Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Strength Prozac

I was thumbing through my coffee table book of New Yorker cartoons recently and saw a drawing of a huge pill bottle with a label reading, “Holiday Strength Prozac.” It was funny. So I smiled. But, seriously, where can I get some?

The holidays are upon us and with them are bourne so many emotions that it is often impossible to sort, identify or trace one before the next is tugging at us for attention. Case in point: I found myself yesterday standing in the middle of a wide empty room at a client’s holding a green christmas ornament in one hand tearing up for no good reason.

It suddenly ocurred to me for about the thousandth time that Christmas was coming and something was missing; I felt that I was in a taxi on the way to the airport and knew I had forgotten something critical to the trip without knowing what it was I had forgotten. Then I remembered: My grandmother was gone.

She died a few years ago, but – somehow – the coming of Christmas without her still causes a catch in my throught and tears in my eyes at the most random moments. I stood there marvelling that life could go on so seamlessly without her, and, at the same time, felt like a child who woke up in the middle of a bad dream; it took a minute to get my bearings and find my place in life and that moment again.

I find the older I get, the less I seem certain of anything and there are days when life is reduced to its most primal needs written on a wheel that never stops turning: Work. Food. Warmth. Fear. Yearning. Love. There are no words to quantify these things in real time; they are known by face, form and feel alone and if one of them is fractured we become totally disoriented.

Disorientation can be overcome, and I have a friend who, very sensibly, cooks when she is not feeling up to competing with the world. So, some weekends when everyone else is busy about things for themselves, she can be found at home listening to country music, sipping a glass of something, and turning mounds of various ingredients into a refridgerator packed to bursting with enough labelled packages to feed her staff and random hungry relatives for the next week.

They read like post-its your mom would leave in your lunch box, those packages, but grown-up: Smashed potatoes like you never imagined! Aparagus sauteed with bacon. Special shrimp oriental stir fry especailly for Linda! Turkey noodle soup with extra thick noodles. Really wild rice. The best stuffing in the world. She calls it her therapy and I know she takes comfort in the fact that through feeding people she is needed.

Everyone needs to be needed . . . almost more than anything else – more than to be fed, clothed, admired or loved – we need to be needed. But sometimes even being needed cannot fend off the lurking, malignant feeling that we are superfluous. We are extra. We are disposable. So what, then?

I don’t know, and this sometimes scares me. I feel I might disappear entirely if I let go for a second the carefully compsed image that is myself. There are moments like the one yesterday – ornament in hand – when I feel as if I were holding myself confidently in my own hands like a soapy dish that suddenly, inexplicably, slips from my fingers and falls into dangerous fragments at my feet before I can catch my next breath. I look about to see if anyone else has noticed, pick up the fragments and pretend that everything is fine, but I still know that something elemental has changed and I am a little less certain than I had been.

The days that make up November and December are like a great sink of soapy dishes waiting to be dropped while attempting to prove to others that I am worth enough to be among them and to myself that I am needed. So it’s a good thing that the holidays require so much cooking, after all.
(Note: Lori passed away aver a year ago, but this piece, written in 2007 originally, demonstrates how she just comes to mind everytime a large meal is prepared or a holiday looms.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Stairs of Home

Our house was not prepared to offer us a home when we met it about a year ago. With all first floor windows and the front door boarded over, the vestibule was almost black and most of the building’s nakedness was semi-concealed.

The only sounds in the house were the wind whipping down the street and thin flakes of plaster and paint falling now and again from the water-damaged ceilings to break with a sound like old eggshells on the dusty oak and maple floors.

The library to the left once had a detailed window part way up its main wall, but that had been stolen by looters, as had been the detailed columns in the living room opening to the right. All that was left of either were a ply-wood covered hole on one side and a wide sagging arch on the other with prints in the old shellac of bases and capitals to hint at what had once been there.

The living room ceiling had settled into a crackled grid with odd little pieces laying on the floor. The fireplace wall with its green tile looked very bare since the mantle had been stolen and someone had tried to remove some of the tile hearth resulting in a jagged edge looking a lot like teeth broken in a bar fight.

Pocket doors – miraculously remaining – led from the living room to what was once the dining room with another missing window in its bay and a Lazy-Boy-sized patch in the ceiling where the bathroom above must have caused problems in the past.

In the kitchen there was no stove, a sink in a rusted metal cabinet connected to nothing and drywall sagging from the ceiling because it was screwed up with no respect to joists.

The dust and grime of an empty house were everywhere as you headed up the stairs to the bedrooms and bath on the second floor, but at least there some of the windows that had been only cracked had been patched using acrylic sheeting and silicone so some sunlight broke into the rooms.

The bathroom had yellow-green tub connected to nothing, a toilet that had shattered from cold and a sink that had to be re-plumbed.

The house had been so long empty that even mice had moved elsewhere and scattered all through the house – mainly painted a much-grubbied flat white – were scrawled profanities, references of love to a girl named Felina and notes to a personage named Joel who was to stay out of the kitchen and bathroom.

The only space under that was possibly tame was the attic, and that possibility was only visible after tapping into the fort-building skills of a creative childhood. So we tapped. And hauled and rearranged until we were to be found squatting in our own attic. Since the budget set for the house by our broker didn’t go as far as he’d hoped before he passed away, it would be another seven months before the house had working plumbing beyond a basic toilet and it will be this Christmas before the kitchen is functioning.

But this year has been an interesting one in the development of our concept of home. Living on the third floor of a house set one-half a floor above ground meant a lot of stairs. Up from the back door to the kitchen. Up from the front hall to the bay in the landing. Up from the bay to the upper hall. Up from the hall to the attic with its pine floor, walls and ceiling.

A sofa and chair. Coffee table. Bookcases and mountains of books. Art supplies. Our make-shift dining table. Boxes of china. Paintings tucked wherever they would fit. A bed in one corner. Dressers in the back dormer. Everything involving home meant hauling up and down seemingly endless stairs to a space that was an odd hybrid of Rapunzel’s tower, Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house and Anne Frank’s annex. Home became all about stairs and waiting the winter out so we could begin expanding into the rest of the house.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A magical year.

Ken (now Ben) Fremer descended upon Bay City and told me that he had been more crazied than wronged – an incredibly astute statement – and said that he saw in me all the evil that rocked his boat. I decided to take the statement as a compliment and not miss anything at all because there seemed a special quality in the people and the air about that time – the better part of a year – that began with dancing under trees named The Sisters in Bay City between the park and the DoubleTree.

Mandy trotting down the sidewalk in a pouring rain holding twigs over her head as if they were an umbrella. (I have one of the branches still.) Roderick and I walking almost every night down to Caroll Park and talking there until the small hours of the day. Random midnight pizza at Brooklyn Boyz with Dan (who cannot see to drive, but is guided by the loops of energy that radiate from all things), Meredith (whose personality was as wild as her fabulous hair and whose uncle Ray was an ex-carnie), Jon Rigg (who was pale and cadaverous and whose clothes always looked as if they’d snagged on him as they blew by and whose look could only be described as heroine chic), Jen (who will one day realize her greatest art are the grafitti drawings she doesn’t have to think so hard about), Schultzie (Damn, the boy can look nuts when he wants to), and sometimes Amandrew.

Amandrew…watching Amanda and Andrew become the kind of couple that quirky novellas are made of was a once-only thing to see. Spontaneous road trips to Iargo Springs and unplanned but perfect evenings with scrounged suppers and foreign movies. Happy Hilfiger (Chris has had a sartorial awakening since that summer and has now – I am happy to report – entirely recovered from the experience of being home schooled) and his love of sushi and air guns. The end of the summer had Warren off to Interlochen and Nick out of the closet and firmly established as an adopted brother headed to Detroit to learn this thing called life.

In the autumn, the trees clung to their color almost three weeks longer than the year before as if trying desperately to slow the coming of winter and we all looked upward into the branches and grinned appreciatively.

Winter was brought in with a dancing of our group in the intersection of Saginaw and Center late the night of the first swirling, fluffy snow. And then it was over. Somehow, suddenly, everyone was boarding buses, packing cars, finding new adventures and life began to look different. But it still happened, that year, and we are all better for it.

Scratching posts and Baby Boys

October 18th, 2009 11:18pm

I looked out the window and watched as nineteen cats of every possible ancestry (or incestry?) prowled all over my front porch, lawn, the alley next door and meandering across the street to use the newly planted trees as scratching posts. Several had planted themselves in a row in what was left of the O’Keefe carriage stone as if governing the assembly. I watched them and thought of another odd October night Some years ago.

My mother became pregnant when the family still lived in Norway and our move back to Houston landed at the extreme end of her last trimester and our flight was on British Airways. The in-flight movie was "Batteries Not Included," and our row of seats was the last in the no-smoking section. We arrived in Houston, found an odd house, and my mother began labor just after closing on the house.

I sat up that night waiting for a baby and reading “The Time Machine” from cover to cover. The book is still a favorite. And the baby wasn't so bad in time, either.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The tight-wire act that is the universe.

“And then there was this shift in the universe and his texts, like, just about dried up altogether.”

Granted, she was about seventeen years old and trying to force down a double espresso at Starbucks because it had sounded like an elegant thing to order ("cool" she would probably say cool.), and her universe probably didn’t take much to rattle it, but she got me thinking.

Tiny things can rattle the universe and some of those tiny things aren't in the hands of superheroes, but, instead, in the paws of very average folks who can choose small things at every turning. There is no comittment to the level of choice taken...could range from how and where one buys produce or shoelaces to the amazing trick of looking into another human being’s eyes – even those of a total stranger – and draw from them a smile without saying a word and reminding them that they are not alone. And - knowing they are not alone - perhaps they make a tiny choice that changes someone else's day, and with that day an entire life.

Imagine what a hug or a random, but carefully considered phrase could do fifty years from now. So there’s really no excuse not to create a shift in someone’s universe today.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gathering sticks and threads.

We had hoped to eventually have a table in the dining room that could accommodate 6 and a drop-leaf table in the library that could seat more when open. We thought it would be great to have the option to have holidays at our house, but that it might be a while before we could afford two such tables.

Shortly after we came to think this would be a great thing, three different friends and neighbors offered us lovely tables. We ended with a wonderful mahogany veneered, claw-footed affair in need of a little repair from Wes and Levante, and I knew as soon as I saw the color of the finish that I would love it. Then Brian (the Brian who reminds me of a faun) made a gift to us of a table and six chairs that had been in his family for some time. Both tables are amazing and coordinate beautifully with each other.

Tonight Roderick and I had the first sit-down meal at an actual table since we bought our house. It felt a bit odd to be veering toward the current century again after nearly a year with partial utilities and no kitchen or proper bathroom, but I think we’ll adjust in time and the holidays should be interesting.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Leaves and things.

Brian Smith and I were at Begick’s to pick up the trees Lori had purchased for the 500 block of Millard and we took our time wending through the plants – touching this leaf and that – and comparing gentle notes on the people we mutually knew and cared about. We talked about the need for watering and nourishing, how some things transplant better than others, how some respond to a little adjustment of light or location more than others.

We were joined back at the houses by Gary and Rick in the planting of a maple in front of 519 and two liquid amber trees – sweet gums they’re called up here – for the opposite side of the street. Bryan helped plant the weeping birch Roderick and I bought for our yard and Rick helped plant a couple hundred daffodils in the mostly-round penny park where Owen, Sheridan and Millard meet.

The world grew bigger by four trees and so many bulbs that day and bits of the conversation with Brian drifted through my mind as we worked. After a time it became apparent that most people and plants were alike: They had very simple needs and could all be beautiful when given the proper amount of care. The trick was observing them, quietly and neutrally, and discerning what that amount might be…

Friday, September 18, 2009

A reason to get out of bed.

September, 2009

I know a Karen and I know a Bruce who work together at times. Her comment once about work and the way I have noticed his outlook on life subtly shift resulted in this:

[Ministering Angels]

You get cynical in this job she told him and he said he could see that but even if you get to where you saw abusive people around every turn that meant that behind them were people who needed to know the whole world was bigger and more beautiful than their personal experience and that made for a powerful reason to get up every morning.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Writing on the wall

The Mantle for our fireplace had been stolen long before we ever saw what was to become our house and we know it may be a while before we can afford (or find) the right replacement. So I decided to do what I love to do: I wrote on the wall and the quote is a favorite of mine that seemed appropriate to a house that had been empty a while.

“But there was no prayer in Joel’s mind; rather, nothing a net of words could capture, for, with one exception, all his prayers of the past had been simple concrete requests: God give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved…and in this moment, like a swift intake of breath, the rain came.”
Truman Capote

Monday, July 13, 2009

Lost Things; A St. Jude kind of day.

Why would anyone cut down a tree that has lived a hundred years?

Why does a temporarily empty building seem to equal a useless building?

Who would steal a dog?

Why are wanted children miscarried before they can recieve a first caress when so many unwanted children live to understand not being wanted?

Why would a vibrant child pass from living and laughing last weekend to being silent forever?

I don't know. I cannot begin to understand. I can only think that such things make old trees more remarkable, ruins more romantic, puppies more magical, families more precious and heaven more lovely. But who can really tell at then end of the day?

"Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?"
(Mrs. Maple, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Life is....

Dr. Gregory House: "They're out there, doctors, lawyers postal workers some of them doing great some of them doing lousy. Are you going to base your whole life on who you got stuck in a room with?"

Eve: "I'm going to base this moment on who I'm stuck in a room with. It's what life is. It's a series of rooms and who we get stuck in those rooms with adds up to what our lives are."

(From a 2007 episode of House MD)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Innocents and Opalescent Sea Urchins

He was tall, broad-shouldered and had dark shaggy hair above puzzled eyes. He moved a little differently than others and spoke a little louder. He brought his own cup – an opalescent punch glass with nubs in rows that reminded me of the shell of an sea urchin. Cookies and cups of coffee were priced at a dollar each and he wasn’t sure that his $3 would cover him.

He got his cookie and coffee, sat near Hailey and I, chatted pleasantly for a few minutes in his sweet way about nothing particular and everything at once, and then he was gone.

The kids I went to grade school with would possibly – no, certainly – have called him “retarded.” (Hell, they called me that.) As he walked away with his magic cup in his bag and his smile (always just hinted at the corners of his mouth), I had to wonder: What’s wrong with moving slower than every one else? He may not get concepts like anger, bitterness or revenge, but – then – he notices every pretty thing in his way and will fall asleep one day not knowing what old is.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Thought

“A purely natural landscape is one which has never been occupied by man. An area which is unified upon the basis of the way in which man has used and transformed the natural landscape is a cultural landscape.”

(Edna Scofield in a 1936 article.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wonderful Book. Interesting Topic. (Yes, and lots of pictures.)

Richard Sexton assembled a phenominal collection of photographs of buildings on the edge of existance and his text was every bit as interesting. Here's a passage that I found locally relevant:

“Architecture is as undeniably mortal as the humans who build it. The role of the preservationist is merely to thwart an untimely demise. We deny our own mortality by going to extraordinary lengths to prolong human longevity, but we tend to be far more ambivalent with our architecture. In fact, the willingness to tear down almost anything we have built has been a hallmark of American culture – a predilection that has only recently been subjected to serious reevaluation.

America is about progress and migrations, entrepreneurship and the economic exploitation of fertile landscapes. It is also about invention and innovation, hybridization and assimilation. Perhaps most significantly, however, America is about freedom, including the freedom to do whatever on wants with one’s property. America is, therefore, less occupied with tradition, heritage, stewardship, and civic duty than other cultures, including those from which we have directly descended. Though America is a world power economically and militarily, culturally it is merely postcolonial. America is still finding itself, gradually and sometimes painfully; is becoming a more mature and stable place of human habitation – the cultural equivalent of an adolescent, a brash and prodigal one at that.

Along Louisiana’s River Road are scattered some of the most compelling vestiges of our exotic past. Though today we recognize the significance of this architecture, we are somewhat baffled by what to do with it. In far too many cases, there is no longer a logical economic reason for this architecture to exist…”

(Richard Sexton, Vestiges of Grandeur, The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road, 1999, Chronicle Books, San Francisco,

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Last Things

We were very happy in our quirky apartment on Warren Avenue; even its too-small-to-be-a-panic-room kitchen became charming with the proper threats. I may even miss the view from the kitchen window with its random assemblage of crap and crud. SPM.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Visit from the Madonna

"But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me"

Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors

As the last sounds of church bell had faded and 7 O’clock approached that evening, the air had an almost golden quality and the breeze was crisp as we stood in our drive chatting with Rick Rios about paint colors and Jazz on Jefferson.

As we stood chatting, a youngish woman came into view from around the front of 509 Owen and cut through the empty lot the O’Keefe house once occupied as she walked in our general direction.

She was very slightly built, about 5’8”, wearing skinny jeans that still somehow managed to be a little baggy on her, a brilliant blue scarf around her head, a walnutty-brown cardigan with a rolled collar, an assortment of beads around her neck, bangles on her wrists and a suit case in each hand.

(One bag looked to be from the 1960’s and was sprinkled white, orange, green, pink and blue flowers on a black background. The other bag was made from an old Persian carpet, and I swear she inherited it from Mary Poppins herself.)

She and I said hello as she got into our front yard, a smile broke on her face as she saw she was welcome, and – while Rick looked mystified and Roderick looked disoriented – she set her bags down on the spit of lawn between our house and drive, opened the flowered bag, pulled out a white bath towel and proceeded to go hunt kittens in the brush between the old Barie house and 509 Owen.

I met her a few years ago, back before her teeth had been broken, before she might have had a child no one can seem to find, and before she’d dropped to skin and bones and become a possible transient with great luggage. She told me her name, but I call her Madonna of the Strays.

She has a passionate determination that kittens should not be left to fend for themselves, so she catches them, feeds them and nurtures them until they are clean and docile. She then finds people who will not be able to refuse a home to such an adorable creature.

She has a mothering, nesting instinct. It may seem that she talks to herself almost constantly as she goes about her day, but this simply isn’t the case: She isn’t alone, so she is not talking to herself. She is talking to a caring, interested third party that always wants to know what she is doing, how she is feeling and what she thinks is important.

Laurie didn’t find any kittens to save, but she did find a stray stoneware plate that could be washed and used, and she found a used tin pail to fill with long grass, nettles and twigs. She was just telling us (the third party and I) what she planned to do with the contents of the pail when she spotted the last two – of eight – construction dumpsters in the alley between our house and the Jefferson Apartments next door.

Graham Construction Corp. acquired the building over the last couple months and – over Saturday and Sunday – had been dropping everything and anything left by years of former tenants in preparation for a rehabilitation of the building out of four floors of windows to the dumpsters below.

To Graham, this was trash to be handled with gloves and a Bobcat; to the Madonna, the dumpsters were full of possibilities. Within minutes Rick, Roderick and I could hear the sounds of metal and glass hitting the pavement next to the dumpsters as the Madonna began sifting for treasures.

Over the course of the next five hours, she had emptied first one, then the other dumpster to their bottoms and removed anything of interest to be hauled off later in her pair of stashed shopping carts.

By 3a.m. were laid in neat rows on the sidewalk in front of our house:

Three painted wood and mirror-doored medicine cabinets with broken shelves
(“I might have a house one day and these are great.”)
A turntable with no cord
(“It’s not done yet, this thing.”)
A stack of mismatched plates, one of cups and mugs, one of random silverware
(“I could have eight people for dinner, you know. Yes. Well, I could.”)
The top and two sides of a metal radiator cover
(“I should be able to paint this.”)
A bent tin-framed, plexi glass glazed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.
(“If a pope was in this frame, it wouldn’t be in the trash.”)
A brown velvet snood
(“Oh!! I could disinfect this!!)
A collection of folded towels and baby blankets
(“Now they’ll all be warm.”)

Her only pauses were to sip from a can of strawberry Ensure and sometimes chew on Kool-Aid powder she mixed with the Ensure.

By morning there was no sign of the Madonna or her treasures. After sorting the items, she returned all those she could not use to the dumpster, wandered the neighboring yards picking up trash. Then she swept the alley and our sidewalks with a broom from one of the dumpsters, loaded her finds into her carts and bags, and was gone from us before dawn.

In the course of the previous evening she found a bracelet that inspired a huge grin and a scrambling trip over to share with me. It was made of metal with tiny rhinestones, green enamel leaves and cabochons of glass backed with foils to look like opals. It was perfect, even after dropping from a window and being buried in a dumpster of rubble. It only took the right person to find it and appreciate it.

The Madonna’s blue eyes sparkled above her hollow cheeks and ragged grin as she held it for me to see. And, suddenly, I got it:

At that moment, there was nothing I could give her that she needed. She wasn’t lost. She wasn’t alone. She wasn’t even poor. She had everything she thought she needed. She was wealthy in her own perception, and after sharing her find with me, she was off to save more precious lost kittens from a wide, frightening world.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Popsicles and Cornbread

Last night Theresa hosted an open mic night at Dawn's and the turn out was wonderful. Theresa (who will hopefully post her "let me take you back" on this site), Assigid, Gloria and Alma (amongst others) sang, read their work, sipped coffee and chatted through an evening. Aside from being the only woman I've ever known to eat a banana with a knife and fork, Alma has wonderful stories...if you see her, you should ask her to tell you the one about her heart taking a dance class; you'll be touched.

Popcicles and Cornbread

Popcicles and cornbread
What an odd combination

But there's nothing odd about
How I fell into the conversation

It was about better times
When we had lots of fun

Popcicles in the freezer
I remember box after box

After playing jump rope
Baseball or hop scotch

For dinner there was cornbread
Fried chicken and greens
Sweet potatoes and fried corn
Y'all know what I mean

Those were the good old days
I play them over and over in my head

And when I remember mom
I'll always remember
Popcicles and cornbread

(Poem by Theresa)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Another Take on What Makes Home "Home."

"As collectors mature, old teapots, procelain animals and family heirlooms take on a new humanity and suddenly the house becomes a home."

Letitia Roberts, Art & Antiques, December, 2006

Home: water color on paper mounted on board. SPM

Saturday, May 23, 2009

There's this house on Jefferson...

There's a badly sided house on Jefferson Avenue that I pass going pretty much anywhere to or from home. It is low and multi-gabled with a half-dead crab apple tree blooming in its front yard. I was walking past it the other day on my way nowhere, tripped all over the sidewalk and came up sniffing peppermint that someone planted in the back yard years ago when someone still lived in the house.

So I thought of this poem, rubbed my knee, stood up and got on with things:

Where the Sidewalk Ends

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

(by Shel Silverstein)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday night music at Dawn's on Washington

George Worthmore is a small man in a straw hat with a big personality and several acoustic guitars who sang a few songs. He played a lot more.

There is something about the sound of a lovingly, skillfully played guitar and a particular kind of voice that just works with songs about tight times. I was thinking that when he went into a cover of a B.B. King song:

"If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I'm gonna squeeze it and squeeze it 'til that eagle grins…"

I love that he didn’t require undivided attention. He stated that some music was just furniture music: it was intended to just sit there not getting in the way of what was going on at the time.

He wasn’t terribly sure of one he said hadn’t yet been played out, but he thought he’d try it anyway. Maybe it’ll fall victim of the “Swiss cheese effect”, when you get to watch it disintegrate before your very eyes. Maybe not.

He said it was called “Avenue Maria” after a street in Little Italy…And then played the most lulling version of Ave Maria I had yet heard. It was almost enough to make me a Catholic. Almost. Not quite. (But almost).

George will be at White Crow Conservatory (on Mackinaw) here in town tomorrow (Saturday) around 7PM, if you missed him at Dawn of a New Day (or "Crack of Dawn," as George thought it was called, lol.) Go. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Two Sides of a Coin

"One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries."
A. A. Milne

You know, I keep telling Roderick this and he keeps looking at me as if I had just said something threatening to his sanity. Then he begins flitting about the house - eyebrows drawn together in concern - muttering and "clearing surfaces." Ah, well, what does one do? Fill "surfaces," that's what.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From Hayden to Washington

The boys from the Savoy have a new house and the view from one of the upstairs windows toward the garage and Washington was pretty neat. SPM.

Monday, May 11, 2009

An average Michigan sunset over springtime fields after a long weekend of gardening out in Cass City turned out to be a reminder: After the hells of winter in this place, something as simple as an everyday sort of sunset over the most common field of weeds can be pretty incredible. Almost makes winter worth it. SPM.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dreams, Ambitions and Bleach.

Salon chat is often jolly, acidic, or wandering and is never boring. And the clientele at Salon Decadence is no exception.

I had been reading a magazine and waiting out my toner when, two chairs over from me a woman materialized like a firecracker in a toilet bowl. She was an energetic woman with dynamic red hair, Day-Glo Band-Aids on her right thumb and a personality that had no time for the work, “No.”

Dynamic asked where _____ was and was told she worked a couple doors down for more hours because she was pregnant. Dynamic shot up in her chair suddenly and said, “REALLY!? HOW GREAT!! IS IT A BOY OR A GIRL?!!

When told the couple had decided they’d like to be surprised, Dynamic said, “That’s CRAP. I HATE that. How do you shop not knowing if it’s a boy or a girl?! You don’t know whether to get blue or pink!!” And, defeated, she slumped back into her stylist’s hands.

Her stylist suggested green. I suggested going with yellow. Dynamic would have none of it, declared surprises to be elaborate crap, and announced with finality that the couple were just going to have to find out the gender of the child so she could shop appropriately.

I sat there staring at the same page of my magazine, scalp tingling, and thinking: Pink with butterflies, unicorns and princesses or blue with frogs, cowboys and knights would imply – even today – that girls are supposed to have dreams while boys are supposed to have ambitions. What a shame when we were so clearly intended to experience more than half of the universe on a good day.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


"Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy."
Anne Frank

500 Block of Millard: Watercolor, pencil, charcoal on reclaimed wood panel. SPM. (Used for the poster of Jazz on Jefferson 2009)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Negative Urban Renewal?!

How “Urban Renewal” Destroyed San Francisco’s Fillmore District
By Carl Close on Jul 21, 2008 in Economics, Housing, Property Rights

The great urban journalist Jane Jacobs probably had New York City in mind when she wrote about the potentially devastating effects of government-sponsored “redevelopment” on the inner city, but her lesson applies in many cities across the world. San Francisco’s Fillmore District is a prime example of an “urban renewal” disaster.

“The agency’s time there has not been a happy story,” Fred Blackwell, the new executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There is no way to make up for clearing large swaths of land and displacing thousands of people.”

In 1948, city officials declared the Fillmore, an ethnically diverse but largely African American neighborhood, to be “blighted” under the California Redevelopment Act of 1945. Over the next few decades, and with the help of eminent domain and federal funding, 4,729 businesses were forced to close, 2,500 households were pushed out of the neighborhood, and 883 Victorian houses were demolished. What the Fillmore got in return for its troubles—a high-rise residential project, some fast-food restaurants, and, late last year, a posh jazz nightclub—was too little, too late.

What went wrong? Several things. First, the urban planners of the day got it wrong: Rather than being “blighted,” the Fillmore was the center of the city’s vibrant, black commercial district, providing goods and services, gainful employment, and upward mobility for thousands. If it wasn’t broken (and in the eyes of many of the Fillmore’s residents and shopkeepers at the time, it wasn’t), it didn’t need fixing. Second, the economic opportunities and complex social networks that fostered economic empowerment and community spirit were fragile things: Hoping that they would boldly spring forth years after they had been dramatically disrupted was no more realistic than trying to unscramble an omelet. Third, the powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and contractors who profited from “redevelopment” had different short-term interests than those displaced by program.

What can be done to prevent future “urban planning” disasters? Several things. First, eminent domain must be drastically curtailed. (That’s no real loss: Bruce Benson argues forcefully that the “holdout problem” is a bogus rationale for eminent domain.) Second, rent control, which, as Paul Krugman notes, inhibits the creation of new rental property and contributes to the deterioration of existing rental properties, must be dismantled. Similarly, below-market housing mandates, which curtail the creation of new housing and therefore drive up housing prices, should also be scrapped. Third, the power of politicians to dole out favors to special-interest groups should be greatly restricted. (The harms of interest-group politics and other sources of “government failure” are ably explained in Beyond Politics, by William Mitchell and Randy Simmons.) Fourth, urban planners and residents themselves must better learn the nature and positive potential of the voluntary institutions, networks, and patterns that arise without government planning. (For details, see the Independent Institute book The Voluntary City, edited by David Beito, Peter Gordon, and Alex Tabarrok.)

San Franciscans better learn these lessons fast: Last June, the city’s voters passed a redevelopment initiative for the Bayview/Hunters Point area.

"My own private Idaho."

…in Saginaw.

Oh the experiences I have had. Evidently I have been single for far too long, because I am starting to exude so many single gay man pheromones, that construction workers in Saginaw are trying to pick me up. So the story goes something like this:

I went to Saginaw to visit Steve, and just as I was walking into Dawn of a new Day a middle age man in a truck with a trailer pulled up and called me over. I just assumed that he needed directions, which was kind of the case I guess.

Worker guy: “Where is Janes Street?”

Me: “I think it is back that way.”

Worker guy: “Do you need a job?”

Me: “No.”

Worker guy: “Okay. How about food, or dinner sometime, or something?”

Me: “Um okay?”

Worker guy: “Can I get your number?”

Me: *Insert fake Detroit phone number here*

Worker guy: “Oh okay I’ll give you a call sometime. Do you not live around here?”

Me: “I live in Detroit.”

Worker guy: “What are you doing here?”

Me: “Visiting family.”

Worker guy: “Okay...have a nice day.”

So after our conversation I go in to Dawn’s and tell Lindsey about it.

So I thought it was over. But it goes on from there. He then shows up at the coffee shop.

At this point I promptly had to go find Steve and I left. So, once again, I thought the end of the story.

After a brief break at Steve’s house, we head back to Dawn’s. So a little time passes and he [worker guy] calls Dawn, and asks for me. Dawn’s phone messes up and I loose the call, and then he shows up again, and the conversation went something like this.

Worker guy: “Hi, the number you gave me was wrong.”

Me: “Oh you must have taken it down wrong...”

Worker guy: “Oh. well, can I get it?”

Me: *Insert real phone number* "Oh but I am going to be Europe and my phone won’t work.”

Worker guy: “Oh. well, do you want to get together tonight?”

Me: “Um, I have lots of things to do today. I’ll be back in the end of June.”

Worker guy: “Good”

He exits stage left. At this point Dawn is freaking because her world had been blown: Our worker guy’s wife is going to be making glass vases with Dawn.

For a cross reference on how I feel about this check out my post on straight acting gays.

Nick Piotrowski

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The things you try to survive.

A man walked into a coffee shop near the river and settle into his favorite corner – between the front window and the yellowed brick wall – to read “Rolling Stone.” He was just part way through an article about the Grateful Dead that had a photograph of the group performing in what had once been a synagogue in New York City.

The building still had much of its original bones…the women’s gallery, the very gothic windows, ornate gates set into the back of the bemah with Hebrew script above them. Over all was a blend of light varying in color from gold to lavender and the man thought the synagogue full of rock music just might be one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen when he looked across the shop and saw that a casual acquaintance was looking his way.

The acquaintance, a young man with dark curls and an ever-concerned forehead, got up and came over to the first man as though he suddenly decided he must.

The second man came to the first, offered his hand and sat down, asking the first man, “Do you ever feel as if you didn’t want to be here anymore?”

“You mean here in the coffee shop, or here in this life?

“Here in this life.”

“Yes,” said the first man.

“Well. What do you do with that? What keeps you together?”

The first man had to stop and think on that for a moment before replying because such feelings are not often voiced, and the dealing with them is more instinctual, more survival driven, than carefully planned and worded. In this moment, words were needed because the second man was not making casual conversation. He was seriously enquiring.

The first man told the second that he had learned he would have such feelings just about every March. March is the month when the world has been frozen long enough that giving up is easy to do.

So, knowing this, the first man told the second that he had to be prepared.

“Prepared how?” asked the second man.

“Well…I know that in those times it is really important I have some kind of outlet to create. I force myself to journal, or to cook or paint more. You can’t create anything out of a funk, so that means you have to look back beyond that funk to find the things that are bright enough to be inspiring to creativity. That way your mind yourself that the thing you are going through is really only a small fragment of your whole story.

Sometimes you have to remind yourself that God just might have a sick sense of humor, but the joke always comes to an end. Sometimes you have to stop what you are doing and remember there is something or someone bigger than you are and that – even though you feel alone and nowhere – you aren’t alone and never really will be.”

“Hmph. That’s interesting, but I don't do those things and it's not much to hang onto when you feel like letting go,” said the second man.

The first man thought for a second and then said, “You attend a synagogue, right?”

“Yep,” said the second man.

“What has your Rebbe told you about creation?”

“What do you mean? Like, the beginning of creation? The creation of the world?”

Said the first man, “I mean the continuation of creation. Has your Rebbe ever told you that creation is not finished? That we were put here to continue the creation of the world?”

“Sure,” said the second man.

“Well,” continued the first man, “we are told we are here to continue that creation. To make more than was here when we arrived. So, logically, leaving a work unfinished could possibly be the worst thing we could do to the world around us. Have you ever been very close to giving up or moving on and some tiny act from another person changed your mind or reminded you what you were about to lose?”

“Sure,” said the second man with a slightly puzzled expression.

“Did you ever stop to think,” asked the first man, “that perhaps this random thing that changed your mind was the result of something random itself? What if somewhere – five, six, or maybe seventy persons removed from you – a word, look or gesture had set in motion a chain of events that led to the moment that changed your mind and perhaps saved your life? But, what if – seventy persons before you – someone had decided they had lived enough, that they would leave this life unfinished regardless of the consequences? That chain of events might never have happened to save your life. So, then, that person seventy people removed from you – by leaving their life unfinished – left holes in countless other lives he or she may have never known of.”

“That’s kind of a big thought,” said the second man, looking at his hands folded on the table.

“I suppose it is,” said the first man, “but it is also an amazingly hopeful thing to think that the world is not out of control, that perhaps it is just unfinished and there is still a great deal to do in it that requires every hand and every tiny gesture if it is ever to be a finished work. So, then, it would be an incalculably selfish thing to deprive the world of one pair of hands, or even one tiny gesture or look that might help finish this world, wouldn’t it?”

The second man thought a moment before saying he agreed with the first and that, somehow, the thought that your life could be such a big deal if you looked at the ripples that came from it made the thing you were trying to survive seem a lot smaller.

They chatted for a few moments longer about all the ways you could impact the universe with all of the tiny things you had to do anyway: You had to live somewhere, so why not choose that place so you could help make it over new? You had to see people, so why not listen a little more and share a little more so life was broader for the meeting? You had to buy your food and somewhere, so where would you buy it so it could help the place in which you live in?

So between getting excited about the things they could do, the things the two men had to try to survive got so small - so very small - that they disappeared entirely when compared with the great business of creating the world they lived in.

(Took place at the Redeye in Old Town)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Almost Charming

“Falling out of love is chiefly a matter of forgetting how charming someone is.”
Iris Murdoch

Someone. Something. Someplace. Dame Murdoch’s words gave me cause to stop and wear a somewhat pissy grin for a moment. In that moment I suddenly found a reason for the perfectly confident and seemingly ever-negative comments about our neighborhood delivered by persons who have as much connection with it as I have with an affluent lifestyle:

They do not know its charm. Period.

Opinions regarding certain parts of, and people in, our city seem to spring from the same root as malicious gossip: If it’s good, why mention it? If it’s bad, then repeat it into immortality.

Is it still true that white people and black people in Birmingham, Alabama attend different schools and must only ride certain public conveyances? Is it still true that women cannot vote in this country? Is it still true that any child born of unwed parents is still socially unacceptable? Is it still true that all Americans are rude and all Germans have expansionalist ideas? (Well. The American bit is mostly true. Ask the French.)

No, these things are mostly untrue today and so are many of the rumors passed to and fro regarding our neighborhood. It is not mostly made up of rentals where drug lords party the night away and no one cuts their grass because they are too busy stealing each other’s rims and shooting one another’s dogs.

There are films and exhibits at the Castle Museum, Spires of historic churches that chime at evensong and shine at night, the library Jesse Hoyt endowed, amazing homes waiting for a combination of love and skill to pull them away from extinction and a network of neighbors and organizations quietly having dinner in each other’s homes, tending gardens on long evenings and organizing events. The neighbor hood has slept quietly after a long period of violence and decrepitude, but it is stirring and soon there will be more life than it was build to hold.

Venice may or may not be sinking, GM may or may not survive, Obama may or may not be the economic Messiah of the United States and the Cathedral District may or may not be the ghetto its clairvoyant critics seem convinced it is. How will you know if you do not visit yourself?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Exact Centers

“This is one of the exact centers of the universe & it's in charge of a lot of the beautiful & amazing things we'll take for granted in the future.”

Brian Andreas

Friday, April 17, 2009

Have you Seen This Child!?

St. Parsimonious: Paint, pencil, copper leaf on reclaimed oak panel. Salvaged hardware for hanger. If you know her, feel free to comment, lol. SPM.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The heart of prayer is a quiet, empty place.

“But there was no prayer in Joel’s mind; rather, nothing a net of words could capture, for, with one exception, all his prayers of the past had been simple concrete requests: God give me a bicycle, a knife with seven blades, a box of oil paints. Only how, how, could you say something so indefinite, so meaningless as this: God, let me be loved… And in this moment, like a swift intake of breath, the rain came.”
Truman Capote
Other Voices Other Rooms
(At least, I *think* this was the work's name.)

This was our second Easter morning at St. John's, Old Town. The service was helpful in a very pertinent way, and the brunch afterward was lovely and a massive Easter may stay, I suppose.

Friday, April 10, 2009

“”What is it, my dear?”

“Ah, how shall we bear it?”

“Bear what?”

“This. For so short a time. How can we sleep this time away?”

“We can be quiet together, and pretend – since it is only the beginning – that we have all the time in the world.”

“And every day we shall have less. And then none.””

A. S. Byatt

Life has moved so oddly, so randomly, this last six months. Passover last year was a hectic, jolly affair at our apartment on Warren Avenue with much thought, a lot of chat and barely a Jew in sight. It was a healing, starting over sort of evening. Passover this year was a much more sober thing to behold: Our good friend, Bob, had passed only the Sunday before and there was just too much going on at our house so far as demolition and destruction in the kitchen that a meal there was out of the question.

Nick, Roderick, Lindsey, Gabe and myself had date-studded roast and gefilte fish salads and swapped some chat standing in the kitchen at Dawn's. It was good. It was just different. So here's to next year in a finished house...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lights on the River

“Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.”

There was no question in this statement. It was always said with just such a tone and twinkle as to imply we were about to do something that might land us in trouble, and always followed the statement with an infectious grin as if the fun now would be worth the trouble later.

More importantly, Bob always said, “Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen,” in a way that made it clear he had absolute faith in the ability of determined individuals to accomplish whatever it was they set out to do.

It was this confidence that inspired some of us for years, and others of us only more recently. So, for the “others”, this attitude of Bob’s was one of the first impressions of Saginaw. That being the case, who wouldn’t want to live in a community where one could change the things that one did not agree with or improve the things one was willing to work for?

Bob passed on Sunday the 5th after an incredibly long fight with an illness that swallowed his physical being whole but could not touch his scallywaggish optimism.

His funeral filled St. John’s Episcopal on Michigan Avenue to standing only. Sitting in the front out of sight behind the organ with Mel Curry waiting to do our bits, it was amazing to think that one life could have touched so many others.

Tonight a group of Bob’s friends and family – bizarre and inspiring in its diversity – met at a boat launch near Old Town to release paper lotus flowers – each holding a lit tea light – onto the river in remembrance of Bob’s life.

As the dark closed in, the group huddled in the chill night with their children, their mothers, wives, lovers and friends to take a moment and quietly reflect on what a life could be and what it could do when driven by a mad twinkle and seemingly endless energy.

Tiny lights swirled in circles as their number grew…round and round in the launch until, finally, they were taken by the river slowly toward Old Town and it’s lit spires.

It is only appropriate, I suppose, that so many tears and so many lives should meet together to make light and more light as the clouds rolled back and the moon joined the company. I think Bob would have approved. I think he would’ve grinned and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.”

(Photo, Michael Hollenbeck, Saginaw News, 3"x5" painting on wood panel with pencil, silver and copper leaf, SPM)

Monday, February 23, 2009

King of the World

This tall, bald fella with glasses came into the Red Eye, set his coat and a tote down at an empty table and began fluttering about “helping.”

He took magazines from the rack on the wall and added them according to some random internal pattern to the tables in the rest of the shop. He put creamer packets in a neat row under the non-functioning payphone in the back room while having a conversation with no one at all through the dead receiver.

He arranged a fist full of straws on the bench by the phone. He went into the bathroom, pulled the liner out of the trash can, set it on the floor, flushed the toilet, locked and closed the door with himself on the outside to prevent anyone from messing about with anything. He randomly informed customers that the coffee was very good and there was plenty of it.About the time he pulled out the duct tape and began looking for a place to use it, the owner thought maybe he should go.

Why?!, he yipped. "I’ve made myself very clear! I’m tired of being polite to you about this! Fine…I’ll go. You know where to find me. You know where I work. Why do I have to leave? You should be doing all this (with an expansive hand gesture)! It’s not my job to stock the shop! You can call the Chinese place around the corner! I’m busy! I’m in the phonebook, you can page me. There are pagers all over town. There are clocks all over town – you probably have one at home – and they watch you through them. I don’t need this! I’m going!”

So he was gone. Pushing determinedly off to the next obsessive compulsive crisis where only he could save the situation. I’m not sure about him: is he to be pitied because he doesn’t know he’s gone momentarily crazy, or does this make him king of the world?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Writing on the Wall

I got in trouble once as a child for writing on a wall. I am grown now and can write on walls as often as I like, but I still choose my moments carefully.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Flight to Chicago

She showed us all how our seatbelts worked and then the plane gathered speed and took leave of the ground. I looked out the window as we rose and watched as the snow-powdered fields, trees, farm houses and roads got smaller and more exquisite until – suddenly – they were gone.

The whole world was gone and life had become incredibly simple because, at that moment, it only mattered that I had remembered to pack my toothbrush and say, “I love you,” before I left home.

Saturday, January 10, 2009