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POVERTY + PRIVILEGE + BIKES = ExquisiteKnowing CHALLENGE 2017

Interdisciplinary artist and ExquisiteKnowing founder, Ashley David (Calif.), teams up with Momentum Bike Clubs (South Carolina) to bring underserved high school students and their mentors to Silicon Valley from Greenville County, August 5-10, to collaborate with Bay Area youth in an immersive and cycling-based 6-day examination and living experiment in community, working homelessness, and innovation.

ExquisiteKnowing Challenge 2017 is a Bay Area summit to explore poverty and privilege and create possibility through experience and exchange. Participants will visit Facebook, YouTubeand a San Jose incubator space, volunteer in East Palo Alto/Redwood City/San Jose, cycle for sport and transportation, shelter at a church, shower at a gym, and process their experiences through ExquisiteKnowing workshops to create text, audio, and video artifacts to share online and with their local community.

This social practice art project is designed to catalyze empowerment, empathy, and compassion, and to build bridges between communities holistically. It challenges participants to take “building resilience” to the next level, and it expands the scope of Momentum Bikes Clubs to include national focus and exposure. In its pilot year, the project will match Greenville youth with Bay Area youth. It plans to flip the geography in subsequent years, bringing Bay Area youth to South Carolina to continue the dialog, redefine perspectives, expand the spheres of influence, and continue cultivating the experience.

4 Poems & Images in Black Sun Lit

Black Sun Lit previewed four poems on their site today along with four images, which are related to the series as object-translations of the poems. The poems are from a project begun in Havana and traversing ethnography, poetry, visual arts, and performance.

The poems will also appear in Black Sun Lit’s next issue of Vestiges, due out next month. The issue is chock-full of diverse and interesting work, and I hope you’ll check it out.

Difficult to locate, my heart bleeds
while they feed at my breasts. Slice
my tongue twice with a sword. Horses
are hungry, the serpent and moon waning,
volcanic sun socks a line to bread and iron.
Water virgin and a cow with one arm feel
a heart that does not fell. I have faith to be
blind, a selfish fish. Hubris leaps over yellow
akin to the monkey hands. Sprouts sores
with tree wire. Barbed blue eyes, not fleur de lis,
but doves.

—from “In this Atmosphere,” forthcoming in Vestiges_02: Ennui

Other poems and object-translations from the series can be found in The Offending Adam 162.1, Web Conjunctions 5.6.2014, and The South Dakota Review Vol 41 Nos 3&4.

Game Day Test Spin = 48 New Imaginary Friends & Family

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UGA vs. Auburn. SEC football and one of the biggest days of the year for Athens, Georgia in the USA. Crowds make this small town brim to overflowing. People don’t always behave well. They drink to excess, dump trash everywhere, treat what is my local like it’s their amusement park. A disposable and trash-able party venue. It’s the kind of day I tend to hide from.

But not this year. This year, I took IFaFMember, aka “Imaginary Friends & Family November,” for a test spin. I introduced myself to 50 strangers and asked them to be my imaginary friends and family.

One said, “Naw, we don’t want any part of that. We’re trying to get somewhere.” A bike policeman named Dan said, “I probably shouldn’t while I’m on-duty.” But 48 people said, “Yes!” We exchanged names. We went from zero to intimate in about 60 seconds, and we made portraits together, like we go way back. A remarkable transition, one I’m just going to have to go ahead and call magic.

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“That was weird,” Keven said. Jackson held his tongue.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I’m an introvert. I know a lot of people in the world, but I don’t always feel  connected to them. I suspect I share this conundrum with even the most extroverted among us. It’s not too hard, it turns out, to feel lonely or alienated in the center of things. And, it’s not always easy, or even convenient, to make meaningful connections. For introverts like me, it’s easiest to travel about as a party of one, dancing in the shadows, skirting the periphery.

Not yesterday, though. Nope. Yesterday, I was surrounded by “friends and family,” and the connections, though brief and fleeting, felt sincere and genuine. I had a blast in this crowd, in this place, on this day, and via a manner of interaction that is a 180 degree flip from my “normal.” It was a big flip from everyone else’s normal, too. My favorite comment, overheard as I walked away, was from a father to his son. “That was weird,” he said. And, he was right. But look at our photo. We are loving it. See how we’re close, how we’re collaborating for a good shot together, how we’re being ourselves together. We are loving each other’s company. Weird is apparently wonderful.

It’s hard to believe, but as I interacted with these strangers, as I made them my imaginary friends and family, as we collaborated to make portraits, as we negotiated the strangeness and laughed together, as we all said, “Yes!” I felt a fundamental human warmth, a connection to people I would be unlikely otherwise to meet, to spend time with, to know. I may never see any of them again, but I’ll be thrilled if I do. We’ll say hello like old friends and laugh about our shared history. Perhaps we’ll make another portrait. Or share a cup of tea. Throw a frisbee. Become actual friends and family.

Want to join the Imaginary Friends & Family community? Please do. I would love it if you’d give the experiment a try, and I can’t wait to hear about your experience of making imaginary friends and family out of strangers. Here’s how.

Warsaw Dispatch: Your Place?

Karta PobytuMy Polish residency officially expired yesterday, and I mourn its passing. Nevermind that my non-renewal of this residency status was due to pressing US concerns and according to original plan. I’ve been back in the US for four and a half weeks (which is a vague approximation of a particular and specifiable quantity of hours of which I am all too aware). My US house is delightful. My critters are happy in their garden. I’ve landed a new freelance gig and started a new (small) business, the combination of which makes the US bills do-able. I’ve embarked on a new arts project that I’m excited about. I’m also tending to those pressing concerns. But, “home” remains in Warsaw. How is this possible?!?

At my pożegnanie, my farewell gathering, the one in which, after many months of struggle with the “world’s most difficult language,” I busted out with spontaneous Polish—my brain and body too attached to let go, too committed to hold back—someone said, “Since you say wracam (return) when you talk about Warsaw and not ‘visit,’ perhaps this is your place.”

Yes, against all contemporary and historical odds, and although I arrived in Warsaw a year ago, with one contact, no Polish, and no substantial knowledge about, or historical association with, Poland, perhaps it is my place. Perhaps, it is home. What a preposterous concept! I can manage Polish only more poorly than my youngest Polish friend, who is four. Yes, I have lapped up Polish history and contemporary Polish experience like a thirsty dog in the last twelve months and can hold my own in conversations about Poland, Polish history, and contemporary Polish experience (providing the confab is conducted in English), but how is it possible to claim a home there? Particularly when I have lived all over the world and might as well claim a home both anywhere and nowhere.

I suspect it has to do with transparency. A kind of honesty I can relate to. An honesty I have found nowhere else. “How are you?” in Poland is received as a genuine question. The American auto-“fine” does not apply. Instead, the question is answered with forthright integrity. Poles are humans I can relate to. Despite linguistic obstacles, the Polish brand of transparent honesty speaks to me. I can also relate to the way this honesty manifests in Polish art.

I will have to consider this angle more thoroughly before I can say anything worth standing on or quoting, but preliminarily, the fundamental difference between US (and Western) art and Polish art is the assumption, the given, in Polish art of the inseparability of the social, the historical, and the political from the fundamental artistic premise and practice. The social, historical and political are inseparable from the aesthetic. In US (and Western) art, I might preliminarily say that the fundamental and inseparable artistic premise for all but (potentially) social practice, is the sale. It is a premise of Commerce. Conversely, Polish art—though commerce is part of the mix—is derived via a premise of honest human expression, representation, provocation, and accountability, none of which are extricable from the social, historical, and political context.

No slights, insults, and misrepresentations intended for my US-artist kin—my beef is with the structure in which we all create and not with the creators in a flawed, to my head and heart, and inordinately capitalist-inflected US context of creation—and I hope (intend?) to expand on this difference in greater detail later, once the requisite years or decades indicated for cogitation prior to mammoth pronouncement have honorably passed, but these are my prelims. For this moment, let’s just assume I’m reasonable, am correct, and that the dichotomy is accurate and given (with necessary apologies).

If given, then this fundamental presumption of the social/historical/political is what makes me Polish, both generally and in the art I make. That, and the requisite honesty that accompanies this acknowledgment of an inextricable social/historical/political context. An aesthetics that is not positioned as a binary opposition to the lived and experienced real context in which objects and art emerge is at the core of what makes me (and my art and experience) Polish.

So, how are you (I invite/wish you to ask)? Well, I’m fair to middling. I love the house I designed and built, the one I’m currently fortunate enough to occupy. My critters are happy. I am engaged with my work and the everyday of gardening and upkeep and teaching and making a living and creating stuff. But, profoundly…

I miss a human connection that validates how I approach and live in the world, a connection that I find hard to come by in the dollars and sense USA, in the super size me capital of the world, in my homeland as far back as the 17th century. Yes, for all objective intents and purpose, I am home. Yet, for all that I know and stand for, I am in, have returned to, exile. Exile has been coded into my genes since Louix XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. It is familiar. It is more a given than not. But. I yearn to wracac.

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originally appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on September 1, 2014

Warsaw Dispatch: Holster Your Weapon

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever said, “Holster your weapon,” and meant it because someone was aiming a loaded handgun at you, cocked and ready to fire? Now, keep your hand up if you were the “innocent party,” unarmed and minding your own business, say cutting okra in the garden, when you suddenly found yourself staring down the barrel of one of the three guns a man claimed, as he shouted at you, that he carried and was prepared to use because he was afraid of the 45 lb. dog by your side barking at him–the dog barking at someone, she rightly presumed was a trespasser (on clearly posted property), confronting her person from an ATV with threatening gestures and tone of voice. Any hands raised besides mine? What if I tell you the man was an off-duty cop, with a license to carry? How did (or does) this scenario make you feel about the right to carry?

By a lot of the logic flying around the US about guns and the right to carry, this off-duty cop was a good guy, protecting the blonde woman on the back of his ATV from a potentially big threat, a threat so big that it required him to carry three loaded firearms and a knife in his cargo shorts for a ride through the woods. This Weekend Rambo was actually, however, protecting no one, and was instead lethally threatening a 115 lb woman with pigtails wearing a pink tank top, shorts, and sneakers and gardening in the summer sunshine with her dog.

By the logic floating around, you may ask whether the man would have been justified in shooting the dog or me? Was the dog, or I as her master, a reasonable threat to the man or his girlfriend? Was he standing his ground? Never mind that it wasn’t his to stand, it’s probably safe to say that a slight white girl in pigtails and pink is nobody’s idea of an obvious threat. A barking dog, however, even a small one, can be scary, and my rescue pup can growl and bark with the best of them. Even so, the guy had options. First of all, if I can subdue a 45 lb dog, and even a bite from such a dog wouldn’t be the end of the world to me, then I’d bet good money that this guy, at six feet and close to 200 lbs, a trained law enforcement officer in his 20s, could take on my pet and win. Moreover, from the vantage point of a fully functioning ATV, with the engine running, retreat was an easy and obvious option.

By the logic flying around, I should also have been carrying a weapon to protect myself from big potential threats like large strange men, who emerge from the woods on ATVs and point guns at me and my dog minding our own business on family land. My father, who follows this logic to varying degrees, would in fact have been carrying a loaded weapon, had he been there, or would have tucked one under the seat of his truck just in case he “needed” it (in the most probable scenario, to shoot a poisonous snake).

I am no stranger to guns. I learned to shoot pennies off tree stumps with handguns and rifles on this same piece of property before I turned thirteen. As part of my obligatory weekly chores, my father once tasked me with sitting in my treehouse with a pellet gun trained on the garden and an order to shoot the pie plates waving in the wind to scare off the squirrels. He would have preferred that I shoot the squirrels directly, but I reasoned with him to reach this compromise to protect the garden from its furry thieves.

Yes, I am no stranger to guns nor to gun culture, but I do not and would not carry or own one. Moreover, given how frightened this man was of my dog and me, I hate to think how the situation might have escalated if I’d pointed a loaded gun at him in turn. IMG_0047-225x300My father said when I told him the story, as most self-respecting gun-owners in the US would, “It’s a good thing he got you and not me. I would have shot him.” Instead, the guy got off with a long-winded lecture about criminal trespassingConstitutional law, and global gun policies. I tend to speak with remarkable and pointed fluency when threatened, (and it belies the misconception that small women in pigtails and pink can not be dangerous). Talk saved the squirrels, and talk de-escalated a stand-off with an off-duty cop turned Weekend Rambo, a stand-off that seemed headed directly toward, at minimum, the murder of my beloved companion.

From where I sit in Warsaw, talk has a lot more potential than current US gun and gun-related laws and policies to help us understand, nuance, and address big potential threats, and the news from the States about slaughter after slaughter seems not only tragic, but also pathetic. It makes me feel like I hail from a blindingly flawed idiocracy, one that raises sons (and daughters) to be cops and/or vigilantes who point (and often shoot) guns at unarmed innocents and conditions a general populace to respond with apathetic resignation. An idiocracy that raises us first to be afraid of the unknown, the novel, and the different, and then, to believe that personal weapons can instill power and ammeliorate fear.

By the logic floating around the US, there’s a time and a place for personal gun ownership, and that time and place is “protection.” Try as I might, however, I just can’t imagine a scenario in which a gun is a necessary or even a particularly appropriate accessory for safety. And, I’ve been held up at knifepoint in Jakarta by three men attempting to rob me and had a gun trained on me at home by a man who said he would use it if I did not comply with his demands. No, a gun is not for safety. It’s merely and simply a threat, a potentially and effectively lethal one.

The logic floating around the rest of the developed world makes this clear by employing an alternative logic to protect citizens more effectively. Here’s hoping, against apparently applicable logic, that my homeland catches up, that we find other ways to feel powerful. Personally, I recommend pink tank tops, braids, and critical thinking and communication skills (and possibly, a hoe if caught in a tricky spot with a poisonous snake). They work for me. But what do I know? I’m just a little girl who fended off three men with a knife by saying no repeatedly and who talked a man acting crazy with a loaded gun into submission, which must mean I’m just lucky.

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End Note: “acting crazy” and mental illness are not the same thing, and I do not conflate the two. This piece targets the purportedly rational among us, whom I hope will stop acting crazy and embrace gun control in the US.

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originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on June 11, 2014

 

Warsaw Dispatch: On Daffodils

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Daffodils are “kick[ing] me in the eye[1]” at every turn. Along with their ubiquitous literalness in Warsaw’s April, the daffodil has cropped up as a wholly surprising (to me) cultural symbol this month. To commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising on April 19th, the daffodil was invoked to transform the yellow badge Jews were required to wear during the Nazi occupation into a symbol to “express your respect and memory of the heroes from the Warsaw Ghetto.” The Museum of the History of Polish Jews and its partners handed out thousands of “daffodil pins,” which when worn assumed the look of the yellow patch. As I walked around town, I encountered people on the street, in the mall, and queuing at the grocery store wearing yellow patches turned daffodils to commemorate “a common heritage” and in solidarity with those who had been forced to wear the patch. I wore my own. The overall effect was confusing-distressing-confusing.

Heretofore, my own tenors for daffodil as metaphor had been provided by Wordsworth’s 1888 poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” and the 20th century postcolonial critique it catalyzed. Poet Lorna Goodison, who can quote more by heart than I thought humanly possible, walked into my graduate seminar one April with, “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.” She intended an irony that Wordsworth did not and added to his lines something about how being educated in the British system in Jamaica, meant learning to traffic in metaphors with no locally meaningful tenors. Daffodils are not native to Jamaica, nor to many other places, but they spread across the globe one way or another courtesy of the British Empire. School children everywhere were expected to relate, whether or not this was a flower they’d ever seen. Many besides Goodison have noted the problematic including West Indian writer, Jamaica Kincaid, Guyanese poet, Grace Nichols, and a slew of critics. For these poets and writers, the daffodil’s tenor is tied to colonial legacy, gender, and power.

Not surprisingly, Wordsworth’s legacy was wholly absent from the tenor of the daffodils I encountered on this April 19th . According to the literature that accompanied the daffodil pins at the museum, “daffodils are associated with Marek Edelman, the last commander of the Jewish Combat Organization.” On the anniversary of the uprising each year, he placed daffodils on monuments and sites associated with the extermination of Jews. Many followed in his footsteps this year, and the monuments throughout my neighborhood—I live in Muranów, the neighborhood built in the 1950s on the remains of the Ghetto—were covered with daffodils. As far as I can tell, however, the daffodil as yellow patch is a new twist, and it represents a different kind of maneuver. Whereas the ritual of leaving flowers on the historic sites re-invokes an historical performance, the daffodil pins do something else. Via paper cut and assembled to resemble both daffodil and Star of David, and the performance that resulted when the public donned the pins, the daffodil was invoked as a transformative symbol rather than a ritual prop.

What was so confusing-distressing-confusing to me was that the maneuver failed to be transformative. The horror I experienced seeing people wearing the pin-patch did not abate no matter how many hours I walked through Warsaw nor how many I saw wearing it. My own pin-patch grew no less uncomfortable no matter how long I wore it nor how many people I found myself in solidarity with. The atrocities that occurred in my neighborhood do not soften with flowers or years. They do not transform. Instead, they remain starkly co-present with my everyday experience here in ways I have never before experienced. They remain raw and resistant to the work of metaphor. Whereas the daffodil yielded to the metaphoric weight Wordsworth attached to it in his poem and that Caribbean writers and scholars have in turn attached, in Warsaw on April 19th, the task was too great.

Caribbean writers and critics for whom Wordsworth’s daffodils did not resonate as intended found a means to appropriate the symbol for their own purposes. I suspect this was the intended maneuver of those who designed the daffodil pins. Perhaps it worked for others. I am neither Polish nor Jewish, and perhaps I lack the required cultural contexts to receive this symbol as transformative. Whatever the reason, the metaphor refused to do the work requested of it. I did not see daffodils on anyone’s lapels. I saw Judenstern kicking me in the eye. And, though respect and commemoration were called for by the occasion, it was difficult to feel anything beyond fear.

 

[1] From Guyanese poet Grace Nichols’ “Spring.”

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originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on April 29, 2014

Warsaw Dispatch: Where are you from?

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And so it arrives. The moment when the long-haul traveler realizes that she could be from the place she currently lives. Relationships have demonstrated the potential to be real and lasting. As much if not more so than those in x, y, and z places from before. This moment doesn’t always arrive. Some places just aren’t meant to be for a variety of reasons, mostly coincidence and timing. But most places might as well be home.

This moment brings with it a bit of the blues. For, if there’s one thing a long-haul traveler knows as tangibly as any Zen master, it’s the impermanence of all things. This moment signals that before long, it will be time to move on. Unlike the masters, however, this particular long-haul traveler has not grappled well enough with the concept of attachment to let go completely the desire for home. A permanent one. Like, I suspect, most long-haul travelers, I would like to have the sense that a finite place and a known community were mine. Part of me would love to believe this illusion of permanent belonging and the entitlement that comes with it.

Instead, the long-hauler knows deep down inside that anywhere and nowhere is home. The whole planet and all its 7+ billion people form the community. Such a perspective has radical implications that temper the blues and keep feelings from approaching the utter alienation that could lead to crippling depression. It also creates some practical challenges for interfacing with the rooted goings-on of specific points on the globe. Borders lose their sense and along with it go concepts of nation and conquest. Ownership also becomes foggy, though less-so. For me, a US citizen, it’s likely that my country has engrained in me a feel for free market capitalism and thus ownership that I will never wholly lose even while, ironically, I find that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” seem most possible when I own very little. Freedom asserts itself in the interstices of nations. When concepts like nation, citizen, and ownership lose their concrete and personal meanings, it becomes difficult to watch the news as anything but play.

Real world “serious” things like Putin’s occupation of Crimea and the US Congress’ failure to govern take on the patina of playground antics, with motivations analogous to those acted out by children, badly behaved ones. Unfortunately, the implications in this playground are global. They are not about a few cruel words or a punch and a scuffle. Putin is showing signs of attempting global expansion à la a centuries-old Russian habit, and the US Congress seems hell-bent on proving that America is at heart an idiocracy, that what you see on TV really is true. These two examples are merely the pressing ones from where I am located. The playground is full of children behaving badly, and from my vantage point, the 21st century begins to feel a bit like Lord of the Flies

As it begins to sink in that Warsaw could be home–were it not that the planet is home–I begin to wish that my global home were full of long-haul travelers, that the perspective I have cultivated via a life on the road were more common and broadly applicable. Moreover, I wish that we would all grow up a little. In my experience, Earth is a smaller and smaller sandbox. I love it dearly, and I’d like in my heart of hearts for us all to play nicely. For, it suddenly dawns on me that I am indeed from a finite place after all. We are all from the same one. Unfortunately, for those like me with attachment issues, the earth is not, by definition, permanent. If only the consequences of the current human catalysts of impermanence were, as in the following Frost poem, merely summer.

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Since, however, spring is fleeting, and glorious summer cannot necessarily be counted on, at least in my metaphor, I leave you with Rabindranath Tagore:

The butterfly counts not the months but the moments, and has time enough.

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originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on March 31, 2014

Warsaw Dispatch: I Call This Friendship

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For five years or so, when I lived on the Lower East Side, Philip Seymour Hoffman and I saw each other weekly, sometimes daily. We never met; we just wandered the same everyday paths so consistently that I felt that we knew each other. He shuffled, carried a frumpy bag, and frenetically affected invisibility. With a different gate, and different accoutrement, I always hoped no one would see me in the way I imagined, based on his patterns and mannerisms, that Hoffman hoped no one would see him. Given that Hoffman was not yet so widely known, and that we both could manage a fair job of projected invisibility, I suspect that we each moved through our respective days predominantly unseen. Thus, crossing paths with Hoffman, and recognizing myself in what I imagined of him, made me feel at home, somehow simultaneously safely unseen and profoundly seen. Although I moved on and Hoffman took off, and our regular crossings ended, his performances have never failed to conjure up this feeling of comfort layered onto the fundamental discomfort I felt and still often feel in the world. Even when I have not cared for his choice of movies–a question of my own taste and not his extraordinary performances–I have gone to see them in order to be comforted by my old friend.

Friend is a strange word to use for someone one has never been introduced to, but the intimacy of repeated encounter on the terms that I experienced with this particular stranger catalyzed feelings for which I have no word but friendship. Connection, or even imagination, might be terms more apt, but I prefer friendship for its implication of warmth, an implication that his image on screen continued to conjure throughout his career as photographs of long lost friends might do. Though his roles varied dramatically, I never failed to intuit the East Village guy, whose actual name I always knew—he was known enough in the indie circles I traveled—but whom I recognized not for his professional life but as a familiar, someone who like me did not seem to need introductions at all because they would not change what was already known. For these reasons, I appreciate Tom Junod’s obit-tribute in Esquire more than any others. Junod gets at something vital about Hoffman’s gift to his audiences that most other tributes I’ve read do not seem to understand.

These reasons are also why I appreciate some art and some literature and the three critters with whom I live and travel. I experience with them relationships that, for lack of a better word, I term friendships. They, of course, defy most contemporary definitions of relationship, never mind conceptions of friendship. They do not necessarily involve introductions. They cross species and even forms of matter. Nonetheless, they are some of my most significant and enduring relationships, and these kinds of friendships have always characterized my world.

When I was four years old and living in Los Angeles, my mother took me to LACMA to see the Calder mobiles and the La Brea Tar Pits for the first time. As two of my earliest friends, together and separately, they map my world. Alexander Calder’s enormous mobiles cut space into process rather than product. This feat acknowledged space and time as an integrated continuum. Bright colors moving through space seemed to offer more accuracy than a watch for knowing when and a map for knowing where by conflating when and where across the two as one action rather than two points. The tar pits confirmed the concept by illustrating the continuum. Bubbling up from their smelly depths came truths that the mobiles marked. Their common language relied on a mutual understanding of scale. This scale was not human, but at four, it made infinite sense to me, not unlike when two decades later, my friendship with Hoffman made sense. In unlikely but analogous ways, Hoffman, Calder, and the La Brea tar pits became my friends because I could recognize myself in them, and this made me feel a part of things. These friendships ameliorated alienation.

I have a new friend in Warsaw: the sculptures and drawings of Polish artist, Honza Zamojski. Like the other friends I’ve mentioned in this piece, Zamojski and I have not met. In fact, I have resisted the impulse to meet even when an introduction would have been easy. My friendship is not with Zamojski the person but with my ideas about and encounters with his work, with the ways in which it has shown up as signposts since my arrival in Warsaw last August. Via serendipitous encounter during Warsaw Gallery Weekend 2013“Fishing with John” has woven itself into my current work; via unwitting allusion, it’s been woven retroactively into an essay that appeared in the Mid-American Review in 2006 called, “How to Hunt & Gather;” and this week, my connection to these pieces ties me back to my old stomping grounds in NYC, where they are currently installed.

These maneuvers are what friendship does. It weaves primarily unrelated phenomena into something familiar and warm that engenders a sense of belonging. It is not an objective process, but a highly subjective phenomenon. My old friend from the Village affirmed my own existence each week when our everyday coincided. He reminded me of this every time I saw him on screen. In death, he causes me to understand how and, moreover, to appreciate–profoundly–friendship, in all its myriad forms.

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New Yorkers, and those inclined to hop on over for a visit: I encourage you to meet my new friends between now and February 15. Check out Honza Zamojski’s “Self Portrait with Fish,”  installed at Andrew Kreps Gallery in Chelsea.

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Photo Source: Source: Studios USA Television, NBC Universal Television, Universal Network Television (Hoffman on Law & Order, Season 1, Episode 14, 1991)

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originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on February 3, 2014

Warsaw Dispatch: Nie Rozumiem. Rozumiem.

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I just dismissed a man with a flick of my hand and a sneer. He was asking for money in a language I did not understand until he made a gesture of his own. He rubbed his fingers together. “Nie,” I said immediately and waved him off like I might shoo away an insect or an animal and like I have seen movie characters from bygone eras with more privilege than is right do to their lackeys and those who annoy them. My gesture was not about the man, but about my own exhaustion, frustration, and culture shock. There is no way he will know that he was a metaphor for all that overwhelms me. No way he will fail to feel dismissed and perhaps ashamed, shamed by my gesture. No way to know that I also feel ashamed. “Chora” he had said, “chora.” I just looked it up, and now I will never forget the Polish word for sick. I will never forget what it feels like to dismiss a sick man asking for help. Even if full cognizance was delayed.

My gesture surprised me. It felt like someone else’s arm. I watched myself do it once I realized I was. I did not know I had such a gesture in me. I have never made it before in response to a person. Or, perhaps I have in jest. I can’t remember. I can’t remember a lot. It seems like I have not slept in weeks. My cat is afraid of the buzzer. It sends her behind the stove and under the kitchen counter. I cannot rescue her but must wait for her to feel safe and emerge on her own. To bring her out on my terms would require me to remove the kitchen cabinets. My flat is rented, and this is not an option. Many buzzers have been ringing lately. Workmen for my flat. Workmen for the building. Neighbors because a lock was broken and they could not gain entry to our hall. And just now, this man in somewhat dirty jeans, unshaven for days, and with a stack of papers that did not look like religious leaflets but like the notebooks I have kept with me for years. Writing notebooks, dog-eared and rough on the edges from constant carry. “Chory” he says. “Chory.”

I am in my pajamas when I stand in the hall to tell this man that I do not speak Polish, that I do not understand. The fluency with which I say these things in Polish indicates that I am probably lying. I am not lying. These are two of the few phrases I know. I speak them every day. Nie rozumiem. I do not understand. Nie rozumiem. Nie mówię po polsku. I have answered the buzzer because it might herald something I must understand. A registered letter from immigration, another building workman. I am unprepared to address someone who does not belong. I am stretched too thin.

Before we ever exchange a word or a gesture, I am annoyed and a bit frightened. He rang first my neighbor’s buzzer and then mine. He scared my cat in sequence. This is a sequence I cannot control. Nor can I control its cascade of consequences. My cat is overeating, then vomiting, then crying at night. I am worrying and failing to sleep. If she were a newborn, I might have help. I might not, which would then be worse. I would be very annoyed and more frightened than I care to imagine at the moment a man I do not invite rings my buzzer to speak to me in a language I do not understand in order to ask for money. “Chory” he says, then rubs his fingers together. I will want to crawl behind the stove with my cat. Instead, I will tell the man I do not understand and then dismiss him when I begin to. “Chory” he says, which I do not understand until now.

My cat has come out from under the counter and is purring beside me. She misses her garden. I miss her self-confidence. These are metaphors. I am not afraid of strange men. My cat is not afraid of buzzers. We react without control to things we do not understand and to things we do. To things we cannot control.

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originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on November 21, 2013

Warsaw Dispatch: On Dinner with Jimmy Page

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In the days before Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, it was possible to run into Jimmy Page in a village in the interior of Bahia, have dinner with Jimmy and Jimena, do it again the next day when you found them sitting at the table with the friends you’d planned to meet, because they ran into him, too, and no one would be the wiser. The children of friends could stub their toes and not worry that, years later, a potential employer would mention it during an interview. Moreover, in the interim, I need not ponder ooze and pus over breakfast. Yes, it was a different world. A more immediate world. A private one. Lest you fear that I plan to wax nostalgic or go Luddite on you, stop right there. I celebrate Skype because I tend to ramble about, and when it’s impossible to pop over for a visit, Skype enables me to have tea with those whom I love and miss. I appreciate Facebook for connecting me with artists whom I admire and introducing me to many more, for creating and illustrating an interesting news zeitgeist, and for justifying my paycheck. As for Twitter, even the name and associated rhetoric are silly, and I’m all for silly. No, I do not glorify the 80s and 90s in any way, nor do I wish to return there or anywhere else behind us, but I do find contemporary social media inflected anomie disturbing. Dishonest even because we fail to recognize it for what it is—the byproducts of marketing. This is one reason I love living in Warsaw.

“How are you?” in Warsaw does not result in an obligatory “Very well, thanks. And you?” People tell you the truth. “Oh, thanks. Yes, my dog is beautiful, but he’s the reason my girlfriend left me. So, I must find a new home for him. I want her back…” and more emerged from the mouth of a perfect stranger with a silver Great Dane, whom I encountered walking Janie the Dog. “Horrible. Oh, my god. I drank so much vodka last night, and I haven’t prepared my work for the week, and I’m worried about so much…” from a friend I meet for lunch. “Eh, not so good,” from the director of the language school where I study Polish. “Oh yes, I do look good today. Thanks! It’s a new dress,” from an acquaintance at brunch.

My other brunch companion explained to me that such truths help Poles feel connected to each other because they can acknowledge and share what’s real and then move on to the moment at hand. So, I tried it. I was Skyping with a friend in the US when a message flew across my screen that ticked me off royally. Heartfelt expletives followed. Unburdened, I felt great. Ready to tackle the problem sans unproductive emotional backwash. My friend, however, looked horrified. Personally attacked even. Experiment only mildly successful. Note to self: restrict honesty to conversations with Poles. Or, perhaps more appropriately, restrict honesty to face-to-face interaction with Poles, where the ambient air, a tasty cup of tea, or a beer, and sincere commiseration can help to clear the toxic off-load.

“Face-to-face” interaction in Warsaw is clearly distinguished from non-”face-to-face,” and notably from social media, interaction. My Polish FB friends do not use FB the way most of my North American and Western European friends do. No, my Polish friends and acquaintances do not traffic in high-fives, announcements of milestones and successes, and cries for help—I once had to hide a lovely new friend’s feed because every time I turned on my computer, it sounded like he was on the verge of offing himself, but after checking in plus six months of feed monitoring, I determined that this was merely his FB persona, one, however, that I’d rather not encounter with breakfast. My Polish FB friends, by contrast, rarely announce their relationship status, updates about said status, or a disappointing lack of status. They set up FB profiles for their dogs, who then have followings of their own, if it seems that their dogs need that much airtime. Their children remain mostly private and make oblique, unnamed appearances. They neither court, nor create the opportunity for, the anomie-inducing voyeurism that I find so prevalently cultivated, and so distressing, in the social media of my homeland.

So, dog pages aside, do Poles actually use FB? Yes, they are all over it. For Poles, however, social media does not seem to serve as a substitute for community, like it does in the West, as so many have asserted, and I think, rightly so. Personal anecdotes combine with these oft-cited U-M study findings to convince me. Nor does it serve as a marketing channel. Unlike Western Facebook users, my Polish FB friends aren’t using their profiles to market an aspirational brand, in this case, a way of life that many aspire to and few achieve (despite their carefully crafted FB personas). Rather, Facebook is a new tool in the box for cultivating a common vocabulary that enriches face-to-face interaction. And, the tenor is generally fun. Optimism may not be the first trait that comes to mind when one considers the Polish personality writ large, but at least in my small, but growing, sample of Warsovian FB friends, fun and a sense of play are not conflated with, nor do they require, optimism. They occupy, however, a prominent position in the personality quiver, and Facebook offers a key arena for expressing them.

To wit, here are three delightful moments offered up by Polish FB friends in the last week. The first case is the trailer for Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Though fairly self-explanatory, the added layer of intertextuality and delight, here in Warsaw, is provided by Budapest’s proximity. The second case is a music video by Russian singer and composer, Peter Nalitch, singing lyrics that include, “I have never been lonely, cause me so cool.” What must be pointed out, lest it be missed, is that this self-reflexive satire is contemporary and cosmopolitan, which is not lost on my Polish FB friends. Finally, from two different FB sources, I was treated to this clip of Polish pop singer, Patty, performing a song called “Cry” on a local “good morning” television show. Outrageous attire conspires with beauty and an apparent unfamiliarity with the instruments the women purportedly play to create a joke that is additionally funny to me because it sends me back to Robert Palmer’s 1985 music video, “Addicted to Love.”

Given my provenance, I am not immune from cooking up anomie stew in my social media channels. Moreover, I have become by sometimes-profession an experienced marketer. My own FB “friends” profile and “public” page are littered with efforts at taste-making, “I did that,” and even, occasionally, the overt cry for help. You will no doubt have noted that I kicked this piece off with eating Jimmy Page’s fries in Bahia and not Joe Shmo’s in Peoria. As I consider my own practices, I begin to wonder whether these moves aren’t all cries for help, not just in my own case, but also generally in the commodified, market- and marketing-saturated West. Notice me. Support me. Love me.These misplaced efforts to connect are carved enthusiastically and sometimes desperately from the dearth of options offered by a cultural context that relegates honesty to marketing, which it to say, largely omits the option for its expression in any significant way.

The Poles have had a lot of opportunity to cultivate honesty. Hundreds of years of grisly events make optimism a foolish stance and, “Very well, thanks,” absurd in all but the truest of instances. By my reckoning, however, life ain’t so ducky in the land of the free and the home of the brave. My daily dose of FB and the ensuing anomie it catalyzes convinces me. Perhaps, then, the brave thing to do would be to traffic in more face-to-face honesty, more online play, and less marketing overall. Forget the aspirational brand. What’s life really like? For you. For real? The truth may set you free. For my initial contribution to said freedom project, I offer you 7th graders in Oakland, Californiatelling like it is, goats on rocks doing what they do, and a Smiths/Charlie Brown mash-up because “life is very long when you’re lonely.” Na zdrowie!

 

Photo credit: Jimmy Page and Jimena Gomez-Paratcha Page, allstarpics.net

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originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review  on October 23, 2013