Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Letters to my Wife

My fifth wedding anniversary is July 3rd. I’ll be in Asheville, North Carolina, attending my writing program for a third summer—three years, I've missed my wedding anniversary. My wife, Karen, who has learned not to expect gifts—at least gifts one can buy—anticipates a letter. I’ve lived with her six years. I talk to her daily. I’ve been dating her fifteen years. And yet, I write her letters. I can’t buy a diamond (my wife’s engagement ring was sapphire; she lost it), but I can write a letter.

I can write, for example: Desnuda eres azul como la noche en Ambler.

I would never write that line. That’s Pablo Neruda, from his first collection of poetry, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  

Naked you are blue as the night in Cuba.

Karen lived in Chile, Neruda’s home, when she was nineteen. At that time, I was at Bloomsburg University. We talked on the phone, a difficult, static-filled affair, each Sunday evening. During the week, we wrote letters. I told her about my Saturday afternoons, drinking beer at the Cattawissa Inn, an ancient establishment located off a solitary road that sold draft beer for sixty cents a glass. She told me about her Santiago life, sharing a mango with a certain Brianna, drinking boxed wine in the squares, visiting the streets called Maruri and Argülles where Neruda, young, unbearably skinny and unbearably alive, wrote his early poems.

Young Neruda

Neruda was Karen’s age when he was living in Santiago, in the 1920’s, writing poems that would lend credence to the myth of the Latino lover:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines. 
Write, for example, 'The night is shattered 
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

Ridiculous. I’m surprised we accept this from Neruda. Maybe just him, and no one else. I must admit, though: I’ve written more than a few sentimental letters. I looked over some of my letters today (Karen’s kept them all, a hundred or more, bundled neatly in a shoe box). I’m embarrassed by everything--from May, 1996 to September, 2004, I channeled young Neruda, apparently.

I did discover a few good tidbits, such as early evidence of my health fanaticism. (I asked Karen's permission to quote the letters; after all, they are her letters. She said, "Fine.")

On February 27, 1997, for example, I wrote:

“I just read a few chapters of a great little book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Energy But Were Too Weak to Ask. The book includes a recipe for a wonder shake that's supposed to make you feel stupendous. This spring I plan to purge my system of all its toxins with a five-day fruit and vegetable diet. Then, the milkshake.”

Most of the letters were monstrously sentimental. Spring, 1997, I lived in Italy. A letter from the time (March 25) begins:

“I cannot begin to tell you how lonely I feel. I have just bought a huge bottle of Chianti for 6,000 lira; now, writing you with frequent sips is my only pleasure of the day.”

Later, in the same letter, I wrote:

“I must strive to understand my misgivings about Rome. Now, I must understand myself; more than ever I’m alone: I am all I got…One thing’s for sure: I will never be happier to see you. I already can’t stand how much I miss you.”

The height of my schmaltz was January to May, 1999, when Karen was in Chile.

On February 18, 1999, I wrote:

“I’m listening to Billy Holiday: The way you hold your knife, the way we dance to three, the way you’ve changed my life, no, no they can’t take that away from me. Something rings so true in that simple, ridiculous line. When I listen to that line I think of the way you changed my life. And I wonder: Who is they? I hope they never try to take that away from me.”

What? Who? Where?

In May, 2000, we graduated college. Winter, 2001, we moved to Barcelona. I was living with Karen, so I wrote only cards. Karen hides these cards amidst her clothes, in secret places I’m unwilling to explore.

By 2002, we were home and I was experiencing my first bouts with illness. I entered a silent period that lasted two years.


In September, 2004, I  recommenced my letter writing. I’m not necessarily embarrassed by these letters. I’m not sure how I feel. At the time, we had just returned home from a three-week honeymoon in Spain. I had been hit by a car on the second day of the trip; a few days later, I entered the hospital close to death (at 118 pounds) and was diagnosed with a chronic, life-changing illness.

In letter after letter I tried to explain to Karen (and myself) what had happened:

“If I was fighting for my life, I was not fighting for myself but our marriage. I was fighting for the oath I had given a little more then a month before, to have you as my wife, to live together in marriage, to love you, to comfort you, to honor you and keep you, in sickness and health, in sorrow and joy, and to be faithful to you, as long as we both shall live. A few weeks was certainly not enough to live this oath. I mean, with the wedding vows surely comes another unspoken vow, one that two young people feel probably feel obliged to ignore: to stay alive.”

By then, of course, I saw Karen every day. I talked to her for hours. And yet, the letters I wrote during that time seemed crucial. Somehow, I was trying to figure it out. What had happened to me? Why? I was absolutely poor so the letter, once again, became my de-facto birthday and anniversary gift.


Last year, a day after her birthday, a day late, I wrote my wife a letter. It began:

“I had a string of bad dreams last night. There were snakes, faceless people, classes I had missed and dark showers. All the familiar tropes. In one dream, you left me. I couldn’t believe it. I went into some room, looking for you, and I was distracted by the snake. There it was, huge and ugly, a python in a glass tank, smashing its head against the glass, trying to get out. Somebody fed it a bat. I woke up, terrified. But you were there. You hadn’t left. I asked, where’s the blue sheet? You mumbled something funny.”

Later, in the same letter, I wrote:

“Summer’s here, more or less. A new summer. The days are colored with imprints of what’s happened. The imprints will fade, though, as we stamp over them. I have faith. I have faith in our ability to keep trying. I no longer see snakes. I knew writing a letter would help. I’m selfish. I write to redeem myself. I write to crawl out of the wallow.”

In this way, my letters seem selfish. I write them for myself. I try to explain myself to myself. And then I give this as a gift?


Still, my wife wants letters. This year, I’ve written her one letter. To her, this seems like incredible negligence. After all, I currently have three or four active pen pals. I'm writing a novel. I maintain three blogs. I litter my friend’s Facebook pages with comments. I tweet.

So what’s one more letter to my wife?

I don’t have an answer to this question. In some ways, I know, it is incredible negligence. Maybe after I graduate from my program, this July, I’ll re-commence. I better, because I don’t anticipate becoming the type of man who buys gifts anytime in the near future. I’d love too, of course. I’d love to treat my wife to extravagant dinners, shocking jewelry.

Right now, though, I’m poor. Words are all I can afford.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Defense of Self-Portraits

I’ve been taking self-portraits for a few years now. I’m addicted to my own face. I love taking pictures of my self and posting the pictures on social networking sites. To me, the profile picture is an essential part of the social networking experience, a means of introducing myself to the community. The profile pic says: "This is a bit of who I am right now, for better or worse."

My wife rarely enjoys my self-portraits. She thinks I present myself as too serious. She thinks it's embarrassing: I actually mug for the camera, snap my own photo. On a recent trip to Brigantine, she caught me, leaning against a stone wall, gazing longingly into the camera, snapping photos of myself. Later, on the beach, I implored her to take a few pictures of me:

"Having never met you before but already hating your guts. It must be your picture."
~A recent anonymous blog comment on this blog.

How are my self portraits different than, say, Rembrandt's self-portraits? Of course, there's the medium, and the level of talent, but is my impulse essentially different?

In an 2006 article for Smithsonian magazine, celebrating Rembrandt's 400th birthday, Stephanie Dickey wrote: "Rembrandt painted, etched, and drew some 70 self-portraits, more than any other well-known artist of his time. By making his face the centerpiece of his art, he engaged in a uniquely personal means of self-marketing."


Rembrandt was certainly not unique in this way. Self portraiture has been a viable means of "self-marketing" at least since the Renaissance. Giotto included himself in a cycle of "eminent men" in the Castle of Naples. Botticelli made himself the hero of the Adoration of the Magi. Van Gogh painted more than twenty self-portraits. Frida Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits.

Was "self-marketing" the impulse behind these various painters use of self-portraiture? Perhaps so (Giotto, for example, or Botticelli) but for many painters, "self marketing" was only part of the impulse. Frida Kahlo, for example, painted herself as a genuine means of self-fulfillment. She started painting after a terrible accident, in 1927, left her bed-ridden and severely wounded.

"From that time," she later explained, "my obsession was to begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more…Thus, as the accident changed my path, many things prevented me from fulfilling the desires which everyone considers normal, and to me nothing seemed more normal that to paint what had not been fulfilled."

For Kahlo self-portraiture was a means of self-birth. The fact that her self-portraits so easily helped to advance or "market" her art was, for her, incidental.

The Broken Column, painted in 1944 after Kahlo had undergone surgery and when she was confined as she had been after her accident.

I’ve taken many pictures of myself. I've photo shopped many more, always in search of an expressive image. My impulses are varied and contradictory. Certainly, I'd like to present myself in a certain way--as handsome, dashing, mysterious--but I'm also keenly aware that I often appear ridiculous, goofy, and, yes, completely narcissistic.

Lately, I’ve noticed I’m getting uglier. I snap pictures of myself and I’m surprised: I look weathered; my prominent nose looks uneven, somehow more flattened and large; and there’s this line, this new line that runs down my left cheek. What’s that line doing there? Perhaps too much wine, not enough sleep.

My feelings might best be expressed in a line by uncle Dean: "How goofy and horrible is life." This is often how I feel: goofy, a bit horrible.

I have not always felt this way. My earliest self portraits, taken when I was 25, just before I experienced illness, portrayed a different attitude, a brash confidence best expressed in a line from Vladimir Mayakovsky:

Without a grey hair in my soul
Or a snip of senility's gentleness
Raiding the world with
Sheer force of voice I'm strutting
22 years old.

My bouts with illness destroyed my sense of my good looks. In a short period of time I lost twenty, thirty pounds; my skin yellowed, my eyes sunk. Tellingly, I have no pictures from this time. Had Myspace or Facebook existed, I would have stayed away.

I still feel a bit wounded. And yet, I feel confident, which is something I try to express in my pictures. To me this sense of confidence is not about strutting, but acceptance--of who I am, what I've become. However, I don’t want this sense to drive my expressiveness into dour seriousness.

Self portraiture gives me range to be slightly goofy. And to me, that’s the ticket—goofiness: the antidote to horribleness. I love the sense I get, while snapping my own photo, that I am participating in a goofy celebration. Surely, as Botticelli painted himself as the hero in the Adoration of the Magi, even as he actively engaged in "self-marketing," he was also laughing inside. After all, how goofy to paint oneself a hero?

On the other hand, even as Frida Kahlo suffered immensely and charted this suffering in her paintings, she kept a still place in her heart for vibrancy. Kahlo’s last painting, in fact, (not a self-portrait) is emblematic of this idea. Painted merely months before her death, after the amputation of her leg, in the midst of a tremendous period of struggle, it is a testament to living. It is a still life of watermelons, chopped into halves, quartered, or left whole. The watermelons rest upon a plain brown table and are flanked on all sides by a clouded blue sky.

Eight days before her death, Kahlo put the finishing touches upon the painting. She inscribed her name and date upon the red pulp of the foremost watermelon. Then, in capital letters, she printed a final statement on the red pulp: VIVA LA VIDA: LIVE THE LIFE.

And this is really what I want to express in my pictures: the sense I have that despite my woundedness, or perhaps because of my woundedness, that I'm alive. I suppose this is a serious sentiment, but it is also a celebration.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Dark Bouquet of Doubt

Early February, I signed my father up for a blog. I suggested he write occasionally, as an exercise. Since then, he’s written 90 blogs, more than me, Steve, and Suzanne have managed to write in three years at FoodVibe. The topics are wide-ranging, the achievement impressive: my father has never practiced writing before. Now, suddenly, he has a 700-800 word-a-day habit. I suspect his diligence is part compulsion. My father, like me, has an addictive personality. But I also suspect his diligence is just that, too: diligence.

The Addiction-Diligence Paradigm motivates most aspects of my father’s life. My wife, Karen, and I worked for my father's consulting company, Source One Management Services, in 2000. (An insight into my father’s ethics: I was his lowest-paid employee; Karen made a 35% higher salary.) Our most cherished image from that time: My father in his office, his feet up on his desk, playing on-line chess. He played for six or eight consecutive hours, as employees moved in and out of his office, fielding calls and questions.

My father has always been an advocate of results: It's not the time you spend working, he likes to say, but the effect your work produces. During his business career, my father created profitable results in minimal time. Often, he performed a week's worth of work in ten minutes--and spent the remaining thirty-nine hours and fifty minutes playing chess. Still, his early diligence had made Source One, a business he had started only seven years before, with two partners, in the front porch of our house in Gwynedd, PA, successful.

Karen and I left the business in early 2001 to live in Barcelona. My father sold his share a few months later. Now, eight years later, he lives in Brigantine, NJ, with his wife (my stepmother) Phylis. He spends sometimes ten or more hours a day watching tv, blogging, and playing internet poker.

I think about my father's current lifestyle whenever I find myself feeling lackluster. When I’m not working, I try to write all day. It’s hard, though. Some days I feel titanic. Some days I feel defeated. I look at my novel, think: It’s terrible; what’s the point?

When I was younger, in my late twenties, writing another novel, feeling like I might quit writing altogether, I wrote my uncle Dean a letter offering the same complaint.

My novel is terrible, I wrote. What’s the point?

"Your struggles with writing your novel," he replied, "are worthy of your suffering, but don’t get so that you love your suffering. I don’t really know what it takes to write a novel, though judging from N, it takes a lot of time, perseverance, obsession, and slavish dedication, only one of that last three am I attracted to."

In another letter, he wrote: "Allow yourself to be uncertain but don't let your uncertainty turn to despair because it can be wonderful to write when you're sad and full of the dark bouquet of doubt, but misery lends itself to silence and one must get out of bed every morning and prepare for the great celebration of one's own imagination, even if it doesn't happen that day."

His point, as always: Keep going.

I am diligent in other ways. I run 4-5 miles every day. I cook dinner every night. I have type-1 diabetes for Christ’s sake, which requires total diligence. But these things are easy for me. Writing is hard. Perhaps I’m merely addicted to running; addicted to cooking dinner and injecting insulin (self-care).

Then again, I might be addicted to writing, too. Just now, for example, when I found myself unable to work on my novel, I felt compelled to write about it. What will it take for me to complete this thing? What sort of reserves must I call forth? What drugs must I take? (Adderall?)

Success, like addiction, runs in my blood. I know this, but it doesn’t make writing any easier. In fact, as I enter my 33rd year, the looming success of my family members (not just my father and my uncle, but every family member who has gone before me) hovers over me, sometimes inspiring me, often overwhelming me. I want to triumph, but I feel constantly expectant, stymied with the promise I’m not sure I have the courage, or the talent, to keep.

I try to make myself feel good: What if I’m not supposed to feel burdened by promise, but lightened? What if I’m meant to fly up to my challenge? Not like a bird, or a plane, but clumsily, like a person?

The only thing I can control, really, is my effort: I can only sit down, write. Like my dad, the blogger. Like my uncle, the poet. With diligence and/or addiction. I'm not sure it matters how I qualify it: Whatever it is, I need to do it.