Today I Forgot My Cell Phone

I was on the bus to the ferry when I realized it: no phone. A shiver. No text from my sister wishing me a good day. No instant update on my three different email streams. No language lesson while sitting in my usual spot on the boat. No checking my bank account while the ferry unloaded. No calming tunes while I tried not to feel the bigness of the sky on my walk to the next bus, and then again on my walk to the office.  No phone. I’d have to tough it out.

I boarded the ferry and sat down in my usual seat, the one facing the windows on the port side. The two big guys were there that are always there. They both sat looking down at their phones. I looked down at my morning hardboiled egg, and cracked it. No phone to look at, so I ate the egg while looking out the window at the water. The sun rose. The water sparkled. I drank my decaf. The light winked on the side of my blue mug as I took out my second egg.

One of the big guys with earphones suddenly erupted into talk:

“He is? He was? Ok, good. Now that the Ebola test proved negative, treat the malaria.”

Instantly back from water and sun, I wished for my headphones, for those soothing Russian voices, first male, then female.

“I understand."

"I don’t understand."

"Does he understand?"

"He doesn’t understand.”

"Do you understand?"

"You understand.” 

I wished again to be out of my skin, out of that boat, paddling or running or taking to the air, anything to be out of the routine of bus-ferry-bus that after seven years is so exactly the same day after day, so exactly the same that I know every step I’ll take before I take it and every stair I’ll climb and every wait for every "walk" light.

There I was looking down at an egg rather than at a cell phone, so the Ebola guy engaged me in a nice conversation about infectious diseases and about the fact that so much goes under the media’s radar. Ordinarily this would not have been calming. But he was a big man, a comforting man, the kind that can get between you and monsters, and he sort of reminded me of a former friend of mine who was cozy if not sincere, and so we had a nice chat about malaria cases we had known, and when he was signaled by the earbuds and went off into talking about steel belted radials, I turned to the other big man and said, “I forgot my phone this morning.”

Well, next thing you know, we were off to the races, talking about what the ferry had been like before cell phones, and about how people had talked in those days, and didn't just herd forward like cattle with their heads down, jostling. They had real breakfasts made-to-order rather than just grabbing warmed-over breakfast sandwiches then, and have you thought about retirement finances and the problem with institutional plans? And here's my estimate of how many years I have left to work and now I hope to move my office to Poulsbo and stop this darned commute.

After thirty years, his knees didn't like the walk up the hill to 6th Avenue anymore. Thirty years! Thirty years of this same trip. Day in, day out, back and forth, the ferry had sewn a long stitch through his life. What would it be like to have spent the last thirty years with a plan for what you'd do in your last twenty?

Thirty years ago I was living on a fold-out sofa in a sixth floor apartment in the blown-out, as yet undiscovered westside of Manhattan. Thirty years ago I was in love with a jazz pianist, the kindest man I ever knew. Thirty years ago I walked home from work at night from the music company on 53rd and the street was never the same, and the darkness was never that dark because of all the lights and the cars and the movement, and the jewelry in the street vendors' stalls on Columbus shined and twinkled and I bought a pair of big aqua rhinestone earrings and put them on and thought myself to be at the center of everything.

 Thirty years ago, I'd walk home from work and never feel defeated by sameness, I walked hopeful, with no idea of my own luck and happiness, no idea how good things were for me, preferring solitude, preferring words to Spanish love poems in my ears, preferring eros the bittersweet, thinking that better days were ahead, with no idea of losses to come, with no inkling that someday I would talk of ebola and retirement planning and be happy just to talk to someone, to not to have to be afraid that I did not have my cell phone and that I was not connected to the world. Thirty years ago I was a part of all that I met. It was all just eggs and blue mugs and sunrises and people. 


The Garage of Last Resort

My identity recently got a jolt from one of those things nephews say when they aren't really talking to you and you aren't really listening. I didn't hear what Wes said until hours later, when collapsed in a chair with my feet up later in the evening. My sister had asked him to bring me some chairs she was giving me, so he'd driven them over. We'd met in my garage. He's tall, charming and laconic-- not a big chit-chat kind of guy. He'd grinned, brought the chairs in and stacked them in the back. Straightening up, he'd looked slowly left and then slowly right, paused, and said, "Lots here." A smile, the engine starting, gone. "Lots here." I hadn't really heard him, since when he said it I was edging my way between his chairs and a table stacked with a case of champagne, three white fake poinsettias, a rolled rug and a box of over-wintering potatoes, while sort of muttering to myself about whether I needed more Dry-Z-Aire. But I thought about what he said-- as I say-- later that night, when collapsed in the old wing chair. Truth is, up until that "Lots here," I had believed myself to be a minimalist. Minimalism is part of my identity. I know I say a lot of mean things about Modernists, particularly the Germanic sort, but they got their aesthetic hooks into me when I was young, and I must say I like things spare. A lot of craposis around the house drives me nuts. Not for me the Pottery Barn candlesticks. Not for me the faux-rustic painted signs that say "Beach -->" or "Just Another Day in Paradise." I don't like stuff for stuff's sake. A nice table, a couple of chairs, perhaps a few blossoms in a vase. That's all she wrote.

My love of the minimal dictated that I prefer beige. My living room is so beige that certain people have mentioned a Sahara-like quality, a sand-blindness that prompts them to crawl to the refrigerator for a beer. But beige or no beige, Wes's comment brought a truth to light. Something happened to my minimalism in the last twenty years, and it happened slowly, like the accretion of pounds around the waist or the silent, secret progress of spider veins. Sitting in my wing chair, I thought back to when the erosion must have begun.

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Design Police Question Winslow Holiday Decor

I live on a small island in the Puget Sound. This island has a town called Winslow and a main street called Winslow Way. The main street is about two blocks long, from the clapboard church on one end to the false-fronted building that houses the pizza place on the other.

It's a little one-horse town, though the horse died years ago. And it resisted making a mockery of itself with the fake country duck cut-outs that plagued small towns in the Nineties and the Scandinavian blue and white checks that hit country decoration in the early 2000s. But changes are occurring.

A large new LEED- triple platinum-y museum is being built between the pizza place and the ferry. Across from it, the site of the old gas station is being reworked into a little park. I applaud the environmental notions of the museum structure, though it is scary to see that big wall coming at you as you trudge from the ferry after a long commute, and I'm for the appreciation of art and pocket parks and all that. But the clash of the neo-modern-museum-and-sustainable-park-aesthetic with the old two blocks of false-front stores is a bit rough on the old eyeballs. And nowhere is the clash of old and new more evident than in this year's mash-up of mercantile holiday decor.

Up until last year, around the end of November, you'd turn left from the ferry onto Winslow Way and be happily surprised to see that the Downtown Merchants Association had put up a few stars over the street and that the merchants themselves had strung up a bunch of plain old white lights. The Mexican place always put up those big, old Christmas tree lights but we were used to it and considered it a bow to the appreciation of other cultures. That was it. A few stars, a few lights. Nice.

This year I turned the corner and almost went blind. Evidently the Downtown Association decided to match the Museum's sparse, Modernist aesthetic, and bought a large number of objects which I believe are supposed to look like festively lit small trees. Twisted, black wire objects, about four feet tall, bristling with LED white nodules at the ends of the branches, they've been placed in front of each store along the two blocks of main street. It looks post-apocalyptic, twisted blackened trunks still glowing with radiation. And it's pretty clear that the joy of the Nativity, that the happiness of Hanukkah, was not coursing through the veins of the poor Chinese factory-working soul who was tasked with twisting these babies together.

LED white is WHITE. The white of a subway station at 1 am. In the right context, it can look pretty Modernisty- happy. But it makes normal strings of white lights look yellowed and dingy. People who drive around to look at lights are driving out of their way to avoid the clash of white lights on Winslow Way.

Evidently, the LED trees, which provoke a feeling of alienation and existential malaise in even the heartiest shopper, were not enough for the Downtown Association. This week, many large, bright-white, two-foot-across LED-lit snowflakes appeared in front of every store. 

Requiem for a Rosebush

The Lovely Lady Banks

The Lovely Lady Banks

For all the appropriate reasons, the condo board has informed me that my climbing rose will be cut down. Seems it's twining around the porch railings, which could cause bad things to happen to the structure someday. I am told that no plant shall touch the building, much less twine around it. Imagine the future damage. Imagine the incipient rot.

The rose bush probably would have escaped censure had it not bloomed its heart out this Spring, covering my whole balcony with little bouquets of miniature yellow roses held on upright stems, sending endless shoots cascading over the fence, like tracer bullets of a fine happiness.

I encouraged it. I wanted it to entwine those porch railings. I wanted it to festoon the fence. I loved that it showed signs of taking over that structure. I didn't see anything rotting or getting damaged. Actually, it sort of protected us. It made a barricade between my place and the rest of the island, between my world and the runners running up the street, the lycra'd bicyclists whizzing by talking loudly to each other about where to get lunch, the dawdling old ladies and their pugs.

Why am I reminded of Mao Zedong's famous double-cross? He once proclaimed that "a policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science." And then, of course, all that entwining of the intellectual porch railings in China looked like it might threaten the structure, so he made sure to cut down every vestige of the flowers that had dared to believe him and to bloom.

This rose believed me when I encouraged it, but I led it into harm's way. In a world so full of human suffering, it seems mad to shed tears for a rose bush, but I am. Life is always putting out tendrils. People go around cutting them off in the name of order and responsibility and good sense. I know that cutting encourages tendrils. Perhaps encouraging the tendrils encourages the cutting. The blooming and the cutting seem locked together somehow, like the two singers I knew who couldn't stand each other but toured together for years, because the audience found their harmonies so sweet.

My Father Used Casals' Trick

My father, now 92 and such a paragon of successful aging that KQED once interviewed him, called me this morning just to yak. After our usual back-and-forth cataloging of birthday parties attended, dinner parties attended, his work and mine, various changes in the weather and kinds of soup each of us happened to be cooking at the moment (short recipes included), he mentioned that last week Russia's Pushkin Museum had sent over a curator to look at all his paintings, particularly his watercolors, and to decide what the museum would be interested in owning.

Seems the new vogue in Russian museum curation is to try to figure out just what the culture lost with the stream of refugees that left before the borders were sealed, in the 1920s. Many never got out. But my father did, no artist yet, just a small, swaddled infant more or less attached to his 23 year-old mother.

And so it is an ironic and a great thing to hear that the Russians are interested in my father's work, and that the Pushkin Museum curator also wants to find a Russian publisher to translate his latest manuscript.

"It's amazing," he said to me this morning, "that these things keep happening at my age. When I look around at other old people, they don't seem to have these opportunities."

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In Defense of Fruitcake

In our era of political correctness, when racial, sexual and stereotyping “jokes” have finally been swept from the public conversation because of their being disgusting, mean, crass, unenlightened and just plain boring, I find that I must bring to my reader’s attention a small nook of said public conversation that has not yet been tidied: the totally acceptable public humiliation and shaming of those who love what amounts to a small pile of dried and glaceed fruits held together by a winsome batter of butter, flour, eggs and spice. It is time for a new maturity on the part of the pokers and prodders. It is time to stop sending those blasted cards. It is time for the thoughtless, painful, embarrassing jokes to end. I urge you to join me in the ushering in of a renewed era: an era during which fruitcake can take once again its honored place upon the pantry shelf.

Fruitcake. Most Americans today have never tasted a real one. If your idea of fruitcake is something that you can order from a boxed fruit company or buy in a Dollar Store redolent of cheap candy and caramel-corn, well. What can I tell you. Your world is very small. Anything that is more sickly-sweet “cake” than fruit, anything that has small, unidentifiable green things in it, anything that is made by a machine and comes wrapped in plastic is, by definition, not a fruitcake. It’s a pathetic blob of sugars and preservatives aimed at separating the consumer from his dollar by imitating and commodifying That For Which Real Fruitcake Stands.

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The Pea Patch Fight

What a summer. First New York and then an unexpected 6 weeks in Providence, and now this-- a week in San Francisco. I've barely spent a minute on my island, and believe me, my Peapatch Garden neighbors have noticed.

Most of the tenants of the communal garden are amazing and nice people. I've met some real friends there. The woman who runs the Senior Center. The woman who just retired as head librarian. But I also have an enemy in the Patch: the self-appointed duenna of the garden. Long retired from who-knows-what, white polo shirt and big fuschia walking shorts, helmet hair and a deep, abiding belief in herself and her views of Right and Wrong. Wouldn't you know it. Of all the plots in the garden, she has the plot right by mine.

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My Old Island

I hadn't been to New York in a while because I had been avoiding my literary agent who expected a manuscript. So going from my island, land of orcas, trees and fog, to my old island, land of traffic, people and big buildings, was a reentry into contemporary life. A few observations on cultural changes since 2007:

1. More beeping, less chatting:
Many more single beeps around, signaling the turn of lights or the readiness of a bagel, but far less public chatting on cell phones. A great thing about texting! All those teeth-meltingly tiresome overheard conversations on the bus now relegated to the keyboard. Lovely.

2. Anyone who thinks he is in the fashion business is actually in the jeans business and must accept his fate.

3. The nasal labial fold is a thing of the past. In the last two years, the usage of facial fillers has hit my business contacts.

4. Light blue is the new white for teeth. Scary when you don't expect it.

5. Bookstores have more tables and fewer books. Hardcover books sport newsprint pages. Vampires rule the racks. And books about green eating. And about how not to look old.

6. A lot of old people are going around with chopped bangs and low-rise jeans and big belts, squinting to see the tiny type on their ipod touch and looking pathetic. Luckily, their corns keep them from sporting gladiator sandals.


"Heresy," a poem by Boris Ilyin

Yesterday I got an envelope in the mail and in it was a poem from my father. He's edging up on ninety-one, just to give you some context. But no wimped-out guy, he. Still painting, writing, calling me on his cell phone to make sure I'm eating. Here's the poem:


They say now that the Dialogue in Heaven
Of whose stark end we are the flying grit,
Was won by Satan, whose triumphant hordes
Unfurled red banners and with furious zeal
Plunged outward into space to spread his power.

He left the Loser dead upon a cross,
To live again, but now to be confined
In silvered ikons glinting in the light
Of true lampadas and of sleeping children--
Or now to be displayed on penthouse walls
With other accent pieces-- yet to bless
Alike the infant and the gracious liver
And the director of the KGB
And the most distant, barren galaxies
Forever hurtling on their outward course
Since Satan's victory on that mighty day.

Boris Ilyin

Surrounded by Acres of Taffeta

Three days left until the Old Settlers' Ball, and because I have an unrealistic view of my powers, I have said yes once again to making too many other people's ball dresses. So here I sit, thinking thoughts about what I am going to teach next Fall in terms of design history and criticism, and sewing the bejeebers out of yards and yards of taffeta. The balanced life is the life we strive for. Histories and hierarchies, who did what when-- that's one side of the story. The other-- that unheralded long stitch of repeated experience that snicks through life like a machine needle, the continuing tale that folds in upon itself, that starts over and ends and starts over-- the sea swell of the unconscious upon which we plant yardsticks and measuring tapes and wonder why they never reach far enough, why they sink down out of sight. How shall I teach that?

My technological breakthrough

I dreamed last night that I had patented a software program that aged photographic portraits in real time. This invention solved the problem of my photograph looking far better than I do in real life. This is a common problem for writers, whose publishers get fabulous photographers to take their pictures, and for well-known designers, who tend to look boyish and craggy or waif-like and arty in pictures but stringy and tough in person.

No need for these glaring gaps between image and reality! With my new PhotoDorian add-on, no one ever need be surprised again by the unretouched youness of you.

No need to thank me. Your appreciation is enough.

Flowering Around

Bad news on the home front. Flowering Around, the flower shop right across the street, formerly known for flowers, has suddenly gone into the organic latte business. This may sound like a boon, what with my having only to roll up the old pj pants and throw on a coat and walk across the street to score the perfect split shot 2%. But already it's spelling trouble.

Unlike most people, I work at home a couple days of the week. This I count as one of the great perks of Pam and my running our own business. Some days I work on the business and some days I write on my current manuscript. But now there's Flowering Around, with its espresso bar, right across the street.

The proprietor is, unfortunately, charming, smart and friendly. Dennis. Known for his dreadlocks here on an island of Norwegians. Massage therapist and shop manager. And then there's my friend Art the Writer, known for his love of coffee and thinking-talk, who's found the new place. But, of course. I introduced him to it.

Fool, I. At my desk in my house, working, I know Art might just be sitting over there at Flowering Around, ready to look up from his book with a smile to offer me a chair. Ready to talk about crafting-the-narrative or what-makes-good-prose-sing or some other topic that can burn more time than almost any other vice. A veritable siren song, this smell of coffee wafting in my window. Right across the street.... So near, yet so far.... Art and coffee: my Scylla and Charybdis.

Why Brand Must Die

Although I am a person deeply involved in helping businesses figure out who they are, how they differ from their competitors and why anyone should care, I have recently developed an antipathy for calling that business activity "brand work" or "branding." Just in the last few weeks, I have begun to associate "brand" and all the swish and swash books about it with an era just gone by--an era in which free-market economics ruled and "lipstick on a pig" was the grin of the day around the marketing meeting table. Since the Obama election, the word "brand" just somehow has an aroma of obfuscation, of finding ways to sell people things that are bad for them, of lying to the customer. I don't know why. It just feels that way to me.

This is not to say that the business activity of figuring out who you are, how you differ from your competitors, or why anyone should care has suddenly gone by the board. Just the opposite. The Obama campaign is a stellar example of branding gone right. But still, the word rankles. We need another word for what we do. Branding must die.

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So Pete Upstairs went in to have another part of his tongue removed but before he went he asked me to take care of his pet rats while he was gone. Since I live downstairs and we're friends, he was counting on me to do it.

Now. I am not what you would call an ardent lover of All Things Great and Small. As a matter of fact, I never would have even had a dog, had she not been a border collie, cut me out and herded me into doing it. Never had a guinea pig when young. Sneeze near cats. And of course, spending many years in Manhattan watching rats scurry around the subway tracks on 34th Street did not do much to endear rodents to me.

So of course I said enthusiastically that I’d be glad to take care of the rats, those cute little guys, considering the poor man was losing another significant piece of his tongue, and because he is such an amazingly nice guy and on his own and everything and so he gave me various keys and the next day he went, had the cancer removed and lay there for a week while I took care of the rats.

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