22 August 2016

late summer


Late summer is dragging its heels. There are sluggish chainsaws during the day, whacking all of those fallen trees to bits. It takes them hours, but there is no rush. There are men in orange vests with weedwhackers around the schools. That day is coming, the cool morning, the freshly pressed shirts, the bag lunch, the fast kiss on the forehead. E is ready, but not ready all at the same time. I think she retreats the same as I do, hiding in the afternoons deep in thought, researching something obscure instead of facing the immediate future.

There are more rainstorms, more flooded streets. The trees outside the windows bend in the same impossible arc, not snapping, not splintering but coming back and then doing it all over the again. The wind howls, and the baby still sleeps. I find myself scribbling thoughts in the middle of the night,  yanking myself out of a sound sleep my eyes almost tearing up as the bright lights are too much for them. They are dark, black ideas. A few days ago I learned about the words above the entrance to Auschwitz for example Arbeit macht frei, or "work sets you free". The terrifying logic of this quote hovers in the air, cutting two ways at once. I do not take the writing process of Blackbetty lightly, and these are the waters I have dipped into. What fruit they will bear, and how, that is the job at hand in these late summer days.

To refresh my thoughts, I pull the camera bag across my shoulder and walk to Sparrow Hills, an outlook high above the rest of Moscow, where people visit on a Sunday to take family pictures, where nostalgic wedding parties stop and drink cheap champagne from plastic cups. I have this idea to take pictures of people taking pictures. There are young boys standing on a railing, flexing their biceps until the faces nod, that the image was indeed taken. A teenage couple mash their faces together as their bikes lean slack against the railing. Her arms hang loose around his neck. He buries his face in her shirt. They kiss again, her with one eye open seeing who is watching them. 

The clouds are packed up in the sky. The trees are still green. A motorcycle roars past. I slip the camera back into the bag. 

Time to go home, and back to work.





15 August 2016

faces (a flood)


Long before the sun came up, there was the pinging sound of rain slapping against the aluminum siding on the balcony. Hollow and soprano, it woke me. I lean against walls as balance returns, making my way to get a glass of water seeing my face for a moment in the bathroom mirror and I do not recognize it. I know it is me, the dark circles under the eyes, the fringe of hair around the ears, the grey hairs sprouting in-between the black but for some time now I have not felt like that face. It is foreign to me, a shadow, an imagined person. It is not something to struggle with, but simply something to ignore. I know the sound of my laugh. I know the sound of my voice late at night in the kitchen with a drink in one hand, swirling the ice cubes as they wither. That is who I am.

V is sticking her hands through these stacking rings while sitting on my belly, and some are too small for her to squeeze into. I try to tell her that she grew, that she got bigger. She looks at me, chewing on this, the ideas turning around in her little mind. She sticks her hand into the biggest one, the green one. She brandishes it in the air like a trophy, her improvised bracelet. She laughs with such satisfaction, "Woho." 

In the kitchen, N is scraping a quail's egg through a sieve as part of V's breakfast. Her hair has gotten long, and strands fall into her face which she blows at from the side of her mouth. She had hair a bit like this when we met, when her face was rounder, when she was nervous and shy, biting her lip, waving her hands in the air with a library of bracelets dancing around them. Now she is my sharp-tongued wife, somehow taller and more beautiful, the confident mother, her head-tipped back laugh more like a swan than a person when I buy pants the wrong size, or when I throw out a blanket by accident. I like how her face changes. 

Eventually E wakes up, her hair smashed down like a paint brush left at the bottom of a cup overnight. She plays with V, stares into the fridge and takes nothing out, wanders in and out for some time until actually eating anything. She finally lost one of her front teeth, a few years too late. I like when her smile flashes and I see that gap, even though I know she is embarrassed. There is nothing like seeing your child's broken, messy smile. 

The rain is hammering into the trees. The streets are flooded. The center is closed and we will not go out to dinner tonight, even if it is my birthday. I head out with E in our long boots by afternoon, the sidewalk a low river for the first ten minutes. A tree has fallen across the path and we climb over it. And then, a bouquet of wildflowers rests on a low fence, as if someone abandoned them at the sight of the tree. I stare at them, entertaining the reasons behind them, imagining what drama unfolded to create such an odd result. I look around, and no one is stalking off, no one is crying or looking over their shoulder. Cold rain seeps down the back of my neck and we head towards the main road, where the bus will come and splash high above the giant puddles, bringing us to the market where I can buy pumpkin and fresh thyme, semolina flour and a good bottle of wine for dinner. 








08 August 2016

the reward for silence (a different person)


It is hard for anyone to appreciate the sense of stagnation here. There are plenty of countries where the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. Everyone in this world struggles to carve out their own hearth and bed, their own green-grassed backyard. That is not what I mean. Here, the days pass slowly. Here, things stand broken for months, even years before they are fixed and no one complains. It is that mute response that throws me, that lack of outcry, that absence of righteous opinion. Yes, behind closed doors, people speak in low voices to a handful of trustworthy ears. But who says in public "that is wrong". No one.

Almost nine years here and I still cannot swallow that bitter pill. On the playground, in the street, on the trolley bus there are trespasses, there are people running wild over lines that have been drawn and no one says a word. It is a survival mechanism, a means to an end. I often tell myself to take the high road, which may indeed involve rising above some petty misdeed. Maybe there are more important things than saying "that is wrong". Maybe going home to your family, safe and sound is the other side of that coin. Maybe sleeping well is the reward for silence.

I was raised on a fable - that hard work, that sweat and grit and guts were what it takes to accomplish things, that the labor was noble in and of itself. But what if being invisible accomplishes the same things in the end? What if that gets you there? Swallowing pride and honor, in the name of securing safe passage - is that so terrible? Some worlds are more dangerous than others, and who am I to judge?

When I go to New York for a week I might as well have gone to Mars by the time I get back. Everything outside of here is so upside-down, so opposite, so backwards. Straddling both worlds is some kind of magic trick, like jumping back and forth across a river so quickly that you are in two places at the same time, a different person on each edge.





01 August 2016

a series of surprises


We all live complicated lives. There is always a cross to bear, a stone that swings from our necks. Maybe every single one of us became Sisyphus in the middle of some sleepless night and just don't want to admit it. I cannot imagine a person who does not have some obstacle, some ladder to climb in the darkness on an endless loop.

But that is just life.

I met a girl, well a woman some years ago. She arrived in the strangest way, by such a series of chance events that it makes me dizzy to think about how easily we could not have crossed paths that curious and cold January night. But we did, and that is all that matters. At some point, you get lucky. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right two times a day. And honestly, I was a broken clock when she found me.

So yes, she helps me carry my stones and of course I try to carry some of hers. By some curious math, the daily hustle gets easier. The stones add up to less than the sum of their parts this way. I don't try to overthink that.

She always smells like a million dollars. She still trounces from room to room like a little girl, skipping to a class she is late for. She cracks her gum, blows bubbles, makes wisecracks. Yes, she is that girl. I suspect if we met as teenagers things might end up about the same. She would tease me incessantly, foul words flying from her sharp tongue, eyes big and darting at my every advance. I would bring her flowers maybe, or some handmade necklace. I can imagine the eye rolls, the hot flush on her cheeks of embarrassment, that skipping away in brand new sneakers that squeak on the floors.

Today is our anniversary, married three years now. I took care of the presents because she has her hands full with the baby. I like to surprise her, even with what she bought for me.


25 July 2016

the ocean waits

You smell it first, then feel something ride along your skin - the salt, the sense of things wet and green, of bits of seaweed. Then a little shiver runs up the back of your neck, realizing how long it has been since you stood in the sand at the water’s edge, the lapping sound at the edges, the rustle of weeds in a low breeze. It will take some time, standing here to put everything in its place and for once, there is no rush. 

Tiny dark tails are wiggling under the surface, darting schools of minnows that later turn out to be baby eels. They move like birds in the sky, graceful arcs twisting around the sandy floor and the sun is beating down hard. 

I make my way back along the little road, hearing the sound of everything. My breath and my shoes scraping on the asphalt, the trees bending, a motorcycle in the distance. 

The ocean waits. 





In the city, I find the familiar places, the loose stool at a diner late on a Sunday night and they are still making hamburgers so I order one. All at once Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes comes on, and I think of V fast asleep still and how she likes this song so much, bouncing on my side at breakfast as the music jumps around our kitchen. Everything reminds me of them, a yellow splash of graffiti on a bright wall and I know E would like this, smiling at it if she was next to me. A perfect iced coffee and an almond croissant and I sense N’s chin on my shoulder, tearing off the corner and popping it in her mouth. 

The next morning I go to the Cup and Saucer, for eggs and sausage. The same faces are there, that trapdoor behind the counter flips open and a young cook crawls up from the basement. The girl with the stray eye hands me a menu but I already know what I want, and pass me the tabasco please. I eavesdrop on conversations to both sides, men talking about their children’s weddings, talk of the weather, no politics, no drama just 80’s hits playing on the radio and air conditioning pumping into the place making the napkins flip around.  









18 July 2016

miniatures (a storm)


A wind comes up from nowhere, flipping the drapes all the way outside the windows. The sky flashes, dead silent. No thunder, no delayed crash and crackle. Just fingers of electricity drawing briefly, shooting up into the clouds, drawing down to the trees. The clouds pulse, backlit, as if bombs are going off in the distance. It feels like a silent war has begun.

We stand at the windows. E is wide awake, her face turning up to mine, her eyes wide. N tiptoes in, and tells us to stand back from the balcony, that it is not safe.

The baby is still sleeping somehow.

Trees are bending hard. The smell of ozone and smoke is drifting up to us.

The rain does come, with little patters and then cupfuls. I close all of the windows tight, my feet wet from what has come in already. Thunder finally cracks, the first sound in half an hour to come from that bright sky. There will be a flash flood, a night of drops smacking against the windows like little bells.

I fall asleep to this sound, knowing E is warm under her red blanket, seeing V twist in her sleep, her legs caught in some briefly imagined infant ballet for a moment, then folding back to her side. N is curled next to her, an arm bent to keep the baby close, so that she senses that little touch of skin on skin, just brushing elbows, that miniature connection that lets us feel that everything will be ok.

11 July 2016

the hardest thing

I used to call it the magic thousand dollars. I was twenty-one, fresh in New York living in Greenpoint before you could buy Thai food there, when everyone spoke Polish or maybe some broken English and I was the minority. I had a friend named Sal, and he was getting divorced. He asked me if I could lend him some money, so he could try to find his own place, try to pull his life together. I gave him much more than he expected, that even thousand. He did not know what to tell me. I remember his hands, frozen in mid-air, his jaw loose in his face. But Sal was tough, did not want to talk about it after that, just that the money would come back as soon as possible. It did, less than a year later, a crisp check written out to me, a hushed thank you. It was easy to help him. Almost thirty years later, I begin to understand how hard it is to ask for help.

That thousand dollars, it never stayed with me too long. Another friend, another tough moment and I sent it away. I imagined it circulating New York, like some ultra-karmic collection of birds. It went on like this for almost twenty years until I suddenly needed it back. And it came. 


Two weeks ago, I began a crowdfunding campaign for an episodic narrative project. I could call it a book of short stories that happen to be little films. I made a video, sitting in a chair baring myself to the naked eye of the camera, then edited it, seeing my face as not mine any more at some point. I wrote long explanations about where the money would go, what the challenges would be. I pressed the launch button in the middle of the night and went to sleep. When I woke up, there was already one pledge. My elbows jumped, as if I had knocked my funny bone against the wall.

Like many creative people, I spend a very long time thinking about something before I begin to make it. It is an insular, meditative experience and a lonely one. Just the idea, and me going to buy milk, or sitting on a bus, maybe scratching notes on a napkin in an airplane. When I am ready, I tell N about it, on a quiet Saturday night at the kitchen table with just the light over the stove on, us sitting in the shadows, our hands close together. I watch her face. She asks questions. She helps me understand what I want to do. It becomes ours then.

Eventually, the real work begins and I only share bits of pieces when I think they are working. This crowdfunding has turned me on my head. I find myself talking to a universe of people, with nothing but the raw ideas, a few little tests, and me rambling until I think I have explained it well. It is already terrifying, and I think of Sal. I think of the way he looked at me, and begin to understand what he must have felt. It is completely overwhelming.