Saturday, December 29, 2012

Where Moth and Rust Destroy

December 29, 2012 – Where Moth and Rust Destroy

My brother and sister-in-law drive up to Dallas from the Austin outskirts with my niece and their dog Rien for the weekend. I’ve been back in the United States for all of six days and I don’t know how I feel about it. Only eight days ago I was at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. A month ago I was in Sweden. A month before that I was on a ship sailing the open sea. I try to keep from making the comparisons aloud. There’s such a fine line between relating experience and being pretentious. I bite my tongue and just tell these things to myself. The distances I’ve traveled seem unbelievable at times. What I’ve seen, whom I’ve met, and the paths I’ve taken are like fiction and poetry—unexpected in their turns and a little bit like rhymes. The memories are my own, but so far removed from this familiar place.

I look around. The trees that line my parents’ street are comforting in their grandeur. The roads are unchanged enough so I can still, and always, find my way around.  The house, with its generationally thick familial ties, beckons me inside. And I have future plans that move me onward and forward. Despite the unconditional love that hovers cloudlike in the air, I have a subtle fear of having to live here again. It’s a subtle fear that tastes like regression. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family. I even like coming back to Dallas several times a year; it’s comfortable for visiting. I always say, “It’s a great place to be from.” I lived twenty years of my life here, but Dallas seems, once again, too big a city for me.

With the noise of Lima far behind me, miles of towns and kilometers of countries passed beneath my feet, States lived in and left; I’m not sure where I belong. I’m not sure where I really want to be. After all, I’ve been tempted with the splendor of the globe. I feel both disconnected and at ease. Life is duality, right?

My culture shock in returning to my native soil is my yearning for the tranquility of Sweden, for the perfection of Croatian coffee, for the wine of Italy that no matter how cheap to buy was always good. I already miss the freedom I’d had with my travel budget—the world had seemed so accessible and adventures so affordable. That season is past. It’s time to buckle my proverbial moneybelt and settle down.

By settling down I mean living for two months in the Northwest with a friend and then staying for a yet unspecified amount of time with the aforementioned brother and his wife.

The thought of being in one place for longer than a month does have its appeal. I imagine the streams of uninterrupted time. I imagine writing a whole book (I’ve got the idea for it in mind, and surely I’m that productive). I can finally catch up on my blogs. I can read everything I’ve neglected reading.

I might have forgotten how time flies by.

I’ve already been in America six whole days when my sister-in-law Marie, art lover and artist, suggests we venture over to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to see the Lucien Freud Portraits exhibit. We leave the niece and dog with my mom and dad, and Marie, Ben my brother, Jesse my oldest sister and I take the highway to Fort Worth.  

The disjoint between the old world I’ve so recently left and the world I’ve returned to dissolves a little when I see the Richard Serra construction outside the museum. His work is easy to recognize. A tower of rusted panels stands nearly twice as tall as the museum itself. Richard Serra, I think without any doubt. I feel learned. Knowledgeable. Artistically educated. I saw Richard Serra in Spain and I’m seeing him here in Texas. The world isn’t that far apart. Everything is connected.    

There aren’t the ubiquitous signs telling us not to touch so some of us do. We venture inside the sculpture and my brother stomps his boots. The sound echoes up through the spire and my sister joins in on the percussion. I look up. The sky is the universe, the universe is us. We might have sung there inside the rusted metal. Or maybe we just hummed.

In the museum, we make our way through the permanent exhibitions and then find our way upstairs to the Lucien Freud. We split up and view the portraits on our own time, with our own thoughts.
I’m not just thinking about art. I’m not just reflecting on the layers of paint, on the depressed expressions, on the thought of what it must have been like to be the grandson of Sigmund Freud, on the portrayal of the nude form or of the muted colors, I’m also thinking of transition, place, work, life, questions, money, living and how I fit into it all. How my life is exactly what I make of it. Or don’t.

I’m the same me who left this area so long ago and I’m completely different. In fact, I’m more me than I’ve ever been before and I don’t want to lose the fullness of experience. I don’t want to stagnate. I’m outside the box and I want to stay outside. I want to be one who even says, “What box?” but always without pretention; a natural eccentric without affectation.

That’s not too much to wish for, is it?

I sneak away from the Freuds with my doubts held in my closed up hands and venture into a hall, find a back room with a chunk of art that looks like a stack of gigantic bricks. It’s an untitled piece made from Texas Red Granite. The plaque on the wall says: The universal quality of these forms in a sense makes Rückriem’s work a metaphor for the way humankind makes his way in the world.    

I stare at the piece again and raise my eyebrows. I’m not disagreeing with the plaque—to be honest I don’t really understand it--and I’m all for art being metaphor and for metaphor being art, I’m just hoping my way through the world is a little less blocky, a little more organic in form and maybe even just a little less red. I open my fists and let my doubts fall to the ground. I tuck my desires and dreams into my pockets where they’ll be safe and accessible. I know that my future is one I write myself. After all, I am universal quality, metaphor, and crazy enough to live by the seat of my pants.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

December 9, 2012 – Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

I’ve got my feet back on U.S. soil. Thousands of miles, an ocean, and time have separated me from a land I was only barely getting to know. It’s hard to stop my mind from thinking, “Only yesterday I was in Spain” or “Just a week ago I was in Rome.” Texas is my stopping off place. I’ve left things at my parents’ house that I need to collect before heading off to a cooler, damper climate. I’ve got family to hang out with and friends to visit. It’s a place to reset, catch my breath, and step off from. Although I no longer live here, and don’t necessarily want to, it’s home.
The same way Arkansas is still home to my grandparents no matter how many decades they’ve been away from it.

Sometimes home means: where you come from. So I’m home.

Texas in October has fewer mosquitoes, less smothering humidity, a lower temperature and the State Fair. There’s no State Fair that equals the State Fair of Texas. I’m saying this with all the unbiased authority of a fourth generation Texan. It’s true.

So, when two days after returning Stateside Kirk asks me if I’d like to go with him to the Fair it’s an easy answer to say sure.

The State Fair of Texas is childhood. It’s wide-eyed me and my five siblings, not knowing what to look at first, tripping after my parents through the Arts and Crafts building with the amateur photographs, paintings, watercolors, hand stitched quilts, homemade jams bedecked with all those blue ribbons for first place, reds for second, whites for third and the heartfelt yellows for Honorable Mention, past the car showrooms where if we were lucky we got to sit inside and smell that new car smell, and by the demo booths where we could learn how to make waffles, French fries, and burgers on the same griddle, sharpen knives, buy unbreakable plates or be shown how to cook the perfect bowl of rice without cooking. It’s the smell of funnel cakes, corny dogs, and fried everything. It’s the alluring, hanging bags of pink cotton candy made with sugar that seemed to melt in my mouth just by looking at it. It’s the giant Ferris wheel turning slowly round, it’s the Flying Bird Show, the Sheep Dog demonstration, the petting zoo.

The State Fair of Texas is autumn; it speaks to me of seasonal change more than an equinox, more than a solstice. It’s hard to know if the smell that hints of cooling days, longer nights, shifting falling leaves is  brought on by the tilting of the earth or something more innocent, more tangible, and much safer than the carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes—something as nostalgic as a yearly Fair. From anywhere in the world the smell of dampening leaves, chill-bit air can send me straight to homesick and take me back in time.

And here I am. A few big drops of rain hit the ground as Kirk and I head through the gates. Hold off a little longer, I think. Please. We’re in time to catch The Killdares’s, a Celtic Rock band and Kirk’s friends, show—if the rain doesn’t put a stop to it first—and early enough to walk around before they start. As we make our way through the park we collect free toothpaste and energy drink samples from the outdoor booths, make a quick run through the car showroom, and duck through the doors into the magical world of the Arts and Crafts building.  

It seems smaller than I remembered. A little more commercial. A little less magical. But that’s just me looking out at the world with older eyes. The magic still lingers in the corners of the room like a shy ghost, I can just smell it beneath the aroma of fresh roasted nuts, it’s in the gaze of a child that walks by me hand-in-hand with its parent.

Where else are you going to see sculptures made out of butter? Seriously.

I smile as I look around. “The State Fair to me,” I tell Kirk, “is the Arts and Crafts room, the stockyards, and Big Tex.”

Kirk comes every year and often more than once to catch the different shows and events; it’s habit, tradition, part of fall. He’s even got jams with Honorable Mention status here in the Arts and Crafts building and he’s won bigger ribbons in years past. For him, this is just another outing to a familiar spot where he’s a participant (while I’m just an observer), so he’s willing to keep pace with me as I retrace the footprints of my childhood.

After we’ve made it around the entire room, we go back outside. Up ahead a grey cowboy hat competes with the clouds for sky time. Everything is bigger in Texas, right? Big Tex, true to his name, is certainly big. He’s the endearing and somewhat creepy mascot of the State Fair of Texas. I stand with my head leaned back, looking up, waiting for him to move his hinged jaw and say, “Howdy, y’all, I’m Big Tex.” From this far down I might as well be a child again. He’s still grand.

Kirk chats with one of the truck show guys and I snap pictures of Big Tex. The clouds shift and a few drops of rain splat on the cement, a streak of lightning breaks the darkening sky, a distant clap of thunder sounds. 

After a while, Kirk checks his watch and we head over to the stage. Although the rain can’t decide whether to pour down or not, there’s just enough water to disagree with electrical equipment and to cancel the Killdares’s show. Kirk helps the band bring in the equipment from the state and I try to stand someplace out of the way.  

When everything is back inside Kirk and I go into the band’s break room and linger with them for a while. I’ve met some of the band before. There’s the quick catch up on How are yous and Hows it goings and some comfortable chit chat.

From here Kirk and I are going to get vegetarian food at Kalachandji’s Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant and Palace and my stomach is voting for sooner rather than later. Kirk seems to feel the same way. We say our goodbyes and see you laters and go.

Having remembered my What Makes the Fair the Fair to Me list, Kirk steers us to the stockyards on our way out. I say hi to the chicks and ducklings, look over the fence at the goats, walk down the milking cow row and lean against the fence to stare at the impressive 1335 pound Champion Big Boar Boris. He’s asleep and we let him lie.

We’re almost back to the car. We’ve made it to the exit gate where two Fair Park staffers are standing. “You just missed Ronald MacDonald!” the guy tells us.

Kirk and I exchange a glance. I smile. Neither of us really feels any worse for the missing.

“Have a good night,” I tell them, or they tell us.

I look back over my shoulder at the purple, blue, and red lights illuminating the Ferris wheel. 

A quasi-rainy evening isn’t the most happening time for the State Fair, but it’s enough to remind me of days long gone and a childhood that, although not perfect, was just about as close to perfection as a childhood could get.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Headless Ones of Madrid

December 3, 2012 – The Headless Ones of Madrid

Devilish in Bilbao

It’s sunrise over Bilbao. I bid Maman goodbye (I don’t know that a “See you later” would be truthful), climb up the stairs to the top of the bridge, cross the bridge, walk the mile or so to the Metro, take it a few stops and then get off and go up more steps to the bus terminal. I’m early so I get a coffee from the self-service machine, sit on the edge of a nearby bench, and pretend to read while I people watch. The minutes tick by and I’m just about to go find my bus’s parking slot when a shadow touches my peripheral vision. I turn my head to see who’s stepped into my personal space.

It’s a meek looking, tentative creature. “Do you speak English?” the girl asks me. She looks like she’s been traveling for weeks; a little weary, still adventure-ready, and somewhat bedraggled.

“Yes,” I tell her. It’s the truth.

“Do you know how to get to the Guggenheim?”

As a matter of fact. “As a matter of fact, I do.” I pull the Metro map from my bag, open the double fold, and point out where we are. “This is where we are now. If you take the Metro from here to here—only two stops—that’ll put you within a fifteen minute walk from the Guggenheim. Here you can have this,” I hand her the map.

She takes it tentatively. “Really?” She glances at it. “Can I walk the whole way?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I gauge it out in my head at my walking pace, “it’d be about a forty-five minute walk. But it’s only a euro twenty for the Metro,” I tell her this even though I completely understand saving those precious nickels by walking as much of all distances encountered as possible. It’s what I’ve been doing. “Oh here!” I say as I unzip my bag and pull out the map of Bilbao that I’d gotten from the hostel. “Here’s where we are. You can walk from here to here and that’s the Guggenheim right there.” It’s circled.

She looks at the map like she’s memorizing it. “This is the historical center of Bilbao.” I stick my finger over the spot. I know where it is even though I didn’t visit it. “I hear it’s really nice.” I’m starting to feel like the Bilbao English-Speaking Visitor’s Center. I pass the map to her. “You can have it,” I say.

“Really?! Don’t you need it?”

I shake my head. “I’m leaving,” I tell her. In a fit of brilliant insight, I pull out the brochure I’d gotten at the Guggenheim and give it to her as well. “It’s got the hours and the address and some information about the exhibits. You lucked out when you asked me.” I actually say that out loud. What are the odds though?

“Is it worth paying to see?” she asks about the museum.

“Absolutely!” Absolutely. “It’s amazing. You’ll love it. You won’t regret going!”

“Thanks,” she says.

“Sure!” I say. I watch her walk off with her nose pressed down to the map. She doesn’t head down into the Metro station and I wish her walking luck and good visiting.  

Roughly five hours and 247 miles later I’m in Madrid. I’ve seen more of Spain through the windows of buses than I ever imagined I would. Actually, I never envisioned that I’d come to Spain at all. It hadn’t made my Must See list for whatever reason (which seems ridiculous now). I’m glad that I’m here. I love it. It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. I could stay. Longer. Forever.

It’s a fitting country in which to end my season of travel.

Madrid is my last stop in Europe. I head Stateside tomorrow. I have mixed emotions about this. I’m ready to head back and I don’t want to leave. There are so many other places I haven’t visited, for instance, the whole rest of the world. Yet, I’m looking forward to being in one place for longer than a month. So, it’ll only be two months, but heck, I’ll take it. I have this idea that two months is plenty of time to write an entire book. Even though I know the speed at which I write. Even though I know the kind of research I need to do. I just have too many books in my head crowding up space.  

But for now, I’m here.

Once I get checked in to my hostel (I only stop for directions once and then somehow manage to find the place through a series of random turns down whichever streets I chance upon) and shown to my room--I’ve reserved a private room as a last night’s extravagance--I leave my things behind and head outside. I have the whole day to do away with as I will. I don’t have anything specific I need to see, no tours set up, no sites begging me to visit, just a day out on the town. It’s an exhilarating way to visit a new place.

I’ve snagged a city map from the hostel and use it to get to the Plaza Mayor. It’s pretty grand. It’s a nice plaza. I mean, Spiderman is there. He’s a little out of shape and looks dejected whenever he doesn’t get attention, but he’s there. I take a surreptitious picture of him because he’d yelled at someone else who’d taken a picture and not paid him for it and I don’t want to get yelled at. I don’t want to pay him either.

The headless ones of Madrid are also here. Actually, they’re old style Spanish garb mannequins that I could go stand behind as if it were I dressed that way, and have my picture made–also for a charge. I watch as several groups get their photos snapped as redressed individuals, as a couple enacts a drama with Spidey for posterity, and as another man gets startled by a real head stuck between two fake ones.
Madrid is the city of live human-statue art.  

Silver man, gold violin man, sad looking Chaplin-esque man, a muppet (?), Mickey Mouse to name a few.

Then there are the amazing balancing acts. I briefly consider this as a new line of work. Maybe one of my siblings would move here with me and we could be the hottest non-moving act of Spain. Or not. Some of these are pretty unbelievable. Also, I have a hard time sitting still.

Instead of changing the course of my life, I decide to go sit (and fidget) somewhere and have a cappuccino. I walk down Calle de Alcalá intending to see as much of Madrid as possible without making a frenzy of it. I go past more live-human art, street musicians, museums, palaces, churches, a post office, businesses, trees, non-live statues, theaters, fountains, cafés and restaurants until I finally come to the Arch of Alcalá. There’s more to see, more of Madrid, more of Spain, around the roundabout, but I’m done. I want time to sit and think about all the places I’ve been, all the things I’ve experienced, to wrap everything up into a form in my head, to see it there as live art, to understand how I’ve changed, if I have, and what that means, if anything. I want to be. I want to live. I want to be and live in this here and now. I want to sit in this moment. I just want to enjoy the last bit of Europe I have.

Fortunately, just behind me there is a café with outside seating and a good view of the sidewalk, the road, and the arch. I get a seat, order a coffee, take out my notebook and reflect.

I want to be like the wind;
able to blow anywhere I want to go.
I want to be like the sunshine;
filtering in through even the smallest spaces
filling, changing darkness, being warm.
I want to be unfetterable—
I could get around as wind, as sunshine without being trapped by things like convention or walls.
Can a cage hold the sunshine?
Can a fence hold back the wind?