“High Maintenance” by Devin Smith
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

A Village Day

“Let’s get our hair cut,” Simon said. “There’s a barber shop in the East Village that’s doing some really cool stuff.” He made stuff sound like art or at least something I should know about.

I didn’t really want or thought I needed a haircut. My hair was like the button down oxfords and grey trousers that I wore to school, part of a uniform of ordinariness I didn’t have to think much about. But I would have followed Simon anywhere, and especially to the Village.

We’d only been there a few times. Our first forays in New York had been guided by the interests and habits of Simon’s sister, who studied fashion in the city and would regale her brother with stories of the places she ate and shopped, most of which were close to her school in midtown Manhattan. But like settlers in a new land, we had slowly begun extending our radius of exploration, spending the money we earned from our part-time jobs for which we had sacrificed track in the last half of senior year at art house cinemas and ethnic restaurants. Eventually we wound up in the Village.

I liked the neighborhood, with its gentle tree-lined streets of row houses and modest brownstones, its quirky shops and second-hand bookstores–and the young men I saw on its streets. So many of them, and unlike the suited businessmen with briefcases I saw uptown, who mostly walked alone and in a hurry to get somewhere, these men, some just a few years older than me, strolled the streets of the city together as if they were out for a walk in the park.

“How did you find out about the place?” I asked.

“It was in the Voice.”

The Village Voice. It was “our” newspaper. As far as I knew, we were the only ones in our class who read it. It was Simon of course who got me reading it, one day in the school cafeteria.

Shoving aside our plates of the congealed orange goop of our macaroni and cheese, he spread the paper out on the table and flipped to a page with a film review. “You’ve got to read this guy,” he said, “he’s so much better than that snob at the Times” he said. “Ginsburg used to write for it, can you imagine?” he said. Simon wasn’t old enough to have read anything the poet had published in the newspaper, but it was part of the lore of the city he seemed to be collecting, as a hiker might provisions for a long trek he was embarking on, preparation for the life in New York he dreamed of living. “The deli carries it. Maybe there’s some hope for this town after all.”

The next day I picked up a copy and read it cover to cover, and there in a small corner of the back pages I found an ad for a for a film. It featured a grainy black and white photo of two men: a bearded older guy in tight torn jeans and leather jacket, who stood slouching against a truck, and a younger man squatting at his side, close but not touching. They were looking straight ahead.

There were signs enough to suggest that this was a story of men who had sex with other men, and not just the phrase “All Male Cast” anchored at the bottom of the ad: the motorcycle jacket and ripped jeans, the story of trucker and hitchhiker that came to mind, the stance of the two men—what man willingly kneels by the side of the other? I wasn’t yet able to read them all but I didn’t need to. The desire in the men’s eyes, captured in the few tiny pixels of this sexually charged tableau, was unmistakable,

Later I would learn that we don’t read by decoding individual letters but by recognizing the shape of words, even when parts of the letters composing them are scratched off. In my case, the letters were not yet fully formed, but somehow I knew the word, as if it had always been there, waiting to be recognized.

Simon and I spent the morning rummaging through record shops and stopped for lunch at a place on 7th Avenue. The outdoor café was just a single row of small tables set within a thin, low-railed rectangle of sidewalk. From my seat I could thrust my arm out into the flow of pedestrians streaming by and touch the city, the way I used to dip my hand into the water as my father motored the rowboat out into the bay.

We ordered enchiladas and a beer. The waiter didn’t card us, as they had almost everywhere else in the city.

“This is what I want,” he said, slipping out from his bag one of the records he had bought and pointing to one of the musicians on the cover. The guy’s hair was messy, spiky at the top and shorter at the sides.

“Do you realize the dress code doesn’t say anything about how high your hair can be?” Simon said, obviously pleased with himself.  “It’ll grow out by graduation anyway if you don’t like it,” he said. He already assumed we’d do it. “What do you think?

A part of me wanted to say yes. It’d be a way of further cementing our friendship, but I sensed the cut Simon was contemplating wouldn’t suit me. It would have been like wearing the wig my classmate Desmond stuck his long hair under to get around the school’s dress code.

“I dunno.” Another part of me wanted to say “I kind of like the haircut the guys at the table in front of us have.”

They had come in after us. There were three of them, guys in their 20s, all dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts a size too small, two of them sporting a full mustache. The third, with traces of a beard, reminded me a little of the truck driver in the movie ad I had seen.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed their hair if Simon hadn’t suggested we get our hair cut that day.  The three men all had the same cropped hair as if they were members of some secret tribe or fraternity, shorter than what any of us at school wore, except Chuck, whose father was in the military and who’d applied to West Point.

I felt a little disloyal to Simon as I stole glances at them. Usually I couldn’t get enough of looking at Simon, though I could draw his broad proud forehead and high cheekbones from memory and could pick out the color of his brilliant blue-grey eyes from a flipbook at the paint store. I could mimic the way he sometimes tilted his head slightly up and to the right, as if scanning dozens of thoughts swirling in his mind. But I saw Simon every day.

Now that I noticed the guys’ hair I couldn’t stop looking at the heads of the young men who passed by as we dallied over lunch. I kept seeing the same helmet of close-cropped hair reappearing as one might a pale wildflower in a field that once discovered begins to reveal its ubiquity among the shoots of grass.

“What are you looking at?” Simon asked, turning around in his chair.

“Oh, nothing. Just trying to get the waiter’s attention. We need more salsa.”

The barber shop wasn’t an impressive place from outside, just a sign and staircase that led down to a basement shop. I had expected a glass-walled showroom or spacious white cube, like the gallery Simon and I had ventured into on our previous trip and where I had bought the outrageously expensive catalogue—a thin monograph of the Kirchener paintings we had seen—mostly as a souvenir of the day with Simon.

As he had warned, there was in fact a line to get in. It was only a short one, though, just a few people waiting on the stairs, but it lent the barbershop the air of a private club, the kind of place you had to be a member in order to be allowed in, an impression heightened by the other people in line, who looked as if they had already gotten their hair cut.

Simon went first, as I had insisted. I watched him as I waited, talking and laughing with the barber, already a young man of the city who betrayed no trace of the bus journey that had brought him here.

The barber was almost done with Simon by the time the next chair opened up. He was smiling broadly as the barber rubbed a little gel into his bright golden brown hair until it sprang up in a tousle of exclamation points.

“What’ll it be?” the barber asked me.

What will you be?” he could just as well have asked. I wouldn’t have known what to answer. How do you imagine a different life when you have so few clues of how this life might be lived, so few stories?  I could build my boyhood scenes of life in New York with the images I had scavenged from movies and books, however preposterous or anachronistic they eventually proved to be. But I had few pictures for this new and very different kind of life. In the days before a teenager with an Internet connection could browse through a list of gay celebrities and watch ads for Tylenol featuring gay fathers, before there was an Amazon with lists of LGBT youth fiction and town bookstores that stocked them, years before even Will and Grace, the public landscape of a future in which men who loved men lived was barren.

I was beginning, however, to amass a small store of images. I hadn’t necessarily sought them out—how would I have known where to look for them?—and most I had stumbled upon, like the stories of Cocteau and Baldwin or the movie ad. They were objets trouvés for a work in progress I only half suspected I was making but whose final features remained blurred.

At the time I had a shaggy mop of hair that brushed the collar of my shirt, just within the bounds of length prescribed by the school dress code. It was a thick mane that with the right cut and gel could have been almost any haircut I wanted. I just had to ask.

Instead I said, “A little off the top and sides”

As the first curls of hair fell onto my bibbed lap, I glanced at Simon, who looked as if he had just gotten out of bed, but my thoughts quickly wandered to the guy in the red t-shirt on 7th Avenue.

“You can take some more off.”

The barber combed up a segment of hair and clamped his fingers around the strands a couple of inches from the base. “This much?” the barber said.

“A bit more.”

 

I didn’t emerge quite as transformed as Simon had. I was just a teenager with a nondescript haircut that didn’t fit into any of the fashion niches at school, Simon’s new look included. Still, it was much shorter than what I had worn all through high school.

“You could have gotten that anywhere,” Simon said in a tone of muted disappointment.

“Maybe next time,” I said. Simon was wrong. It was definitely a New York haircut.

-/-

Featured image: “High Maintenance” by Devin Smith,  used under CC BY 2.0 .

Gustave Caillebotte, "Jeune home au piano," 1876
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Brothers in Arms

I can’t remember ever being bored as a child in the summer, just as I can’t remember feeling oppressed by the heat or smarting from a bee sting. Perhaps children never really feel bored—though judging from my godson, they do get restless—except at school, that boot camp for boredom where we are obliged to complete tasks that are either too hard or too easy, and only become prone to boredom later in life, when they begin to perceive and name the gap between the more interesting things they could be doing at a particular moment and the unrewarding things they are stuck with doing, or when, more sadly, they cannot imagine an interesting thing they would want to be doing.

It is equally likely, however, that my inability to recall long periods of summer boredom is simply due to the fact that my mother and my Uncle Leonard and my grandfather were so good at occupying me. Someone must have bought the watercolors I painted with, and the books I read and puzzles I put together when it rained. Someone must have arranged the day trips to my cousins’ houses and rented the boat to go crabbing and driven us in the evening down to the amusement park.

Someone—my mother, I remember—bought us laces the summer we discovered braiding. Alex, an older boy down the block, had shown us the keychain he had braided out of colored plastic laces. He didn’t have any keys to attach to the chain, but it didn’t matter. It was beautiful, with its tight ribbed sides of royal blue and lemon yellow, the laces extending beyond the last knot to a fringe of brightly colored lashes.

My mother drove us the next morning to the local Woolworths to buy a kit of laces for our own chains. I think she was happy to oblige us, as parents today might be to download a gaming app for a tablet. It was a cheap solution for keeping us occupied, with the added advantage that, unlike an iPad, it was something we could do separately, and this reduced the occasions for a fight.

Summer was the high point of our fighting. We had fewer occasions to do so in the city, where our days at school and separate circle of friends tugged us apart. Here in the country, however, with mostly common friends and endless time, we found ourselves in each other’s company more than either of us wanted.

My mother said that Charlie and I fought like cats and dogs, and in a way she was right. We tangled with each other as if we were of different species, fiercely and unremittingly. Our bickering was unredeemed by those moments of affection that mark other brothers, whose fights, like their fierce loyalty, are just another expression of the intensity of their bond, rivalry colored by love.

Competition there was, of course. I envied his skill at sports, though he was always a middling athlete, and his outgoingness, too, the way he joked with adults and how they warmed to his daringness. Perhaps he resented the achievements at school I had left for him to contend with. Ah, you’re Stephen’s brother, the teachers would say, expecting from him a level of performance he would always fall short of.

Since we refused to compete, we each carved for ourselves an identity that admitted no common interest, ability or taste. He liked cream soda; I wanted root beer. Charlie played baseball; I rode my bike. His favorite summer game was Parchesi, mine Scrabble. Sugar Pops, Raisin Bran. Getting into trouble, staying out of trouble. Trombone, flute, how could we ever play a duet? Whether by nature or, more likely, by will, we were, as my grandmother used to say, “contrary”. Even my family seemed to take the cue of our opposition as Charlie became Leonard’s favorite nephew, and I the beneficiary of my grandmother’s favors.

It was more than competition, though. Though we must have shared good times together as children, I can’t remember ever liking Charlie. I know that my memories of my middle brother are refracted by the events that led many years later to our final estrangement. When I think back to our childhood I see him merely as the first incarnation of the ungenerous and disloyal man he grew to become. The interpretative errors introduced by memory, however, are only part of the answer to our enmity. He was a mean boy, as my youngest brother Daniel, who suffered Charlie’s taunts and sadism more than I did, confirms.

I was rarely physically punished as a child, and when it was, it was always because of a fight with Charlie. The threat, however, was always there. It took the form of a burnished brown leather strap, the bottom third of which had been cut into strips like fat linguine. A hole had been punched at the top of the strap so that it could be hung on a peg on the kitchen wall of our house in the city next to the Knights of Columbus calendar for the year, a perverse amulet that warded off not the evil eye but the discord of bickering young boys. There was one at the summer house, too, though it could have been the same one, packed in a box along with the bathing suits and beach sandals and pajamas, and loaded into the car in preparation for our summer sojourn.

The slap of the lashes stung my calves for a minute or so, perhaps a little more in the summer when we were always in shorts. I wasn’t afraid of the pain. I knew my mother—and it was almost always my mother, as my father rarely punished us, not out of greater leniency but because of his discomfort with confrontation—never wielded the strap with force nor persisted beyond a few lashes, and then only on our legs or buttocks. Still I feared the strap, if only for the souring of my mother’s mood which would linger long after the blush of pink stripes on my legs had vanished and which made her inaccessible.

My grandfather had made the strap. He fashioned it with the same attention to detail and devotion to craftsmanship as he made a stage for our finger puppets, the way he fixed the flat tires on our bikes and hunted down the inner tubes we played with in the sea. I wonder if he thought, as he carefully cut the leather into strands of perfectly equal width, of how our flesh would smart as the strips whacked against the soft flesh of our calves, the same flesh he would rub calamine lotion in to soothe the burn of the poison sumac we had trampled through in the woods.

It was an odd object for such a gentle man to fashion. I never heard him raise his voice to his wife, and never heard him curse or swear. He seemed forever to be in a good mood, which I now find startling considering the chronic pain he must have suffered because of his bad leg and shorn hip. How could a man like that have made a strap? Perhaps for him and the world of neat order he laid such stock in, discipline was just another part of cultivating growth, and he approached it as methodically as he pruned and trained the tomato plants he raised at the side of the garage.

Contrary to my mother’s expectations, the laces occasioned yet another fight, its cause inconsequential like all the others and unremembered. Charlie may have teased me about my clumsy braiding or started whipping the laces across my arm. Whatever instigated the fight, it must have lasted a while and was loud enough to bring my mother out of the house to the patio under the oak trees, strap in hand. I could hear the clacking of her flip-flops as she approached.

In a rare if not unprecedented show of solidarity, Charlie and I, instead of standing still to take our punishment, ran several yards away to the garage at the top of the driveway. We were laughing as she came after us. For a moment, perhaps the only one, we were brothers in arms.

I lost track of Charlie as I ran down the incline of the driveway. I heard my mother utter a scream and for a moment there was nothing to hear. Then I heard her crying. I looked back and saw her, collapsed on the grass median of the driveway.

I stood there at the side of the road, edging slightly away from the property as I watched my grandfather hobble out of the garage with his cane toward my mother, who still lay on the ground sobbing. I wanted to run away, less ashamed than terrified that I was the cause of this. How could I, a boy of eleven, bring her to this?

I would have welcomed the punishment now as I stood in the street, not knowing where I could run to or if I should. The strap would have felt ordinary. I knew what to expect, how it would feel, what would come after. My mother’s collapse, on the other hand, was something new and frightening.  She seemed fragile and foreign, my mother and not my mother at the same, a woman like the one I had seen the lifeguards pull out of the ocean the week before, who had been knocked under by the waves and lay in the sputtering surf a few yards from where I was fashioning a moat for my sandcastle on the beach.

I hated Charlie for drawing me into this, but I knew I was at fault, the older brother who ought to have known better, the soldier of Christ who has supposed to turn the other cheek. Instead, I became a co-conspirator.

The closest I came to Charlie was the day we brought our mother to her knees and to the tears I had never seen her shed.

-/-

Featured image: Gustave Caillebotte, Martial Caillebotte Playing the Piano, c. 1876.

I collect images of famous brothers—this is one of them—nothing as grand as an actual painting, though if I had the money I might buy one. They are just reproductions I pin to a Pinterest board, and when I do, it is always Daniel I think of.

The Caillebottes, Gustave the artist and his brother Martial, the photographer and composer. The Goncourts brothers, who wrote novels together and chronicled the art scene and literary society of 19th century Paris in their marvelous journals and who never spent a day of their adult lives apart (they are buried together in the same grave in the Montmartre cemetery). The twin Bruckmans brothers, artists both, Lodewijk Karel and Karel Lodewijk.

The gallery is a way of remembering and forgetting. The intimacy of these portraits is a testament of the love I have for Daniel, and the love I wish had existed between Charlie and me.

screenshot of Kyriaki Goni’s work, “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.
Art, Music, Books & Film

Desk Set

Desk Set is a frothy romantic comedy, watchable not only for the delightful repartee and chemistry between its stars, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but also for its endearing naïveté regarding the advent of the computer. Filmed in 1957, it is also one of the first movies to feature a search engine.

Hepburn plays the role of Bunny Watson, the head of the reference library for a broadcasting network, whose job and those of her three librarians are threatened by the installation in their office of an “electronic brain”. The computer, called EMERAC (a not so veiled reference to the world’s first general-purpose computer ENIAC), has been designed by an efficiency expert (Richard Sumner, played by Tracy) to relieve the staff of the drudge tasks of responding to the thousands of questions—we would call them queries today, I suppose—that they field as part of their job. The film is peppered with them, from the banal to the esoteric: What songs are sung on Thanksgiving? Who holds the record for highest lifetime batting average? Does the king of the Watusis drive a car? What is the annual damage done by the spruce budworm?

Viewing the film at a time in which we longer look up things but google them, we can only smile when Sumner reassures the librarians that machines will never be able to handle the more complex tasks of intelligence because, as he maintains, there are “too many cross-references.” Or not think of Siri’s or Google’s fuzzy logic and natural-language search capabilities when in response to a query about the geography of Corfu typed, or rather punch-carded, as ‘curfew’, the computer spews out the verses to a relatively obscure but once popular Victorian poem about the ringing of a curfew bell in Cromwell’s England. “Do you mean Corfu? Showing results for curfew,” we half-expect the machine to print out.

The New York Times’ film critic at the time, Bosley Crowther, complained that the human-machine conflict threw the film “out of dramatic kilter.” “It simply does not seem very ominous when they threaten to put a mechanical brain in a broadcasting company’s reference library, over which the efficient Miss Hepburn holds sway.” Ahem.

Indeed, the “brain” in Desk Set is not much of a threat, at least not an ominous one. The film pokes fun at the single-mindlessness of the machine and its utter dependence on the quality of input it receives and the code it runs (at one point its sibling in Payroll issues the entire staff dismissal slips). This was, after all, a time when the notion of a machine capable of learning was merely a trope of science fiction for most viewers, as was the concept of a search engine that had at its disposable an indexed reservoir of tens of billions of pages of information and 20 million digitized books.

Bunny is indeed a dauntingly bright and witty woman, with a store of knowledge in her head—including the verses to the aforementioned poem—that makes the reference library, which is smaller than her fabulous, fireplace-equipped Upper East Side apartment, superfluous. (Apparently reference librarians in the 1950s made more money than they do now). At times she eerily foreshadows our googling self. Before meeting Sumner for a first lunch date, she manages to dig up information on his academic record, army service, marital status and employment history. “But I only had half an hour,” she says when Sumner compliments her for the thoroughness of her background check.

Tracy, Hepburn and EMERAC

Spencer Tracy, Neva Patterson, Katherine Hepburn and EMERAC

The queries lodged in Desk Set are anonymous. The callers never seem to leave their name, but there’s no reason why they wouldn’t, other than haste; their questions are harmless. We, on the other hand, leave traces of our identity every time we go online, forever shedding our digital DNA, as Witch Hazel left behind a few hairpins from her scraggly hair every time she dashed off the scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In our tweets and updates, our music playlists and tumblr blogs and Instagram posts, our traces are deliberate and our presence online, curated.  (Who among us doesn’t think beforehand, if only for a few seconds, of the impact a photo or status update will have on our friends and followers, or check the likes and retweets and reblogs it has garnered once we post it?)

Search terms are different, however. Our queries for how-to’s and why’s, like our search for porn or help, are made with an audience of one in mind and entered in the belief of anonymity, as if we were transported from our screens to the darkened privacy of a confessional booth, whose thickly latticed screen hides our visage from the faceless intermediary of an even more unknowable God.

Though we are not seeking remission of sins but knowledge, we are as vulnerable and exposed as we might be in the confessional. Alone in front of our screen, we declare our passions and anxieties, raw and unedited, and reach out for guidance and reassurance. There, interspersed with our queries for pickling recipes and plot synopses, stand our fetishes and unexplained rashes, conveyed in a stream of binary bits to the unpolluted sanctum of a distant data center, a heaven with no music save for the hum of the massive cooling systems. Few realize that their frailties and desires are being silently archived. Not only the sites we have visited—we all know we’re being tracked, though perhaps not to the extent we imagine (CNN, for example, has at least a dozen trackers that spring into action when we land on its home page)—but also the search terms themselves are being recorded.

Google tells me I have a history of 44,000 or so searches, which, it assures me, only I am entitled to view. That makes for a lot of questions.

I wonder if I had fewer to ask before Google?  Or have I become more inquisitive simply because it is easier to find answers now?  Has the access to such answers, however ambiguous or contested they may be, made me less patient with not knowing and increasingly unable to tolerate delayed clarification?

Granted, many of these search terms have to do with work and most are of interest to no one, not even myself any longer, except perhaps as a curious record of the projects I have worked on or the topics that have snagged my curiosity while writing.  Others, however, furnish clues to a more private identity, the terms that witness a short-lived enthusiasm (“gay Asian comedians”) or long-standing obsession (“nutritional data for bogue”), the pointers to injury (“infraspinatus”) or travel destinations.  And then there are those that reveal an inner fold of identity I have shared with very few people.

A study of these terms will not disclose everything about me. The imaginary biographer rummaging through this archive will know nothing of the extent of my generosity or openness, nothing of my capacity to love or forgive. She will not be able to determine if I have been a caring partner, though she may suspect when I have been an unfaithful one. But mining these data could reveal whether I am compulsive or frivolous, or prone to addiction or forgetfulness. It could tell whether I’m credulous or skeptical. The investigator could pick up clues not only of my interests and taste but also of aspects of character more difficult to quantify. She would note my particular anxieties and minor obsessions and in the end discover one or two things I have told no one else.

I have not yet deleted my search history, though it’s easy enough to do. Perhaps I would if I knew the archive would be published for pubic viewing. I tell myself I keep it because I may want to work with this archive at some point, but I know that my reluctance to erase it derives from the same aversion I have to throwing away old t-shirts and running shoes that have long outlived their usefulness, or deleting the notes for a post I know I will never write. It’s a piece of me.

Kyriaki Goni, a visual artist recently featured in at the 2015 Athens Digital Arts Festival, has done both in her work “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.  Goni downloaded from Google the 10,650 terms in her eight-year search history, which she then mapped to a grid of an equal number of white squares, each representing a query. An algorithm selects a random cell, revealing the term on a large screen; at the same time it accesses Google and then deletes the term. The act of deletion trips the white of the particular cell to black, simultaneously triggering the printing of the search term on a scroll of paper. The user can click on the any of the remaining white squares to view a term. Eventually, when all the terms have been deleted, the entire grid will be a void of black space, and only the scroll of queries will remain of this curious archive of self.

As in my search history, most of the terms are quite ordinary, nouns that would have figured in questions that landed on Bunny’s reference desk (or her Greek equivalent): artist bios, Foucault, movie titles and tax deadlines. But others, like manicure shops and second-hand clothing stores are private, and a few, like herpes, startingly so.

Alone in the exhibition room, I watched transfixed as one search term after another flashed on the screen for a few seconds, blackening the cell and prompting the printer to add another line to the tangible record of her questions in an act of self-revelation and self-eradication at once intimate and disturbing.

I’m not yet ready to delete my search history. How could I discard it? It is a bit like a portrait painted by an artist with a merciless eye to my flaws and fallibilities but unmistakably me. Its uncensored litany of entreaties and questions does not yield a pretty picture but not a terribly ugly one either, and arguably no more a faithful presentation of my identity than the self I curate on social media, which is just me viewed from a different angle and illuminated by a different light. But only the vain would discard an unflattering photograph.

-/-

Featured image: screenshot (cropped) of Kyriaki Goni’s work, “Deletion process_Only you can see my history”.

For those who have not yet discovered their search history, it’s available here: https://www.google.com/searchhistory/

Readers interested in the widgets that track their online presence (and eager to block them) could investigate the Ghostery application. WordPress, you will be relieved to discover, has only five, and none is an ad tracker.

 

Inside-Outside
The City

Inside, Outside and Right Next Door

The arcade was never one of those elegant passageways of fashion and luxury goods that come to mind when thinking of the passages couverts of Paris or Milan. Instead of calfskin gloves, antique maps and elaborate, feathered hats, the shops in this stoa, the few that were still in business, purveyed less glamorous wares: university textbooks and discount shoes, a camera shop that advertised passport and ID photo services. Dark and unwelcoming, it was more a tunnel than a shopping arcade, covered not by a roof of glass but the slabs of concrete of the floor above.

The eight stories of the building were given over to the offices of commerce and to the professions that served them—import-export companies, lawyers, accountants and notaries public, whose tarnished gold-plated nameplates I could see on a wall by the bank of elevators in the building’s modest lobby, all uniformly set in the tall, thin, sans-serif font popular in the 50s and 60s. The largest nameplate belonged to “The Chamber of Tradesmen.”

The passageway described an L through the ground floor, leading from the broad avenue that runs from the Parliament to a busy if now downtrodden commercial square, and on to a side street bearing the name of a former Prime Minister. On the sidewalk a few meters from the entrance was a kiosk with the day’s newspapers hung with clothespins on a rope that drew a few passersby to scan their doom-ridden headlines of impending state bankruptcy.

The north corner of the arcade facing the avenue was given over to an upscale donut shop or loukoumadiko. Traditionally these are among the most humble of shops, often no more than a hole in the wall with just enough room for a counter and a large stove with vats of hot oil in which plum-sized balls of yeast dough are fried, drenched in honey, and dusted with cinnamon.

This shop, however, had been gussied up, with places to sit and a menu expanded to accommodate espresso, beignets and churros. The pair of handsome young servers, dressed in green polo shorts and a brick-orange bandanna worn in the way farm women might have wrapped their hair, were prepping for the midday crowd, scrupulously wiping and re-wiping the countertops. One of them was singing a Greek song above the English pop music that bellowed from the shop’s speakers.

It was a sleek and hyper-modern concept shop, like an industrial design souvlaki shop or trendy ouzo bar, in which tradition had been packaged in design and prices correspondingly raised.  “A shop you could find in London,” one could say in an air of sad praise, as if the measure of success were the degree of approximation to the enterprises of the North. Still, I admired the young entrepreneur, whom I saw on my way out of the exhibition and who in the face of the recession and the utter evaporation of financing had open this shop. I liked his disruptive mashup of European street food, those holy cows of cultural identity that so mark the countenance of a city. I imagined he paid his staff the troika-mandated new minimum monthly wage, several hundred Euros less than what it had been before the crisis, and I was certain he also provided the social security contributions that legalized their labor.  All in all, the loukoumadiko made for an unlikely and misleading portico to the row of dull and dimly lit shops further into the arcade.

The exhibition I had come to see in the arcade, entitled “Anna Wanderer”, is part of a project conceived by the School of Fine Arts called “Inside/Outside” that plays with the notions of private and public space. It was housed in one of the pair of booths flanking the elevator bay. They were a later prosthesis to the building, tiny cabins clad in wood, with a sloping façade vaguely reminiscent of the Scandinavian design that was a sign of sophistication in Greek movies of the 60s, along with whiskey and nightclubs. Each could hold one but not two clerks. Not a shop really, despite what I had read in the reviews, but the domain of a concierge or the workshop of a watch repairer.

The artist, Persephone Nikolakopoulou, had covered the walls of the booth with inexpertly taped wrapping paper depicting a turquoise sky with fluffy white clouds. A trap door was set in the ceiling, from which one could see a hand emerging and part of a wing, and another hatch lay in the floor. There was a bench which served as a bed, on which a brightly colored coverlet and a Tupperware of cookies sat, and a counter with a plastic cup holding remains of a frappe, that quintessentially Greek beverage of frothy shaken instant coffee. Each evening she would return to the booth to deposit mementoes of her explorations in the city. But I had come too soon, I realized, only a day after the opening. There were no stories here yet.

I thought of what I bring back to my apartment after my wanderings in the city. Concert tickets, exhibition brochures, a potted bougainvillea for the terrace picked up from the farmers’ market. Receipts of course, required by the Tax Office to claim a deduction, a government measure to crack down on the black market economy. I have shoeboxes filled with them, collected from cafés and taxis and dry-cleaners and a host of other shops and services. I have no doubt that the loukoumas shop issues them as well and as a matter of course. Not all shopkeepers do, even now, but all will comply when asked, some even offering a feigned apology and excuse that neither seller nor buyer believes.

Few of the receipts now give any hint of the occasion for their collection. They are merely the inevitable and unremarkable debris one accumulates throughout a day in the city, like the dust that settles on one’s shoulders or gathers in the soles of one’s shoes, far less interesting yet just as incommunicable a collectible as the scraps of conversation we remember having with a stranger on the tram or the recollection of a flirt.

When I returned the following week, I saw that “Anna” had strung a line on which she had affixed amorphous figurines made of modeling clay and hung a few sheets of newspapers. The plastic cup of coffee was gone, and its place lay a pair of bloodstained gloves. Someone had left slipped her a note under the door to her booth.

The crime lair seemed a bit forced, and whatever personal meaning her wanderings in the city had for her remained unreadable in the figurines and documents of crime she brought back. Of course, murders and knife-fights mark the city’s physiognomy much as its pocket parks and art galleries do, as Walter Benjamin reminds us.

In his endlessly fascinating and unfinished work The  Arcades Project, Benjamin mentioned various means one could use to construct a city topographically. In place of the markets and churches that once anchored the city in the minds of its inhabitants, one could map a city by its fountains, say, or its arcades, cemeteries and bordellos, and, at least for cities such as Paris and London and Berlin, its railroad stations, too.  Alternatively, or as yet another layer superimposed on the other more mundane mappings, one could turn to “the more deeply embedded figures of the city: murders and rebellions, the bloody knots in the network of streets, lairs of love, and conflagrations.”*

Anna could have started more modestly before wandering into the “bloody knots” of the city streets.  She could have climbed up through her hatch to the empty offices above, abandoned in the wake of crisis but still bearing the marks of their former enterprise, the gouges in the floor where once heavy metal desks stood, the floor plugs standing like sentinels in a forgotten outpost. I wondered what interesting) evidence of her wanderings could she bring to her booth from the offices still occupied, with their cabinets of lawsuits filed by squabbling heirs, embittered spouses and bankrupt tradesmen?

Or she could have begun with a shop.

While writing this I stumbled upon a passage from G. K. Chesterton’s critical study of Charles Dickens, in which he reminds us how often shops triggered the writer’s imagination.

There seems no reason in particular, at the first and most literal glance, why the story should be called after the Old Curiosity Shop. Only two of the characters have anything to do with such a shop, and they leave it forever in the first few pages… But when we feel the situation with more fidelity we realise that this title is something in the nature of a key to the whole Dickens romance. His tales always started from some splendid hint in the streets. And shops, perhaps the most poetical of all things, often set off his fancy galloping. Every shop, in fact, was to him the door of romance. Among all the huge serial schemes of which we have spoken, it is a matter of wonder that he never started an endless periodical called “The Street,” and divided it into shops. He could have written an exquisite romance called “The Baker’s Shop”; another called “The Chemist’s Shop”; another called “The Oil Shop,” to keep company with “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

Granted, if the artist had wanted to tell a story, she would have written one. Instead she created this installation. Still, I wonder why there is no box of half-eaten donuts in her booth.

-/-

Featured image: Photo of the booth by Persephone Nikolakopoulou. The project Inside/Outside (Entos/Ektos), which hosted the artist’s installation (others are to follow), is an initiative by the School of Fine Arts’ Unit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The address is Panepistimiou 44, the curator Haris Kanellopoulou. Check out the donuts.

* The Benjamin quote is from Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin’s translation of The Arcades Project published by the Belknap Press (p. 83), which also alerted me to Chesterton’s book.

Portrait of Jean Cocteau with actress Ricki Soma and dancer Leo Coleman
Vignettes

Looking Good

The entrance hall to our small apartment building was not a very welcoming space. The installation of a cage elevator in the late 1930s had sliced off the graceful winding curves of the Bauhaus staircase which lay at the end of the hall. The rest of the space was empty and unhappy, and remained so for some time after friends and I bought the building a decade or so ago. There was little money in our budget left over after renovating our own apartments to do much with the common space.

We had the marble floor polished and the walls painted. Manos had an old mirror-inlaid armoire he no longer wanted, which we hauled into the space. After we all moved in, we set a pair of yuccas by the door. But that was all we did for a long time. Until one evening when Yannis showed us his Marsellaises.

It was a series of old sepia-toned photographs of matronly country women. The great-aunts he called them. And by wonderful coincidence, there were four of them, one for each of us. He’d bought the lot for €15 at a flea market on his last trip to Marseilles. He was thinking they’d be interesting to hang on the wall opposite the armoire.

We laid claims to our favorite aunt—I immediately picked out mine, the shortest of the four in a polka-dotted Sunday dress and modest heels—and told him to go ahead. The next day, Yannis matted the photos and mounted them in simple wooden frames. I saw them later that afternoon when I got back from work, a little gallery of lovely old women from the south of France. I quickly grew fond of them and came to see them as our very own patron saints. Yannis hadn’t just decorated the hall; he’d built a lararium.

The old women were gone in a week. Someone—a pizza delivery guy, a drunken guest from a party, the guy who comes to read the gas mater—stole them. It couldn’t have been for the modest, unfussy Ikea frames. Nor could it have been for the photographs themselves. They were clearly the work of some local photographer who made his living taking commemorative portraits of the women, men and children in his village. No, it was the combination of the photograph and the frame that had caught the thief’s interest.

The frame lent its contents valueIt called attention to the photograph as something more than documentation. In essence, the frame transformed a provincial memento into something approaching art, or at least something collectible, and thus something worth stealing.

I was reminded of the Marseillaises a few days ago when I returned to Twitter after an absence of several months. No one missed me, but I didn’t expect anyone would. Though my tagline says “my therapist sent me here,” the real reason I’m on Twitter is for the free comedy, the news and the economy of expression it disciplines me in (there are times I wish office emails had to be sent as tweets). As I scrolled through my earlier tweets I was struck by how smart they seemed. They weren’t, of course, but they looked smart, so neatly stacked in the more or less uniform slats of my timeline in a way that suggested tenets more than ramblings or gossip. The wisecrack and the apothegm share equal footing on Twitter, and both acquire an aura of truth, borrowed from the format in which they are presented.

It’s not only Twitter. Quite apart from the very complicated and much less transparent question of what would appear in your feed, considerable attention was paid in the previous makeovers of the Facebook news feed and timeline to the visual concerns of presentation—how the posted items would be arranged on the page, which essentially meant how good they would look on the page..

When launching the sleeker and even more heavily grid-dependent redesigned news feed in 2013, Facebook swarmed over the “vibrant new visuals [that] bring your News Feed to life.” It claimed the new design provided a clearer focus on content, curiously borrowing from the language of narrative:  “Each story has been re-imagined to put the spotlight on what your friends are sharing.”

The content we post may be disparate but the aesthetics of the timeline give our assembled self an appearance of a higher order. Our shares are boxed and perfectly spaced and aligned, with generous space for the image or video. Even the news feed frames our experience in added value. The thumbprint image anchors the shared link or video, the equivalent of an illustrated dropped capital in a manuscript. Above this sits the marquee of our brief introduction. Extended prose is eschewed in favor of the witty one-liner (how much goes on a marquee anyway?), exhortation or a line of hearts or exclamation points. Below the shared link or status update, the strips of boxed comments from our friends. The share or update—a narrative detail in the story we tell of our lives–looks so attractive, so valuable as it is presented here, precisely framed in the page’s grid.

WordPress and tumblr themes frame and give order to our imaged posts. ScoopIt lays out our rescooped news items and captured tweets in a crisp magazine format, and leaves us room below the item to add our own comments—the curator’s legend to the artifact on exhibition. Pinterest, of course, takes this idea of framing to its logical extension and provides users with the ability to create virtual galleries (“boards” in the language of the platform) of images that users copy or pin from sites they visit or (much more frequently) from other Pinterest users. Each image is framed and set onto a digital white mat. Here, too, we are invited to add our own interpretative caption, though very few users do.

The frame demarcates a space of significance for our artifact, lending it an importance as Yannis’ frame did for the quartet of French women in our hall. But it does something more (in a way that, alas, Yannis’ frames could not): it saves and archives the artifact, rescuing it from being forgotten or lost in the stream of ideas, images and thoughts we share with others in face-to-face communication. The Twitter slat and Pinterest board and Facebook box are tools of both exhibition and conservation at the same time.

Our experiences, interests and opinions have never been more on exhibition than in social media, and perhaps never before have they looked so good. Or been so more permanent.

-/-

Featured image: Portrait of Jean Cocteau with actress Ricki Soma and dancer Leo Coleman. Philippe Halsman, 1949 © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

The post was indeed triggered by my return to Twitter but reworked from a text I had written for an abysmally short-lived blog I once kept that recorded musings on the assembled self. Apologies to the few readers who may have already read this.

Angela Moore, "Jasmin"
Art, Music, Books & Film

Imagined Cities

Imagine you are asked to collect a set of prompts that could conjure up your city for someone who has never been there. Think of it as an “inspiration box”. The only limit on your imagination is not to include any visual elements, no photographs or paintings, or visual elements expressed in form, either. That includes food– no croissants or meat pies or Currywurst.

The objects you will select will be just a subset of a vast number of sets of possible prompts, not only because your neighbor and every other resident of the city would submit a different set but also because you would probably select a different representation of your city each time you were asked. If I started the list after a bad day my box would contain sound bits of honking horns and surly shopkeepers, a menu from an overpriced restaurant, and a feuille volante exhorting the city’s residents to a rally in front of the Parliament. Give me a good day and I would include a recording of friends talking at a garden café and the clink of glasses raised in a toast, the sounds of a Hitchcock movie interspersed with the chirping of crickets, a nod to the open-air cinemas that are as much a part of the aural texture of summer in this city as the hum of air-conditioners. And perhaps a poem about jasmine—there are not many public gardens in the city but nearly everyone has a balcony, and its perfume accompanies summer nights as surely as moonlight and the conversation of friends.

Jasmine, in the form of a poem of the same title by Giorgos Seferis, was among the items in the “Inspiration Box” gathered by the organizers of the exhibition Strange Cities: Athens, which is sponsored by the Onassis Cultural Center and organized in cooperation with the curating agency Double Decker and the Athens-based architectural firm Spacelab Architecture. The boxes were given to 24 young photographers, graphic artists, sculptors, and painters from Europe and North America as a stimulus to imagine a city—Athens—that they had never visited.

Apart from the poem, the box also contained two chapters of a crime novelist’s account of the city, a recipe for stuffed vegetables, recordings of Manos Hatzidakis’ nostalgia-laden song “A Magic City” and an instrumental piece of electronic music by Konstantinos Vita, as well as sound bits recorded in the city.

Not surprisingly there were no visual elements in the box. The invitation was addressed to artists, and the organizers didn’t want to limit the imaginative field of the artists to whom the invitation was addressed. I was surprised, however, that there were no vials of aromas. I can’t imagine a place without its scents. If I were asked to make such a box of the resort town I summered at as a child, I would include sprigs of honeysuckle and a tube of suntan lotion, or the sickly sweet smell of the insecticide that the municipality used to spray our neighborhood with.

Though there were no pictures in the box and the brief specifically asked the artists not to look up anything about the city, this did not mean that the artists had no visual stimuli at hand. They already had their own treasury of images of Athens, accumulated from history classes or seen in the Corinthian columns adorning their own city’s banks and universities. They had probably also seen photos posted on Instagram and Facebook that chronicled a friend’s vacation in the city. And then the mosaic of images culled from articles in their newspapers, the stories of mass demonstrations, suicides in Constitution Square, and migrant detention camps, the tesserae of the crisis that has held the country in its grip the last six years. Athens teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

I have never been to Rotterdam or Genoa, but I can picture these cities vividly, drawing on my own trove of images culled from art and books and music (even if my reconstruction probably bears little resemblance to the actual city). I think of Rotterdam as a city of canals—this is Holland after all, why wouldn’t there be canals?—rebuilt on a modest and humane scale after the devastation wrought by the Nazi Luftwaffe, with ample green space, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways that is a mark of urban civility in the Dutch cities that I have visited. I imagine Genoa as a city of hills and grand maisons de ville built by prosperous merchants, but sprinkled with the osteria that bear witness to that life en plein air that I experienced in all the Mediterranean cities I have been to. I think of Genoa but my mind fills with images from Marseilles and Barcelona and Naples, and from the odd story my grandfather would recount, though he had never been there.

The sound bits were among the most interesting items of inspiration in the box. Some, such as the rattling of a subway train or the purring of a cat, could have been heard anywhere. Others, such as the music of a bouzouki and the smack of a butcher’s cleaver heard in a busy market hall, were unmistakably more Eastern. Still others would reveal their deeper meaning only to the initiated. The artists would have identified one of the sound bits as a conversation of friends at an outdoor café but none would have picked up on the word malakas, a peculiar and very common term of endearment used by younger Greek men, the equivalent, say, of dude. But malakas (in the vocative malaka, in case you’re tempted to use it, which I suggest you don’t) is also one of the most frequently used swear words. It literally means a wanker or jerkoff, but stands equally as well for asshole. This cannot be easily explained. 

Each of the objects evoked the city but also encrypted it in a way that only its residents could read. The recipe spoke of summer harvests and farmers’ markets but also of a culture that creates pleasure out of the most modest of ingredients. The subway sound clip could be heard as a mere statement of metropolitan fact, but it is more than that. Financed in large part from EU funds, the recently built lines are yet another juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity, the Teutonic austerity of its gleaning granite-clad stations relieved by works of art by Greek painters and sculptors but also display cases of the amphorae and statues found when the tunnels were built.

Understanding a city is a bit like learning a language. You visit the monuments and parks and bazaars, and take in a view of the city from a hill, just as you start with the building blocks of basic verbs and concrete nouns and the phrases for thank you and please. You become familiar with the menus and the opening hours of shops, as you would the conjugations of the commonest of irregular verbs. It takes much study and exposure before you begin to pick up the prosody of the language (it is only now after many months of studying Dutch do I realize how musical the language is), and many more hours before you understand, much less are in a position to use, the idioms that color the language and reflect the culture in which it is spoken.

I wasn’t surprised that some of the artists played with the notions of old and new in imaging a 2000-year-old city. But I was struck by the uneasy encounter between past and present that one sees in these works.

John Diebel presents a collage of the Odeon of Herodus Atticus, a Hellenistic theatre still in use, set against the backdrop of the sea and with a starry sky in place of the floor. He’s superimposed floating rectangles in primary colors over the composition, elements of the old and new but without any organic relation between the two. The red, blue and yellow blocks hover over the stone arches of the theater like invasive drones. In his series of “Concealed Portraits”. Thomas Robson has taken reproductions of 19th century portraits of affluent women and men posing before idealized ruins of Classical Antiquity, and covered their faces with splashes of shiny white or blue paint.

John Diebel, untitled

John Diebel, untitled

Myth, Metaphor and Imagination” by London-based illustrator Tom Radclyffe is a grid of twelve incredibly detailed drawings of buildings. Some of the panels depict flowing masses of monolithic concrete structures or the wrought-iron filigree of what could be railings or patio chairs. Other panels are a densely packed maze of vaguely neo-Classical buildings with pitched roofs and Greek letters inscribed on the entablature of their pediments. Unlike in the actual city, however, here the old and the new are segregated, the monolithic apartment blocks in one set of panels, the columned structures in another.

Tom Radclyffe, "Myth, Metaphor and Imagination" (detail)

Tom Radclyffe, “Myth, Metaphor and Imagination” (detail)

Swedish photographer Eva Stenram exhibits a black-and-white photograph of an arm lying on a lawn at night. The flash has left a haunting opalescent afterglow to the leaves of grass, making it more satiny comforter than sod. Indeed, the arm almost seems as if it were hanging out from under the earth’s bedcovers, where the rest of the body lay. Stenram tells us that the arm was digitally cut from a photograph of a 1950s pinup girl. “Lost parts,” she writes, and I think of the limbless statues of goddesses in the National Archaeological Museum. Not lost, but simply misplaced.

Eva Stenram, "Arm"

Eva Stenram, “Arm”

I was excited by the show and decided that the box had indeed worked its magic. I returned home eager to learn more about the artists.

When I visited Stenram’s site I discovered that she has been working with detached arms and legs in her photography for several years. In fact, her “Arm” had already been presented at the The Function Room in London in March 2014. (I didn’t feel cheated; sometimes the act of selection alone makes art). Much of the work on Radcylffe’s site featured precisely the kind of minutely detailed hand-drawn cityscapes I had seen in his grid in Athens. Robson’s site features an entire virtual gallery of smeared portraits. Diebel had earlier paired an archival print of a neo-Gothic cathedral with the brightly colored Malevich-like shards I had seen in his Odeon collage.

The unvisited city was envisioned with images inspired by books and song and poetry, not all of which were in the Inspiration Box or indeed of the city in question.  But it was also perceived through an interpretative framework already at hand, the web of meaning with which each of us interprets the world. There are no imaginary cities, save for the ones of novelists. The rest are imagined, but no less intriguing.

-/-

Featured image: Angela Moore, “Jasmine”.

Moore’s evening photograph of a tendril of jasmine that has slipped through a window, with its palette of gold and indigo-blushed white and the utter simplicity of the composition, evokes for me the city more than any of the other works exhibited. She said she was inspired by the poem, and rightfully imagined that the city was more enchanting, more seductive at night than at day. Perhaps that is true of all cities.

The exhibition is being held through June 28th in the Diplarios School (Pl. Theatrou 3), an imposing if aging structure in the heart of the old city, a couple of blocks from the Central Market in a neighborhood now dotted by the stockrooms of Chinese import businesses, Bangladeshi grocers and halal butchers. For almost a century the four-story building was the home to the largest trade school in the city—65,000 young students learned their trade at the school until its closure in 2010.Traces of the students’ graffiti are still to be seen, along with a few classroom wall maps and the marks in the floor where lathes and presses once stood. A bequest of Arisitdes Diplaris, the school points to a centuries-old tradition of civic philanthropy that has marked the countenance of the city as surely and discretely as its now canalized and covered rivers have. The story of the school could just as well have been an element of inspiration as the song or recipe.

More photographs from the exhibition at the LIFO review of Strange Cities. The text is in Greek, but the images speak for themselves.

 

"Young Men in the Garden Pavillion", Friedrish Ahlers-Hestermann
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Coach

A few months ago a friend of mine sent me an email, asking me to tell her where I felt stuck. She’s setting up a business as a life coach, and this, she said, was part of her preliminary research. “It should be a major change you’ve wanted to make in your life but haven’t been able to. And write down three reasons why,” she said.

In her flattering preface to the request Phoebe said she had sent the message only to a small group of acquaintances, who were, she claimed, the smartest people she knew. I wondered, assuming this was true, whether she was collecting examples of failures to pitch her business, as one might of a sharp detective unable to shake a cocaine addiction. You see, intelligence is not enough; you need a coach.

Judging from the number of resolutions, prosaic and life-changing alike, that keep reappearing on my bucket lists, as well as the fact that three months after her email I had not yet responded, I was an appropriate subject for the survey. The resolutions have lain dormant on the back of my will for years; like a skin cyst that occasionally flares under stress, they appear at rare intervals to prod me into doing something about them. Actually, one of my resolutions is to have the small cyst on my neck removed, though I think of it only when it has swollen and become intensely painful, exactly the time at which one cannot have it removed. Home treatment—ointments and very hot showers—coax the red excrescence into bursting on its own. Gradually it shrinks to the point where I can’t even feel the bump any longer, and with its retreat goes my determination to have it removed.

The classic problem of procrastinators and addicts. The resolution for change is never so firm, nor the confidence of success so great, as in the hours immediately before and after excess. All the rest is waiting.

I had never taken the idea of life-coaching seriously before—it seemed to me like therapy without the regulations and licenses—but Phoebe is an insightful, accomplished woman. If she was considering this career move, there must be something to it.

I had read somewhere that a manager makes sure you do something, a mentor shows by example how it can be done and a coach helps you acquire the set of skills to do it yourself. (I imagine the intersection of the three is what makes a good parent). Naturally, it’s encouraging to think that life, like cross-country or debating or personal finance, is a matter of skill development, something you get better at with the right kind of expert observation, training, and support.

But if coaching helps you win, what needs to be won?

Phoebe reminded me, however, that there are two kinds of coaches—those who focus on performance and winning, and the others whose mission is participation and staying in the game. The former train their charges for championships and medals, the latter, including my swimming coach, Ada, whom I’d engaged when I got serious about training for the triathlon, for the sense of accomplishment and the pleasure of playing. And to enjoy playing you’ve got to get better. Tennis only becomes fun when you don’t have to chase the ball every second volley.

Her method was no different from the one coaches have always used regardless of their subject. Set the goal. Break it down into a set of specific and progressively more complex skills that could be worked on. Observe, correct, encourage.

One of the first things Ada did was to video-record me swimming a few laps, not for her own use—she knew just by watching me swim what needed to be fixed—but for mine. The video served as illustration as she pointed out the inefficiencies in my stroke and kick, and analyzed the line and position of my body in the water. “It’s your elbow, mostly,” she said. “It should be higher during recovery, and closer to your body.”

Her comment might have remained nothing more than a helpful if abstract tip had it not been for the video, and the powerful, visual evidence of the inefficiencies in my stroke. “Wow, I do that?” I asked. The image of my elbow stayed with me during the drills Ada had me doing the next couple of months. There was no way of explaining it away, no rationalization at hand.

With Ada’s coaching and unfailing support I eventually got to the point where my elbow recovered high enough in drills so that my hand would dangle from my wrist as it glided up alongside my torso, my fingertips grazing the surface of the water.. “That was much better!” she’d exclaim. And I believed her. In the end I managed to shave a few strokes off a 25-meter lap.

Alas, life isn’t that simple, though I can imagine instances in which video documentation might be useful: the friend who turns obnoxious when drunk, the colleague who bullies his way through meetings, me when I slouch.

Though we know that videos can be manipulated as easily as photos are retouched, there’s something about the moving image on film that speaks of incontrovertible evidence. “No, it’s true, I saw it on television!” A friend tells you that you’ve been acting like an asshole recently and you say, “Really, you think so?” You watch a video of yourself being an asshole and you say, “Oh, shit.”

I wonder if a video would help me meet a man I could fall in love with, which is one of the three failed resolutions I’ve resolved to tell Phoebe about, the other two being to go to learn Dutch and to shape some of the stories in Breach of Close into a book. Am I not paying enough attention to the men I met, or am I paying too much? Am I looking the wrong way or not looking carefully enough?

Phoebe would say that coaching is a way of getting yourself to set up an internal camera, a means of fostering a heightened self-awareness as you practice the unnatural until it becomes second nature. But I wanted a real camera.

Maybe a video would help explain what wrong with David. I had met him through a mutual friend, who set up our first meeting. She told me that David was writing a blog and she thought I could help him.  “He’s a little disappointed that he’s not getting the followers he expected.” She thought I could give him a few tips.

I didn’t tell her my own blogs had only a handful of faithful and much appreciated readers (I’ve read their blogs and feel myself in exalted company), along with 10,000 followers, most of whom I suspected were bots. I didn’t tell her I do all the wrong things in a blog, that I’m not focused and my posts are way too long and erratically published. It surprises me that I still have any readers at all. I didn’t tell her this because I had clicked on his Facebook profile and was intrigued by the avatar photograph of this handsome hipsterish younger man, with his long thin face and wispy beard, his head tilted upwards in an air of seductive diffidence.

I read a bit of his blog. He seemed to be mostly doing the right things, except maybe for blogging on a somewhat esoteric platform that probably had fewer users than I had followers, even if they were bots. He wrote consistently and well about a subject he knew well, and his posts were headed by witty and masterfully executed reinterpretations of classic movie posters that served the political satire that was the mainstay of his blog.

We met up and spent an afternoon over coffee in an old quarter of the city, talking about writing but also of our lives and former lovers. I offered what little advice I could. I suggested switching platforms and told him about Tumblr, thinking that his photoshopped images were an art that deserved a showcase of its own and might lead others to his blog. I liked him immensely.

The next weekend I took him on a walk to a few galleries in an offbeat neighborhood of hookah parlors and bordellos. He had smart things to say about the works of art we saw, and was intrigued by the whorehouses. To a naïve passerby they are indistinguishable from the other modest, run-down 19th-century houses on the street, with their inner courtyards and pots of geraniums and jasmine. I pointed out the light above the entrance now burning midday, and the trickle of teenage boys and immigrant men entering and exiting the establishment, the only clues to what was happening inside. David was delighted at the discovery and made me feel as if I had given him a secret key to the city.

I called him a few times afterwards and messaged him on Facebook, but the enthusiasm I felt for our encounters was not reciprocated. David seemed to be happy in my company, but in the way, I realized, one might enjoy a summer movie or a meal in an ethnic restaurant, a pleasant enough diversion but not the stuff of daily fare.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that if I had been a little more or a little less forward (probably the former), something might have happened. I wonder if I’ve gotten so out of practice that perhaps I do need a coach.

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Featured image: “Young men in the garden pavilion”, Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann, 1904.

A former student of the Matisse Studio Ahlers-Hestermann was a founder of the Hamburger Secession. The artists of the movement was noted not only for their reaction to the conservative art scene in Hamburg but also for their public lectures, and their annual exhibitions of contemporary art, in which they exhibited works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Braque. With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the group was ordered to expel their Jewish members. Instead, the Secession agreed to disband their union, devoting their last reserves to a champagne party. Ahlers-Hestermann was soon relieved of his teaching post in Cologne. After the restoration of democracy at the end of the war, the artist became the founding director of the Landeskunstschule Hamburg.

Pablo Picasso, "Nus masculins (les trois âges de l'homme), 1942
Sexuality and Identity

Daddy Isn’t Here

Marcus didn’t moan much during sex.  It was only in the last few minutes before he climaxed that I could hear him in my apartment, late at night as I lay in bed reading.

Odd, really. In other circumstances his voice boomed through the apartment, especially when he laughed. People would have called it a hearty laugh, but I think it was all gut, a resounding crackle and thunder.

I was embarrassed to hear it, and even more so to tell Marcus that I had. The moan of lovemaking may be the most intimate sound of all, laden with entreaty and abandonment and gratitude, and is never even vaguely approximated in the post-production dubbed moans of porn, which are more like props and sets and lighting, the theater of sex without its intimacy.

I was new in the city and he had taken me under his wings, not, I think, from neighborliness but from an innate generosity and curiosity to meet new people. I had arrived with just a suitcase and didn’t even have a proper stove yet, just a hotplate on which I’d fix the omelets and stir-fries that were my standard fare. The apartment was missing that skin of comfort, the drapes and rugs, pillows and coverlets that one accumulates through the years and that invite friends to linger. I soon started taking my shoes off as soon as I got into the apartment so as not to hear the echo of my heels striking the cold terrazzo floor.

He cooked for me and introduced me to his friends, a good number of whom were my age, a couple of decades his junior, and some of whom would find their way to his bed, and one to mine. I wasn’t surprised that guys my age would find him attractive. I had seen pictures of him in his apartment when he was younger. He’d put on a lot of weight since then and grown a salt-and-pepper beard, and he never looked sexier. Fat Marcus was the body he was born to grow into. He had a large head, thick neck and big hands, all of which looked out of place in the photographs of his earlier, thinner self, as if they had been stuck onto his body from a set of appendages destined for another torso.

His apartment was one I imagined a grand-aunt from a once prosperous family that had fallen on hard times might have. It was a roomy high-ceiling space outfitted with solid and elaborately carved furniture passed down in the family from an earlier century. The dining room boasted a vintage chandelier and a sideboard that spanned most of one wall, with upper cabinets through whose glass doors one could see Marcus’ service of gold-rimmed ruby-tinted wine glasses and his collection of marionettes, artfully lit with small spotlights. The ochre-walled living room was host to a gallery of vintage theatre posters and cluttered with a wealth of places to sit: a pair of comfortable sofas and armchairs, a bergère and a pair of footrests that doubled as stools for guests, of which he had many. I’d never met anyone who had so many friends.

Marcus was large in more ways than his girth. He entertained often, fixing hearty meals of food as reminiscent of the last century as his furniture, the food his grandmother cooked, Sunday roasts and after-theatre suppers. My apartment would fill with the aroma of oven-baked lamb and braised okra, the comfort food of bean soup and fried meatballs.

The traces of Marcus’ food and sex visited me in the late evenings when I lay in bed. They seemed to me like the lights of a prosperous city that lay just beyond the borders.

“Of course they adore you,” I told Marcus one evening when talk turned to his boyfriends. “You’re witty and charming and know half the people in the theatre.”

It was true. Not only was he was the funniest person I knew, he made others feel witty as well, the way some people make you feel smart or loved.

“Oh, they’re not interested in the theatre. They just want to be told what to do,” he said.

I knew he was being modest, playing down his charm for my benefit, as old money refrains from speaking of its wealth in the presence of the less fortunate.

Marcus was a daddy, long before hirsute hefty men became a trope in gay discourse and a genre in porn.

 

I’m now Marcus’ age, and though I haven’t put on weight, I’ve grown a beard. Like the one he sported, it’s sprinkled with grey hairs, more so than I expected would appear. Having shaved my head for the last decade, the only indication of the color that might emerge were my eyebrows and public hair, and those were decidedly more pepper.

Apart from the color, it looks pretty much like the beard I had in graduate school, full above the lips and patchy in the cheeks. I’d expected a bushier growth now that I’m older, seeing that hair had started growing in all sorts of places where it hadn’t before, like of all places on my fingers. Apparently the geography of aging is as variegated as a field of rye; some patches prosper, others grow to weed more quickly than others.

A few friends said the beard added a few years to my face, but most said it made me look distinguished. I thought I had too much gravitas already, and another ounce of seriousness would make me all but unapproachable, but all this talk about seriousness made me wonder if I indeed lacked it. Nobody said it made me look cool, which was what I was secretly hoping for. Apparently there’s an upper bound to hip and I had long exceeded it.

I’ve not yet made full peace with growing older as Marcus had. My age is like the suit I’m uncomfortable wearing and only do so on those occasions at work when I’m invited to a meeting with a “very important person,” or the pajamas and slippers I’ve stored in my closet in case I need to go into surgery.

I haven’t shaved off my beard, though. I suppose that’s progress of a sort.

“You can’t imagine how many younger guys are attracted to older men,” Marcus once told me.”

I couldn’t. As I said, I was always attracted to men my own age, and still am, though they are harder to find. Where have they all gone? Have they gone into hibernation, like aging knights who have retreated to a monastery?

If I was going to be a daddy, since I have gradually realized this was the only currency I have left, I’d have to get used to being called sir. Not the word, really, but its equivalent in the informal-formal division of forms of address in the language of my adopted land. Like French and German and Dutch and I imagine practically every other language except English, there are different verb forms that mark formality and informality. Greek has them too. You use the second person plural form when speaking to anyone other one than friends, lovers, family and animals.

Or maybe I would actually be called sir. Are daddies expected to top, I wondered. I wish Marcus were still around to ask.

Knowing the moment to shift from esis to esi, or tu to vous, or Sie to du can’t be taught, not in the way the words to say at a funeral or christening can, or how locals eat watermelon (here with a fork and knife) or fried pickerel (with your fingers). It’s like a combination lock that natives can pick because they have a kind of fingertip sensitivity that non-native speakers don’t. We usually err on one side or the other. My friend Natalie addresses everyone with the familiar, bank clerks, doctors, even the provost of the university she teaches at. I tend to overuse the formal form, deploying it when rank and age would entitle me to the familiar.

I used to tutor the younger cousins or nephews of friends preparing for tests like the GMAT, and I always used the formal, though they were twenty years my junior. I figured anyone who was at the age of conscription deserved some kind of formality. If anyone warranted a sir, it was a man in uniform holding a gun. But I suspect my students were confused.

The choice of formal/informal is determined by all sorts of factors that can’t be quantified exactly. It’s like a single equation for four unknowns. Age, rank, familiarity, and setting come to mind.

After much persuasion, a younger, brilliant and impressively competent colleague of mine now speaks to me in the familiar when we’re à deux, though she persists with the formal when we’re not. All the secretaries at work use esis, except the ones who work for the CEO, prestige apparently a commodity that is easily borrowed. My fishmonger uses the familiar, the butcher the formal. But then again I buy fish more often than meat.

Of the four factors, age is perhaps the most decisive. (My friend Sofia still addresses her mother with the formal form). Even more so than the grey wisps of hair on my face, being addressed with esis is a proclamation of my seniority.

The cute young barista at the café I sometimes hang out in on the weekend has been serving me for a couple of years and still uses the formal esis, though we’ve exchanged stories of movies and books and city politics, nothing too personal but enough for me to think we’ve slipped into a familiarity that justified the less formal form of address. I liked him. If he were serving me in Boston, we’d already be on a first-name basis, the American equivalent of the familiar esi. Actually the café follows the practice of its mother company in which the barista writes down the customer’s first name to be called out when the order is ready, but Giorgos’ partner at the espresso bar adds a Mister to the name. “Freddo espresso for Mr. Stephen.”

I used the formal form for a while with Giorgos. “How was your vacation?” I asked, and he said, “We had a great time.”

I expect esis in shops and demand it at public agencies (this is not a given—maybe power is the fifth element), but Giorgos’ insistence on esis bothered me. It was a line of demarcation that pointed to my location on the other side of a border as marked as the difference between Marcus’ and my apartments. You are different, it said.

I eventually gave up and started addressing him in the familiar, as he expected me to. I could have ventured the equivalent of “call me Stephen”, but I sensed he would have found it creepy, as if I were asking to be friends with him, which I was hoping we would be. My use of the familiar and his retention of the formal kept our relations comfortably enclosed in the transactional language of a chain coffee shop. He’d smile and joke with me, but I was still esis.

Marcus would have been comfortable with it and bedded him by now, but I wasn’t. My chances of being a daddy, I realized, was as spare as the beard hair on my cheek.

I look like a daddy, minus the girth, and have the markings of one: a nice place to live, though much less imposing than Marcus’s but with coverlets and pillows, a rewarding job and good friends, if fewer in number than Marcus had. If I am not wise, I have survived break-ups, friendships gone awry and an operation or two. I’ve lost and found jobs, settled into and left homes and cities, recovered from grave mistakes. These are not accomplishments in themselves, but merely a record of a life lived to the point where a beard becomes streaked with grey. Experience, some would say. I have what it takes to be a daddy, except the will to be one.

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Featured image: Pablo Picasso, “Nus masculins (les trois âges de l’homme), 1942