Saturday, November 14, 2015

Light Years

Can it be?  Eight years writing this blog.  That’s the amount of time I spent in grammar school. Those eight years in PS 90 seem to be light years in the distant past, but at the time they were an eternity.  And four years in high school were equally drawn out, anticipating adulthood, the point at which I could leave the turmoil of my parent’s home.  Time accelerated in college, came on full speed during my career and raising a family, and now it’s a year in a blink.

I think I’ve been true to my “mission statement” in this space -- essentially an eclectic, kaleidoscopic diary. There have been 480 entries thus far, enough to fill at least five printed volumes.  Content has morphed into more about theatre, literature and still some politics and economics, but less about family history.  I’ve pretty much covered that, and the older I get the more I’d like to move on. 

Nonetheless, I still write about things which are fairly personal, always hesitating about what I “put out there.”  As this blog has evolved, so has the digital world, data mining for all sorts of nefarious reasons.  And the digital world has moved way beyond blogs to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, social networks where a momentary impulse can be just thrown out as a developed thought.  Not here.   Traffic building has not been my intent.  According to Google, in eight years there have been 86,021 page views. Some web sites do that in a minute. Most land here via searches (not for me, but topics I write about) and frequently those are image searches as I’ve incorporated countless photographs in this space

Without going into details of the latter, it is truly a twist of fate that I made it through that voyage without ending up in the freezer with the flowers (a favorite repository for those who die on cruises).  Of course I didn’t realize that I was so vulnerable at the time (although we’re all vulnerable all the time). I suppose that is another reason I write this blog:  it is a record and it allows me to reflect on my life and matters of living, to have a documented trail.  I go to it when memory fails.

This is a natural segue into a book I recently read, Light Years by James Slater. We’re talking about elegant masterpiece writing here -- an author I should have read long ago, known as a “writer’s writer” by many, a prose stylist.  Perhaps I failed to come to his writing as his earlier work was based on his years as a fighter pilot in the Korean War.  His novel The Hunters was made into a movie starring one of my favorite film noir actors, Robert Mitchum.  Little did I know when I saw the film, it was based on James Salter’s novel of the same title. It is so incongruous that the same person wrote both novels.

Salter died only recently, having just turned 90, in Sag Harbor, where I spent part of the summers of my childhood.  The New Yorker published an elegant eulogistic essay on his passing.
So I am very late to discovering Salter, although his Light Years is closely related to other authors I have admired, ones who have written  about marital implosion (the subject of Salter’s great work), Updike, Cheever, Yates, Ford, to name but a few.

Lapidary, ethereal, poetic prose fills the pages of Light Years.  The plot almost exists out of time and place – although it’s set in the 70s, mostly in the northern suburbs of New York.  The dissolution of a marriage is presented as a case of everyday entropy, but in stunning language and descriptions.  Think Hemingway’s short, rhythmic sentences and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyricism. .  It’s unlike anything else I’ve read.

It is the story of Viri Berland, a moderately successful architect, and Nedra his beautiful free-spirited wife.  Mind you, this was written in the nascent days of feminism.  Much of the novel is viewed from Nedra’s viewpoint.  They live in the Hudson Valley, with their children.  Days pass, light into darkness, darkness becomes new days, years.  Light years.  (The light imagery is omnipresent.) They have a social life, parties, each have dalliances, quiet ones, not the kind which lead to nasty marital confrontations. Time passes until they find they are empty nesters and now what? 

Nedra is the one who makes the break but it is Viri, confounded by the change in his life who moves on to another marriage, one he regrets.  To indulge in more detail about the plot, though, is senseless as it is the feeling that one derives from reading Light Years which is the point.  We’re all just brief flickers of light in the annals of time, eternity of nothingness before we are born and a similar eternity when we are gone.  We believe in endless tomorrows while living out our younger years, the sum of countless moments, most not remembered later, but near the end, the hour-glass so one sided, we look back and wonder where it all went.

Salter tells his story in lush language.  Of  those parties in their early years of marriage: “Country dinners, the table dense with glasses, flowers, all the food one can eat, dinners ending in tobacco smoke, a feeling of ease.  Leisurely dinners.  The conversation never lapses. Their life is special, devout, they prefer to spend time with their children, they have only a few friends.”

Or, when Nedra goes to the city to shop:  “Life is weather, Life is meals.  Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled.  The smell of tobacco.  Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.  It is trips to the city, daily trips.  She is like a farm woman who goes to the market.  She drove to the city for everything, its streets excited her, winter streets leaking smoke. She drove along Broadway.  The sidewalks were white with stains.  There were only certain places where she bought food; she was loyal to them, demanding.  She parked her car wherever it was convenient, in bus stops, prohibited zones; the urgency of her errands protected her.”

In his prime, Viri thinks about his career as an architect:  “I must make one building, even if it’s small, that everyone will notice.  Then a bigger one.  I must ascend by steps….He wanted one thing, the possibility of one thing: to be famous.  He wanted to be central to the human family, what else is there to long for, to hope?  Already he walked modestly along the streets, as if certain of what was coming.  He had nothing.  He had only the carefully laid out luggage of bourgeois life, his scalp beginning to show beneath the hair, his immaculate hands.  And the knowledge; yes, he had knowledge….But knowledge does not protect one.  Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside.  Passion, energy, likes: these are what life admires.  Still, anything can be endured if all humanity is watching.  The martyrs prove it.  We live in the attention of others.  We turn to it as flower to the sun….There is no complete life.  There are only fragments.  We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.  And yet, this pouring, this flood of encounters, struggles, dreams …one must be unthinking, like a tortoise.  One must be resolute, blind.  For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing the opposite.  Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox.  So that life is a matter of choices, each on final and of little consequence, like dropping stones into the sea.”

Viri’s and Nedra’s time with their children is precious:  “Children are our crop, our fields, our earth.  They are the birds let loose into darkness.  They are errors renewed.  Still, they are the only source from which may be drawn a life more successful, more knowing than our own.  Somehow they will do one thing, take one step further, they will see the summit.  We believe in it, the radiance that streams from the future, from days we will not see.  Children must live, must triumph.  Children must die; that is an idea we cannot accept….There is no happiness like this happiness: quiet mornings, light from the river, the weekend ahead.  They lived a Russian life, a rich life, interwoven, in which the misfortune of one, a failure, illness, would stagger them all.  It was like a garment, this life.  Its beauty was outside, its warmth within.”

After one of their parties, later in their marriage, Salter writes:  “Nights of marriage, conjugal nights, the house still at last, the cushions indented where people had sat, the ashes warm.  Nights that ended at two o’clock, the snow falling, the last guest gone.  The dinner plates were left unwashed, the bed icy cold…They lay in the dark like two victims.  They had nothing to give to one another, they were bound by a pure, inexplicable love….He was asleep, she could tell without looking.  He slept like a child, soundlessly, deep.  His thinning hair was disheveled; his hand lay extended and soft.  If they had been another couple she would have been attracted to them; she would have loved them, even – they were so miserable.”

When Nedra begins to hint at leaving, Viri is stunned, especially now that he was approaching late middle age:  “He was reaching that age, he was at the edge of it, when the world becomes suddenly more beautiful, when it reveals itself in a special way, in every detail, roof and wall, in the leaves of trees fluttering faintly before a rain.  The world was opening itself, as if to allow, now that life was shortening, one long, passionate look, and all that had been withheld would finally be given.”

And when she is gone, he is left in the house: “Dead flies on the sills of sunny windows, weeds along the pathway, the kitchen empty.  The house was melancholy, deceiving; it was like a cathedral where, amid the serenity, something is false, the saints are made of florist’s wax, the organ has been gutted.  Viri did not have the spirit to do anything about it.  He lived in it helplessly as we live in our bodies when we are older.”

“...alone in this city, alone on this sea. The days were strewn about him, he was a drunkard of days. He had achieved nothing. He had his life--it was not worth much--not like a life that, though ended, had truly been something. If I had had courage, he thought, if I had had faith. We preserve ourselves as if that were important, and always at the expense of others. We hoard ourselves. We succeed if they fail, we are wise if they are foolish, and we go onward, clutching, until there is no one--we are left with no companion save God. In whom we do not believe. Who we know does not exist.”

As one might imagine from the last quote alone, the novel comes to a profoundly sad ending, disturbing in so many ways.  And I’ll let it go at that.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nina’s Gift

It was a bit of serendipity that we met Nina Motta, a neighbor who doesn’t exactly live next door but, nonetheless nearby.  Our dogs brought us together, my walking our schnauzer, Treat, who has long departed us, and Nina walking her beloved Ozzie, a very affectionate golden retriever, who has also now passed on, devastating to Nina.  But while walking our dogs we found we had much in common, so much that we began to socialize given our mutual interests and sensibilities.

We met some of her family who were visiting Florida.  Three of her siblings are professional musicians and there was an impromptu concert at her beautiful home.  Nina was a guest at my 65th birthday where I played the piano, accompanying a singer with whom I used to perform.

So from time to time we’d go out to dinner, or have dinner at each others’ homes.  When visiting Nina’s home we were struck by her paintings.  Yes, in addition to her musical abilities, she is an accomplished, award winning artist.  There was a particular painting I was drawn to, one of a young woman at a piano, making a notation on a score.  It took my breath away and Nina said she could make a copy for us.  I naturally envisioned it over our piano.  That was several years ago and once in a while I would remind her of her promise.  But like all of us, although we mean well in making a grand gesture, I believe it often escaped her memory and more importantly, I didn’t want to perpetually bug her about it, although from time to time she’d bring it up herself saying she hadn’t forgotten.

Several weeks ago she called to ask whether she could come by.  We thought it was to schmooze a little, have a glass of wine, catch up (we had just returned from our summer in Connecticut).  She arrived with a rolled up canvas.  Could this be it, I wondered?  We cleared the dining room table and as she unrolled the canvas we were truly taken back: not only that “a promise made became a promise kept,” but what unfolded seemed to be the original.

No, she explained, this was a professionally prepared giclĂ©e, a high quality digital image of the painting, using pigmented inks onto museum quality canvas.  It is not a lithograph but, in many respects, an “original” as well.  I haven’t held it up against the original painting but I suspect it is indeed an exact copy.  It’s certainly the way I remember the painting.

Well, she said, you now have to pick out a frame and have the canvas stretched, and after I said we’ve used a local art store nearby, she said don’t use them for this!  Yes, ma'am!  So she promised to recommend a few other options which she did and we went to the Easel Art Supply Center in Lake Park, a family owned store which has been around for years.  Lucky we did, they just happened to have in stock a few frames for a 30” x 40” painting.  We had expected that it would have to be custom framed. 

They had three frames, each of which seemed to go well with the painting.  So, which to choose?  Fortunately, a graphic artist was wandering about the store so we asked her opinion.  She immediately pointed out that the frame we finally chose brought out the highlights in the painting.  Also, we thought, as there was a certain subtle, Asian-inspired design in the corners of the frame, it would fit perfectly in our living room (similarly decorated) and of course over the piano.

When we picked up the finished frame we immediately asked Nina to come over to help us position it. I think she too was taken back not only by the quality of the frame but how the painting was enhanced by it. 

So, now when I play the piano, I have company, Nina’s painting of “Jessica.”

To understand more about the painting, I “interviewed” Nina, wanting to know all about not only the painting, but what brought her to art from her grounding in music.

So, Nina, when and why did you begin to paint, especially given that you and many in your family were trained as musicians?

It was just during the past 10 years that I began my journey into the wonderful world of art and painting. Yes, I grew up in a family of musicians -- my mother was a classically trained pianist and three of my six siblings are professional musicians.  All of us had to choose and play an instrument. I played the piano, cello and sang as an alto in choruses through the years. Art never seemed to come into the forefront of extracurricular activities, as music was a family mandate. That being said, I had fleeting moments of curiosity about painting as my father painted quietly in his studio at home. Every now and then I'd peek in and look at his work on the easel, but rarely was there discussion and the studio was off limits to the kids. I suppose a little seed had been planted.

There is an indelible connection between music and art. The cadence of a phrase, the emotional swelling/receding of a dynamic, the sonorous voice of a baritone is all like the decisive brush strokes and values on a canvas.

Was there a particular catalyst that brought you to art?

After a shakeup in my life about 15 years ago and addressing what I creatively wanted to do moving forward, I decided to unearth my inclination toward art and explore two dimensional art as my new project and creative expression. I wanted to dig my heels into it and although a bit unsure, I was determined to learn, work hard and hopefully get good at it.

My first steps toward becoming an artist were in drawing classes. I enrolled in one after another.
I began using pencil and charcoal because colors, color mixing and color theory were intimidating. I took introductory and intermediate drawing classes and then began painting classes. I have taken workshops and painting classes for several years.

From that point onward, I found great emotional connection to painting. Painting requires disciplined practice. Levels of frustration can be debilitating. Perseverance, consistency, studying the process and especially a good teacher are a must. Hard work pays off and painting can be a joy, bring great satisfaction and be rewarding. I find I am drawn to figurative work in my paintings.

Thinking of the painting you so generously gave to us, I suspect your life as a musician led you to the subject?

It seemed only natural to connect music and art, so painting musicians as my subject matter was my decision for several of my beginning paintings. The artist's hope is to find one's passion, express it and engage the viewer.

The piece of Jessica came about when my niece Jessica, who had been studying architecture at the University of Miami, came to visit one weekend.  As an architecture major, her grueling schedule gave her very little time to go to the piano labs on campus to play, so coming to visit gave her family time and piano time.

She is a multi talented young woman and has a commanding ability at the piano. I asked her to play a piece so I could take a few photographs as possible references for a painting. All my paintings are from my own photographic references.  

To make it interesting, I stood on a ladder behind her and the pictures were taken from above looking downward.  The perspective was what made this piece so exciting.

What piece is she playing in the painting and how did you “paint” the notes?

We chose Chopin Prelude Op.28, No. 4 as the piece she'd be "playing”. The painting is an oil painting; however the notes of the piece were all painstakingly done in pencil. It was done without using any projection.  Everything was calculated by eye, using rulers for measurement and pencil sketching first to lay in the subject on the canvas. As you know the canvas size is large, 30" X 40"and this piece took about eight months to complete.

I remember seeing an exhibition of your paintings at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.  Has this painting been entered in any competitions?

It was awarded 2nd Place --The Mary Snow Corr Award --  in 2010 at the Lighthouse Art Center in Tequesta, Florida.

I’m surprised that you haven’t entered it in other competitions.

The artist's hope is to find one's passion, express it and engage the viewer. I believe this piece engaged you and Ann and that is the best reward an artist can receive.

Indeed, Nina, we are engaged and in love with the painting and with you!  As I said, I feel I have company now when I play, you and your niece.  Unfortunately, I am merely an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, never having had classical training, and as much as I would love to be able to play Chopin’s Prelude Op.28, No. 4, I’ll have to be content playing my tunes.  Recently I found myself playing Never Never Land, a nostalgic song sung by Peter Pan (Mary Martin in the original 1954 Broadway show) in which Peter muses about the dreamy land where he lives.  The great Jule Styne wrote the music while the lyrics were written by the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green team.  So I offer a brief rendition of it here (although it may not play on mobile devices) as I think, Nina, you are a dreamer.