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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
That question doesn't get answered easily, given the fraught times we are in. Maybe the best we can do is hope for change. And meanwhile hope to stay well enough to avoid total isolation on a run from something invisible.
Still, a little walk can be uplifting in unexpected ways. Seeing unlikely signs of charm and humor posted occasionally on the front yards of private property. 'We Support Ukraine' sort of signs aren't exactly what I mean, since they read 'impersonal' without a name. Today I unexpectedly came across the written verse of a lovely Louis Armstrong melody laboriously hand printed on a white board tacked up to a black stand near the sidewalk and was immediately cheered. I remembered the day in New York when I went with a friend to see the musician's home down an ordinary residential street in Queens, not far from a subway stop. This was before the site had become an education center, a well publicized homage to the great man who lived humbly among the gold spigots chosen for his bathroom. How simple and how real it was, and how strange so few people knew about it back then.
Coming later from a visit to the nearest Safeway, I was still smiling. All the more reason at that moment because a policeman or security guard in the store had handed over to me quite spontaneously a single red balloon on a long red string. How can I fail to mention that I had gone to the section in the store in search of a single flower to go atop a wee pastry I had bought as a birthday present for a young friend? Seeing no such lonesome bud, I laughed and asked if I could have a balloon - one of the bunch the man was holding, curiously enough. (My last trip to that same store I saw a much fancier balloon with a price tag of $17.95; astronomical I thought, until a local retailer who sells such notions said there was a helium storage....a statement I knew not how to refute. Possibly he was joking...)
With that red balloon in hand, I walked home in a strong wind that made the thing twirl and whirl. A tiny brown dog coming towards me was cowed by the sight. It immediately went into a barking frenzy. And no wonder. He/she doesn't often see a dancing balloon on a walk. A few blocks on I encountered an older couple emerging onto the sidewalk from their house. They smiled at the sight, incongruous enough, of a neighbor carrying a balloon in the middle of the day. 'The Red Balloon - the story,' the woman laughed, when I asked if perhaps she was having a birthday of her own. If so, I would have handed it over on the spot ...
A recurring theme for the determinedly mobile is how often a person can be surprised on a street.
A Metro ride and then short walk to a shoe store in Dupont Circle produced a timely encounter - though rare enough on its own. Two young men in bright yellow vests stood outside the store on a corner to waylay passersby and ask them to contribute to the International Rescue Committee - for Ukrainian refugees now pouring into Poland. The two were refugees themselves after a fashion. Each had come from Kabul a few years earlier to start new lives when they felt they could not advance at home. The one was a pilot in training most recently in Slovakia...
Which reminds me to mention why I was in that particular Safeway that day. I had judged a quiet Thursday to be the perfect time for a second required shingles vaccine - the shringrix or whatever it is called to protect from insanely annoying and painful rashes caused by, of all things, leftover chicken virus in an older person's blood. I can't explain the science only the reaction I had was nothing like any vaccine I can remember ever. Easygoing at first, then slowly the swelling, redness, tenderness and soon the exhaustion. All a tiresome nuisance as I had big plans for Friday and I had to struggle to stay upright, intact. Soreness way beyond any memory. No way to predict such things, no way to deal with it except sleep and any artificial balm around. It took three days for normality = or what passes for that these days - to return.
Enough said. A month of ups and downs by almost any measure. Use weather as a chart. Up to 70s and down to 20s, a roller coaster drumbeat. Covid hits home everywhere with a new variant. I try to rally a first cousin into some awareness of why she should not doubt the value of the vaccine. She "doesn't trust the government" and won't say more, except that she was hospitalized at some point with the virus. The son who lives with her and her husband (husband has had a stroke of unknown origin) had forcibly removed her from the hospital on grounds she 'wasn't getting any better,' taking her home and watching over her. Presumably with more attention (i.e. the loving medicine..) than what she could get among other patients. Did she not receive the treatment drugs authorized? She doesn't know, doesn't question her son's move, when she tells me on the phone how her memory has changed. She can't find the letters to spell out the name of the small Indiana town where she lives. I decide not to go after her anti-government stand, not on the phone when she is so obviously suffering from the disease. She is cheerful, repeating much of what she has told me before about her family - she is now a great grandmother. She laughs. Humor is what we have, she says, and an occasional visit from a friend basically involves laughing.
I commend her spirit and withhold any sense of shame of blame on her behalf. She lives on 100 plus acres in country where cell phone service is rare. She can't quite explain why. Nor does wifi work. I had been sending emails to an old address that never made the target. She keeps saying how she had 'got along' before with a massage business, the comfort of helping people be more comfortable. She is pleased with the photographs I sent her in a Christmas card - when the only reply I received was a note saying she was unable to send cards this year. She didn't mention Covid then.
Not exactly a folly to feel captivated by the New York Times cooking column. (see previous notes) The almost-daily review of their editorial suggestions on recipes and assorted cultural artifacts online is comforting, even at a distance. There is the thrill of imagining the results should you, eager reader whether hungry or not, seek to bring forth by creative action something both visually and sensually stimulating. Often that is enough to mend the day's listless mood. The mind's eye takes over from descriptions (and photographs) on the page. Long live vicarious living and all that. Such are the needs of pandemic days when everyone, each in his/her own way, feels trapped in a lull: past, present, future. Where do we invest our energy?
Bring on the wintry chill, then get to love: French Union-Braised Lamb Shanks with Barley and Greens and/or Roasted Orange Chicken
Take refuge/heart from whatever is near.
It isn't a mystery why an obsession with recipes is so strong, especially during pandemic light (or whatever the current phase should be called). It gives the feel of connection - with lovely and varied tastes, and with others equally engaged in productive efforts.
A thaw would be a relief from many things, for many reasons.
What else can one expect after two snowfalls in four days (counting the nights)? This is a month that is best lived day-to-day in search of sun and anything else conductive to good health and personal welfare. The country now more than ever is in search of its democratic foundations and a way out of the misinformation tide threatening to drown all civility.
I had, for a while, at the top of a list of notably negative signs the titles of notably popular books (at least on one December poll). 'The Bitch Is Back.' "Thug Matrimony' and 'Empire of Pain,' plus Congress member Robert F Kennedy's anti-Fauci rants. But there is only so much ill will a person can absorb before rejecting omens of any kind.
Especially when one's birthday falls on the date of the Christian Orthodox Christmas. Bring on the lights and flowers and celebrate.
At this point in the pandemic (capitalized or not?) it makes sense to identify the many different emotions and patterns of daily living can be attributed to what for most people is a very attenuated life. At least a life lived to the fullest. Lessons or habits learned throughout a seesaw nearly-two-year scourge?
I write in haste, the two that occur to me: how important it is to keep a schedule - but not too perfectly; and the necessity of reading at least one book a week. Book titles are my diary of sorts. The object of holding on to some sort of daily schedule is to know how and when to break it. Finally late January 2022, I do just : I become a tourist in New York City - traveling by train to Manhattan and staying two nights in a hotel while visiting friends whom I have not seen and barely talked with in two years. In normal times such a trip would involve theater and some semblance of social life. For one couple who are keeping strict discipline to be apart from strangers inside a building, this involves dinner outside under a plastic tent. A single heater bar overhead sustains us - barely - along with the handout plastic packet revealing a sheet of shiny silver mylar to cover our legs. A compromise, always the compromise. To enter museums it is necessary to order a visiting period ahead online and to give proof of ID and vaccinations at the door. The upside is fewer people around, a less crowded city, and a vague sense of time suspended. I miss the absence of spontaneity: strangers communicating. The mandated mask policy inhibits such a thing.
As for getting through ordinary days, I am not the only person I'm sure to fall prey to addiction to New York Times cooking column or App or whatever comes with my print subscription. Sam Sifton is my guide most of the time. I ignore the lures of games and crosswords in favor of parsing recipes and treating them as treasure hunts: do I/will I have the ingredients to try this or that new or familiar challenge and what will happen as I must boldly reduce each one by three-quarters. (The live-alone syndrome.) Mainly I fail in the attempt, being an impatient soul, but I end up with some sense of being on a journey that substitutes in some small way, for being out in the world.