Friday, January 6, 2023

new year to cheer or fear: January

     Time to take stock, whether in facts or feelings.  Much news comes out of census reporting - if you are statistical minded - now that the past decade's assessment has been (mostly) tallied. Of national and rural/urban living. It seems the urban population in the US has - no surprise - increased: we are now 79% urban vs 20.4 % rural. Definitions have changed, too,  so that an urban area is now 5,000 people and above and there are now 2,646 urban areas in the US, Puerto Rico and US islands. 

How this matters, of course, is how much federal support - in funds and services - is given to different areas. That's a fight at the national level by and large, where elected representatives and agency heads are critical.


    On a less sweeping scale, my thoughts of the day focus on yet another periodic conversation with my hair care specialist Walter, a cancer survivor- just barely. While I sit covered in plastic sheeting and a towel, he cuts and talks, sprays and enlightens. We gossip a bit over another woman client whose feud with yet a third client means Walter cannot really keep up a relationship with both since they both live in the same residential complex where he works. The two women have had a spat over a job that is apparently the reason for their existence, as relatively useless and unimportant it would seem to be. The one cannot stand to be in the same room with the other. Then there is the ultra-rich client who confesses her facial makeover at age 38 cost $23,000 and made it look like a 16-year-old. The problem with the botox-plus-surgery for yet a fourth woman is her total self-absorption as she must be constantly reassured of her good looks. Her droopy mouth has gone but not her fear of its eventual return. How she must be constantly on guard.

    But Walter has plenty of other topics to talk over while he works. He is a professional guitar player who recently joined a group performing what he calls Peruvian waltzes, folk rhythms he now  hums to me when I ask. And his wife the accountant who would like to retire but whose boss begs her to stay on until his cancer treatment is over - and longer, too, just in case.  Walter's treatment has left him a thin man without much taste for food and a perilous weight for a tall man of only 140 pounds. He sees a trainer once a week to learn how and whether certain exercises will improve his body, to grow muscles - which he finds ridiculous since 'the age thing' never can be overcome. 

    I'm the client but am I also a therapist of a kind - sitting in front of a mirror, welcoming the ministrations of a professional whose hands are flitting back and forth, chop chop, while I am embalmed in his chair. He needs me as an audience, as someone who can respond to his talk. We go back and forth:his wife (always), his grandkids, the ways of a diminishing world. He is diminished - he should be 20 or more pounds beyond 140 and he worries about this. He worries about the price of a trainer - $85 a session, he confides as though it were a secret shame - helping him in some way to sustain - not quite build - muscle.  His style has changed since the chemotherapy. He applies the same low lights (not highlights - I don't know the difference), I hold the 4 inch square foil while he bends hair strands around them.  This is a coloring job that will blend with the gray and not let gray get the upper hand. I sense a weaker yet obliging hand. We are really four people: two bodies and two mirror images.


Thursday, December 8, 2022

After A Long Lag.....


In reflection in mid-December:

        Staying  quiet on the page can be interpreted in many ways. The best excuse is having no excuse, except - perhaps - using full bore silence to reduce the noise in the world.

    What has a period of silence (metaphorically speaking) meant for those of us lucky enough to enjoy such privilege I wonder?. I recently came across this line:

    "The list is the origin of culture,”  the writer Umberto Eco said - a quote I picked up in the New York Times food column, and lists exist “to make infinity comprehensible.” 

    Because without a doubt one of my solemn habits during enforced quiet during the worst of the Covid scare was being able to read, download, and keep lists/piles of favorite recipes from the Times' food editors and contributors. A now-heaving load laid away in a closet, having very little meaning otherwise. It exists to remind myself how the act of cooking is never the same as the art of cooking. I acted to keep myself well fed - well, enough so - and create a hobby of sorts that had great benefits.

    That same NYTImes cooking column I quote had another quote from a Japanese author/poet Shonagan:

“In life, there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.”

Look her up. Yes, a woman. She wrote the witty 'The Pillow Book' about a thousand years ago.

    Not to be able to read can be equated with being unable to eat. Not to enjoy either is the end of the line...

Monday, September 12, 2022

Lo, the Equinox, etc.

A Visit with Walter

The sandwich is a clue. Only a few bites taken out of a roll filled with tunafish. "My wife puts things in it," Walter says, dismissively. It was well after noon and he should have been hungry., but instead his mouth is protesting. "My tongue is funny," he says. Understandably, since he is recovering from several weeks of chemotherapy, during which he dropped nearly 30 pounds. His voice has changed to a lower register, ("sexy," I tell him - but he doesn't warm to my comment.) He is slower in his movements now.  But I knew he wanted to meet and had even texted me to ask when could I come into the salon. He offered to improve my wanton graying hair by suggesting a date the next week; after that he would be going to the ocean for the first time since he knew he had restrictions on his schedule, his life. 

I was both delighted and flattered to hear from him. To think he took the initiative to reach out when I had not thought he was up to working again. This vibrant talented man, challenged by the  prospect of cancer that may or may not have spread, he wanted to join the world again. A definitive test would be coming up in early December, he says. 

This is  Tuesday in mid-September when I found Walter, my longtime stylist and colorist,  a changed man, only very slowly returning  to normalcy - and work. He would work only one day a week, he says -  Friday.  I suspect he had contacted me, knowing I might be good for conversation  that would involve lighthearted banter of the kind we  had together in the past. Or maybe I flatter myself. I don't know whether I am there for him or for my own  need to improve long neglected locks. I sense  he is hungry for public life again, for interactions with customers whom he knows appreciate his talent. He has a rare gift, being able to improve and improvise a most unruly part of the body - thinning hair.

He  has weakened considerably, relying on outsize amounts of protein and  respect for the virtues of plain water. He shows me the tubes of edible protein 'my wife makes me take.'. He holds up his arm to show me the loose skin on his under arms.   I sit in the chair while he selectively lathers some blonde dye on my head- nothing that I had asked for but he insists in his own confident manner and reasoning, saying simply  'you will look younger, you are energetic." Yes, at 86, I have an unusual amount of  that mysterious force .  My old dyed highlights were fading; the back of my head was entirely white."To have the best of both worlds," I say jokingly. He doesn't smile, so I'm not sure his humor is back entirely. I am philosophical about the process of aging and  resigned to ignoring some of the vanity involved in 'keeping up appearances.' 

But I am there, I realize, to be an agent for his rejuvenation  -willingly so.

 Walter was always wanting to talk. About his music, his family, his clients, the world. He is an accomplished professional guitar player. Nor is this time any different - no chance of a quiet engagement. I hear only a little about what the last few months has been like. "Terrible' is all he says.

Snip, snip, lather lather.

August Disappeared

 But not without traces. Summer was losing the battle with mother nature (why a mother, when father time is a more exalted title?). Across the country/countries and the world,  convulsions of sorts in terms of extreme  and unpredictable weather. September shows progress - of a kind. Stay tuned for further unworthy ruminations.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

July Joy

 Long light nights, warm life-giving sun, a reason to swim and wear as little clothing as possible.

This is the case if you are among the lucky souls, which is a relative term. To be lucky is to know how to enjoy whatever is positive in your life and that, of course, is relative to the place and time in which you live.

My digressions on being a part-time rural person (that is, living in a city or town of 100,00 or so people surrounded by landscape no sculptor could design) as well as a citified urban patriot putting up with all the detriments of place that 700,000 people call home. But a patriot to the self-serving cause of knowing how to take advantage of what a Big City offers. My Big City is a Federal District squeezed between two constitutionally registered states. My vote is practically nil because I live here; my opinion barely counts. Whereas in the rural hinterland , I can easily believe my actions can make a difference.

On a day to day level, the contrast is clear. I can live in a district and not own a car without undue hardship. This is impossible in the rest of the country unless you cling to a really big City existence like New York. The multitude of choices I have in my district are beyond compare, I believe; it takes only assiduous attention to the offerings. Today, for instance, through the mercies of a friend who alerted and then accompanied me, I attended a free lecture at the Library of Congress, open to the public though barely publicized. The talk by scholars doing research under a beneficent  grant of a donor named Kluge is a monthly occurrence and this time also included all you can drink and eat reception - standup basically. 

This takes place monthly within a half mile of my house, a freestanding mid-19th century wood structure that is almost a common sight in my environs.

What would be comparable in outlying areas, I can barely guess although I'm ignorant of possibilities in many respects. Could I compare an evening in a modern utilitarian public library with a structure established in part by one of the country's founding presidents?  How much do the surroundings in such a place influence our sense of gratitude? 

Monday, June 13, 2022

June - Already?


    No telling what the weather gods will send down in the 'shoulder month' (spring into summer) but omens so far are less than encouraging. Floods, record heat, etc. Coping is the cry.

Imagine you are one of some 76,000 Afghans released into the world (mainly into the US) after the fall of Kabul and having no real guidance on how to cope.  Never mind weather when so much else is the bedrock of your existence. (Don't dare imagine the fate of the thousands of US-affiliated Afghans left behind.)

One couple is not a  fair sample but perhaps their story shows how it is possible to survive - but not to thrive -  with the help of some Americans offering guidance. The couple in their twenties who settled into Virginia through family contacts now count on Medicaid and a few thousand government dollars to start a new life. There are what are euphemistically called cultural differences to contend with. 

For instance, the woman speaks very little English and will not venture out of the house without a relative.  She won't speak up in a social setting without the presence of her husband. She turns down jobs - money they very much need- since she is insecure in settings with strangers. Her better-educated husband, on the other hand, has better language and coping skills and has made a life for himself as a part-time  barista during the day. Then during early morning hours, the pair are contractors for various delivery services (Amazon, Door Dash, etc.) earning $125 between 4 and 8 a.m., after which he will take a break to sleep before reporting to his day job. They cannot earn enough to allow them to rent an apartment alone apart from their family hunkered down in a Virginia suburb of DC. The family, apart from the young husband ,are wary of taking jobs they feel will diminish their stature in the world. A man trained as a doctor will not let himself be hired as a nurse, for instance - even when the chance of promotion (not to mention a salary) could raise his status. Perhaps the notion of  self-sufficiency, or what Americans consider their birthright - self-promotion, is foreign to them. In the past they have had comfortable lives and reliable friends and family to count on. 

Of course, there is a story behind a story as always.  The words 'cultural differences' means different things to different people. To the Afghans, perhaps, their willingness to come to dinner conflated with their custom of bringing something to the table. Maybe food - maybe the main course. But, of course, it would have to be Halal and vegan to suit the tastes of one or both of the Afghan invitees. The problem is that nothing was made clear ahead of time. The couple would bring the food, they indicated. Then in a last minute call from the host, they said a medical emergency had  delayed them. The wife had  mysterious pains. Nothing was said about the promised meal. So the host went to work creating a menu she thought would suit the Muslim-vegan faith: pasta with a spinach pesto. A few phone calls later - delaying the dinner time for well over an hour or more - the couple arrived with a big pot of food: lamb and rice.   Halal or not, no explanation. It certainly wasn't a vegan meal all the way. Had the young husband meant he wasn't strictly Halal, only that he didn't like meat?

Host's dilemma: what food to put on the table? My friend the host decided to serve up the original menu she made, only the wife - stricken, it now turns out, with a migraine - never had seen pasta and had not idea how to eat it. So the couple ate very little or nothing and left early before any mention of dessert. Also, the suffering wife objected out loud when she was served a cold ginger drink: too strong, she said. 

Can there be a satisfactory ending to this story? 


Sunday, May 1, 2022


    Note: May 25 marks the opening day of an exhibit by Washington's own Sam Gilliam at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn,  shown above  arriving at a reception held the day before in his honor. He is 88 and still working. The show, entitled "Full Circle," is a collection of his latest  creations, what he calls tondos,  done within the last two years - his first solo show at the museum. It's coupled with a conventional wall-size painting called 'Rail' from 1977. The latest collection is well-named,  as though to imitate the building's own circular shape. The dense brilliantly colored panels inside the  round beveled edge frames reflect  similar pioneering abstract work he did in the 1960s. 

The sun will shine, the world will recoup. Anything can happen to the mind in good weather..

Even so, I keep returning to the compulsion for reading, even sometimes, trying recipes put out by the New York Times on what seems a daily basis. A complete escape and total immersion in the contemplation of sensuous living. After many attempts and failures, I still can't resist trying again. Which may be the point. Trying yet another involved dish meant for 4 or 6 when I'm only one not very often a very hungry soul.  Because I know I will lose does not seem to phase me. And I also know that, in the right mood, I'm an able cook using nothing but spontaneity with a few less ingredients.

The immediate above photo is reason for cheer - leftover from the April notes.

Whenever there is an upper, there comes a downer. Abortion, not reform or building up the infrastructure, now takes center stage in the US political scene. And lack of trust and faith abounds in lesser ways. Each of two trips on Metro today I saw random customers - young and middle-aged - opening gates or leaping over entry gates without paying, with nary a shameful face in sight. I asked the attendant in the booth why he didn't at least try to stop them, even try calling them out. 

What can you do? he replied. Everyone does what they want. The system is broken.


To try for another upbeat note.

Onto people with faith of another kind and what they do about it - and I do mean faith literally. 

Matt Blakeslee, for instance, was a pastor in the large evangelical  Faith Chapel in Billings Mt., for almost ten years. The 39-year-old entrepreneurial-minded  man had gone to a local Bible College and felt a call to service. But eventually the call wasn't enough. "I felt I wasn't fulfilling myself," he confesses. As pastor of a super-large congregation, calls seldom were on his own behalf. It's the nature of the job.

He quit the day job and didn't earn any salary for the next three years in order to start a nonprofit in downtown Billings, Mt.,  to breathe life into an old Art Deco movie theater  and create on an adjacent street a fine arts venue for 'independent' feature films. He did it almost from scratch. What made it possible, he insists, is the helpmate at his side, his physician's assistant wife with a steady job. He started with a  rundown building that was a former car dealership and bowling alley that grew into a single screening room coupled with a bar.

 ArtHouse Cinema emerged as the center of a coterie of fans who relished the communal aspect of movie-going. (Similar, I suspect, to why large religious congregations bond.) It's an ongoing effort ,though at present he keeps a staff od 9 with   plenty of fund-raising mechanisms in place. He controls what is shown is on the very much larger and more dramatic Babock Theater screen around the corner with its shiny and flamboyant marquee. A different program entirely  is offered weekly at ArtHouse venue, that is also the site of film seminars and - usefully enough - because of the bar , conversations over 'a glass,' as the Irish might say,. Grand plans are afoot for two and three more theater spaces to provide more flexibility and exposure. He and his wife bought their own house in the midst of life's changes way back in 2008, for a low six-figure that now has ballooned in price three times.  Similarly, he hopes to see live theater-going expand in the properties he now owns or manages.

 It takes strong vision and persistence but the call has been returned from a community that believes in the cause.

Here  see a sublime image of the gloriously flamboyant facade of a 

flamboyant 1907movie theater, one of which is still alive and in  the continuing process of renovation thanks to the vision of Billings' Matt Blakeslee and his loyal supporters in a town with a population of 109,000 people.