Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Naked you are blue as the night in Ambler

My fifth wedding anniversary is July 3rd. I’ll be in Asheville, North Carolina, attending my writing program. I’ve been there three consecutive years—three years, I‘ve missed my wedding anniversary. My wife, Karen, who has learned not to expect gifts—at least gifts you 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.

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

He wrote: 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 once a week, a difficult, static-filled affair. But we wrote glorious letters. I told her about my Saturday afternoons, drinking beer at the Cattawissa Inn, an ancient establishment located off a solitary road outside 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.

I would never write something so ridiculous. I’m surprised we even 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 shoebox). I’m almost completely embarrassed by everything I wrote from May, 1996 to September, 2004. 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 better than you’ve ever felt. 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, like a stickybun with raisins. 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 experience my first bouts with illness. I entered a silent period that lasted nearly two years.


In September, 2004, I started writing letters to Karen again. 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 to me:

“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 anniversay 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 penpals; I write a novel; I write two, three blogs; I litter my friend’s facebook pages with comments; I twitter. 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

My wife and my friends will tell you: I’m a narcissist. 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; it's a means of introducing myself to the community; it 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 it’s too much wine, not enough sleep. My true 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 my battles with illness, portrayed a different attitude, a sort of brash confidence that might be 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 (in my writing; in my pictures) 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

Addiction? Diligence?

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, assumes plenty of addictions. But I also suspect his diligence is just that, too: diligence.

The Addiction-Diligence Paradigm motivates most aspects of my father’s life. Take his business career. My wife, Karen, and I worked for him 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 was my father in his office, his feet up on his desk, playing on-line chess. He was clearly addicted. (As he had been addicted to Dr. Mario years before.) He played sometimes for six or eight consecutive hours, as his thirty or so 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 actually working, he likes to say, but the effect your work produces. During his business career, my father seemed to be able to create profitable results in minimal time. Often, he performed a week's worth of work in ten minutes; he spent the remaining thirty-nine hours and fifty minutes playing chess. Still, his early diligence had made his last business successful, a business he had started only seven years before, with two partners, in the front porch of our house in Gwynedd, PA.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Dr. Mario Champion

In my prime I was one of the top ten or so best Dr. Mario players in America. I was a senior in high school, I was utterly unbeatable, and I was so nonchalant about my primacy that my brother and father, avid Dr. Mario players themselves, might have considered plotting my murder.

At the time, my brother had just graduated law school, my father had just retired from his job, and, as far as I could tell, they had both decided to take a year off to play Dr. Mario. And play they did, incessantly, all day and all night, in my room, on the weekends as I tried to court my future wife, and late into the weekday nights as I tried to rest up for school.

I never played but when I did I crushed them easily. I was so good I mystified everyone. To tell the truth I mystified myself too. How was I so good? I don't know. It might have been drugs.

Anyway, that year I met my Dr. Mario match: Mr. Mallozzi. Mr. Mallozzi was the special education teacher at my school. In the second half of my senior year I devoted a portion of my time to hanging out with the special ed. kids. I went down into the bowels of the school once a day and hung out with the most lively, fun-loving, and chaotic group of kids I had ever met in my life. Most of the kids had Down's Syndrome; a few had severe Autism.

Mr. Mallozzi was their task-master. He was also the center of their world; I entered his realm like an outsider, arousing suspicion and giggles. One of the most treasured activities was video games. We played Nintendo for hours on a beat up old television. One day I mentioned Dr. Mario and Mallozzi went off.

I am the greatest Dr. Mario player alive, he said.

I have to admit, his gusto impressed me.

No way, I said.

And so the stage was set. It must have been a Thursday. Mallozzi set up a Grand Match for Friday afternoon. I skipped it as I skipped every Friday.

When I came back, Monday, the kids actually hissed and booed. I looked on the chalkboard. In bold letters it said: Mallozzi winner--Seth Loser.

The kids thought I had wimped out. I was pissed. I loudly proclaimed a challenge on the spot. Malozzi agreed with all the venom he could muster.

I have never, ever so fully dominated as I did that afternoon. The kids cheered; I pumped my fist; Malozzi nearly exploded.

The very next day, I walked into the class and Ms. H, Mallozzi's assitant teacher, handed me a bouquet of roses. The entire class cheered and hailed me, The Winner. And of course, the chalkboard was amended. It said: Mallozzi loser--Seth winner.

Mallozzi came up to me, gave me a big hug. He was that type of guy. I loved him, even though I kicked his ass.