Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Thousand Misses

For the first time since I’d moved to West Virginia, two dramatically different things began to happen. My apprehension towards the intentions of strangers began to dissolve and I made eye contact at the grocery store. Although accidental, furtive glances made way for smiles and a little less of my East-coast indifference. I also started applying for jobs in Huntington, reaching out to every contact at the University that might produce some kind of employment. While these contacts proved fruitless, I caught myself wanting friends, wanting employment, resolving (if not quite wanting) to create a life for myself here.

Although accepting and supportive of my boyfriend's Catholic views, the strict stance on cohabitation before vows erected itself like a wall between us and any future plans we had dreamed of. I pleaded and asserted on the phone from my air mattress in the basement. He denied, steadfastly resolute.

Following my declarations that "this was the one" and that I wanted a life and a family, Dad offered to pack me up and ship me off to a flat in New York. The offer seemed less and less appealing as reality dawned. I would struggle to pay rent on an overpriced shithole in the city hours from a boyfriend that would make absurd excuses to visit but never stay--lest his parents disapprove. I would not have the family or life that I wanted in New York.

The Catholics I'd dated had a nasty habit of not wanting to admit to their parents just how close we were and where they lay their heads at night. After our first night together with one of the more memorable mistakes I made, I watched as the boy I cared for sat on the edge of my bed pulling on his socks. He dressed himself hastily as I drew the covers around myself. Not wanting to show my rising panic, I posed a simple and obvious question as calmly as I could.

"Where are you going?", I asked.

While among the more ridiculous and cliched, his was not the only lesson.

There was the "You're a great girl, but I feel nothing for you" guy, whose arms bore railroad track burn marks from desperate acts and his Teretts that I had tried to understand.

There was the off-off again first love who called every few months just to hear the sound of my voice--the only girl he ever felt about in that way you hope someone will one day feel about you. He endeavored to deserve me until I was twenty when he loved me and moved to Maine in the morning. Our relationship was punctuated by silence while others I went on to have were filler between their breakups, my breakups, and hiccups generally faced by youth with seemingly endless choices.

There was the one who said I gave too much--much more of myself than anyone ever should give another person; the one who chose an end over continuation just because he could, and another who would have loved me given the chance or not. He brought me snow from upstate in a coffee cup for Christmas and hardly slept beside me on the couch for our closeness.

It was one near-hit for a thousand misses. The Catholic had been the most memorable. So really it had been my fault that when the second rosary was hung with care around my bedpost on the silver chain I'd procured for it and his parents instructed that while we spent every waking moment together, the sanctity of marital acts was respected--I should have known. There was no future for Tommy with a girl marred by divorce, a borderline parent, and an intellect free from religion.
In the weeks following my father's return I accompanied him on regular trips to Lowe’s and Sam’s Club--covert missions for pink bundles of insulation and ten pound bags of mesquite chicken precooked for convenience. We settled into an easy routine of attic insulation work in the morning before temperatures rose to blistering and repainting doors to the house in the afternoon--scattered with intermittent trips to the office to submit job applications.

We stuffed the attic with insulation from second floor closets--rigging batt-sandwiches of wooden slats and clamps even MacGyver would envy--and satisfied our mutual thirst for company over dinner in the pink retro fabulous kitchen that had escaped recent renovation attempts.

Tacked to Dad’s refrigerator was a typed list of “Short-Term and Long-Term House Projects”, each with their own specific date range for completion. This list bore additional tick marks as the weeks passed and I added further tasks to their ranks, desperate for something to do.

Each day I unpacked an article from the heap of silk-screens, packages of prints, and inescapable remnants of life I’d amassed in the corner of the basement. I only unpacked impersonal things, the first a red mosaic mirror--purchased from several years ago from IKEA and rarely used in the dim pull-lights. I had never cared very much for it after our shopping trip to Elizabeth, but I had hung it on the wall in my childhood room as a testament to my developing taste in home-decorating trends.

This past January, I watched my boyfriend wrap the mirror in bubble wrap, on what would be my last trip to New Jersey. Sea foam green bubble wrap. I’d always been told it was ugly, but I had watched him carefully wrap, fold, and tape the bubble wrap around its edges with an intensity of care and concern for its protection that I’d wished he had shown me. Hired men entered the room bowing their heads apologetically, removing a single dresser on my mother’s command from the door way. I had confronted her on the landing, hands clasped to my tear-streaked face, and I asked to be allowed the courtesy of packaging and removing my own things from the house. It wasn’t as much asking as it was shamelessly begging through choked pathetic sobs to be acknowledged. Her eyes carefully lowered she stepped right, left, right again to move down the stairs, escaping our little dance and my plea for dignity.

It wasn’t the act of being forcibly removed from the house by a parental tour-de-force who avoided all eye contact I found merciless--but that it was in front of an audience and at the hands of strange men who patted me on the shoulder and told me that it “had to happen today”. She’d only paid them for a few hours that morning and though I’d also expressed an interest in keeping the white Ikea chair and burgundy foot stool that sat in the corner beneath the matching mirror; they extracted only the dresser from my Tetris floor of cardboard boxes and left the room. I hardly saw them.

Tommy, handed me the mirror, now coated in a solid shell of clear packing tape with a smile. “Here,” he said “this should be safe now, don’t you think?”

We’d intended to stay the night, pack in the morning and move everything into a storage facility a few towns away. It had been a simple plan. I swept the hardwood floor. I comforted myself with the sense of decency I showed in the manner in which my room was left. I may have been kicked out but the floors were swept and unwanted knickknacks dug from closet depths deposited in cardboard boxes in the center of the room--the weight and contents of each deemed easily disposable.

Everyone had left--my sister and her boyfriend Waldy escorted by the police my mother called citing domestic threats of violence, my Aunt Ginny desperate about the fragile nature of my mother’s health who had driven two hours to come to her rescue, and our family friend Chris who’d acted as a mediator of sorts and removed my mother from the house while I pulled myself together on the upstairs bathroom floor. My mother didn’t return to the house until we’d hit the Garden State Parkway on ramp heading north. The mirror survived the snowy drive back to campus in the trunk of Tommy’s ‘85 Oldsmobile though many more valuable things did not.

I extracted the mirror from the bubble wrap and placed it next to the pictures of graduation Tina had sent me on an antique sideboard I tentatively claimed as a dresser. I opened my suitcase at its foot and arranged a pair of black pumps on the single shelf. These small gestures of settling in were almost too much for my father, who deemed the archaic oak as being far too fragile and valuable to bear my jars of powder make up and contact lens case. “Please don’t let anything mar the surface”, he said. I stashed my eye drops back into my red suitcase and told him I’d keep that in mind.

We constructed a closet from a scrapped pipe and white closet organizers that hung from the rafters in the basement 8 inches higher than useful--Dad called it “Appalachian Ingenuity”. At night I compulsively checked the doors, mistaking the dangling forms for misshapen ghosts who’d taken their grave situation into their own hands. Post-mortem suicide didn’t seem like viable option for anything other than my interview suit and college party dresses that lacked company and occasion worth celebrating, but I began to hang my day dreams of home among them.

Monday, August 30, 2010

When I moved in with him at the age of twenty-three, my father and I started what would certainly have been a typical father-daughter relationship had we lived together while I was enrolled in high school. He gave me a key to the house that I attached to my koala key chain, cautioned me against speaking to strangers, and spoke to me nightly about the dangers of falling into the “wrong crowd”. While for me, the “wrong crowd” was comprised of right-wing bigots, homophobes, and any other human being not devoted to the betterment of mankind; for my father, it meant a group of seemingly kindred spirits who would undoubtedly win my naïve affection and then case the house for valuables they could sell for drugs.

Twice burned by such individuals who robbed him more of his sense of security and faith in humanity, I could hardly blame him when, as he packed his car for a weekend trip, he left me with strict instructions not to let any man, woman, or child into the house while he was gone. Lost dogs, three-alarm fires, and car-wrecks be damned; I would send them on their way or calm any wayward traveler through my side of the keyhole until the paramedics arrived. Even the mailman, with whom I was now on a first-name basis, was not to be trusted.

As Dad’s Subaru disappeared around the corner, I closed the front door and slid down the other side to the floor despairing in the knowledge that when his car crossed the border, there wouldn’t be a single human being I knew in West Virginia.

I'd always thought that there came a time in everyone's life, where you would be forced to learn to appreciate your own company--to respect and admire the voice of the narrator and the clarity they brought to what you hoped would become a movie script ending to your life.

Commanding correction from the rim of a megaphone, my narrator interrupts the resounding stillness and peace of laundry and dishes with recaps of missed opportunities and half-finished conversations that have long since ended. Never have I been forced to address the obsessive, condescending prattle that continually picks apart my dreams, my most basic human interactions, and the cowlick that splits bangs across my forehead with such vigor as during those four days in the empty house.

I plugged my ears with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and ran vigorously on the treadmill in the basement. Excessive and obsessive as are most of my pursuits when indulged in with conviction, I resolved to run in the upcoming marathon in town on November 7th. Lack of credentials aside, I would achieve my athletic potential at the expense of my love-handles and hips.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the Beginning

I would like to say I spent the first few days proactively researching job opportunities, networking with local arts organizations, and perusing the aisles at the neighborhood Kroeger for new friends with whom I could discuss politics, religion, and art over plates of homemade linguini. I wish I could say I spent those first two weeks in any manner befitting someone who had not just graduated from college and moved to an alien state with a parent recently bumped up from acquaintance status.

Instead, I did the only things I could think to do when cast neck deep into the bible belt backwoods of America. I wandered the house in my pajamas—my intermittent episodes of hysteria mixed with self-assuring monologues rife with determination. I spilled my guts over dishes in the kitchen sink to any man (my father) or animal (our dog) unfortunate enough to have gained unlimited access to this daytime drama.
I was going to return to New York.

It was really a matter of making the future I vividly imagined come to fruition—full time employment, rent, room mates, and a now strained long-distance relationship—were merely factors that, should I complete the necessary legwork, would work out on their own. I was fully prepared to amble the streets of New York—prostituting myself and my hard-won college education to Starbucks, Borders Books, and McDonalds—in search of some shit job that would enable me to earn enough to cover rent on a mattress on the floor east of Manhattan.

The recession and my recent exile due to the failure of what my colleagues, professors, and mentors had all predicted would be the start of a successful career in higher education were no match for my sheer willpower. My job hunts were eight-hour marathons spent huddled in the graduate assistant computer lab at my dad’s office counting the job opportunities I had neither the education nor the training for.

Each application made its way into the mailbox sandwiched between long-winded letters to loved ones in New York that I’d taken to writing in the early morning hours in the basement. I wrote daily and with conviction—peppering the letters with promises of “I’ll see you soon” or “It won’t be long until…”, cartoon caricatures of young couples in love, and railroad maps that stretched across the envelopes in vivid bleeding red.

The mailman became an unwary target of interest whose afternoon deliveries took on the unprecedented ability to trigger waves of manic highs and lows. No matter how he tried to time his route down our street, I was there to meet him at the end of the driveway like a lost dog waiting to be let into the house after a row—waiting for that pat on the head that signals it’s ok girl…it’ll be alright.

In every effort to launch me into society—Dad introduced me to everyone in his department during our afternoon trips to the office with the hope that, should I make a friend or two, I might return to equilibrium.

The professors greeted me warmly, extending hands and pleasantries, but regarding me with an air and hushed tones one would use to greet the terminally ill. One in particular took to popping her head into my Dad’s office across the hall from where I sat to provide a play-by-play commentary of the economic downturn at a record volume. “I just heard something you shouldn’t tell your daughter”, she said. I stopped typing abruptly and leaned back in the overstuffed computer chair to better eavesdrop on what I was already certain would only continue to shred the fragments of my endless-potential-to-be-hired-self-confidence that had recently stuck at 10%. Her pink and white button down visible through the door frame, she continued without concern, “This is sure to send her off the edge. Did you know that some companies are refusing to even consider hiring those who are not currently employed?”

Most of the professors only tilted their heads in sympathy and said things like “Oh it’s very nice to meet you. Your father told me about your position and I pray something works out soon.”

For the first time in my life, my skepticism about the presence of a higher power—the glorious man in the sky who condemns as frequently as he forgives or loves—marked me as an alien to the South more so than my Yankee accent or my aversion to fast food. The last thing on earth I wanted was someone else’s prayers for my salvation—spiritual, emotional, economical, or otherwise. For a city where storefront churches dotted the commercial districts as frequently as rehab clinics, bordered up windows, and derelict industrial sites; there was hardly a shortage of Christian goodwill, for all the concern God had shown their city.

“Never tell them you don’t go to church,” my best friend Mimi told me before I left New York, “If you can’t think of the name of one in the area, just tell them you go to the one around the corner. Churches are everywhere there.”

Although her initial prophecy had proved false—that frequent trips to Walmart would cause me to lose my immortal soul—this prediction regarding churches turned out to be fairly accurate. I pressed my nose against the glass and switched from counting fast-food chains to houses of God on our way to the office, many of which had creative titles designed to entice those seeking salvation. Of them, “The Lighthouse New Baptist Church” of Chesapeake, OH, with its bubblegum pink and elegantly painted lighthouse sign, was my favorite. Its parlor sized sanctuary evoked images of neighbors hugging and kissing each other hello under candle-filled chandeliers at Christmas, snow falling into little drifts along the windowpanes. The church sat a few feet from the country road just across the river from Huntington, which bore no such Normal Rockwell retreats.

In the past few years, since the utter collapse of the automotive industry in Detroit, pill pushers had flooded the Huntington and Charleston tarmacs in droves. With them, they brought a new level of low-life, poverty, and addiction to the struggling middle class of West Virginia, who’s only foreseeable out seemed chemically intertwined with Oxycontin prescription pain pills. The obsession with escapism sat in the cushioned seats of multiplexes, beneath the dingy stained glass, next to the man who would procure the next hurried exchange of cash for flesh in 4 ½ alley. Whether the legions of the strung-out ever convened with the ranks of the self-righteous in the pews of roadside churches come Sunday—I could not tell. I merely counted them as we drove past on our way to my father’s house on the hill where I had an appointment with the mailman who would surely reward my devotion with an overdue love letter postmarked New York…one Blessed Virgin…one New Life…

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Cardinal

I stared out of the train window at the green blur of trees rushing past, squinting against the glare of sun on the streaked windowpane. The window frame was cool to the touch and I leaned against it, grateful for the sense of stillness it provided. The continual onslaught of foliage, mountains, and the occasional railside town provoked excitement in some of the other passengers. I eyed them with a degree of suspiciousness, wary—not as much of strange travelers—but of the idea that someone might be glad or even looking forward to our collective exile from civilization.

Through the crack between the drab upholstered seat and the window, a little girl of about six or seven sat with her nose pressed against the glass. The child’s pigtails swung as she bounced in her seat. Her wide eyes were set comically into her broad pink kewpie-doll face that swiveled upon her neck. My lip twitched in amusement as the girl poked at the glass with a stubby finger, counting the cows that lounged languidly in a muddy field as we passed.

“One cows…two cows…three cows”

A faint crackle from the intercom interrupted with the news that soon, the Cardinal would be passing through the New River Gorge and that passengers aboard would glimpse a real treat of West Virginian wilderness.

“Welcome to West Virginia”, the conductor said proudly, “Wild and wonderful”.

This sentiment caused a wave of excitement to ripple throughout the car as the conductor had intended. The other passengers dropped their travel magazines and pulled themselves away from their near completed sodoku puzzles to gaze out the windows at the countryside that, albeit pretty with its rolling hills and babbling streams, was very much like the eight hour stretch of land that had preceded it.

Although still appreciative of the cool glass against my cheek, I did not share the joy of my pigtailed compatriot who jabbed now with conviction at passing telephone poles.


I chewed my lip while considering my options, a method of thinking I’d picked up from a supervisor I had worked with the previous summer. It had been a habit of hers that I was determined to pick up. I had hoped that somehow her strong leadership qualities and knack for always making the right decision in a time of stress might be transferred to me if I could learn to show myself properly to others—deep in thought, chewing the corner of my lip in quiet determination.

Did people stow away in the train’s baggage car these days?

I imagined myself a depression-era starlet with rhimel-lined eyes, standing alongside a steaming engine, turning out my empty pocketbook for a gruff, mustached conductor who issued barks of disappointment in flowery subtitles on alternating motion-picture frames. “But sir,” my mouth mimed pathetically, “I am but a penniless college-graduate, sent to live with my father in the wake of this hopeless economy. You cannot cast me out on the tracks.”

Or was hiding myself, my oversized red suitcase, black duffel, attaché, and purse in the lavatory until we reached Chicago, where I could purchase a ticket for the next plane home a more viable option?

I straddled the train’s toilet, my back pressed against a sign bearing instructions for what to do in case of impact, my arms straining to protect myself and my precarious pile of luggage from feeces smeared walls as the train lurched around roller coaster tracks with growing intensity. With a gut-wrenching click, the lavatory door opened. The face of the portly mustached train conductor poked around the frame, narrowing his eyes at the sight of a petite twenty-something year old woman now struggling to remove one high heel shoe from the sputtering, flushing toilet.

My mind flickered and switched to a courtroom scene with myself standing before the imposing conductor, clothed in judges robes and a long powdered wig. A nervous twittering from the jury and spectators rang throughout the marbled courtroom as the judge banged his gavel against the bench in an attempt to regain order. I shifted in my patent-leather pumps, scratching the back of my ankle against the heel before returned it to my shoe. With baited breath, I clasped my hands modestly against my tweed suit and raised my eyes to meet his.

“And what, may I ask,” growled the judge, flecks of saliva catching in his moustache, “was your reason for not getting off at your scheduled destination?”

I paused, took a breath, and answered him in a calm, cool tone.

“Explosive diarrhea, sir.” I answered.

It is the perfect excuse. No one questions it.

I did not stay on my train past my destination. I comforted myself with the thought that, should anyone call me back to the land of the living, I could always find a way to fly home. The fifteen hours it had taken just to reach Huntington, West Virginia, had been more than enough traveling for one day. Perched on the edge of my seat, my distractions packed prematurely, I ground my teeth as the car now crawled through low-rent districts, scrap yards, and blocks of defunct commercial storefronts.

Safe in the knowledge that I would soon be departing, I looked around the train car, noticing for the first time the dingy gray seats with rainbow stripes, the flickering overhead lights, and the sea foam green carpet worn thin around the foot wells.

Most of the other passengers seemed to be either sleeping or attempting to read in the strobe light, but a man of considerable size sitting across the aisle sat on the edge of his seat too, scrutinizing me with his steady blue gaze.

The man wore a starched white collared shirt that ballooned from his neck into a silver belt buckle cast with the over sized head of a steer. Across his khaki knees he had draped a brown paper napkin beneath a cardboard lunch tray. He stirred a coke absentmindedly with a bloated, ringed finger and I saw myself through his eyes.

The woman sitting across from him was a small but athletically built, pretty sort of girl in her early twenties, unsuitably dressed for travel in a pair of tight dark jeans, sport coat, and strappy sandals. Her almond brown eyes reflected curiosity mixed with fear. She adjusted and readjusted her chocolate brown ponytail, brushing a tangle of bangs that fell about her forehead in the kind of disarray kids these days spent far too much money, time, and energy to achieve. The girl seemed to be traveling with far too much luggage than was manageable for one person and she had a nervous habit of biting the lower right corner of her lips.

The couple behind me returned from the dining car with overflowing cardboard trays, clutching the backs of isle seats to steady themselves. The woman flung herself into the seat next to the window with an audible huff and complained that the dining car’s prices had been far too costly for the chips, cookies, and soggy Italian submarine sandwiches they’d gotten.

“Lord, Ah near damn broke now.”

“See Ah told you, you shoulda signed up for social security,” her companion suggested, “It pays a whole lot more and you jus’ walk out there to your box an’ go git it.”

The linen gentleman had stopped his visual interrogation of my person and belongings to take a bite of his submarine as the couple behind me continued to discuss how to receive more benefits from the federal government that did not involve yet another nine months of bloated feet. The sandwich squelched unpleasantly as he bit into it and it spat a slice of tomato into his lunch box with a plop.

“Did you get on in New York?” the man drawled.

He continued to chew his sandwich and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his paper napkin.

“I-I’m sorry. Did I what?” I stammered, severing my gaze from the bit of onion on his chin in the realization that this question had been addressed to me.

“Ah said…Did you get on in New York?” He asked again, more slowly this time, as if speaking to a dimwitted child.

“Y-yes. Actually yes. I did.”

The man took another bite of his sandwich before commenting as he shook his head slightly, “I could tell by the looks of ya’. Yer not from ‘round here.”

Affronted by this appraisal, I pressed my lips together and returned to look out the window as the train came to a halt.

Monstrous weeds poked cracks through the sidewalk that emerged through the dark like vault lines and fast-food containers that littered the gutters in the street. Some of the shop’s papered windows on either side of the train station had been graffitied by the more creative inhabitants of the city, while others bore the standard “For Sale” sign. All of them were shabby, unloved, and unwanted in their disuse.

Welcome to West Virginia, wild and wonderful.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

SALAD Show at the Kingston Shirt Factory

I had the incredible opportunity to have two pieces, silkscreen "I Had the Notion That You'd Make Me Change My Ways" and color separation photo litho "Masked: Bruised" shown in a group show at the Kingston Shirt Factory this October. The show, curated by a handful of SUNY New Paltz graduate students, received quite a bit of buzz from the local arts community.

"Masked: Bruised"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Insight, creativity, and genius (and why we kill it)

Every once in a while you come across a talk or an article that is vitally instrumental in readjusting your perspective with regards to your own creative process and all of its dawdling, roadblocks, dry spells, dead-ends, and fortunate accidents. This past week’s reading, The Eureka Hunt, by Jonah Lehrer in conjunction with a recent podcast I’d seen by bestselling author, Elizabeth Gilbert, prompted more than a few excited phone calls and a major sigh of relief.

I’m a bit of a planner and despite my usually content-to-wander nature; I want nothing less than to hit the ground running every morning completely sure of my purpose and direction. I have rarely, if ever even paused to consider, much less seek to understand or respect, my own process in creating insightful work.

First there was the impasse…or several of them. While I had always appreciated the artistic abilities of others, I suffered from an acute lack of experience and confidence in my own abilities. I was learning a new way to look at the world around me and a language with which to analyze and describe it though I could never adequately seem to utilize any of those developing skills to my own standards.

What I both appreciated and abhorred was the constant state of production I felt I had entered into when I first came to college. Stretched thinly between studios and upper division liberal arts classes I was unprepared to take as a first year, I struggled with even the most basic creative problem solving. I would perch myself on a stool and observe the “tactics and strategies” of friends I admired, talking desperately in an attempt to focus my own thoughts. I was sure that I would arrive at the perfect solution to each puzzle if only I could direct my attention. I was too inexperienced—too stressed—too tired to come up with the answers I sought.

The copious amounts of coffee I consumed stirred constant fluttering of panic in my chest and I became less organized—more frazzled than I ever had been before. I was frantic to remember my schedule, assignments, obligations, and commitments. It began to become more than a constant hum in my chest—I began to lose friendships over my inability to focus. I went to the doctor in hopes of a little blue slip that would enable me to channel my thoughts in whatever direction I wanted. The diagnosis: Attention Deficit Disorder. I left clutching the little blue slip feeling oddly relieved that yes! I was right! My brain did not work like everyone else’s.

I never filled that prescription.

It sat on my dresser until I threw it away a month ago. What happened after I left the office that day was that I no longer felt responsible for all the gaps in attention. I learned to relax and because I recognized that my mind tended to wander, I learned to accept it and ground myself once in a while. Letting go of the anxiety did not happen over night but it did improve and I began to have a few creative “aha” moments of my own.

As I continue to recognize and appreciate occasional moments of certainty, I’m beginning to understand and respect that that there is value in being able to wander. I’m learning that that while “we must concentrate… we must concentrate on letting the mind wander” to allow our brains to “make a set of distant and unprecedented connections” on the path of creative problem solving. While I still might not find enjoyment in the dawdling, roadblocks, dry spells, occasional dead-ends, I have found beauty in uncertainty and the infinite possibilities of what is, what might be, and what lies ahead.

I highly recommend investigating, a website devoted to sharing the experiences, thoughts, and anticdotes from today's leading intellectuals (scientific and creative alike!) In particular, I appreciated a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best selling memoir Eat Pray Love. It's titled "Genius and Why We Kill It". Also, "The Eureka Hunt", an article by Jonah Lehrer absolutely change the way you think about your approach to creative success. Enjoy!