The things you keep, and the things you lose

I’m back from a lovely few days in New York, in which I visited The Island (as in Long), The City (there’s only one), and what the inhabitants of both places incorrectly but lovingly refer to as  “Upstate”, even though I was only about 40 miles north of Manhattan.  I saw wonderful friends, ate well, caught up with family, laughed a lot, and returned to Boston with a car full of Gino’s pizza (voted 3rd best pizza on Long Island!), as there is no decent NY-style pizza to be had in Massachusetts. At all. Anywhere.

I apparently also left with something unexpected.  My friend’s parting words to me were, “Drive north! Your Long Island accent has never been as strong as it is right now.” I’m pretty confident I lost it again somewhere in central Connecticut. Close call.

Being on sabbatical and having so much leisure time has given me the opportunity to see and spend time with people at their convenience, which has been wonderful. The weeks ahead are filling up with lunch dates and dinner plans, because I have time to reach out to others and offer an open-ended invitation to spend time together.

I’ve been back from France for a month.  The process of looking back and sharing memories and conversation with others has brought the experience into sharper focus.  I’ve realized that what I miss the most about that almost magical month is the socialization.  Not just the people who I met, although I do miss them (a lot!), but the ease with which we could all be together.  With the exception of our nightly homework and the occasional family or work check-in, most of us had no other responsibilities.   What a gift to be surrounded by fun, adventurous, curious people who were almost always available!  I mean, when was the last time you had a friend just drop by your home?

I have wonderful friends here in Boston, but the responsibilities of life, parenting, work, and activities make it difficult to be spontaneous.  It’s hard to find people (or make oneself) available to just be together, on a whim, on, say, a random Tuesday night.  But I’m convinced that those kind of spontaneous gatherings give a richness to our relationships that can be hard to develop any other way.

There have been many things about my time in France that I’ve had to let go of.  Most of them involve bread. And cheese.  But there are other elements of the experience – the easy fun of socialization first among them – that I really want to fight for, and hold on to, and try to translate into something that will work in our overly busy, hyper-scheduled American culture. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m working on it, and I know I’m not alone in wanting this. 

Getting down to business with David Foster Wallace

So it turns out that when you say publicly (on a blog, for example) that you’re going to do something, people often read your statement, remember it, and then actually ask you if you’ve done the thing you said you were going to do.

And so it was that over a lovely dinner late last week, a friend asked me about my progress with Infinite Jest, reminding me, “…you said on your blog that you were going to read it during your sabbatical”. Yes, yes I did. And now I have…started it, at least.  Again. Luckily I have good company and lots of resources from the incredible folks over at Infinite Summer, who undertook the task of reading, discussing and dissecting Infinite Jest back in 2010.

For people like me who love to read, the question of what to read is a constant challenge. There are few things that excite me more than walking out of a library or bookstore with an armful of books. The only thing that tempers that excitement is the realization, walking around said library or bookstore, that I will never be able to read everything.

As a result, I tend to cast a wide net, attempting to sample a little of this or that. One might say that I’m a bit promiscuous in my reading.

For example, in addition to Infinite Jest, the following books are currently sitting on my dining room table, courtesy of a recent trip to my local library: a small book about the Battle of Waterloo (“June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe”, in case you’re interested); the 800-page novel “Paris” by Edward Rutherfurd; and Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short”, about the stock market crash. And that doesn’t even begin to address the pile of books on or near my nightstand. Or the e-books queued up on my Nook.

But for now, for the foreseeable future, it’s me and David Foster Wallace. I’m putting those other tempting books aside and giving my full attention to the sprawling genius of this 981-page (not including end notes) creation. Time for some literary monogamy.

Accidental Art Appreciation

How DO you know if it's art? Or not?

How DO you know if it’s art? Or not?

I have a lot of plans for my sabbatical. Yesterday I discovered that my sabbatical may have a few plans for me.

Through a series of events not entirely of my making, over the past six weeks or so I have visited an unusually high number of museums, most either dedicated to or housing some contemporary art. It started in St. Paul de Vence, where our class trip took us to the Fondation Maeght. Since then, I have also hit the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice; the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and finally, yesterday, the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.

None of this may seem unusual if you’re a “museum person”.  For many people, visiting museums is the highlight, if not the purpose, of travel. I’m not one of those people.

The first of my recent string of museums, the Fondation Maeght, was a particular challenge, as most of the art there was odd and, frankly, ugly. (I’d share pictures, but the museum charged an addition 5€ for the privilege of taking photographs.)  Think animal skulls and wire and huge frames filled with black bird feathers or evergreen branches. I walked around, laughing occasionally at some of the truly bizarre pieces, regarding the art with one overwhelming thought: I don’t get it.

Things were a bit better at the MAMAC in Nice, in part because the museum provided greater context for the different works. Sometimes a little information about the artist’s background and the cultural moment in which he or she worked goes a long way.

I'm pretty sure that's a crushed car.

I’m pretty sure that’s a crushed car.

Still, there were a number of pieces – like the one on the left there, that I looked at and thought, C’mon, really? Is that art?  One exhibit, by the artist known only as “ben”, asked that very question in his installation (see photo above).

In a way, I think all of these earlier museum visits, coupled with a debate in my French class about art, primed me for my experience at the DeCordova.

The DeCordova currently has an exhibit called Work Out. It is the Museum’s first outdoor exhibition.  Every month they provide a guided tour of the four installations and I happened to be there for the July tour. I also happened to be the only person on the tour. The docent, a very interesting young man who is himself a sculptor and art educator (soon to be heading to medical school), was engaging and earnest and open in the way that only Midwesterners can be, and the tour was terrific.

The four pieces that make up Work Out can generally be classified as social practice or social engagement art, which is something I’d never heard of before yesterday. The tour was interesting enough that I failed to take any pictures of the four works, but I’ll talk about one of them.  Several trees from the DeCordova were felled during Hurricane Sandy, and a group called FutureFarmers will be leading workshops, or a “Tree University”, to turn the trees into something else. Maybe a canoe or a boat; there will be lessons for the public in pencil-making. All of their activities are being done to further explore Thoreau’s statement that “Men have become the tools of their tools”.

The docent and I had a lively discussion about this, and about each of the four installations, many of which I’d classify as social or community education activities.  They seem like the kind of thing you’d provide at a botanical garden, or a workshop on environmental stewardship. Interesting, sure, but art? Where is the art? Is it in the process? Or in the performance of instructing others? Or in the impact of the experience on the participants? Where is the distinction between art and craftsmanship? Since all of the exhibits are temporary, by design, how do you conceive of art when there is no resulting object, nothing left to admire or engage with when all is said and done?

We talked a lot, too, about the “I don’t get it” response.  Our conversation helped me rethink that response, and to see it for what it is: it’s insufficient. More than that, it’s lazy. (Particularly if one has willingly paid money – as I did at all but one museum – to be exposed to this art.)  It’s a failure of my curiosity. There’s a sort of stubbornness in my refusal to ask questions, or my unwillingness to have my perspective changed.

Any guesses as to what was used here? Painter's tape.

Any guesses as to what was used here? Painter’s tape.

I realized yesterday that if I’m going to put myself in proximity to this kind of art – or any art – then I have an obligation to engage with it, question it. I don’t have to like it – that’s an important distinction.  It’s perfectly ok to decide that a work doesn’t speak to me, or I can’t relate to it, or I just flat-out don’t like it. (Edited to add: after thinking about it for a few days, even with this attempt at seeing art through a new lens, I stand by my original assessment of the Fondation Maeght. The art there was angry, and ugly, and pretentious. Plus, laughing my way through that museum with Ian, like a couple of badly behaved school kids, remains one of my favorite memories of France.)  But it’s not ok to write something off because it doesn’t immediately match up with my (admittedly narrow) understanding of “Art”.

I sound like a bit of a scold, which is not at all my intention. This message is really self-directed. It’s fine if you don’t like art, and opt  NOT to put yourself in proximity to art, and thus avoid these questions altogether.  There’s no human obligation to look at paintings or sculpture or any other form of art. It is safe to say, however, that there is a human impulse for self-expression, for beauty, and for sense-making. The ways in which artists satisfy those impulses and respond to the frequent chaos of our world deserve my attention and my attempts at understanding. It’s not a lesson I expected to learn during this time, but like I said, it seems that my sabbatical has some plans of its own…

Springboard #2, or, It’s About to Get Noisy

Some time ago, before the sabbatical actually started, I laid out some of my plans for what I hoped to accomplish during this time.  I sorted activities into two categories: the Checklist and the Springboard. I’ve been working away at the Checklist, but until now, my ongoing French studies have been the only Springboard activity.

That, friends, is about to change.

If you’ve been reading for a while or if you’ve explored some older posts, you’ll remember that I wrote about music, and the fact that while I love music, I can’t generate a note of it myself.  I got it into my head a few months ago that I would learn how to play blues harmonica (don’t ask…).  After making a friend in France who was also learning to play the harmonica, and after hearing his fabulous 5-note blues riff, I was sold. Inspired. So when I got back home, I took action.

My German-engineered Hohner harmonica.

My German-engineered Hohner harmonica.

I am now the proud owner of this beauty.

Of course, owning a harmonica and having any idea how to play it are two very different things.  But we’ll get there. I’ve found some free lessons on line and started practicing. (It’s harder than you’d think, especially if you want to play a single note.) I’ve got a book on the way and will start learning the basics.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress, which I assume will be slow. Local folks, look for me practicing on a park bench near you…



Cinq heures de français

Oui, that’s five hours of French, for my English-only readers.  That was my Friday, and it was great!  Yesterday marked two weeks to the day since the end of my course at the Institut, and while I’ve been reading, watching movies, and doing my grammar exercises, there’s no substitute for speaking French. I was fortunate to find some willing Francophones to spend time chatting with me (and correcting me!).

Victim #1 is a lovely Swiss woman who I met through mutual friends.  I see her and her husband every year at our friends’ 4th of July party, and this year, since I had just returned from France, she offered to meet up for some conversation. We spent a lovely afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts, talking about the Samurai exhibit, her travels in Asia, my experience in France, and her sweet 3-month old son, who joined us for the afternoon.

(For Boston-area folks, the Highland Street Foundation is providing Free Fun Fridays all summer, with free admission to 6 different museums and cultural centers throughout Massachusetts every week.  Check out the schedule and go!)

After the MFA, it was on to Cambridge, to meet an Iranian-Canadian MIT student who I had found on Conversation Exchange. I recommend checking out the site to find conversation partners near you. You can meet in person or via Skype.  If you’re feeling retro, or just need to work on your writing skills, you can even find a pen-pal and write letters.  It’s a global site, it’s free, and it’s easy to set up a profile, so you’ve got no excuse.

Both of my conversation partners were helpful, patient, and very supportive. My most frequent error (and my fellow Institut-goers will sympathize) was continuing to “vouvoyez” after I should have started to “tutoyer”.  I chalk that up to the Institut’s insistence that we use only the “vous” form. And better to be too formal than to run the risk of insulting someone by being too familiar, right?

There were a few of those deer-in-headlight moments where I had to puzzle out what had been said and respond appropriately, but those moments keep me on my toes and keep my listening skills sharp. Overall, it was great to hear and speak French again, and for a sustained amount of time. Like I said, there’s no substitute for live and spontaneous conversation. And it’s easier to find than you might think, so get out there and keep talking!

Seeking new landscapes AND having new eyes.

(With apologies to Marcel Proust for both stealing and butchering his quote.)

One of the remarkable things about the south of France is how effortlessly beautiful everything seems to be. When I left my apartment in the morning and walked to the Institut, I was greeted with a clear sky over Villefranche, the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean, the smell of jasmine.

Another beautiful day in Villefranche...

Another beautiful day in Villefranche…

You didn’t have to look hard to find something spectacular.  And, to our credit, I don’t think any of us took that for granted.  Not a day went by without someone commenting on the view, the weather, or the easy beauty of our temporary home.

Needless to say, it’s a bit more challenging to find that kind of beauty once you’re back in your everyday surroundings. Familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt in this case, but neither does it lend itself to breathtaking moments.

I have to look a little harder, and be more creative, and make an effort to uncover and encounter what is beautiful here at home.  I know, it’s not like I live in the middle of nowhere.  I’m fortunate to be in a major city (at least by some standards) that is lovely and historic and hosts over 12 million visitors a year.  Those people are coming here for a reason, right?

So for the past week, I’ve been doing my best to put myself in proximity to the beautiful things around me. I’ve done this in two ways. First, I’m opting to do everyday activities in nicer settings. Instead of my usual run on the paved streets of my suburban neighborhood, I’ve hit the trails in the Middlesex Fells.  I’ve taken long walks in Breakheart Reservation and around Lake Quannapowit. I’ve strolled around Boston and explored the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Later this week I’ll go biking in Concord and get to Walden Pond for a much-needed swim. Some of these places are a bit out of the way, but I’m well-rewarded for the effort.

The other, harder, part of the equation is to try to find the beauty right in front of me, in the seemingly ordinary things that I see everyday.  Harder because it requires me to take off my rose (rosé?) colored glasses and stop comparing everything to France. Harder because it calls for a mindfulness and attentiveness that is difficult to muster, and more difficult to maintain.

So that’s the challenge before me, as I try to transplant the wonder I felt in France to the lovely things in my own backyard.

Welcome home

This is the actual conversation I had with the Very Serious Border Control Agent at Logan Airport on Sunday night:

VSBCA: Where are you coming from?

Me: I just arrived on a flight from London but I’ve been in France for a month.

VSBCA: What were you doing in France?

Me: I was completing an intensive language immersion program.

VSBCA: The French language?

And…with that, I was back in the USA!  I didn’t want to spend my night in a windowless interrogation room, so I thought it best NOT to offer a snarky response about how I was actually learning Mandarin but I just couldn’t resist the lure of the south of France in the summer.

It's not Nice, but it's not without its charms...

It’s not Nice, but it’s not without its charms…

The past few days have been a bit of a whirlwind – some dear friends are staying with us and they arrived in Boston only a few hours before I did.  I unpacked quickly and still have a lot of little things to clean up.  Laundry has been done, photos organized and shared.  I’m keeping my tourist mentality and putting it to use closer to home, enjoying some relaxing time in downtown Boston.

The challenge for me now is the same one I’ve faced many times before: how do I integrate what I’ve learned and what I experienced into my “normal” life?  If past performance is any indicator, this is not something at which I excel.  I have a tendency to hold on to the memory of an experience, and to attempt to relive it, or memorialize it.

As I wrote that, I heard the voice of a high school theology teacher, reminding us that, “If something doesn’t grow, it dies”.  That’s the trick here; twofold, in this case.  First, there is the very practical challenge of continuing to develop my French skills.  I feel like I have good plans in place, but I need to be aggressive in carrying them out, and dedicate time for studying.  (It helps that it’s Tour de France time; I’ve been listening to race updates and commentary en français thanks to the RTL Tour podcasts.)

The other challenge is to continue to build the relationships that I was so fortunate to make while in Villefranche. The intensity of the program and the shared experience lends itself to fast friendships, but I know that there were more lasting bonds created.  That said, we all know firsthand how our best intentions fall away in the face of the rush and busyness of everyday life.  So much as I’ll do with my studying, I will be intentional in continuing to grow these friendships.

I know it’s only July, but I can’t help but think of a favorite poem that I re-read at the start of each new year. “…I’m going to stay alert, reach out…I’m going to practice every day…”.  Oh, just go read the whole thing.  I promise it’s worth the click.