My first oil painting (ever), pictured above.
I picked it up tonight at the second in a 6-week series of still life classes. The whole thing–the painting itself, the class, the charming crowd of diverse participants–is made more magical and meditative because we meet each Monday night to paint at Barnsdall Art Park. Hello Hollyhock.
And who knows? Maybe I’m the next (less psychotic and more symmetrical) Van Gogh?
*I feel I do not post enough plays of the days. For this, my apologies.+
+Also: I’ve noticed a maudlin trajectory in recent posts. For this I will not apologize. But I do promise more lively, amusing and generally jolly posts in the near future. ^
^But, in my defense, I’ve been listening to a lot of Father John Misty lately. Anyone with a heart would be vulnerable to maudlin prose if that band served as their writerly soundtrack.
…”thus, in Alton Locke: ‘They rowed her in across the rolling foam–/the cruel crawling foam.’
The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characteristics of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.”…*
In the late afternoon yesterday I stopped into Cafecito Organico for a shot of espresso with a sparkling water back.** The barista asked me if I was enjoying the weather. I said I was (one enjoys anything alternative to 75 and sunny as ‘weather’ in Los Angeles and the last two days have been hot, muggy and overcast. The heavy air is still and breathing it in takes effort. It feels like smoking). The barista replied, “me too. But, you know, this is earthquake weather.”
I did not know, in fact.
I conferred with my friend who, once also incredulous, told me that her husband had heard the same thing from a colleague: “earthquake weather.” Shortly after this colleague finished explaining the phenomenon (and I’ve checked with the source) an earthquake did, in fact, occur. The long joke for all those present for the event had something to do with being burned at the stake. But, apparently, such a thing as earthquake weather exists. And might, at least if colloquial knowledge could tell it, be a good way to know when the next big shake is coming.
Today no major seismic activity was registered. But there were shifts in the world, as there always must be. Some of them were mine alone.*** It felt very much as though the weather served as my warning for a few rough moments I had to work my way through. And, for this reason, it occurred to me that earthquake weather, like the other very Angeleno phenomenon known as the Santa Anas, might be this city’s particular sort of metaphysics, our own cult prophet: meteorological forecast as horoscope.
I am not the first to wonder about the very specific pathetic fallacy of Los Angeles. One might characterize a good chunk of the literature that has come out of this strange metropolis as devoted to exactly that aesthetic. L.A. noir, in particular, is full of dark and stormy nights personified, made alive to match the trouble brewing in a character or two.
The world we make of this city, perhaps because so many of us believe ourselves to be the center of it in one way or another, is one in which the wind and the rain, the heat, anything that shapes the light and temperature of the vast sprawl we call home, might be an omen of our own personal disasters or triumphs.
I like this about Los Angeles. It would be nice, though, if once in a while all the good weather that we don’t notice portended better things–if the vast majority of 75 and sunny days were communally read as an indication of nicer, kinder moments to come.
*John Ruskin, Modern Painters Vol. III. 1901 (pg. 156).
**This is how espresso should always be served, by the way. And if you’re in Los Angeles and in need, Cafecito is indeed the place to have a good shot pulled.
***I would tell you all about it but, come on, this is the Internet. What kind of media scholar would I be if I really believed in privacy and ‘social’ media as unproblematically co-extant?+
+But don’t worry. I’m well. The rough moments were navigable and I escaped only slightly scathed.
Going home is a complicated affair. Especially if you’ve spent a few weeks roaming the Italian countryside, eating yourself silly, and watching your toes through the clear waters of the Adriatic float up to the horizon line and dip back down with each lulling wave.
Your life (if it is anything like mine, and probably even if it isn’t) sits waiting for you in just the shape you left it. There is work to be done, relationships to tend or mend or break, laundry to fold, coffee to be made, groceries to be bought. The mundanity of it can be oppressive, the obligations stifling.
I’ve never been very good at coming home.
When I was a child my family used to take a week or two each summer in San Diego.* Once, I remember, when I lay in my bed in Albuquerque upon the evening of our return I couldn’t stop crying, raging really, with a ferocity that shocked my parents. My state was induced by an intense, unmitigable longing to build another sand castle combined with the terrible fact that I could not do so, or at least not on the beach surrounded by my cousins with the Pacific waters creeping toward me.
That horrible longing is not what I feel now. But I do think the little kid I was knew something about the ephemerality of travel. She knew that when you are present in a place, particularly when you are happy, you let slip away the ongoing trajectory of the life you otherwise lead. This is why people do terrible and amazing things when they wander elsewhere. It is the explanation for the genre that is travel literature. You learn something about yourself, true, but you also let so much of yourself go.
It is difficult to return to a place when you are changed and the place is not. When you have let go of little pieces of the thing you thought yourself to be only to find that the you that is left still has to do the stupid laundry. And every time we return, we do so as new animals. We do so as creatures lighter than we were (though it might feel like a heaviness) when we left.
But what’s more, we know the place we left in order to return will begin to be lost. The minutia of living sticks around, the wild clarity of foreignness dissipates. Or it does for me, anyway.
It would be better, but more difficult, to recognize that the shifts in what and who we are, are constant. To believe that while travel may bring the flux of us into relief, just leaving the house to engage the world also makes us new and new again. It would be better to let memory do its editorial work and know that traces are left none-the-less.
Of course, I do believe this. I just can never seem to remember it when I’m doing the laundry, or buying groceries, or making my morning cup of coffee, the image of my toes seen through clear sea waters still fresh but fading in my mind.
*Yes. We were the sort of bourgeoisie family that did such things. It was what was done, as they say. Don’t complain about the incompatibility of my Marxism with my bourgeoisie upbringing or I’ll get real mad and point you to an earlier post.
Sometimes, as a traveler, this sort of thing just happens. You turn a corner and are staring at some astounding monument and it is more than it should be. It is so much, in fact, that you can’t shake the uncanny feeling that you have mistaken the guidebook description for the real thing–that something has gone terribly wrong and you have landed somehow in a postcard of the place you are trying to understand, trying to navigate, instead of being in that place, at a particular moment in time.
It was late, my first night in Rome, and after the best spaghetti vongole I have ever eaten and a bottle of white table wine I went wandering with my friend, who knows Rome and speaks Italian. He led me, in a round about way, to the piazza in front of the Pantheon.
When we rounded the corner off a narrow, cobble-stone side street and I saw it and the inexplicably vacant plaza in front of it, the nearly full moon above it, I thought I might not be able to breathe.
A place like that should be anticlimactic. It should be vacated of all its power and history by the heat of high season and throngs of tourists. Or this is, at least, what I believed it should be, what I was sure it would be. But it wasn’t.
The enormous Roman thing stood there, in the well-moonlit, warm night and was so close to the gift my 18-year-old self imagined European travel to give that I stumbled. I did not believe it. I could not fathom that the stuff of novels I’d been reading since I was an over-emotional, self-obsessed and deeply romantic teenager could possibly reveal itself as real to an increasingly jaded, well-traveled and critical 31-year-old me.
“Oh, Rome!” (I hear myself saying) “I’ll never forget it!” And I cringe. But there are moments, as it turns out, when cynicism just fails–when you can weep at beauty long after you’ve stopped believing in it outside of its social construction, long after you’ve given up the idea that it might save us savage creatures from surely but slowly and violently destroying ourselves. The Roman Empire was no paradise, nor is the odd, frenetic, present-day city that stands in our global memory as its remaining vestigial limb. But for a moment, though it was brief, I understood why someone might believe a place to be holy. Why we (the communal, universal, human ‘we’) would long to stand in the shadows of our history and believe in greatness.
Now that the moment has passed I worry. I worry because what I think of is the Satyricon. I think of what ’empire’ meant once and what I believe it to mean now. I worry because I know too much and too little of history. And because while my 18-year-old self believed in History (Marxist teleology was my particular bent), my current self does not.
In the end I have decided just to be glad that the vestigial limb of my own emotional, historical and nostalgic former self is capable of flailing in the Roman night, wowed. It wasn’t like a postcard. It was me and my friend, in the very early morning, under a moon so big it seemed impossible. We were astounded, amazed, and happy that something in us was connected to something with such weight–this marble structure that bears history.
The academic in me is ashamed. The traveller, though, whom I think I may have more trust in, nods and is satisfied. Such contradictions are the very reason to wander.
I have just spent a little over a week roaming Italy in a little rented Renault with two friends (let’s just call them ‘Marc’ and ‘Mary’ to protect their anonymity).* We can now boast a large number of visits to the beaches on both the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts. We can also boast hours and hours of zooming around winding cliff-side roads (first in Puglia and then Salerno). We sipped Brunello in Tuscany and tasted olive oil everywhere. We sang in a sea cave. We sat on verandas overlooking red rooftops and swinging bougainvillea.
In between all of this, of course, was the sizable chunk of time we spent on the autostrada. Sloping, curved roads and small Italian towns are endlessly charming. The autostrada is not. It’s just your average fast-paced automobile fare. There is one key difference, though, between the long-distance car travel I’ve done in the U.S. and what I’ve now done here in Italy. It’s all about espresso.
Every twenty kilometers or so along the highway you can pull off to a gas station or an ‘autogrill’ and when you do, inside, no matter how small the place is or how dingy, there will be a counter at which to order perfectly pulled espresso shots, cappuccini, macchiati… Its roadside coffee porn. Let it be known, too, that the rich, deep brown-nearly-black stuff is always served in a porcelain demitasse resting on a saucer with an appropriately sized stirring spoon sitting alongside the cup. It feels a little bit like stumbling into a 7/11 to pick up a few blinis smothered with caviar and créme fraiche. I’ve never had such amazing espresso in my life and I certainly never imagined one could go just about anywhere in Italy, including a truckstop, to get it.
Let it be known, too, that the commitment to exceptional coffee is, apparently, universal throughout the country. I stayed for a night with a fabulous Italian family in Cecina and the lady of the house (who, yes, made me homemade carbonara and ragu and stuffed zucchini and fileto di carne and oh god so much food I could barely move when the final course of fresh fruit arrived) had no fewer than ten stove-top espresso makers. All different sizes, colors, shapes.
Italy is a wonderland of thick, inky espresso. Would that we in the less culinarily adept countries would learn what they take here as a matter of course.
*This is little protection. Their names are actually Marc and Mary.