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Bridges & Maps

The Mario Cuomo Bridge

We drove over the new Mario Cuomo Bridge last Sunday for the first time. It was a mistake; we'd intended to drive down the east side of the Hudson. Deep in conversation, we weren't paying attention and forgot to exit the Thruway at Poughkeepsie, and then again in Newburgh.

 

RECALCULATING. RECALCULATING. RECALCULATING. Our old Garmin was up, not recently updated, and it got completely screwed up inside the construction labyrinth in Harriman. Either this was a satellite aneurysm or a full-blown stroke, I said, reaching for Google Maps on my phone, which wasn't as confused as the Garmin, but not airtight understandable either.

 

My husband was driving but it wasn't his fault; it was the Garmin's fault, the phone's fault, my fault for not plotting our route with my usual focused energy. The only cognitive bridge available was a paper map in the trunk, a document we could READ. Doesn't every map tell a story? We start here and proceed from here to there. This is our route, clear as the daylight we are traveling in, and this is the timeline and historical through-line of our journey: beginning, middle, end.

 

Those worn folds on the map—remember—the ones we had to scotch tape together? And the designated navigator, remember her? It was always my mother when I was a child as my stepfather never let her drive. She was as sloppy with the map as she was with the newspaper. Whereas, my stepfather was a meticulous folder of both. I have some of these old family maps, and older ones, too, as I once collected them from flea markets and thrift stores as memorabilia of a bygone car- travel-only-age. There they sit browning in a bag in the trunk. I have not been able to donate them, or trash them, or recycle them, and on this particular Sunday, I could not retrieve the most appropriate, nearly current map from inside the trunk, albeit I was in the navigator's seat trying to decipher what the Garmin was telling us and what Google Maps was telling us, which seemed contradictory—so who needs a paper map, right? I wanted to pull over somewhere, but there was nowhere to pull over. Alas, we were already late for a brunch so kept on going.  It's never a good idea to keep on going. This is how explorers get lost. I am an aficionado of polar literature and I can attest to this. Getting lost is the armature of Arctic and Antarctic literature.

 

Then, suddenly, we were flying over the bridge and didn't care. The old Tappan Zee has been demolished, expunged from history. Opened in 1955, it honored the Tappan tribe, River People, who spoke the Unami dialect of the Lenape language and welcomed the first Europeans before being slaughtered or infected by them. The original bridge was a memorial to this painful history.

 

But we've moved on, as we always move on in America, thoughtlessly at times. Our historical memory is short and the digital age is upon us. This new bridge is a masterpiece of engineering and it is aesthetically transporting as well as capacious enough to accommodate increased traffic flow, eight lanes across, the largest bridge ever built in New York State. Who needs that many cars? How are they impacting the environment?  Will the bridge last long enough to accommodate a serious commitment to public transportation? Will paper maps make a comeback, like paper books are making a comeback, or are they merely—and  forever—collectibles?

 

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Mad Men Narratives

Now that so-called Mother's Day is over, I'd like to say a few things:

 

1.  It's a commercial holiday that I, as a mother, did not plan or request. Nor do I particularly care for highly-scented floral arrangements, nor am I sentimental, nor is my life a Hallmark greeting card. Yet, like other holidays on the American Holiday Calendar, I am swept up in the Mad Men hoopla; I have expectations. And when they are not met, I deflate. This year, for example, my daughter was up to her eyebrows in deadline work, had no time to think about a card or present, yet made time to come out for brunch with her near and dear parents. And though we had a terrific meal, lots of laughs, and she had taken the time to come out to meet us, she apologized for "not doing anything," meaning what the Mad Men narrative has subliminally told us to do: buy flowers or chocolates, or whatever.

 

Though it seems as difficult as shutting down social media, can we all please try to shut off the Mad Men narratives and write our own, original family stories?

 

2.  Several friends who do not have children called me on Commercial Mother's Day and wished me a Happy Mother's Day because, as one dear friend said, "I know you are a good mother." This same friend is one of the most caring, nurturing people I know. Why should he be excluded from my Mad Men celebration? And I have other dear friends who do not have children, either by choice or circumstance. They are, to a person, the most nurturing people I know, sometimes more than the parents I know. One is a teacher in the South Bronx in a very rough school who is completely devoted to her students. Completely. The other is an animal rights activist, another a humanitarian worker, another is caring for a very sick partner and has done so for many years. I could go on. Do you get my drift, dear reader?

 

3. Creating narratives of inclusion (mothers) and exclusion (everyone else), so that the floral and candy industry can flourish, is not my idea of compassion, caring, or mothering/parenting in the largest sense of that word. And we need largess right now, really big, capacious and compassionate gestures. Let us remember all those motherless children incarcerated on our border with Mexico. Let us think of their mothers every day, and their fathers, and their families, and their impoverished or war-torn communities.

 

4. As it turns out, the woman who "invented" American Mother's Day—and got Congress to declare it a national holiday in 1914—was  one Anna Jarvis who I had never heard of until I did a Wiki search. Her mother had cared for the wounded on both sides of the Civil War and Anna wanted to honor her. The carnation became a symbol of the day;  it has remained a floral and bonbon holiday ever since. Anna hated it. Indeed, she was so unhappy  about the commercialization of the holiday that she tried to have it removed from the calendar. Too late; the Mad Men had their teeth in it. Anna went crazy with her effort and ended her life in an asylum.

 

6. Instead of Mad Men's Mother's and Father's Days, how about we celebrate teachers and courageous politicians and socially conscious doctors and ACLU lawyers and scientists struggling to preserve Mother Earth, our beautiful mother, the mother of us all.

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A Conversation With An Artist: Christopher Victor

Hammer Dance Installation at the Muroff-Kotler Visual Arts Gallery @ Suny Ulster
Photo: Courtesy Christopher Victor

 

Once upon a time, when I was very young and scoured New York galleries with my collector father, I imagined that artists spent their days and nights in the studio for the benefit of the collector, or gallery owner, or curator, and even if the artist was dead, none of my naive assumptions were less true because the whole point of collecting, according to my father and his art-loving collector friends, was beyond the joy of the work itself, it was for the value of the work and its monetary appreciation as the years passed. Nonetheless, somehow, the joy of feeling transported by visual work rooted in me. And I am thankful for that and my ability to discern what I like and don't like, almost instantaneously, and to parse what is mediocre and what is well-made. If there is a gallery or museum in proximity, I always walk into it. I deepen my enjoyment of art with every new artist I encounter and I talk to artists about their process whenever I have the opportunity.  

 

When I saw Christopher Victor's installation in the SUNY-Ulster gallery, I knew I liked his work right away. He was in the gallery talking to students and I went up to talk to him. He had been invited to install a show and give a guest lecture or two. The images were strong and I held them in my eidetic memory as I returned to the Writing Center where I work. I had already decided to visit Chris in his studio, if he was willing. Fortunately, he was.

 

I had driven my husband to the bus for a city day, my NYU term over, and I was thrilled to have an afternoon in the mountains, road winding, the GPS dropping out and returning, the trees turning to green. Chris and his wife, Rochelle, left Brooklyn many years ago and moved here; their home is an idyll. They're raising two sons and a boisterous puppy on land close to a stream in an open plan house with a deck overlooking a forest, mountains in the distance.

 

"I grew up in the country in New Hope, PA, where I walked barefoot everywhere and lived next to a stream. Now I live next to a stream again," Chris says.  His mother is a ceramicist and Chris spent many childhood hours in her studio watching her make art, and making his own.  Nature and art are contiguous in his heart and mind. Having moved to the Hudson Valley just over a year ago myself, I am beginning to feel that way, too. We are embedded in nature and forget this at our peril.

 

Has my writing changed since I have been here? Am I contemplating new genres? Has my voice and point of view shifted?  I am not yet sure. Certainly I have more time to read and write, and though I don't live in the mountains, surfacing from my apartment into the fresh air, the birds chirping, the mountains in the distance, the pulse of life is softer, which I am sure is good for writers and artists.  I feel freer, more at ease. And I only miss the city occasionally when I am here. My fast-paced, competitive urban self will never disappear, but at least it has gone quiet now, it's resting.

 

After art school Chris made props for commercials and still takes on assignments when he needs money. It's creative work, but not as satisfying as his own work, he explains, as he looks around his  tool-packed studio which is filled with found materials, works in progress, and finished work.

 

The term "careerist artist" surfaced. I had never heard this before, but it immediately reminded me of the way agents work these days. They look for young writers with two or three books ahead of them, writers who are willing to build a career attentive to shifting fads in the marketplace. And some agents consider themselves "editorial" agents; they shape the writer and the work rather than permit the writer to struggle for herself. Stories abound about these travesties, Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver, the most noteworthy. I can't imagine Chris allowing anyone to manipulate his art in this way in order to sell it.  "We're all creating our own wild places," he says.  And I believe him, or want to believe him. 

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Real Journalists

The holder of this card is a professional journalist and all authorities and IFJ affiliated organizations should extend to the bearer every assistance and courtesy in the performance of his or her mission.

 

 

I have just received my new International Federation of Journalists press card, which is accepted as a bona fide credential in 141 countries. As a free lancer, I have been reliant on press passes for many years and have never had a problem, until recently. I am a member of the prestigious Authors Guild which offers this prestigious card via the IFJ in Brussels. A writer/journalist has to qualify; the passes are not given to anyone. But now that I've proudly stashed the new card in my purse, I'm wondering if it will do me any good in the United States where there are so few news outlets left that value real journalists. Even worse, perhaps, are the many publicists who make certain that a journalist's uncomfortable questions remain unanswered. Obstruction of information. Sound familiar?

 

Controlling the flow of information, spinning, all that I accept as a publicist's job and a journalist's nemesis. But outright lying, refusal to grant interviews, stonewalling voice messages and emails in the hope that an intrepid reporter will go away and give up, that's new. And it does not bode well for our democracy. Isn't it an American journalist's mandate to exercise her First Amendment rights. Or have we forgotten?

 

Consider, for example, the demise of a robust local press. Stories in local—print and online—newspapers these days often read like unadulterated public relations handouts. So-called "facts" are unattributed and uncorroborated, and journalists on staff are frustrated by the lack of editorial support for their investigative efforts. In other words, we cannot blame the current regime in Washington DC for spinning, or faking the news, or telling vicious lies; they are merely taking advantage of the new, yet more market-driven news culture. And that includes all the punditry on broadcast and cable outlets. We need them, they are mostly doing a good job, but they are also making a fortune as they deliver their audience to the advertisers 24-7.

 

It's taken me a long time to accept this and, frankly, I am both disgusted and deeply concerned. It's one of the many reasons I started this blog. At least here I am free to write what I wish, uncensored, and oblivious to market pressures. Consequently, I don't quit. When I have a difficult question to ask, I ask it. I don't take no for an answer. If one source folds, I find another. That's what real journalists do. And when I discover a complicated story that requires the resources and clout of an institution, I pass it along to a still-standing, still reputable major news outlet such as The New York Times; they often pursue a lead for which all of us should be grateful. Most of the time. A recent story I generated didn't lead to much more than a cub reporter gathering clips and re-arranging them. No original interviews, no footwork. To say the least, I was disappointed. Time to get back into it, and unearth the real story behind the story, even if I have to do it on my own. Worse case scenario, it goes up on this blog which is RSS fed to four outlets. Dear reader, thanks to you I get some traffic. Viva the internet!

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