Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Lee Shore

Know ye, now, Bulkington?  Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

I don’t remember the flights.  I don’t remember being cold, although I must have been cold.  I do remember viewing Lenin’s Tomb, although I remember it in such a hazy and provisional way that it’s possible I’m just imagining it.  It was February, 1989, and I was in Russia on a school trip with the other students in my high school’s Russian program.  We were not supposed to buy things on the black market, said one of our teachers, who then sheepishly purchased an army jacket on the black market.  We were there at the end-ish—we didn’t know—of the Soviet Union, unable to imagine the past, present, or future of the place we stood in.  We were American high school students on a foreign language trip staying in hotels otherwise frequented by businessmen and hookers, with considerable freedom to wander around foreign cities on our own.  From our point of view, the dismantling of the Soviet Union was a time of sexual tension, personal growth, and fun.

By choosing to room with each other and not, either of us, with her, Angela and I confirmed what Katharine had known, but tried not to admit to herself, but had been resentful of, ever since she moved to our town from the Midwest, which was that Angela and I were the real friends and she was the third wheel.  She had to room with Elissa, who wouldn’t share her maxipads because she was afraid she wouldn’t have enough when her period came.  Maxipads!  Not even tampons.  Meanwhile, Angela, whose boots always needed an assistant to remove, and I fought several battles of our own.  After one, I walked out of the hotel and crossed underneath the highway that separated it from the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, where I wandered around, trying to read the labels on the displays and feeling alone in the world.  Boohoo, contextually speaking.  After another screaming match, the football player staying in the room next to us came in wearing his boxer shorts to try to broker a peace.  He was good looking and the underpants thing was distracting.  Angela and I set about making ourselves less opinionated and difficult and more interesting and fun-loving, stat.

I lost a pound a day on that trip, which was like, Thanks Soviet Union, for your easy diet plan!  At meals I sat with a group of funny boys who played with their mashed potatoes.  One of them wasn’t important, one of them threw all the windows open in his hotel room so the curtains billowed in and out, sneered at people who didn’t know Sting’s “Little Wing” was a cover (I totally knew that), and also went missing for a day and a half while looking for and possibly finding, allegedly, hash, and one of them had a crush on me that I publicly rejected.  He became someone else’s nice boyfriend when we got back, while I continued to wander around in a virginal fever until graduation and then for an additional period of time I’m not going to specify here.  Not that virginity is anything important, meaningful, etc.  Obviously not.  Why would someone ever want to have penetrative vaginal sex for the first time?

Little Wing had his luggage tossed on the way out of the country.

We went to visit a Soviet high school, where we met, as one does, students our age who spoke English much better than we spoke their language.  One of the boys exchanged numbers with Amelia, a girl the year behind me I considered impossibly dramatic and pretentious, even relative to the rest of us.  They made plans for her to come to his apartment.  Maybe because I was her only option, she asked me to come with her, and for some reason—not only were we not friends, but at heart I was (am?) a chicken—I said I would.  Two boys picked us up at the hotel and we took the Metro across Moscow together.  The number-exchanger was good-looking and an excellent English-speaker; his friend was dumpy and silent.  I didn’t appreciate the implication, but whatever.  The apartment was in an area that had nothing but tall identical apartment buildings.  The boys made us mushroom soup and a second course I can’t remember.  Maybe a salad?  They did not serve us alcohol, although I had prepared myself for that possibility by worrying about it.  After this uncomfortable meal, Amelia and the alpha guy went into another room and I sat on the couch with the beta friend for a while being like Now what?  Because there is no universe in which I am making out with you.  I don’t think we spoke.  On the way back to the Metro the boys informed us that everyone in the neighborhood could tell we were Americans because we smiled.  That was one of the only moments during the trip when I noticed something significant about the country I was in.  Relatedly, I didn’t give anyone the presents I’d brought from the United States, which were copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and Sting’s latest album.  They seemed embarrassing and juvenile, suitable only for dorks.

We went to the circus and I was so upset for the animals I had to step outside.

I don’t think that is the last thing that happened on the trip, but I remember it that way: Snow was falling, beautiful, silent, soft and and white.  Angela and I had gone off on our own, but now we had to meet up with the rest of our group at a tourist shop near the Rossiya Hotel.  Again, the rules on this school-sponsored trip retrospectively continue to surprise me.  Why did we have so much free time?  Why were we allowed to go wherever we wanted?  I had been at a stranger’s apartment in Moscow without any supervision for hours.  And now what would have happened if we hadn’t made it to the store in time?  We didn’t have a map.  We stopped someone to ask her how to get to the Rossiya, and she told us a set of directions, all of which, after the first, we either couldn’t understand or promptly forgot.  So we’d walk a little while, ask someone for directions to the Rossiya, take the first direction, then stop someone and ask them directions to the Rossiya.  We arrived, finally, at the top of a set of stone stairs that led down and then up again, and we could see across this little gully to the Rossiya Hotel.  We burst into the store snow-covered and steaming with our success, to find everyone buying pins and flags from a country that to us was best understood as someone else’s mistake.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Merry Christmas

It was curious and not unpleasing, how Peleg and Bildad were affected at this juncture, especially Captain Bildad.  For loath to depart, yet; very loath to leave, for good, a ship bound on so long and perilous a voyage—beyond both stormy Capes; a ship in which some thousands of his hard earned dollars were invested; a ship, in which an old shipmate sailed as captain; a man almost as old as he, once more starting to encounter all the terrors of the pitiless jaw; loath to say goodbye to a thing so every way brimful of every interest to him,—poor old Bildad lingered long; paced the deck with anxious strides; ran down into the cabin to speak another farewell word there; again came back on deck, and looked to windward, looked towards the wide and endless waters, only bounded by the far-off unseen Eastern Continents; looked towards the land; looked aloft; looked right and left; looked everywhere and nowhere; and at last, mechanically coiling a rope upon its pin, convulsively grasped stout Peleg by the hand, and holding up a lanterns, for a moment stood gazing heroically in his face, as much to say, “Nevertheless, friend Peleg, I can stand it; yes, I can.”

You are in a room.  It is a fairly spacious room, for a bathroom.  The walls are white paint above white tile, the floor is also tile, old brown tile, with old dark grout between the tiles.  Everything in the room is old—not ancient, but, if you had to guess, thirty years old.  A little younger than you are, at the time.  The sink is the kind of sink you’ve been seeing your whole life—it sticks out from the wall, its guts are visible underneath, it has a tiny lip around it that can just fit soap and a drinking glass. It has a mirror above it, and to that mirror you stick, by their suction cups, two plastic animals, an elephant and a giraffe, whose bellies open up to hold toothbrushes.  This is not your bathroom, after all, it is the bathroom of your infant boys. 

The toilet is standard issue.  When you are potty training your son, you spend a lot of time in the bathroom, sitting in front of him as he sits on the toilet, as if he is an idol you must prostrate yourself before.  When the other toilets in the house are all occupied you sometimes sit on this toilet yourself, generally in some kind of wet.

The closet has two louvered doors that open so you can step inside it a little, and look around on the shelves for what you want.  It is more generous than any bathroom closet you’ve ever had, and is a good place, if you’re little, to hide during hide and seek.  A low shelf on the right holds a pile of soft white cotton towels, each with a corner stitched over to make a pocket that will hold your baby’s head.  You have scattered thermometers a higher shelf, and spread Band-aids around on another.  The humidifier on the floor was bought in a humidifying emergency, and will never be used again.

The tub is a very familiar tub.  Every American who is reading these words knows this tub, with its white, sloping, ceramic sides, its once-tacky, worn-down, anti-slip shapes on the bottom, its metal and frosted glass surround, the doors running in a sharp metal track that cuts your arm when you lean over it to hold your boy, to scrub your boy, to fetch toys from the drain for your little boy to play with.  The toys fill with water and then with mold, and are a minor source of dread, since mold is probably bad for babies, but you can’t figure out how to keep the toys, with those little holes in their bottoms, from developing the mold, which then squirts out shamefully when the boys squeeze them during playtime.  Unless you’re just supposed to throw the toys out all the time?  Some people, you’ve heard, wash their toys with bleach.  And some people have net bags that they hang from the side of the tub, into which they load all the wet toys at the end of the bath, but you and your husband don’t do this, you leave the toys in the tub where they lie stranded, once the water has drained out. 

When your son is sick, you two sit on the cool tile floor together in the middle of the night.  He goes to sleep in your lap and wakes up to be sick, and then comes back again to sleep on you.  You sit on some towels, so you will be more comfortable.

The light coming through the window behind the toilet is green from the leaves on the trees in your backyard.

It is really a very pleasant room.  Bath time at night can be hard because your boys don’t want to get into the bath—and then, almost always, when the bath is done, it seems they don’t want to get out of it.  And in the summer, you decide that swimming at the town pool is like having a bath, and put the boys to bed without washing them, which means, I guess, that you sometimes find the whole thing a pain.

But now that you are not strictly and officially in the room, the room is bathed in a heavenly golden light.  The boys are so little, with such slippery, sticky skin.  When they’re a certain age you bathe them together.  You wash first one uplifted, twisting face, then the other.  One time you knock your boy’s loose tooth out while you do this, and he sees the blood and somehow is out of the tub before you can stop him, running around this room screaming and trailing pink blood over the towels and across the tiles.  You clean each boy’s hair by soaping it with a soapy washcloth, then tilting his head back, pouring warm water through it, leaving it shaped into soft clean curls.  You sing to these sons, songs about baths, but you also have strange, unmeasurable periods of time, where they play happily in the water, and your mind is free and untethered to the place where you are.  And you see, although you don’t see this for some time, that this room is a room machine, and you can go there, or leave there, anytime you want.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Going Aboard

“Morning to ye! morning to ye!” he rejoined, again moving off.  “Oh!  I was going to warn ye against—but never mind, never mind—it’s all one, all in the family too;—sharp frost this morning, ain’t it?  Good-bye to ye.  Shan’t see ye again very soon, I guess; unless it’s before the Grand Jury.”

Dentist yesterday.  I sit in the chair—there is a fountain somewhere, but the water in it doesn’t tinkle, it splashes—with my mouth open, and I think, What is the answer to this?  Do I have them pull all my teeth and replace them with fake teeth and then I have only fake teeth and those teeth can’t rot?  But is it accurate to say that fake teeth can’t rot?  And even if they can’t, don’t you still have to take care of your gums and get check-ups for your gums?  So then what should I do?  How can I possibly get out of coming here three times a year, every year, for all my days?  How can I avoid feeling my mouth fill with water until it dribbles over my lower lip?  And involuntarily clasping my hands together in my lap?  And having to stare at the overhead lights and listen to the music that is still elevator music even though it has been upgraded to tasteful covers of famous songs performed with guitars and quavering female voices?  And the answer is, There is no way out of this that you would like.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

All Astir

For besides the great length of the whaling voyage, the numerous articles peculiar to the prosecution of the fishery, and the impossibility of replacing them at the remote harbors usually frequented, it must be remembered, that of all ships, whaling vessels are the most exposed to accidents of all kinds, and especially to the destruction and loss of the very things upon which the success of the voyage most depends.

Sunday I discovered that Gmail had erased almost all of my sent mail from the last fifteen years and all of my research and writing notes.  It took less than seconds for technology to take on, for me, the guise of a faceless ravening force, not unlike an angry spirit in a Miyazaki movie, intent on devouring everything I had.  Every time I opened my mailbox I could see this force moving messages, thousands of messages, tens of thousands of messages, for its own evil purposes, into the trash and then, as far as I could tell, immediately deleting them. 

I closed my mail app down, quickly, but I had to open it again to check on what was going on and try to stop the carnage.  Every time I opened it I found the spirit there already, awake and active, shoveling everything off into oblivion.  I searched the web for answers.  I called technical support but it was after hours.  I had trouble breathing.  I started to sob.

My husband came in and sat beside me on the couch and looked on horrified at the destruction.  We kept searching for what was lost and trying to locate and save whatever we could but we could only find things from the last few days.  It was late, the children had taken themselves to bed, we had to get up in the morning, but I had the feeling that if I didn’t placate whatever unhappy animus was at work, I was going to wake up to find everything—all my mail, my documents, journals, stories, sketches, novels, photos—gone.  When I finally turned off the light I couldn’t sleep—I lay on my stomach envisioning the malevolence in my computer as it destroyed everything on my hard drive and then extended itself out from my computer to my various back-ups and corrupted them, wiping out every piece of my writing life.  I saw myself waking up in the morning with nothing I’d written left.  What it would be like to have to live without these pieces of cyberpaper existing, except within the current version of myself?  Everything that I hadn’t already absorbed into my body would be gone.  People lose things, I thought.  They lose keepsakes, records, and manuscripts in floods and fires.  They lose their keys and phones to carelessness.  I once thought I’d lost my favorite necklace, a long strand of green turquoise beads that had belonged to my maternal grandmother and that I could wrap three times around my neck, although as it turned out my mother, to whom the necklace really belonged, had taken it back from me without telling me.  But then I had taken the necklace back from her and managed to get it stolen.

You have to go on, but you go on as a different person.  The other day I was looking through photographs and I thought about the time before cameras, when most people only carried with them what they could remember.  Maybe, I thought, it would be good for me to be reborn without things and to have to start all over again.  Maybe it would clarify who I was and what I wanted to do.  Pretty sensibly, I didn’t want that.  At midnight I ran to the computer and checked to make sure my novel was still there.  Finding it extant, I worked on it for an hour or so, making a number of improvements.

In the morning after some searching I found a link that Gmail provides for users to ask for help retrieving emails; as soon as I filled it out Gmail wrote me to say, “Hello, We received your request to recover deleted emails from your account. Unfortunately, the emails were permanently deleted, so we're not able to get them back for you.”  The word “permanently” felt bad.  So I spent the day, except for a lunch date, where I drank down a large, yellow glass of wine, on the phone with Apple technical support.  Late in the afternoon, a tech friend sent me an email from a contact at Google with the link I’d used that morning and directions about how to effectively use it.  After which I received a new email from Gmail that said, “Good news! We are currently restoring your missing Gmail messages.”

I opened my mail again and found that the machine, still a spirit but now almost excessively benevolent, had started giving me back my things.  I watched as it downloaded hundreds, then a hundred thousand emails, pouring them into my inbox and all my other mailboxes.  I was inundated by messages, virtually drowning in them.  I went to bed.  In the morning, happy to have my messages back but feeling an urge to get my inbox a bit more organized, I deleted a big chunk of them.  This was a mistake akin to something a family friend of ours once did: just recovered from a terrible bout of food poisoning and once again hungry, he opened the refrigerator looking for something to eat, and found and ate the clams that made him sick the night before.  The evil spirit stretched its arms and opened its mouth, and my messages started disappearing again, in bulk. 

So I started the whole process once more from the beginning.  Now the messages, are, once again, gushing back in.  I could spend the rest of my life figuring out what to do with them all.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Prophet

“Look here friend,” said I, “but if you have anything important to tell us, out with it; but if you are only trying to bamboozle us, you are mistaken in your game; that’s all I have to say.”

I reread, just now, work in my novel from the last few days, and I can see that there is something wrong with the way it is written.  I have also, today, been looking at a book called A History of Pictures, by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, and in it they talk about a picture of Caravaggio’s in which all the figures are sort of occupying the same space, but without a real relationship to each other.  It is clear to me that I am doing the same thing, in my writing, but it is less clear how I can correct that.

Usually when I need to figure something like this out, I leave it alone and go do something else.  For a long time what I’ve done is read the next chapter in Moby-Dick and try to write about it.  I have rules about this, namely that I read the chapters in order, and I can’t read the next chapter until I’ve written something about the last one.  My problem, now, is that several months ago I read the next chapter, “The Prophet.”  For weeks I hadn’t known how to respond to the chapter, but one day I went out for a walk and on the way back, in the sunshine, an idea came to me with its first several lines attached, and those lines were in verse.

I don’t normally write poems and I am, in all likelihood, an inadequate poet; nonetheless I was quite taken by the poem that I then wrote, also titled “The Prophet.”  I decided to send it in to the Paris Review.  I knew that it was entirely improbable that the Paris Review, which publishes really wonderful poetry, would publish my poem.  But, as it happens, I was once, myself, employed (barely) by the New Republic to cull unsolicited poetry submissions.  This history made me particularly able, I thought, to cast myself into the mind of the person at the Paris Review who would be reading my unsolicited submission—who was, after all, in some way just a younger version of me.  I still thought it highly unlikely that the magazine would publish me, but at least somewhat likely that I would get someone’s attention.

So I wrote a cover letter that would convey this coded information, and settled back to receive what I expected would be a personalized rejection letter, sent through the years, from myself to myself.  Months have passed without that letter, or any response at all.  During this time, so many memories and ideas have surfaced, and I have put them aside without writing about them.  Today, for example, reading Hockney’s and Gayford’s book about pictures, I remembered the little mirror my mother bought me in sixth grade, when I first got contact lenses.  It had a square yellow plastic frame and it sat on my desk, and I stared into it when I put in my contact lenses every morning.  My desk was covered with all kinds of things I don’t remember, most of them—the clock radio and this mirror being the exception—absolutely without utility to me in my daily life.  But the little mirror was really useful—not only did it perform its contact-lens service, but I liked to sit in front of it for hours, sketching myself in the lined pages of a black-and-white Composition notebook. 

I made one successful drawing of my face.  More by chance than skill, dragging my pen across the pale blue lines, I captured some true aspect of my appearance by drawing my eyes, accurately, as differently shaped from each other.  One eyelid was puffier, and the lashes curled differently, but also I allowed the eyes to relate more to the rest of my face than they did to each other.  In sixth grade this mismatch struck me as a flaw.  In art class we had been taught to draw faces by dividing them into parts and proportions, and when I drew, I strained for symmetry.  Yet there my drawing was, mismatched and unmistakably me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to go on from this.  I kept sitting down in front of the little yellow mirror and trying to draw an ideal.

Friday, July 15, 2016

His Mark

Without saying a word, Queequeg, in his wild sort of way, jumped upon the bulwarks, from thence into the bows of one of the whale-boats hanging to the side; and then bracing his left knee, and poising his harpoon, cried out in some such way as this:—

“Cap’ain, you see him small drop tar on water dere?  You see him?  well, spose him one whale eye, well, den!” and taking sharp aim at it, he darted the iron right over old Bildad’s broad brim, clean across the ship’s decks, and struck the glistening tar spot out of sight.

“Now,” said Queequeg, quietly hauling in the line, “sposee him whale-e eye; why, dad whale dead.”

“Quick, Bildad,” said Peleg, his partner, who, aghast at the close vicinity of the flying harpoon, had retreated towards the cabin gangway.  “Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship’s papers.  We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats.”

I used to dream that one day I would be marked out and plucked from obscurity and, if I am going to be completely honest, I dream of it still.  When I was young the dream involved my singing voice.  I hoped that it was beautiful.  I had read in a child’s biography of Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind being discovered by an impresario wandering by her open window and I thought it might happen the same way for me.  And so it came to be that one evening at Tanglewood I lay with my family on a blanket, singing along to whatever the orchestra was playing—I can’t imagine what classical piece I knew that well—when we were approached by a man and a woman who had been seated with some friends nearby. 

“Your daughter has a beautiful singing voice,” they said, and I believed them, although some part of me must have had my suspicions about what they meant since I remembered the scene well enough years later to figure out that they were have a gentle laugh with my parents at my expense.

I sang in the car and imagined a man on top of the car, waiting to catch a few notes.

I had a very small singing part in the high school musical, and a smaller dancing part.

I auditioned for but was not asked to join the chorus at a college known as the “singing college.”

Still, I loved to sing.  When the children were newborns I found that talking to them was unbearable, and that taking care of them in silence seemed sullen or even hostile.  Imagine wordlessly stuffing someone into a pair of pajamas.  The only thing to do was to sing, and I sang a lot of impromptu songs about what I was doing, including making the bed and hoping I wouldn’t find shit in their diapers.  I also sang along with the radio, and, especially at bedtime, I sang actual songs.  If you’ve read the book Mating you probably remember the protagonist walking through the desert to her true love, singing to keep herself sane.  She discovers within herself a catalog of songs that she knows all of the words to, and while her repertoire was more wide-ranging than mine was, because she was fictional, it was pleasurable for me to wander my desert and figure out that in fact I had a solid catalog of patriotic tunes that my children found soothing.  I also sang “Sweet Baby James,” which is really, really long, every night for about seven years.  During that period, I found I was able to cut my brain off entirely from what I was doing, and kind of ramble around it with a flashlight in my hand while my chest vibrated and pushed sound up through my throat and out of my mouth.

I watched an interview with Hugh Jackman, who did such a nice job in Oklahoma!, and he told me that the trick to singing well is to mean every single word you’re saying, and then I tried to do that, when I wasn’t trying to cleave my consciousness from whatever I was saying or doing at the moment.

And then one day the children were grown, or more grown, and they loved my voice. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Ramadan

Despairing of him, therefore, I determined to go to bed and to sleep; and no doubt, before a great while, he would follow me.  But previous to turning in, I took my heavy bearskin jacket, and threw it over him, as it promised to be a very cold night; and he had nothing but his ordinary round jacket on.  For some time, do all I would, I could not get into the faintest doze.  I had blown out the candle; and the mere thought of Queequeg—not four feet off—sitting there in that uneasy position, stark alone in the cold and dark; this made me really wretched.

My Uncle John had been handsome and charismatic in his youth, but when I knew him he had a mustache and a belly that looked like a beach ball stuffed under his shirt.  When my mother told me he had died by driving off a road into a tree, I had to suppress the urge to smile at the news.  I wasn’t happy he was dead.  I was the victim of some faulty wiring.

John has been a kind of secret in my life, in the way that slavery is a secret, by which I mean of course he wasn’t a secret at all.  He was right there—I just didn’t ever inquire too deeply into who he was, and what his life meant.  Almost nothing I write after this will make sense if I don’t first write that John had bipolar disorder.  He had gone to one year of college—my college—before dropping out.  He lived in places you couldn’t really live in—an unheated summer cottage, a motel, both in rural New Hampshire.  There was a girlfriend we saw sometimes but I only met his daughter, who was then nineteen or twenty, six years after he died, at my grandfather’s funeral.  She died before I saw her again.

Mom kept many of the details of John’s life from us, I think because she didn’t want us to be scared by her brother, whom she loved.  I knew that she went to see him in hospitals, that he didn’t like his medication, and that he smelled, generally, of beer and cigarettes.  When we went to New Hampshire in our early years as a family, in the mid- to late ’70s, John stayed at the old house with us, and organized games for us and our friends.  We could choose between being Rockwell’s Angels and Rockwell’s Rangers—Rockwell was his middle name.

Only once, when I was in high school, did I talk to him in a manic phase.  He called the house for my mother and when she wasn’t there he talked to me for twenty minutes about Vietnam, where he hadn’t served and where, in any case, the war had been over for some time.  He was full of conspiracy theories that might also have been racial theories.  He didn’t stop talking, and he didn’t make sense.

After John died, I wrote a long essay about him and about my family’s visits to New Hampshire, which was, for me, a strange and unresolved place, physically beautiful but psychologically dense.  I remember describing how, in the kitchen in the house my mother’s family owned, the old refrigerator and the old stove stood next to each other, and it was tempting to brace yourself against the stove to open the heavy refrigerator door.  But there was something really wrong with the wiring in that kitchen, and if you touched both appliances at the same time you would receive a serious shock.   One day I watched the woman I called Grandma forget this and fly backwards across the room. 

It must have been the summer when I wrote about this, and I was home from college.  I printed it out and kept it in my bedroom, where my mother found it and read it while secretly going through my papers.  In the middle of an unusually terrible fight, my father betrayed my mother’s confidence about this to me while my mother begged him not to.  Then I buried the essay, buried Uncle John, buried my questions about New Hampshire and my mother’s side of the family. 

In 2004 I named my younger son after John.  Apart from this I forgot, more or less, to think about my uncle until a few weeks ago when, alone at home, I watched a Robert Mapplethorpe documentary on HBO.  Mapplethorpe’s duck’s ass hairstyle reminded me of pictures of my uncle as a young man.  As Mapplethorpe grew sicker he grew thinner, and John got fatter as he aged.  But there was still something about Mapplethorpe, physically, that made me think of my uncle.

The details in the documentary also brought me back in time.  They played a snippet of an AM radio broadcast from that period and I remembered driving with my family into Manhattan, trying to hear the traffic report before we had to commit to a route.  At one point, while watching the documentary, I noticed the edge of one of Mapplethorpe’s photographs that had been cut and then mounted on a board.  I realized that Mapplethorpe died in 1989 (John died in 1990), a few months before I graduated high school, and that, while the subject matter, among other things, of our photographs had been different, the technology we’d used had been largely the same.  Kodak film, gelatin silver paper, developer, fixer, wash, water.

In the documentary they claimed that Mapplethorpe was part of an artistic revolution that was establishing photography as a mainstream art form, and this reminded me of a class trip I had gone on as part of a summer photography course, into Manhattan to see a Cindy Sherman show.  Not her film stills, but a series that followed: images of plastic butts and boobs in saturated colors that made me feel physically ill.  Still, for my final project that summer I had borrowed a tripod and taken a series of photographs of myself trying to express different emotions.  I wanted to get closer to what Sherman was doing, in whatever weak way I could.

I had never liked Mapplethorpe’s photographs, particularly.  As a young person I had mostly seen his flower photos.  I had hated how highly stylized they were, their sense of airlessness, their lack of immediacy, and their rather overt symbolism.  I had seen some of his photographs of men and I hadn’t liked them either, although even then I had suspected that part of my reaction to those was juvenile revulsion, and that I might understand them better when I was older. 

Watching the HBO film several weeks ago I saw both that I would never like Mapplethorpe’s visual language and that I had been mistaken in feeling that the photographs were inauthentic, airless, and unreal.  I saw how hard he had been trying, through sex, through the manipulation of images, to get at something that may or may not have eluded him.  I saw that even my high school self, at work in the darkroom, exposing paper, cutting it and measuring to mount it, then gluing it to its board—that even I, in a van of high school students, driving into Soho, then back in my room, pressing the shutter release—had been close, in some way, to the non-magical, physical process of photography, just as it was exploding, even though I had had no idea that this was the case at the time. 

And this, too, was something that made me think about my Uncle John—about what kind of adult he had been, and how, juvenile and well-meaning, I had never known him, although I had been close to him during important periods in his life and mine. 

I shut off the television and turned over and over in bed, unable to sleep.  I will find out more about him, I thought.  I will conduct interviews.  I will go to Great Neck and Roslyn, New York, and Gilmanton, New Hampshire, I will look for birth and death certificates and find the state hospitals where he was committed.  I will do this properly, and in the end I will write him up and he won’t be a secret anymore.  But the more I developed this idea, the more I saw the amount of work it would involve grow and spread, overwhelming me.  To understand John I would have to understand my grandfather, a distant, principled figure unlike anyone I knew.  I would have to understand my real grandmother, who died when my mother was seventeen.  I would have to understand the world of the town in New Hampshire where my mother’s family had summered since the early part of the 20th century, and which had, even when I was a very young girl and despite my mother’s family’s ties to it, seemed on some level absolutely alien to me. 

Then I remembered that when Uncle John died my mother went to his motel room with only one other person, went through all of his belongings, and cleaned it out.