Saturday, June 15, 2019

How I Do Love Thee, Pruneaux d'Agen


This time of year, I get the vague sense that I am busy and also doing nothing at all, nothing pressing or of great import. If you were to ask me what I’m up to, my answer would be unclear, my voice might trail off and I’d point up at the building we’re passing and marvel at the integration of classical architectural elements. Subject deftly changed. 

We’re just after a two-week Easter break and it's May in France, which means little gets done, or you just begin to get into a rhythm and then there it is, another national holiday in the middle of your week, and so we close maybe just for the day but actually let’s go ahead and take Thursday too, and while we’re at it Friday, because that’s just logical, I mean if we’re going to Provence it makes no sense to spend just two days there. 

And although I am peering at the world through a haze of late springtime allergies — tortured, and taunted, by every cruel blade of grass and attempting to scratch my eyes out — my taste buds are still firing on all cylinders, thank the gods. 

In the spirit of the season, then, let’s lighten the load a bit. Turn to pleasures of the flesh. And humor. 

exhibit A: Why do they call you the Picasso of Boxing? You just have to ask my opponents! Ha!

You know your French is progressing when you get a good pun. It’s why I always love visits with my belle-famille, Mamy and Didier: I really feel immersed in the culture and language, and my French seems to reach another level. For example, I understood why we all laughed recently when I happily reported, on returning from an adorable bookstore in the little town of Minerve, that I’d bought a romain. My albeit slight error in pronunciation meant I was going to read a Roman. (These novels are crazy.) 

But when I’m by myself, like at the market, I know something’s really clicking. It happened a few weeks ago as I stood next to my favorite prune monger, sometimes the sole reason I navigate the crowds of the Sunday farmers’ market at St. Aubin

I’m standing there, the market elbow-to-elbow with people as usual, and there’s this character hanging about, chatting people up. He’s yakking away to the world in general, waxing on about prunes (I assume) and their health benefits (I think?). 

Bonjour, he introduces himself. Je m’appelle Bruno. Bruno d'Agen. 

I smiled: Brilliant. Right at my level. Not bad, sir; not bad at all. (If you didn’t get it just hang tight. You will in a moment.) 

It’s a nice segue in fact, because I’ve been wanting to introduce you to these prunes, the world’s most mouth-wateringly luscious. 

Prunes? you protest. But aren’t those for the old and infirm, for when things aren’t (ahem) running right? Oh dear me no. Non, non, et NON, as one might say here. These are different. These alter lives. 

Before we go further then, a word of warning. Fortunately (I suppose), our medium is digital and your life won’t yet change in the permanent way mine did when my lips touched these for the first time; but if you live in Toulouse, or when you visit (ahem), you will try them and you might end up falling in love with the first person you meet thereafter, they’re that good. Your standards will soar, and all other prunes will wither in comparison. You might even misplace your affection and fall in love with me. At any rate, you’ll never look back. 

Let’s backtrack and use the aforementioned pun as our guide, pick it apart a little. First, the name Bruno. I hear the name and I kind of want to giggle — who the heck is named Bruno?! Never in the US have I met an actual person named Bruno. As I’ve mentioned to French friends, Bruno for an American is a caricature, the boxer who’s all might and no brains, the tough-on-the-outside bulldog in a comic strip. But here, it’s common; everyone knows a Bruno. The owner of l’Anartiste. The father of a kid at school. 

our favorite Bruno.

Then of course there are the prunes. The word prune in French means plum, versus pruneau, which means prune — the plural of which is pruneaux. Pronounced “prune-o”. Rhymes with Brun-o. See where we’re going? 

The prunes with the protected label of IGP — Indication Géographique Protégée — are called Pruneaux d’Agen. Agen lies along the Garonne river about midway between Toulouse and Bordeaux. I personally know it best as the town I like to gaze at as I temporarily bid farewell to my wifi en route to Bordeaux or Paris by train. But it is also the heart of the region which officially produces the Pruneaux d'Agen

This basin provides the climate and soil necessary for the Ente plum orchards to produce these gorgeous babies. It includes portions of six départements in the southwest: Lot-et-Garonne (the largest, accounting for two-thirds of total production — and where Agen lies), Dordogne, Gironde, Tarn-et-Garonne, Gers, and Lot. As with wines with certain appellations and protections, only the prunes from this region (all processing must take place here also) and which follow strict standards get the privilege of calling themselves Pruneaux d’agee

Yes, there is an official site; yes, it is called There is even a quiz there you can take. Here’s my favorite question: 

What time of day should one eat Agen prunes? 
a) only at midday 
b) only in the evening 
c) any time one feels like it! [exclamation point mine] 

Agen prunes must be made from plums harvested when fully ripe, and the trees must be pruned annually following a specific set of standards. After an elaborate drying and sorting process, the plums are then rehydrated so that they are soft and supple and ready to eat. They’re looking for a water content of 35% max. 

I personally have a weakness for the prunes known as mi-cuit — I’ve also seen them called demi-sechée, or half-dried — which are mouthwateringly moist. For them, the drying process is halted at the final rehydration level for normal prunes, so rather than dry them to 23% or less, they’re stopped sooner. 

And my farmer at the Sunday market is a specialist, based in Moissac, which is in the Tarn-et-Garonne département. They are friendly, and generous, and they concentrate their efforts on just a few crops throughout the year, and those they do really well. They go from prunes in the winter to cherries, starting now, then plums all summer and later, grapes. 

The possibilities for how to eat these prunes, as the website will tell you, are endless. Sweet, savory, all by themselves. Hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, main dishes, baked anything, snacks, desserts. A bunch of famous chefs weigh in with their favorite recipes, like “dombes quail with Agen prunes stuffed with foie gras, wild herbs, and a prune jelly sheet”, “bulgur and gorgonzola risotta with Agen prunes”, or “smoked eel emulsion with Agen prune crumble”. This is serious business. 

I cook with them, I eat them at breakfast, I bring them to coffee with my friends so they can be seduced and transformed like I was. I make desserts with them, like this beautiful gateau from smittenkitchen; I put them in muffins as a kind of puree. I brought them to my figure drawing group and watched my friends’ eyes widen with surprised pleasure as they popped them into their mouths. I’m going to soak them in Armagnac soon; just watch me. 

an interpretation of SK’s magic apple plum cobbler

I’ll leave you to your exploring, because I have to get going — the pharmacy’s closing soon and tomorrow’s another holiday, and I’m desperate for eye drops. 

Before I go, a parting gift. Bruno at the market inspired me: I adapted his joke into one of my own, which I hereby officially enter into the lexicon. Accessible only perhaps to the cross-culturally aware such as yourselves — I prefer to think of it as a joke with terroir — but no matter. Off we go. 

A. Knock-knock 
B. Who’s there? 
A. Bruno. 
B. Bruno who? 
A. Bruno d’Agen! 

Cut to roomful of laughter. 

And curtain.

Robert Roubelet, our hero from Moissac

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Points of Interrogation

Have you ever been dealt a problem which you thought was a terrible, terrible problem — and it was, even — but later you discovered that it was actually a doorway, to a whole world of subtlety and self-love you really needed to uncover? 

That’s how I feel about food, with which I struggled for, oh, fifteen years easy and then way more after that, though later the dial turned down considerably. I’m grateful almost daily for this particular challenge, whose profile has changed from problem to more like question, or puzzle. 

It continues to be an unpredictable, daily journey of ups and downs and, finally, a reminder to listen to and honor the feelings and the inner landscape. Where am I on, and where am I off, and what is my own middle way? 

One thing I did which, phewf, as le petit garçon might say — what a relief — was to stop dieting. That was around age 17 when I discovered the work and writings of Geneen Roth, in a furtive and desperate visit to Waking Owl books, where I found her book Feeding the Hungry Heart and, at last, someone who got what I was going through. The relief of dismounting the roller coaster of restriction was like exhaling after holding my breath for fifteen seconds too long. 

But alas, rather than eating in a balanced way I kind-of misinterpreted that as a green light of sorts, and instead swung in the other direction to an extreme, and therein lay my struggle for years to come. 

I swear I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Another story for another time. Twenty years hence I feel like Geneen and I are enduring pals: I’ve stuck with her and dug deeper with her as she — as we — investigate the ways how we are with food reverberate, wider and wider into all aspects of our lives. 

Take Rules, for example. 

Turns out, the following-of-rules is deeply ingrained in me. For years I hunted for a set to follow, along with the right label to describe myself. Maybe, I subconsciously figured, if I found them I’d finally be able to relax. I'm good at following rules, at being good — or at least trying to be good, and then knowing when I’ve been bad, so I can feel bad, and then try to be good again. I’d be OK. 

But as It turns out I hate rules, even when I agree with them. The problem is that beneath the surface is the implication that without them we are not to be trusted. If left to our own devices, particularly around food, we will devour the entire box, our appetites are too big to manage, we are fundamentally bad. 

It begins with food, but then it extends to other areas of our lives: don’t trust your ideas. Some outside arbiter knows better than you. 

I much prefer the line of self-trust, as scary as it is. So on this journey with food I found a path of sorts which is not about following rules but rather listening closely and respecting what my body wants — which is what I wanted all along anyway. 

I vividly remember seeing Danny Kaye direct the Utah Symphony when I was about twelve years old. The first half of the concert was the regular conductor Maurice Abravanel; and then, written on the program for after the intermission, was simply this:

That one question mark thrilled me, visually stamped itself onto my memory. 

Danny Kaye, Tanglewood 1961

It strikes me that my relationship with food is more like that now: rather than a regimen to follow, it’s more like a daily question mark in relation to food. What’s right for right now? 

Roth — Geneen, since we’re old friends — talks in one of her books about permitters and restricters, about how we’re often basically one or the other, kind-of fundamentally oriented that way. Of course someone with anorexia would be the classic restricter, and someone who compulsively overeats might be your classic permitter. I am a permitter all the way who once wished she were a successful restricter, because she imagined they were more disciplined and thus morally superior. 

But (sigh) I guess I am a rebel at heart. It’s not the law of the land, obviously, but rather a tendency. I prefer these days to think of myself as a listener, as opposed to a blind follower of rules. I need the freedom of choice. 

Choice: definitely an option here.

Apropos of everything, I read just this morning in the philosophy book I found in the children’s section: Quand un acte est libre, il a plus de valeur pour nous et pour les autres qu’un acte forcé. When one does something of one’s own free will, it has much more value than the same thing done under duress. 

One thing Roth offers, as a counter to all this, is a set of eating guidelines. Unlike rules, there’s no feeling shitty after if you don’t adhere to them perfectly. They’re more like loving offerings. If love could speak, this is what love would tell you is helpful. Maybe you focus on one for a while, and see what happens when you follow it, and what arises. 

Sit down when you eat, don’t stand there because we all know that when you stand things somehow don’t count or they’re forgotten or we don't really taste and experience them. Eat without distractions, so that you really taste and savor this food you’re putting in your beautiful body. Eat with pleasure and enjoyment: relish the gift of this food. Eat as if other people could see you, as if you were in full view of the world. There’s no hiding here. And eat when you’re hungry. Trust the messages this body sends you. 


Some say that how you eat is how you live. How you eat is the messages you send to yourself about what you deserve and what you value. For me, eating mindfully, without distractions, is deeply challenging. I often do it on the fly. Or I’ll make a beautiful meal, and then I’ll think about other things and whip through it like the Queen is waiting on me, and then I’ll wonder, where did that beautiful meal go? Does that say something about what I think I deserve and how much time I deserve? 

So much to savor

I'm still working on that one. 

I do love the subtlety of it, even while the lack of confirmation makes me deeply uncomfortable. Am I fat? Am I ugly? Vegetarian? Good, bad? Straight, gay, bi? Turns out in most cases it’s somewhere in the middle. 

Maybe those kinds of questions are unanswerable anyway, so it might do me well to disengage from them as much as try to answer them. Weight, another example: for me, better to turn my back, toss the scale, and trust the inner guide on that one. 

(I can hear The Voice mocking me now: Trust your feelings. Inner guide. Ha! Look how far that got you! I put her in a little jar, so she doesn’t sound so intimidating, but jeez already.) 

Perhaps it’s no accident that I am now in an expressly secular country which celebrates food to a kind of religious extent. I get the irony: good food is plentiful and even amazing, and I’ve the ability and luxury and good fortune to daily eat according to what feels right. The éclairs will be there tomorrow, and the next day, so there’s no rush to consume it all in one go. 

No, seriously: we’re only scratching the surface here.

This whole damned blog could be about food and body image, really, since the topic is so deep. And constant: it’s a daily effort to meet these questions, and to treasure both food and this body. 

I don’t know about you, but some of us around here might have just turned 47. How did that happen? It’s a prime number, 47; prime seems the perfect word to describe the juicy pulpy marrow of life at this age. Besides, what is age, anyway? As a wise person once said to me, we’re all kind of the same age, really, at this moment, aren’t we? 

Mid-life is such a personal journey. How much longer? How will it end? What do I do with this accumulation of mini experiences and traumas? What’s it all for, and who is the final judge? IS there a gold star at the end? Who the f is issuing the gold stars? Wait, there ARE no gold stars? Oh merde, hold on a minute: who the hell am I living this life for anyway? 

I mean, so I’ve heard. You probably already knew this. I had a hunch, but it’s finally sinking in. 

Once again, Mary Oliver steps in to issue a nugget of wisdom and perspective. News flash: What you’re looking for is who is looking. That person, that final arbiter and distributor of the stars? That’s you, m’dear. 

We’ll let her drop the mic once again, with a poem that makes the rounds frequently, and for good reason. The first three lines alone. Words to live by.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Pause Visuelle

That last post took so damned much effort to assemble that I decided, this round, to focus on something straightforward, easier. Isn’t that a lovely word, ease? Perhaps easy doesn’t mean lazy, after all; perhaps it steers us toward what’s natural, what’s genuine. 

I scoured my list of possible topics to see what resonated. Anything that opened my eyes a little wider or made me sit up with attention, unexpectedly, even momentarily? 

All of them seemed just too cumbersome in an already unrelentingly cold January. 

One thing I for sure didn’t want to write about was how in December I attempted in the world’s worst French to guide a gaggle of 6- and 7-year-olds into the world of portraiture, when I ‘volunteered’ for le petit garçon’s class. It took so much energy to just do it, let alone write about it. Suffice it to say that I and 26 kids, together with one maîtresse and my American college student assistant, drew a bunch of portraits, and at moments it wasn’t pretty, but then again nor was it ugly, and we all learned from it I think. 

What struck me more than anything was how much these children loved blind contour drawing. Dessin à l’aveugle, I think it’s called in these parts. I had temporarily forgotten that I love it too. 

Stephanie, the young opera singer, ca. 2010

Adults kvetch a little even within the first two minutes of a blind contour drawing. Their minds wander, they begin to squirm. But these little people did not kvetch. They focused. 

They loved having two rules to follow. One. You MAY NOT look at your paper, not once, during the five or so minutes in which we are drawing. Two. Once you start that line, you keep going, you don’t pick up your pencil or drawing tool. You imagine that you are an ant, you believe that you are this ant, crawling across the surface of whatever it is you’re drawing, and you let your mind quiet, and you DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR PAPER.

I saw you — ah ha! Resist the urge!  

They also loved the results, the funny-looking-yet-recognizable drawings that magically emerged. I showed them one I did recently, how fun they could be. 

The other thing I definitely didn't want to write about was the coffee-making competition I attended in late November. Those of us who know Café Cerise know it is among the best in Toulouse: attention to and passion for coffee combined with atmosphere and overall conviviality. Valentin recently installed his own roaster; he’s the one who generously gave me that list of coffee houses to visit when I went to Paris, entirely spot-on. 

I wonder where people get their distinct preferences for roasting time, because their beans, and roasting in general here, strikes me as a bit on the light side, I’ll call it an impressionist roast, whereas I prefer something more bold and intense and grounding, maybe something more expressionist. I bravely face this battle daily. 

… but I digress.

Valentin’s been hosting these cuppings and competitions recently, first for the Aeropress European championships would you believe, this time for a pourover contraption called the Hario V60. I confess it was a bit over-the-top even for this enthusiast: as competitors weighed their grounds to the fraction of an ounce and fussed over the best way to pre-moisten their filters, I kept thinking, a possible delicious cuppa is sitting there getting cold! You serve it lukewarm, and it may have subtle toffee or ruby notes, but that whole component of the coffee-drinking experience went down the proverbial drain. 

But both these events inspired me, woke something dormant. I thought, you know, why not just embrace these recent reminders of things I love, scramble them together, and take a break from all those words? So — here we are, with a pause visuelle you might say, of blind contour drawings inspired by daily life. 

. . . starting with coffee, of course

I hope you enjoy them. 

Winter, I'm told, is secretly preparing treats for us, but they won’t be ready for a while — something called spring I think it is? Hang in there. I will too.

We begin rough, with whatever's at hand . . . 

. . . and continue with leftovers from tree-decorating

The kaki trees — persimmon to you and me — which have generously agreed to wear their fruit a little longer, brightening otherwise stark surroundings. They’re everywhere; yet few people I've met seem to eat or cook with them…

Tools of the trade

Winter will not last forever, little grape vine

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Behind the Scenes (at Musée Paul Dupuy)

As has happened several times, le petit garçon unwittingly steered me to this month’s blog topic, just by attending school each day. First it was French poetry, next a filmmaker; I won’t be surprised if I soon write about marbles, which are the thing on French playgrounds for the under-eight set. But more on that another time. 

I leapt at the opportunity when his teacher asked if any parents would be willing to chaperone the class on a field trip. I love to observe the kids together with their maîtresse, listen to how they talk and interact, and discover new corners of Toulouse. 

I was especially excited because this was an exhibition by a Franco-American artist who, I learned upon a little research, was born in Pasadena and moved to France as a child. I imagined all the stuff she and I would have in common, the conversations we might have. I pictured her, oozing Californian cool and free-spiritedness while speaking perfect French. 

Maybe, maybe not. But I also had a hunch too that there was something for me there. Something to uncover, to be reminded of, inspired by perhaps. Maybe, I thought, it will stoke a fire in me. 

Part of month-long slew of contemporary exhibitions around Toulouse, a biennial festival titled Le Printemps de September (OK, yes, maybe we are a bit tardy), Nina Childress’ show was held at the small Musée Paul Dupuy just off Rue Ozenne. It was two days from opening; our tour would be a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the work-in-progress. My mouth watered. 

So one afternoon, we cheerfully herded 22 five-to-seven-year-olds through the park and to the museum, where a friendly guide welcomed us. 

Childress had dug out works from storage at the larger Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, ones made by minor, forgotten, or less-loved artists that caught her attention for formal or thematic reasons. Her interest sparked, she planned to then associate forty of them with thirty of her own. And today, she’d generously agreed to have a herd of curious enfants trample into her construction zone. 

As we waited for our tour I peered through a glass door on my right to see a bunch of the museum’s paintings, anticipating their moment in the spotlight. Out of context like this, they seem so modest and ordinary. How does putting a museum object on the floor, versus a pedestal for example, affect our experience and our critique of it? 

This one, for example?

We were greeted at the exhibition entrance by the artist at work, bralessly unpretentious in an orange t-shirt splattered with paint, carrying a roll of blue painters’ tape. Her glasses were thickish, smudged; she seemed to peer through them at us, as if through fog. 

She began by explaining the opening sign, painted in rough letters, its paint dribbling deliberately. 

Apparently the owl also finds its young beautiful . . .

…which, I thought, must imply that every parent finds its children beautiful? OK, that’s sweet, and true, I thought, right? Babies — adorable to every mother’s eye, and thank god for that. Apparently this was a fable her own mother repeated to her, about an owl who, in an effort to protect her young from a dangerous and hungry eagle, effused about how beautiful her babies were. Really built them up. So much so that when the eagle saw them, it didn’t recognize them by the owl’s description — perhaps their faces only their mother could really love? — and so devoured them as planned. 

Childress was, as my helpful guidebook told me, building her own nest of sorts at the museum and “brooding over the chicks’ revenge”. Retrieving paintings and finding something in even the most neglected among them. I think; to be honest, I’m still a little puzzled. Was she connecting the story with her own efforts on behalf of the unloved paintings? Was she critiquing the portrayal of women in painting and sculpture? If so, how does that connect with the owl story? Or is it more of an institutional critique — rethinking the museum itself? 

As it turned out I got too busy being captivated by the physical experience of the exhibition to fuss with these questions for the moment. I was immediately entranced by the sea of brown craft paper, covering the walls. Torn bits here, plastic sheets with quick sketches of precious 17th-century portraits there. People busily worked around us, discussing placement, mounting, lighting. My questions multiplied. Was what we were seeing prep, or was it the exhibition itself? 

We sat down with Childress, in the midst of the chaos, to chat. Scared her by nearly putting our sneakers on the freshly-painted black wall to our right, came perilously close to leaning on that painting on our left, propped against the wall. 

We plied her with questions; she looked at us through her clouded lenses and fielded them, clearly distracted but still, remarkably, amiable. How did you start painting? How long does a painting take? Do you like animated movies? Do you ever draw on a tablet? When did you know you wanted to be an artist? Where is your studio? What inspires you? 

Oh, she said, good question. It’s not what people think, artists aren’t what people think. 

As we sit, my eyes wander to what she’s wearing, how she holds herself. She’s unassuming, not the least bit flashy. Unpretentious and hard-working, like her work, I think. 

As I assess her physical presence, I wonder, Why am I so interested in how she looks? It dawns on me how deeply-set that is, this tendency to size a woman up based on her appearance. Even an accomplished artist who’s pouring hours and hours into a sizeable and meaningful project. I resist it, but it takes concerted effort: I sometimes still buy into the pervasive idea that looks are the ultimate statement about a woman’s value, long before the content of her ideas or character. 

I refuse to go there. I want to concentrate on her work. But on the other hand, the artist’s persona, their public face, does fascinate me. How do they turn up? How do they present themselves to the public? Do they care? How do women embrace their bodies and at the same time refuse to be reduced to their appearance? 

I hang out with that kōan. 

I returned later in the week for the opening, breath baited, to see the completed show. 

I was relieved to discover that the elements I loved — the paper, the roughhewn-ness — remained. More clear now was the conversation between her work and the museum’s. The torn paper on the walls, for example, echoed of one of the abstract paintings. 

One section contained image after image of nudes being gazed at — hers and theirs. Some coyly aware, some utterly innocent to that weirdo peering out from behind the trees. A lot of breasts, here lovingly attended to, there aggressively painted. Damn they get a lot of attention, don’t they? As if they’re the defining female feature, or have some kind of structural significance. 

The machismo in one museum piece was particularly appalling — men fully-clothed being served tea by a woman in her birthday suit, spare me — so she repainted it into abstraction. It might be my favorite: a reclamatory critical statement, and interesting in itself, simultaneously blurry and crisp. 

Mm hmm. Right. In your dreams.

It's not your eyes, nor my camera, I swear!

The artist was present; she told me they’d finished just two hours before the opening. Aside from flash of turquoise blue toenails evoking her color palette and 70s-era imagery, she seemed unceremonial. Same knee-length blue jogging pants and sandals as before, now with a dark blue hooded sweatshirt, a blue backpack slung over her shoulder. Same clouded glasses. 

She’s been working on this shit for days, I thought, and she’s finally done. She’s probably exhausted. 

On my third and final visit, I had the gallery to myself. I appreciated again the deliberateness in every detail, even down to the splattered paint. I admired her range and versatility, crude here, polished there. I longed to work at a museum again so I’d have access to their trade secrets. I thought of volunteering to help install exhibitions. I wondered how long each piece had taken to create, and how that affected my thoughts about its monetary value. 

Absent a curious friend or companion with whom to toss around ideas, I tried to practice the inquisitive approach I encourage in my students. What was I seeing? Why, for example, was this roll of what looked wallpaper cascading down the wall and spilling onto the floor? Kraft sur Kraft, Nina Childress, 2018. 

What a delicious challenge, to curate an entire space, from the moment of entry to the rounding into the final gallery. Ensuring each space is its own but also part of a coherent whole. Precision even in the apparently sloppy bits. And in this case, a call to question what we assume is going to happen, given that this is a Museum, in whom we place our aesthetic trust. 

I think of Duane Linklater’s 2015 salt exhibition at the UMFA, who took objects from the museum’s collection off their literal and proverbial pedestals and shone new light on them. How do museums shape our assumptions and opinions? Can they themselves address these challenging questions, including their own authority? As with the owl and the eagle and their view of the owlets, is the nature of reality dependent on the perspective from which it is observed?

This exhibition reconnected me to my craving to take over an entire space, from the moment one enters to how the walls are painted to how every sense is engaged. Like a piece of music: when you curate a full exhibition you could curate a journey. Make it practically irresistible. 

where the journey isn't just about your belly

My own work has found a temporary home in Toulouse, at Le Pic Saint-Loup till the end of the year. I love the way restaurants like this can address the space in its entirety, too, and tend to all your senses whilst offering what could appear on the surface to be just a (really, really good) meal. 

You never know, with cafés and bars — the lighting can be shit or the whole thing can feel like a vague insult, to the place, the artist, the artwork, and all the work behind it. But at other places, like this one, even the toilettes are considered, with their hand towels, bunches of lavender, objects placed just so simply for pure visual appeal. We were expecting you, we haven’t forgotten you. Now get back to your gastronomically gorgeous repast

Thank you Ms. Childress for pointing shit out and for working hard despite all the forces working against you. Including yours truly, who still struggles with the notion that, for women, appearance is what it all comes down to in some kind of absurd final analysis. Thank you for being smart, and strong, and hard-working, and kind-of witty, and for continuing your work. Maybe I'll write you a love letter, dammit.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Touché, Universe

You know that thing people say when they’re trying to make sense of the nonsensical? I could never get behind it. They knowingly evoke the Universe, saying, Everything happens for a reason. Oh it seems so trite and overused I could spit

So as much as it pains me to admit it, I am of late turning on the receptors and tuning in to signs. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a bit more sleep, the tide of stress is ebbing, and we’re in the easy chair of August that I’m just noticing more, but it seems they’re everywhere. Unexpected conversations, cleverly-placed objects. Someone I keep bumping into. A situation I can’t change. 

Signs that whisper, This way. Yoo hoo, you’re meant to go this way. 

An example. 

Self-portrait, 1912. Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

One day after I’d brought my class to Les Abattoirs, Toulouse’s contemporary art museum, I took a few sleep-deprived minutes to browse the store. A couple of postcards featuring the artist Helene Schjerfbeck jumped out at me, and I thought, Who is that, who on earth is that angel who escaped my attention until now?

Costume Picture II, 1909. Ateneum

So I uncovered Helene’s work — she was Finnish, and worked in France for a time — which then led me to this extraordinary website championing women artists. I know what I’ll be up to this afternoon. And tomorrow, and the day after that . . . 

Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937. Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Nice work, Universe. 

Some signs appear like confirmations. A few months ago, we visited friends who’d recently had a baby. Just the day before, I’d got my ukulele out for the first time in over half a year, to learn a few chords and strumming patterns. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I'm longing to play. And there, in the corner of our friends’ little house, sat a ukulele, in a case identical to mine. A sign, I thought. Confirmation. Do it. Yes, do it. 

Here’s another: Le petit garçon and I were reading recently, and I saw this, which would totally have escaped my notice six months ago. It seemed to say, Recognize this? A little reward for all your hard work lately. 

from Astérix Legionnaire. Albert Uderzo & Rene Goscinny, 1967.

Some signs are suggestions, and I’m so glad to get them. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing lately, and it’s a stagnant August in France. I need a nudge. 

Last week at the library I came upon this wall where people put up notes offering services or searching for piano lessons, art lessons, an odd jobs person, a room in the country in exchange for English conversation. I was inspired to leave my own note. 

like bibliothèque, or discothèque, or mediathèque… but for partaking!

I love the mix: effort, followed by throwing the ball up in the air and just seeing where it lands. Lay the groundwork, set the stage, and then stand back and allow fate — OK, The Universe — to do its thing. Already I've had responses from Lionel, Nicolas, and Lola. Who knows what might happen? 

On another museum visit, I saw the work of Eduardo Chillida who referenced the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Household to the French, perhaps, but only vaguely familiar to me. Where had I heard his name before? Aha! The Poetics of Space. That book Michael Howard introduced us to back in his painting class in Seattle. Howard’s paintings of houses made my heart leap then, and it turns out they still steal my breath. Could it be time to revisit them? 

Michael Howard: 156 Herman, 2011. Thanks to Prographica/KDR Gallery, Seattle.

Harman Site, 2011

764 Maddock (Daly City), 2013

And another. After visiting my morning farmer’s markets last Saturday I ended my errands at the co-op. A man in a dapper cap stopped me after I’d paid and said, Look, your basked is so beautiful, the arrangement of colors. Definitely worth a photograph. I hadn’t really thought of it till then, and I looked down to discover he was right. 

But I’m not always sure how to read signs. Some seem to say Do This Now; others forewarn; still others are gently-placed prompts: I see that you’re a little lost. This is important. 

In one common scenario, and I don’t like to admit this, a “sign” appears too demanding or scary so I just pretend I don’t hear anything. Not now. Don’t contradict my plans. And don’t you dare try to tell me Everything Happens for a Reason

For perspective on coping with the Universe’s less pleasant offerings, I turned as I sometimes do to Improvised Life, which offered another option: What might be the hidden lesson or value in this situation? This seems like it sucks. It DOES suck. But could there be a veiled message here? 

I love this approach. I have long imagined I have a committee of angels who present things to me, sometimes clear, other times obscure, to guide me. 

I vehemently resist physical signs, the things beyond my control. But alas they seem to abound lately. At the end of a usual run recently a strain surfaced in my left calf. I waited several days, then a week. After two weeks I thought, OK, this is getting ridiculous, I’m going to lose my mojo. So I tried, but after ten minutes I felt that familiar pang and knew I had to stop. Two weeks became three, then more easily four, and here we are over a month later. 

After engaging in a good dose of annoyance followed by self-pity, it occurred to me that maybe this was my body saying, Yo, quit this, you’re not 20, you can’t burn candles at every end and expect to just keep sallying forth. Take it easy. And even if you don't rest, you’ve got other shit to take care of, so go spend some time on that. 

During significant foot surgery some years ago, I — who assumed that my life (and the size of my body, which I equated with basic worth) depended on maintaining physical activity — learned that great things can happen when one gets off one’s feet and sits on one’s ass for a while. You go slow. Or ask for help. You have time to rearrange your closets and throw out all the clothes that don’t spark joy and never look back. You read more poetry, and drink coffee and read the entire Chronicles of Narnia

So maybe The Universe is saying Be careful about getting too obsessed, particularly about conflating body size with value. That’s a dangerous road you’re starting down, so your committee is removing it from your options for a spell. 

Besides, it’s too hot to run anyway. A forbidding forecast calls for Sweltering for the foreseeable future. What might be that hidden value? They’re in cahoots, the weather and my calf, saying, You’re not invincible. Life is short. Check your motivation. Take a little break, and come back refreshed and restored. 

So I suppose that this summer all signs point to Attention. Everyone’s out of town, or closed, or unavailable. Boo hoo hoo — I could really get down about this. But on the other hand, no one’s asking me for anything, either. And right here, today, in this moment, I am totally fine, and actually quite comfortable. The fan is on me, it’s not too stuffy in my little corner. I can sit with this anxiety about the heat that’s to come. Will the future arrive in the form I think it will anyway? The Universe seems to be saying: Embrace this life, this body, this one that’s right here, this moment and then the next, when it arrives. 

A song lands in my head. Molly gave it to me some years ago, and that’s no coincidence. 

Enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think 
Enjoy yourself / while you’re still in the pink 
The years go by / as quickly as a wink 
Enjoy yourself enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think.