams, prayers.

In water, still.  Wish,

Still.  Dream,

Still.  Pray,

Still.